Shibboleths and Sacred Cows

I am seeing more and more instances of the word shibboleth being used to mean “sacred cow.”  Like most developments, this one is unwelcome, but I think I can explain why it is happening.

If you know scripture, you know that “shibboleth” was the password that the Sons of Gilead once demanded of every man who wished to ford the Jordan, and by the mispronunciation of which they detected (and slew) the routed remnants of the Ephraimite army.  An Ephraimite could not, we are told, pronounce the letters “sh,” and so betrayed himself as an Ephraimite when he answered the challenge by lisping “sibboleth.”

So, a shibboleth is a password that one uses to distinguish friends from enemies.  What is more, it is what we might call a natural password because an enemy finds it difficult or impossible reproduce the shibboleth, even if he knows it.  When the Fellowship of the Ring wished to enter the Mines of Moria, the inscription over the door read, “speak friend and enter.”  This inscription was a riddle because “friend” was the password, but “friend” was not a natural password.  Orcs may not have understood riddles or the Elvish tongue, but if someone had told them the password was “friend,” they could no doubt have learned to mouth the vocable, and thus to enter the Mines of Moria.

Like those Sons of Gilead, every human uses shibboleths to identify friends and enemies, and thus to decide which strangers they will allow to ford the Jordan.  I mean, of course, which strangers they will accept as friends and accomplices, and which strangers they will reject (and perhaps slay) as enemies and bores.  Unlike those Sons of Gilead, we do not demand that strangers pronounce a syllable, but rather that they pronounce an opinion.  We put them to the test by demanding, with more or less subtlety, that they bow to our sacred cows and profane the sacred cows of our enemies.

Thus, for instance, Donald Trump is at the moment a great shibboleth for many Americans.  Liberals are perhaps more likely to invoke the president as a test, but the Trump shibboleth works both ways.  If a liberal introduces the topic of Trump and a stranger responds by spitting, that stranger will be allowed to ford the Jordan as a friend and accomplice.  If he bows to Trump as a sacred cow, or even just tries to change the subject, that stranger will be known as an Ephraimite.

Initiation into a conspiracy often requires profanation of the sacred cows of the society the conspiracy aims to overthrow.  Initiation into the decadent order of the Knights Templar, for instance, required an initiate “to spit at, drag three paces, or trample on, the cross . . .”  Ritual profanations of this sort have been called “Rites of Denial and Spitting,” and they are a very important type of shibboleth.*

In the modern world, ritual profanation is most often expressed in ridicule, so the shibboleth of spitting at holy cows has become the shibboleth of laughing at holy cows.  Instead of asking you to pronounce a word you may or may not be able pronounce, a modern Son of Gilead asks you to laugh at a joke you may or may not find funny.  Laughing at a dirty joke was long a shibboleth that granted passage over the Jordan into the conspiracy of sexual libertines.  Laughing at a blasphemous joke was likewise a shibboleth that granted passage over the Jordan into the conspiracy of godless infidels.  Politically incorrect jokes today set the same sort of test, since to laugh at racial or sexual stereotypes is to spit at the holy cows of the enemies of the people who tell politically incorrect jokes.

And because it is hard to simulate convincing laughter in response to an offensive joke, laughter in response to such jokes is a natural password and true shibboleth.

Enemies are thus easily identified by their refusal to spit and laugh at their own sacred cows.  The test is not perfect, but very few people have the thespian skill to pass through it undetected.  This is why it is very easy to confuse shibboleths and sacred cows.  But the shibboleth—the test—is a person’s response to the sacred cow, not the sacred cow itself.  Whether he  bows or spits will determine whether he will be allowed to ford the Jordan as a Son of Gilead, or he will be slain on its banks as a vile Ephraimite.


*John Younge Anderson Morshead, The Templar’s Trials (1888)

4 thoughts on “Shibboleths and Sacred Cows

  1. This is terrific, JM. How I do love such Scholastic distinctions!

    I would however enter one point of clarification. The notion that the initiation rites of the Templars involved grotesque and fantastic apostasies derives only from the agents of the prosecution of Templar initiates, and was extracted from those initiates under horrible torture. Most such witnesses later recanted their confessions of apostasy, and so willingly chose martyrdom by burning. So, the notion that there were indeed ever such apostasies is to be doubted, and that radically.

    The prosecutors were themselves agents of Philip the Fair and his cohorts among the oligarchs of Europe. Philip and all his ilk wanted to destroy the Templars for two reasons: they were by far the most powerful military force in the world, and under the direct command of the Pope, whom the royals of Europe wanted to defang (a procedure that found culmination in the Reformation); and the Templars were also the wealthiest single institution on the planet at that time (again as direct vassals only of the Pope), and the royals wanted to expropriate their assets – and those of the other monastics, to boot, which they eventually more or less got.

