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Revenge and Retribution


REVENGE AND RETRIBUTION . There are actions by which human beings compensate for somethingfor a loss by a reimbursement, a gain by a reward, a crime by expiation, an insult by satisfaction, an advantage by a sacrifice, a defeat by a victory. These are all forms of repayment based on an essential connection made between agency and receptivity in action. That connection is tacitly assumed by human beings to be the price paid for every deed; it is an element in the performance of every deed and is the means used to ensure a particular behavior. In it lies the origin of private and public law, which allow for a retribution in which individuals settle scores for themselves, and a retribution in which they become the subject of a settling of scores. They avenge themselves and are penalized.

The instrumental character of retribution finds exemplary expression in the "law of talion," in which the penalty matches the crime, and in the Golden Rule (behave toward others as you wish them to behave toward you). Good deeds bring their reward, and evil deeds their punishment.

Opinions on revenge differ from science to science. Students of the history of law see it as a primitive form of law. From this point of view, it is an unbridled, unreflective, and arbitrary act of retribution, whereas punishment has a purpose and is administered according to laws and on the basis of a judicial sentence. The passage from thinking focused on vengeance to penal law thus represents an ethical advance.

Some ethnologists and structuralist sociologists reject this view and see revenge as moral behavior within the context of the laws of exogamy. It is an act of self-assertion by a group against an outside attacker, "an outward-directed act of solidarity." Revenge is taken exclusively on outsiders. This distinguishes it from punishment, which is imposed by a group on members who violate its order; it is an act of exclusion, "an internal sanction for a lack of solidarity." Punishment is found in primitive legal systems, just as revenge is found in more developed systems. Revenge is a problem connected with the balance between private and public agencies in every system of justice; it resists legal positivism but does not inevitably lead to anarchy.

Many historians of religion and theologians lend support to this nuanced approach. Tribal gods avenge themselves and high gods exercise retribution through rewards and punishments.

The high religions and the world religions set limits on vengefulness and move beyond it. Guilt is compensated for by punishment in a process that is cosmic (as in the Hindu idea of karman ) or historical (as in the Christian idea of judgment). The dead are no longer agents of retribution (avenging themselves so that they may have peace of soul) but its recipients, as seen in the concepts of the transmigration of souls and the judgment on the dead. Their actions are now significant only for themselves and no longer for their tribe.

Structural differentiation in the ways of making up for guilty acts becomes an existential problem for religion. For revenge can be simultaneously a duty and a crime. Punishment takes different forms in different legal systems; hence "summum ius, summa iniuria" ("strict justice can be the height of injustice"). Greek tragedy presents the myth of unavoidable guilt and the problem of whether or not justice is really done through penal retribution.

A question arises: Is there an unbreakable connection between receptivity and performance in action as such and, therefore, in redemption?

Revenge as the Archaic Form of Retribution

In a system based on vengeance, the reciprocity of sin and expiation is regulated by those directly involved. It entails an exchange of life at all levels of existence. The individual and the group are mutually accountable. Vengeance places authority, prestige, and material possessions on the same level of value. Those who avenge themselves gain prestige; they take part in the social life of the group and become respected. They represent the honor of their clan.

Retribution exercised by individuals is a problem in the anthropology and theology of religion.

Regulation of vengeance in archaic societies

Groups in which revenge is an institution are of a kinship or totemic type. They are made up of families and clans (or subclans). In them, personal existence and collective existence are regarded as interchangeable. The group is the vital sphere for the individual, and the individual is a quantity in the vital capital of the group. For individuals to be avenged means, therefore, that the group stands up for them. The group is the vehicle of individuals' right to life. It establishes an identification between what they are in themselves (their existence as persons) and what they stand for in the group (their prestige). Murder and homocide are, therefore, offenses to the family, as are rape and theft. A slander can be regarded as a crime deserving of death, and theft can be regarded as murder. Blood vengeance, substitutional vengeance, and symbolic vengeance each represent a different aspect of the identification of individual and societal life, namely, the power of blood, the property of the family, and the honor of the clan.

An example of such interchangeableness is the Australian Aborigines' custom of obtaining blood vengeance by the wounding, not the killing, of a culprit. Magical rites also provide an illustration; Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1927) speaks of a "mystical compensation." Another example is the identification of bride-price and blood-price, because in each case there is a question not of purchasing a life but of presenting gifts that symbolize life, and, therefore, of an exchange of life. In this sense the blood-price is equivalent to life itself, just as the bride-price replaces the bride who is exchanged for it.

