Annibale Carracci (1550 – 1609): Lapidation of St. Stephen (1604)
In the two classic pre-Christian canons of Western myth – the Greek and the Norse – anthropogenesis is brought about by natural processes under the observation of the gods. Man is earthborn in both canons, although indirectly in the Norse, and can therefore lay claim to a mother, either Gaia or Erda. In both myths fatherhood remains in the shadows. The gods who observe and interact with the earliest men conform to a model thoroughly anthropomorphic. The presence of fully human gods suggests that man existed before he existed and that man needed instruction from man in order to recognize himself and learn how to adapt himself to the cosmic environment. In the Hellenic and Scandinavian myths humanity enters into a world of violence. Neither Zeus nor Odin has as yet organized the world under the concept of law. The Greek and Norse canons share a word: Titan, an item of vocabulary that carries the inner meaning of brutal criminality. This word occurs in Old West Norse as Jotun and in Anglo-Saxon as Eotan. The giants, that is to say the Titans and Jotuns, war perpetually with the younger generation of gods. Peace requires the Olympians or the Aesir to suppress the giants by main force; and even then peace reprieves the universe only temporarily. Eruptions of chaos can occur anytime and anywhere. The Christian anthropogenesis, which is in fact the Hebrew anthropogenesis, differs minimally from its Pagan and Heathen counterparts, but it differs nevertheless in subtle ways, which make a difference. The Biblical God draws man forth from the clay, for example, by an intentional act; and God deliberately shapes man to resemble his Creator. The Hebrew God is less anthropomorphic than the Olympians or the Aesir, even aniconic, but his immediate precursors in Near Eastern myth, such as the Canaanite Baal and the Babylonian Ea, testify that he stems from a man-like version of deity, fit for a standing image. The physiognomic resemblance between Creator and creature is thereby explained.
Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848): Prometheus Bound (1847)
In Hesiod’s Works and Days, readers will find the primary Greek account of the origin and destiny of man. The poem Works and Days runs in parallel with Hesiod’s other set of didactic verses, titled Theogony. The latter gives an account of the three generations of gods and the former establishes the framework of the five successive Ages of Man that still more or less structures the Western notion of partitioned history. Hesiod knows that the Bronze Age preceded the Iron Age, in which era Hesiod himself lives and about which he complains. On whether biological continuity has existed since the Golden and Silver Ages or only since the Bronze Age, Hesiod speaks somewhat ambiguously; but at one point in their development men were no better off than beasts. Then Prometheus intervened on their behalf, stealing fire from Olympus and gifting them with it. Fire signifies technology and religion. Men used fire to smelt ore and fashion instruments of agriculture and combat; they also used fire to present sacrifices to the gods. Violence pervades the world of Hesiod’s contemporaneity. “Would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards,” Hesiod writes (Evelyn-White’s translation); “for now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them.” If the trend continued, “Strength will be right and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them.” Hesiod gives his readers not so much the creation but the enculturation of man and then a steady collapse into corruption and brutality. Incidentally, when Hesiod tells the story of how Zeus ordered up Pandora in order to teach mankind a lesson, Hephaestus, assuming the task, sculpts her out of clay.
From Voluspà or The Song of the Seeress, part of the Elder or Verse Edda, the reader learns how, when the gods Odin, Haenir, and Lodur discovered Ask and Embla, the first human pair, “breath they had not, spirit they had not, / character nor vital spark nor fresh complexions” (Larrington’s translation). Ask and Embla were “capable of little, lacking in fate,” but “vital spark gave Lodur, and fresh complexions”; and “breath gave Odin” and “spirit gave Haenir,” each contributing to vivification. Ask means ash as in the species of tree; Embla means elm, another label from the arboretum. Ask and Embla, prior to their discovery by the divine trio, give the appearance of corpses – victims of sacrifice, perhaps. Their poetic names link them to Yggdrasil, the great World Tree of Scandinavian lore, among whose roots Odin traded for wisdom one of his eyes and on whose trunk he let himself hang for days like the victim of a lynching. The world of Ask, Embla, and their descendants, like the world of Hesiod’s Iron Age, provides a platform for the perpetration of acute ferocity that worsens with each generation. Its climax will come with “the terrible doom of the fighting gods” when “brother will fight brother and be his slayer, / brother and sister will violate the bond of kinship.” Foredoomed to befall mankind, the “axe-age, sword-age” when “no man will spare another” peers over the horizon. On the other hand, the battlefield offers the occasion to overcome the “lacking [of] fate.” To die in combat proves that one has lived heroically, thus bonding oneself to Fate and immortality. Hesiod, whose name means “The Poet,” and the bard of Edda, which name means “knowledge,” converge in their assertion that savagery continuously threatens mankind with extinction – and that it inhabits his blood, always ready to throw off inhibition, and frequently accomplishing its sanguine will. Incidentally, the Norse World Tree is often identified as an ash-tree although the name Yggdrasil refers to the yew-family. At least one of the two human primordials in Norse myth has, via a misunderstanding, a connection with the World Tree.
