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Scapegoat Rituals in Ancient Greece

By Jan Bremmer

In the Old Testament a curious purification ritual occurs of which the final ceremony is described as follows: “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 a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness” (Leviticus 16, 21 f). It is this ceremony which has given its name to a certain ritual complex: the ‘scapegoat ritual.’ Similar rituals can be found among the Greeks, Romans, Hittites (5; 3), in India, and even in mountainous Tibet (5; 7). In our study we will restrict ourselves to an analysis of the Greek rituals, although we will not leave the others completely out of consideration.

The Greek scapegoat rituals have often been discussed. The so-called Cambridge school in particular, with its lively and morbid interest in everything strange and cruel, paid much attention to it. Our own time too has become fascinated once again by these enigmatic rituals: I only need mention here Rene Girard’s Violence and the Sacred, which has already reached a fourth printing in two years. Gradually, too, the meaning of these rituals is becoming clearer. Where earlier generations, still influenced by Mannhardt, often detected traces of a fertility ritual in the scapegoat complex, Burkert has rightly pointed out that in these rituals the community sacrifices one of its members to save its own skin. Although the general meaning is clear, many details are still in need of clarification. For that reason I shall analyze the ritual complex in a more detailed way, paying special attention to its structure. First, however, I shall present a general survey of the evidence.

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(H/T History of the Ancient World)

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