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.

Hughes starts with the Iliad and the Iphigenia tragedies of Euripides, and in the course of his narrative touches on Titus Andronicus, Goethe and Idomeneo, before reaching Modernism with Stravinsky, Eliot, Mann, Lawrence and Schoenberg, mentioning Adorno and Horkheimer only to remark that their ‘assumptions about the origins of sacrifice are now mere curiosities’. Along the way he discusses many forgotten operas and plays, working with great piles of literature and music but omitting the visual arts: ‘whereas the literary and musico-dramatic traditions are inseparable, the visual arts address different issues and questions, which will not be explored here.’ This book is stuffed with information, but he reminds us that it isn’t an encyclopedia.

To look up ‘sacrifice’ in the OED is to be impressed by the thoroughness with which the word and the idea have penetrated our stocks of metaphor. It is, to take a random instance, an essential baseball term (as when a player gives up his own chance of getting to a base in order to make it possible for another player to do so; hence ‘sacrifice fly’, ‘sacrifice bunt’ etc). This is a usage understood by virtually the entire population of the United States. The word is also used in cricket, though less formally, for appropriate situations occur less often, but a player can be said to sacrifice his wicket by opting to be run out in order to save the wicket of a better player at the other end.

This is still a metaphor, perhaps a rather faded one, compared, say, with the use of the word to refer to the act of one who drowns to save another’s life (though Hughes might think that commonplace use of the term incorrect since it lacks a ritual element). ‘Sacrifice’ is a noun, a verb and an adjective, all available in a wide range of senses. That it can be used so loosely is a nuisance to Hughes, and so are its extensive theological usages – such as ‘the sacrifice of the Mass’ – and, indeed, more comprehensively, the Crucifixion, but he deals with that by saying it would be absurd to attempt to cover it.

Indeed the necessary narrowing of the subject starts with the title. The book is about culture and sacrifice, mostly about human sacrifice, and that in quite a restricted way. How does the use of sacrifice fit the culture of those who practise it? It may be an important part of some cultural ritual; it may be approved as beneficent, or deplored as a regression to a past state of barbarism. Attitudes towards it may derive from a cultural disposition understandable in terms of other aspects of a society’s behaviour: its acceptance or rejection of capital punishment, its treatment of the classics, its music and so on.

Cultural responses may be measured by the way in which stories of human sacrifice are handled in narrative works of art. Jephtha’s daughter (Judges 11.34-40) must die because of an oath her father swore to Jehovah; and (eventually) die she does. Idamante, in Mozart’s opera, must die because his father, Idomeneo, has sworn a similar oath to Neptune; but he is reprieved. Iphigenia, on the point of being sacrificed, is miraculously replaced by a hind. Abraham is determined to obey a divine command to kill his only son, but the execution is countermanded and again a convenient substitute is provided. What can be inferred from these varied endings, and what they suggest concerning the culture which made them, is part of Hughes’s subject.

He suggests that certain minor themes will irresistibly attach themselves to his main argument as the book goes on. Such themes will act like the ‘second subject’ in sonata form. The most insistent of them is an analogy between human sacrifice and the economic arrangements of a culture that uses it. At the outset we are told of the ‘profound psychological or symbolic affinities between the quid pro quo of the sacrificial transaction and the equivalences established in systems of measurement, or in mathematical calculation, or in the determination of exchange value in the marketplace’. These relationships come into being when sacrifices are made in the hope of divine reward, so that sacrifice becomes thenceforth a ‘quantified transaction’. So ‘the iniquities of capitalism … may be imagined to be sacrificial in nature.’ Counting is itself a means of imposing order, and is thus opposed to the violence and moral chaos that human sacrifice implies.

Sacrifice has been described as originating in feasts at which animals were slaughtered and offered to the gods; and as a survival of hunting rituals. But how human sacrifice began is a mystery – perhaps it marked a traumatic break with some ideal past when men and gods feasted together. In any case, it can be said that cultures which use human sacrifice regard it as a way of honouring the gods, whereas cultures which don’t regard it as a gross impiety.

