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Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture

3.91  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,028 Ratings  ·  160 Reviews
This book challenges those who argue that we can change the world by changing the way people think. Harris shows that no matter how bizarre a people's behavior may seem, it always stems from concrete social and economic conditions.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
Kindle Edition, 290 pages
Published (first published December 1st 1974)
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Paquita Maria Sanchez
Jan 06, 2014 Paquita Maria Sanchez rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: truthiness
There are several reasons why I wasn't going to review this book. One, I am not an Anthropologist. I took some anthropology courses in college, but contrary to the opinions of some of the undeservedly arrogant, Newsies-hatted forever-virgin dudes in my Philosophy I course, that doesn't make me an expert or automatically mean anyone cares what I have to say (loudly, and with so much "ergo", so much "thusly") on the subject. Two, despite the fact that this book is slim, it is pretty much huge-mong ...more
Why do Jews and Muslims refuse to eat pork? Why were thousands of witches burned at the stake during late medieval Europe? These and other riddles are explored by famous anthropologist Marvin Harris, and his conclusions are simple: people act within social and ecological contexts that make their actions meaningful. Put another way: cultural ideas and practices that seem strange to us may actually be vital and necessary to the people of those cultures.

Harris is especially good at explaining how s
Nov 08, 2008 Tyler rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2008, nonfiction
Marvin Harris intends to apply scientific theory to some of the great cultural riddles of the world. Why do Hindus love cows? Why do Jews hate pigs? Unfortunately, like an evolutionary biologist trying to explain why humans have pinky toes, he comes across as making up just-so stories. The theories are plausible, but that doesn't make them accurate. The truth in a just-so story is always in what it tells us about the storyteller. In this case, he's a 1970s academic.

One more thing: Since I'm not
May 23, 2011 ryeginald rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone as fascinated with human behavior as I am
Unexpectedly turned out to be one of the most though-provoking and fascinating cultural studies I've ever read. Everyone should have a few horizon-wideners on their book list -- this should be one of them.
Ivonne Rovira
Jul 08, 2015 Ivonne Rovira rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Today, while lamenting the sidelining of fiction in favor of informational texts to the exclusion of just about anything else in English classes with a friend, I mentioned that no one had ever learned to love to read by reading a textbook. However, I had to immediately correct myself by adding "except for Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches and The Day the Universe Changed: How Galileo's Telescope Changed the Truth."

I read Marvin Harris' scintillating book in 1978. Although an accessible paperback desi
Sep 28, 2007 Bookwormdragon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
This book is required reading for my Political Science 101 class, and for once a professor has managed to select an interesting book.
This is an interesting look at some of the cultural riddles that tend to mystify Westerners - like Cow Love in India, Pig Hate in the Middle East, Cargo Cults, etc. Harris explains how these seemingly ridiculous (to us) behaviors are actually perfectly sensible and successful adaption strategies. A short and pleasant read, well researched and written. I highly rec
David Gross
Jun 12, 2007 David Gross rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Cows are inefficiently raised and devoured in the United States, while in India, people would rather go hungry than eat cow flesh. In the Jewish and Moslem tradition, pigs are unclean and cannot be consumed; while in others, gargantuan pig feasts are more holy than the Thanksgiving turkey. Is this just part of the inexplicable side of human nature, or are there understandable reasons for these cultural curiosities? Harris shows that these bizarre displays of cultural variety play an important an ...more
The Thousander Club
One of my favorite quotes regarding culture comes from an ecclesiastical leader named David R. Stone. He said:

"Our culture tends to determine what foods we like, how we dress, what constitutes polite behavior, what sports we should follow, what our taste in music should be, the importance of education, and our attitudes toward honesty. It also influences men as to the importance of recreation or religion, influences women about the priority of career or childbearing, and has a powerful effect on
John David
Civilizations, even the most advanced among them, are invariably strewn with mythologies, folklore, and recherche taboo. While the contemporary United States would itself provide enough material for a multi-volume study of this kind, Marvin Harris focuses mostly on pre-scientific and pre-literate peoples to answer questions like: Why do Hindus not eat cows, while Jews avoid pork instead? How do you explain the concept of the Messiah? Why was the belief in witches in medieval Europe so prevalent, ...more
Mar 14, 2016 Sandra rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dec 27, 2009 Roger rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I picked this up again last week and enjoyed it greatly. Harris does great job of describing the material bases for numerous cultural phenomena, beginning with the sacred cows of Hinduism, and moving on through the roots of the worship and hatred of pigs, messianic military leadership and Christianity, to witchcraft, anti-witch pogroms, and the counter-culture. Something I really enjoyed about Harris' voice in this book is the sense of barely contained anger that imbues it.

