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Barbara Ehrenreich: Blood Rites:
origins and history of the passions of war
(Metropolitan Books: 1997)


“These are, in crude summary, the theories of war which modern wars have left us with: That war is a means, however risky, by which men seek to advance their collective interests and improve their lives. Or, alternatively, that war stems from subrational drives not unlike those that lead individuals to commit violent crimes. In our own time, most people seem to hold both views at once...[and] there is no question about the first part of this proposition.... The mystery lies in the peculiar psychological grip war exerts on us.... [For] war...is too complex and collective an activity to be accounted for by a single warlike instinct lurking within the individual psyche. Instinct may, or may not, inspire a man to bayonet the first enemy he encounters in battle. But instinct does not mobilize supply lines, manufacture rifles, issue uniforms, or move an army of thousands from point A on the map to B.... ‘The hypothesis of a killer instinct,’ according to a commentator summarizing a recent conference on the anthropology of war, is ‘not so much wrong as irrelevant.’ In fact, throughout history, individual men have gone to near-suicidal lengths to avoid participating in wars - a fact that proponents of a warlike instinct tend to slight.... [And,] the difference between an ordinary man or boy and a reliable killer, as any drill sergeant could attest, is profound. A transformation is required: The man or boy leaves his former self behind and becomes something entirely different, perhaps even taking a new name. In small-scale, traditional societies, the change was usually accomplished through ritual drumming, dancing, fasting, and sexual abstinence - all of which serve to lift a man out of his mundane existence and into a new, warriorlike mode of being, denoted by special body paint, masks, and headdresses.... In war, men enter an alternative realm of human experience, as far removed from daily life as those things which we call ‘sacred’.”
(Ehrenreich, pp.8-12)

The literature and scholarship of war, it may be said, largely exist upon different planes. For whilst the former - whether in celebration or in condemnation - is centrally concerned with the difference of war, with what Ehrenreich terms its “passions”, the latter has tended to avert its gaze from such, even when insisting on the separate ethos of the warrior. It is this divide which Barbara Ehrenreich seeks to bridge, in this audacious and original work, which also makes a significant contribution to our understanding of human evolution, and the joint origins of both religion and war. And, as we shall see, while the lesson may be an uncomfortable one, it is well-supported by the evidence...and arguably forms a necessary part of any project of human self-understanding...


“Not only warriors are privileged to undergo the profound psychological transformation that separates peace from war. Whole societies may be swept up into a kind of ‘altered state’ marked by emotional intensity and a fixation on totems representative of the collectivity: sacred images, implements, or, in our own time, yellow ribbons and flags. The onset of World War I, for example, inspired a veritable frenzy of enthusiasm among noncombatants and potential recruits alike, and it was not an enthusiasm for killing or loot or ‘imperialist expansion’ but for something far more uplifting and worthy.... The emotions that overwhelmed Europe in 1914 had little to do with rage or hatred or greed. Rather, they were among the ‘noblest’ feelings humans are fortunate enough to experience: feelings of generosity, community, and submergence in a great and worthy cause.”
(Ehrenreich, pp.13-4)

“A cynic might dismiss the religiosity of war as a mystification of its mundane, ignoble aims, all of the rhetoric of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘glory’ serving only to delude and perhaps intoxicate otherwise unwilling participants. At some level, the cynic would be right.... But there are at least two reasons to take seriously the religious dimension of war. First, because it is the religiosity of war, above all, which makes it so impervious to moral rebuke,...[as it] enlists passions which feel as ‘righteous’ to those who experience them as any of the arguments against it. The other reason to study the religiosity of war is for what it has to say about us as a species, about ‘human nature’, if you will, and the clichéd ‘problem of evil’.”
(Ehrenreich, pp.19-20)

Ehrenreich is no specialist in this area - her own training being as a biologist - but, as she notes, the specialists here have shown a curious reluctance to deal with the “passions” of war, as well as engage with the latest and best work on human evolution, which has tended to stress the vulnerability of our earlier ancestors, while shifting the advent of effective hunting to a comparatively recent era. It is within this opening - of emergent intelligence coupled with a vulnerable, scavenging lifestyle - that Ehrenreich undertakes to explain the roots of our troubled relationship with violence...a relationship most revealingly displayed in religion and warfare:


“In the conventional account of human origins, everything about violence is explained as a result of our species’ long prehistoric sojourn as hunters of animals.... But, it is my contention that our peculiar and ambivalent relationship to violence is rooted in...the experience, not of hunting, but of being preyed upon by animals that were initially much more skilful hunters than ourselves. In particular, the sacralization of war is not the project of a self-confident predator, I will argue, but that of a creature which has learned only ‘recently’, in the last thousand or so generations, not to cower at every sound in the night. Rituals of blood sacrifice both celebrate and terrifyingly reenact the human transition from prey to predator, and so, I will argue, does war. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of wars that are undertaken for the stated purpose of initiating young men into the male warrior-predator role - a not uncommon occurrence in traditional cultures. But more important, the anxiety and ultimate thrill of the prey-to-predator transition color the feelings we bring to all wars...[albeit] it is in our own thoroughly ‘modern’ time, we shall see, that the rituals and passions of war most clearly recall the primitive theme of resistance to a nonhuman threat.”
(Ehrenreich, pp.21-2)

“We are unaccustomed to thinking of animals as anything other than instruments of human ambition, or at best as pets.... But animals played a much more vivid and active role in the ‘primitive’ or ancient human mind.... The earliest civilizations worshipped hybrid human-animal gods...[and] the human and animal protagonists of myth interact promiscuously.... Probably the single most most universal theme of mythology is that of the hero’s encounter with the monster that is ravaging the land, or threatening the very foundations of the universe.... A psychiatrist might say these beasts are projections of the human psyche, inadmissible hostilities deflected to mythical targets. But it might be simpler, and humbler, on our part to take these monsters more literally: as exaggerated forms of a very real Other, the predator beast which would at times eat human flesh.... [And] we do not have to look so far back in time to find traces of the marauding beast, faint paw prints left deep in the human psyche. Children’s first nightmares are often of devouring beasts; their most thrilling games are of capture and pursuit; their bedtime stories feature cannibal witches and wolves intent on human flesh.”
(Ehrenreich, pp.47-51)

“Somehow, it offends our vanity to think of ourselves or our predecessors as vulnerable prey, potential meat for other species.... [But] it is not only vanity which has kept us from acknowledging the tragic vulnerability of our predecessors. There is a special conceit that we tend to bring to any contemplation of ‘primitives,’ contemporary or prehistoric: We have a bias against believing that ‘primitives’ also experience history and change. We imagine that whatever we find them doing at the moment of contact - or excavation - is what they must have been doing for ‘untold thousands of years,’ as is there could be no migrations, no catastrophes, no innovations, until we moderns arrive.... [But] the very notion of ‘prehistory’ is simply an admission of our ignorance of what had to have been an immensely complex and varied history.”
(Ehrenreich, pp.45-6)

The charge, I would argue, is justified - and,  just as common as the also-strong tendency for narrow disciplinary specialists to dismiss evidence drawn from a wide range of areas as somehow irrelevant to their own hunting grounds. Thankfully, however, real scholars insist upon breaching such walls...as Ehrenreich does here:


“In war, men ‘offer their lives’ and sometimes make ‘the supreme sacrifice’. This rhetorical convention links war and religion in a far more literal way than one might suspect. To the modern ear, ‘sacrifice’ has a passive, almost bloodless sound; we confuse it with self-denial and renunciation.... But sacrifice first appears in the historical record as a well-defined religious ritual, varying in detail from culture to culture but almost always featuring, at its climactic moment, an act of public bloodshed: the killing, torture, or mutilation of an animal or human...[and it] is the most clear-cut instance of violence made sacred.... [Moreover,] blood sacrifice is not just ‘a’ religious ritual; it is the central ritual of the religions of all ancient and traditional civilizations...[and] reveals an almost universal attribute of the archaic deity to whom the sacrifices are offered: He or she is a carnivore.”
(Ehrenreich, pp.23-31)

“Even though sacrifice is, in some sense, no more than an elaborate preliminary to a meal - analogous, perhaps, to saying grace - it contains an element of anxiety which has usually been interpreted as guilt.... But guilt toward the animal victim is only one possible explanation for the angst that seems to surround the sacrificial rite.... When the victim is human, or is an animal construed as a substitute for a human, the act of sacrifice takes on new meanings. The drama is heightened; a new frisson is introduced - not that of transgression, but of menace.... In the sacrificial ritual, the spectator is invited to identify not only with the sacrificer wielding the knife, but with the helpless creature who is about to be served up to the gods. Thus the ritual has a terrible lesson to teach: that, from the point of view of a carnivorous deity, humans are also meat.”
(Ehrenreich, pp.33-5)