By their scattering and scrambling of details and their breaks in continuity, Hesiod and the bard of the Edda incite by implication a number of questions concerning the mythic representation of anthropogenesis. Does the endemic violence of the environment, said to come from man, relate to the emergence of man from his animal state? If that were so – is the relation generative? And if that were so – how, specifically, might violence generate man? Why must the gods be on the scene when hominization occurs? What is the explanation of the god-to-man resemblance? A peculiar detail in Hesiod concerns the total lack of cult and ritual among the inhabitants of the Golden and Silver Ages. Religion enters only with the Promethean intervention, when the Titan teaches man the formula of the hecatomb. Why, in Hesiod’s thought, are cult and man simultaneous? Are cult and man more than simultaneous? Does a mutual causality possess them both, drawing each one from the other in the same moment? In Voluspà, Ask and Embla have at first a cadaver-like appearance, as though they had died or been murdered. What role does the production of a corpse play in hominization? How is the revival of a corpse the equivalent to the emergence of man from the bestial level? What is the true derivation of a god? More subtly, have men devised ways to forefend violence or is the climactic savagery of the “axe-age” unstoppable? It would seem so; and given the likelihood, what form does the deferral take? Also – is the confusion of myth, as in the dense texts of Works and Days and Voluspà, a mere embarrassment of primitive thinking or serves it a purpose? Finally – is the emergence of consciousness the same as anthropogenesis?
Wouter Berns (b. 1972): Prometheus (Date Unknown)
The man who has exhaustively surveyed myth and ritual and has studied the major schools of anthropology and ethnology of the last two centuries – to whom these and other related questions have occurred – and who has, like no other, coherently answered them is René Girard (1923 – 2015) in a series of books beginning with Deceit, Desire & the Novel (1961) and in the salient items of his authorship Violence and the Sacred (1972) and Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (1978) not to mention his many other books. In the 1960s and 70s Girard developed his twin theories of human mimesis and what he called the “scapegoat mechanism,” in reference to a custom that appears to be a universal component of culture, but which tends to camouflage and excuse itself. Girard theorized against the premises of a Marxian and purely materialistic anthropology and ethnology and against such methods as structuralism and deconstruction, which he dismissed as intellectual games. Such verbal ploys function to keep knowledge at bay by de-objectifying it and making everything relative. Girard understood relativism as the poisonous seed that blossoms as nihilism. That Girard’s name circulates only narrowly stems from the fact that, in the course of his decades of study, he became convinced that the revelation of “the scapegoat mechanism” came from Hebrew prophecy and the New Testament. His work bears an apologetic character, to which modern institutions like the academy react with censorship and suppression. No Christians need apply!
That Girard’s basic discovery of mimesis or human imitativeness came from his engagement with novels and took the form of a book of literary criticism likewise provoked skepticism. Ethnographic field-notes record human behavior, but only under strict professorial supervision. Novels are fiction. What might a novelist, who lacks academic credentials, add to the lore of human being? Girard furthermore insulted the touchy ego of modernity by insisting that desire partakes not in originality; that what one thinks of as purely subjective and personally defining in fact comes to the ego from an external source and signifies the opposite of autonomy, personhood, and the self. The observation that man is the most mimetic of animals goes back to Aristotle, who cites it in his Poetics – the first academic treatise on literature, where the author elevates tragedy to the top of the generic hierarchy and reminds his audience in a bit of etymology that the word drama comes from the archaic verb drân, which means to carry out a ritual correctly. Girard’s second book, Violence and the Sacred applied the lessons of mimetic desire and human rivalry to myth. Girard took mythic texts as seriously as he took the great canonical novels. He discovered in myth a pattern that could be reconstructed as a spontaneous event that on its occasion deferred the proliferation of feud within community. The community attributes the deferral not to itself, nor to the victim that it has unanimously lynched, but to a (falsely) transcendent power – the sacred. Whenever crisis looms, the community will reenact the event prophylactically since in it, the tribe has found the magical formula for the settling of proliferating rivalry in what would otherwise be a communal breakdown. This is, precisely, the scapegoat mechanism.
