Document 682

The Fruits of Sacrifice. Sigmund Freud and William Robertson Smith

Author(s): Gordon K Booth

Copyright holder(s): Gordon K Booth, Continuum Publishing


Almost every twentieth century textbook or monograph on the subject of sacrifice, sets out by nodding respectfully towards William Robertson Smith and his seminal ideas on the topic, as originally presented during April, 1887, in the first series of his Burnett Lectures at Aberdeen, and subsequently published in 1889 under the title “The Religion of the Semites.” Most commonly, reference is made to Smith’s core concept of sacrifice as an age-old liminal experience of communion between the human and divine worlds:

“The one point that comes out clear and strong is that the fundamental idea of ancient sacrifice is sacramental communion, and that all atoning rites are ultimately to be regarded as owing their efficacy to a communication of divine life to the worshippers, and to the establishment or confirmation of a living bond between them and their god.” (1)

Throughout the eleven lectures, Robertson Smith adduced a wealth of evidence, mainly from Semitic and Classical sources, to sustain this proposition and even today the clarity of his argument remains compelling. Moreover, the lectures were revelatory in that for the first time the subject was addressed in terms which could make sense to anthropologists and theologians alike, as well as to the educated man in the street. As one contemporary Jewish reviewer wrote:

“There is, indeed, no other book, so far as I am aware, in which even the fundamental institutions of the Semitic religions are treated so fully and completely as in the volume before us.” (2)

Subsequent writers on the topic (3), given that they were eager to advance their own particular views, tempered that admiration with numerous reservations and qualifications. Sigmund Freud stands out as the surprising exception, since he bestowed unalloyed and, some might say, uncritical praise on Smith’s text, which he first read in June, 1912, in the revised second (1894) edition, with such pleasure that he described the experience to his future biographer “as if gliding in a gondola” (4) — a simile which well characterises the buoyant fluency of Smith’s mature writing style.

Sigmund Freud and William Robertson Smith were born only ten years apart, in 1856 and 1846 respectively. Smith died prematurely of tuberculosis in 1894, at the age of only 48, by which time Freud had hardly begun to make a name for himself: his first major work, “Studies in Hysteria” (with Jacob Breuer), emerged in 1895, a year after Smith’s death, while the book which was to bring him into public prominence, “The Interpretation of Dreams”, did not appear until 1900. Yet Robertson Smith’s thinking profoundly influenced the direction and development of the young Viennese doctor’s ambitious thinking, especially around those ideas which were later to form the basic tenets of psychoanalysis (5). Freud read “The Religion of the Semites” just after embarking upon the writing of “Totem and Taboo”, which first appeared between 1912 and 1913 in the form of four lengthy essays. Freud was already familiar with the ninth edition of the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” (1875-1889) and had been particularly interested by Smith’s article on “Sacrifice” (vol. 21, 1886), as well as by the articles “Taboo” and “Totemism” (both vol. 23, 1888) written by J.G. Frazer at Smith’s behest (6). Frazer’s contributions had given Freud the fundamental information surrounding these topics, as interpreted anthropologically, but it was the more radical and novel views expressed by Smith which inspired him. Reiterated throughout “The Religion of the Semites” was the proposition that sacrifice, in its original and ideal form, involved a mystical experience for the worshipping group, whereby communion with the deity was effected in an atmosphere of joyful assurance and at times orgiastic celebration.

Smith envisaged the primal sacrifice of pre-historic times as a feast wherein the sharing of flesh — and more crucially blood — served to cement the bonds of loyalty and comradeship within an existing kinship group or clan, a topic he had already explored tentatively (along with totemism and matriarchy) in his “Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia” (7). He went on to quote an obscure account attributed to St Nilus (5th century CE) affording a picture of what seemed little less than a savage communal orgy, when “the flesh was hastily devoured by the kinsmen in dog-like fashion, half raw and merely softened over the fire" (8). By contrast, Smith’s subsequent description of Hebrew sacrificial practice, as he conceived its operation under relatively stable economic and social conditions, is more than a little romanticised:

