BMCR 1997.06.17

1997.6.17, Burkert, Creation of the Sacred

, Creation of the sacred : tracks of biology in early religions. Gifford lectures. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996. xii, 255 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN9780674175693

It’s a good morning when you can pick up a new book by Walter Burkert, whose brash inventiveness and staggering learning have made him one of the foremost classical scholars of our time. Even when B. is wrong, probably pretty often, he is wrong in interesting ways; and very often he is right. Contemporary German scholarship is little read today in America and England, and it is the English editions of Burkert’s books that have established his reputation. Part of the fun of reading Burkert is the oddly foreign German tradition that he embodies (without having to slog through the German). Burkert’s own tribute to Anglophone criticism is that, evidently, he first wrote this book in English, based on lectures given at St. Andrews in 1989.

B.’s courageous and unifying thesis in Creation of the Sacred is that facets of human religious behavior can be traced to human origins in the animal kingdom. The close ties between distinctively human and instinctual animal behavior is a hallmark of contemporary psychology and sociology, but so unpopular in the humanities that even the bare facts of human sexuality, as taught to a whole generation of unsuspecting youth, are said to be socially constructed. B.’s imported thesis will not be attractive to the PC crowd; he places far less value on cultural power.

Chapter 1, “Culture in a Landscape: Situating Religion,” begins by noting that all societies, present and historical, possess religion. Religions from far afield show surprisingly similar characteristics. Can the recent emphasis on the power of culture to mold behavior really deny a distinctly human nature? How do we explain transcultural constants in religion? Why throughout the world and history do we find such other cultural constants as language, art and the nuclear family ruled by the father? Can there be a biological basis to cultural behavior, of which religious behavior is a conspicuous part?

Konrad Lorenz’ work on aggression suggests that what we interpret as cultural behavior can in fact have a biological basis, and the sociobiologists have even proposed that culture and genes work hand in hand in an evolutionary contest for survival of the fittest. Perhaps religion does assist some groups, and the individual genes of its members, to transcend other groups. For example, still today Islam and Catholicism powerfully oppose attempts to control human reproduction. Unfortunately, religious behavior is so complex, and ill-defined, that it is hard to be sure that it does have a survival value.

A clear example of an emotional response that is biologically conditioned is the shudder of fear we share with the animal kingdom. Language, our unique possession, has a genetic basis, so it may have survival value too. B. refers to the strange revolution of 40,000 years ago, when modern humans emerge: what was the biological basis of that faraway revolution? Also, how does ritual relate to language, and does it appear before it? B. works like this, darting in many directions, summarizing scientific scholarship unfamiliar to humanists (often cheerfully accepting its creaky philosophical basis), then asking questions for which answers can never be clear. But these are good questions that deserve to be answered.

Truly culture and genes are all mixed up, and it is hard to see how to untangle them, though sociobiologists attempt it. What about the incest taboo? We think of it as cultural, but its universality suggests that it may be, in some way, genetically determined. Groping for metaphors, B. calls language and culture “software” and brains and genes “hardware.” One might only wonder who the technicians are, but B. knows enough not to ask. Genes, then, while not prescribing culture, do form preconditions. B. fails to mention that this is what unreasoning people have always thought, that certain human groups are predisposed to certain forms of cultural expression (“Asians prefer death to dishonor”); but B.’s account is filled with reason. “What we discern are the tracks of biology followed by cultural choice” (p. 23), he writes. If only cultures, and not people, really did make choices.

Religion and language, uniquely human, are closely allied, because each allows the agent to enter timeless realms. Ritual refers to invisible partners too. But how can we validate the existence of an invisible world? Structuralists say that religion exists because it works, not because it corresponds to anything real. A biological explanation will assume some form of imprinting, which B. holds to be possible, fostered by repetition and paternal authority. Sheer terror, of life and its dangers, also makes a deep impression and is a universal force. Religion offers hope, when there is none.

Chapter 2, “Escape and Offerings,” examines prominent realia of religious behavior. In religion no act is found more often than sacrifice, and B. describes the ancient and still-modern practice of striking off a finger in times of extreme danger, in effect a pars pro toto. Even in paleolithic caves we find paintings of mutilated hands. Analogous practices appear in the animal kingdom, where to get away spiders break off their legs (and lizards their tails, as I remember from my own youth) and foxes gnaw feet caught in traps. Analogies, yes, B. agrees, but not homologies. Still, why do we find finger-sacrifice the world over, unless there is a biological basis to the behavior? Even mythic reflexes of this pattern, the magical pursuit where dropped objects delay a pursuer, are found all over the world. Could culture ever be so uniform?

Castration and circumcision, drastic forms of pars pro toto, appear to belong to the same pattern. Even God in the OT demands the circumcision of Moses’ son, or his death, and every Freudian (if they still exist) knows that fingers are penises and that lopping the foreskin is as good as lopping the Ding an sich. The scapegoat works in the same way, and even Caiaphas thought Jesus to be an example. So among zebras, when one is killed, the others feel safe, for awhile.

