For the secret catastrophe of the modern mind is too terrible to be
acknowledged in polite society. Human beings cannot live with such
a revelation. The only morality left is that of the consoling lie.
In the absence of great old illusions, little new ones must be our
consolation. Bryan Appleyard,
Understanding The Present, Anchor Books, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY. 10036, 1992, p. 107
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.