The Scapegoat: A Brief History of Meaning

Nov 12, 2008Updated 8 months ago

According to Sir James Frazer’s turn of the century classic, The Golden Bough; A Study in Magic and Religion, scapegoating has existed in every culture since the earliest times. Animals such as goats, snakes, and lizards as well as human beings were used to carry the village sins away from the community.

Either through sacrifice or banishment, the chosen victim carried the guilt and blame for the entire population. The perpetrator's story is slightly different, however.

Historically Speaking

Historically what was chosen to carry the sins could be animal, vegetable or mineral. Often an object such as a clay bowl, vessel or a boat was ceremoniously filled with the sins and then given back to the sea. If the victim was a living animal or human, it was either sacrificed or made to wander endlessly through the wilderness. The belief was also that on its way back to the "wilderness'" (meaning away from the village) the so-called evil that it carried would be transferred to the first person, animal or thing to touch it.

Although encountered in all ancient cultures and mythologies, it is perhaps made most famous in the Judeo Christian culture with in Leviticus 18 whereby the priest lays his hands on the head of the chosen goat and intones over it all the sins of the people. Then the goat is chased back into the wilderness carrying all the sins of the village, so for another six months or year the community is free of sin and, of course, any guilt. An efficient way for a community to deal with its difficulties, Frazer refers to these rituals as the "transference of evil."

More Ancient Ceremonies

At other ceremonies, sited in Leviticus as well as across the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia according to Frazer, once the community’s sins were given over to the animal or human, it was ceremoniously slain. The sacrificial blood then was used to wash away the "sins of the father," so to speak.

Sometimes when the victim was not to be slain, such as in ancient Greece, the ceremony enacted made use of a cripple or person with such an obvious deformity that the gods themselves would notice.The burden of sin would be carried upon the back of the poor cripple once again chosen to "carry the evil" from the village. Whosoever touched the beggar would in turn get his or her own comeuppance.

Psychologically Speaking

Nowadays, the slaughter is only figurative and no such goat or vessel is used. Instead, individuals or groups of individuals carry the sins of others through their own projection. This is always an unconscious act but one for which, if the projector is made aware of his or her projections, affords great opportunity for self-healing and growth. The danger, of course, is when left on its own the so-called "sin" or shadow material is carried by the group, be it a popular movement or an entire nation. This is how the "collective shadow" is born.

In psychological terms, the scapegoat is that person or group of people that is singled out, often unwittingly, and the unwanted or undesirable feelings of that person or group is projected upon the "other." As is the ancient custom, this other person or group becomes then the carrier of the unwanted ills for the entire tribe, country, cultural group etc.

Dangers of Scapegoating

The term scapegoat refers to the ways in which blame is shifted onto another for mistakes and behaviors one cannot or will not accept in oneself. Again psychologically speaking, the dangers of this for the developing ego is that the personality does not learn to accept its own part in things that go wrong. This in turn can lead to a serious passive aggression and other isolating behaviors.

As in any community, country or individual developing ego short term solace is gained, but the consequences for the perpetrators of scapegoating will always be a retarded development for both individual and community. As history and psychology teaches, scapegoating seems not to achieve its desired end after all. The sins of the father, fortunately or not, remain with the father.

For more about the psychology of the scapegoat see my articles on the collective shadow and projection. For more on the importance of myth in daily life, see my article on poetry and myth.