Peter Jones

Ancient and modern: Scapegoat of the year

The world informs us that the ex-Sir-cised knight Fred has been tipped off his horse onto a scapegoat. Wrong again. The Judaic [e]scapegoat ritual provided annual blanket cover for the community by transferring its sins mechanically onto a wilderness-bound goat. It was not a response by the ‘mob’— that’s us — to a one-off crisis. For that, we turn to the Greeks.

Their scapegoat (pharmakos) often referred to those who touched religious sensitivities at times of political crisis. One Andocides, for example, was involved in a sacrilegious scandal in 415 bc that threatened the success of a huge Athenian military expedition to Sicily. The prosecutor said of him ‘in punishing Andocides and ridding yourselves of him, you are cleansing the city, purifying it of pollution, expelling a pharmakos and one who has offended against the gods’.

Kings, whose authority was thought to come from Zeus, were especially open to responsibility for communal disaster. The reasoning seems to have been that, while ordinary men were controlled by law, only divine wrath could restrain kings or a community that decided, in special cases, not to uphold its own principles. ‘Through big men is the city destroyed,’ said the statesman Solon.

This absolved groups like the ancient equivalent of bankers, the corn-dealers, who held sway over a vital area of life. In one court case they were accused of ‘having interests the opposite of other men’s. They make their greatest profits when they hear bad news has struck the city and can sell their corn dear. So they are delighted to see disaster hitting you.’ But they were just being greedy.

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