Girard on “Similarities Between the Biblical Myths and World Mythology”

Excerpt from René Girard’s Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Research undertaken in collaboration with Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987, pages 141-144.

Similarities between the Biblical Myths and World Mythology

R. G.: We have now dealt with the hypothesis of the scapegoat as an exclusively scientific one. No doubt our discussions have been far too hasty, as well as too schematic. All the same, our readers now know our gist. We must turn to other subjects. Or rather, we must investigate other, even more spectacular ways in which the same truth has come to the fore.

From this point onwards we shall take it for granted that the victimage mechanisms exist and that their role in the establishment of religion, culture and humanity itself is an established fact, no longer open to doubt. Actually, I never lose sight of the point that this is only a hypothesis. I am hardly likely to forget it, for the very reason that the material remaining to be studied here will supply us with new proofs, and increasingly striking ones.

First of all, we shall look at Judaeo-Christian scripture. After that, we shall deal with psychopathology, and this will ultimately lead us to some conclusions about our own times. People will accuse us of playing at being Pico della Mirandola — the Renaissance Man — certainly a temptation to be resisted today, if we wish to be seen in a favourable light. But in fact a very different thing is in question here. We simply cannot confine our hypothesis to the area of hominization and primitive religion. As we shall see, this hypothesis will compel us to broaden our horizons, for it can only acquire its fullest meaning in universal terms.

If we turn to the Old Testament, and particularly to the books that come first or those that may contain the oldest materials, we find ourselves immediately in familiar territory. Immediately we come upon the three great moments we have defined:

  1. Dissolution in conflict, removal of the differences and hierarchies which constitute the community in its wholeness;
  2. the all against one of collective violence;
  3. the development of interdictions and rituals.

To the first moment belong the very first lines of the text on the creation of the world, as well as the tale of the confusion of the Tower of Babel and that of the corruption of Sodom and Gomorrah. We also see immediately that in Exodus the ten plagues of Egypt form the equivalent of the plague at Thebes in Sophocles. The Flood, again, belongs with these metaphors of crisis. And in every case, from the first lines of Genesis, we have the theme of the warring brothers or twins: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his eleven brothers, etc.

The second moment is no less easy to locate. It is always by violence, by the expulsion of one of the brothers, that the crisis is resolved, and differentiation returns once again.

In every one of the great scenes of Genesis and Exodus there exists a theme or a quasi-theme of the founding murder of expulsion. Obviously, this is most striking in the expulsion from the Garden of Eden; there, God takes the violence upon himself and founds humanity by driving Adam and Eve far away from him.

In the blessing that Isaac gives to Jacob rather than to his brother Esau, we are again dealing with the violent resolution of a conflict between warring brothers, and the surreptitious character of Jacob’s act in substituting himself for his brother, when the act is discovered, does not compromise the outcome. It matters little, in effect, who is the victim, provided that there is one.

In Jacob’s struggle with the angel, a conflict between doubles is in question — one that hangs in the balance for a long time because the contestants are perfectly matched. Jacob’s adversary is first of all called a man; and it is with the defeat of this adversary and his expulsion at the hands of the victor that he becomes a God from whom Jacob demands and obtains a blessing. In other words, the combat of doubles results in the expulsion of one of the pair, and this is identified directly with the return to peace and order.

In every one of these scenes, the relationship between brothers or doubles has in the first instance a character of undecidability, resolved by expulsion through violence despite an arbitrary element involved, as in the case of Jacob and Esau.

Since the single victim brings reconciliation and safety by restoring life to the community, it is not difficult to appreciate that a sole survivor in a world where all others perish can, thematically, amount to the same thing as a single victim extracted from a group in which no one, save the victim, perishes. Noah’s Ark, which alone is spared by the Flood, guarantees that the world will begin all over again. It is Lot and his family who are the sole survivors of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot’s wife, who is changed into a pillar of salt, brings back into this story the motif of the single victim.

Let us now look at the third moment — at the establishment of interdictions and sacrifices, or circumcision, which comes to the same thing. Here references to this side of things can become confused with references to the founding mechanism. For instance, in the sacrifice of Isaac the necessity of sacrifice threatens the most precious being, only to be satisfied, at the last moment, with a substituted victim, the ram sent by God.

In the story of Jacob’s blessing, the theme of the kids offered to the father in a propitiatory meal represents a sacrificial institution; and one detail that reveals clearly, despite its link with the other themes of the story, the way in which the sacrifice operates. It is thanks to the hair of those kids that Isaac can mistake Jacob’s hide-covered limbs for Esau, and so Jacob escapes his father’s curse.

In all these mythic accounts, society and even nature appear as a whole being put in order, or in which order is being re-established. In general, these belong to the end of the victimage account, the place where the logic of the hypothesis expects to be. But in the story of the creation of the world, the founding moment comes at the beginning, and no victimage is involved. For Noah, the final reorganization is implied not only in the Covenant after the Flood, but also in the confinement of prototypes of all species within the Ark; here we have something like a floating system of classification, on the basis of which the world will re-people itself in conformity with the norms of God’s will. We can also cite here God’s promise to Abraham after the sacrifice of the ram substituted for Isaac, as well as the rules which are prescribed for Jacob after the expulsion of his divinized double. In both cases, the change of name points to the founding character of the process.

J.-M. O.: Up to now you have only shown us the similarities between the biblical myths and the myths which you spoke about earlier. Are you not concerned with stressing the differences between these mythologies and the Bible?

R. G.: I shall shortly be talking about these differences. If I insist first of all upon the similarities, it is to demonstrate clearly that I am not embarrassed by them, and that I am not trying to spirit them away. There can be no doubt that the first books of the Bible rest upon myths that are very close to those found all over the world. What I shall try to prove to you now is that these analogies are not the end of the matter. The biblical treatment of these myths offers something which is absolutely distinctive, and this is what I shall be trying to define.

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