“For whatever reasons it was performed, with animal or human victims, the sacrificial ritual in many ways mimics the crisis of a predator’s attack. An animal or perhaps a human member of the group is singled out for slaughter, often in a spectacularly bloody manner.... The audience screams, the victim’s blood is sprinkled about or even poured over objects and people requiring purification. Describing his responses to an animal sacrifice performed in our own time, Tierney reports emotions which would be appropriate to someone witnessing a successful predator attack on a fellow human being. There is high excitement, ‘frenzied screaming,’ a sense of ‘ultimate risk,’ followed by ‘infinite relief,’ and finally guilt that ‘he died instead of me.’”
(Ehrenreich, pp.67-8)

The evidence Ehrenreich draws upon here is well-known to historians of religion. Similarly, her evidence relating to war is hardly controversial. What makes this book so important, however, is her weaving together of the two themes, demonstrating how they mutually illuminate one another and - given our new understandings of hominid vulnerability - what this strongly suggests about why our ancestors first started worshipping, and why we have such a tendency to sacralize violence...


“We could say, without disrespect to the known facts, that there were at least two broad and overlapping epochs in prehistory: one in which our ancestors confronted the world, for the most part, as potential prey, and another in which they took their place among the predators which had for so long oppressed them.... The transition from one status to the other would have been halting and gradual, as the means of defence - both weapons and forms of social organization - evolved into the means of attack and offence. And, well into the epoch of man-the-hunter, humans still had good reason to fear the tall grass, the forests, and the night. But there was a transition, and...it had to be the single greatest advance in human history.... [And,] if we seek an ‘original trauma’ that shaped the human response to violence, we have no need to postulate some primal guilt over hunting and killing. The original trauma - meaning, of course, not a single event but a long-standing condition - was the trauma of being hunted by animals, and eaten. Here, most likely, lies the source of our human habit of sacralizing violence: in the terror inspired by the devouring beast and in the powerful emotions, associated with courage and altruism, that were required for group defence.”
(Ehrenreich, pp.46-7)

“One possibility is that ‘sacrifice,’ in its most archaic form, was not a ritual at all, but a face-saving euphemism for death by predation.... There is another possibility, however, suggested by the proposal that hominids and early humans may have obtained their meat by scavenging....[which] would have thrown our hominid ancestors into a highly ambivalent relationship with the predator beasts.... Imagine, too, the role the predator would come to play in the prehuman and early human mind: both giver of sustenance and taker of life. If the beast that kills also nourishes, then the idea of archaic sacrifice as a literal offering to the beast begins to make more sense. In addition to whatever apotropaic function the offering serves - calming the beast for the moment - it is a profound acknowledgement of human dependency.... Thus hard times, in which game animals are scarce, might seem to demand extraordinary ‘sacrifices,’ just as they did in the ancient civilizations that instituted sacrifice as a religious ritual.... [But] why, the modern reader cannot help but wonder, would human beings want to reenact, through religious ritual, the terror of predation? Probably for the same reason that ‘civilized’ people today pay to see movies in which their fellow humans are stalked and devoured...[for] we are drawn back, compulsively, in both nightmares and moments of fun, to that primal encounter with the devouring beast. The ‘fun,’ of course, is that in the fictional encounter we can look into the very jaws of the beast - and live to do it again. Rituals and other sorts of spectacles that replay the possibility of being eaten are one way of celebrating what must have been, for our entire species, a terrifyingly narrow escape.”
(Ehrenreich, pp.70-6)

The story Ehrenreich tells here is necessarily speculative - as we do not (and can not) have adequate sources re the behaviours of early hominids. Yet, the term “speculative”, I would argue, is a deeply inadequate one, since it fails to distinguish between those who develop their ideas with due care - drawing upon all of the best work relevant to their questions - and those whose notions are only confronted with the facts that suit their case. The former group of thinkers - in which I would include Ehrenreich - are much rarer than we might wish...and their role in the history of ideas is a truly distinguished one, deserving of a better term than merely “speculative”.


