Origins and History of the Passions of War


Those who attempt to conquer hatred by hatred are like warriors who take weapons to overcome others who bear arms. This does not end hatred, but gives it room to grow. But, ancient wisdom has advocated a different timeless strategy to overcome hatred. This eternal wisdom is to meet hatred with non-hatred. The method of trying to conquer hatred through hatred never succeeds in overcoming hatred. But, the method of overcoming hatred through non-hatred is eternally effective. That is why that method is described as eternal wisdom.

Siddhārtha Gautama 1997 Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War by Barbara Ehrenreich

In BLOOD RITES, Barbara Ehrenreich confronts the mystery of the human attraction to violence: What draws our species to war and even makes us see it as a kind of sacred undertaking? BLOOD RITES takes us on an original journey from the elaborate human sacrifices of the ancient world to the carnage and holocaust of twentieth-century “total war.” Sifting through the fragile records of prehistory, Ehrenreich discovers the wellspring of war in an unexpected place–not in a “killer instinct” unique to the males of our species but in the blood rites early humans performed to reenact their terrifying experience of predation by stronger carnivores. Brilliant in conception, rich in scope, Blood Rites is a monumental work that will transform our understanding of the greatest single threat to human life. 2020 Canadian Reader 4*
religion-spirituality, anthropology, history, war, nonfiction, social-science

This is a reissue of Ehrenreich’s stimulating 1997 book, in which the author synthesizes the work of anthropologists, historians, and evolutionary biologists (among others) to explore the religious feelings that war inspires in humans. She’s particularly interested in the question of “sacrifice,” which is not only central to many religious traditions but also invoked in descriptions of military service and the deaths of servicemen. Blood sacrifice—including human sacrifice, notes Ehrenreich, is a key theme in Jewish and Christian texts. In the Old Testament, along with the mention of the innumerable animals killed as offerings to God, we have the story of Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of his son Isaac; in the New Testament, the Christian deity sacrifices his son Jesus. Before war became “a widespread and massive enterprise,” humans likely approached the transcendent through socially sanctioned ritual killing. The transgressive nature of the ritual inspired awe.

War is often explained as a means for men to advance their collective interests: to gain resources and geopolitical advantage. Following Freud, others regard war as a product of deep aggressive instincts in humans. Ehrenreich points to the ways in which war, like religion, appeals to psychological needs: It releases people from emptiness, submerses them in great causes, and promises unified purpose and longed-for community—needs otherwise fulfilled by love, religion, intoxication, and art. Quoting French historian and social scientist Rene Girard, the author also notes that war and ritual sacrifice likely served a similar end: damping down disruptive, aggressive energy by redirecting it towards an external focus.

According to Ehrenreich’s account, the roots of both religion and war lie in early hominid vulnerability to and primal fear of predation by wild beasts. She suggests that two to three million years ago, when our African ancestors moved out of the forest and onto the savannah, they were threatened by large cats. Being hunted and eaten by lions and leopards was the original human trauma. However, early man developed a taste for meat and may well have had an “ambivalent relationship” with the beasts that killed but also provided for human scavengers.

Nowadays we think of animals as pets or commodities for consumption, but Ehrenreich writes that they played an outsize “vivid and active”—godlike—role in the primitive mind. She suggests that early people’s fear of predatory animals contributed to the development of religion, noting that many archaic deities were carnivores or human-animal hybrids. Think of the lion-headed ancient Egyptian goddess of war, Sekmet, the jackal-headed god of death, Anubis, and the Hindu gods Ganesha and Hanuman (who take the forms of an elephant and a monkey respectively). The original form of the huntress Artemis—the ancient Greek goddess who is believed to predate the Olympians—was that of a bear or a lioness. In mythology and folklore, animals morph into humans and gods possess the ability to transform themselves into animals.

The driving force behind natural selection for humans’ large brains may well be attributed to our ancestors’ need to defend themselves against powerful predators. Language may have its roots in alarm calls, fire’s original value may have been more for warding off beasts than for cooking them, and hominids may have evolved into social creatures because groups were more successful than individuals in resisting predators. Humans may have made their first (ritual) sacrifices to placate the wild animals that outnumbered them. Perhaps the loss of a child by predation was more tolerable when it was framed as a “sacrifice” that prevented further terror and victimization. Eventually, by making animal and human sacrifices, man could show he had, through the development of hunting tools, gained a position at the top of the food chain, elevating himself from prey to predator. Over time, ritual sacrifice also became “apotropaic”—an action aimed at warding off evil in the form of spirits, enemies, or disease.

Ehrenreich postulates that war grew out of prior conflicts with animals. In early human groups, males guarded against predators and eventually hunted hoofed mammals. Around 10,000 years ago, animal populations decreased as a result of humans developing and using hunting implements (bows, arrows, and spears). As humans turned from pastoral to agricultural ways, hunters found themselves out of work, and a redirection of male energy was necessary. Conditions supported the rise of a warrior class that defended settlements against other opportunistic groups of humans. According to some scholars, the earliest systematic wars grew out of nomadic peoples’ raiding of settled agricultural communities, not just for goods but for objects of prestige that could enhance status.

Ehrenreich shows how the formation of a male warrior class shaped civilization through the ages. The terror and destruction that warriors could inflict on the enemy “other” could also be applied to their own people, keeping them in line, subservient and dedicated to meeting fighters’ needs. Lower classes were in part made up of conquered peoples.

Ehrenreich examines how the newer, more universalist religions—Christianity and Buddhism—impacted the practice of war. She also considers the ways in which advancing technology—particularly guns—allowed warriors to fight at a distance, on the ground (rather than on horseback), and in ever increasing numbers. Large armies contributed to the rise of the bureaucratic state, which collected taxes to fund the troops. Meanwhile, revolutions—the French and American, in particular—encouraged the new religion of nationalism. No longer were wars fought to gain captives for sacrifice, young men could sacrifice their lives for their country, be martyrs of a sort for the nationalist cause.

I’ve only scratched the surface of Ehrenreich’s a rich and fascinating book. I gained a lot from it, but I was also aware that it’s 23 years old, particularly as I reached its conclusion, which focuses on the then-fairly-recent Gulf War, the turmoil in the former Yugoslavia, and the increasing enlistment of women in the US military. Since that time, we’ve had 9/11, wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and the rise of the Islamic State. Drones are common. The threat of nuclear war has reared its head again—this time from North Korea. Cyber and germ warfare loom. While I understand why an author would not feel inclined to re-immerse herself in subject matter she’d explored years before, I nevertheless lament that an afterword/update was not included to address more recent developments on the world stage. Even so, I do recommend this book.

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