“A sacrifice was a public ceremony of a township or of a clan, and private householders were accustomed to reserve their offerings for the annual feasts, satisfying their religious feelings in the interval by vows to be discharged when the festal season came round. Then the crowds streamed into the sanctuary from all sides, dressed in their gayest attire, marching joyfully to the sound of music, and bearing with them not only the victims appointed for sacrifice but store of bread and wine to set forth the feast… Universal hilarity prevailed, men ate drank and were merry together, rejoicing before their God.” (9)

Undoubtedly Smith was here unconsciously modelling the history of mankind upon his own idealised childhood. In humanity’s youth, the clan god was a benign father figure, occasionally moved to irritation or anger by his children’s disobedience, but mostly protecting and nourishing them in return for obedience and service (10). Later, under the influence of the Hebrew prophets, and still more so with the coming of Christianity, the sense of a physical relationship between men and their god could no longer be sustained.

Influenced by contemporary Darwinian and Spencerian concepts of evolution, Smith was firmly wedded to the notion of religion as a steadily advancing developmental process, yet he found it awkward to explain apparent instances of stagnation or even reversal in that upward movement. He had to concede that religion could lapse from the Arcadian picture he had drawn but attributed retrogression to the effects of extreme social, economic or political pressures:

“It is only in times of social dissolution, as in the last age of the small Semitic states, when men and their gods were alike powerless before the advance of the Assyrians, that magical superstitions based on mere terror, or rites designed to conciliate alien gods, invade the sphere of tribal or national religion. In better times the religion of the tribe or state has nothing in common with the private and foreign superstitions or magical rites that savage terror may dictate to the individual.” (11)

One problem for Smith was that he lacked the concepts and terminology that Freud later introduced to represent the workings of the unconscious mind. Most crucially, Smith had no grasp of the notion of ambivalence — the simultaneous presence within the human psyche of oppositional feelings such as love and hate (12). Like his Victorian contemporaries, Smith inferred that polar emotions could only occur at different times within an individual or group, as the result of changes in attitude over time and under changing circumstances.

Freud had initially been attracted to Smith’s ideas on sacrifice because they appeared to shed light on cases of animal phobia which he had encountered in his professional practice and which he now saw to be characterised by feelings of profound emotional ambivalence within his patients. In the act of primitive sacrifice, there plainly existed the very same contradictory feelings: the animal was sacred to the clan or tribe and thus an object of taboo, not to be killed or eaten, yet the act of sacrifice entailed the killing of that which was most revered and which indeed constituted divinity incarnate. This act of supreme sacrilege could only be explained on the ground that the essential bond of kinship required to be reinforced and periodically renewed through the ritual death of the totem animal — or, later, of the theanthropic victim.

Building on the picture presented by Smith in “The Religion of the Semites”, this is how Freud reconstructed the primal scene in “Totem and Taboo”:

“Let us call up the spectacle of a totem meal … The clan is celebrating the ceremonial occasion by the cruel slaughter of its totem animal and it is devouring it raw — blood, flesh and bones… Each man is conscious that he is performing an act forbidden to the individual and justifiable only through the participation of the whole clan… When the deed is done, the slaughtered animal is lamented and bewailed. The mourning is obligatory, imposed by dread of a threatened retribution. As Robertson Smith (1894, 412) remarks of an analogous occasion, its chief purpose is to disclaim responsibility for the killing.” (13)

Both men were substantially in agreement but, where Freud saw the act as characterised by intense feelings of collective ambivalence, Smith somewhat unconvincingly attributed the emergence of a sense of guilt, and hence of sin, to the spiritualising effects of later religion (both Hebrew and Greek) which introduced the ideas of remorse and a sense of the need for atonement. Each man drew on the analogy of childhood but, whereas Smith saw that period as idyllic and wholly asexual, Freud affirmed the powerful, undifferentiated emotional and sexual impulses within the young child — and identified these as the source of guilt and of conscience. Each agreed, however, that sacrificial ritual maintained its importance for society even when all memory of its original function — bonding with the divinity — had been forgotten (Smith) or repressed (Freud). They concurred further in arguing that, in order to justify continuance of the ritual over centuries, a rationalisation of the act necessarily took place through the later formation of aetiological myths.

