SCAPEGOAT . Scapegoat rituals are among the oldest known rituals. A more rudimentary form is already found in two texts from Ebla dating to the later third millennium bce, but the first full-fledged descriptions come from outlying parts of the Hittite empire, Kizzuwadna, Hapalla, and Arzawa (i.e., city-states in southeast Anatolia and northern Syria). The prescription of Ashella, a man of Hapalla, which dates to the thirteenth century bce, reads:
When evening comes, whoever the army commanders are, each of them prepares a ram—whether it is a white ram or a black ram does not matter at all. Then I twine a cord of white wool, red wool, and green wool, and the officer twists it together, and I bring a necklace, a ring, and a chalcedony stone and I hang them on the ram's neck and horns, and at night they tie them in front of the tents and say: "Whatever deity is prowling about (?), whatever deity has caused this pestilence, now I have tied up these rams for you, be appeased!" And in the morning I drive them out to the plain, and with each ram they take 1 jug of beer, 1 loaf, and 1 cup of milk (?). Then in front of the king's tent he makes a finely dressed woman sit and puts with her jar of beer and 3 loaves. Then the officers lay their hands on the rams and say: "Whatever deity has caused this pestilence, now see! These rams are standing here and they are very fat in liver, heart, and lions. Let human flesh be hateful to him, let him be appeased by these rams." And the officers point at the rams and the king points at the decorated woman, and the rams and the woman carry the loaves and the beer through the army and they chase them out to the plain. And they go running on to the enemy's frontier without coming to any place of ours, and the people say: "Look! Whatever illness there was among men, oxen, sheep, horses, mules, and donkeys in this camp. And the country that finds them shall take over this evil pestilence." (Cited in Gurney, 1977, p. 49)
The ritual is clearly an ad hoc purification performance and not tied to the calendar. It is applied in times of pestilence, combines both a decorated human and an adorned animal, and finally, it is offered by the king and the army commanders to the hostile deity who has caused the pestilence. Interestingly, the ritual was appropriated from northern Syria by both the Greeks and the Israelites, each in a specific manner that fitted their own particular religion.
The Greek Understanding
In the Greek world, the rituals surface for the first time in the writings of the sixth-century Ionian poet Hipponax of Colophon, a city on the western coast of modern Turkey, where Anatolian religious influence is well attested. According to Hipponax, somebody was thrown down on a meadow and whipped with fig branches and squills "like a scapegoat" to purify the city. The scapegoat also received dried figs, bread, and cheese and even reappears in the context of the Thargelia, a two-day festival of first-fruit offering and seasonal renewal. According to other descriptions, especially from Athens and Massilia, the scapegoats were often people of low standing in the community but temporarily treated very well and dressed up in nice clothes. At a certain day they were led out of the city—sometimes carrying food, such as loaves and beer or dried figs, bread, and cheese—in a procession in which probably the whole of the population had to take part and during which pipers played a specific, undoubtedly unharmonious tune.
Origen (c. 185–c. 254) even compared the Greek scapegoats with Jesus: "They [the apostles] not only dared to show to the Jews from the words of the prophets that he was the prophesied one, but also to the other peoples that he, who had been recently crucified, voluntarily died for mankind, like those who died for their fatherland, to avert plague epidemics, famines, and shipwreck" (Contra celsum 1.31). Voluntariness of a victim was an important part of Greek sacrificial ideology, which stressed that a victim was pleased to go up to the altar, sometimes could even hardly wait to be sacrificed. This voluntariness is also stressed in Greek scapegoat rituals.
Finally, the scapegoats were expelled from the city through stoning and pelting. Yet it is clear (whenever sufficient information is available) that they were not killed. However, the effect must have been a social death and the corresponding myths always speak of a real death, which classical scholars long, if erroneously, translated into a former human sacrifice. The myths, especially as given shape in the tragedies of Euripides (c. 480–406 bce), often mention a cult for those scapegoats whose death had saved the city. In other words, those who had given their lives for the community also received a special honor from that community. Finally, the location of the scapegoat ritual on the Thargelia shows that the Greeks had incorporated the ritual into their festival calendar, but as pestilences always strikes unexpectedly, they also performed the ritual if need arose.
In these Greek scapegoat rituals, there is a clear difference with those of the Hittites. Whereas among the latter the king and the army commanders play the main role in the ritual, in Greece it is the city that needs to be cleansed, as is stated by Hipponax. This element gained in importance in the classical period, when the polis became the center of a Greek's life. Strikingly, the city is reportedly saved by girls, perhaps in their capacity as the more expendable parts of the household. In these myths, the element of purifying, which was so prominent in the ritual, has receded, whereas the saving effect has come to the foreground. Although the ritual probably stopped being performed in the fourth century, this aspect stayed alive through the telling of the myths, just like the expendable quality of the scapegoats: Several of the terms to denote the victim (e.g., pharmakos, perikatharma, or peripsema ) long remained in use as insults.
