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

 

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New Frontiers of the Bronze Age Collapse (Pt. 2/3)

1024px-Metallurgical_diffusionYesterday we were discussing Bronze Age European/Mediterranean trade networks and civilizations. 

(Go to Part 3)

My suspicion is that these societies were more advanced and complex than we generally give them credit for, (especially the northern European ones) simply because we don’t have any written records from them and the archaeological trail is scanty.

We have amber, traded from the Baltic Sea down to Italy, north Africa, the Levant, and beyond; tin, mined in Cornwall, Spain, Brittany, and southern Germany, then traded all across Europe, north Africa, and the Middle East; and of course copper, which was mined all over.

In Egypt the bronze age was clearly glorious, but Greece and Spain also saw the rise of cities, palaces, art, and even aqueducts and sewers. Greece and Egypt had writing and were beginning to develop math (I don’t know much about the Spanish cities.)

1024px-Bronsealderens_sammenbruddAnd then, around 1200 BC, it all collapsed.

Within 50 years, almost every major city in the eastern Mediterranean was sacked, destroyed, conquered, or abandoned. The kingdoms of Mycenaen Greece, the Hittites of Syria and Anatolia,  and the New Kingdom of Egypt (and Canaan) all collapsed. The written language of Greece (“Linear B”) was completely forgotten and disappeared. The Hittite capital was burned, abandoned, and never rebuilt; Anatolia didn’t return to its former level of complexity for a thousand years. Babylon and Troy were sacked; Egypt was invaded by the Libyans.

Bronze_Age_CollapseAnd no one knows why.

The most proximate cause is the “Sea Peoples,” a motley assortment of sea-faring folks who suddenly show up in the local records (especially Egyptian) and conquer everything in sight. As Ramesses III recorded:

The [sea Peoples] made a conspiracy in their islands, All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms: from Hatti, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alashiya on, being cut off [ie. destroyed] at one time. A camp was set up in Amurru. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the land as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: “Our plans will succeed!”[34]

Who were the Sea People? Where did they come from? According to Wikipedia, they were:

TofG 191The most famous Sea People were the Philistines, who appear to have hailed originally from the Aegean before being defeated by the Egyptians and settled in the southern Levant, where they came into conflict with the Israelites. There’s fairly decent evidence for the Philistine connection, because we have written accounts about them from the Egyptians and the Hebrews, plus the archaeological remains of their cities, which are full of Greek pottery.

Most of the other potential identifications are based on little more than linguistic similarity–in other words, we don’t really have any idea where a lot of them came from.

In Greece, the invaders appear to have come by land, migrating from the north, not the sea.

One of the things I’ve noticed about migrations is that once they start, (for whatever reason,) they keep going. Suppose a famine hits Group A, so they flee the area and displace Group B. Group B pushes out Group C, who take to the seas and end up destroying towns hundreds or thousands of miles away. Events in Mongolia can reverberate into Poland; a sudden abundance of food and medical care in Africa ends with migrants in Sweden.

And in exciting, potentially related news, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a massive battle that took place in 1250 BC in, of all places, northern Germany:

Along a 3-kilometer stretch of the Tollense River, archaeologists … have unearthed wooden clubs, bronze spearheads, and flint and bronze arrowheads. They have also found bones in extraordinary numbers: the remains of at least five horses and more than 100 men. Bones from hundreds more may remain unexcavated, and thousands of others may have fought but survived.

“If our hypothesis is correct that all of the finds belong to the same event, we’re dealing with a conflict of a scale hitherto completely unknown north of the Alps,” says dig co-director Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the Lower Saxony State Service for Cultural Heritage in Hannover. “There’s nothing to compare it to.” It may even be the earliest direct evidence—with weapons and warriors together—of a battle this size anywhere in the ancient world. …

In one spot, 1478 bones, among them 20 skulls, were packed into an area of just 12 square meters. Archaeologists think the bodies landed or were dumped in shallow ponds, where the motion of the water mixed up bones from different individuals. By counting specific, singular bones—skulls and femurs, for example—UG forensic anthropologists Ute Brinker and Annemarie Schramm identified a minimum of 130 individuals, almost all of them men, most between the ages of 20 and 30.