“Ancient religion was so entirely ruled by precedent, that men did not deem it necessary to have an adequate moral explanation even of the most exorbitant demands of traditional ritual; they were content to explain them by some legend that told how the first ritual came to be set up… Originally the death of the god was nothing else than the death of the theanthropic victim; but when this ceased to be understood it was thought that the piacular sacrifice represented an historical tragedy in which the god was killed.” (14)

In “Totem and Taboo”, Freud followed Smith’s argument closely but focused more explicitly on the killing of the totem animal, interpreting this not only as the symbolic murder of the god but as the derivative of a primal group parricide motivated by the desire of the young males to gain sexual possession of the females of the clan, who all belonged to the father (as the dominant male) and who were necessarily their mothers. Freud was indeed reiterating a principle first articulated by Smith himself (albeit in a footnote) — that there existed a double taboo which was breached in the primal sacrificial act: not to kill one’s fellow clansman and not to commit incest. Smith had written:

“I believe that in early society (and not merely in the very earliest) we may safely affirm that every offence to which death or outlawry is attached was primarily viewed as a breach of holiness; e.g. [sic] murder within the kin, and incest, are breaches of the holiness of tribal blood, which would be supernaturally avenged if men overlooked them.” (15)

This principle was to lie at the heart of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. The abiding interest lies in its use as by Freud to explain the origins of morality, culture and religion. The totem meal was “perhaps mankind’s earliest festival” and was thus “a repetition and a commemoration of this memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginnings of so many things — of social organisation, of moral restrictions and of religion” (16). Ambivalence both motivated the killing of the father and induced remorse:

“…we need only suppose that the tumultuous mob of brothers were filled with the same contradictory feelings which we can see at work in the ambivalent father-complexes of our children and of our neurotic patients. They hated their father, who presented such a formidable obstacle to their craving for power and their sexual desires; but they loved and admired him too… A sense of guilt made its experience, which in this case coincided with the remorse felt by the whole group. The dead father became stronger than the living one had been… They revoked their deed by forbidding the killing of the totem, the substitute for the father; and they renounced its fruits by resigning their claim to the women who had now been set free. They this created out of their filial sense of guilt the two fundamental taboos of totemism, which for that very reason inevitably corresponded to the two repressed wishes of the Oedipus complex. Whoever contravened those taboos became guilty of the only two crimes with which primitive society concerned itself.” (17)

The killing of the sacred totem animal (representing the father/god) was thus at once a symbolic act of triumph, an efficacious means of atonement and, not least, a reaffirmation of the bond between man and god through the mystical sharing of a common meal of flesh and blood. These interacting forces, all emanating ultimately from the peculiarly human phenomenon of ambivalence, served to hold the bonds of society in a state of relative equilibrium, of which morality and religion were the fruits:

“Society was now based in complicity in the common crime; religion was based on the sense of guilt and the remorse attaching to it; while morality was based on the exigencies of this society and partly on the penance demanded by the sense of guilt.” (18)

Freud’s primary intention in “Totem and Taboo” was to uncover the roots of religion — and of Christianity in particular. As a projection of every individual’s father-image, God played a double part in the sacrificial ritual — as both tyrant and victim. In Christianity, Christ’s death and its commemoration, Easter by Easter, provided the clearest possible demonstration of this paradoxical duality since the two roles were played out explicitly by Father and Son. In Freud’s words:

“In the Christian doctrine, therefore, men were acknowledging in the most undisguised manner the guilty primeval deed, since they found the fullest atonement for it in the sacrifice of this one son. Atonement with the father was all the more complete since the sacrifice was accompanied by a total renunciation of the women on whose account the rebellion against the father was started. But at that point the inexorable psychological law of ambivalence stepped in. The very deed in which the son offered the greatest possible atonement to the father brought him at the same time the attainment of his wishes against the father. He himself became God beside, or more correctly, in place of the father. A son-religion displaced the father-religion. As a sign of this substitution the ancient totem meal was revived in the form of communion, in which the company of brothers consumed the flesh and blood of the son — no longer the father — obtained sanctity thereby and identified themselves with him.” (19)