“One familiar practice which could be counted as a form of ‘rebellion’ is the burial of the human dead. At some point about 150,000 years ago, early humans were no longer content to leave their dead exposed, and began to bury them with some apparent ceremony. All kinds of meanings can be read into this practice, including belief in a soul and an afterlife. But one obvious consequence was...to cheat the beasts: to refuse, even in death, to accept the status of prey. But at the core of the hominid rebellion was the decision, no doubt predating by millennia the practice of burying the dead, to confront the beast itself.... Most likely hominid resistance predated any effective weapons technology and, as in the case of other social animals, invoked the strength of numbers.... The behaviors required for collective resistance may have helped establish the rudiments of hominid ‘culture.’ In his most recent book, historian William H. McNeill addresses the human propensity for ‘keeping together in time,’ as through group dancing and military drilling, and suggests that it can be traced to the primordial sociality of the hominid band confronting a wild animal.... The final stage of the rebellion occurs when humans learn to hunt and kill for themselves - game animals and even, at times, the predator beasts themselves. Hunting in the early stages may have been, like early forms of defence, an activity involving the entire group, females and children included [as] the stratagem of ‘mobbing’ would have lent itself to such hunting techniques as driving animals over cliffs to their death, beating the underbrush to force game out from cover, or simply overwhelming a cornered animal.”
(Ehrenreich, pp.78-83)

“The transformation from prey to predator, in which the weak rise up against the strong, is the central ‘story’ in early human narrative. Some residual anxiety seems to draw us back to it again and again. We recount it as myth and reenact it in ritual, as if we could never be sufficiently assured that it has, indeed, occurred.... [And,] just as the entire species had to undergo the prey-to-predator transformation long ago in the Palaeolithic past, so does each child undergo a version of it in the course of growing up.... Most cultures have marked the transition from potential prey to potential predator with initiation rites, and these often seem to be quite vivid and literal reenactments of the primal encounter with a man-eating predator beast.”
(Ehrenreich, pp.83-4)

“What we seem to inherit, then, is not a fear of specific predators, but a capacity to acquire that fear - for example, by observing the reaction of adults to various potential threats - with efficiency and tenacity. Hence, perhaps, the surprising frequency of predator animals in dreams.... It seems likely, then, that the primordial experience of predation at least colors our emotional responses to situations other than predation itself - the sight of violence or bloodshed occasioned by our fellow humans, for example.... But if biology left us with a capacity for powerful physiological reactions to predation, it is culture which continued to activate this capacity long after the actual threat had vanished or declined...[through] a ‘safe’ version of the trauma of predation, one in which we approach the nightmare - and survive.... In addition to such safe reenactments, humans have another way of addressing their predation-related anxieties, and this is through the thrill of defensive solidarity. The crowd that gathers to stone the scapegoat chosen as a sacrifice, or that cheers the gladiators in the arena, experiences a burst of fear-dissolving strength.... There are thus two likely psychological legacies of predation which would appear to be relevant to the institution of war.... [But] neither of these responses is the ‘cause’ of war. They are simply part of the repertory of emotional responses we bring to war, no matter what happens to have ‘caused’ it. But it is these responses, I am suggesting, that color war with the profound feelings - dread, awe, and the willingness to sacrifice - that make it ‘sacred’ to us. The alarm response infuses war and stories of war with urgency and excitement, while the solidarity response, if we may call it that, mobilizes our most altruistic and exalted impulses. And these are the very feelings which give us some purchase on our notions of a mystic entity - a nation or an all-encompassing deity - of which we individuals are only parts.”
(Ehrenreich, pp.90-5)

And it is this lesson we need to remember, whenever we seek to understand the cluster of human behaviours surrounding such things as sacrifice, duty, fear, violence, war, and the sacred. Interestingly enough, however, the “war” component here appears to be absent in human behaviour until comparatively recent times, well after the evolution of homo sapiens, yet predating settled societies and agriculture. And, as usual, Ehrenreich’s explanation for this difficult fact makes a hell of a lot of sense:


“The first evidence of what looks, to modern eyes, like war comes from the Mesolithic, roughly 12,000 years ago.... What these people fought over, no one knows. Agriculture, with its movable treasures of grain and animal herds, was still presumably only a gleam in some hungry woman’s eye. Territorial hunting rights are a possibility, or women or injured pride, or even the need, as perceived by the pious, to capture victims for human sacrifice. On two points there is little controversy, though.... One is that war has roots in, and in some sense grows out of prior conflicts with animals.... The second point may be uncontroversial in part because it is seldom, if ever, made; and that is that the rise of war corresponds, roughly, with a global decline in the number of large animals, both ‘game’ and predators, for humans to fight against. Many scholars have attempted to explain war as a function of rising human population density and the attendant competition for resources. But the key factor may be animal populations, and these were declining in the Mesolithic on what was, in many settings, a catastrophic scale.... In human cultures, hunting is seldom a matter of mere food acquisition.... It is usually a highly ritualized activity, tied into local systems of prestige and religious authority...[and] at some point, inevitably, there were no longer enough wild animals to satisfy either the hunger or the anxiety of the human race.... There was nothing to do then but turn to agriculture - and to war.... With the decline of wild predator and game populations, there would have been little to occupy the males who had specialized in hunting and anti-predator defence, and no well-trodden route to the status of ‘hero.’ What saved the hunter-defender male from obsolescence or a life of agricultural toil was the fact that he possessed weapons and the skills to use them.... And, what better way to maintain the ‘old glory,’ Kroeber and Fontana suggest, than to to recast the ‘men’s association’ as an army and replace the hunting expedition with war?”
(Ehrenreich, pp.117-24)

Ihave concentrated, in this review, upon the foundations of Ehrenreich’s thesis - rather than citing her analyses of the history of warfare, which in many ways do not depart strongly from those made by mainstream historians such as William H. McNeill or John Keegan. For what Ehrenreich does is significantly deepen our understanding of that history, by furnishing it with a prelude which allows us to understand its psychological roots much more clearly - rather than necessarily challenging the best readings of that history to date.

However, it would be unjust not to mention her analyses of  goddess-worship in the Mesolithic (undoubtedly the most sensible short treatment I have yet seen), the effects of war upon cultural evolution, and the key role of mass armies in turning nationalism from a scholarly enthusiasm into the re-tribalizing religion which it became. It would also be unjust not to note that Ehrenreich’s feminism informs (rather than deforms) her scholarship - as this judicious treatment of war and gender amply demonstrates...


“War-making is not simply another occupation that men have monopolized. It is an activity that has often served to define manhood itself - which is exactly what we would expect if war in fact originated as substitute occupation for underemployed male hunter-defenders.... There is no compelling biological or ‘natural’ reason why men have so exclusively starred in the drama of war. Men make wars for many reasons, but one of the most recurring ones is to establish that they are, in fact, ‘real men’. Warfare and aggressive masculinity have been, in other words, mutually-reinforcing cultural enterprises...[and] if war made men predators, it tended to make women into slaves - prizes of war much like grain stores and cattle.... But...to say that the practice of war began as ‘something for men to do’ - a system for allocating prestige analogous to that of the male sub-band’s hunt - does not mean that it can be seen forever after as men’s fault. War is not just a product of human impulses, a crime repeated afresh every generation. Once unleashed, it has a furious power of its own, which human cultures ignore at their own peril.”
(Ehrenreich, pp.127-31)

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites is that very rare thing - a groundbreaking work by a non-specialist which attracts the applause of leading scholars in the area. It has enriched our understanding of the psychological roots of both war and religion, and offered us a compelling scenario for the content of early hominid ritual which will likely stand, given the wide range of materials drawn upon, and the compelling continuities with historical religious behaviours. And, by so clearly demonstrating the predatory links between war and the sacred, moreover, Ehrenreich has also forced us to abandon some of our more comforting illusions...and confront our deeply ambivalent response to violence. This is a necessary book...


“When we reflect on war’s remarkable resilience in the face of changing circumstances, we cannot help wanting to turn the [conventional] question around for a moment to ask instead: What is this thing that humans have been so fatally drawn to? If war is not firmly rooted in some human subgroup (adult males, for example, or any other relative elite), if it is not the product of some particular form of human social organization (feudalism, the nation-state, or capitalism) - then what exactly is it? ...It is first, in an economic sense, a parasite on human cultures - draining them of the funds and resources, talent and personnel, that could be used to advance the cause of human life and culture. But ‘parasitism’ is too mild a term for a relationship predicated on the periodic killing of large numbers of human beings. If war is a ‘living’ thing, it is a kind of creature that, by its very nature, devours us. To look at war, carefully and long enough, is to see the face of the predator over which we thought we had triumphed long ago.”
(Ehrenreich, pp.231-8)



John Henry Calvinist