The gap separating Violence and the Sacred in its French edition and Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World in its English edition is more than a decade. In Things Hidden, Girard changed his practice of writing. The book – the most comprehensive in Girard’s oeuvre – transcribes a decade of tape-recorded discussions with two close friends, Jean-Michel Oughourlian (born 1940) and Guy Lefort (dates unknown), concerning the meaning of mimetic theory and the scapegoat theory for the existing human sciences and the identification of scapegoating as the foundation of everything cultural until its revelation in the Bible, but particularly in the New Testament. In Things Hidden, Girard addresses Christianity for the first time. Girard once told me, “Much of what later became Des choses cachées is really Violence and the Sacred plus the Christian element” (Conversations with René Girard, edited by Cynthia Haven, Chapter 4). Where Violence and the Sacred suggests that the sacrificial crisis and its resolution, through the improvised lynching of a scapegoat, becomes the ground-plan of everything cultural, Things Hidden penetrates much deeper, sketching a scenario in which the same event triggers consciousness and establishes the linguistic relationship between the signifier and the signified. At the same time, Things Hidden establishes the self-concealing tendency of the scapegoat mechanism, suggesting that only a revelation from outside human consciousness might liberate man from his age-old habit of persecution. In Things Hidden, Girard also forges his way into a “non-sacrificial” interpretation of the Christian religion.
Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783 – 1853): Death of Baldr (1817)
Girard divides Things Hidden into three parts: Fundamental Anthropology, Judaeo-Christian Scriptures, and Interdividual Psychology. In the third chapter of the first part, bearing the title “The Process of Hominization,” Girard and his interlocutors speculate how a loss of instinctual brakes against violence and the growth of mimetic rivalry would lead to the sacrificial crisis and give rise to the scapegoat mechanism. Whereas all mammals express rivalry up to the point of dominance, thereby preserving the hierarchy of the pack, they stop short of killing. But man knows no such limit – man murders. “During the process of hominization,” Girard says to Oughourlian and Lefort, “our ancestors very rapidly became carnivores and hunters.” Girard brings up what he refers to as the centripetal character of human bloody mindedness: “The more exasperated rage becomes, the more it tends to turn toward those who are closest and most cherished, those who are most protected in normal circumstances by the rule against violence.” Both Hesiod and the bard of Edda predict that in mounting violence of the last days brother shall slay brother and the taboo against incest will abolish itself. Hunting requires the potentially most violent members of the community to leave the home-ground in a group, slay a large animal, butcher it, return home with the meat, and distribute it. Hunting might well have developed, at least in part, to buffer the short tempers of the prime males from irritation within the larger group. If a member of the hunting party loses his life in pursuit of the quarry, the party returns it, too, so that it absorbs the significance of the expedition.
When Oughourlian adds that the array of archaic institutions structures itself around the problem of in-group rivalry and its provocation of murderous centripetal anger, Girard responds that if the scapegoat theory explained the conformance of rituals to a primary purpose, it would function to convince; but if it also explained the emergence of consciousness, language, and the intelligibility of the sign or word, it would possess an overwhelming argumentative merit. “We need to show that it is not possible to resolve the problem of violence with the surrogate victim,” Girard says, “without at the same time elaborating a theory of the sign and signification.” Since significance portends consciousness, Girard has implied a direct relation between the victimary resolution of the sacrificial crisis and consciousness. Imagine that violence has begun to spread in the pre-conscious community. It spreads by imitation so that quickly combat envelopes the whole tribe; but it also contracts by imitation so that the many begin to form around the two most conspicuous combatants. “Once [the mêlée] has reached a certain degree of frenzy, the mimetic polarization becomes fixed on a single victim”; and “after having been released against the victim, the violence necessarily abates and silence follows the mayhem.” The sudden switch from collective terror and anger to their suppression “creates the most favorable conditions possible for the emergence of [a] new type [of] attention.” Everyone’s suddenly awakened attention focuses on the victim, but the corpse also mediates for everyone the entirety of the scene including the subjective self in juxtaposition with all others. Says Girard: “The cadaver constitutes the first object for this new type of attention.”
