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DISMEMBERMENT . Among the many procedures that are carried out in sacrificial ritual, dismemberment and distribution of the victim's body figure prominently. Moreover, beyond its physical dimension, dismemberment also possesses complex and highly significant social, symbolic, and intellectual dimensions, as has been shown, for instance, in Jean-Pierre Vernant's analysis of the primordial sacrifice performed by Prometheus, according to Hesiod's Theogony. For, as Vernant has argued, the division of the victim's body in effect establishes the difference between gods, who are immortal and have no need of food (since they receive only the victim's bones and fat) and humans, who receive portions of bloody meat wrapped in an ox's stomach and whose lives are thus characterized by hunger, death, and ultimate bodily decay.

Whereas the Promethean model of sacrificial division (evident also in the sacrifices of the Greek city-states) served to discuss and establish the distinction between human and divine, other sacrificial patterns are more attuned to gradations of social hierarchy. Such is the case in Dinka sacrifice, as described by Godfrey Lienhardt, who presents what appears to be a "butcher's chart" detailing the assignment of different cuts of meat to different social groups, the prestige of group and cut being directly correlated. That the butcher's chart is, in effect, a diagram of social hierarchy is not lost on the Dinka themselves, who observe: "The people are put together, as a bull is put together." Lienhardt (1961) goes on to elaborate: "Since every bull or ox is destined ultimately for sacrifice, each one demonstrates, potentially, the ordered social relationships of the sacrificing group, the members of which are indeed 'put together' in each beast and represented in their precise relations to each other in the meat which it provides."

A similar pattern is also evident in one of the most ancient Italic sacrifices, the Feriae Latinae, a ritual that dates to the period prior to Roman domination of central Italy but subsequently was taken over by the Romans and adapted to their purposes. Thus, according to Dionys of Halikarnassos (4.49), all forty-seven cities that were members of the Rome-dominated Latin League were called upon to send representatives each year to the Alban Mount "to congregate, feast together, and take part in common rituals." Within the Feriae Latinae, however, were celebrated both the cohesion of the Latin League and the unequal status of its members, themes that found expression in the sacrificial banquet at the center of the rite. Thus, each city was assigned to contribute a different, carefully graded portion of food to the celebration ("some lambs, some cheeses, some a portion of milk"), while hierarchically ranked portions of meat taken from the sacrificial bull were distributed to all the participants. Given its sociopolitical importance, the distribution of meat was carefully scrutinized, and any mistake in the assignment of portions could force the repetition of the entire ritual, as could the failure of any participant to pray for the welfare of the whole Roman people. The latter offense would mark a failure of social solidarity; the former, of proper hierarchy.

A similar case is found in one of the best-documented sacrifices performed by the ancient Germanic peoples, that of the Semnones, as reported in chapter 39 of Tacitus's Germania :

They say that the Semnones are the oldest and most renowned of the Suebi. This belief is confirmed in a religious ceremony of ancient times. At a fixed time, all the people of the same blood come together by legations in a wood that is consecrated by the signs of their ancestors and by an ancient dread. Barbaric rites celebrate the horrific origins, through the dismemberment of a man for the public good. There the belief of all looks back [to the primordial past], as if from that spot there were the origins of the race. The god who is ruler of all things is there. Others are inferior and subservient. The good fortune of the Semnones adds to their authority. One hundred cantons are inhabited for them, and this great body causes them to believe themselves to be the head of the Suebi.

Several points must be made regarding the logic and intent of this grisly rite in which the public dismemberment of a human victim was the central feature. First, this was done in repetition or representation of creation, insofar as the sacrifice celebrating the "horrific origins" (horrenda primordia ) was performed at the very place where the "origins of the race" (initia gentis ) were believed to be. This comes as little surprise, however, given the well-known Germanic myths that describe creation as resulting from the bodily dismemberment of a primordial giant by the gods themselves. (For the fullest account, see Snorri Sturluson's Gylfaginning 68.) Second, the sacrifice was performed to confirm the Semnones' claim to primacy within the Suebian confederation, of which they considered themselves the "oldest and most renowned" (vetustissimos se nobilissimosque ) members. This claim was also expressed in bodily terms: the Semnones regarded themselves as the "head of the Suebi" (Sueborum caput ), something that was perhaps no idle metaphor, but one reflectedand justifiedin the formal distribution of the dismembered remains of sacrificial victims.

The theme of creation as the result of a primordial act of sacrificial dismemberment is also common in ancient India. As one celebrated text relates:

When they divided Man [Skt., Purua], how many pieces did they prepare? What are his mouth, arms, thighs, and feet called? The priest was his mouth, the warrior was made from his arms; His thighs were the commoner, and the servant was born from his feet. The moon was born of his mind; of his eye, the sun was born; From his mouth, Indra and fire; from his breath, wind was born. From his navel there was the atmosphere; from his head, heaven was rolled together; From his feet, the earth; from his ear, the cardinal points. Thus the gods caused the worlds to be created. (gveda 10. 90. 1114 )

The text is remarkable for the way in which it describes society and the cosmos alike as having both been formed from the bodily members of the first sacrificial victim. Thus, we are first presented with a set of social homologues to the human body, wherein four differentially ranked classespriests (Skt., brāhmaa ), warriors (katriya ), commoners (vaiśya ), and servants (śūdra )derive their respective hierarchic positions and characteristic modes of action (speech, force of arms, production and reproduction, and running of errands) from that bodily part with which they are associated (mouth, arms, thighs, and feet). Similarly, a second set homologizes parts of the cosmos to bodily members or faculties: moon to mind, sun to eyes, wind to breath, and so on. Moreover, the social and the cosmic sets themselves are implicitly correlated through the mediation of the body, for the cosmoslike the body and societyis organized into hierarchically ranked vertical strata: heaven (including the celestial bodies), atmosphere (including the wind), and earth.