The Jewish Interpretation
Whereas several notices from all over Greece exist about the scapegoat ritual, knowledge of ancient Israel is limited to chapter 16 of the Book of Leviticus, which describes the day of atonement. The date of the final redaction of the chapter is much debated, but it seems safe to date it to the postexilic era before the arrival of Alexander the Great (356–323 bce). The chapter is a complicated mixture of several rituals. There is first the expiation for the sins of the high priest, Aaron, and his house through the sacrifice of a young bull (Lev. 16:3). Regarding the scapegoat proper, Aaron had to select two goats (Lev. 16:5), the cheapest of the domesticated animals. After a lottery, one of them was assigned to Yahweh, and the other was meant for Azazel, a still obscure deity or demon (Lev. 16:7–10). Second, Aaron then had to transfer the sins of the Israelites onto the goat by laying his hands on the goat (Lev. 16:21), an archaic means of transfer that could still derive from the Hittite rites but that is absent from the Greek material. Finally, somebody (not further specified) had to take the goat to the desert (Lev. 16:21), which was clearly structurally similar to the enemy in the Hittite texts or the area beyond the borders in the Greek traditions. As was the case with the Greek scapegoats, the Israelite goat apparently escaped with its life, which gave it its English name, (e)scapegoat, whereas the German Reformer Martin Luther wanted to emphasize the transfer of the sins and therefore introduced the word Sündebock (sin-goat) into the German language.
The day of atonement also occurs in the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran dated to the period around the times of Jesus, even though the ideas about atonement in the Qumran community have not yet been satisfactorily studied. The beginning of the ritual is related in an Apocryphon of Moses (4Q375), but the Temple Scroll (11Q19 25) mentions an expansion of the initial sacrifices. Instead of the bullock as sin-offering and the ram as burnt-offering, it describes a burnt-offering for Yahweh consisting of a bullock, a ram, and seven yearling lambs; a sin-offering of a goat; and a burnt-offering of two rams for the high priest with the house of his father (and presumably for the people, but the text is corrupt at this place). Further details are given about the exact treatment of the various parts of the offerings and the catching of their blood in a golden sprinkling bowl, but the expulsion of the scapegoat resembles that of Leviticus.
A few additional details can be gleaned from the Mishnah treatise Joma, even though it was written after the destruction of the Temple. According to the text, the position of the high priest within the ritual had become more important, because his role was dramatized: The preparations had been intensified (Joma I) and instead of linen clothes, he now wore golden ones (Joma III 4a). Also noted is the participation of members of the Sanhedrin (Joma I 3a) and the aristocracy of Jerusalem (Joma VI 4b)—apparently, the upper class of Israel had deemed it necessary to become visibly involved in its most important religious ritual. The goat was adorned with a crimson thread around its head (Joma IV 2a, VI 6a), very much like the Hittite scapegoat.
Evidently, Israel had also appropriated the Anatolian scapegoat ritual, although the date and route of derivation are still totally unclear. However, like the Greeks, the Israelites did not take over the ritual unchanged. Whereas the Hittites used both animals and humans as scapegoats, the Greeks only selected humans and the Israelites, only animals. Moreover, in the postexilic period at the latest, they had integrated the ritual into the temple service and thus fixed it at a specific date, even though its archaic origin still remains visible.
Early Christian Understanding
An intriguing problem remains the influence of the scapegoat ritual on the birth of the early Christian idea of the atonement. Clearly, Jesus himself did not yet interpret his coming death as an atoning sacrifice for the salvation of humanity. Moreover, attempts at finding a Jewish background for the doctrine have also been unsuccessful. This does perhaps suggest an influence from the Greek mythological tradition as inspired by the scapegoat ritual, because only here do people voluntarily die to save the community from a catastrophe. Unfortunately, the exact road along which the early Christians came to this interpretation has remained obscure, but Palestine was already highly Hellenized in Jesus' time and Euripides' tragedies, which often treat the theme of the saving human sacrifice, were also well known to educated Jews. Still, there is much uncertain here, and no consensus has been reached in this field.
The notice of Origen quoted previously suggests that scapegoat rituals could also be performed at sea. Undoubtedly, he thought in this connection of the story told in the homonymous Book of Jonah. The prophet Jonah is en route to Nineveh when storms threaten to engulf his ship. The crew concludes that one man is culpable and should be thrown into the sea. Jonah is saved only by a great fish (traditionally known as a whale), which spits him out after three days. The story exemplifies the principle that the death of one person can save the whole of the community. It is undoubtedly an old principle. The Babylonian epic of creation Enuma elish already mentions in a sentence of a guilty god: "He alone shall perish that mankind shall be fashioned." And indeed, parallels from all over the world show that this principle (i.e., to give up one or a few persons to save the group) is very widespread and seems to be part of the human makeup. It was sometimes even ritualized in a very similar manner to the scapegoat rituals previously discussed (e.g., in Tibet).
