#48: Crossing the Parallel

Dear Stolf: I’ve heard something about what’s called Cross and Parallel Cousins, but not much. Can you elucidate?  …from Harvey, in Bedford Falls

48.1 Dear Harvey: Yes indeed. A major part of genealogy consists of understanding concepts and the terminology used to describe them. We have been primarily concerned with the English language and English terminology…and by extension, the kinship concepts that apply to a typical “Western” culture. Other cultures and languages will have the same concepts but different terminology. Back in #11  for example, we considered the Hispanic term for your parent’s 1st cousin…”second uncle” instead of “1st cousin once removed.” But there also exist in other kinship systems concepts not in use in our kinship system, which will then have no natural terms in English…and such is the case with Cross Cousins and Parallel Cousins, also sometimes called Ortho-Cousins.

48.2  Now these terms are strictly anthropological terms, since they classify 1st cousins in a way in which we do not…but they do describe a concept found in many societies, past and present. As shown in Chart 161, a Parallel Cousin (PC) is the child of your parent’s same-sex sibling, which is to say, your father’s brother or your mother’s sister. A Cross Cousin (CC) is the child of your parent’s opposite-sex sibling…your father’s sister or your mother’s brother.

48.3  Since we have nothing like this in the West, this particular “grouping” of 1st cousins will seem odd to us. The father’s side versus mother’s side classification of cousins seems natural enough, altho there really isn’t any significance to a cousin of yours being one or the other, apart from who has what last name. Another natural way for us to group cousins is by “boy cousins” and “girl cousins,” regardless of which side. But Parallel/Cross seems like an arbitrary distinction…altho as we shall see, there is a reason why it’s important to some cultures. But notice you can have PCs and CCs on both sides of your family, and they can be other either sex.

48.4  And one point should be understood: the PC/CC distinction is not really dividing 1st cousins into 2 different types…rather, it refers to 2 different relationships…and depending on the culture, there may or may not be a “generic” term that covers all the offspring of all your parents’ siblings, what we would simply call “1st cousins.” For example, mothers and fathers can be grouped together as “parents”…brothers and sisters are “siblings”…but we ourselves have no collective word for uncles and aunts. Thus in some kinship systems, PCs and CCs are what they are, and are not considered “types” or “subdivisions” of anything else.

48.5  Add to this the fact that in some systems, the alternative kinship grouping doesn’t stop with dividing up the 1st cousins…PCs may in fact be referred to by the same word that refers to siblings! In other words, one word will mean, from our point of view, “siblings and PCs” and another word will mean “CCs.”  Thus, what we might translate as “siblings” will mean “siblings and PCs,” while “cousins” will refer to CCs. And the specific nature of this type of grouping hints at the reason for it.

48.6  And that reason is to designate who you may or may not marry. With very rare exceptions (think Cleopatra and the Ptolemies), brother-sister marriages have been universally taboo. Half-siblings are often included in this prohibition, since many systems are what  is called “unilineal.” This means primary or sole kinship relationships are reckoned thru just one line, usually the father’s. By contrast, our system is “bilineal,” as both the father’s and mother’s sides of our families are of equal significance.

48.7  In a unilineal, patriarchal system, as many are, siblings are those individuals who share the same father, regardless of the mothers, and half-siblings are thus equivalent to full siblings. And the question is, since you always know who the mother is, but you may not know who the father is, how do you know your 1st cousin isn’t actually your half-sibling…or for the purposes of marriage, simply your sibling, and thus excluded?

48.8  And that in a nutshell was what was wrong with marrying Parallel Cousins. In Chart 163, can Abe marry his 1st cousin Zoë? Their fathers are brothers…so maybe yes, maybe no! Is it possible that Abe’s father is also Zoë’s father? That Abe’s father had relations with his brother’s wife? Or in Chart 164, mothers are sisters, same problem. Could Abe’s dad have fooled around with his wife’s sister? Mind you, I’m not judging, simply reporting. And it’s significant to remember that these were overwhelmingly matches arranged by the parents…the couple may have never met! To a suspicious culture, the PC grouping makes perfect sense.

48.9  Thus the taboo against marrying your PC…the chance that it might in fact be your half-sibling. But couldn’t Abe’s Cross Cousin also be his half-sibling? Of course, but it was deemed less likely, and since that would rule out all cousin marriages…and they were preferred for any number of reasons…the risk was worth taking. But as we see in Chart 165a, for that to happen, Abe’s father would have to have incestuous relations with his own sister, Zoë’s mother…or alternately, as in Chart 165b, with his brother-in-law’s wife. Either were considered less likely to happen than Abe’s father getting together with his wife’s sister or his brother’s wife.

48.10  And you know what they say: Familiarity breeds attempt! Maybe our more mobile, disconnected society has some benefits after all! Next week, the 5 biggest mistakes you can make in understanding kinship.

Copyright © 2011 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved

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