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The Uses of God

Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions

by Walter Burkert
Harvard University Press, 272 pp., $29.95

Walter Burkert is professor of Classics at the University of Zurich and a scholar of great distinction. He is also a man of remarkably wide interests. Works of his that have already been published in translation by American university presses cover matters as various as the anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth, ancient mystery cults, and the penetration of Near Eastern religions into archaic Greece. His more general work on Greek religion between 800 to 300 BCE was hailed by a reviewer in these pages as a masterpiece.* The aim of Creation of the Sacred is even more ambitious: to uncover the very origins of religion.

Religion, Burkert observes, has always been recognized as a universal feature of human society. It is very old: there are clear traces of religious practices in the Upper Palaeolithic period, and the ceremonial burial of the dead practiced by the Neanderthalers a hundred thousand years ago suggests that religious ideas may have existed already then. Religion is also very resilient: from the neolithic to the Industrial Revolution it has survived the most drastic social and economic changes. And it is still with us. Creation of the Sacred is devoted to trying to explain these extraordinary facts.

Burkert is fully aware that such an undertaking runs counter to the prevailing trend in the social sciences, including social anthropology. For some generations now it has been held that each culture should be studied as an autonomous system—so that Greek religion, for instance, should be studied solely in the context of the Greek citystate. But while fully appreciating the contribution which that approach has made to our understanding of particular religions, he insists that it cannot solve the problems that most concern him: “if cultures remain enclosed each in its own signifying system, what about the interactions of cultures, influences, and traditions that link the present to the past?… And how do we account for the ubiquity and persistence of a phenomenon such as religion?”

Burkert is by no means the first scholar to try to answer such questions, but he does so in a new way. The subtitle of his book refers to biology, and it is in human biology, broadly conceived, that he seeks an answer to his problems. His bibliography lists plenty of items with such titles as The Regulation of Physical and Mental Systems, The Extended Phenotype, Languages and Species, The Sociobiology Debate, Primate Social Systems, Biosocial Anthropology, The Chimpanzees of Gombe.

Not that religion is inscribed in the genetic code—on the contrary, it has to be taught afresh to each generation, just like language. Still, the argument goes, religion performs a biological function in that it provides direction and meaning for those who feel helpless in the face of the infinite complexity of the world—and particularly in the face of the ineluctable fact of death. “The idea of the supernatural emerges within the landscape of nature…. If reality appears dangerous or downright hostile to life, religion calls for something beyond experience to restore the balance.”

In effect, this and similar statements mean that much that is usually called social is here labeled biological; but if one is prepared to accept that, the argument in Burkert’s book is impressive and plausible. The ways in which religion consoles and fortifies an anxiety-ridden mankind are indeed many and various, and Burkert offers a wide-ranging selection of them. Most of his material is taken from the civilizations of the ancient world, particularly the Mesopotamian, Jewish, Greek, and Roman, but he supplements it with observations which anthropologists have recorded from tribal societies.

The phenomenon of sacrifice comes first. In the second century CE a rich hypochondriac called Aelius Aristeides dwelt for some ten years in the sanctuary at Pergamon of Asclepius, the god of healing. One night he was informed by the god in a dream that he would die within three days unless he made various sacrifices, one of which involved cutting off one of his fingers (though in the end the god allowed a finger ring to be offered instead). Now, finger sacrifice is a common motif in folk tale and fairy tale in many parts of the world: by biting or cutting off a finger the hero escapes from a monster or a demon—saving his whole body by sacrificing a part. Moreover, finger sacrifice has really been practiced in many different civilizations. Examples come from America, Africa, India, Oceania, as well as from ancient Greece and from a Palaeolithic cave; so what we have here is a ritual that has survived for some twenty thousand years.

Burkert ventures further, into the depths of group dynamics. What is the practice of blaming a scapegoat if not the abandonment of a single individual to secure the safety of the many? And must not that widespread practice derive from a deep-rooted human tendency? As examples he invokes not only the Jewish Day of Atonement but what Christians have made of Isaiah 53:

…he was wounded for our trans- gressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,


… he was cut off out of the land of
the living…

The conclusion Burkert draws on this theme is typical of the argument of the book as a whole:

In the situation of the herd vis-à-vis the carnivore—the zebras attacked by lions—when one individual is killed, the others feel safe for a time. The instinctive program seems to command: take another one, not me. This ancient program is still at work in humans, still fleeing from devouring dangers and still making sacrifices to assuage and triumph over anxiety. In this sense the sacrifice is a construct…that has proved almost universally effective throughout the history of civilization.

