Anthropology Friday: Sacrifice Among the Semites pt. 2

Hello! Today we’re continuing with more excerpts from Smith’s Sacrifice Among the Semites, with all attendant warnings that I don’t necessarily trust Smith’s accuracy.

“Now, if kinship means participation in common mass of flesh, blood, and bones, it is natural ha tit should be regarded as dependent, not merely on the fact that a man was born of his mother’s body, and so was from hi birth a part of her flesh, but also n the not less significant fact that he was nourished by her mil. And so we find that among the Arabs there is a tie of milk, as well as of blood, which unites the foster-child t his foster-mother and her kin. Again, after the child is weaned, his flesh and blood continue to be nourished and renewed by the food which he shares with his commensals, so that commensality can be thought of (1) as confirming or even (2) as constituting kinship in a very real sense.

“… Primarily the circle of common religion and of common social duties was identical with that of natural kinship, and the god himself was conceived as being of the same stock with his worshipers. It was natural, therefore, that the kinsmen and their kindred god should seal and strengthen their fellowship by meeting together from time to time to nourish their common life by a common meal, to which those outside the kin were not admitted.”

White House Passover Seder, 2011
White House Passover Seder, 2011

“… after several clans had begun to frequent the same sanctuary and worship the same god, the worshipers still grouped themselves for sacrificial purposes on the principle of kinship. In the days of Saul and David all the tribes of Israel had long been united in the worship of Jehovah, yet the clans still maintained their annual gentile sacrifice, at which every member of the group was bound to be present. But evidence more decisive comes to us from Arabia, where, as we have seen, men would not eat together at all unless they were united by kinship or by a covenant that had the same effect as natural kinship. Under such a rule the sacrificial feast must have been confined to kinsmen, and the clan was the largest circle that could unite in a sacrificial act. And so, though the great sanctuaries of heathen Arabia were frequented at the pilgrimage feasts by men of different tribes, who met peaceably for a season under the protection of the truce of God, we find that their participation in the worship of the same holy place did not bind alien clans together in any religious unity; they worshiped side by side, but not together.”

EvX: I wish this guy would cite his sources or otherwise back up his claims.

“It is only under Islam that the pilgrimage becomes a bond of religious fellowship, whereas in the times of heathenism it was the correct usage that the different tribes, before they broke up from the feast, should engage in a rivalry of self–exaltation and mutual abuse, which sent them home with all their old jealousies freshly inflamed.”

“…But the notion that the clan is only a larger household is not consistent with the results of modern research. Kinship is an older thing than family life, and in the mot primitive societies know n to us the family or household group was not a subdivision of a clan, but contained members of more than one kindred. As a rule the savage man may not marry a clanswoman, and the children are of the mother’s kin, and therefore have no communion of blood religion with their father. In such a society their is hardly any family life, and there can be no sacred household meal.

“… The rudest nations have religious rule about food, based on the principle of kinship, viz,, that a man may not eat the totem animal of his clan; and they generally have some rites of the nature of the sacrificial feast of kinsmen; but it is not the custom of savages to take their ordinary daily food in a social way, in regular domestic meals. Their habit is to eat irregularly and apart, and this habit is strengthened by the religious rules, which often forbid to one member of a household the food which is permitted to another.”

Frankly, I think he is wrong. Set “meals” may be a modern innovation, but I highly doubt the Bushmen would be so picky as to allow one person in a family to eat a specific animal but forbid it to their spouse; same for the Inuit. There is far too much chance of starvation and hunger in these groups to go turning down good food.

“In Egypt, down to the present day, many persons hardly ever eat with their wives and children, and among the Arabs, boys who are not of full age do not presume to eat in the presence of their parents, but take their meals separately or with the women of the house No doubt the seclusion of women has retarded the development of family life in Mohammedan countries; but for most purposes this seclusion has never taken much hold on the desert, and yet in northern Arabia no woman will eat before men. … in Arabia the daily family meal has never been an established institution with such  a religious significance as attaches to the Roman supper.”

EvX: I don’t know much about Roman suppers, to be honest. I hear the Jews are into their Friday evening meals, though.

