Monday, December 17, 2007
The Return of the Irrational
I'm not quite the classics geek I was before my girls were born. The project of teaching myself Attic greek, for example, died a peaceful death right around the time they started walking. My classics reading group, however, has persevered for eight years. While we rarely talk about classics anymore, some of us will still read the book and exchange some perfunctory geek-chat between the gulps of wine as an entré to discussion of something else.
We're rereading Jane Harrison's Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. a stately volume first published in 1903 by an unconventional woman scholar who didn't accept that the classics field was for men only. Harrison, through brilliant analysis of vase paintings and other art, penetrating study of the textual evidence, and a bunch of philological acrobatics that I pretty much skim through, establishes that much of what we think of as classical Greek religion — Zeus and shit — was an overlay on a far older and darker set of rituals that had to do with making bad things go away.
Classical Athens, that paragon of bright skies, wine dark seas, and cool reason, seethed with rituals to keep away ghosts, placate evil spirits, bring fertility, and all that stuff that people do in one way or another pretty much everywhere. A certain amount of this, it seems, is hardwired, and every time we deny it for too long, it comes surging back in distorted form. This has been called the return of the irrational.
The evidence, she says, strongly suggests that human sacrifice was still alive and well in the fifth century. This is the Athens of Pericles, Socrates and Euripides, thought by some to be the high point of civilization. Human sacrifice.
But here's the interesting part. They weren't just any humans. Once a year, they would take two of their most despised — people fed by the state, or maybe drunks or criminals — dress them up in ceremonial garb, and parade them around while everyone beat them with special branches. Then they'd burn them and have the wind scatter their ashes over the sea, after which everyone felt much better.
This wasn't a sacrifice of propitiation. It wasn't even about keeping evil away. It was about purgation. They were scapegoats. Through ritual humiliation, beating, and sacrifice, what was undesirable in the community was symbolically driven out.
And that got me to thinking about just how civilized we are, really. Take the death penalty, for example, which study after study says has no preventative effect. The revival of the death penalty has come with that of fundamentalist religion. It doesn't accomplish much, but it makes some people feel real good.
Maybe there's also something of the irrational in the burgeoning prison industry, where 1 in 42 Americans lives under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Maybe this is a sort of a magic amulet for the rest of us. We don't feel especially safe, but we make our sacrifices, and the evil goes away, sort of. But it always comes back to bite us in the ass.