Unexpectedly, Burkert devotes his third chapter to a genre of folk tale, the story of a hero’s quest, whether to rectify a wrong or to seek a lost person or secret knowledge or special powers. This kind of tale was analyzed and broken down into component parts by the great Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp; and Burkert finds that his analysis, which was based on Russian folk tales, is no less valid when applied to Greek myths such as the exploits of Perseus, the labors of Herakles, the voyage of the Argonauts; or even to the oldest Sumerian tales. From the fact that the tale of the quest has survived for more than four millennia, and is almost ubiquitous, Burkert, drawing on Propp’s work, concludes that it is rooted in a biological necessity, the quest for food—with all the hazards, including combat, which that must originally have entailed. He buttresses his argument by evidence ranging from the behavior of laboratory rats to the language of chimpanzees to an Indo-European verb inflection of the fourth millennium BCE, from the shamanic experience of flight to rites of female initiation. Burkert’s marshaling of the evidence here is incontestably a virtuoso performance; nevertheless, the proposition he puts forward is so broad, and the evidence so various, that one feels a certain relief when this great scholar reverts to his central theme, the origins of religion.

At the very heart of religion, Burkert argues, is an awareness of rank—a sense of dependence, subordination, and submission to unseen superiors. In ancient religions, gods were the powerful ones, the rulers over man and nature. They were called lord, king, and they expected human beings to honor them. On the other hand, just like human lords and kings, gods had obligations to their inferiors; notably, they were responsible for their protection and security. Much of this is still true of religion today—but does that mean (as Freud maintained) that gods always represent that permanent fixture, the father? Burkert thinks not, and explores further. He insists that the role of authority, both in society and in the individual psyche, goes back to pre-human stages of evolution. Monkeys and apes are acutely aware of hierarchy, and the attention of inferiors is always concentrated on those above them in the hierarchy. In his view, mankind’s attitude to its gods has roots which are older than mankind.

Whether or not one is persuaded that our sense of higher and lower derives from memories of a pre-human habitat in the trees (and I for one am not so persuaded), there are good grounds for believing that “the awareness and feelings of inferiority and superiority on the vertical axis are part of our biological inheritance.” And such feelings can have a positive function: “A sane world is structured by authority which determines what is high and low”—and religion, by fixing our attention on the highest authority of all, is uniquely effective in making sense out of a meaningless world. Moreover, if gods were rulers, rulers were god-like, and their rule reflected the divine intention: “The mighty one submits to the mightier one and can thus exercise his power in a legitimate fashion, with good conscience, and with success.” That, too, was a way of imposing order on chaos.

Gods owe much of their power to the fact that human beings frequently experience catastrophe, and need to explain it, and tend to blame themselves for it; and they feel impelled to make atonement in the hope of being forgiven. Burkert takes his examples from the Iliad and the Old Testament, but he regards this pattern of behavior as practically universal. He may well be right. An Englishman who is old enough to have experienced, as an adult, the outbreak of World War II, may remember the letters that appeared in the serious press at that time. As often as not, the catastrophe which had struck the country was attributed not to political blunders or military weakness but to the hedonism which was said to have prevailed in the inter-war period and to have grievously offended God.

The assumption that catastrophe is a punishment inflicted by a superior being on his delinquent subordinates may also be as old as mankind, if not older. And it, too, seems to have a positive function: “By establishing connections of fault, consequence and remedy, it creates a context of sense and premises a meaningful cosmos in which people can live in health and at ease…. People are quite inclined to accept their own guilt…in contrast to the oppressive burden of chance and necessity.”

But gods are not always despotic or punitive. Gift exchange—one of the truly universal features of human society—is practiced not only between human beings but between gods and human beings. From the very beginning of recorded history gods figure as “givers of good things.” Of course they expect human beings to give them good things in return. If a god in Vedic India can declare, “Give to me, I give to you,” in the Old Testament Yahweh can command, “Thou shalt not come to me with empty hands.” Nor is reciprocal giving confined to primitive or archaic societies:

Practically everywhere it is understood that communication with the divine should be through exchange, through mutual giving, which is reflected in the circulation of gifts within the community or hierarchy of believers. One might indeed be tempted to say that every form of religion is, among other things, an organization to elicit gifts. Some of the socalled new religions or sects provide the most striking examples.

Indeed they do. Yet there is a problem here: Why do people, who normally are not lacking in greed or cunning, make gifts to beings whose return gifts must necessarily remain invisible? And why do they continue to do this even when they know perfectly well that the gifts never reach the gods but are appropriated by middlemen such as priests or gurus? The solution that Burkert proposes accords with his general approach:

The principle of reciprocity … [is] a postulate acted out to create a stable, sensible, and acceptable world, gratifying both intellectually and morally…. The postulate of cosmic sense overrides the evidence of deplorable examples of catastrophe…. The rational postulate of reciprocity fits the biological landscape, and it is duly inculcated through religious tradition.

