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Violence and the Sacred in the Ancient Near East: Girardian Conversations at Çatalhöyük

Violence and the Sacred in the Ancient Near East: Girardian Conversations at Çatalhöyük

Edited by Ian Hodder. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2019. Pp. xiv + 259. $99.99. ISBN 978-1-108-47602-7 (cloth).

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René Girard was a French anthropologist known for the theories of the scapegoat mechanism and mimetic desire. Hodder’s edited volume is a long-awaited attempt to apply the anthropological theories of Girard to the Neolithic in Southwest Asia. This effort was initially made by Girard himself, who interpreted the Çatalhöyük paintings as forms of representation of the “victimary mechanism” (4), namely the social processes of selecting a victim to sacrifice in order to benefit the social environment. The great contribution of Hodder’s publication is to show the potential of Girardian perspectives on violence and collective behavior that have largely been overlooked by prehistoric archaeologists. Girard’s main hypothesis centers around the idea that human groups tend to enforce social rules and establish sacred places and practices through collective violence, which has its origins in the mimesis that is the innate human character of imitation and desire.

This volume is another publication funded by the Templeton Foundation that explores possible aspects of religion at Çatalhöyük and other Neolithic sites. As in the earlier volumes, Hodder presents a well-organized assemblage of essays by experts in Near Eastern archaeology and mimetic theory. The book is divided into three sections. The first presents the main themes of the volume and synthesizes the thoughts of Girard. Here Hodder also questions (18) whether Girard’s associations with Catholic doctrine could diminish the credibility of his argument (see, e.g., the second section in Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World [trans. M. Metteer and S. Bann, Athlone Press 1987], where the author considers the Passion of Christ and the Judeo-Christian scriptures as the first attempts to unveil the mimetic mechanisms generating the scapegoat killing). The claim that Girard’s work is essentially unscientific is disregarded inasmuch as Christianity is not an essential aspect in understanding and applying the mimetic theory, just as Girard’s concept of religion does not refer to “any specific reality” (198). Whether the crucifixion of Christ is the revelatory event of the victimary mechanism should not concern the investigation about violence and the sacred in prehistory. Therefore, the two Girardian subjects, Christianity and mimetism, “can be held separate” (19). The second section of the volume explores the themes of violence and the sacred through the analysis of archaeological evidence, in particular sculptures, wall paintings, architectural installations, burials, and osteological data. The third section contains a theoretical discussion of the possible interpretations of the Neolithic socioeconomic developments in light of Girard’s main hypothesis.

Chapters in the second part explore how widespread and socially embedded the use of violence was in the Neolithic. Christopher Knüsel and colleagues (ch. 4) list a series of prehistoric examples of violent injuries, while Lee Clare et al. (ch. 5) argue that, although interpersonal violence might be archaeologically visible in some Neolithic sites (e.g., Körtik Tepe), no particular evidence of human or animal sacrifice is recorded at Göbekli Tepe, despite the fact that sculptures and depictions on T-shaped pillars suggest a violent environment. Perhaps, they suggest, Göbekli Tepe could be interpreted as a special site where people gathered for “keeping the peace” (122). Some overstated speculations are proposed in this section of the book, particularly when it is argued that “evidence of cranial trauma at Çatalhöyük suggest what may be intragroup violence was present” (88). Unintentional or unforeseen causes, including domestic accidents, might have caused blunt trauma, and 25 cases of cranial injuries could not “represent evidence of repeated acts of scapegoating” (88) for the people of Çatalhöyük, especially when contextual information is missing or does not really support such claims.

The third section of the book discusses a common component in prehistoric lifeways: hunting and animal sacrifice. Girard claims that the emissary victim must be an individual within and outside the community, which makes the reenactment of the scapegoat mechanism effective (168). Nevertheless, Hodder and colleagues point out (20) that in many hunter-gatherer societies animals are seen as equal to humans, and therefore the killed animal is not seen as an individual at the edge of the community, especially if the animal–human relationship is perceived in a more animistic way. Therefore, “how in such communal and participatory system could animals have become emissary victims?” (21). In this regard, Mark Anspach (ch. 6) suggests that the victimary selection might have been influenced by the recognition of certain animal species as threatening and unsettling (e.g., leopards for Çatalhöyük) and others as unifying (e.g., bulls and deer). Benoît Chantre (ch. 8) argues instead that the victimary species is irrelevant as long as the structure of the violent act is the same: all against one. In conclusion, it is hypothesized that by de-subjectifying the animal before killing it, sacrifice could accomplish its purpose, which in turn could have contributed to the domestication process (238).

The last two contributions of this book are highly recommended to all who are interested in the development of early farming life and in the evolution of social cognition. Jean-Pierre Dupuy (ch. 10) presents an outstanding critique of current anthropological approaches to the Near Eastern Neolithic and argues that mimetism could contribute to solving some long-standing interpretative issues in cognitive archaeology (210). This essay is very persuasive and in some parts even provoking, especially when the author criticizes cognitive archaeologists’ attempts to interpret religious belief as a social construct of ideas rather than a form of practice (211). Readers should reflect on how prehistoric communities might have sought transcendentality through the use of a more structured “good” violence that outlines morality, while forbidding the practice of a more disrupting, highly contagious “bad” violence (225). In the concluding remarks, Hodder proposes an intriguing fusion between the Girardian model and his own theory of entanglement. He argues (239) that the fundamental generative processes of mimesis might have coevolved with the increasing interdependence between humans and things and perhaps contributed to crucial Neolithic developments such as animal and plant domestication and sedentism.

Overall, this publication is a unique and valuable contribution to the field of archaeology and an excellent first endeavor in delivering key hermeneutical tools for interpreting ritual, symbolism, and religion in prehistoric communities. Some parts might be a bit too wordy (e.g., ch. 8), and more high-resolution pictures and further archaeological examples would have been helpful (also, where are the leopard skins to which Anspach repeatedly refers?). Also, it feels that a discordant voice in the interpretative models portrayed in the book is missing; no one here disagrees with the eventual application of Girardian theories to Neolithic archaeology. A further line of development could be investigating the Girardian concept of pharmakon, namely the cathartic character of the scapegoat symbolism. Much of Hodder’s effort has been employed to detect patterns of violence and the sacred, but less attention has been given to the mimetic mechanism that underlies the escalation of violence that results in the killing of a scapegoat. Violence and the sacred, in fact, are the epiphenomena of mimetic desire that is immersed (as in the title of Victor Turner’s famous book) in a “forest of symbols” in constant change.

Mattia Cartolano
University of Liverpool

Book Review of Violence and the Sacred in the Ancient Near East: Girardian Conversations at Çatalhöyük, edited by Ian Hodder
Reviewed by Mattia Cartolano
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 4 (October 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1244.Cartolano

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