“… even among the agricultural Semites there is no trace of a sacrificial character being attached to ordinary household meals. The domestic hearth among the Semites was not an altar as it was at Rome. Almost all varieties of human food were offered to the gods, and any kind of food suffices, according to the laws of Arabian hospitality, to establish that bond between two men which in the last resort rests on the principle that only kinsmen eat together. It may seem, therefore, that in the abstract any sort of meal publicly partaken of by a company of kinsmen may constitute a sacrifice feast. The distinction between the feast and an ordinary meal lie, it may seem, not in the material or the copiousness of the repast, but in its public character. When men eat alone they do not invite the god to share their food, but when the clan eats together as a kindred unity the kindred god must also be of the party.


EvX: I am reminded here of Elijah’s cup, filled with wine and placed on the Passover table just in case the Prophet Elijah decides to show up for dinner. According to Wikipedia:

In the Talmudic literature, Elijah would visit rabbis to help solve particularly difficult legal problems. Malachi had cited Elijah as the harbinger of the eschaton. Thus, when confronted with reconciling impossibly conflicting laws or rituals, the rabbis would set aside any decision “until Elijah comes.”[24]

One such decision was whether the Passover seder required four or five cups of wine. Each serving of wine corresponds to one of the “four expressions of redemption” in the Book of Exodus: … The next verse, “And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.” (Exodus 6:8) was not fulfilled until the generation following the Passover story, and the rabbis could not decide whether this verse counted as part of the Passover celebration (thus deserving of another serving of wine). Thus, a cup was left for the arrival of Elijah.

In practice the fifth cup has come to be seen as a celebration of future redemption. Today, a place is reserved at the seder table and a cup of wine is placed there for Elijah. During the seder, the door of the house is opened and Elijah is invited in. Traditionally, the cup is viewed as Elijah’s and is used for no other purpose.[25][26]

Returning to Smith:

“Practically, however, there is no sacrificial feast according to Semitic usage except where a victim is slaughtered. The rule of the Levitical law, that a cereal oblation, when offered alone, belongs wholly to the god and gives no occasion for a feast of worshipers, agrees with the older history, in which we never find a sacrificial meal of which flesh does not form a part. Among the Arabs the usage is the same; a religious banquet implies a victim.”


When anyone brings a grain offering to the Lord, their offering is to be of the finest flour. They are to pour olive oil on it, put incense on it and take it to Aaron’s sons the priests. The priest shall take a handful of the flour and oil, together with all the incense, and burn this as a memorial[a] portion on the altar, a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord. The rest of the grain offering belongs to Aaron and his sons; it is a most holy part of the food offerings presented to the Lord.–Leviticus 2:1-3

“‘If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, you are to offer a male without defect. You must present it at the entrance to the tent of meeting so that it will be acceptable to the Lord. You are to skin the burnt offering and cut it into pieces. The sons of Aaron the priest are to put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Then Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the pieces, including the head and the fat, on the wood that is burning on the altar. You are to wash the internal organs and the legs with water, and the priest is to burn all of it on the altar.–Leviticus 1:3-9

Am I misunderstanding Leviticus, or did Smith mix up the two forms of sacrifice?

Saint Nilus of Sinai
Saint Nilus of Sinai

Now Smith draws upon Nilus, “As to the habits of the Arabs of the Sinaitic desert towards the close of the fourth Christian century”

“The ordinary sustenance of these Saracens was derived from pillage or from hunting, to which, no doubt, must be added, as a main element, the milk of their herds. When these supplies failed they fell back on the flesh of their camels, one of which was slain for each clan … or for each group which habitually pitched their tents together… which according to known Arab usage would always be a fraction of a clan–and the flesh was hastily devoured by the kinsmen…”

According to Wikipedia:

About the year 390[2] or perhaps 404,[3] Nilus left his wife and one son and took the other, Theodulos, with him to Mount Sinai to be a monk. They lived here till about the year 410[4] when the Saracens, invading the monastery, took Theodulos prisoner. The Saracens intended to sacrifice him to their gods, but eventually sold him as a slave, so that he came into the possession of the Bishop of Elusa in Palestine. The Bishop received Theodulos among his clergy and made him door-keeper of the church. Meanwhile, Nilus, having left his monastery to find his son, at last met him at Elusa. The bishop then ordained them both priests and allowed them to return to Sinai.