Under this novel attention what Girard calls a double transference occurs: The cadaver signifies both life, which had been threatened by a fatal violence; and death, which, befalling the victim, paradoxically preserves the life of the community. The body of the victim generates not only consciousness but the primordial category of culture, the sacred, which lies at the root of consciousness. The victim – who prior to his murder might have been someone effectively marginal to the community, someone eccentric and disliked for being an aggressor – now appears to the community as a sacred entity who, intervening from beyond has, by giving his life, saved the community from its self-aggression as though that same self-aggression had invaded the tribe from outside. In Violence and the Sacred and The Scapegoat (1982) Girard remarks at length on the ambiguity of the tragic protagonist. Oedipus is the classic case. In Oedipus the King, despite having rescued Thebes from the curse of the Sphinx, Oedipus becomes a loathsome monster, lame and blind; whereas in Oedipus at Colonnus, two princes argue over possession of his corpse, which disappears in an anastasis of heavenly light. Says Girard: “In the founding mechanism reconciliation is achieved against and around the victim.” Not only that, but “every possible significant element seems to have its outline in the sacred and at the same time to be transcended by it.” The corpse of the victim is not only the first signifier – it is a “universal signifier.”
Francois Perrier (1590 – 1650): Iphigenia (1633)
The scapegoat mechanism is adaptive in the Darwinian sense. Acquiring it, man comes to terms with his own mimetic character. This requires, however, at least two prevarications. It demands that the victim, in the first transference, correspond to a villain or even a monster, but in the second transference to a hero or god. In reality, the crowd (“unanimity minus one”) selects the victim by a process of elimination. “The victim appears to be simultaneously good and evil,” Girard says, “peaceable and violent, a life that brings death and a death that guarantees life.” If, on the other hand, the truth about the victim were known – that he might be anyone – the mechanism would not operate smoothly. And if the antidote to intra-communal violence weakened, the likelihood of violence would rise; the continuity of Homo sapiens would have ceased millennia ago. In order to function, therefore, the scapegoat mechanism must conceal or camouflage itself. Oughourlian says, “The community is unable to see in the victim only an occasional and passive instrument of its own metamorphosis, a catalyst for its instant transformation from collective hysteria to tranquility.” The tribe “supposes that the original criminal cannot have really died in the unfortunate event that his crimes led to, because he has suddenly been transformed into an all-powerful benefactor.” Thus for Girard myth serves “the invisibility of the founding murder.” This motif permits Girard to draw a stark line between all other religions and Christianity, the only ethos that identifies and prohibits scapegoating.
The placement of the Ask and Embla episode, comprising only two stanzas, in Voluspà makes the two cadavers a universal signifier. The placement comes early in the poem, Stanzas 17 and 18 out of 66, after a clash between the Aesir and the Vanir; the remainder of the poem summarizes in considerable detail the cosmic cycle up to the destruction of the existing world in the Ragnarøk and the birth of a new world. The poet gives the Ask and Embla episode no logical prologue or reason, but having named the two proto-people in Stanza 17, the bard states in Stanza 19 that, “I know that an ash-tree stands called Yggdrasil,” which “stands over the well of fate.” Never mind that the name Yggdrasil refers to a yew-tree, not to an ash-tree. And never mind that it seems like an arbitrary shift of topics. It is not. The bard links Ash to the power of Fate, which passes its structuring dynamos through all events in the unfolding of the present world cycle. Voluspà ends (Stanza 66) with a reference to the dragon Nidhogg who “in his wings / carries corpses,” possibly the seedlings which will be sown in order to repopulate the next world-cycle. “The victim,” Girard argues, “is thus represented with all the attributes and qualities of the sacred”; nor does the victim “belong to the community,” but rather “the community… belongs to the victim.” The cosmic whole belongs to the victim, who signifies the order that seemingly magically asserts itself over the chaos of savage undifferentiation. The cyclic view of time indeed springs from the sacrificial level of thinking. The event must be repeated as ritual before violence again supervenes.
