Sacrifice in general

SacriWce belongs to the sphere of religious practices, and as such it initially concerned those scholars who Wrst dealt with religion, namely anthropologists. The Wrst anthropologists were nineteenth-century Europeans who were dealing with non-European cultures: colonial expansion was a great stimulus for the erudite who were interested in exploring the particularities of the foreign societies they came across. In theory, anthropologists were not supposed to be exclusively engaged in the study of one civilization. In reality, though, most of them were better acquainted with one civilization, and, on the basis of their study of the society known to them, they formed general theories without paying attention to the particularities of other civilizations. Theories about sacriWce were incorporated in the earliest anthropological theories, and as such they were inXuenced by the trends of thought which shaped the latter. Only recently have scholars become aware of the fact that: 'L'epoque n'est plus oil l'on croyait pouvoir elaborer une theorie du sacrifice englobant tous les millenaires et toutes les civilisations.'1

E. B. Tylor on sacrifice

E. B. Tylor, one of the leading figures in the field of nineteenth-century anthropology, apparently did not share this view, expressed by J. Rudhardt and O. Reverdin. In his main work, Primitive Culture (1871),2 he used a great variety of ethnographic material (including Greek material), and presented sacrifice as a ritual whose main purpose was as a gift to the gods. He thus categorized sacrifices according to their manner of reception by the deity, and according to the motives of the sacrificer. In the first category, one finds cases of sacrifice where the deity consumes (a) the offerings themselves ('substantial transmission', in Tylor's terms), (b) their essence ('essential transmission'), and (c) the soul of the offering ('spiritual transmission'). In the second category, Tylor traces the evolution in the notion of sacrifice from a gift-offering to an homage-offering and to an offering of abnegation on the part of the worshipper.

Tylor's analysis was shaped by the theory of evolution, which explains everything in terms of development and progress through time; as Darwin did in the biological field, so anthropologists regarded all early human practices and beliefs as simpler than, and inferior to, those coming next (and above all to those prevailing in the scholar's own times). Evolutionist anthropologists applied this principle to the peoples whom they studied and whom they called 'primitive', a term implying a programmatic expectation of something coming second and thus being better. One of the obvious evolutionist biases applied to the field of religion is the supposition that earlier religions could be interpreted by means of pragmatic explanations, in contrast with the 'higher religions' (i.e. Christianity), which were of a spiritual character.3 Even the very act of sacrifice

1 The first sentence in the preface of the volume by Rudhardt-Reverdin (1981).

2 The year indicated next to each work is that of the first edition, unless otherwise indicated.

3 See e.g. Tylor (19034), ii. 375: 'theologians, having particularly turned their attention to sacriWce as it appears in the higher religions, have been apt to gloss was condemned as belonging to 'barbaric ages', to the 'lower phases' of religion, which are 'explanatory of the higher'.4 Evolutionist methods stress the diachronic aspect in human history and try to find causal threads connecting the past with the present.5

W. Robertson Smith on sacrifice

W. Robertson Smith was among the English scholars who took up the tradition of evolutionism. He was a very distinguished Semitic scholar, who studied the Old Testament from the anthropological point of view. His theory of sacrifice depends on the Bible, but moves in a wider area than that of Jewish ritual, and is to be found in his work The Religion of the Semites (1889). Using the Old Testament evidence, Robertson Smith concentrated on the sacriWcial type where the victim is eaten, and saw in it 'an act of social fellowship between the deity and his worshippers'.6 The animal victim is the sacred symbol of the clan, totem as it is called. By sharing its Xesh and blood, men partake of its divine vitality, and aYrm their common links to the totem and to each other.7 Thus, Robertson Smith stressed the character of the sacrificial meal as a ritual of communion and tried to prove that any further meanings—such as gift or atonement or eucharist—developed later, in the frame of higher social structures.

Robertson Smith's theory was correctly criticized8 for projecting onto ancient societies the Christian experience of the Eucharist, where Christ's body is supposed to be shared by the faithful.

Robertson Smith belonged to that subcategory of the evolutionist trend in England, which is known as the 'Cambridge School'. Other over with mysticism ceremonies which, when traced ethnographically up from their savage forms, seem open to simply rational interpretation.'

5 Tylor's most famous contributions to evolutionism are the technical terms animism, which designates an earlier faith-stage than the belief in gods, and survival, which designates what has come down from the past to the later generations, who can no longer explain it.

6 Robertson Smith (19273), 224.

7 The belief in the link between the clan and the animal is the so-called totemic belief.

8 Mainly by M. Mauss, whose work on sacrifice (Hubert and Mauss 1899) is discussed below.

prominent members of it were Jane E. Harrison and James Frazer. The distinctive characteristic of this school was the attention it paid to ritual rather than to myth. Before this change in perspective, the tradition of Romanticism had led scholars to pay attention only to the myths of diVerent peoples and to collect them by means of the methods of historical criticism.

J. G. Frazer on sacrifice

The anthropologist James Frazer, in his work The Golden Bough (1890), did not set out a general theory covering all cases of sacrifice. However, a long section of his work (entitled 'The Dying God') was dedicated to cases similar to the ritual of Diana Nemorensis, as described by Strabo (5.3.12-13); according to Frazer, the priestly king of that ritual (and of its parallels) was the embodiment of the spirit of fertility. Frazer interpreted the king's ritual murder as an attempt to protect the spirit from the king's weakness. Thus, to Frazer the purpose of sacriWce is to liberate an immortal spirit from the mortal body it inhabits. However, Frazer also described other sacrificial rites, such as offerings to the ancestral gods or killings of animals for the fertility of the crops or for the cure of cattle from disease.

