Dave Dewberry


Scapegoat Rituals in Ancient Greece

by Jan N. Bremmer


I. What are scapegoats and the rituals thereof?

1. "And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto land not inhabited" (Leviticus 16:21-2).

2. According to Burkert, these rituals result in the sacrifice of one of its members to save its own skin.

3. These rituals vary among cultures, but the ritual can be found among the Greeks, Romans, Hitttites, in India, and even Tibet.

A. What makes these rituals so interesting?

i. The Cambridge school in particular, with its lively and morbid interest in everything strange and cruel, paid much attention to it

II. How do we know about these rituals?

1. The poet Hipponax of Kolophon.

A. Hipponax wishes that his enemies be treated as pharmakoi or scapegoats.

i. Thus, this implies that they will be fed with figs, barley cake, cheese and then, during inclement weather, they will be hit on the genitals with the squill and with twigs of the wild fig tree.

ii. Tzetzes, who cites Hipponax, adds that the scapegoat was finally burned on wild wood and his ashes strewn into the sea.

III. Who is the chosen scapegoat?

1. Usually, the scapegoat was a person of lower class.

A. The poor, low origin and useless, common and maltreated by nature, criminals, and those considered ugly.

i. The common denominator in all these is that they all are on the margin of Greek society.

ii. Nevertheless, the people of the polis realized that they could not save their own skin by sacrificing the scum of the polis, so they treated the scapegoat very well.

B. However, in fictional romance of Iamboulos, scapegoats were strangers; in etiological myth of Athenian Thargelia, the scapegoats are young men.

III. Volunteers Anyone?

1. The scapegoat offered himself spontaneously in Massilia, according to Petronius, justa s Origen described Jesus.

A. People pretended that the victim went up to the altar of its own accord, and even asked for its consent.

i. If the animal did not shake its head, milk or wine was poured upon its head to cause it to shake.

ii. Often, it was pretended that the animal had committed a crime.

IV. The Tools of the Trade.

1. In Rome and Greece there was a distinction made over fruit-bearing and non fruit-bearing trees (respectively, the arbor felix and arbor infelix)

A. Included with the arbor infelix, was those trees, which were thorny, had black fruit, or blood-red twigs.

B. Upon a mass of arbor infelix was where a traitor was hung and scourged to death and monstrosities and prodigies were burned. The arbor felix provided use for the community and was seen as a waste to use upon those who situated themselves outside the city.

V. Getting Out of Town

1. The elimination of a citizen from the polis was a serious matter.

A. A procession from the prytaneion was the means of leading the scapegoat from the city.

i. The procession was accompanied with flutes playing a special melody, which was called the 'melody of the wild fig.'

ii. Each type of expulsion had its own respected passageway out of the city.

a. Then the scapegoat was usually chased over the border; in Athens, the scapegoat was pelted with stones.

b. After the scapegoat was out of the city, no one was to turn back and look at them.

VII. Did they DIE!?

1. The final fate of the scapegoat was not very Bambi like.

A. Scholars debate if the scapegoat was killed or not.

i. Ovid says that they were killed, Callimachus says that they were not.

ii. If not killed, the scapegoat was put into an undesirable situation, which without aide from other would result in death.

VIII. Well, When did all this occur?

1. The ritual of the scapegoat was on the sixth day of the month Thargelion.

A. On the same day the Greeks celebrated the fall of Troy, the victories at Marathon and Plataea, and the defeat of Darius by Alexander the Great.

2. The festival had a first fruit sacrifice, a May tree that was carried around, choirs singing hymns, and large amounts of food and undiluted wine.


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