When you research ancient magic, you acclimate to a world of weird, unorthodox, and downright gruesome rituals. Harvesting body parts for a spell? Graphic descriptions of ritual mutilation? Smearing animal dung on yourself for invisibility powers? Meh. I’ve read it all. So for all intents and purposes I’m impervious to being rattled by strange and disturbing rituals…right?
Well…apparently not…since I almost fainted in class after watching the beheading of a baby goat.
Seldom does Greco-Roman religion capture the attention of a class full of undergraduates, so what better way to rouse interest in Roman cult than showing an actual sacrifice? My professor pulled up this video—the sacrifice of a little goat in the West Bengal town of Tarapith in 2011.
She assured us that although she “could have found videos a lot worse than this,” anyone could close their eyes if it proved too much to handle. Of course, I wasn’t going to do such a thing. I, like any self-respecting expert in ritual, would watch with rapt attention and a scholarly eye to detail.
I watched as the priest flicked the goat with water, prayed over it, and stroked the weapon that would soon end its life. The video then reached a fevered pitch. With the drums pounding in the background, the priests carried the goat to the stake, pulled its legs back, and stretched its neck out as it bleated piteously. The sound was truly disturbing and shocked me out of my detached objectivity.
The priest then chopped its head off. No fanfare. No incantation or prayer. Just a hefty blow to the neck.
This didn’t disgust me. I felt more a sense of macabre fascination as the priests tossed the twitching body aside as if nothing happened. But as I ruminated over what I just saw (“wow, things really do twitch after decapitation!”), I started feeling lightheaded. First just simple dizziness. But then the voice of the professor became strangely distant, and I recognized the onset of a vasovagal syncope.
Somehow in the midst of my stupor, I had the mental wherewithal to feign taking notes on my iPad. Anything to save face as the only graduate student in the room right? I wouldn’t ever live it down.
Thankfully I recovered quickly enough. Shaken and sweaty, I sat back in my chair and brooded. What just happened? I’ve been raised in the Christian sub-culture. I’ve been reading about animal sacrifices since 1st grade Sunday school. Heck, I’ve been reading about human sacrifice since childhood if you count the episode with Abraham and Isaac. Am I really so shocked to see this for the first time? And even then, in a blurry YouTube video?
I decided the reaction stemmed from the radical “otherness” of the spectacle. For a modern churchgoer accustomed to well-tuned organs and dainty sippy-cups of grape juice as his idea of worship, beheading a goat is insurmountably weird or “other.“
This brings me back to a topic covered in an earlier post: how to exercise empathy in religious dialogue. One strategy to converse with “the Other” is to recognize the weirdness of your own religious practices in order to avoid creating a caricature. However, this recent episode illustrates how difficult this is. How can we honestly and openly dialogue between religions when sometimes the chasm of difference is so vast?
I have no easy answer. In fact, I’m apparently too ensconced in my own Western Protestant bias to even provide an answer. The true irony here is that animal sacrifice was the primary vehicle for relating to God for all the biblical heroes in the Hebrew Bible and a daily fact of life for many in the New Testament. Christianity’s modern iterations, in many (most?) respects, would be completely unrecognizable even to St. Paul. Like the sacrifice in West Bengal, the origins of my own faith are distant and foreign, and even though Christians like to cozy up with friendly characters like Moses or David, it takes a heavy dose of humility to acknowledge the difference in their religious experience.
As the British novelist L.P. Hartley quipped, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” This is the central challenge of the scholar and the layperson alike. We must excavate meaning from a culture that not only is foreign but is separated by millennia. Sometimes the differences appear insurmountable, but this should not discourage us from building bridges to the Other.