The data that B. puts forth, from worlds ancient and modern, are varied and wonderful, but as I read I keep wondering, Isn’t sacrifice more like an insurance policy, where you pay your premium and thereby win peace of mind? A spider’s leg comes off, and a fox gnaws his paw, because each wishes to escape an aggressor that is tangible, immediate, and real. But men put maids to death to pay premiums that are overdue, or to pay in advance, and the aggressor is neither tangible nor immediate, but invisible and, I suppose, largely imagined. How does the biological parallel elucidate a nearly mercantile, hence entirely human, practice?

Chapter Three, “The Core of a Tale,” begins with wise remarks about how tales make complex experience communicable. Tales are made up of repeatable motifs (around 1,000 gathered in Aarne-Thompson) or many fewer functions (around 30 described by Propp), exemplified in European, Greek, and Sumerian stories. Perhaps the very expectations in such stories, transcultural surely, are themselves instinctual, biological in origin. Animals, like Perseus, pursue a quest, the eternal quest for food, though they may themselves end up the meal. In describing the quest for food, with its attendant dangers, one has told the essential story of all life forms.

Another complex of story functions appears in the “maiden’s tragedy,” found not only in Greece (e.g. Danae), but in ancient Mexico. The story’s pattern—break in life, seclusion, catastrophe (often rape), suffering, and rescue—reflects, metaphorically, the individual experience of every woman in transition from childhood to adulthood. Rituals, where tales and religion come together closely, actually underscore and support just this transition. The “maiden’s tragedy” preserves a form of female initiation, while the quest parallels male initiation, both based on biological changes in the life of the individual. That an old woman tells the tale of Amor and Psyche in Apuleius, the archetypal maiden’s tragedy, might support this view (alas, Apuleius himself was evidently male).

In religion, subordination is all, B. begins in Chapter 4, “Hierarchy.” God is always king, and man is always in submission. Rank is arbitrarily visualized as a vertical diagram, perhaps because, for primates, trees “up there” provide safety and food. Religious rituals emphasize patterns of submission, which can be remarkably similar to patterns found among nonhuman primates; in Gorillas in the Mist Diane Fossey cowers on the ground to avoid attack from a big ape. In war, too, absolute submission might buy reprieve, and all gods enjoy humiliation before their power as much as they enjoy praise.

In Chapter 5, “Guilt and Causality,” B. describes the formulaic sequence of disaster, interpretation, diagnosis, and atonement which seems to characterize religious behavior from Iliad 1 to Oedipus to Vergil’s Aristaeus. Sounding more and more like James Frazier, B. throws in bundles of examples; he might have included Saint Paul. Again, a powerful pattern of religious behavior transcends cultural bounds. Many cults grow from this pattern of behavior: adversae res admonuerunt religionum. Those who interpret disaster are the priests, specialists in the art of atonement. Disaster is experienced in three ways: as a binding, as divine wrath, or as contagious pollution, but all these afflictions priests can avert. True, but I’m not sure how this chapter further B.’s overall theme.

Chapter 6, entitled “The Reciprocity of Giving,” explores gift-giving in a ritual context. Even justice, which so often appeals to divine principle, is understood as a form of reciprocal giving. Here, too, we look in vain for good analogies in the animal kingdom, where parents give food to their young, but no sense of reciprocity is found. Of course reciprocity is a form of morality, where sociobiology runs aground. Though some have argued that morality gives an evolutionary advantage, still it is the selfish gene that prospers. Nonetheless, the whole universe, according to mathematics and physics, is in a state of constant giving and taking back. “In this sense the principle of reciprocity is the very foundation of our rational, scientific world” (p. 154). The correspondence nicely fits B.’s thesis that religious behavior derives from prehuman, noncultural force, though an exact connection cannot be shown.

In the last chapter, “The Validation of Signs, A Cosmos of Sense,” B. explores the universal human obsession with omens, by no means confined to early peoples (Hale-Bopp!). But so do all living beings take cues from their environment, constantly. B. gives a fascinating catalogue of the interpretation of signs in ancient religions. Sometimes we make our own signs, like the stone heap by the side of the road, but dogs, too, deposit their scent to make a “sign.” Even so are stones in the house of God anointed with oil.

Burkert writes in the dizzying style, a kind of poetry, delightful, even exhilarating, but highly Germanic and annoyingly inconclusive. “Language itself, as a signifying system, seems to be in need of an ‘ultimate signifier,’ the absolute, god,” (p. 27) he writes. He seems to mean that we cannot have language without god (why the small G? to signify a relative ultimate god?). Language, therefore, is god-given, not cultural, and not biological, at least not ultimately. “This [fact] may also serve the function of the algebraic x to solve the conflicting equations of life,” he continues, applying mathematical seimiosis to a religious problem; the point is poetic but clarifies little. Sometimes B. is almost pop in his efforts to leave no approach untried (he cites the film The Last Emperor as an authority for the customs of Chinese eunuchs). And he writes, “All higher animals are programmed to learn from their elders” (p. 30), but when I hear this I always wonder, Programmed by whom? My programs crash all the time and armies of professionals cannot repair the damage. No doubt after our next technological revolution we will have still new metaphors to apply to language and religion, themselves as mysterious as ever.