This explains why many languages use the same word for bride-price and blood-price. Among the Maengue of New Britain, the word kuru (literally, "head") means "both the human life demanded in revenge and treasures given to a bride's family at her marriage" (Verdier, 1980, p. 28). The bride herself may be a blood-price. Among the bedouin, the daughter of the nearest relative of a murderer is the price paid. She belongs to the son, brother, or father of the slain man as a substitute for the loss suffered, until she bears a son; she regains her freedom only when this child has grown up and can bear arms. "Among the Mundang of Africa the king can compensate the brother of a victim with a woman instead of cattle; when she brings a son into the world, the reparation is complete; the husband must then in turn pay a price to his parents-in-law" (ibid., p. 29). Revenge may therefore take a bloodless form and contribute to peace; the person who exercises vengeance now breathes freely and is satisfied. His act asserts the right to life and honor: "The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked" (Ps. 58:11). To avenge a murder is thus to avenge honor and wipe out a disgrace. In many societies this is the decisive motive at work in revenge. "A man reviled is like a weakling. He cannot regain his honor without shedding blood" (ibid., p. 19). Among the Moussey of Cameroon, a man is judged by the enemies he has killed. When he marries, he must answer his father-in-law's ritual question: "Whom have you killed in order to win my daughter's hand?" Vengeance rests on a complex involving feelings of honor and disgrace.

The reciprocity of individual and collective existence is the source of linguistic peculiarities and helps in the understanding of various legal provisions. The German expression that means "to pay someone back" is understood as "to take revenge on him." Among the Beti of Africa, the equivalent expression can mean "to return evil" or "to recompense someone" or "to take advantage of him"; among the two Maengue groups, "to pay a price" or "to set a price"; among the Kikuyu, "to remove someone's guilt"; among the Hausa, "to cancel his debt"; among the Kabyle, "to pay the price of a corpse," which indicates payment for a death. The wiping out of guilt for a crime and the wiping out of debts (in a business matter) are forms of making up for a loss that a possessor has suffered in each case.

These forms of wiping out are ruled by the principle of harm done, not of culpability; that is, it is the act itself, and not the responsibility for it, that evokes revenge. Moreover, the principle of collective liability, not individual liability, is operative: The group, and not the culprit, is liable; in addition, the rank of the person harmed is taken into account in the compensation. Only those acknowledged by law as persons, and not slaves, are capable of revenge.

The principle of representation also comes into play. The person harmed and his avenger, on the one hand, and the culprit, on the other, are members of different groups. Each represents the right and duties of his group and acts in its name. The duty of revenge depends on the degree of kinship with the person harmed, the order being son, brother, uncle, nephew; there can also, however, be hired representatives. The principle of representation accounts for the phenomenon of sequential vengeance, inasmuch as the representative, too, is subject to the principle of the collective liability of his kindred. The result is feuds and wars.

Revenge is taken on outsiders, not on fellow members of the same group. That is, the principle of exogamy comes into play. As a result, different persons are affected, depending on whether the society is matriarchal or patriarchal.

The rules governing vengeance also include provisions meant to prevent escalation into cycles of revenge. Among these provisions are the exclusion of damages that do not justify revenge (homicide as distinct from murder), the determination of places and times to which revenge is limited (the criminal caught in the act), an expanded range of compensations and substitutions that can replace vengeance (wergeld ), and the provision of sanctuaries or places where revenge is utterly forbidden (sanctuary cities, palaces, temples, churches).

The religious basis of vengeance

Guilt binds the guilty party to the debtor by means of the conscience, which accuses him, and a curse that pursues him. Guilt thus takes on an aspect of revenge, for conscience and the curse exercise retribution and are nevertheless agencies in the overall order of life. They are vengeance exercised by the gods. They represent the vital force of the gods and their power to prevail, the necessity directing the gods to restore their own honor and to fulfill the responsibility they have on earth. Consequently, the symbolism associated with vengeance is very closely linked to ancestor worship, the cult of the dead, belief in the soul, the ownership of land, and magical rituals.

In primitive religion, the souls of the dead themselves commit acts of retribution because they have lost life and now demand it back. The living fear the vengeance of the dead because it can be undirected and therefore strike anyone at all. It is told of the Negritos of northern Luzon in the Philippines that "one who has trodden on the grave of a stranger is slain with arrows from safe ambush by the relatives of the dead person who keep watch at the grave" (S. R. Steinmetz, 1928, vol. 1, p. 337). The Manobos of Mindanao, also in the Philippines, are said to go into the forests at the death of a family member "in order to make reparation for the death, which they do by killing the first person that comes along" (ibid., p. 338). In New Zealand it used to be the custom "after a murder for friends of the slain person to go out sometimes and kill the first person, friend or foe, who came along" (ibid., p. 223). The Maori would kill someone at random after a murder. Among the inhabitants of Daghstan someone would be slain at random after a death from unknown causes, and custom demanded that the parents of a murdered man appear in front of the mosque and declare someone guilty at random. For guilt and expiation are part of life as such, and therefore revenge is taken in the name of life.