Although those conclusions are presented more bluntly and dogmatically than Smith had dared express in his Burnett lectures, Freud was summing up precisely the thesis of “The Religion of the Semites”. What Freud added — something which Smith was temperamentally unable to acknowledge — was that the sexual component in this primordial drama lay also at the root of those powerful emotional fixations which the developing boy acquires towards his mother and against his father — in other words the Oedipus complex, which was of course Freud’s own cherished concept and which Smith would undoubtedly have repudiated. Even in this respect, Freud later signalled his debt to WRS:

“… Frazer effected little towards elucidating the problems of totemism (not to kill the totem and not to have sexual relations with any woman of the same totem-clan) and the two elements of the Oedipus complex (getting rid of the father and taking the woman to wife)… Not much was lacking to enable me to recognise the killing of the father as the nucleus of totemism and the starting-point in the formation of religion. This missing element was supplied when I became acquainted with W. Robertson Smith’s work, ‘The Religion of the Semites’. Its author (a man of genius who was both a physicist and an expert in biblical researches) introduced the so-called “totem-meal” as an essential part of the totemic religion.” (20)

The seeds of that idea had, however, been sown by Smith even earlier, in his article, “Sacrifice” , for the ninth edition of the “Encyclopaedia Britannica”. In what is otherwise a relatively conservative account of the topic, Smith had written:

“Even the highest forms of sacrificial worship present much that is repulsive to modern ideas, and in particular it requires an effort to reconcile our imagination to the bloody ritual which is prominent in almost every religion which has a strong sense of sin. But we must not forget that from the beginning this ritual expressed, however crudely, certain ideas which lie at the very root of true religion, the fellowship of the worshippers with one another in their fellowship with the deity, and the consecration of the bonds of kinship as the type of all right ethical relations between man and man. And the piacular forms, though these were particularly liable to distortions disgraceful to man and dishonouring to the godhead, yet contained from the first germs of eternal truths, not only expressing the idea of divine justice, but mingling it with a feeling of divine and human pity. The dreadful sacrifice is performed not with savage joy but with awful sorrow, and in the mystic sacrifices the deity suffers with and for his people and lives again in their new life.” (21)

And it is of particular interest that the sole alteration of any significance which Smith made, just before his death, to the 1894 revision of “The Religion of the Semites” consisted in the excision of a single paragraph which he presumably felt to be too explicit:

“That the God-man died for his people, and that His death is their life, is an idea which was in some degree foreshadowed by the older mystical sacrifices. It was foreshadowed, indeed, in a very crude and materialistic form, and without any of those ethical ideas which the Christian doctrine of the atonement derives from a profounder sense of sin and divine justice. And yet the voluntary death of the divine victim, which we have seen to be a conception not foreign to ancient sacrificial ritual, contained the germ of the deepest thought in the Christian doctrine: the thought that the Redeemer gives Himself for His people, that ‘for their sakes He consecrates himself, that they too might be consecrated in truth’.” (22)

It is no disparagement of either man to describe both Freud and Smith as consummate myth-makers who understood (like Coleridge) the creative importance of the imagination in penetrating the unknown and thereby initiating new ideas and modes of thinking. Significantly, Robertson Smith had been present when John Tyndall, in his famous presidential address to the 1874 British Association meeting in Belfast, emphasised the necessity for scientists to “prolong the vision backward across the boundary of the experimental evidence” (23). Smith rightly saw his ideas on sacrifice as hypothetical:

“This, it may be said, is no more than a hypothesis, but it satisfies the conditions of a legitimate hypothesis, by postulating the operation of no unknown or uncertain cause, but only of that force of precedent which in all times has been so strong to keep alive religious forms of which the original meaning is lost.” (24)

Giving yet another account (in 1922) of how his psychoanalytic ideas developed, Freud also emphasised their provisional and hypothetical nature:

