Dictionary of Literary Themes and Motifs: L-Z - Vol. 2

By Jean-Charles Seigneuret | Go to book overview

S

SCAPEGOAT

In the Old Testament, God orders Aaron to take a goat, consign to it all the sins of the Israelites, and send it into the wilderness. This simple religious ritual touches deeply on human psychological needs; it becomes, in metaphorical form, a central theme in literature. There are several aspects to the scapegoat principle: first, the idea that sinfulness is transferable and, in compact form, can be taken on by one individual on behalf of many others; further, that that individual is often unwillingly assigned the role of scapegoat or victim, the cause or result being moral isolation; third, the bearer of bad tidings is in some irrational, primitive way associated with the evil events he tells about and is punished (literally in primitive societies, figuratively or indirectly in advanced societies) as if he has become the scapegoat and as if "killing the messenger" will somehow make the adverse events vanish as well.


Antiquity

In the Old Testament, the omnipotent God creates everything according to a master design, yet evil crops up repeatedly. Hence the ubiquity of the scapegoat principle, as God blames and severely punishes Cain, Sodom, Pharaoh (whose heart he himself had hardened), Canaanites, Amalekites, Philistines, or backsliding Israelites for imperfections ultimately of His own creation. This is logically inconsistent, and the New Testament (and, even more, later Christian theologians) tried to get around the solecism by developing an explanation latent in the Old Testament--Satan. He (the Adversary, the Devil) is the cause of man's failings and ills, from original sin on. In his De civitate Dei ( The City of God, treatise, 413-426), St. Augustine renders a detailed account of the diabolical machinations; not Pharaoh or Haman but Satan has become the scapegoat for evil. In ages and periods too sophisticated to believe in a literal Satan, some vulnerable individual or group takes his place, in what is known as the "Devil

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Dictionary of Literary Themes and Motifs: L-Z - Vol. 2
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface xi
  • Introduction xv
  • Bibliography xxii
  • L 691
  • N 885
  • O 929
  • P 935
  • R 1021
  • S 1109
  • Selected Bibliography 1126
  • T 1255
  • U 1333
  • V 1373
  • W 1383
  • Cross-Index 1389
  • Index 1401
  • About the Editors and Contributors 1495
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