Tollense battlefield
Tollense battlefield

The number suggests the scale of the battle. “We have 130 people, minimum, and five horses. And we’ve only opened 450 square meters. That’s 10% of the find layer, at most, maybe just 3% or 4%,” says Detlef Jantzen, chief archaeologist at MVDHP. “If we excavated the whole area, we might have 750 people. That’s incredible for the Bronze Age.” In what they admit are back-of-the-envelope estimates, he and Terberger argue that if one in five of the battle’s participants was killed and left on the battlefield, that could mean almost 4000 warriors took part in the fighting.

The article has some entertaining illustrations, so I urge you to take a look.

PeeneThe Tollense is a small river in north east Germany, near the Baltic Sea and fairly close to Poland. We have yet to find the remains of any bronze age cities, towns, or fortresses nearby, (the closest known settlement was 350 km away,) but somebody built a 120 meter wooden causeway across the valley.

Was the Tollense part of a major trade network the armies were fighting over? Or was this just the only road in the area? (Serbian Irish has a great post that lays out their position that the battle was actually an attack on a very large, heavily fortified trade caravan. Lots of interesting material in Serbian Irish’s post. [Their argument hinges on claims that there were women, children, and old people among the dead, which I have not seen reported elsewhere, but I also have not read the original papers the archaeologists published, so maybe Serbian Irish knows something I don’t.])

The Science article notes, hilariously, that prior to uncovering a bunch of skulls with arrowheads lodged in them and big, bashed-in holes, many archaeologists genuinely believed that real battles hadn’t occurred in the Bronze Age:

Before the 1990s, “for a long time we didn’t really believe in war in prehistory,” DAI’s Hansen says. The grave goods were explained as prestige objects or symbols of power rather than actual weapons. “Most people thought ancient society was peaceful, and that Bronze Age males were concerned with trading and so on,” says Helle Vandkilde, an archaeologist at Aarhus University in Denmark. “Very few talked about warfare.”

Peaceful arrow inside of somebody's skull, Tollense
Peaceful arrow inside of somebody’s skull, Tollense

You know, those Bronze Age chieftains just collected swords for show, kind of like people who watch too much anime.

This line of thought got started, (as far as I can tell) after WWII, when archaeologists and anthropologists began promoting the idea that war and violence were modern, Western aberrations, and that primitive peoples were all peaceful, nature-loving paragons of gender equality. Much of the accumulated evidence for prehistoric human migrations was dismissed under the slogan, “pots, not people,” an exhortation to interpret the sudden diffusion of new pots and other cultural artifacts as just evidence of trade, not the movement of people. But as I noted before, it’s looking a lot more like “People, not pots.”

This was a pretty stupid line of thought, given that we can actually count the number of homicides committed by modern hunter-gatherers, and have abundant written records of extreme violence committed within the past few centuries by one tribe against the next, from cannibalism to attempted genocide. (Heck, within the last few decades.)

totally peaceful, non-violently bashed in with a hammer skull from Tollense battlefield
Skull non-violently bashed in with a hammer or bat

At any rate, the article discusses in some detail evidence that the soldiers who died in Tollense weren’t just some local brawlers, but were trained professionals, most likely part of a large army drawn from across Europe:

And yet chemical tracers in the remains suggest that most of the Tollense warriors came from hundreds of kilometers away. … archaeologist Doug Price analyzed strontium, oxygen, and carbon isotopes in 20 teeth from Tollense. Just a few showed values typical of the northern European plain, which sprawls from Holland to Poland. The other teeth came from farther afield, although Price can’t yet pin down exactly where.

Further clues come from isotopes of another element, nitrogen, which reflect diet. Nitrogen isotopes in teeth from some of the men suggest they ate a diet heavy in millet, a crop more common at the time in southern than northern Europe. … DNA from teeth suggests some warriors are related to modern southern Europeans and others to people living in modern-day Poland and Scandinavia. …

(Now if only someone could test some Philistine DNA, so we can resolve this “Were they Greek or did they merely have Greek pots?” debate once and for all.)

Twenty-seven percent of the skeletons show signs of healed traumas from earlier fights, including three skulls with healed fractures. …

Standardized metal weaponry and the remains of the horses, which were found intermingled with the human bones at one spot, suggest that at least some of the combatants were well-equipped and well-trained. … Body armor and shields emerged in northern Europe in the centuries just before the Tollense conflict … At Tollense, these bronze-wielding, mounted warriors might have been a sort of officer class, presiding over grunts bearing simpler weapons. …

And not long after Tollense, the scattered farmsteads of northern Europe gave way to concentrated, heavily fortified settlements, once seen only to the south.

