Vengeance and the Gift



This article looks at three ways to limit the scope of reciprocal violence: preventing vengeance outright (the logic of sacrifice); prescribing and regulating vengeance (the so-called vindicatory system); and escaping vengeance by establishing relations of positive reciprocity (the logic of the gift).


Mark R. Anspach, “Vengeance and the Gift,” published in The Palgrave Handbook of Mimetic Theory and Religion, edited by James Alison and Wolfgang Palaver, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, is reproduced here with permission of Springer



Preventing Vengeance: The Logic of Sacrifice


The threat of vengeance is the ever-present backdrop to the mimetic theory of religion. “In the final analysis,” affirms René Girard, “the sole purpose of religion is to prevent the recurrence of reciprocal violence.”[1] Citing a Vedic ritual in which the sacrificers of a sheep beseech its ovine kin not to avenge it–a context where, objectively speaking, the risk of reprisal is nil–Girard suggests that such obsessive allusions to the danger of vengeance obliquely designate the type of action for which sacrifice is a substitute and elucidate the criteria used in choosing a victim. Those who are closest to us may arouse the greatest anger, but one cannot vent murderous impulses on them “without provoking all sorts of conflicts.” The urge to commit an act of violence “must therefore be diverted toward the sacrificial victim, the only victim one may strike without danger since no one will take up its cause.”[2]


 Girard thus characterizes sacrifice as “an act of violence without risk of vengeance.”[3] In ordinary circumstances, any act of violence is liable to engender new acts of violence in a self-propagating vicious circle.[4] Sacrifice provides a safe outlet for violence that avoids this vicious circle. Two defining traits of sacrificial violence combine to minimize the risk of vengeance. One has to do with those who carry out the violence and the other with those who are its victims.


The first, most basic feature of sacrificial violence is unanimous participation. “Unanimity is a formal requirement,” Girard stipulates. “The abstention of a single participant renders the sacrifice even worse than useless–it makes it dangerous.”[5] Why dangerous? Girard does not spell out the reason here, but it follows logically from his earlier definition of sacrifice as an act of violence without risk of vengeance. Anyone who does not share in the responsibility for an act of violence might contest its legitimacy, thus leaving open the possibility that it could provoke reprisals. Implicating all participants in the killing is essential to insure that no one will be left to avenge the victim.


But it is also important to choose a victim whom no one is likely to avenge in the first place. The second characteristic feature of sacrificial violence is the marginal status of the victim. Most obvious in the case of animal victims, marginality is likewise the trait that unites the diverse set of individuals who have served as human victims in different societies, including prisoners of war, slaves, the handicapped, and unmarried adolescents or children who have not yet undergone rites initiating them as full-fledged members of the group. A king, too, may make a suitable victim. The king is no less marginal for being located at the very heart of the community: “it is precisely his position at the center,” Girard writes, “that serves to isolate him from his fellow men.”[6] Dutch anthropologist Simon Simonse confirms this observation in his study of regicide in southeastern Sudan: “The king's position is not conceived as merged with or emerging from his people but rather as an outsider standing in opposition to them.”[7]


The marginality of the victim and the unanimity of the sacrificers are two sides of the same coin. It is easier to unite in sacrificing a victim who is an outsider or not fully integrated into the community. The decisive question is always whether or not a bond exists between the victim and other individuals who might feel obliged to seek vengeance. Thus, Girard observes that women in many cultures “are not considered full-fledged members of their society; yet women are never, or rarely, selected as sacrificial victims.” Once one takes into account the threat of vengeance, the reason for this immunity is not hard to find. A married woman is doubly protected by virtue of belonging to her husband's family while retaining ties to her parents' clan: “To kill her would be to run the risk of one of the two groups' interpreting her sacrifice as an act of murder committing it to a reciprocal act of revenge.”[8]


An unmarried maiden is a more likely candidate for sacrifice. In Greek heroine cults, virgins “often appear in the role of sacrificial victim,” notes Jennifer Larson. “Virgins are able to play this role precisely because of their lack of ties to husband or son.”[9] Larson stresses the independence that the lack of familial ties confers on such heroines, allowing them to “stand alone,” but this independence is also synonymous with social marginality. Without male relatives to avenge them, unmarried women are more vulnerable to dying alone for the sake of the community. Iphigenia is the best known example of a sacrificed virgin in Greek myth. The renewed cycle of revenge that follows her death in Aeschylus shows what happens when the rules governing the archaic religious system break down. As Helene Foley explains, “Iphigenia's social marginality fails to make her a neutral victim, for her mother Clytemnestra claims a right to avenge her daughter, a right not ordinarily considered legitimate for a woman.”[10]


Prescribing Vengeance: The Vindicatory System


This last example is a reminder that, when enshrined as a social institution, vengeance has its rules. By prescribing who may–and indeed must–take revenge, by specifying the proper circumstances and modalities, these rules limit the scope of reciprocal violence in societies that practice the vendetta. For this reason, French legal anthropologist Raymond Verdier maintains that vengeance is not the dangerously uncontrolled phenomenon that Girard often suggests. Verdier distinguishes the spontaneous vindictive impulse from the regulated operation of vengeance within the confines of what he calls a “vindicatory system.”[11] Such systems often achieve a certain stability, thus contradicting Girard's assertion that the “multiplication of reprisals instantaneously puts the very existence of a society in jeopardy.”[12]


