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Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn. - Burns

Sacrifice and Amnesia
By David Talbott

A couple of comments recently concerning sacrifice and the phenomenon of amnesia have, I think, inverted the truth of the matter.

Velikovsky spoke of amnesia in the wake of cosmic catastrophe. The memory of terrifying events, he suggested, was repressed because humankind could not deal with the depth of the trauma. Therefore, we could not recognize the true source of our own urge to act out cosmic violence.

Here is an alternative way of viewing cosmic catastrophe and the role of amnesia.

We did not forget the world falling out of control, but remembered these events to the point of obsession. The entire sweep of ritual activity at the dawn of civilization shows a preoccupation with the dramas of creation, destruction and renewal. Ritual practices were, in fact, a deliberate exercise in remembering. But this preoccupation, expressing a sense of universal rupture, could only foster a 'forgetfulness' at the deepest level of human awareness - that level at which one recognizes the kinship of all life, the brotherhood of man, the unity of creation.

From the dawn of civilization onward, ancient ritual is filled with mnemonic devices. It is filled with the symbols of catastrophe. Nowhere in the world can you find an early culture that did not look back to the age of the gods in wonder and terror. But fixation on the past is the one thing 'certain' to obstruct human awareness at the level of spiritual connectedness.

In one form or another, all of the early religions cultivated the principle of sacrifice. If sacrifice entails "the failure of amnesia," as has been suggested, then the failure was complete from the very beginning, and the amnesia concept is essentially irrelevant. But there is another sense in which one could say that sacrifice "means" amnesia.

In the elaborated memories of the Golden Age or ancestral paradise, there is no sacrifice, no war, no sickness or death, no division of nation against nation, and no division of language between man and animal, or between man and man. And thus, no need for ritual cleansing or defense. Whatever the natural conditions may have been during this celebrated epoch, they were sufficient to plant in collective memory a root metaphor for benevolent creation, cosmic harmony, and the unity of life, a discernment of "that place, that time" now standing outside of human perception, but to which philosophy, mysticism, moral teaching and higher religion would seek to direct human attention.

In the wake of catastrophe, the ancestral paradise is certainly not forgotten, since the yearning for paradise is an overarching motive. But the eruption of sacrificial rites speaks volumes for forgetfulness in its deepest spiritual sense. The direct human response to catastrophe is a rush to "renew" the world through ritual practices, but it is not the world of kinship that is achieved; it is the world of division and of combat, of relentless bargaining with the gods.

In the fixation on catastrophe, we ratified a human perception of our relationship to creation. We saw huge and terrifying forces outside ourselves, and clouds of chaos. Cosmic catastrophe was the proof of rupture. The world was not a safe place, and the gods could not be trusted except in the most tentative sense, under conditions which must be re-created by rites of sacrifice.

The emerging consciousness was driven toward ritual forms of cleansing, purifying, and renewing the world, whereas, under the analogy of the Golden Age, no such renewal was necessary. The principle of sacrifice must be considered against the collective contest with chaos. Wherever you look in the ancient world you will see the sense of threat, the shadow of catastrophe, the ever-present "fiends of darkness" (chaos clouds) whose invasion is always imminent. While many forms of sacrifice involved the slaughter of animal and human victims, the broader concept included a vast range of rites in which the practitioners deliberately "gave up" something to the gods, to purchase something in return. Offerings of food and possessions, various forms of abstinence and renunciation, scarification and bloodletting, circumcision, castration and shaving the head were all included in the bargain.

I think the purpose is clear. It was to secure a truce with the gods, a new lease on life, to make the world whole again, however tentative the bargain . That is the fundamental meaning of sacrifice–"to make holy." Under this kind of contract with the gods, there can be no holiness without some form of loss, even if someone else, a "scapegoat," is preferred. That this sense of necessity attached itself to THINGS REMEMBERED should not be overlooked. If the Golden Age provided later philosophy with one analogy, cosmic catastrophe provided another - confirming a universal rupture–and in its ritualized repetition, it would continue to feed the most profound sense of conflict, insufficiency, and danger, inviting the deeper form of forgetfulness, without which the investment in sacrifice could not have arisen.

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