Culture and Sacrifice: Ritual Death in Literature and Opera

By Thomas, Downing A. | Philological Quarterly, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Culture and Sacrifice: Ritual Death in Literature and Opera


Thomas, Downing A., Philological Quarterly


Culture and Sacrifice: Ritual Death in Literature and Opera by Derek Hughes. Cambridge U. Press, 2007. Pp. xi + 313. $85.

Despite its fairly standard size for a monograph, Derek Hughes's book is a expedition of veritably epic proportions through the entire history of Western literature in the course of which he brings up core samples from a wide range of literary genres. No shortage of ambition marks this project. Noting "the inexhaustible fascination of the theme of human sacrifice," which clearly also took hold of him during the research and writing of the book, Hughes explores the representation of ritual sacrifice in literature and opera, not real-life instances of killing (hence, no discussion of execution) and only limited, contextualizing discussion of the anthropological record (273). An initially restricted definition of sacrifice avoids confusion with the more remote metaphorical uses of the term (one thinks of the great sacrifices one makes to send the kids to college). Hughes also sets aside Jesus Christ from his treatment of sacrifice, in part because the crucifixion merits distinct treatment, in part because the crucifixion is framed in quite distinct ways from sacrifice in literature, at least until the eighteenth century. Hughes notes that the crucifixion annuls sacrifice in three ways: first, because it is the single sacrifice that brings all carnal sacrifice to an end; second, because Christ lives; and third, because the crucifixion is transformed, initiating other forms of sacrifice among the faithful, such as discipline (50-51). In addition to accomplished human sacrifices, Hughes often examines instances that flirt with ritual death without actually accomplishing it: Prometheus, for example, is only "potentially" a sacrificial victim (16); many deaths in the Aeneid "aspire to the condition of formal sacrifice" (46); Othello and Brutus (in Julius Caesar) "attach a sacrificial significance to the murders they commit" (74-75); and many literary treatments tread close to sacrifice but avert it in the end, most notably in the Iphigenia plays and operas (46). As Hughes notes, stories of human sacrifice serve to explain key features of culture, such as the origin of rites of initiation, or to mark a separation with an ideal past in which men and gods broke bread together, or as an example of the barbarity that civilization must reject in order to come into being, but which may also threaten to return. For ancient Greece, human sacrifice represents the boundary that leads to an inaccessible past, pointing from the culture of the city into the wilderness; and its return promises a monumental breakdown leading to chaos. At the other end of history, at the turn of the twentieth century, sacrifice moves inward to the realms of the mind.

Chronologically organized chapters follow an introduction to the subject, covering the vast span from ancient Greece to the final, and longest, chapter which ends with an analysis of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (2000). The result is a dazzling, sometimes dizzying survey, focusing on canonical literary and operatic works, but also including fairly obscure texts along the way. Though sometimes he slows to offer a close reading of a key text, Hughes generally moves with alacrity among examples in order to reveal continuities and discontinuities in the treatment of sacrifice over time. Painting is excluded from Culture and Sacrifice on the grounds that the visual arts raise a host of questions that are distinctly non-literary, though the volume is illustrated nonetheless with plates ranging from images of Aztec human sacrifice drawn from Theodor de Bry's America (1601) to a still from a production of John Buller's opera BAKXAI (1992), a version of The Bacchae. Hughes assimilates opera as a form of theater, only rarely commenting on its music (and never on issues of performance), but also includes operatic works for the intertextual connections that its analysis can afford.

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