The logic of dismemberment thus establishes the priestly class as concerned with heavenly matters, such as sacred speech and the ritual fire, by their very nature, for priests and fire alike have their origin from the mouth (fire being thus the "eater" of whatever is placed into it, the sacrificial fire being called the "mouth of the gods"). The lower classes, in contrast, are relegated to more lowly, mundane pursuits; warriors occupy an intermediate status.

The model that is established within this myth (as also within the practice of Vedic sacrifice) is, quite literally, that of an "organic" cosmos and a "corporate" society, the parts of which are ordinarily unified but are also analytically detachable, whereupon their hierarchic interrelations become fully evident. Moreover, the corporate nature of society also finds expression within the very rhythms of sacrificial ritual. Lienhardt's observations regarding Dinka sacrifice are, once again, most instructive:

It is at the moment immediately preceding the physical death of the beast, as the last invocation reaches its climax with more vigorous thrusts of the spear, that those attending the ceremony are most palpably members of a single undifferentiated body, looking towards a single common end. After the victim has been killed, their individual characters, their private and family differences, and various claims and rights according to their status, become apparent once more. In the account of the role of cattle, I mentioned the Dinkas' way of figuring the unity and diversity of kin-groups in the unity of the bull or ox and in the customary division of its flesh. Similarly in a sacrifice, whilst the victim is still a living whole, all members of a gathering are least differentiated from each other in their common interest in that whole victim. With its death, interest turns towards the customary rights of different participating groups in the division of its flesh. Sacrifice thus includes a recreation of the basis of local corporate life, in the full sense of those words. The whole victim corresponds to the unitary solidarity of human beings in their common relationship to the divine, while the division of the flesh corresponds to the social differentiation of the groups taking part. (Lienhardt, 1961, pp. 233234)

Although he does not use these terms, Lienhardt here masterfully describes the phases of aggregation and segmentation that mark most rituals. As is clear in the accounts of the Feriae Latinae and the Semnones' sacrifice, individuals and groups gather for the performance of a ritual in which they gradually surrender their sense of separate identity as they come to feel part of a broader social totality, united by bonds of kinship, polity, commensality, and/or common purpose. Then, toward the end of the proceedings, this social totality breaks into its constituent parts once again, only to be reunited at the next sacrifice. Further, as Lienhardt recognized, the moment at which the phase of aggregation ends and that of segmentation begins is that moment in which the victim is killed and its flesh divided.

Social segmentation thus coincides with sacrificial dismemberment, while aggregation corresponds to a victim that is whole. That victim, like society, contains within its body the potential to be cut into hierarchically differentiated pieces, but its life depends upon the preserved unity and cooperation of those pieces within an organic whole. These same processes also find abstract, philosophical expression at times, as in the thought of Empedocles (fifth century bce), who describes the entire cosmos as being ruled by two competing processes: Strife, which tears things apart and finds its representation par excellence in sacrificial dismemberment (see, for example, his fragments numbered B128, B137, and B20 in the Diels-Kranz collection), and Love, the force that reunites those things rent asunder by Strife. For that matter, things are not so dissimilar when it comes to the celebrated Aristotelian tools of analysis (i.e., separating a whole into its constituent parts) and synthesis (i.e., reassembling the parts into an organic whole), whereby thought is dismembered and put back together, after the fashion of a sacrificial ox.

See Also

Cosmogony; Greek Religion; Purua; Sacrifice.


An important collection of essays on the general theme of dismemberment within sacrificial ritual has appeared under the editorship of Christiano Grottanelli, Nicola F. Parise, and Pier Giorgio Solinas: "Sacrificio, Organizzazione del cosmo, dinamica sociale," Studi storici 25 (OctoberDecember 1984): 829956. Further studies on the same theme, organized by the same editors, will be forthcoming in L'Uomo. Also of great interest are the essays that appear in La cuisine du sacrifice en pays grec, edited by Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant (Paris, 1980). Discussion of the Dinka materials is found in Godfrey Lienhardt's Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka (Oxford, 1961). On the Feriae Latinae (and its possible connection to myths of creation by sacrificial dismemberment), see Walter Burkert's "Caesar und Romulus-Quirinus," Historia 11 (1962): 356376; on the Semnones, see L. L. Hammerich's "Horrenda Primordia: Zur 'Germania' c. 39," Germanisch-Romanische Monatsschrift 33 (May 1952): 228233, and Alfred Ebenbauer's "Ursprungsglaube, Herrschergott und Menschenopfer: Beobachtungen zum Semnonenkult (Germania c. 39)," in Antiquitates Indogermanicae: Gedenkschrift für Hermann Güntert, edited by Manfred Mayrhofer et al. (Innsbruck, 1974), pp. 233249. I have also discussed many of these materials at greater length in Myth, Cosmos, and Society: Indo-European Themes of Creation and Destruction (Cambridge, Mass., 1986).

New Sources

Ulrich, Katherine Eirene. "Divided Bodies: Corporeal and Metaphorical Dismemberment and Fragmentation in South Asian Religions." Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 2002.

Bruce Lincoln (1987)

Revised Bibliography