Continuing with Smith: “To grasp the force of this evidence we must remember that, beyond question, the was at this time among the Saracens private property in camels, and that therefore, so far as the law of property went, there could be no reason why a man should not kill a beast for the use of his own family. And though a whole camel might be too much for a single household to eat fresh, the Arabs knew and practiced the art of preserving flesh by cutting it into strips and drying them in the sun. Under these circumstances private slaughter could not have failed to be customary, unless it was absolutely forbidden by tribal usage. In short, it appears that while milk, game, and the fruits of pillage were private food which might be eaten in any way, the camel was not allowed to be killed and eaten except in a public rite, at which all the kinsmen assisted.”

From his monastery at Sinai Nilus was a well known person throughout the Eastern Church; by his writings and correspondence he played an important part in the history of his time. He was known as a theologian, Biblical scholar and ascetic writer, so people of all kinds, from the emperor down, wrote to consult him. His numerous works, including a multitude of letters, consist of denunciations of heresy, paganism, abuses of discipline and crimes, of rules and principles of asceticism, especially maxims about the religious life. He warns and threatens people in high places, abbots and bishops, governors and princes, even the emperor himself, without fear. He kept up a correspondence with Gainas, a leader of the Goths, endeavouring to convert him from Arianism;[6] he denounced vigorously the persecution of St. John Chrysostom both to the Emperor Arcadius[7] and to his courtiers.[8]

Nilus must be counted as one of the leading ascetic writers of the 5th century.–Wikipedia

“This evidence is all the more remarkable because, among the Saracens of whom Nilus speaks, the slaughter of a camel in times of hunger does not seem to have been considered as a sacrifice to the gods. For a couple of pages later he speaks expressly of he sacrifices which these Arabs offered to the morning star, the sole deity they acknowledged. These could be performed only when the star was visible, and the whole victim–flesh, skin, and bones–had to be devoured before the sun rose upon it and the day-star disappeared. As this form of sacrifice was necessarily confined to seasons when the planet Venus was a morning star, while the necessity for slaughtering a camel as food might arise at any season, it is to be inferred that in the latter case the victim was not recognized as having a sacrificial character. … the Saracens of Nilus, like the Arabs generally in the last ages of heathenism, had ceased to do sacrifice to the tribal or clan god with whose worship the feast of kinsmen was originally connected. The planet Venus, or Lucifer, was not a tribal deity, but, as we know from a variety of sources, was worshiped by all the northern Arabs, to whatever kin they belonged. … ”

According to Wikipedia:

Ptolemy‘s Geography (2nd century CE) describes “Sarakene” as a region in the northern Sinai peninsula.[2] Ptolemy also mentions a people called the “Sarakenoi” living in north-western Arabia (near neighbor to the Sinai).[2] Eusebius of Caesarea refers to Saracens in his Ecclesiastical history, in which he narrates an account wherein Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, mentions Saracens in a letter while describing the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Decius: “Many were, in the Arabian mountain, enslaved by the barbarous ‘sarkenoi’.”[2]

But a few centuries after that, Europeans started using Saracen as a catch-all for Arabs and Muslims.

I have just started reading the Wikipedia page on Religion in pre-Islamic Arabia, but a quick search does not turn up “Venus” or “star.” I’ll be on the lookout for evidence one way or another regarding Smith’s claims.


Anthropology Friday: Smith’s Sacrifice Among the Semites

Guys, I was really excited to bring you W. Robertson Smith‘s Sacrifice Among the Semites, (1889) but it turned out kind of disappointing. It contains, in fact, very few descriptions of sacrifice, among the Semites or anyone else.

Like Tyler, he has an “evolutionist” view of religious history, but the essay feels more proto-Freudian; it was with no surprise that I found that the very next essay in my textbook deals directly with Freud.

