The Scapegoat

Francisco Goya, “The Witches’ Sabbath”

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.”

New International Version

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.

Aphrodite riding on a goat (apparently her favourite mount)

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9 Responses to The Scapegoat

  1. herongrace says:

    A very thought provoking post Monika! I read the article by George Callan and I totally agree with her observations. I’m wondering is fear of Nature the basis of our intolerant projections?
    Surely people who revere Nature and attempt to co exist in harmony with her are less likely to be intolerant and fearful of otherness and project their own shadow side onto the vulnerable and subjugate them?
    It’s interesting in these times narcissism in families and scapegoating is prevalent and is being lauded in much politics. We have a world leader championing the righteous in I suspect a goal to be a warmonger, which is looking very scary right now.
    I love the excerpt of T.S.Elliot’s Four Quartets poem, which reminds me of the Hermit with his lamp attempting to explore the 12th house!
    A wonderful post as usual.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for the comment. I really have not thought about the point you are making about Nature and whether those living close to it are less likely to be intolerant. Perhaps it depends on whether they espouse traditional patriarchal values or not… Do they revere or seek to subjugate nature? But I agree – in the world of politics scapegoating is rampant. And I also love The Four Quartets.
      Thank you, as usual


  2. Yes … shared on twitter.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Apollo says:

    Fascinating topic and a good article.

    Sounds a lot like the sensual and nature loving Dionysian impulse within all was scapegoated as being impure and sent away. That goat always comes back though. As part of this ritual they also ritually killed another goat as a sin offering. This was payment to Yahweh for sin transferred on to the goat.

    Also I think we do still perform human sacrifice/ritual killing on the scale known in the past, probably more so, however we call it now war. It’s global and a mass sacrifice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you and perhaps you are right about human sacrifice – woefully. There is also a lot of metaphorical scapegoating going on on the social media. True about the second goat. This post was a little bit of a rough sketch but I really wanted to share that content because it felt so pertinent. Thank you again.


  4. I haven’t read Callan’s paper yet, but want to share my most immediate thoughts. The ousting of Lucifer (too smart for his own good?) from the archangelic heavens, and the banishment of Eve & Adam (SHE most particularly) from the garden (also too smart …) are profound scapegoating “fables” intended to amplify the patriarchal rhetoric over good and evil. “Good” in these cases, essentially meaning “follow orders”.

    Liked by 1 person

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