Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Bouphonia: Another View

Over at Common Dreams, Karen Armstrong has some interesting things to say about the Bouphonia:

On the day before new year in classical Athens, the strange festival of Bouphonia ("ox-murder") was enacted on the Acropolis. An ox was ritually slaughtered in a way that induced profound guilt. The priest who had dealt the blow had to flee for his life, pursued by the angry crowd. A court was convened, which found the priest's knife guilty of murder, and it was duly cast into the sea. Animal sacrifice was a daily occurrence in Athens, but the burlesque drama of Bouphonia revealed a lurking horror of violence, even killing that was sanctioned by religion and by the state. The buried guilt of the community was allowed to rise to the surface, and the manifest absurdity of the court's judgment showed the inadequacy of any official inquiry that attempts to exonerate the human agent.
I like this passage very much, but I don't quite understand the last sentence. Perhaps I'm misreading Ms. Armstrong, but she seems to be suggesting that the ritual had some sort of ironic, almost meta-ritualistic aspect. If so, I have to say that I don't accept that its absurdity was "manifest" in any real sense (though Aristophanes mocked it much later in The Clouds). It seems to me that the ritual was perfectly solemn and serious; it was, as Jane Harrison put it, "a terror-stricken service of Aversion," occasioned by that society's inability to conceive of certain immoral actions as unnecessary. The issue is not that violence was "sanctioned by religion and the state"; the issue is that it was required by religion and the state. The participants in this ritual, in my opinion, were in a state of cognitive dissonance about "necessary" injustice which is very common today, and which is famously unable to perceive its own absurdity.

If Ms Armstong means merely that the Bouphonia's absurdity demonstrates to us the inadequacy of "any official inquiry that attempts to exonerate the human agent," then her interpretation is much closer to mine, though I do think the need for formal exoneration of an unjust society, and not the particular choice of scapegoat, is what's really important here.

Anyway, it's an interesting article, well worth reading in full. Ms. Armstrong also wrote a book called The Spiral Staircase; I haven't read it, but my wife liked it quite a bit, and she's the brains of the family.