Unexplored Forbidden Relationships: Brother-Sister in Folktales and Mythology

Love and Sexuality come in many forms, shapes and sizes. But due to our societal conditioning, we only see and recognize it in one state. All other forms are hidden under the closet or not talked about. Some relationships are considered moral, and some are immoral. And some lie beyond the moral and immoral dichotomy. We don’t talk about this relationship at all, as if this doesn’t exist.
At my university, two brothers always walked hand in hand, and a brother-sister in my neighbourhood were always at the receiving end of jokes because of their proximity. ‘The God of Small Things’, a novel by Arundhati Roy, was my first bookish encounter with the sexual relationship between brother and sister. But the relationship was so silent and seemed so natural that I didn’t think about it much. As the novel was multilayered and talked about other forbidden love relationships, my mind never understood the complexities of this particular relationship.
The sexual relationship between siblings, especially brother and sister, is one such relationship, which is never spoken about. It’s beyond the purview of ethics, legality and religion. Islam and a few sects of Christianity allow cousin marriage, but marriage between real siblings or foster siblings is forbidden.
A few years ago, I started reading about mythologies and folklore from different cultures; I encountered multiple cases where brothers and sisters had sexual relationships. These relationships were sometimes forced and sometimes consensual.
‘Kora and her Sister’ is popular folklore from Santhal Pargana, a division in Jharkhand, India, entering this forbidden territory. Kora is hell-bent on marrying his sister, even going against his parent’s wishes. His sister puts the flower in her hair, which was meant for attracting a suitable bride for Kora. She very well knows that the flower is bait for Kora’s would-be wife. She still steals the flower despite her mother warnings. She eventually commits suicide, as she is tired of relentless pursuits by her brother. Kora commits suicide in the same spot. After their deaths, their blood refuses to mingle and flows in the opposite direction. Even the smoke from their funeral pyre blows in the separate paths. The local villagers took this as a sign and discontinued the practice of marriages between real siblings.
Even mythology has many figures with incestual relationships. Akycha, an Alaskan sun goddess, was repeatedly raped by moon god, her younger brother. Echidna was a serpent Goddess from Egypt who mated with her brother and gave birth to strange mythical creatures. Nut was an Egyptian sky goddess deeply in love with her little brother Geb, who ruled Earth. They were in a constant position of intercourse which made the other gods unhappy. They were cursed not to bear children ever. In the Cherokee culture, Unelanuhi is a sun goddess who was in love with a young man who never revealed his identity. He is the moon god, her younger brother. After his secret is disclosed, he lives forever in shame, far away from his sister.

Earlier societies recognized that marrying within a family with a sibling or a close relative can lead to abnormalities in the future offspring. Scientifically, if the two parents carry recessive or dormant genes, that gene may become the dominant one due to overcrowding of the gene pool.

There are many social media forums where people openly talk about incest, attraction towards their siblings, and sexual relationships. It is more common than we would like to think and believe. One of the Star Wars series gently touched upon the love between Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa, who were brother and sister. Whether consensual or otherwise, there could be several reasons for such incestual relationships, such as similar looks and behaviour, shared life experiences and value systems or very first bonding with the opposite sex.

This phenomenon is understudied and under-researched, and its emotional and psychological impact needs to be understood. The social shame, guilt and legal implications make this area a forbidden territory.

Source of the: Folktale: Bompas, Folklore of the Santal Parganas (London: David Nutt, 1909)

Photo Credit: Photo by Mahdi Soheili on Unsplash

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