The case of Prometheus in Hesiod’s Theogony likewise illustrates the all-and-everything flavor of the sacred. Prometheus belongs to the Titan-generation of the gods, the middle generation between the Elementals and the Olympians, famous for their violence. Prometheus presents himself to humanity as a benefactor and even a creator since it is only through his gift of fire that men transcend their bestiality. Hesiod makes it plain that in stealing fire from the Olympians Prometheus qualifies as a criminal in Zeus’s eye even though he fought on Zeus’s side in the Titanomachy. Prometheus not only steals fire, but he arranges the central ritual of Hellenic sacrality – the hecatomb – so that it enriches men and cheats the gods: “For when the gods and mortal men had a dispute at Mecone, even then Prometheus was forward to cut up a great ox and set portions before them, trying to befool the mind of Zeus. Before the rest he set flesh and inner parts thick with fat upon the hide, covering them with an ox paunch; but for Zeus he put the white bones dressed up with cunning art and covered with shining fat” (Evelyn-White’s translation). For this and other misdeeds Zeus “bound [Prometheus] with inextricable bonds, cruel chains, and drove a shaft through his middle, and set on him a long-winged eagle, which used to eat his immortal liver; but by night the liver grew as much again everyway as the long-winged bird devoured in the whole day.” Yet this victim, set to torture by the god of justice, by his benefaction propelled humanity to conscious life. In the centuries of Imperial syncretism, due to the parallel injustices, philosophically inclined people sometimes amalgamated Prometheus and Christ.
Domenico Zampieri (1581 -1641): Sacrifice of Isaac (1628)
Girard’s point about the representation of the victim in myth, however, concerns the contradictions and ambiguities: The suppression of the victim as victim. In the Prometheus myth, the angry unanimity of the crowd gets shifted to Olympus, but in a manner whereby any hostile feelings that would naturally direct themselves at the Titan, if he had turned his wiles on human beings, deflect unto Zeus for too harshly treating the friend of man. What produces gods? The murder of the victim – which is why the non-explanatory meeting-up of the three gods in Voluspà with what are apparently the liches of Ask and Embla disturbs the reader so profoundly. The image reverses causality: The gods bring two human corpses to life whereas the formula for making a god is to murder the victim. Myth misrepresents human behavior and allows people to think of themselves as righteous and sin-free. The New Testament contains no myths, only deconstructions of myth, says Girard. Every sentence that Girard articulates in the second part of Things Hidden, at a moment when the ideology of power has seized all public institutions, speaks to the West’s Twenty-First-Century lapse into the Moloch Mentality. Thus – “Although the logic of violence provisionally has the last word [in the Passion] the logic of non-violence is superior, since it comprehends the other logic in addition to itself, which the logic violence is incapable of doing.” Thus – “If the fulfillment, on earth, passes inevitably through the death of Jesus, this is not because the Father demands this death, for strange sacrificial motives.” And thus – “Men killed Jesus because they were not capable of becoming reconciled without killing.”
A grim irony pervades the regime of the Left, which increasingly comports itself as a quasi-religion, complete with rituals of false transcendence. The regime borrows its obsession with victimhood from Christianity. Otherwise in its array of characteristics it sets itself in the brainless anti-Christian mode familiar since the Revolution in France at the end of the Eighteenth Century. In order to join the modern Left, one must take an oath in which one swears that he is a victim. One does this by claiming allegiance to the ever-increasing spectrum of “intersectional” color-bands, as refracted through the prism of political correctness. The contemporary Left organizes itself, not by the principle of “inclusion” (despite its claim of rainbow-like inclusiveness), but by the opposite principle, exclusion. The “equity” movement, as it calls itself, would like to purify society by expelling whole groups to whom “progressives” attribute a disempowering glance that explains the poor performance of whoever gains less out of life than someone else. It is the same as the evil eye attributed to scrawny widows by housewives in pre-modern Sicily so as to have on hand a convenient scapegoat should things go wrong in the village. The scapegoat mechanism works like Sigmund Freud’s unconscious. It compels people to act in savage, self-destructive ways. Christ says from the Cross in the Gospel of Luke, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” Men established their own consciousness when they discovered the scapegoat mechanism. It is a consciousness capable of all the cultural development that one sees in history. Unfortunately, that consciousness requires a regular dose of innocent human life. Christianity offers to reestablish consciousness with a basis, not in hatred hence not in murder, but rather in love. Murder can be collective; and for mankind mostly it has been. The change of perspective from murder to love can only occur on a person-by-person level. Personhood is its goal. Someday, although we might all be persons, we will not, because we never can, discharge our debt to the victims of collective homicide.