Excerpt from Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads (New York: Crossroads, 1995), from chapter 6, “To Know the Place for the First Time,” pages 123-126.
The Victim with an Extended Sentence
As I said, if one especially caught up in the madness should fail to draw back in time and touch the corpse, he would very likely be killed in the ensuing frenzy his grasping gesture provoked. In retrospect, his impious gesture would be understood as a sacrilegious act, a terrible transgression, a violation of the sacred that provoked the god’s renewed wrath. He would be seen as the violator of the distinction between the sacred and the profane, the world’s first transgressor of taboo. “Violence” and “violation” have the same Latin root, and apprehension about the violent consequences of taboo violation is a driving force in primitive religion.
If, on the other hand, an encroachment on the sacred domain were to be made with sufficient boldness or reverence or authority, the community might be too stunned and fascinated by the brazen audacity of the transgression to converge on the transgressor immediately. In that moment between the “violation” — the touching of the corpse or the entering of the sacred precinct — and the new outbreak of violence, the mob regards the violator with the same combination of horror and deference with which it regards the sacred corpse or sacred space he has dared to approach. For the moment between the transgression and the violence, the sacred aura enjoyed by the transgressor endows him with an immense social prestige. By deftly exploiting this prestige, the transgressor might be able to postpone indefinitely the violent repercussions of his transgression, and perhaps even to transfer the violence to a “surrogate victim” if and when it occurs. In any case, the transgression will not be forgotten, and the social uniqueness the transgressor earned by committing it will insure that the community’s attitude toward this figure will thereafter be commingled with dread and fascination. This figure, who has demonstrated an ability to approach the sacred with impunity, will very likely come to serve as both the mediator and interpreter of the mysteries of the sacred, on the one hand, and the community’s designated victim, on the other. The community’s relationship to this figure will involve the same paradox of attraction and repulsion that characterizes its relationship to the sacred for which he becomes the channel and spokesman. It is in this way that the rudimentary forms of kingship and priesthood emerge. “The king reigns only by virtue of his future death,” writes Girard. “He is no more and no less than a victim awaiting sacrifice, a condemned man about to be executed.” (1)
The anthropological evidence for Girard’s claim that originally the king was a victim with an extended sentence is abundant and persuasive. To illustrate, let me refer briefly to some of this evidence. In his Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti quotes a wide array of first-hand anthropological reports, and a surprising number of them indicate an unmistakable relationship between kingship and sacrifice. Two of them are especially interesting in the present context. Canetti quotes from an eye-witness report by Du Chaillu, published in 1861, describing the selection of a new king in Gaboon and the installation ritual that followed. First, the new king was selected in secret by the tribal elders. And then, Canetti quotes Du Chaillu:
As he was walking on the shore on the morning of the seventh day [of the elders’ deliberations] he was suddenly set upon by the entire populace, who proceeded to a ceremony which is preliminary to the crowning, and which must deter any but the most ambitious men from aspiring to the crown. They surround him in a dense crowd, and then began to heap upon him every manner of abuse that the worst of mobs could imagine. Some spat in his face; some beat him with their fists; some kicked him; others threw disgusting objects at him; while those unlucky ones who stood on the outside, and could reach the poor fellow only with their voices, assiduously cursed him . . . . Then all became silent; and the elders of the people rose and said, solemnly (the people repeating after them), “Now we choose you for our king; we engage to listen to you and obey you ….” He was then dressed in a red gown, and received the greatest marks of respect from all who had just now abused him. (2)
As all rituals are, this is a ritual reenactment. The question is: What is it reenacting? Can there be any doubt that it is reenacting a mob murder? I think not. “The insults and blows he is subjected to before entering on his office are an intimation of what awaits him in the end,” concludes Canetti. “As he submits to them, he will submit to his ultimate fate.” (3) A later study of an installation ritual among the Bambara tribe confirms this view. Canetti summarizes the data, comments, and then quotes from the researcher, Monteil:
Sometimes the length of [the new king’s] reign is fixed from the start: the kings of Jukun . . . originally ruled for seven years. Among the Bambara the newly elected king traditionally determined the length of his own reign. “A strip of cotton was put round his neck and two men pulled the ends in opposite directions whilst he himself took out of a calabash as many pebbles as he could grasp in his hand. These indicated the number of years he would reign, on the expiration of which he would be strangled.” (4)
In the late 1980s, Simon Simonse found comparable rituals still taking place in the traditional societies of Southeastern Sudan. His data is as vivid and persuasive as the reports of nineteenth-century field workers. Summing up the similarity between the ritual installation of a new king and mob violence, Simonse says: “The installation and funeral ceremonies are enactments of the same scenario. They mark the beginning and the end of the victimary career of the King.” (5) In other words, the king’s reign is nothing more than the extended intermission in a violent sacrificial ritual. Like the impersonator of Tezcatlipoca in the Aztec ritual, the fascinating figure of the primitive king might be hailed for some time as the god’s representative, a manifestation to the worshiping community of the god’s uncanny power, and then sacrificed at a moment determined either by ritual or by social circumstance. If, during this period when he serves as the god’s mediator, this figure acquires enough sacred prestige, then at the moment when his sacrifice is demanded, he may be able to remain sufficiently in control of the ritual to offer a substitute victim in his own place, and therefore to retain his role as the culture’s reigning personification of religious fascination. This substitution is an important turning point in the transition from cathartic mob violence to durable cultural institutions.
Those who become the god-kings, the shamans, and the priests of a newly forming cult are those who have proven themselves capable of moving across the threshold separating the sacred from the profane without suffering the god’s wrath, or at least without suffering it immediately. These cult figures mediate and disseminate the sacred for the community. Ultimately, their role is not to protect the sacred realm from contamination by the profane, but the other way around, to protect the worshipers from the violence for which the sacred shrine is a shimmering reminder. They do this in part by serving as the community’s first line of defense against an unwelcome incursion of the scourge of sacred violence. For the religious prestige these figures enjoy and the wary obeisance they are accorded by their community is the prestige of the marked victim. Lest we think that all the fawning over such figures is a sign of social popularity, let me offer one last comment from Canetti’s study. Canetti writes:
The king rarely appeared in public. His naked foot must never touch the ground, for, if it did, the crops would be blasted; he was also forbidden to pick up anything from the ground. If he fell off his horse he was, in earlier times, promptly put to death. It might never be said that he was ill; if he did contract any serious illness he was quietly strangled . . . . He was believed to be in control of the rain and the winds. A succession of droughts and bad harvests indicated the waning of his strength and he was secretly strangled by night. (6)
Obviously, as cultures manage to further institutionalize themselves, vestiges and vivid reminders of their founding violence tend to recede. They are never altogether eliminated, however, and no matter how recessive the structures of mystified violence become, the fact that culture begins with such violence has enormous implications for our species, implications that we can no longer ignore.
1. Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 107.
2. P Du Chaillu, Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa (London, 1861), 18ff, quoted in Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), 411-12.
3. Canetti, Crowds and Power, 418.
4. Monteil, Les Bambara du Segou (Paris, 1924), 305, quoted in Canetti, Crowds and Power, 418.
5. Simon Simonse, Kings of Disaster (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992), 396.