On the one hand, fear of the souls of the dead and specifically a fear of revenge the dead may take on those who violate the social order, and, on the other hand, the hope of protection and support for those who behave in an orderly wayor, in short, belief in the retributive role played by the souls of the deadare the basis of the ancestor worship that was so widespread among early human beings. (Kelsen, 1941, p. 12)

This fear and hope are the basis of tradition and one reason for belief in retribution generally. For one may not "overlook the fact that the concept of the soul arose out of the concept of the souls of the dead, and that the original function of the soul, its first effect as it were, is revenge" (ibid., p. 238).

Vengeance is religious in character and can be applied to everything that has life or is regarded as living. Thus animals and plants, and also mountains and rocks, the soil, and indeed the earth in its totality can be seats of the living soul and can exercise vengeance. The existence of the dead and the retribution they exercise thus go together. An unexpiated death is like a life without honor, life as a mere shadow. Revenge, on the other hand, restores honor, wipes away disgrace, and gives the soul power. "A Bedouin seeks to wipe out his disgrace through blood vengeance or even, in the spirit of the pre-Islamic Arabs, to satisfy thereby the soul of the slain person, for after a violent death the soul is transformed into an owl that seeks unwearyingly to drink the blood of its enemy" (Joseph Chelhod, in Verdier, 1980, p. 125).

Blood is the symbol of the soul, of a family's life, and of honor itself. When blood is shed, dangerous forces are unloosed; it cries out for revenge. It has been dishonored, and the lack of peace that afflicts it stains the earth. The spirits of blood call for compensation, for they possess the earth, and the latter cannot exist apart from the integrity of the soul that these spirits embody.

The land is a clan's living space and, therefore, the root of its being. "The ancestral land is 'therefore' often regarded as the source and refuge of life and on this score embodies a spiritual quality. Every attack on the life of a group is consequently an attack on the land" that the group inhabits and on the spirits that possess the land and are its real owners. Every conflict will be avenged on it (ibid., p. 22).

Among the Mundang of Chad, it is therefore customary to give the land on which someone has been killed to the clan to which the dead man belonged. This exchange reflects the view that the land is the possession of the blood and that the blood is the soul of a tribe. The tribe accepts possession of this land by virtue of the soul that is embodied in its blood. For among the Mundang the blood is "the root of one of the souls (masen-byane: God of my birth) which constitute the person; but it is also the root of a less differentiated power which may be described as a life-force and which the Mundang call ma-zwe-su (spirit or genius of the body)" (Alfred Adler, in Verdier, p. 83). One who sheds blood and thereby releases the interior and the exterior soul inflames the land and excites the spirits that possess it. One who effects a reconciliation creates a new existence. This process takes place in the offering of gifts. For one who gives something of his own can take something for himself. By means of the sacrifice one makes a space for himself in the area of another's life. In that area he is restored to himself. "A blood-price like a bride-price consists therefore not in a transfer of wealth but in sacrificial blood by means of which the two parties recover their integrity" (ibid., p. 84). The blood is the offering and acceptance of their common will to be reconciled.

Chthonic divinities are spirits that wreak vengeance. The Greeks and Romans called them Erinyes or Furies respectively. They were "the embodiment, as it were, of the spilt blood, which, because it had turned against itself, resulted in madness. For there is not yet any such thing as punishment in the modern sense: it is the power of the outraged blood itself that reacts against the murderer" (van der Leeuw, vol. 1, 1933, p. 248). Vengeful gods are demonic in many myths. They are therefore warded off and exorcised by magic.

Retribution as Punishment

Guilt is not only avenged but is also punished, for there are on the one hand offenses against life itself and on the other hand offenses against the rules that protect life and are instituted to defend life. These latter offenses are made up by punishment, which is directed not against the clan but against the offender. The principles at work here are not those of representation but of culpability (the responsible agent is punished); individual liability; personal responsibility; as well as the principle of endogamous sanction (that is, the sanction applies only to subjects of the group's own juridical order, not to subjects of an outside juridical order). What is reflected here is the passage from particularity to universality in the concept of religion.

