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Reappropriating Greek Sacrifice: homo necans or άνθϕωποςθυσιάζων?* Margaret Alexiou My purpose is to explore the relevance of minor cultures to the construction of theory by examining in detail some post-classical Greek treatments of a specific theme, that of Abraham's sacrifice. In particular , I wish to question some of the underlying assumptions in recent discussions of sacrificial violence and its religious significance by drawing attention to a crucial but neglected aspect of the theme, the role of women's lamentation, as exemplified in some marginalized religious and literary traditions of Greece and other neighboring cultures of the later Near East. To that end, I shall refer to some recent attempts to explain the origins, evolution and quality of human civilization in terms of violence, and on the basis of a purely modern Western perception of its Judeo-Christian and Hellenic heritage.1 Violence is central to the language of much post-structuralist discourse; terms such as "violent representations," "representations of violence," "violent clash of discourses" abound in debates on literary, cultural and feminist theory as well as in the interpretation of specific literary and artistic works.2 To what extent is this an attempt to accommodate —not necessarily consciously—western anxiety and guilt about our violence against other peoples, a projection onto the past and the other of our own, highly technologized and calculated, forms of killing and destroying? Can other cultures provide a different model? Above all, is it possible to reappropriate the western static and idealized image of "Greece" by revealing its diversity and heterogeneity ? Walter Burkert, in his learned, wide-ranging and richly documented book Homo Necans: the anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth (1983), begins from the premise: Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Volume 8, 1990. 97 98 Margaret Alexiou It is increasingly difficult to separate Mediterranean, Near Eastern and Eurasian elements [sc..in ancient Greek sacrificial rituals], and to distinguish Greek from pre-Greek. The structures are perhaps too basic to follow ethnic distinctions. (1983: xxiv, emphases mine) In stressing the interactions between the prehistoric and ancient Mediterranean and Near East, Burkert belongs in a long tradition of classicists and other (for example, Harrison 1903; Nilsson 1940; Thomson 1949; Vermeule 1979; Bemal 1987). However, his last sentence begs some crucial questions. If "ethnic distinctions" are insufficient to explain comparable phenomena, do the reasons necessarily lie in their "basic structures?" What is meant by "ethnic" and "basic"? Are these structures socio-economic, cultural-linguistic or psychological ? The very concept of "ethnic distinctions" is surely too modern and too loaded ("pertaining to nations not Christian or Jewish," O.E.D. 1470) to inform a discussion of the ancient world? Burkert proceeds to analyze a considerable body of data to substantiate his ethological theory that sacrificial myths and rituals evolved from hunter-gathering societies of the paleolithic era, and that they have their origins in the biological and psychological make-up of the human race, above all in man's need to hunt and kill for food with attendant feelings of guilt and horror. He even goes so far as to equate the emergence of homo sapiens with homo necans on the basis of the killing instinct: "Töten also ah notwendiges Zentrum der Kultur: homo habilis wurde homo sapiens als homo necans" (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: 8 March 1989). There is no way of proving, or disproving, such a hypothesis; but attempts to explain religious practices in reductionist, universalist or archetypalist terms should be met with skepticism, because they fail to take account of cultural diversity on the one hand, and socio-economic factors on the other. Moreover, recent paleo-archeological and paleo-anthropological research has seriously challenged the conclusions of Ardrey (1961), Dart (1967), Washburn and Lancaster (1968) and others, on which such theories of violence have been based.3 A further problem with Burkert's thesis concerns his conclusion. "The modern world," he writes, "whose pride is the full emancipation of the individual, has gradually allowed the ritual tradition to break down. At the same time, it has relegated death to the fringes of existence and thought" (1983: 297). True enough, in general terms; but the statement assumes a unilinear development and character to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3265
Print ISSN
0738-1727
Pages
pp. 97-123
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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