Scapegoat as Social Phenomenon
On a more general level, it is clearly also a very widespread phenomenon that people consider that crises (economic, political, social) have been caused by a specific person or minority. As a rule, people do not like to blame themselves and would rather accuse others. This mechanism is already in place in the great European witch-hunts from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. Here the culprits were especially looked for among old women (a very vulnerable group in earlier times), free masons, Jews, and heretics. As these people must be considered guilty of some act, normally in these cases they are accused of the most horrific crimes, such as incest, sodomy, or the killing of children. Such accusations were even put into writing as in the notorious nineteenth-century anti-Semitic fake The Protocol of the Elders of Zion and used to legitimate the murder of the Jews by the Nazis. As the elimination of the scapegoats often goes concomitant with the restoration of some social order, the link between the two processes can be easily argued, and thus the scapegoat mechanism perpetuates itself. Politicians who take the blame in a crisis may even receive special praise and return to the political stage at a later date. In other words, the mechanisms of the scapegoat pattern are observable in contemporary society.
These observations led the French literary critic René Girard (b. 1923) to formulate a theory about the scapegoat that was enormously influential in the last decades of the twentieth century. Girard noted the elements that have been previously mentioned: (1) a crisis, (2) the selection of victims not because of real crimes but because they belong to a social (e.g., Jews, heretics, old women) or physical (e.g., disabled) minority, (3) the restoration of the social order through the violence against the scapegoats. In this process, the community lets one member—preferably an outsider so that there will be no revenge and the violence perpetuated—die for the whole. Girard has long been fascinated by the problem of violence, and his views have to be seen against this background. According to him, society is driven by a mimetic desire: People long to have what other people long to have. These desires often result in violence, and the death of the scapegoat that can eliminate this violence. Only religion is able, according to Girard, to keep a lid on human violence by its disciplining character. Girard's work is very stimulating, and his anthropological insights illuminating. Yet he evidently often confuses mythical stories and history, and his grand theory should be taken as an incitement to reflect about violence rather than as a resolution of a problem that plagues human existence.
For general studies, see Walter Burkert, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual (Berkeley, Calif., 1979), pp. 59–77, 168–176; Jan N. Bremmer, "The Scapegoat between Hittites, Greeks, Israelites and Christians," in Kult, Konflikt und Versöhnung, edited by Rainer Albertz, pp. 175–186 (Münster, Germany, 2001). For Jonah-type stories see Lutz Röhrich, Gesammelte Schriften zur Volkslied- und Volksballadenforschung, pp. 113–154 (Münster, Germany, 2002). For the Eblaite origin, see Ida Zatelli, "The Origin of the Biblical Scapegoat Ritual: The Evidence of Two Eblaite Texts," Vetus Testamentum 48 (1998): 254–263. The Hittite rituals are easily accessible in Oliver R. Gurney, Some Aspects of Hittite Religion, pp. 47–52 (Oxford, 1977). For the Greek ritual, see Robert Parker, Miasma, pp. 258–280 (Oxford, 1983); Jan N. Bremmer, "Scapegoat Rituals in Ancient Greece," in Oxford Readings in Greek Religion, edited by Richard Buxton, pp. 271–93 (Oxford, 2000).
For the Israelite ritual, see Bernd Janowski and Genrot Wilhelm, "Der Bock, der die Sünden hinausträgt," in Religionsgeschichtliche Beziehungen zwischen Kleinasien, Nordsyrien und dem Alten Testament, edited by Bernd Janowski, Klaus Koch, and Gernot Wilhelm, pp. 109–169 (Freiburg, Germany, 1993). The origin of the Christian idea of the atonement is much discussed. See especially Jan N. Bremmer, "The Atonement in the Interaction of Jews, Greeks, and Christians," in Sacred History and Sacred Texts in Early Judaism, edited by Jan N. Bremmer and F. García Martínez, pp. 75–93 (Kampen, Germany, 1992) and Cilliers Breytenbach, "'Christus starb für uns.' Zur Tradition und paulinischen Rezeption der sogenannten 'Sterbeformeln,'" New Testament Studies 49 (2003): 447–475. For the ideas of Girard, see especially René Girard, Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (Paris, 1978) and Le bouc émissaire (Paris, 1982).
Jan N. Bremmer (2005)
The goat, chosen by lot, upon whom the sins of the people, deliberate and indeliberate, were transferred by the high priest on the Day of Atonement. Bearing the sins of the people, it was led into the desert, into the domain of the demon Azazel [Lv 16.5, 7–10, 20–22; see atonement, day of (yom kippur)].