Frazer has been criticized for the evolutionist positivistic model he proposed, namely that mankind proceeded from magic to religion to science. But besides this conviction, Frazer's theory suVered from methodological deWciencies. The terms which he used did not always have the same meaning, and the distinctions and analogies were not clearly drawn. Just like Tylor, Frazer also used a great variety of ethnographic and historical material, but where his approach was methodologically wrong was in his uncritical selection of this material in order to support his argument (as is obvious from Frazer's obsession with fertility).9

9 A very sound criticism of this method was offered by E. E. Evans-Pritchard: in the last century anthropologists used a particular sort of comparative method by 'selecting from a vast mass of data, uneven and often poor in quality, whatever phenomena appeared to belong to the same type . . . The qualities which were diVerent in each instance were neglected. This is a perfectly sound method of scientiWc analysis, so long as conclusions are restricted to the particular quality abstracted and it is not then assumed that because phenomena are alike in respect to this single quality that they are alike in other respects which have not been subject to critical comparative analysis.' In Singer (1981), 145-6.

H. Hubert and M. Mauss on sacrifice

A different anthropological approach was the work by H. Hubert and M. Mauss, 'Essai sur la nature et la fonction du sacrifice', in L'Annee Sociologique (1899). As the title of the series where this essay was published makes obvious, the writers brought sociological tools into the field. Sociology had been conspicuously promoted in France by E. Durkheim (Mauss' uncle and teacher), whose work influenced a whole generation of scholars, including Hubert and Mauss. To Durkheim, the notion of society was the main tool of explanation, and this was even applied to the religious field.10 Despite the fact that his approach oVered new possibilities to the study of religion, it has been remarked that Durkheim went further than he should and made 'society' a sort of autonomous entity. What Mauss contributed to the study of religion was his supersession of such theoretical abstractions, and his attachment to concrete evidence.n

Durkheim still belonged to the evolutionist tradition. 12 However, the essay on sacriWce by Hubert and Mauss drew attention not to the genetically prior, but to the 'types' contained in a sacriWcial act. This was a Wrst step away from evolutionism, but not a step towards total rejection of it, since the two authors still believed that the worshippers did not understand the origin and motive of their actions. Leaving aside—but not completely—the evidence for Greek sacrifice, on the excuse that it consists of piecemeal sources, Hubert and Mauss concentrated on Jewish and Hindu texts. They regarded sacrifice as a means of communication between the human and the divine, and distinguished the diVerent stages in this communication, those of sacralization and desacralization. The first case represents the movement from a profane to a sacred state, the second the opposite movement. While the victim becomes sacred, the person who oVers the sacriWce loses his sacred character, which he acquires again after the victim has been killed and has lost its sacred character. The highest point of sacredness is the moment of the animal's killing.

10 His representative work here being Les Formes eUmentaires de la vie religieuse (Paris, 1912). For criticism, see the review by Malinowski (1913), esp. 527-9.

11 Evans-Pritchard, in Singer (1981), 190.

12 His belief in totemism as a primary form of religion is characteristic of this approach.

I personally think that the essay of Hubert and Mauss is a kind of proto-structuralist13 analysis, preceding the sort of approach of which Vernant was to be the main representative (see below). But, as has been rightly pointed out,14 these writers were restricted, and thus misled, by their material: that is, in contrast with Hindu rites, in Greek sacriWce the areas between sacred and profane were not separated by a ritual marking the transition from the one state to the other; for instance, there was nothing separating the sacred moment of killing from the secular moment of butchering.

E. E. Evans-Pritchard on sacrifice

The last anthropological theory on sacriWce which we shall examine is that of Evans-Pritchard. He lived through the so-called Malinowskian revolution—Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) was Evans-Pritchard's teacher—namely, the replacement of evolutionism by functionalism. Anthropologists started to think at a synchronic level and tried to Wnd out how societies functioned, rather than how they emerged. The present was to be explained by the present and not by the past.15 The new school of methodology stressed the importance of Weldwork, and introduced the principle of Internal Relations or Interdependence, which was to explain how societies were perpetuated. What went wrong with the new approach was that society was thus considered as something stable and unchangeable through time: 'unless there is equilibrium, it is diYcult to give 'functional' accounts of institutions, for these amount to showing how persistence of a society is furthered by each institution and hence such stability must be assumed to exist if the specification of the factors furthering it are (sic) to be the very paradigms of explanation.' 1«

Evans-Pritchard mainly used the evidence he collected during his personal Weldwork among African peoples. His theory on sacriWce is

13 My term might imply a sort of evolutionism in methodology! Leach (1976), 4-5, called the method of Hubert and Mauss 'empiricist structuralism', as distinct from the 'rationalist structuralism' of Levi-Strauss.

14 Kirk (1981), 68-70. Also Rudhardt (1958), 295-6.

15 Evans-Pritchard himself was not in favour of a mere empiricist method, and he preferred a combination of evolutionism with functionalism. He thought that his teacher was unable to make abstractions, which would facilitate the use of comparative method.

to be found in Nuer Religion (1956), and it only refers to these peoples. Evans-Pritchard rejected the theory of Robertson Smith, that sacrifice is a meal of communion with a god, and stressed instead the piacular character of the sacriWcial oVering: the victim is a substitute for the person who oVers the sacriWce. However, as has been correctly stated, Evans-Pritchard did not justify his interpretation of sacrifice as substitution.17

Leaving the Weld of anthropology, let us now pass on to some theories exclusively concerned with either Greek or Jewish sacriWce, starting with the Wrst. It is useful to point out that the scholars who dealt with the Greek evidence were aware of all the aforementioned theories.

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