Blood Rites: An Exercise in Prejudice

In critiquing Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites,[1] I must at once confess to lacking an adequate substitute for her theory on the origins and development of war. But I believe she has seriously misjudged indigenous societies and that she is reckless in her treatment of feminist scholarship.

First, I should explain her theory. In essence, she reaches back to a time in prehistory, when humans were not so much predators as prey, a time so ferocious that even today, predatory beasts, more often than relevant contemporary threats such as crime and war, appear in children’s dreams. As time goes by, an uneasy partnership arises, in which humans, lacking the adaptions of more successful hunters as bears, wolves, and big cats, are sometimes prey to and sometimes successful in scavenging the remains left by these predators, and in turn may occasionally share meat with these creatures, leading at least to the domestication of dogs. With technological, tactical, and social advances, however, humans rise to the top of the food chain. Ehrenreich believes that hunting became something more than a matter of survival, that it became a matter of honor and achievement, the basis of hierarchy, so much so that it is possible that humans killed many more animals than they could consume and that they may be at least partially responsible for the decimation of numerous species of large ungulates, depriving numerous large predators of prey and leading to their extinction as well. As this occurs, hunting becomes an increasingly male activity.

But as large prey become increasingly scarce, war becomes a substitute activity for otherwise unemployed and unproductive males who apparently, in Ehrenreich’s rendering, cannot participate in farming or gathering. War also ensures an ample supply of victims to be sacrificed. Public rituals of human and animal sacrifice cast the elites—the formerly successful hunters—who orchestrate them as predators and humans as interchangeable with animals; common people grateful not to be among the victims were apparently more likely to acquiesce to authority. And, like hunting before it, war is nearly exclusively the preserve of men.

War, in Ehrenreich’s estimation, becomes the nucleus of states and the rationale for bureaucracies to manage logistics and large armies as technology shifts the business of fighting from the elite (such as knights and samurai) to common peasants. She carries on from there, but it is not her analysis of relatively “modern” commercial society that attracts my criticism. Instead, it is that she projects the attitudes she experiences in commercial society onto indigenous societies. In so doing, I think she makes several serious errors.

For this to be apparent, we must review a certain amount of background—which Ehrenreich generally fails to acknowledge and never adequately addresses.

First, in the vast majority of human social organization, there is a dichotomy between indigenous society and commercial society. Generally speaking, indigenous societies have persisted for 500,000 years, they are largely sustainable and low-impact, and their populations are small, stable, and low-density. Generally speaking, they see the wilderness not as hostile, but as a beneficient provider of all they need, and as represented by female goddesses. They usually live cooperatively, with very limited hierarchy, and generally in good health. For the most part, their diets are largely plant-based; meat is an occasional supplement. While there are gender roles, to reduce this to a matter of men exercising absolute authority over women is often far too simplistic and sometimes flatly wrong.

In contrast, commercial society has existed for about 6,000 years, it can sustain itself only through expansion and incursion onto surrounding territory and the exploitation of people (often indigenous) on that territory, it is high-impact, and its population is large, rapidly-growing, and high-density. Generally speaking, it sees the wilderness as hostile, to be conquered, and the earth as assigned for its exploitation by a male god. The unknown other is obfuscated as evil, which must be dominated, leading to an emphasis on positivism intertwined with technology that ultimately suppresses culture and displaces religion. It prizes competition and hierarchy, and the health of its people is rarely better overall and often worse than in indigenous societies. Food production is increasingly mechanized and processing adds economic value but decreases nutritional value. And patriarchy prevails.[2]

When killing a buffalo, an elk, or a deer, the Indian apologizes to the animal for having to do so, and thanks the animal for its sacrifice. The Indian understands that our lives are intertwined, neither superior to the other. Our coexistence is a balance that must be maintained. Prayer is involved in every aspect of the kill. And to show our thanks for the life-giving sacrifice, the Indian uses all parts of the animal. Nothing is wasted.[3]

Several areas of conflict between this well-documented image of indigenous societies and Ehrenreich’s work are immediately apparent. First, I think Ehrenreich performs a service in highlighting the predator-prey relationship between humans and other species. But she seems to overemphasize the importance of meat in indigenous diets and she suggests that humans may have wantonly killed animals out of lust for power. All this needs further exploration in light of an indigenous attitude that continues to sacralize human relationships with animals.[4] Ehrenreich’s image of indigenous society seems to reflect Sigmund Freud’s horde with a “strong father,” for whom women were sexual property, even though this view of early humans had been called into question even by the time Herbert Marcuse wrote about it in 1955,[5] and is now largely discredited.

But what stands out for me, in light of Ehrenreich’s apparently careful treatment of numerous contrasting theories in weaving together her work, is her denigration of feminist scholarship:

Ironically, contemporary feminist scholars have been particularly energetic in their efforts to rehabilitate the archaic goddess as a thoroughly gentle and “feminine” figure. The archeologist [sic] Marija Gimbutas consistently slighted the goddess’s violent side, even conjecturing wistfully that the Minoan and Sumerian goddess’s double ax symbolized a butterfly! Similarly, in her provocative work on the rise of male dominance, Riane Eisler asserts that in archaic, goddess-centered cultures, “the generative, nurturing and creative powers of nature—not the powers to destroy—were . . . given highest value.” How, then, to explain the goddess’s preference for the company of leopards and bulls? These, Eisler says, “represented our forebears’ attempt to deal with the darker aspects of reality” and to show, with admirable evenhandedness, that “the destructive processes of nature were also recognized and respected.”