The English term, scapegoat, connoting in general usage the idea of a substitute victim, is actually derived from a faulty translation of the Hebrew phrase "for Azazel" in Leviticus (16.8, 10, 26). The Latin Vulgate version, following the erroneous Greek translation in the Septuagint, rendered this expression caper emissarius (emissary goat), which became in English the "escaping goat" or scapegoat.
The notion of transmitting evil arising from sin, disease, or even demons to animals is an ancient practice and was fairly widespread among primitive peoples. Relics of this practice are found in some cultures to the present day. Significant parallels in the ancient Orient have been found in Babylonian and Hittite sources. An analogous case in the Bible itself is that of the bird liberated at the time of the leper's purification (Lv 14.7). The extra-Biblical evidence is sufficient to see that the Israelite rite was a purified adaptation of prevailing pagan custom. In Israel the act was not demon worship; the animal was not sacrificed to Azazel but, becoming impure, was rendered unfit for any future use. The rite was, moreover, divested of any magical connotation; God Himself prescribed and alone effected the sin transfer through the priestly action. In the expiation ritual [see expiation (in the bible)], the blood of the sacrificial goat, sprinkled on the propitiatory (the top of the ark), purified from sin (see Lyonnet, 35–36); the scapegoat was not a sacrifice. Since sin was conceived of as an almost tangible reality, a symbolic assurance of its removal and proper consignment was realized in the scapegoat rite.
Because the scapegoat was never viewed as an offering to God, this concept received no development in New Testament soteriology. The reference to Christ's "becoming sin for us" (2 Cor 5.21) in describing His atoning action means that He became a sin offering for man, i.e., a sacrifice that atones for sin; the New Testament word ἁμαρτία, following the Hebrew ḥaṭṭā‘t, can mean either "sin" or "sin offering," depending on context. It is to be noted that the scapegoat was not sacrificed; its blood was not shed; it was not a sin offering. To interpret Christ's role as analogous to that of the scapegoat on the basis of His having "suffered outside the gate" (Heb 13.12–13) is contrary to the inspired author's intention (see Lyonnet, 37). As the passage itself indicates, the analogy is between Christ and those Old Testament sacrificial offerings that required the transfer of the victim's remains to a place outside the camp, the present reference suggested to the author of Hebrews by the parallel found in Christ's death outside of Jerusalem.
Bibliography: s. lyonnet, "De munere sacrificali sanguinis" with appendix "De ritu capri emissarii," Verbum Domini (Rome 1921–) 39 (1961) 18–38. c. l. feinberg, "The Scapegoat of Lev 16," Bibliotheca Sacra 115 (1958) 320–333. s. landersdorfer, "Keilinschriftliche Parallelen zum biblischen Sündenbock," Biblische Zeitschrift 19 (1931) 20–28. j. g. frazer, The Golden Bough (abr. ed. New York 1952) 651–675. r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 508–509.
[r. j. faley]
The concept of a scapegoat, a person who is blamed for the sins of others, goes back to ancient times. The term comes from a Hebrew ritual that is described in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament of the Bible. Each year a priest symbolically transferred to a goat the sins of the people of Israel. The goat was thrown over a cliff outside the city of Jerusalem, and its sacrifice was believed to remove the nation's sins. The ritual was originally performed to pacify Azazel, a fallen angel who became a demon of the wilderness.
The Hebrews were not the only group to practice scapegoat rituals. In ancient Athens, two ugly men were chosen as scapegoats during the festival of Thargelia. After dining at a feast, the pair were led through the streets and beaten with branches. Then they were escorted out of town or driven out with stones. The ritual was intended to protect Athens from harm.
The Maya of Central America also held an annual ceremony involving a scapegoat. At the end of each year, Mayan villagers made a clay model of the demon Uuayayah. They placed the model before an image of the deity responsible for governing the coming year. Then they carried the model of Uuayayah outside the village to ward off evil.
ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern
deity god or goddess
In Indonesia and the Philippines, scapegoats in the form of boats were used during epidemics to try to rid communities of a disease. The islanders built small boats and loaded them with food and water. They set the boats adrift in the open sea, hoping that the evil spirits that brought the disease would sail away in them.
See also Greek Mythology; Mayan Mythology; Sacrifice; Semitic Mythology.
scape·goat / ˈskāpˌgōt/ • n. a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, esp. for reasons of expediency. DERIVATIVES: scape·goat·er n. scape·goat·ing n. scape·goat·ism / -ˌizəm/ n.
The English term scapegoat appears to have been coined by Tyndale from archaic scape ‘escape’ + goat; that is, the goat which was not to be sacrificed.
In the early 19th century, the word acquired the more general meaning of a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency.