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Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Homo Necans: Man the Killer



American Meat Institute advertisement: Life, 25 October 1943 (Gallery of Graphic Design)

The absence of a predatory instinct in the great ape's genetic makeup was always going to be a problem once the descent from the trees to the forest floor had taken place. Paleolothic man compensated for this lack by displacing patterns of inter-species aggression and redirecting them toward other species. Thus was born hunting, a conduct in which the characteristics of an equal are projected upon the prey, which thus becomes an "enemy". Killing your enemy is OK. From animal sacrifice, in turn, is born religion.

This is the thesis of Walter Burkert in his profound study of ancient Greek myth and religion, Homo Necans: the Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth (1992).

Homo Necans means man the killer. Short sentence. Capital offense, sans the tiresome guilt and punishment bits.

You might say that's putting a fine point on it. Or then again you might say, well, that's just connecting the dots.


Swift & Company advertisement: Good Housekeeping, 1 July 1948 (Gallery of Graphic Design)

Making the crucial jump from "sacrificial ritual with its tension between encountering death and affirming life, its external form consisting of preparations, a frightening central moment, and restitution," to the altar and thence the slaughterhouse, Walter Burkert contends, enabled man to become the powerful dominant creature he might never have become had he stuck with patterns of scavenging or gathering vegetation to obtain sustenance. Hard cheese for those other species, thus doomed to the desolate eternal fate of being our chattel, our food supply... and otherwise of little interest so long as they stay out of our way.

"Nourishment, order and civilized life are born of their antithesis: the encounter with death. Only homo necans can become homo sapiens."


Swift & Company advertisement: Life, 24 July 1939 (Gallery of Graphic Design)


ACravan said...

This is very fine. And although it must have taken a hell of a lot of thought and work, and I greatly appreciate artistic economy and the principle of "leaving them wanting more", I wish it were longer. What you're saying here and bringing to the conversation is just so valuable and, as you commented on another page, a provocation to thought. I think that, arrayed with your other pieces on this subject, you're creating something that's extremely valuable that has all sorts of color, nuance and moods, but pulls no punches. Curtis

TC said...

Curtis, many thanks for thinking. As you have guessed, yes, the post represents only a fragment of the labour involved. This is a delicate subject for many, one senses. One would not wish to be caught ranting on. Therefore the greater part of the post was left bleeding upon the floor of the ark of the Blogger covenant. But hopefully the point comes across. The Burkert book is something one cannot easily get one's mind around without many long, long pauses and passages of deep introspection. So much historical information concerning the cultural relations of man and animal is implied... It floods and invades the mind. One is left -- dare one use this word after seeing the images of that terrible mechanical instrument of brain destruction deployed pornographically, human-on-human, in the Coen Brothers film -- stunned.