Whether or not they use it seems to depend partly on their attitude to mathematics. In Virgil sacrifice has a ‘positive mathematical dynamic’. Later authors, not least Shakespeare, show themselves to be aware of the importance of sacrifice in the description of contemporary systems of exchange. A chapter devoted to Shakespeare contains a startlingly original study of Titus Andronicus along these lines. Rather gruesomely – but how can one complain about that? – the play is held to signify a cultural retrogression to a pre-civic economy of body parts, a process here explicitly and imaginatively recorded. The Merchant of Venice submits to interpretations less horrific though no less penetrating: Jessica exchanges her mother for a monkey; Portia, who is rich, is paired with a leaden casket. Bassanio courts her with illusory wealth, for which Antonio’s body is the surety. Shylock is willing to pay 3000 ducats for a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Where these exchanges do not explicitly involve the body its involvement is nevertheless implicit: a mother for a monkey; Portia for Antonio (a deal Bassanio is willing to consider – see IV.i. 282-8). ‘In view of the constant involvement of the body in such exchanges,’ Hughes says in one of his more oracular moments, ‘we may perhaps look forward to Robert Kayll’s attack on the East India trade.’[*]

Human sacrifice and counting (and accounting) are, then, interacting subjects of this book. Even in Greek tragedy counting denotes a culture of order that the use of human sacrifice may destroy. In Euripides the body (Helen’s or Iphigenia’s) is imagined in such a way that its sacrifice can be equated with monetary exchange. Native Americans who practised human sacrifice were (wrongly) thought to have no mathematics; innumeracy is a clear indication of barbarism (though in fact they had the zero when we still lacked it). When 17th-century creative writers portrayed a conflict between Native American and European cultures in any detail, they were less interested in exotic details of religious ritual than in the ‘clash of mathematical systems’, though this in turn led ‘to a clash of systems of sacrifice’.

The theme returns, fortissimo, with Wagner, concerned as he was with ‘the opposition between the male property instinct and woman’s maternal drive to self-immolation’. Hughes finds a reflection of this concern in the frequency in the operas of interrupted weddings. Wagner also makes use of the related theme of the Fatal Oath, which appeared in many treatments of the biblical Jephtha story, and in the plot of Mozart’s Idomeneo: the Flying Dutchman offers one Wagnerian example, Alberich swearing to renounce love for wealth is another and, in Götterdämmerung, there is Siegfried’s oath of blood-brotherhood with Gunther.

It seems the most enduring literary models were the works of Euripides: the Iphigenia tragedies and the Bacchae. Iphigenia is involved in two sacrificial scenarios, and the Bacchae, long neglected, turned out to be of particular interest in the 20th century (to Thomas Mann, Hans Werner Henze and Wole Soyinka, along with a good many others cited here). The Bacchae, in effect, came to replace the Iphigenia tragedies because of a new emphasis on the chaotic, orgiastic violence of the period. Hughes is at his most powerful in his discussions of this tragedy, which displays sacrifice as imposed by the ‘brainlessly collective’ and involving the sparagmos, or tearing apart of the victim. He is equally impressive on grammatical detail, discussing Euripides’ use of polyptoton, the bringing together of two forms of a word with the case endings making distinctions of sense, a device also employed in the Agamemnon of Aeschylus but here, as Hughes demonstrates, used to a quite different purpose.

In the 18th century dramatists and composers preferred happy endings to stories of human sacrifice. Even the story of Jephtha’s daughter could be made less severe by emphasising the period of grace granted by her father and used by her to lament her fate, to die a virgin. Handel’s oratorio is a happy-ending version. In real life felons and traitors might suffer sparagmos, but on stage a ‘preoccupation with averted sacrifice’ prevailed, as in Gluck’s two Iphigenia operas, in Mozart and in Goethe’s Iphigenia play. But Gluck’s chorus stresses ‘the sacrificial fanaticism of the crowd’, and with the Revolution sparagmos appears on the streets of Paris. Now enters the Marquis de Sade, with whom the exercise of ritual male violence ‘approximates to sacrifice’. Kleist and Flaubert, Swinburne and Sacher-Masoch continued the work of separating sacrifice from happy endings and also from Christianity.

Human sacrifice, thus secularised, persisted as an idea. It is said to have become ‘a means of exploring and articulating the subjective’ and ‘a metonym for all transactions in which life is the currency’. Hughes believes the idea still has some life in it. ‘Something which can be configured to represent the First World War, the worship of Swinburne’s Dolores and the death of Brünnhilde is likely to be as infinitely durable as it is infinitely variable,’ even if Margaret Atwood thinks it an exhausted cliché.

The book is packed with ideas and sometimes curious learning, but may be remembered best for its bold analytic readings of particular works. Some I’ve mentioned already, but I should add a brilliant section on Frankenstein and another on The Magic Mountain. The arguments are sometimes startling, but the writing is always calm and judicious. Culture and Sacrifice is a quite exceptional contribution to its announced subject, and to others that border on it.

[*] 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.