Although less well known than Girard’s theory of scapegoating, the great classical scholar Walter Burkert’s ideas about the origins of human societies in sacrifice offer us a fascinating complement to it. The Greeks were obsessed with sacrifice. They offered sacrifices on all important occasions, both personal and public – to celebrate a marriage, at betrothals, at funerals, going to war, for ritual purification, for fertility – but most importantly at the annual commemoration of the founding of their city state or polis. In Athens just such a climax of the sacrificial year occurred at the Bouphonia or ox-slaying. Burkert notes that these commemorative rituals are always accompanied by a cult myth, and usually it is the story of the death of a virgin. He thinks that the myths are telling us that originally it was not an animal that was sacrificed but a sexually desirable young woman. Frequently in these stories the girl is saved from death and an animal is substituted by a god at the last moment, which explains why it is an animal that is sacrificed today.
At Brauron, a sanctuary of Artemis on the eastern coast of Attica, the cult myth was the well known story of Agamemnon. One day out hunting Agamemnon shot a deer and boasted that he was a mightier hunter even than Artemis. Angered, Artemis refused to release the winds that would blow the Greek fleet to Troy. The seer Kalchas is summoned and after examining entrails he declares that Artemis will only release the winds if Agamemnon sacrifices his own daughter, Iphigeneia, to her. The girl’s mother is tricked into bringing Iphigeneia to the embarkation point on the excuse that she is to be married to Achilles. Agamemnon actually had the knife raised when Artemis whisked the girl away to become her priestess among the Taureans and substituted a deer instead. At Mounichia there was a famine and an oracle declared it would only be lifted if somebody sacrificed his daughter. Embaros agreed to do so, but in fact he hid the girl in the adyton, the inmost part of the temple and sacrificed a goat dressed up as a girl instead. This is why at Mounichia today young girls dress up as goats as part of the commemorative annual sacrifice.
Sacrificing young girls is obsessive in Greek mythology. The foundation of Athens involved just such a theme. Before going to war the Athenians do not offer sacrifice to some belligerent male god as you might expect, but to the maiden Aglauros in the shrine of the Hyakinthiades, daughters of Erechtheus who sacrificed themselves for Athens in the war against Eleusis. According to the founding myth of Athens, the ugly god Haephaestos masturbated against Athene’s leg. Disgusted, the goddess wiped off the semen with a hank of wool and threw it down just where Athens stands today would you believe. The semen fertilized the earth and from this union Erechtheus was born. Athene hid the child in a basket and forbade the daughters of Cecrops, the first King of Athens who was half a snake, to look into the basket. But Aglauros did so. Two snakes came hissing out and in her fright Aglauros leapt from the Acropolis and fell to her death. The story was celebrated every four years at Athens in the feast of the Panatheneia, the procession of which was depicted round the frieze of the Parthenon in the Elgin marbles now in the British Museum. Again and again these myths have been sanitized to disguise a murder which must have been in the original stories.
Burkert thinks there is much evidence to show that Greek sacrifices went back to a time before agriculture, even to the Paleolithic age. In the Bouphonia the sacrifice is preceded by a procession, the pompe, in which girls scatter flowers , and several untethered oxen are allowed to wander freely, as if they are still wild. On the altar are some oat cakes, which Plato says are reminders of a vegetarian golden age before there were animal sacrifices. The first ox to wander up to the altar and consume a cake is the one that is sacrificed. As the knife is plunged in the women present give a long and loud shriek of horror, the ololyge. Strangely, in Greek sacrifice the god does not get the best cuts of meat as you might expect but the long indigestible thigh bones. Burkert thinks this too connects these rituals with the Paleolithic age. Evidence has been found in the ice age caves that the slaughtered animal was stood up on his thigh bones in order to be resurrected and worshipped. Statues of bears have been found worn smooth as if they had had some kind of covering stretched over them, with pegs instead of a neck, perhaps so that the head of a real animal could be mounted onto them. The hunted animal is what gives the hunting band identity, and so becomes their god and their father. Greek mythology is full of such ambiguities. Zeus often turns himself into a bull, as in the stories of Pasiphae and Semele, but it is a bull that is sacrificed to him. Similarly Dionysos is the goat god, but it is a living goat that the maenads tear to pieces in his honour. In the Bouphonia the sacrificed meat is hurriedly and collectively eaten, and Burkert thinks that this too indicates an origin in the ritualized establishment of a social group. Normally in Greek sacrifice, after the meat has been consumed the long bones are burnt as an offering to the gods. But in the Bouphonia the bones of the animal are gathered together with a skin stretched over them which is then stuffed with straw and – is this a collective memory of what went on in the caves? -the resurrected animal is then put between the shafts of a cart.
Burkert reminds us that in nature males frequently fight for females in ferocious and bloody combats. But it is rare that such tournaments end in death because of appeasement mechanisms. When an animal knows he is losing he presents signals that prevent his opponent moving in for the kill. Losing wolves, for example, roll over and expose their underbellies. At this their erstwhile opponent urinates over them in the most friendly manner. Jackdaws expose a vulnerable part of the nape of their neck, which their conqueror begins to groom and fondle with affectionate care. Jackdaws have even developed a ruff on their necks especially for this purpose. But the price humans have paid for the development of reason has been the loss of such instincts, which explains why we are by far and away the biggest killers of our own species on the planet. Burkert suggests that to prevent human beings wiping themselves out a cultural ritual had to replace a biological one. He thinks the myths tell us that it was the ritualized killing of the most sexually desirable young woman, often the daughter of the group leader. If all desire her, none shall have her. As the aggressive and erotic instincts are so close to each other, the individual desire that separates becomes diverted into a collective guilt bond that unites. Behaviourists can point to many such re-directions of instincts among animals.