Burkert’s concluding chapter is called “The Validation of Signs.” All organisms, he writes, from plants to primates, both make signs and react to signs, and human beings do so with particular skill: “The capacity to find orientation by understanding signs remains an achievement of empathy and intellect…. The human psyche excels in this ability to create sense.” And nowhere has the interpretation of signs been carried out more zealously than in religion. The interpretation of signs is fundamental in all the ancient religions—so much so that in Latin, for instance, that art was called simply divinatio, “divine activity.” Divination could take the form of observing and interpreting the flight of birds, or the entrails of a slaughtered animal, or the figures made by oil on water, and much else besides; but always it was a way of reading the intention of the gods.

Everything depended on noticing and accepting a sign in a particular situation and at the appropriate moment; to do so successfully was to ally oneself with the cosmic order. In this context the practice of the ordeal makes excellent sense. If a person was thrown into water and failed to sink, that was considered a proof of guilt. This practice is familiar from witchcraft trials in medieval and early modern Europe but it was also, it seems, known in ancient Mesopotamia. Or one could be made to eat a supposedly poisonous substance; if one remained unaffected, that was proof of innocence. No sign was more potent than the oath:

Why must people have religion? In the ancient world, the obvious answer would have been, for the validation of oaths. Without gods there would be no oaths, and hence no basis for trust and cooperation, for legal action, or for business … Oaths were indispensable in social interactions at all levels, economic and juridical, private and public, intra-tribal and international. No contract, no treaty, no administration of justice proceeds without an oath.

Burkert argues that lying, fraud, trickery are among the primal human activities; even chimpanzees, taught to use sign language, immediately try to trick their trainers by lying. But in ancient societies, where the reality of the gods was accepted without question, there was a remedy: through the ritual of oath-taking those mighty beings could be involved in the transaction as unseen but vigilant partners. In the formulas for taking oaths employed in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome (and, one may add, Vedic India) gods are expressly summoned to kill the perjurer. The English philosopher John Locke, writing at the threshold of the Age of Enlightenment, still understood what was implied:

Those who deny the existence of the Deity are not to be tolerated at all. Promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon or sanctity for an atheist. For the taking away of God, even only in thought, dissolves all.

In short, Burkert presents religion as a tradition, going back to the beginnings of mankind, of trying to communicate with unseen powers. This tradition is elaborated and transmitted partly by verbal teaching, partly by ritual, but its deepest source lies in certain biological reactions, above all anxiety. It helps people to cope with critical situations in their lives; above all it offers everyone a sense of coherence and stability in the world.

This does not mean that the future of religion is assured. Burkert’s concluding remarks on that matter are worth pondering:

It is difficult for humans to get off the old tracks of construing sense in a world full of disconcerting events, scandal, and trickery.

It could be the case that the third step of information processing we are experiencing just now [i.e., after the development of language and writing] is about to bring the most crucial changes. With the electronic network of a computerized society, shared information and corresponding programs become ubiquitous and definitely independent from the individual. This is experienced, for instance, as the “loss of the subject” discussed in literary circles. The individual finds herself or himself in the solitude of arbitrariness while being controlled by new and ineluctable dependencies so subtle and efficient that the older forms of communication look awkward and antiquated by comparison. Admission and exclusion now depends on bits or bytes, on access numbers and codes, and validation occurs by pressing a key on a keyboard.

If this is to be the future, religion, stuck between nature and network, might cease to function—that is, religion in the sense of serious, nonobvious communication based on the antecedent sense-structures of life. Collective ritual may be supplanted by electronic self-engendering games within the brave new world of virtual realities. Still, insofar as the biological basis of life can hardly be abolished, “real” reality will make itself felt time and again as against its virtual counterfeits. Perhaps more disquieting are the likelihood and dangers of regression, of fundamentalism or even primitivism revived. The contents and prospects of religion remain thoroughly problematic—and fascinating. Even within a world dominated by self-created technology, humans still will not easily accept that constructs of sense reaching out for the nonobvious are nothing but self-created projections, and that no other signs from the universe around are there to be perceived except for the irregularities resounding from the first big bang.

All in all, I find Burkert’s argument in Creation of the Sacred persuasive, and I have only one reservation: too little attention is given to the ethical dimension of religion. The religions of the ancient world, whether Egyptian or Hebrew, Mesopotamian or Zoroastrian, all insist that those in authority should be incorruptible and just, that everyone should be truthful and straightforward. In a book which, however “biological” it claims to be, is concerned with anything and everything that makes for the preservation and harmonious working of society, this is a perplexing gap.

For the rest, I am sure that Burkert is right to stress the need that human beings have for order and meaning in the world. Meaninglessness is in the long run intolerable: if that is how the world is, people are impelled to pretend otherwise. That is Burkert’s central theme, and his treatment of it is immensely impressive. As a study of the various ways in which human beings have, by their religious beliefs, attitudes, and behavior, endowed the world with meaning and imposed order on chaos, Creation of the Sacred is a triumph.

  1. *

    Jasper Griffin, “From Killer to Thinker” (The New York Review, June 27, 1985).

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