    Not to mention the fact that Philip and many of his sort were in crushing debt to their Templar bankers, which they could not hope to repay. The Templars *owned* Philip. And they could have kneecapped him at will. That is why he hated them, and needed to destroy them.

    It was all a rape of the Church by the World. How has that turned out for the monarchs of Europe? The question answers itself.

    Stalin scornfully asked how many divisions the Pope had under his command. Back when the Templars were active, the Pope had more divisions than anyone else on Earth (most royal and ducal houses did not at that time maintain large standing armies, such as the Templars), stationed at castles throughout Europe and the Levant (castles that were *also* treasuries of the greater part of the financial assets nominally owned by local nobility), whom at the least sign of royal apostasy he could have ordered to take over Russia – or France, or England, or Burgundy, or Lombardy, or any other domain: to kill the local heretic or merely impudent monarch, and replace him with a loyal Papal governor from among their own ranks.

    Had that state of affairs continued, there would never have been a Stalin, or such a thing as Communism, or indeed even Marx himself. There would never have been an Enlightenment rebellion against Christianity. There would never have been a French Revolution. Our present adversaries would not in that case have come to control the commanding heights of world culture. Indeed, they would not exist at all. For, as they cropped up – as heretics seem always to do, from time to time – they would have been hunted down and prosecuted and destroyed, as were the Albigensians, back when there were Templars.

    Not that the Templars were perfect, of course. They were not. But, only idiots look for perfection under the orbit of the moon.

    • My knowledge of the charge against the Templars is limited to what I remember from Abbé Barruel’s “Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism,” so I knew it was likely tendentious, but it was the example of ritual profanation that popped into my head. Even if this example is bad, I think the concept of ritual profanation is important, and not only as a form of shibboleth. Desecration is as important as consecration in human axiology, perhaps more important. One often sees apostates treating the artifacts of their former religion with the same fury that a jilted boy treats the photographs of his former girlfriend.

      • Yes. The Templars were a palmary exemplar of their type. They were scapegoats, to put it baldly: honest innocents, virtually all of them, engaged about their workaday business and utterly surprised by their sudden fall from grace. The charges ginned up against them were such wild and fantastic and incredible accusations as have ever been raised against scapegoats – as, e.g., the patently absurd suggestion that the miserable beggar at the gates was the ultimate and proximal cause and reason of the plague rampant within the walls, and his destruction its cure.

        Scapegoats are generally picked out by some picayune failure of piety or ritual cleanliness; by some oddity of manner, person, or ideation. Any such thing will do, in a pinch. Religious enthusiasts are just such oddities; and as their oddities are peculiarly religious in nature, so do they trigger – that word – the deepest impulses in their fellow citizens of revulsion and rage at any perceived apostasy against their native cult, whose dreadful doctrines order and sanctify their lives, and give them meaning and purpose.

        It is normal, natural, and indeed hale thus to abhor the strange. But it is stupid to abhor and persecute the harmlessly strange.

        Men are stupid.

        The holocaust of the really harmless scapegoat is a perverse outwork of a fundamentally sane and healthy impulse: the preservation of the local cult, and so of its culture. What is strange to a cult is probably ipso facto inimical thereto, and ought not therefore to be tolerated, but rather persecuted. Where that has been done well and consistently for many years, so that no one can easily be found who actually traduces the cult, specious charges must be manufactured. Someone or other somehow odd must hang in the public square, so that the rites thereof may be cleansed of all impurities, and the people of the city allowed to proceed with their business, no longer troubled in mind or heart by vain and ugly heterodoxy.

        This phenomenon is exaggerated, and its wild viciousness flourishes most excessive, when the local cult feels itself weak. When the local cult is strong, and healthy, her own sacrifices suffice. Only when she grows feeble – as is evidently the case when the worldly fortunes of her culture are on the wane – are scapegoats extraordinary to her normal rites required, and their tortures unusually exacerbated. That seems to be what is happening in these last years of the death of the long established liberal cult of the West.

        The general rule then is this: if you find yourself looking about for some other sort of person than yourself whom you might blame for your troubles, the overwhelming likelihood is that you are looking for a way to overlook your own defects, and to avoid your own responsibility, and to shirk your duty. For our own troubles, we are mostly ourselves to blame. It’s a hard thing to admit, because if true it renders the repair of our troubles itself our own hard, hard work. But in the end there’s no alternative. Thus the search for a scapegoat eventually retorts, and devours its own exponents.

        That is what happened to the aristocrats who destroyed the Templars. It is what is happening now to the revolutionaries among the aristocrats, who destroyed the aristocracy.

  2. Pingback: Shibboleths and Sacred Cows | Reaction Times


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