Gender biases are revealed, too, in the scholarly bafflement over the goddess’s enthusiasm for the hunt and her apparently preagricultural origins. The earliest alleged representations of a female deity are the Paleolithic “Venus” figurines found on the Eurasian land mass from western Europe to Siberia and dating back to almost 30,000 years ago, or roughly 20,000 years before the coming of agriculture. But compared to agriculture, hunting is a violent and hence, according to modern notions of gender, presumably masculine enterprise. Thus to Gimbutas, the great antiquity of the goddess or her probable forebears seemed to defy logic:

It would seem logical to look for the origin of the Earth Fertility Goddess at the dawn of agriculture. . . . However, the pregnant-type figurine first appears not in the Early Neolithic, but earlier still—in the Paleolithic. The symbol of the fruitful womb is as old as figurine art.

Even as careful a historian as Gerda Lerner states erroneously that “it is from the Neolithic that we derive surviving evidence of cave paintings and sculptures suggesting the pervasive veneration of the Mother-Goddess” when it is, in fact, from the Paleolithic. In the “logic” of our own time, violence is an exclusively male attribute, so that the notion of a predator goddess can only be a cultural oxymoron.[6]

I have quoted this at length, because Ehrenreich’s errors are so egregious. It very much looks to me that her reading of certain passages is less than fair, that she misreads them in order to ridicule them. She seems to want to regard homo sapiens as inherently patriarchal and hierarchical, even though this is a point Eisler, at least, has made a career of seeking to refute. (Full disclosure: Eisler was one of my professors at California Institute of Integral Studies and I regard her work as important in my own studies of anarchism.) But we know from a number of indigenous societies that any presumption of male hegemony is a gross over-generalization. Laughably, Ehrenreich regards “violence [as] an exclusively male attribute,” but she has the gall to accuse feminist scholars of gender bias. Twice in this passage, she explicitly infers the attitudes of indigenous societies from those of “modern” commercial societies—assuming that commercial societal attitudes have any relationship to indigenous societal attitudes. And while Ehrenreich confounds the Paleolithic goddess with the Neolithic goddess, Max Oelschlaeger describes a religious transition between the two eras:

Inevitably, the shaman of Paleolithic culture gave way to the priest. Religious life centered no longer on maintaining harmony and integrity but on fertility (although harmony with the eternal order was sometimes thought essential to fertility). Totemism, where the totem imaginatively mediated between humankind and the rest of nature, was supplanted by animal idolatry—the worship of icons fashioned in the image of animals, especially the Mediterranean bull. The Magna Mater of Paleolithic culture became the Earth Mother, now a goddess of fertility rather than an all-embracing mother of creation.[7]

Gimbutas correctly refers to the Neolithic Earth Mother, which evolved from the Paleolithic Great Mother (Magna Mater), but Ehrenreich conflates the latter with and criticizes Lerner’s reference to a “mother goddess,” an ambiguous reference that could easily—and I dare say, probably did—refer to the Earth Mother (though cave paintings are Paleolithic). It is all too clear that Ehrenreich has allowed her biases to interfere; her criticisms of feminist scholarship are as sloppy as they are dismissive. And for me, this has to raise questions about the veracity of the remainder of her work.

That’s unfortunate. I think Ehrenreich does offer some interesting insights in this volume, particularly in the relationship between commercial society and war, and she raises questions that deserve further exploration: We do need to better understand the relationship between humans and animals as it has developed over a period of hundreds of thousands of years. We do need to explore the evolving notion of a predator beast as a means of sustaining hierarchy, beginning as Ehrenreich suggests with ritual sacrifice and continuing, I would argue, with predatory capitalism today. And we should explore how human social behavior is influenced by ongoing predation, possibly producing the sometimes brutal and sometimes dubious behaviors we see in “modern” commercial society today, that color our image of humans, and which so profoundly undermine Ehrenreich’s work.

  1. [1]Barbara Ehrenreich, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (New York: Metropolitan, 1997)
  2. [2]Timothy K. Beal, Religion and its Monsters (New York: Routledge, 2002); John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: Altamira, 2008); Christopher Densmore, Red Jacket: Iroquois Diplomat and Orator (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University, 1999); Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995); Roy Ellen, Environment, Subsistence and System: The Ecology of Small-Scale Social Formations (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 1982); Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage, 1964); Robert Harms, Games Against Nature: An Eco-cultural History of the Nunu of Equatorial Africa (Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University, 1999); Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991); Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2006); Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993); Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Harmless People, Revised Edition (New York: Vintage, 1989); Colin M. Turnbull, The Forest People (New York: Touchstone, 1968).
  3. [3]Lawrence Sampson, “Touch the Earth,” in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II, eds. (New York: Lantern, 2004), 187.
  4. [4]Delfina Cuero, “Her Autobiography: An Account of Her Last Years,” in Delfina Cuero and Florence Connolly Shipek, Delfina Cuero: Her Autobiography – an Account of Her Last Years and Her Ethnobotanic Contributions (Menlo Park: Ballena, 1991); Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer, Haa Tuwunáagu Yís, for healing Our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory (Seattle: University of Washington, 1993); Sampson, “Touch the Earth”; Darryl Babe Wilson, The Morning the Sun Went Down (Berkeley, CA: Heyday, 1998).
  5. [5]Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism (New York: Vintage, 1967); Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon, 1966)
  6. [6]Ehrenreich, Blood Rites, 101-103.
  7. [7]Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness, 34.

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