We talk fairly casually about the notion of the scapegoat — a being forced to bear the burdens of a larger group’s sins or flaws, ritually sacrificed or exiled in order to restore social balance — and certainly this is a useful term for us as we think about social responses to epidemics. One of the fundamental questions people tend to pose in epidemic settings is: who has caused this plague? And if a specific entity or group of people can be identified, what then?
The Encyclopaedia Britannica has this concise entry on “pharmākos” that may serve as a useful starting point for more specific definitions of terms:
pharmākos, in Greek religion, a human scapegoat used in certain state rituals. In Athens, for example, a man and a woman who were considered ugly were selected as scapegoats each year. At the festival of the Thargelia in May or June, they were feasted, led round the town, beaten with green twigs, and driven out or killed with stones. The practice in Colophon, on the coast of Asia Minor (the part of modern Turkey that lies in Asia) was described by the 6th-century-bc poet Hipponax (fragments 5–11). An especially ugly man was honoured by the community with a feast of figs, barley soup, and cheese. Then he was whipped with fig branches, with care that he was hit seven times on his phallus, before being driven out of town. (Medieval sources said that the Colophonian pharmākos was burned and his ashes scattered in the sea.) The custom was meant to rid the place annually of ill luck. The 5th-century Athenian practice of ostracism has been described as a rationalized and democratic form of the custom. The biblical practice of driving the scapegoat from the community, described in Leviticus 16, gave a name to this widespread custom, which was said by the French intellectual René Girard to explain the basis of all human societies.
Following these leads, here’s the relevant passage from Leviticus 16:
- The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD.
- The LORD said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.
- “This is how Aaron is to enter the sanctuary area: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.
- He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on.
- From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.
- “Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household.
- Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.
- He is to cast lots for the two goats–one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat.
- Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering.
- But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat.
- “Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering.
- He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain.
- He is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the Testimony, so that he will not die.
- He is to take some of the bull’s blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover.
- “He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it.
- In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. He is to do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which is among them in the midst of their uncleanness.
- No one is to be in the Tent of Meeting from the time Aaron goes in to make atonement in the Most Holy Place until he comes out, having made atonement for himself, his household and the whole community of Israel.
- “Then he shall come out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it. He shall take some of the bull’s blood and some of the goat’s blood and put it on all the horns of the altar.
- He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times to cleanse it and to consecrate it from the uncleanness of the Israelites.
- “When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat.
- He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites–all their sins–and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task.
- The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert.
- “Then Aaron is to go into the Tent of Meeting and take off the linen garments he put on before he entered the Most Holy Place, and he is to leave them there.
- He shall bathe himself with water in a holy place and put on his regular garments. Then he shall come out and sacrifice the burnt offering for himself and the burnt offering for the people, to make atonement for himself and for the people.
- He shall also burn the fat of the sin offering on the altar.
- “The man who releases the goat as a scapegoat must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp.
- The bull and the goat for the sin offerings, whose blood was brought into the Most Holy Place to make atonement, must be taken outside the camp; their hides, flesh and offal are to be burned up.
- The man who burns them must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp.
- “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work–whether native-born or an alien living among you–
- because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins.
- It is a sabbath of rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.
- The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments
- and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the people of the community.
- “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.” And it was done, as the LORD commanded Moses.
-  That is, the goat of removal; Hebrew azazel; also in verses 10 and 26
-  Or must fast; also in verse 31
And here’s a summary of the work of René Girard on the subject:
When violence is at the point of threatening the existence of the community, very frequently a bizarre psychosocial mechanism arises: communal violence is all of the sudden projected upon a single individual. Thus, people that were formerly struggling, now unite efforts against someone chosen as a scapegoat. Former enemies now become friends, as they communally participate in the execution of violence against a specified enemy.
Girard calls this process ‘scapegoating’, an allusion to the ancient religious ritual where communal sins were metaphorically imposed upon a he-goat, and this beast was eventually abandoned in the desert, or sacrificed to the gods (in the Hebrew Bible, this is especially prescribed in Leviticus 16).The person that receives the communal violence is a ‘scapegoat’ in this sense: her death or expulsion is useful as a regeneration of communal peace and restoration of relationships.
However, Girard considers it crucial that this process be unconscious in order to work. The victim must never be recognized as an innocent scapegoat (indeed, Girard considers that, prior to the rise of Christianity, ‘innocent scapegoat’ was virtually an oxymoron; see section 4.b below); rather, the victim must be thought of as a monstrous creature that transgressed some prohibition and deserved to be punished. In such a manner, the community deceives itself into believing that the victim is the culprit of the communal crisis, and that the elimination of the victim will eventually restore peace.
In what ways can Oedipus’ outcome be understood in similar terms? Girard certainly thought so. Oedipus was his chief example of how this process works; in treating Oedipus as an innocent victim of his society’s effort to rid itself of plague, he aims to undo Freud’s dominant understanding of the Oedipus myth.
Image above: William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat, 1854.