Chapter 16, verses 20-22 of Leviticus, the third book of the Old Testament, speaks of the scapegoat ritual:
“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 wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.”
Rene Girard is famous for developing the concept of the scapegoat mechanism in philosophy. For him the Old Testament story described “the process of collective discharge.” In this ritual aggression is channeled to the outside and peace is restored in the community.
In depth psychology the concept of the scapegoat complex was developed by Sylvia Brinton Perera in her book The Scapegoat Complex: Toward a Mythology of Shadow and Guilt. I have not read the book yet, but I have recently come across a paper partly based on Perera’s ideas. It was written by a depth psychologist George McGrath Callan. You can read it here – it is quite outstanding.
“Ancient rites and ceremonies of atonement were meant to excise the diseases and evils of the community to wipe away or purge sin through sacrifice, which would magically transfer the evil and guilt to another an animal, object or person. Disposable guilt. The scapegoat ritual restored the sense of wholeness to the community and its relationship to a single patriarchal divine figure. Often it was the ugly or deformed person, the sinner or the criminal who was chosen to be sacrificed always someone who possessed some strong attribute of otherness from the agreed upon aesthetic or ethical standard” says Callan. “To cast or project blame is to protect ourselves from our own shadow,” he also adds.
Further he states:
“I suggest that the story of Azazel is a primary mythos of the global culture, and very particularly, the current American culture, so dominated by attitudes of righteousness, so ready to attribute blame so unconscious of the need for atonement for its long empirical history. It is a complex gone wild in the European, American and Global psyche.”
Though in modern times we do not perform human sacrifice or ritual killing on the scale known in the past, we are quick to judge and expel certain individuals out of the community. In this way, we feel guiltless and we can “turn to our ego ideal and reestablish our place among the chosen,” adds Callan.
In the following passage he traces the biblical source of the scapegoat complex:
“Azazel was originally a pre-Hebraic goat god honored by herdsmen. He was connected to nature religions, and so was bound to the feminine, to the instinctual, and to sensuous beauty. … He had a particular affinity for mortals. It was believed that he provided women with recipes for cosmetics and revealed to mortals the secrets of war. These were two divine treasures not intended to be passed on to mortals. Aggression and vanity were the prerogative of the god. The historic Yahweh was a complex god. He was both an angry and destructive deity and a god of compassion and faithfulness to his people. As Yahweh transitioned to an all loving god, the myth of Azazel, by necessity, changed as well. Someone had to take the rap for the dark aspect of the divine. … As religions separated their divinities from aggressive and erotic instincts, associated with sexuality, seduction, weaponry and war, Azazel became an adversary of Yahweh, and was further distorted by Jewish patriarchs in much the same way that Christians mutilated the images of pagan figures. We can see here where the divine figure has been split off from a significant aspect of his nature.”
The earth, feminine and sensual goat god had become the lecherous devil incarnate.