The main thing Harris
Un libro ameno, a ratos muy interesante (para mi sobre todo en los primeros capítulos) en su propósito de divulgación antropológica. De ellos se desprende que peculiaridades culturales de distintos grupos humanos que a nuestros ojos 'occidentales' les pueden resultar chocantes provienen de adaptaciones razonables al entorno y no a una arbitrariedad inescrutable.
Lo que no me queda claro es si el autor atribuye estas adaptaciones a una o varias inteligencias individuales o a alguna especie de 'int
Jul 26, 2014 Kristin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very fascinating read. I really like the author's perspective that cultural behavior can be explained by real and concrete things. Like the history geek that I am, I found myself wanting to read further about the history of some of the topics. Considering current world events, I also found the sections about the middle east to be quite enlightening. It's an area of ancient world history I have previously not had much interest in.
What an entertaining book. While I don't agree with all of Marvin Harris' conclusions, I can say that the scientific way that he approaches problems typically viewed only in a just-so light was both informative and fascinating. His precise evaluation of each question was both thorough and scientific and offers much to anyone fascinated in anthropological (or even political) theory.

While the author is very much the product of the time in which the book was written (the 1970's) the methods that ma
Feb 05, 2012 Víctor rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Sin duda, un libro que cumple su objetivo: exponer las teorías de su autor de manera argumentada y entendible.

Totalmente recomendable para cualquiera que disfrute de una lectura desenfadada y gratificante, esta obra es un ensayo antropológico que -ni más ni menos- cumple su fución didáctica sin dejar de lado una prosa que mueve al lector a abrirse a la información dada por el escritor.

Este no es otro ensayo rimbombante e intelectualoide, sino una lección de antropología y objetividad expuesta d
Feb 02, 2016 Maria rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I very eagerly borrowed The riddles of culture by Marvin Harris from the library, happy that they had it and very excited to read it. I expected chapters of interesting information, and my expectations were exceeded. I really enjoyed reading it, after I started I almost couldn 19t stop. I 19ve read that Harris is quite controversial in anthropology, but of course, in such a field and with such claims as those he makes, it would be impossible not to be. On my part, I don 19t have enough knowledge ...more
María Paz Greene
Súper interesante el libro, aunque lento para leer. O sea, dice tantas cosas y hace pensar tanto, que uno tiene que parar de cuando en cuando. O al menos yo tuve que hacerlo, jejeje.

Hay cosas tan conocidas que uno no tenía idea de los porqués, como lo de la vacas en India que... es una alegría aprenderlo. Ayuda a conocer mejor el mundo en que vivimos y, bueno, también a desconfiar de todo, al menos de las cosas religiosas o espirituales, porque todo, o casi todo, tiene una explicación perfectame
Valeria Lozano
El primer libro de antropología que leo y me ha encantado, sin duda no será el último, ni tampoco el último libro que lea de este autor, pues me ha parecido muy ameno y muy bien escrito.

Desafortunadamente no soy ninguna experta del tema, por lo que no puedo saber si lo que está diciendo el autor es un disparate, pero me ha parecido bastante convincente, sobre todo la explicación de por qué el hinduismo prohíbe comer vacas. Siempre he pensado que la religión era una herramienta eficaz para contro
Feb 09, 2015 Dave rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a pretty interesting one. I can't say I agree with everything he has to say, in fact for a book that I liked I ended up with a pretty long list of criticisms. First, I think I'd actually recommend just skipping the two chapters on Christianity. Even though this guy is far from being a religious fundamentalist, he does give the Bible more credit as an historical text than it deserves. There's also some criticisms of "the counter-culture" that I think are a little off. This was written in ...more
Soobie's heartbroken
Surprisingly easy to read and to understand. Harris has a way to show clearly the process he's made in his head and make the reader understand what's going on.

I had previously read Cultural Anthropology by the same author. It was part of an anthropology course during my three-month-period in Japan and it made me curious about other books by the same author.