“To be sure, this is only a hypothesis, like so many others with which archaeologists endeavour to lighten the darkness of pre-historic times — a “Just-So Story” , as it was amusingly called by a not unkind English critic; but I think it is creditable to such a hypothesis if it brings coherence and understanding into more and more new regions.” (25)

Both Freud and Smith were creating their own Just-So stories then, rather than providing us with strictly scientific, testable hypotheses; but myths, as we know, can often have a more potent influence than scientific hypotheses. At the conclusion of “Totem and Taboo”, Freud had been candid as to his method:

“Before I bring my remarks to a conclusion, however, I must find room to point out that, though my arguments have led to a high degree of convergence upon a single comprehensive nexus of ideas, this fact cannot blind us to the uncertainties of my premises or the difficulties involved in my conclusions.” (26)

He had been dealing, Freud continued, with psychical realities, not factual ones. The deeds of the primal horde were “phantasies” , though no less powerful in their consequences for being so; for:

“If wishes and impulses have the full value of facts for primitive men, it is our business to give their attitude our understanding attention instead of correcting it in accordance with our own standards.” (27)

Moreover, there was, for Freud, the confirmatory evidence of childhood impulses:

“Historical reality has a share in the matter as well. In their childhood they had these evil impulses pure and simple, and turned them into acts so far as the impotence of childhood allowed.” (28)

Whether we treat it as hypothesis or myth, Freud gave birth to a “nexus of ideas” of remarkable generality and explanatory force, which left its mark indelibly upon twentieth century western thought and culture. His tripartite division of the human psyche into id, ego and super-ego rapidly became common linguistic property, as did his terminology for describing the defensive strategies of the subconscious mind — identification, projection, displacement, denial and rationalisation. It is the concept of emotional ambivalence, however, which has most greatly transformed our way of describing, if not explaining, human behaviour. Though Robertson Smith made no direct contribution to that key element of Freud’s legacy, psychoanalysis might well have been still-born without the stimulus provided by “The Religion of the Semites”. The fact that both men possessed so much in common — lucid powers of expression, wide-ranging knowledge, penetrating originality of thought and a fertile yet disciplined imagination — is no guarantee that they would have become intimate friends: indeed the reverse would have been Freud’s expectation. Freud was intensely jealous of his ideas, as his well-known breaks with Adler and Jung demonstrate, but never failed to acknowledge his indebtedness to William Robertson Smith. Better than any other man, perhaps, he knew that a dead man poses no threat.

For Robertson Smith, the least acceptable element of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories would have been the concept of childhood sexuality — it is probable indeed that he would have rejected out of hand the proposed link between childhood fantasies and the origins of religion. Any Oedipal feelings on Smith’s part were firmly repressed, and remained so throughout his life; on the other hand it is just conceivable that he might have recognised some validity in a Freudian explanation of his own life history, where vigorously repressed feelings of hostility towards an idealised father returned in later life to find expression in his first (1875) articles for the “Britannica” — a direct assault upon the elders of the tribe (the Free Church of Scotland Assembly members) who were ultimately to sacrifice him for the commission of an unforgivable offence against their traditional standards as set out in the sacrosanct “Westminster Confession of Faith”. Intellectually, Smith would have understood the logic of the Freudian paradigm in his own case, even if an inherent repugnance forbade its conscious acceptance.


1. W. Robertson Smith (A. & C. Black, 1927) 439. All references are, unless otherwise stated, to the third edition of "The Religion of the Semites", though the differences in pagination are minimal.

2. C.G. Montefiore, Jewish Quarterly Review, 2 (1890) 178.

3. Beginning with Hubert and Mauss, whose monograph on sacrifice was first published in L'Année sociologique, 1898, 29-138. Other significant writers on the subject of sacrifice, who acknowledge but adapt Smith's views, include E. Durkheim "The Elementary Forms of Religion" (Allen & Unwin, 1915); G. B. Gray "Sacrifice in the Old Testament" (Oxford, 1925); B. Malinowski "Magic, Science and Religion" (Doubleday, New York, 1954); E. E Evans-Pritchard "Nuer Religion" (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1956); M. Douglas "Purity and Danger" (Routledge, 1969);. R. Girard "Le Violence et Le Sacré" (Grasset, Paris, 1972); R. J. Daly "The Origins of the Christian Doctrine of Sacrifice" (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1978); B. Chilton "History of Sacrifice" (Pennsylvania State U. P., Pennsylvania, 1992); John Moses "The Sacrifice of God: a Holistic Theory of Atonement" (Canterbury Press, Norwich, 1992); and Ian Bradley "The Power of Sacrifice" (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1995).

