Creation of the Sacred
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Creation of the Sacred

Tracks of Biology in Early Religions

Walter Burkert

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eBook - ePub

Creation of the Sacred

Tracks of Biology in Early Religions

Walter Burkert

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Sacrifice—ranging from the sacrifice of virgins to circumcision to giving up what is most valued—is essential to all religions. Could there be a natural, even biological, reason for these practices? Something that might explain why religions of so many different cultures share so many rituals and concepts? In this extraordinary book, one of the world's leading authorities on ancient religions explores the possibility of natural religion—a religious sense and practice naturally proceeding from biological imperatives.Because they lack later refinements, the earliest religions from the Near East, Israel, Greece, and Rome may tell us a great deal about the basic properties and dynamics of religion, and it is to these cultures that Walter Burkert looks for answers. His book takes us on an intellectual adventure that begins some 5, 000 years ago and plunges us into a fascinating world of divine signs and omens, offerings and sacrifices, rituals and beliefs unmitigated by modern science and sophistication. Tracing parallels between animal behavior and human religious activity, Burkert suggests natural foundations for sacrifices and rituals of escape, for the concept of guilt and punishment, for the practice of gift exchange and the notion of a cosmic hierarchy, and for the development of a system of signs for negotiating with an uncertain environment. Again and again, he returns to the present to remind us that, for all our worldliness, we are not so far removed from the first Homo religiosus.A breathtaking journey, as entertaining as it is provocative, Creation of the Sacred brings rich new insight on religious thought past and present and raises serious questions about the ultimate reasons for, and the ultimate meaning of, human religiousness.