I chose this one because of the title, which is very funny and catchy. And I wonder why it's never been translated into Italian. I would have
A fascinating and engaging attempt to expose the economic, agricultural, psychological, and political underpinnings of various cultures' confusing or controversial traditions and beliefs. Harris carries his themes and theories through an interesting array of anthropological quandaries. What factors, beyond the conventional explanations, are really behind the Hindu reverence for cows, the Maring tribe's massive pre-war pig sacrifices, the horrifically violent and misogynistic Yanomamo tribe, the ...more
Amanda Schmeltzer
Harris is an "Anthropologist" and uses judgmental words such as bizarre and maniacal in the same sentence. My problem with the book is not the inferences made about certain practices, but the way in which they are discussed. It saddens me to see someone supposedly dedicated to the study of culture discuss in such a negative manner.
Paul De Belder
Apr 09, 2016 Paul De Belder rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: skeptic, science
Interesting theories about the rationality behind certain puzzling aspects of human culture, like Hindus not eating cows, or the different ways in which male dominance in traditional cultures evolved in apparently counterproductive behavior. I'm a bit skeptical about his chapter on the origin of Christian religion - he seems to be a bit out of his depth on this topic, although you have to take into account that this was written 1974. What struck me was how relevant his criticism on the anti-scie ...more
Jun 05, 2016 Mike rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Harris' work is a rather quick read that makes you think. The final chapters' focus upon the contemporary counterculture intrigued me. I was disappointed with the research, which tended to be a rehash of others'work while drawing alternate conclusions. The desire to provide an answer overrode reason at Times. At some points, the conclusions drawn felt weakened by the oversimplification of evidence and historical fact. Reading the first chapters on witches, this was especially the case. Harris po ...more
May 17, 2010 Kari rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I did not like this book. It never occurred to me to question why Hindus would rather starve than eat a sacred cow.

This book seemed to me to be an old white guys anthropological "opinion," giving Western explanations for cultural practices.
Mark Valentine
Mar 09, 2016 Mark Valentine rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is a gold mine! Harris seeks to explore those invisible 'things' that contain us as a culture and society. He explores Indian sacred cows (and concludes that their holy cows hold nothing against how the West reveres automobiles). He explores the cargo cults of New Guinea and their infatuation with messianic intervention; and he explores the witch hunts in Europe with their devastation.

I am immensely impressed with this study and I will sift through Harris' assertions for a long time.
Joseph F.
Jul 13, 2014 Joseph F. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A classic of anthropology. The author takes seemingly impenetrable beliefs and practices such as cow worship in India and abhorrence for pigs in the bible, and gives practical, prosaic reasons for such beliefs. The book is controversial, but that is part of the fun.
The only thing I know something about before reading this book is the European witchcraft craze.
I'm not really convinced that the authorities perpetrated the belief as a red herring in order to convince the general public that they ar
I read this for a class in Religious studies. This book isn't a fun read but it gives you insight into why certain traditions and beliefs have evolved. An eye-opener!
Oct 10, 2014 Sena rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ilginç bir bakış açısı belki oryantalist denebilir -ben pek anlamıyorum bu şeylerden oryantalist filan- ama savaşlar kısmına kadar heyecanla okudum. antropoloji gerçekten ilginç bir dal ve sanırım antropologlar psikologlar gibi bakın biz de bilim yapıyoruz biz de deme gayretinde. Halihazırda bilimsel bilgi iktidarda olduğundan bu uğraş normal karşılanabilir. Buraları geçelim. Savaşlar kısmı çok sıkıcıydı, en azından benim için. Kitabın sonlarında da yazarın o nisbeten nesnel üslubunu bir kenara ...more
May 04, 2008 Houry rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
What a great perspective of cultural differences and why groups behave the way they do.
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American anthropologist Marvin Harris was born in Brooklyn, New York. A prolific writer, he was highly influential in the development of cultural materialism. In his work he combined Karl Marx's emphasis on the forces of production with Malthus's insights on the impact of demographic factors on other parts of the sociocultural system. Labeling demographic and production factors as infrastructure, ...more
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“Counter-culture celebrates the supposedly natural life of primitive peoples. Its members wear beads, headbands, body paint, and colorful tattered clothing; they yearn to be a tribe. They seem to believe that tribal peoples are nonmaterialistic, spontaneous, and reverently in touch with occult sources of enchantment...” 0 likes
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