Monday, February 7, 2011

FF:The Way of the Woo- Courtship Around the World

19th c. Mughal painting of amorous Indian Lovers, artist unknown. (Bonzashiela)

(Warning: this blog post, while educational, contains a healthy dose of cynicism and snark. Snark levels are expected to equalize on February 15th, when candy goes on sale.)

Ah, courtship. That most... the... amongst all...

... what does courtship really mean, anyhow? (The hell if I know, I've never comprehended it.) Furthermore how does it compare to how we think of it with the lens of the present versus how it was in the past? Cynics will say that it involves goats and talks with fathers. Romantics will push daydreams of courtly love, letters, and costume dramas that probably involve Colin Firth or Ewan MacGregor. But really- how would people be hooking up in the steampunk age? (Yes, I know that there are robotic carrier pigeons and telegraph messaging, but nobody learns anything if we leave it at that.)

Let's take a jaunt around the globe and see just how people were flirting, fawning, and f.... avoring one another during the Age of Steam.

"Slave of Love and Light of My Eyes" by Etienne Dinet, depicting an Algerian couple

Part One- Flirting or: Vive les hormones.
As long as man has gazed upon another member of his species and said "I want that one, let's make this happen", there has been flirting. Popular modes throughout the ages have included poetry, songs, shoes, and a good old-fashioned dirty joke.

Fans served a great deal in flirting around the world. In addition to Europeans and their entire lexicon of non-verbal fan cues, Japanese courtesans would flirt with various clients by using fans to cover (and therefore add focus) to their lips or eyes, encouraging a 'come-hither' appeal.

"Two Lovers" by Mirza Baba- 1800, Royal Persian style

Poetry and songs flourished in Islamic countries where bodily contect between unmarried men and women was forbidden, as well as in countries where the genders were predominately separated- either through practicality or tradition.

In many cultures, the place to flirt and be seen was at a festival or communal gathering. Tribes such as the Masai in Africa have events which showcase young men showing off either throught feats of strength or dancing. For Native American groups such as the Anishinaabe, yearly regional gatherings would prove to be one of the few times during the year when you saw people who weren't members of your extended family- so these places were veritable storms of hormones.

A 19th c. Same-Sex Crow couple, although technically a Two-Spirit is a Third Gender
One thing that most people don't think about is that kissing is a fairly recent global phenomenon. While kissing as a sign of romantic affection has been a documented tradition in the West as early as the Greeks and Romans (who actually had several categories of kisses depending on location and ferocity), it only pervaded the East after the 1920s, when Western motion pictures began filtering in. While many of us would shudder at the thought of a time or place without kissing or making out, there were local alternatives for showing affection! Such as touching foreheads, rubbing noses (Lapplanders and Inuit), holding one another's hands or fingers. Samoans and other Polynesian islanders have a tradition of sniffing around the other person's face.

A pair of Ainu lovers from Northern Japan
Part Two- Courtship or: Getting to Know You, or: Don't Get Caught!

So then, you've flirted- when are you a couple? The test amongst the Cheyenne and other Northern Plains tribes was to share a blanket. .... not like that. If a man threw his own blanket or buffalo robe around a woman's shoulders and she didn't step away, struggle out, or outright refused- they were officially a couple. I suppose there'd only be mixed signals if it were really cold out...

Like things casual? Then the island of Micronesia was probably your style. Lovers were allowed to engage in almost casual relationships as long as they kept it under wraps. That's right, come nightfall the bushes and secluded places around town were littered with couples having rendez-vous of varying degrees. However, if the couple later decided not to get married, then break ups were an event of little fuss and usually included a consolation gift. Sort of like keeping your ex's stuff after a break-up...

Exchanging gifts or momentos- similar to those given on Valentine's Day- have always been popular between lovers; they may just be a little different than flowers or chocolate. For example, if a young Hopi woman fancied a particular man, she would go on a rabbit hunt with him and offer him a corncake from meal she had ground herself. Welsh sailors would give their lovers a spoon before embarking on a long voyage. The longer the voyage, the more ornate the spoon as a symbol of steadfastness (ideas, steampunks?). In the Yunnan province of China, lovers send each other leaves of varying (and symbolic) trees. Zulu and Zambian couples traditionally gave one another beads, sometimes sewing them into devotional designs on clothing and bags.

A 19th c. Welsh love spoon.

Part Three- Engagement or: Sealing the deal.

This section is dedicated to Miss Kagashi's elder sister, who is not only engaged to be wed to an admirable man this coming autumn, but also picked black as the color of her Maid of Honor's dress.