The "law of talion"

Retribution through punishment is regulated by bodies of law whose sets of rules describe cases, define responsibilities, and determine the kind and extent of payment. The guilty party is looked upon as a member of a juridical community and, depending on the harm he has done to this community, he suffers harm in turn and is thereby excluded from the community.

The "law of talion" is one of the oldest forms of payment for crime. The term comes from the Latin lex talionis ("law of retaliation") and is first documented in the law of the Twelve Tables (451450 bce): "If someone breaks another's limb and does not come to an agreement on it, he shall suffer the same and equal punishment." Talio refers to a codified numerical equality in every punishment (for example, one eye for one eye, one hand for one hand, and so on). For a correct understanding of talio, one should omit the element of vengeance implied by the English term retaliation.

The provisions are as follows: The case in question is the destruction of a bodily member, and the injured party has a right to retribution, member for member. "If the talion exceeded the measure provided in the law, the person justified in taking talion was himself now subject to a new talion. If the injured party was unable personally to take talion, his nearest male relative was appointed to take it" (Jüngling, 1984, p. 3).

Roman law provided for talion-like punishments or analogous talion: "mirror punishments," as they were called. Under this heading came the death penalty for homicide and murder, "but especially punishments in which the culprit was punished by the instrument used in the commission of his crime (death by fire for an arsonist) or was punished in the bodily member used in the crime (by cutting off a thief's hand or cutting out a perjurer's tongue)" (ibid., p. 4). These punishments were imposed by courts. They were quite different from talion in the proper sense, and for this reason some scholars urge that they not be called talion at all.

The legal principle embodied here is found in many non-Roman legal systems as well. Among these are cuneiform law, Mosaic law, and Islamic law.

The Code of Hammurabi (c. 17951750 bce) is characteristic of this principle: a slave for a slave, an eye for an eye, a broken bone for a broken bone, a tooth for a tooth. The code treats citizens differently from slaves, men differently from women. The agents who carry out the sentence are those affected by the misdeed: the plaintiff and his relatives.

In the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament), the administration of talion is, unlike that found in Roman and Babylonian law, still a tribal matter (see Dt. 19:21, Lv. 24:20, Ex. 21:2325). Talion here is a juridical principle that operates in the framework of basic legal responsibility and is not to be defined independently of the principle of just exchange and its life-enhancing character. It is a formula for giving and taking within the sphere of authority over the clan. It is located in a personal framework: "If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe" (Ex. 21:2325).

Islam has two sources for retributive law: blood vengeance and judicial punishments. The clan has the right to kill the murderer of one of its members, provided the murderer acted on his own responsibility and deliberately. But Muammad limits the application even further: The right can be exercised only on the legally and morally responsible individual.

Legal punishments are imposed for offenses against religion and public order. But talion for these offenses is limited to cases in which there can be complete equality, for example, "the loss of a hand, a foot, or a tooth, etc. If the guilty party has cut off the same hand of two persons, his punishment is to lose that same hand; for the second hand he must pay a blood-price" (Schacht, 1964, p.185).

In Christianity the law of talion is inverted. It requires that evil be repaid not with evil but with good, so that the evil may be turned to good. "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you" (Mt. 5:3842). In this new principle retribution continues to be retribution, but it is put on a new level: The guilt of the guilty party becomes a means of conversion (see Rom. 12:20).

The Myth of Guilt and Retribution through Punishment

In the transition from archaic retribution through revenge to official retribution through punishment, retribution itself became problematic. A person is obliged to exercise it, yet it is forbidden; it is a right, but it also creates injustice; it is both destiny and sacrifice. This contradiction and the impossibility of avoiding it become a central theme in both Greek tragedy and the Bible. It is a basic motif in biblical myth and theology.

In Greek thought, retribution is justice in the form of punishment. It is the context in which Greek thought comes to grips with justice as regulative of revenge:

The word dikē occurs in such phrases as dikēn didonai, dikēn tinein, literally to give, to pay, justice, which signify "to be punished." The word tisis means "payment," "compensation," but also "revenge," for justice and revenge are not very different, indeed they coincide when vengeance is taken for wrongdoing. A product of this kind of justice is the ius talionis which was usual in early times and finds pregnant expression in the saying "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." This is to be traced among the Greeks also; for them, justice is retributive justice. This view was so deep-rooted that it comes out now and then in the older philosophers when they are describing the course of nature. Anaximandros of Miletos said: "The boundless is the origin of all that is. It is the law of necessity that things should perish and go back to their origin. For they give satisfaction and pay the penalty (didonai dikēn kai tisin ) to one another for their injustice (adikia ) according to the ordinance of Time." (Nilsson, 1948, pp. 3536)