Mythology emphasizes that it is indeed a guilt bond. In the sacrificial pompe maidens carry a basket of grain in which is hidden the knife that will kill the bull, as if it is something shameful. The priest washes his hands like Pilate or Lady Macbeth. Water is thrown over the bull to make it shake, for when it nods its head that is taken as a sign that it agrees to the sacrifice. After the sacrificial ritual of the Bouphonia is over, a trial is held on the ritual hearth of the polis, the prytaneum. The women argue that they are not to blame for they only carried the grain and the water. The axe bearer is then blamed but it is discovered that he has fled, so the axe itself is made to stand trial. But it is then adjudged that the real crime was in the flowing of blood , so it is the knife that is to blame, and the knife is then thrown into the sea. Is the guilt caused by memories of the virgin who was killed that society might survive? Mythology reflects too the ambiguous position of women in Greek society. On the one hand they are oppressed, but on the other deeply feared. Aktaeon is a mighty hunter and in some versions of his story he angers Artemis, as Agamemnon had done, by claiming that he is a mightier hunter than she is. In another more obviously sexualized version he sees Artemis bathing naked with her nymphs in the woods. But in all the versions she turns him into a stag and causes his own hounds to turn on him and tear him to pieces.
In all the versions too when the hounds had recovered from their frenzy they roamed about possessed by grief and remorse. At last they came to the cave of the centaur Cheiron who was half man and half horse. To console them Cheiron fashioned an image of their master. The hounds must have actually been people, for only people are consoled by the fictions of art. Aktaeon was a figure from a central genealogy of Greek myth for he was cousin to Pentheus who was torn to pieces by his own mother, the maenad Agave, at the behest of Dionysos. Unlike most other Greek stories this one does not imply hunting indirectly but is immediately concerned with it. Perhaps this infers its extreme antiquity, as does the reconstitution of Aktaeon in the form of an image. The clay figure suggests the sculptured forms of animals that have been found in the caves, and the man who is half a horse recalls the depictions of the half- animal shamans that have been found on the cave walls. There is a similar story to that of Akteon in Ugharite mythology where Akhat is torn to pieces by birds of prey at the bidding of the goddess Anat. In Mesopotamian mythology Gilgamesh complains to Ishtar: “Because you loved the herdsman, the keeper…you smote him and changed him into a wolf; now he is hunted by his own shepherd boys and dogs bite his ankles”. Such similar stories suggest there must have been a proto-version which is very ancient indeed and rooted in the age of hunting.
Mythology tells us too that the death of maidens is not the only unspeakable act in which the social contracts of these male dominated, guilt-ridden societies are based. Founding fathers also killed their own children. Greek writers tell us that the Carthaginians sacrifice their children to Moloch in times of national emergency, as the Old Testament prophets rail against the worshippers of Baal who sacrifice their own children, often by burning them alive. Lykaon served the entrails of his own son in a stew he offered to Zeus. In an older version the boy is called Nictinnus and it is his brothers who kill and roast him. This points, thinks Burkert, to an origin sacrifice that was offered by the male group, for often in later versions of a myth a collective has been replaced by an individual. Tantalos was a friend of Zeus and often shared banquets of ambrosia and nectar with him. Inviting Zeus to dinner and finding he had not enough food, he killed his own son, Pelops, and boiled his limbs in a kettle which he served to Zeus. All the gods realised what was happening except Demeter who was so pre-occupied with grief at the loss of her daughter Persephone, she absent-mindedly ate one of Pelops’ shoulders. Zeus ordered Hermes to boil Pelops’ limbs in a kettle again in order that he might be resurrected. This Hermes did, but as one of the shoulders was missing Demeter made him an ivory one. This too might connect with ancient rituals in which the shoulder of a sacrificed animal is preserved because it is thought to have magical properties.
What Burkert adds to Girard is an underlining of how much guilt and fear are bound up in primeval social contracts, and how much misogony, with its strange mixture of repression and fear of women is bound up with patriarchy. Do we also have rituals whose deeply buried purpose is to contain the violence that underlies human societies? Is abortion our version of the sacrifices of children to Moloch? Or is it entirely explained by the practical reasons that unwanted children are a burden and a nuisance? Are the Football World Cup and the Olympic Games ritualized surrogate wars that seek to contain and dissipate the violence that leads to real wars? We are certainly a mysogonistic society still. Are our page 3 girls our version of the sacrifice of the maiden, the girl reduced to no more than consumed meat? But if the purpose of sacrificial rituals in Greece was to reduce and contain violence they certainly didn’t entirely succeed, for the Greeks were extremely bellicose, as indeed we are. The world has been in a perpetual state of war ever since 1914, although because of the accident of the invention of nuclear weapons that have made direct confrontation between the great nations too dangerous even for us, much of this war has been fought between surrogate nations in the third world. We think of ourselves as extremely rational because we have science, but perhaps we are at the mercy of the irrational forces mythology unearths even more than the Greeks, for at least they had names for them. How do you explain that when climate scientists are now almost unanimously telling us that our children will inherit a world too terrible to imagine if we don’t stop using fossil fuels, the majority of people are hardly interested? Such an immense stupidity cannot be explained, surely, in terms of normal social and economic explanations. Perhaps the myths do unearth deeply buried forces that shape much of our social behaviour and go on doing so even today.