Given my great love of myth and symbol as expressions of what it means to be human, it should hardly come as a surprise that I love language in general and the origins of words and phrases in particular. We take words for granted- use and misuse them without too much thought about where they came from and, sometimes, what they really mean. So many words and phrases that are part of our (relatively) common parlance have origins in the language of myth.
One such term has been hovering on the edge of my consciousness a lot lately- not because it is all that out of the ordinary, but because I heard it spectacularly misused in conversation not long ago- although, to be perfectly fair, both words have the same root and have been used interchangeable historically. Still, the speaker calling herself an ‘escape goat’ very much summoned images of a cartoonish getaway goat stationed outside of a bank as quick post-robbery transportation. Think Benny, the New York taxi from ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, as a goat, and you have a pretty good idea of the mental picture I got.
The concept of the scapegoat has its origin in the Ancient Near East, most notably in biblical mythology. Although there are comparable examples from Ebla, in Mesopotamia, that predate the biblical usage of the concept, the role of the scapegoat in the ceremonies associated with the Day of Atonement is perhaps the most familiar to contemporary audiences.
Leviticus 16.1-34 describes an annual ritual that likely was originally a purification rite for the sanctuary where religious events and sacrifices took place. It detailed the steps required to remove the impurity caused by the personal pollution of those who were present in the sanctuary, in particular, the bodies of Aaron’s priestly sons who ‘drew near before the Lord and died’ (Lev. 16.1) after offering up ‘unholy fire.’ (Lev. 10.1)
Aaron is told to sacrifice a bull as an offering against his own sins, and then ordered to take two goats and, by drawing lots, choose the ‘Lord’s goat’, which would be used as the blood sacrifice to atone for the collective sins of Yahweh’s Chosen people. The second goat- the ‘Azazel’ goat- was sent into the wilderness, figuratively bearing the sins of the Israelites and taking them away from the sanctuary and the presence of the deity. The two goats ‘paid’ for the sins of the nation in their stead.
Traditional English translations of the Hebrew bible render the Hebrew (transliterated) Azazel as ‘scapegoat’. The original term is much more interesting and provides evidence, if more is needed, that the core beliefs of the ancient Israelites weren’t quite so monotheistic as all that. ‘Azazel’ means ‘angry’ or ‘fierce’ god (El)– one who is seen as being in opposition to Yahweh.
Azazel appears as a character in 1 Enoch- as one of the leaders of the fallen angels or Watchers. In 1 Enoch, Azazel leads his fellows in providing humanity with such useful tools as the knowledge of warfare, metallurgy and the production of cosmetics (among other transgressions). The corruption associated with evil comes from the teaching of inappropriate and sinful skills, as well as through the unholy congress of angels and humans.
This represented a new idea in the development of the mythology: sin came from something outside of human beings. Evil originated in a sphere that was separate from the human realm, and therefore salvation must likewise come from an outside source. At this point in the development of the mythology, humanity was seen as more the victim of supernatural forces than as a source of evil itself. Augustine, much later, will strongly disagree with this perspective with his ideas about ‘original sin’ and comparable nonsense.
1 Enoch is one of the earliest texts in the development of biblical apocalypticism (even though it is a non-canonical, pseudepigraphal text) and one that heavily influenced later literary and legendary traditions. Azazel, and the problems he caused in allowing humanity ‘access’ to sin, will certainly show up again in this blog. Far from being an entirely negative figure, Azazel can be seen as a Hebrew Prometheus, providing humanity with the tools they required to enable the progress of civilization. He is far too interesting to be merely a footnote in the discussion of the scapegoat.
In Christian mythology Jesus is the ultimate scapegoat. Through his sacrifice all who profess faith in him are forgiven of the totality of their sins, and offered redemption in the afterlife. He removed both the pollution and burden of sin, saving those who would follow him from the need for sacrifice- either in the form of the burnt offerings of the Jewish tradition from which Christianity stemmed, or in the self-sacrifice that Yahweh, and other contemporaneous gods, demanded.
In the current vernacular a scapegoat is someone who is vilified and punished for the sins of others- an often-blameless figure who is used to divert true justice, and often an agent of deception that hides the corruption of others. I can think of one extremely timely scapegoat who has been thrown under the bus this past week (looking at you Mr. Former Chief of Staff to the PM) in the furtherance of an agenda/mandate that seems, increasingly, to require such actions in defence of suspect leadership.
Perhaps the image of the goat as a means of escape is actually the one that is indicative of the greater humanity. The goat could be used as a means of transportation out of the environment of lies and prevarication that requires such sacrifice. Misused or not, the idea of any kind of escape from such sordid necessity of displaced sacrifice in the name of preserving wrong behaviours seems the more humane and human option.
On second thought, I think I’ll hang onto that particular mental picture and hope that the cartoon goat carries those without real culpability far away from the systems that require such unethical acts of preservation.