An order of justice that includes both patriarchal and matriarchal rights is unthinkable in the system ruled by the Erinyes. Aeschylus tackles this problem in the Oresteia, where the Erinyes do not pursue Clytemnestra, who has murdered her husband, but do pursue Orestes, who has murdered his mother. The regime under which the clan lives has confronted Orestes with an insoluble conflict: The patriarchal code demands that he avenge his father, but the matriarchal code prohibits his attacking his mother. Whichever course he chooses, he contravenes archaic law. He is trapped in the myth of guilt:

The Erinyes who pursue Orestes because he has killed his mother appear here as divinities of an earlier time and representatives of the blood vengeance that is connected with the kinship group. They are sharply contrasted with the younger gods, Apollo and Pallas Athene, who represent the higher principle of the law of Zeus and the right of the state to pass judgment and are therefore unwilling to hand Orestes over to the vengeance of the Erinyes. (Kelsen, 1941, p. 220)

In Homer and the tragedians, the Erinyes are an agency of justice that belongs to an earlier time. Aeschylus has them say in The Eumenides, "That is the way of the younger gods: they alter things by violence and laugh all justice to scorn" (165). And again: "Novelty is breaking in and overturning all that is old, if guilt and the horror of matricide are victorious at the judgment seat" (466). They plead with Apollo: "You are destroying the power of the ancient divinities" (697).

The chthonic goddesses that embodied a matriarchal order were related in several ways to the Olympian gods. The shrine of Zeus at Olympia, the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, and Athens, the city of Athena, were all places where the chthonic goddesses were originally venerated. Daughters of Gaia, the supreme agency of justice on earth, these goddesses included Demeter (one of whose titles was Erinys) and Themis, goddess of communities and rights of assembly. Among them were also many other divinities of later derivation whose myths point to the irreconcilability of earthly justice and heavenly retribution, of divine law and earthly destiny. Nemesis, goddess of retribution, and the Moirai, goddesses of destiny, were daughters of Night (the goddess Nux). They punished hubris and took revenge on those who achieved happiness, for injustice was punished by injustice, and happiness unaccompanied by unhappiness aroused the envy of the gods.

The symbols of the courtthe wolf, the serpent, and the lightning boltare part of the myth of guilt and punishment. They are also symbols of the soul that seeks revenge, and of the Olympian gods who represent the rights of such individuals. Apollo is defender of the rights of blood but also god of purification from blood guilt. He contracts this guilt but also purifies himself from it. He grants oracles concerning the future. He establishes norms by subjecting himself to them: "The god who forbids and punishes murder, must himself murder and be punished for it; this identification of the addressee of norms with the authority behind the norms, of the god who punishes with man who is punished, is a very ancient motif in the establishment of the efficacious norms" (Kelsen, 1941, p. 364).

There is a cycle of guilt, and there is deliverance from guilt, a pattern that constantly repeats itself. The transmigration of souls represents this mystery of life in the Orphic and Eleusinian religions.

Retribution nonetheless involves not only vengeance and punishment but also promise. But those who open themselves to a new hope must achieve deliverance from old guilt. This notion is the basis for the discussion of the concept of retribution in the Bible, and has therefore an archaic as well as an eschatological meaning. The biblical concept is one of God's acting as God. Both aspects are fundamental for the biblical concept of retribution. He who does something undergoes a fate, and he who undergoes a fate has to do something as well. Many biblical expressions contain this reciprocity: To do evil is identical with suffering misfortune, to do good is to incur blessing. The evildoer is he who finds himself in misfortune. To make oneself guilty is like declaring someone guilty; fidelity like steadiness; badness like downfall; reward like work; path of life like way of life. This reciprocity of action and result is guaranteed by Yahveh himself, the tribal God of Israel. It is he who unfolds this reciprocity fully.

The Bible is thus able to include God in the framework of retribution, because he himself exercises vengeance. When in Genesis 4:10 the voice of spilled blood cries out to him from the ground, he punishes the murderer by expelling him; he avenges himself sevenfold, however, on anyone who then avenges the murderer. God's clan is the entire human race, and he himself acts on behalf of the race and is its source of strength. He punishes those who attack the race and set themselves against him, and punishes any transgression, taking vengeance on those who avenge the transgression: Thus he restores his own honor. Retribution, therefore, is not only a response to action but surpasses it.

See Also

Ancestors; Blood; Conscience; Judgment of the Dead; Soul.


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Elmar Klinger (1987)

Translated from German by Matthew J. O'Connell

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