Ernest Becker 5: Build Me A Sacrificial Altar

Ernest Becker 5: The Power of Ritual or Build Me A Sacrificial Altar


Becker was a master synthesizer.  He didn’t really do any empirical research himself.  His arguments are based on a careful distillation, combination, and re-combination of the work of many other writers, among them A. M. Hocart, Otto Rank, Johan Huizinga and Norman O. Brown.  In Chapter 1 of EFE, entitled The Primitive World:  Ritual as Practical Technics, Becker introduces the work of the anthropologist A. M. Hocart (1883-1939).  Hocart was a major influence on Becker and provided him with a number of basic insights upon which Becker built his elegant and provocative analysis of the thing that drives humankind to distraction…the striving for immortality.

Ritual.  As well as being creatures of habit, we are also creatures of ritual.  Human beings love ritual.  Our lives are frequently punctuated by ritual.  Becker writes:

Hocart…saw the universal human ambition as the achievement of prosperity – the good life.  To satisfy this craving, only man could create that most powerful concept which has both made him heroic and brought him utter tragedy – the invention and practice of ritual, which s first and foremost a technique for promoting the good life and averting evil.  Let us not rush over these words:  ritual is a technique for giving life.  This thing is momentous: throughout vast ages of prehistory mankind imagined that it could control life

Through spells, incantations, charms and magic primitive peoples believed they could control life.  In fact, ritual was required to make just about everything happen, from making sure the crops were good from year to year, that there was plenty of game to kill and eat and that no harm would come to people and their families.  Harm would come to people only if the ritual was not properly conducted or some malevolent being interfered with it.

The point I want to make is very simple and direct: that by means of the techniques of ritual men imagined that they took firm control of the material world, and at the same time transcended that world by fashioning their own invisible projects which made them supernatural, raised them over and above material decay and death.  In the world of ritual there aren’t any accidents, and accidents, as we know, are the things that make life most precarious and meaningless. 

 Let’s be clear.  Primitives believed they could control the material world with ritual.  We think we can control it with science and the modern secular worldview.  Primitives, of course, lacked the science-based engineering capacity of us moderns.  They didn’t have the factory system and mass production.  For primitives,

…ritual is actually a preindustrial technique of manufacture; it doesn’t exactly create new things, Hocart says, but it transfers the power of life and it renovates nature.  But how can we have a technique of manufacture without machinery?  Precisely by building a ritual altar and making that the locus of the transfer and renewal of life power…Man controls nature by whatever he can invent, and primitive man invented the ritual altar and the magical paraphanalia to make it work.  And as the modern mechanic carries around his tools, so did the primitive scrupulously transport his charms and rebuild his altars. 

 We call it magic because we don’t believe it worked, and we call our technology scientific because we believe it works.  I am not pretending that primitive magic is as efficacious for the control of nature as our science, but in out time we are beginning to live with some strange and uncomfortable realizations.  Primitive ritual manufacture of life may not have actually controlled the universe, but at least it was never in any danger of destroying it.  We control it up to a point – the point at which we seem to be destroying it.

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