There is an interesting side effect to the fact that many of the 19th Century Ethnographers were in many cases Christian Missionaries. The Missionaries were faced with evidence that the peoples they were evangelizing to already had religious systems in place, religious systems that were foreign and alien, but also had great meaning for their practitioners. Confronted with this evidence of meaning, yet remaining steadfast in their own belief that the meaning of these rituals were absolutely false, they began to look beyond the stated reasons and looked for other, hidden effects of religious action. While the unshaken belief in the rightness of the Christian Cause has largely, if not totally, disappeared as a driving force in ethnographic pursuits, the initial urge to look behind the surface, to not accept things for face value remains. In this essay, I want to look some of the work that has gone on in ritual studies in Anthropology, specifically as it relates to the ideas of Ritual Communication that I introduced last week. Each one brings something unique to the table, and while their work argues for their theory being primary, I think what we will see is that there is not one single motivating factor that explains ritual action, particularly as it relates to our purposes. This week, we'll be looking at René Girard and his work, Violence and the Sacred.
René Girard was a professor of Medieval History and French Literature who spent most of his Academic career teaching in the United States, and most of his writing was published and sold in France. In 1972, he published a book that would be eventually known in English as "The Violence and the Sacred." In it, he laid out his case for the idea that all primitive religions were fundamentally about the prevention of violence.
Girard's theory relies on the idea of mimeses that our desires are mimicry of the desires of those we see as authorities in life, which lies at the root of all conflict1:
The mimetic aspects of desire must correspond to a primary impulse of most living creatures, exacerbated in man to the point where only cultural constraints can channel it in constructive directions. Man cannot respond to that universal human injunction, "Imitate me!" without almost immediately encountering an inexplicable counterorder: "Don't imitate me!" . . . the double bind — a contradictory double imperative, or rather a whole network of contradictory imperatives — is an extremely common phenomenon. In fact, it is so common that it might be said to form the basis of all human relationships.
As children, we have no form, no identity. What identity we do have, at first, is given to us by our parents. We form that identity by mimicking our parents. We like what they like, we don't like what they don't like. We desire what they desire. That desire may lead us to appropriating things that our parents don't want us to. Either because they are seen as dangerous, or because it is taboo. In either case, we have entered into conflict with those we are mimicking. For both parties, but most especially for the child, the conflict is particularly traumatizing for it is both unexpected and perceived as a betrayal.2
Girard's idea of violence, and our reactions to the way in which violence seems to manifest almost as a terrible inversion of a hierophany he lays at the foot of mimetic desire. He argues that violence is fundamentally reciprocal in nature, that I strike you and that you strike me, and so on, back and forth. The nature of sacrificial violence, however, is that it is unanimous, that it is placed on an arbitrary victim, and that it provides catharsis. The victim had to be arbitrary, uninvolved, in order for the sacrifice to work at short circuiting the feedback loop of reciprocity. If the victim is part of the original conflict that summoned violence into the community, then the cycle would never be broken. Instead, the blood feud would commence. It is only when the entire community unites behind an arbitrary victim that the cycle is broken, that the community is saved; when the witch is found, for example, that the community is then saved.
For Girard, all communities were originally founded on some sort of struggle and cathartic, unanimous violence when the community is founded. The repetition of the sacrifice, human and animal, is an attempt to bring about that moment of danger, and then navigating that danger through the sacrificial act. Girard saw ritual, with its need to declare differences and focuses on right action, as a very dangerous act, that was nonetheless very necessary. Afterwards, if done correctly, there is a feeling of unity and shared experience that I have personally seen discussed.3
There is of course, much more to Girard's thesis, and I encourage those interested in it to read it for themselves. For the purposes of our discussion, however, I think the idea of violence, reciprocal violence, and the way that a sacrifice can short circuit that violence is readily important to our pursuits.
Girard's thoughts on violence and order, and how ritual creates order out of chaos, is, I believe, a sound one. The great flaw in his work is that Girard suffers from a sense of modern chauvinism. He expresses the belief that modern justice systems have somehow obviated the necessity of Sacrifice &emdash; a failure particularly egregious when one can see that it only takes a little pressure on the Justice system for the veil to fall and the Sacrificial crisis to return.
The second great failure of Girard is the idea is that his thesis is somehow hidden. It isn't. In many ways, it is the great theme of the myth cycle. The creation out of chaos, order, in the form of a primordial sacrifice. We reenact that act of sacrifice every time we give to the Gods. What we receive is blessings, but also, we renew our compact with the gods and ourselves. The Act of Sacrifice is the act of social renewal. The failure to enact a sacrifice, or to perform it correctly, invites the forces of chaos within and they will wreak havoc on your yards.
This should not be misinterpreted as a call for all heathens everywhere to engage in animal sacrifice. It is rather me urging you to consider the manner in which you enact your votive gifts, and to consider the results of those gifts. Remember the image of tapping a hoop or wheel with a stick to keep it moving. Sacrifice keeps the cosmos in order, our little actions mimicking the big actions of the Gods, providing the same benefits.
The final criticism I have of Girard is the same I will level at everyone who tries to find an underlying reason for ritual, without looking at the whole act. There is no single primary purpose to ritual; it is many things, depending on the time, the place, the people. The fact that sacrificial ritual acts as a method of imposing order and preventing chaos and violence is an effect of ritual does not make it the purpose of ritual, no more than meeting and marrying someone while you are in college makes the purpose of attending college the finding a mate.
Next week: Power.
Girard, Violence and the Sacred, p 147 ↩
It should be noted that no matter how carefully and gently a child is corrected by their parent for the crime of attempting to be like them, the act remains both surprising and betrayal. There are better, and worse, ways to handle it, but it remains a natural and terrible truth of life; like pain, death, or Line Dances at weddings. ↩
Years ago, a tale of Blót was shared on a private email list. It detailed a blót that occurred in New Hampshire where two Theods held blot at the same time. From the email list: "we held a joint swine blot here with the [Other] Theod. They blotted one while on the other side of the tree [we] blotted another. At the time we throat slit only, being Theodish and all. The New Anglia blotswine, was blotted almost in a beautiful fashion. [The Blotere] wielded the knife skillfully while myself and another held the beast and I sang to it as it's 'soul' fled to the heavens. The Blotere and us blot thegns almost wept it was so incredibly beautiful. We embraced, as usual afterwards and felt that everything was right and haleful on our side of the tree." Private email. 2012 ↩