4. E. Jones, "Sigmund Freud: Life and Work" (Hogarth Press 1955) vol.2, p.395, who commented: "He [Freud] had hardly ever been so pleased with any book".

5. The term 'psychoanalysis' itself, coined by Freud to describe his therapeutic technique of free association, was first used in 1896 [OED] but he continued to refine his theories until late in life.

6. Robertson Smith's interest in totemism and taboo stemmed from his early friendship in with James F. McLennan, an Aberdeen-born Edinburgh lawyer whose articles on animal worship had appeared in the "Fortnightly Review" during 1869. Smith encouraged Frazer to write the relevant articles for the ninth edition of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" but it is pertinent that Freud recognised Smith's views on totemism as more fundamental than Frazer's.

7. First published by A. & C. Black in 1885.

8. "The Religion of the Semites" 281. For a critique of Smith's use of this source, cf. M. Warburg. 'William Robertson Smith and the study of religion' ("Religion" 19, 1989, 41-61).

9. "The Religion of the Semites" 254.

10. Ibid. 41.

11. Ibid. 55.

12. The OED's first citation of the psychological terms "ambivalence" and "ambivalent" is drawn from a 1916 translation of Jung's "Analytical Psychology".

13. "Totem and Taboo" (Penguin Freud Library, 13 201). The reference is to the following sentence from "The Religion of the Semites" 412: "And a chief object of the mourners is to disclaim responsibility for the god's death — a point which has already come before us in connection with theanthropic sacrifices, such as the 'ox-murder at Athens' ".

14. "The Religion of the Semites" 410.

15. Ibid. 163 fn. Smith's "e.g." implies that he did not consider those two acts as the sole taboos.

16. "Totem and Taboo" 202.

17. Ib. 204f.

18. Ib. 208.

19. Ib., pp.216f.

20. Freud (1959) "An Autobiographical Study" (Standard Edition, The Hogarth Press) 67.

21. "Encyclopaedia Britannica" (9th edn), vol. 21 (1886) 138, s.v. "Sacrifice".

22. The passage was quoted by J.G. Frazer in his obituary of Smith, written for the "Fortnightly Review", vol. lx (1894) 800-807 and reprinted in a collection of Frazer's essays, "The Gorgon's Head" (1927) 278-290.

23. "Nature" (Aug.20, 1874) 319.

24. "The Religion of the Semites" 404.

25. "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego": Penguin Freud Library, 12, 154.

26. "Totem and Taboo" 220.

27. Ib. 223.

28. "Totem and Taboo" 223

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Information about Document 682

The Fruits of Sacrifice. Sigmund Freud and William Robertson Smith


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Method of composition Wordprocessed
Year of composition 2002
Word count 4587
General description Deals with concept of sacrifice in religion and psychology

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Publisher Continuum
Publication year 2002
ISBN/ISSN 0014-5246
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Editor Ian McDonald
Page numbers 258-264

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Author id 723
Forenames Gordon
Initials K
Surname Booth
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1930
Educational attainment University
Age left school 17
Upbringing/religious beliefs Protestantism
Occupation Retired psychologist
Place of birth Cults
Region of birth Aberdeen
Birthplace CSD dialect area Abd
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Edinburgh
Region of residence Edinburgh
Residence CSD dialect area Edb
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Bank Clerk
Father's place of birth Aberdeen
Father's region of birth Aberdeen
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Abd
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Bookkeeper
Mother's place of birth Aberdeen
Mother's region of birth Aberdeen
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area Abd
Mother's country of birth Scotland


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