Nevertheless, it does have some interesting parts that I think are worth sharing. Smith doesn’t offer (at least in this essay) much support for his claims, but he did spend much of his life studying Semitic religion. According to Wikipedia,

After graduation he took up a chair in Hebrew at the Aberdeen Free Church College in 1870. In 1875 he wrote a number of important articles on religious topics in the ninth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. … took up a position as a reader in Arabic at the University of Cambridge, where he eventually rose to the position of University Librarian, Professor of Arabic and a fellow of Christ’s College.[1] It was during this time that he wrote The Old Testament in the Jewish Church (1881) and The Prophets of Israel (1882), which were intended to be theological treatises for the lay audience.

In 1887 Smith became the editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica after the death of his employer Thomas Spencer Baynes left the position vacant. In 1889 he wrote his most important work, Religion of the Semites, an account of ancient Jewish religious life which pioneered the use of sociology in the analysis of religious phenomena. He was Professor of Arabic there with the full title ‘Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic‘ (1889–1894).

However, it also says (regarding the work from which today’s quotes are taken):

After 75 years Evans-Pritchard, although noting his wide influence, summarized criticism of Smith’s totemism, “Bluntly, all Robertson Smith really does is to guess about a period of Semitic history about which we know almost nothing.”[25]

With those caveats, let’s begin (for readability, I am just using “” for Smith’s portions):

“The sacrificial meal was an appropriate expression of of the antique ideal of religious life, not merely because it was a social act and an act in which the god and his worshipers were conceived as partaking together, but because… the very act of eating and drinking with a man was a symbol and a confirmation of fellowship and mutual social obligations. The one thing directly expressed in the sacrificial meal is that the god and his worshipers are commensals, but every other point in their mutual relations is included in what this involves. Those who sit at meat together are united for all social effects, those who do not eat together are aliens to one another, without fellowship in religion and without reciprocal social duties. …

“Among the Arabs ever stranger whom one meets in the desert is a natural enemy, and has no protection against violence except his own strong hand or the fear that his tribe will avenge him if his blood be spilt. But if I have eaten the smallest morsel of food with a man, I have nothing further to fear from him; “there is salt between us,” and he is bound not only to do me no harm, but to help and defend me as if I were his brother. So far was this principle carried by the old Arabs, that Zaid al-Khail, a famous warrior in the days of Mohammed, refused to lay a vagabond who carried off his camels, because the thief had surreptitiously drunk from his father’s milk bowl before committing the theft. It does not indeed follow as a matter of course that because have eaten once with a man I am permanently his friend, for the bond of union is conceived in a very realistic way, and strictly speaking lasts no longer than the food may be supposed to remain in my system. …

“The Old Testament records many cases where a covenant was sealed by the parties eating and drinking together. In mot of these indeed the meal is sacrificial, so that it is not at once clear that two men are bound to each other merely by partaking of the same dish, unless the deity is taken in as a third party to the covenant.”

The Lord makes a covenant with Abraham:

15 After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
    I am your shield,[a]
    your very great reward.[b]

He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring[d] be.” … He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 …

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram… (Genesis 15:1-18)

Isaac and Abimelek make a covenant:

26 Meanwhile, Abimelek had come to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his personal adviser and Phicol the commander of his forces. 27 Isaac asked them, “Why have you come to me, since you were hostile to me and sent me away?”

28 They answered, “We saw clearly that the Lord was with you; so we said, ‘There ought to be a sworn agreement between us’—between us and you. Let us make a treaty with you 29 that you will do us no harm, just as we did not harm you but always treated you well and sent you away peacefully. And now you are blessed by the Lord.”

30 Isaac then made a feast for them, and they ate and drank. 31 Early the next morning the men swore an oath to each other. Then Isaac sent them on their way, and they went away peacefully. (Genesis 26:26-30)

But the covenant between David and Jonathan involves no food:

16 So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, “May the Lord call David’s enemies to account.” 17 And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself.

“Now in the most primitive society there is only one kind of fellowship which is absolute and inviolable. To the primitive man all other men fall under two classes, those to whom his life is sacred and those tho whom it is not sacred. The former are his fellows; the latter are strangers and potential foemen, with whom it is absurd to think of forming any inviolable tie unless they are first brought into the circle within which each man’s life is sacred to all his comrades.”

