The Scapegoat

Every year on January 13, a curious festival, the Konomiya Naked Festival, which started in 767 CE, occurs in modern Japan. A week before the festival, a ‘man of god’ is chosen from among the citizens. Once chosen, he takes up abode at the Shrine of Konomiya, where he will stay until the festival, purifying himself by shaving all his body hair and ingesting nothing but water and dry rice. On the day of the male-only festival, the shrine throngs with hundreds of men wrapped in bleached cotton but naked from the waist up. When the man of god appears, everyone desperately tries to touch him. Because of the milling crowd, getting close enough is difficult, but anyone who succeeds in touching the ‘scapegoat’ is guaranteed to have transferred all misfortune for the coming twelve months.

The notion that misfortune and sin can be transferred onto another being is ancient and universal. The expression to ‘make someone a scapegoat’, meaning to blame someone else for one’s own wrongdoing, has become a metaphor but refers to what was once a very real occurrence.

The term scapegoat was first coined in 1530 when the English religious reformer, William Tyndale, translated the Hebrew Bible into English. He wrongly translated azázél, a proper name of uncertain derivation, as ‘the goote on which the lotte fell to scape’, that is, as ‘scapegoat’.16

According to the Book of Leviticus,17 each year on the Day of Atonement, the holiest festival on the Jewish calendar, the Israelites sacrificed two he-goats. One animal was offered up to God, that He might absolve the Jews of their sins, and the priest placed his hands on the other goat’s head and confessed all the Children of Israel’s iniquities and transgressions over it. The goat ‘laden with sins’ was then chased into the wilderness. This goat was conceived as embodying the spirit of Azazel, the fallen angel perpetually bound and chained in the wilderness. By its escape, it could carry away the Children of Israel’s sins. The traditional role of the scapegoat linked with sin and impurity might have been a contributing factor to its becoming an animal of Satan in early Christianity – a connection it retains.

Not very different in principle is a sacred practice amongst the ancient Egyptian priesthood, described by the Greek historian, Herodotus (circa 490–420 BCE), of conferring all disasters threatening the community on the heads of sacrificial bulls: ‘...they take the beast to the appropriate altar and light a fire; then after pouring a libation of wine and invoking the god by name, they slaughter it, cut off its head and flay the carcass. The head is loaded with curses and taken away [...]. The curses they pronounce take the form of a prayer that any disaster which threatens either themselves or their country may be diverted and fall upon the severed head of the beast’.18 

The custom of killing an animal, or even a human, on whom a certain evil has been transferred, in order to banish that evil, is widely diffused. In most societies it was customary to have a general expulsion of sins once a year. As nations became civilised, they did not abstain from human sacrifice altogether, but used criminals who were to be executed to absorb the sins of a society. During the sixth century BCE, the Greeks sacrificed a deformed or particularly ugly person as a scapegoat when any calamity befell them. The ancient Greeks also carried out a ritual called ‘the expulsion of hunger’ once a year by beating a slave while chasing him outdoors with the words: ‘Out with hunger, in with wealth and health’.19 Similar customs are found in India, Japan, and various African countries. The Ga people of Ghana still celebrate the festival of homowo, ‘jeering at hunger’, by feasting for days on specifically rich foods, prepared to defy hunger.20 

The so-called Wicker Man is still part of neo-pagan festivals in Scotland, England and Seratoga Springs in the USA in modern times. Julius Caesar first described this gigantic human figure, looming in the skyline, made of sticks and branches, consumed by crackling flames. The Wicker Man was filled with livestock as well as screaming men, usually criminals or prisoners of war, and set alight by the ancient Celts, as offerings to appease the angry pagan gods. Similarly it was still customary in European countries at the end of the nineteenth century to light bonfires outside churches, to burn the Judas Man, a straw effigy representing the communities’ accumulated sins, a Christianised version of the scapegoat. 

In the same context, it was customary once in European countries to hire so-called sin-eaters for small amounts of money to attend funerals and to take on the sins of the deceased. The dead person’s relatives prepared a meal for the sin-eater, which he had to eat on the coffin of the deceased, symbolically ingesting the sins this person committed and making the journey to the afterlife easier. The custom of sin-eating was also believed to stop the dead from walking or haunting the neighbourhood. Because of the life he had chosen, all villagers abhorred the sin-eater as unclean, given to witchcraft and unholy practices, and regarded as unfit for any social intercourse with his fellow creatures. Therefore, he generally lived isolated from everyone else, avoided like a leper, and was only sought when a death had occurred, and his services were needed. Once he had eaten the food placed on the corpse or coffin for his consumption, the utensils were immediately burned. Sin-eating was popular in Wales and Scotland and in many other parts of England and Europe during the Middle Ages and right up to the beginning of the nineteenth century. 

To this day, orthodox Jews transfer transgressions to a fowl, the Kapporah Huenchen, as it is known in Yiddish phraseology, on the eve of Yom Kippur, also called The Day of Judgement, characterised by prayer and fasting. A live chicken is grabbed by the legs and swung around the head of a man, woman, or child with a prayer that the chicken absorb the person’s sins. The chicken is offered as atonement, and by its death, symbolically shields the person from punishment. 


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