The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence

By Andrew R. Murphy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 25
Sacrifice and Violence

Kathryn McClymond

Within the field of religious studies, it has been commonplace to associate religious sacrifice with violence. While these two phenomena are often intimately connected, sacrifice does not equal violence and violence does not equal sacrifice. This may seem an obvious point, but in recent years sacrifice has largely been theorized in terms of violence. Scholars such as René Girard, Nancy Jay, Walter Burkert, and Davíd Carrasco have made it difficult to talk about sacrifice without imagining violence as an essential element. The following pages will examine how violence has dominated sacrificial theorizing, note the limitations of identifying violence too closely with sacrifice, and highlight the wide range of complex relationships that exist between violence and sacrifice.


Dominant Theoretical Approaches

Several widely known theories of sacrifice have focused on violence. In the early years of the academic study of religion, the most influential sacrificial theorists were Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss (Sacrifice: Its Nature and Functions, 1898) often considered the grandfathers of modern sacrificial studies. In their monograph, Hubert and Mauss focus on the destruction of the offering: “we must designate as sacrifice any oblation, even of vegetable matter, whenever the offering or part of it is destroyed” (Hubert and Mauss 1964: 12). The destruction of the offering generates spiritual benefit for the sacrificial patron (the one doing the sacrificing), altering his state. Hubert and Mauss’s work, which drew on Vedic and biblical descriptions of sacrifice, set the stage for several generations of comparative work, emphasizing the destruction of animal victims.

In 1949 Georges Bataille published La Part maudite (The Accursed Share), drawing largely on Aztec sacrifice. In this book, he argued that societies produce economic surpluses, material goods that exceed communities’ basic needs. Sacrifice developed as a

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