Monsters, the Museum and Sacrificial Theory
When Hannah contacted me about contributing a paper to a conference she is organising on the subject of Monsters, I immediately thought of the presentation I gave - or rather a colleague gave on my behalf - at a conference a year or so ago. In the paper I made a brief survey of objects in the Manchester Museum archaeology collection depicting monsters, including Odysseus in the Cyclops’ cave on an ancient Greek vase and figurines of the chimera or chimaera, the sirens and the sphinx.
At that time I was very interested in sacrificial theory, but I was only able to touch upon the topic in passing because most of the paper was devoted to monstrous objects in the Museum collection. One of the questions I posed was if, as has been argued by Adrienne Mayor in her fascinating book The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (2001), some of the monsters in ancient Greek myths were inspired by discoveries of fossilised bones from long-extinct Mediterranean megafauna, then how do we explain weird composites or hybrids like the chimaera or the sphinx in which the bodies of completely different creatures are mixed together? The former animal had the body of a lioness with a snake for a tail and a goat’s head sticking out of its back. It's like one of those books for children in which you turn a page and the head of one person is superimposed upon the body of someone else who is in turn superimposed over the lower body of another person. Reading Rene Girard's books about sacrificial theory seemed to offer a solution. Girard is a French academic who has worked for many years in the USA
His argument goes something like this: in the distant past members of a community that facing a flood or a famine or pestilence might experience into a state of collective anxiety such that the members of that community become progressively more agitated to the point where a total break-down of order and respect for social distinction is threatened. Girard compares the situation to a pan of milk about to boil over. What prevents the pan boiling over and a collective descent into anarchy – what Girard calls the ‘sacrifical crisis’- is the selection of a victim or scapegoat who acts as a lightning rod, exorcising the communal frenzy and bringing about a return to normality. Typically the victim is accused of having committed horrendous crimes and suffers a violent death in which all the members of the community take part. The victim is selected on the basis of disabilities or blemishes (and sometimes being unblemished is the excuse). Think of the myth of Oedipus with his club foot for example. Once order has been restored the community rationalises its violent treatment of the victim, who undergoes a change of status. Girard calls this the ‘mythic crystallisation’. Instead of being held responsible for the break-down of social order the victim is seen as having brought about its resolution and becomes a sanctified figure.
There are a number of things here that are relevant. Firstly, people who suffer from a disability or a blemish can be perceived as monstrous as well as being accused of monstrous crimes by other members of the community. Think of Oedipus who murdered his father and married his mother. Secondly Girard characterises the descent into chaos as a lack of respect for order and degree and social hierarchies. The people involved become so agitated that they can no longer make sense of what they are seeing. In the collective madness their perceptions are confused, resulting in the mixing of different categories, such as animal and human, and the creation of monstrous compilations and hybrids.
Monstrosity, therefore, is an important part of Rene Girard’s work on scape-goating. This offers potentially a way of understanding monsters, of which hybrids like the chimaera and the sphinx in Greek mythology are such memorable examples.
Deputy Head of Collections and Curator of Archaeology
The Manchester Museum
1. Bronze Figurine of a Sphinx
2. Terracota Depicting Medusa
Bryan Sitch will be speaking on 'Monsters, the Museum and Sacrificial Theory' at the Hic Dragones Monsters: Subject, Object, Abject Conference, to be held at the Manchester Museum on 12-13 April 2012. For more information about the conference, please visit the Hic Dragones website.