This is basically a complete revolution in our understanding of the Bronze Age in northern Europe.

Late Bronze Age cultures of Europe: Lusatian (green), German Urnfield (Orange), and Nordic (Yellow.)
Late Bronze Age cultures of Europe: Lusatian (green), German Urnfield (Orange), and Nordic (Yellow.)

Tollense is located near the apex of three different cultures: the Lusatian (centered mainly on modern Poland;) the Urnfield Cultures throughout most of Germany, (these two were related, but Wikipedia says, “The central European Lusatian culture forms part of the Urnfield tradition, but continues into the Iron Age without a notable break;”) and the Nordic cultures of the northern coast.

Interestingly, the Lusatian culture (and the Urnfield Cultures in general) arose around 1300 BC, or about 50 years before the battle. They replaced the earlier Tumulus Culture, which had interred its dead in big burial mounds (tumuli,) and disappeared right around 1200 BC. The Lusatian and Urnfield Cultures cremated their dead. (In this case, the pots are literally full of people.)

Wikipedia says of the Lusatians:

Recreation of the Biskupin fort, Lusatian Culture
Recreation of the Biskupin fort, Lusatian Culture

Metal grave gifts are sparse, but there are numerous hoards (e.g., Kopaniewo, Pomerania) that contain rich metalwork, both bronze and gold (hoard of Eberswalde, Brandenburg). Graves containing moulds, like at Bataune, Saxony or tuyeres attest to the production of bronze tools and weapons at the village level. The ‘royal’ tomb of Seddin, Brandenburg, Germany, covered by a large earthen barrow, contained Mediterranean imports like bronze-vessels and glass beads. Cemeteries can be quite large and contain thousands of graves.

Well known settlements include Biskupin in Poland, and Buch near Berlin. There are both open villages and fortified settlements (burgwall or grod) on hilltops or in swampy areas. The ramparts were constructed of wooden boxes filled with soil or stones.

Of the Urnfield:

Fortified hilltop settlements become common in the Urnfield period. Often a steep spur was used, where only part of the circumference had to be fortified. Depending on the locally available materials, dry-stone walls, gridded timbers filled with stones or soil or plank and palisade type pfostenschlitzmauer fortifications were used. Other fortified settlements used rivers-bends and swampy areas.

At the hill fort of Hořovice near Beroun (CR), 50 ha were surrounded by a stone wall. Most settlements are much smaller. Metal working is concentrated in the fortified settlements. On the Runder Berg near Urach, Germany, 25 stone moulds have been found.

Hillforts are interpreted as central places. Some scholars see the emergence of hill forts as a sign of increased warfare. Most hillforts were abandoned at the end of the Bronze Age.

And of the Bronze Age Nordic Culture:

Even though Scandinavians joined the European Bronze Age cultures fairly late through trade, Scandinavian sites presents a rich and well-preserved legacy of bronze and gold objects. These valuable metals were all imported, primarily from Central Europe, but they were often crafted locally and the craftsmanship and metallurgy of the Nordic Bronze Age was of a high standard. The archaeological legacy also comprise locally crafted wool and wooden objects and there are many tumuli and rock carving sites from this period, but no written language existed in the Nordic countries during the Bronze Age. The rock carvings have been dated through comparison with depicted artifacts, for example bronze axes and swords. There are also numerous Nordic Stone Age rock carvings, those of northern Scandinavia mostly portray elk.

Thousands of rock carvings from this period depict ships, and the large stone burial monuments known as stone ships, suggest that ships and seafaring played an important role in the culture at large. The depicted ships, most likely represents sewn plank built canoes used for warfare, fishing and trade. These ship types may have their origin as far back as the neolithic period and they continue into the Pre-Roman Iron Age, as exemplified by the Hjortspring boat.[2]

Of course, it is quite likely that the tumulus-urnfield transition had nothing to do with the Libyans invading Egypt and the fall of Troy. But the evidence so far points to the possibility of a much wider, more generalized catastrophe, that either began in one area and then prompted a cascade of peoples to invade and conquer their neighbors in multiple directions, or that affected several areas all at once.

On Thursday we’ll discuss possible reasons behind the collapse. (Go back to Part 1)