EvX: The gist of this is, I suspect, basically true, and I note it for its contrast with the modern world, in which not only are we supposed to be concerned with the lives of all strangers, but simultaneously, there is no longer anyone (outside of our nuclear families) to whom our lives are sacred.

“But that circle again corresponds to the circle of kinship, for the practical test of kinship is that the whole kin is answerable for the life of each of its members. By the rules of early society, if I slay my kinsman, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, the act is is murder, and is punished by expulsion from the kin; if my kinsman is slain by an outsider I and every other member of my kin are bound to avenge his death by killing the manslayer or some member of his kin. It is obvious that under such a system there can be no inviolable fellowship except between men of the same blood. For the duty of blood revenge is paramount, and every other obligation is dissolved as soon as it comes into conflict with the claims of blood. I cannot bind myself absolutely to a man, even for a temporary purpose, unless during the time of our engagement he is put into a kinsmans’ place. And this is as much as to say that a stranger cannot become bound to me, unless at the same time he become bound to all my kinsmen in exactly the same way. Such is, in fact, the law of the desert; when any member of a clan receives an outsider through the bond of salt, the whole clan is bound by his act, and must, while the engagement lasts, receive the stranger as one of themselves.

“The idea that kinship is not purely an affair of birth, but may be acquired, has fallen out of our circle of ideas; but o, for that matter, has the primitive conception of kindred itself.”

EvX: I don’t know about you, but I remember as a kid declaring myself “blood brothers”* with my friends, often with some kind of made-up ritual. Perhaps we’d gotten the idea from TV (I remember a scene in something or other I’d watched in which two or three kids cut their thumbs and pressed them together, then declared themselves blood brothers, but I never did that because AIDS is icky.) and perhaps the TV got the idea from the Indians or something like that. But either way, it was a thing we kids did.

*Yes we were girls but we still called it that.

“To us kinship has no absolute value, but is measured by degrees, and means much or little, or nothing at all, according to its degree and other circumstances. In ancient times, on the contrary, the fundamental obligation of kinship had nothing to do with degrees of relationship but rested with absolute and identical force on every member of the clan. To know that a man’s life was scared to me, and that every blood-feud that touched him involved me also, it was not necessary for me to count cousinship with him by reckoning up to our common ancestor; it was enough that we belonged to the same clan and bore the same clan name. … But the essential idea of kinship was independent of the particular form of law. A kin was a group  of persons whose lives were so bound up together, in what must be called a physical unity, that they could be treated as parts of one common life. The members of one kindred looked on themselves as one living whole, a single animated mass of blood, flesh, and bones, of which no member cold be touched without all the members suffering.”

EvX: There is a play by Voltaire which I read some years back, Zaire. The story, shortly, is of a slave girl (Zaire) in the Sultan’s court. The sultan has fallen in love with her and because of her virtue and modesty they are going to get married. But then Zaire discovers her father (whom she’d never met before, having been raised in the sultan’s court) is a French Christian. Her father dies a few minutes later and Zaire is now wracked with doubts because how can she marry a Muslim when she is a Christian? The sultan observes her strange, secretive behavior, concludes that she is having an affair, and kills her.

Back when I read this, it made no sense at all. Zaire’s spontaneous adoption of Christianity had nothing to do with a theology or belief–all that happened in the play to make her suddenly become Christian was that she discovered that her dying dad, whom she’s known for all of five minutes, was Christian.

I was attempting to understand the play’s actions through the lens of our modern understanding of religion as a matter of personal conscience, and ethnicity a matter of background genetics.

But Voltaire was clearly working within a tribalist framework, where Christianity = ethnicity, and ethnicity = tribe and you cannot marry outside your tribe.

Continuing on:

“This point of vie is expressed int he Semitic tongues in many familiar forms of speech. In a case of homicide Arabian tribesmen do not say,”the blood of M. or N. has been spilt,” naming the man; they say,
Our blood has been spilt.” In Hebrew the phrase by which one claims kinship is “I am our bone and your flesh.” Both in Hebrew and in Arabic “flesh” is synonymous with “clan” or kindred group.”

In the days when the judges ruled,[a] there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.

Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. …

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. Ruth 1:1-19