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Culture in a Landscape


Beyond Culture

“Neither history nor anthropology knows of societies from which religion has been totally absent.”1 The observation that practically all tribes, states, and cities have some form of religion has been made repeatedly, ever since Herodotus. Ancient philosophers made this “consensus of nations” proof for the existence of the gods.2 The question is not whether ethnographers may still find a few exceptions to that consensus; it is the universality of the consensus that has to be explained. To be sure, differences in belief and practice are dramatic; indeed, religion can be a most serious obstacle for communication between different groups, producing “pseudo-species” which exclude and may try to exterminate each other; but even this divisive tendency is a common feature.
The ubiquity of religion is matched by its persistence through the millennia. It evidently has survived most drastic social and economic changes: the neolithic revolution, the urban revolution, and even the industrial revolution. If religion ever was invented, it has managed to infiltrate practically all varieties of human cultures; in the course of history, however, religion has never been demonstrably reinvented but has always been there, carried on from generation to generation since time immemorial. As for the founders of new religions, such as Zarathustra, Jesus, or Mohammed, their creative achievement consisted in transforming, reversing, or rearranging existing patterns and elements, which continue to carry an undeniable family resemblance to older forms.
The civilizations that will come into closer view in this book, mainly the Mesopotamian, Jewish, Greek, and Roman, are contiguous and were in contact for a long time. While they developed under comparable climatic, economic, and social conditions, they also present glaring contrasts and revolutionary changes, from monarchy to democracy, from temple economy to monetary systems, from illiteracy to writing. Yet there are impressive similarities in their understanding and practice of religion, their myths and their rituals, temples and offerings. Diverse cultures have proved hospitable to many of the same elements of religion.
Culture has been defined as a “realized signifying system,” a social system characterized by standard forms of communication.3 Anthropologists see not just one system of this kind but an apparently boundless variety of them, although this variety seems to merge into a yet undefined conglomerate today. Hence the principle held by the leading schools of contemporary social sciences: each culture must be studied in its diversity and relative autonomy. In consequence, the very concept of human nature has come under attack. In what has been termed “new dualism,” nature is excluded from cultural studies.4 Humans are defined by culture far beyond their natural makeup: “there is no human nature apart from culture.” Likewise, “humanity is as various in its essence as it is in its expression.”5
This exclusively cultural approach would make any investigation into the natural elements or foundations of a phenomenon such as religion worse than heresy from the start. It is now common to integrate religion into culture, to view it in relation to specific groups and epochs. Religion is thus posed in contrast to nature and cannot be treated as a general phenomenon deriving from human nature.
Some of the most important and influential anthropological studies of civilizations and religions in our century exemplify this view, exploring the Nuer or the Azande, the Andaman islanders or the Argonauts of the Western Pacific.6 “Religion as a Cultural System” is the title of a famous paper by Clifford Geertz.7 In the wake of Émile Durkheim religion has been seen, first of all, as a social phenomenon; Durkheim replaced the concept of religious ideas by that of “collective representations.”8 More recent decades have brought into ever sharper focus the forms and functions of communication within social groups.9 This line has been followed in the successful development of semiology, structuralism, and poststructuralism.
Important studies along these lines have been carried out in the field of Greek religion, especially by the Paris school of Jean-Pierre Vernant.10 In these works, Greek religion emerges in the context of the Greek city state, the polis as it has evolved beginning in the 8th century B.C. The details of myth and ritual, and especially of sacrifice, are seen as objective agents in their respective contexts marking distinctions and correlations, normality and deviation, within the structure of a particular ancient society. The impulse provided by this approach has been effective far beyond the specialized circles of classical philology.
Yet if cultures remain enclosed each in its own signifying system, what about the interactions of cultures, influences, and traditions that link the present to the past? What about our own chances of transcultural understanding of other civilizations whether past or present? And how do we account for the ubiquity and persistence of a phenomenon such as religion?
An alternative thesis may provide a basis for dealing with such questions. It proposes that there are phenomena common to all human civilizations, universalia of anthropology; they may be but need not be called characteristics of human nature. Religion belongs with them. Cultures interact; there are exchanges and conflicts, breaks but also continuities even within historical change. Above all there are basic similarities in all forms of human culture, inasmuch as everywhere people eat, drink, and defecate, work and sleep, enjoy sex and procreate, get sick and die. There is no denying either the general or the biological character of these processes. Cultural anthropologists will claim they are trivial; it is only the cultural elaborations and differences that make these phenomena at all interesting. But they are there.
What is startling is the ubiquity of certain less trivial phenomena, which are culturally determined in every case and yet not generated nor explicable in isolation. They always appear integrated into specific cultures and take various shapes accordingly, but their unmistakable similarity makes them a general class transcending single cultural systems. They must be presumed to fulfill basic functions for human social life in all its forms, even if it is easy to imagine alternatives. These universals include such disparate phenomena as the nuclear family with a marked role of the father and the special father-son relationship; the use of technology, especially of fire; interactions that include economic exchange but also warfare; and above all language, art, and religion.11 The last two mentioned may come as a surprise: what are in fact the functions of art and religion? They seem to be much less necessary for human life than the other items mentioned, yet they have been with us for all the time homo sapiens sapiens has been in existence.
The worldwide similarity of religious phenomena is easy to point out: they include formalized ritual behavior appropriate for veneration; the practice of offerings, sacrifices, vows and prayers with reference to superior beings; and songs, tales, teachings, and explanations about these beings and the worship they demand. Normally, religion is emphatically accepted. If voices of skepticism arise, it is deemed wise to silence them. “The fool says in his heart: there is no god”12—but most are not so foolish as to speak out. Even rhetoricians know that “one has to worship the divine: nobody opposes this exhortation unless he has gone mad.”13
Nevertheless it is notoriously difficult to define religion in a general, transcultural way. Most attempts work at the level of ideas or symbols. Jan van Baal, for example, defines religion as “all explicit and implicit notions and ideas, accepted as true, which relate to a reality which cannot be verified empirically.”14 This comes close to the older concept of religion as belief in the supernatural, while disregarding the practice of religion which is not necessarily based on so-called true belief. More circumspect is the definition of religion by Clifford Geertz: “(1) a system of symbols which act to (2) establish powerful, persuasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”15 (Note the characteristic paradox that the symbolic should seem “uniquely realistic”) The realistic, that is, practical, aspects of religion may still be underestimated in Geertz’s formula: it is not the symbols alone that create this seeming reality; it is the ongoing activity of living people interacting with each other through symbols, exchanging signs and reacting to them while working on their own “reality,” which constitutes religion.
Numerous other proposed definitions and pertinent methodological reflections have been offered on the subject of religion.16 Here, as Benson Saler has recommended, it will suffice to assemble some elements that characterize religion in almost every instance.17 This attempt to grasp the distinctive features of religion remains at the level of observable behavior; the claims of factual truth or real existence of the gods are not of primary concern in the study of past religions.
The first principal characteristic of religion is negative: that is, religion deals with the nonobvious, the unseen, that “which cannot be verified empirically.” Protagoras the sophist spoke of the adelótes, the “unclearness” or “nonevidence” of the gods.18 Religion is manifest in actions and attitudes that do not fulfill immediate practical functions. What is intended and dealt with cannot be seen, or touched, or worked upon in the usual fashion of everyday life. This is why strangers are usually puzzled by religious practice. Conversely, we are tempted to suppose that anything puzzling and not immediately apparent may be religious—a problem often met in prehistoric archaeology; drastic misunderstandings may of course occur. It is difficult to “get” what is meant in religious behavior, but some common basis for empathy, interpretation, and translation evidently does exist. The criterion of adelótes is insufficient, yet it remains basic.
It is true that this unclearness is often emphatically denied by the insiders. “The knowability of god is clear among men,” St. Paul wrote in Romans, “for god has made it clear for them. For the invisible (characteristics) of him are seen by the mind in his works, from the creation of the world. . . .” In both these arguments, from the mind and from the world (kosmos), Paul was following Greek popular philosophy.19 The very emphasis, circumstantial argument, and special pleading of his claims acknowledge the difficulties of access. Even St. Paul’s most optimistic formulation retains the “invisible.” Adelótes can neither be abolished nor denied; it can be given a positive twist, however, by proclaiming it a secret.
To get beyond the barrier of unclearness, special forms of experience—meditation, vision, and ecstasy—are commonly invoked; thus the paranormal range of feelings is called upon to establish direct encounter with the supernatural. Yet the remarkable fact is not the existence of ecstasy and other forms of altered consciousness; it is their acceptance and interpretation by the majority of normal people. The ecstatic phenomena are integrated into religion and confirm existing belief, and these manifestations are themselves shaped by cultural training and practice insofar as they become communicable and accessible to others. In fact, they are judged and selected by an existing religion’s own categories: “test the spirits.”20
The second principal characteristic of religion stands in antithesis to the ineffable: religion manifests itself through interaction and communication. It is thus a relevant factor in the systems of civilization. Even the lonely ascetic communicates, as he becomes the object of admiration, propaganda, and pilgrimage. In fact, religious communication always focuses in two directions, toward the unseen and toward the contemporary social situation. Through attitudes, acts, and language certain nonobvious entities or partners with special characteristics and interests are introduced, recognized, and tended.21 Distinct from humans and still analogous in many respects, they are deemed superior specifically because of their invisibility, the supernatural as such. People give them various names, class them as spirits, demons, gods, or equate them with long-dead ancestors.22 Religion thus becomes a “culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings.”23 Communication with these entities interferes with normal relations within society and thus often turns out to be a special form of indirect communication, using the supernatural to strengthen the effect of inte...

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