Offered to the Gods

Frank Kermode

  • Culture and Sacrifice: Ritual Death in Literature and Opera by Derek Hughes
    Cambridge, 313 pp, £45.00, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 521 86733 7

This extraordinary book examines the practice and the cultural contexts of human sacrifice, more or less from its speculative prehistoric beginnings to Margaret Atwood’s recent novel The Blind Assassin. To succeed in such an enterprise an author must be fantastically well read, expert in the disposition of large tracts of material in various languages, some of it by great artists and some by no less useful journeymen. He must also take care to guard against the possibility of his book being mistaken for another sort of study which it superficially resembles but which is less cautious in dealing with speculative prehistoric beginnings.

Certain discriminations are established from the outset. Any close resemblance between Hughes’s method and the methods of Sir James Frazer or René Girard is explained and discounted. The mere thought of Frazer prompts unavoidable and dismissive allusions to George Eliot’s Casaubon and his ‘Key to All Mythologies’, a ‘beguiling and age-old obsession’ that obviously must be resisted. When Frazer, dealt with at the outset, turns up again in his proper historical situation (along with Nietzsche, Marcel Mauss, Jane Harrison, Jessie Weston, Freud – Totem and Taboo – and Dracula), he is judged with more disinterest. Less important than Mauss’s work, less profound than Walter Burkert’s Homo Necans, carrying too much encyclopedic luggage, enjoying too much success as a key to all the mythologies that interested T.S. Eliot, The Golden Bough is nevertheless credited with raising certain issues that have retained their interest:

How to explain the tantalising glimpses of resemblance that link systems of belief that are widely separated in space or in cultural level? Many 16th-century observers of Mexico, for example, had noted that the Aztecs had eaten a kind of bread representing the flesh of the god: ‘Let the reader note how cleverly this diabolical rite imitates that of our Holy Church,’ Diego Durán commands. Contemplating the same resemblance, Frazer postulated not Satanic parody but essential identity: ‘the ancient Mexicans, even before the arrival of Christian missionaries, were fully acquainted with the doctrine of transubstantiation and acted upon it in the solemn rites of their religion.’

This shrewd bit of teasing (Frazer’s bringing together of the two rituals clashes with our assumption that they should be kept separate) allows one to admit that Frazer made some sense, that there is, after all, a lingering methodological resemblance between him and Hughes. Each controls what might have been an unruly mass of evidence by dwelling on continuities and contrasts. As Hughes reminds us, Frazer saw primitive cultures as shaped by two erroneous ideas: that you can cause events by imitating them, and that something which has been in contact with a person confers power over that person. His book starts from the hypothesis that there is an ‘essential similarity’, though obscured by ‘superficial differences’, and that this allows us to discover how ‘the human mind has elaborated its first crude philosophy of life,’ and, along the way, to explain the ‘barbarous’ rites of the Nemi priesthood. And Frazer believed religion evolved from myth, which is why we can be thought of as superior beings, though still retaining elements of the barbarous. Hughes is preoccupied by the varying relations between sacrifice and culture, the understanding of the barbarous and atavistic by more or less enlightened minds. Frazer, after all, means more than a little to Hughes, though it was necessary to explain that he does not mean too much.

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[*] Kayll’s The Trades Increase (1615) complained of the ‘labours and lives … sacrificed to that implacable East Indian Neptune’. Dudley Digges, MP, a shareholder in the company, defended its enterprises. He was the stepson of Shakespeare’s friend Thomas Russell, to whom Shakespeare left £5 in his will. Digges’s brother Leonard wrote the encomiastic poem that appears over his name in the First Folio.