Pre-1920s, usually engagement not only symbolized that two folks were getting hitched, but also that someone was going to hit a windfall, one way or another. This is thanks to that time-honored tradition of the dowry.... basically a family's reward for anyone who would be a dear and take that fairly useless daughter off of their hands. Depending on where you were and which culture you belonged to, the dowry might contain money, livestock, fine linens and clothing (Greece and the Balkans), buildings (such as a shop), or... vast tracts of land.

On the other hand, there was also the idea of the bride price- that this particular potential mate was only going to someone with class, money, or vast... tracts of land. For example, one of the highest honors in 19th century Dakota Sioux culture was to be a "bought bride". The prospective groom would leave gifts in front of the woman's family tipi, typically fine horses- sometimes for days until she accepted. This translated as the woman was so highly sought that the man would leave prized possessions to catch her favor- risking public shame instead of simply going to speak with her (and her family). The Masai of Africa conducted a similar affair with prized cattle.

A Plains couple, Trails-the-Enemy and his wife. (Zenki Pictures)
The Hmong people of Southeast Asia had a similar tradition of 'bride price' that was decided via fierce negotiations between committees representing the groom's family and the bride's. Much like a mobile phone contract there was a flat rate for the woman, in addition to fees which may be affected by her health or the relations between the families.  Apparently this custom continues to this day, as a friend of a friend (who gave me this information- thanks Kevin) had for some time a 'dowry fund' jar in his apartment's living room, though nowadays it's more about respect for tradition than money.

Matchmakers were used around the world, though strong traditions developed in China, Singapore, Korea, and amongst many Jewish communities. Musicals aside, a matchmaker was typically a shrewd person with the savvy of business broker, astrologer, and therapist. Sometimes matchmakers would accompany the young couple as a chaparone to dissuade fooling around and take note of compatibility.

An engraving of a newlywed Chinese couple. (Image State)

Or sometimes Mother Nature herself was your matchmaker. Amongst the Yanomama tribe of the Amazon, a girl was deemed ready for marriage at a certain date, when she would visit a single man of the village with a gift of food. If he approved, she would receive a similar gift (food presents, sounds good so far!). Within a few days, she would make another trip to the house of another man. Similar to a deranged version of musical chairs, these visits would continue until her period came- whoever's house she was in at the time she would become engaged to. (Yeah, I don't think any of us trust Aunt Flo to pick our one-and-only.)

Hell, in some countries you could find yourself engaged to a ghost. In pre-20th century China there was a very multi-faceted tradition of 'Ghost Marriage'. One of the aspects of this was a way out of a typical marriage situation for more independent-minded girls. Instead of a traditional matchmaker, a girl could go to a Taoist priest to fix her up with a nice... dead guy. Sometimes however, a groom would appear to his bride and her family through omens or dreams, declaring the ghost marriage to be an act of destiny. Ghost marriages also ocassionally pop up in traditional Jewish culture through the custom of Beshert (think of it as ultra-betrothal. It basically means that God ordained you two to be together. Yeah, try getting out of that).

"Lovers Parting" by an unknown 19th c. Japanese artist

So there you have it- on the most part, we have it a lot easier in the modern world than back then. A lot of the Western views on love and dating are in large part thanks to the Victorians (who made love in a marriage okay) and the 1920s (when dating and casual relationships were really developed), which is why we don't have to negotiate bride prices or dowries... on the most part. Of course, with modern weddings costing the tens of thousands of U.S. Dollars these days, it does make you reminisce fondly of giving your boyfriend a corncake or bringing a train of goats over to your beloved's abode.

If you're interested in more Love in the Time of Steam (yeah, that's going to be the title of some bad erotica, I know it), this June we'll be looking at traditional wedding dresses from around the world!

Have a fun Valentine's Day, folks- whether it be in amorous company, alone burning your ex's comic book collection (it's okay, it's mostly DC), or with friends.

Now get a room.


  1. I think you're made of awesome. Just sayin'. Love the image choices in this one!

  2. Re: Kissing - I remember reading about one instance where a love poem was being translated into Japanese. The translator had a lot of trouble with a line about "longing for one kiss from your ruby lips" - because the Japanese didn't kiss. He ended up translating it as something more like "longing for one lick from your coral lips", which provoked a fair amount of puzzlement and giggling upon publication.

  3. That was a real good read. I guess I forego the Yanonami traditions. Rather have a few horses tied to my tipi! Looking forward to your next post.

  4. I'd hold out for some good looking ponies but my backyard isn't big enough to hold them. More's the pity.

  5. f...avoring one another. A good sidestep, that. While I knew of some of the Japanese courting rituals, I;m ashamed to say that the rest was completely new information. Very interesting stuff.

  6. This was an awesome post!! I love the different examples you give.

  7. I like your Welsh Love spoon. My father use to carve them from wood (being Welsh and all...)

  8. When my lover departs how can I still live when she's tsken my heart with her....