Ernest Gellner recalls negotiations to settle a feud in southern Arabia where “one of the deaths had been caused by an arrow–a weapon not in use in the region for a long, long time.”[13] This demonstrates that a feud can continue indefinitely without necessarily proving fatal to the larger society. After describing vengeance as “an interminable, infinitely repetitive process,” Girard adds: “Every time it turns up in some part of the community, it threatens to involve the whole social body.”[14] Lucien Scubla notes that the latter affirmation entails a leap from a temporal to a spatial dimension. That vengeance is interminable does not make it contagious; a conflict between two kinship groups may perpetuate itself from generation to generation without spreading to neighboring groups in the same territory and provoking a general conflagration.[15]


Yet it is precisely to counter the contagious nature of violence that a vindicatory system hems in the practice of vengeance with so many rules and prohibitions. The most fundamental prohibition is the one against wreaking revenge against one's closest relatives. As Verdier writes, the “imperative duty of vengeance when facing an adversary group has as its corollary the prohibition on avenging oneself within one's own kinship group.”[16] Clytemnestra violates this prohibition by seeking vengeance against her own husband. The violence plaguing the house of Atreus does not merely repeat itself through successive generations; it invades the family circle. Clytemnestra's transgressive violence proves contagious when Orestes avenges his father by murdering his mother. The crisis produced by this implosion of the vindicatory system is only resolved in the Eumenides by the institution of the tribunal, so that, as Foley writes, “civil justice replaces sacrifice as the primary mechanism for controlling intestine violence.”[17]


Indeed, as I have observed elsewhere, before the advent of state-administered justice, “internal offenses can only be met with sacrificial measures. Either a purificatory rite is performed to cleanse the group of the pollution created by the transgression, or the transgressor is himself ritually expelled by and from the group.”[18] Within the group, then, sacrifice fulfills the role Girard assigns it: that of averting vengeance. Verdier recognizes the necessity of recourse to sacrifice when the need to maintain communal unity makes reprisals impossible: “This sacrificial response to a crime within a community is the counterpart of the vindicatory reaction on the outside.”[19] Girard no doubt declares too hastily that vengeance is “universally proscribed.”[20] It is, however, universally proscribed inside the group.  Verdier explains this prohibition by the “vital need” to prevent the group from “self-destructing.”[21] Here Verdier confirms Girard's essential insight. Moreover, Scubla shows that even in its external field of action, the vindicatory system is not self-regulating but remains a tributary of the vaster sacrificial system that encompasses it.[22]


In fact, the pursuit of ritualized vengeance between groups may itself be understood as a sacrificial means of channeling violence outwards. Among the Tupi-Guarani, a prisoner of war destined to be sacrificed and eaten does not try to flee because his home village will refuse to take him back. According to Pierre Clastres, a captured warrior “is definitively excluded from the community which”–paradoxically–is only waiting “to learn of his death in order to avenge it immediately.”[23] Vengeance is often understood as a way of restoring the balance between rival groups after a man's life has been lost by imposing an equivalent loss on the other side. This utilitarian interpretation fails to explain why people would give up their own warrior's life in order to have the chance to avenge him. In effect, each side sacrifices one of its own but delegates the killing to the other side. I have argued that “another group is needed to carry out the killing so that the vengeance will be directed outward.”[24] As Girard observes, “the interminable vengeance engulfing two rival tribes may be read as an obscure metaphor for vengeance that has been effectively shifted from the interior of the community.”[25]


Escaping Vengeance: The Logic of the Gift


During the months or years before he is sacrificed, a Tupi prisoner is integrated into the community and given a wife from within the group. In the Tupi language, the same term expressive of symmetrical opposition designates both a brother-in-law and the enemy victim of ritual cannibalism. Girard takes this as emblematic of a hidden sacrificial logic underlying matrimonial exchange more generally: “In exchange for one of his women, the brother-in-law is ceded a woman 'too close' to the giver,” that is, one liable to become an object of rivalry if men kept the women of their own group for themselves. “The brother-in-law, then, becomes the sacrificial substitute for the brother as hostile object.”[26]


We saw earlier that exogamous marriage protects women from being sacrificed by their own group's men; here we see that it also protects men from killing each other over their own group's women. Girard thus puts a new spin on Lévi-Strauss's structural understanding of marriage as an exchange of women between exogamous groups. Lévi-Strauss sees the social value of exchange as primary: “The prohibition of incest is less a rule prohibiting marriage with the mother, sister or daughter, than a rule obliging the mother, sister or daughter to be given to others.”[27] Girard introduces a switch in perspective: “Positive exchanges are merely the reverse of prohibitions, the results of a series of maneuvers or avoidance taboos designed to ward off outbreaks of rivalry among the males.”[28]


 Anthropologists working in the structuralist mode tend to conceive vengeance itself as one more form of positive exchange. “Just as the prohibition of incest rests on a law of exogamy that structures the system of matrimonial exchange,” writes Verdier, “so is vengeance founded on a law of exchange that structures the vindicatory system.”[29] But, as I have argued, “there is no exchange in the pure reciprocity of violence.” Exchange only exists when an actual object is exchanged. “The violence stops when an object is interposed between the partners; the exchange object is a substitute, not for the violence, but for the giver.”[30] So it is that a killer who wishes to avoid being killed in turn may sometimes offer objects of value as a blood payment. The gift that compensates the victim's kin for their loss is from the killer's viewpoint a substitute for his own life. If all goes well, this first gesture will inaugurate a series of peaceful exchanges, replacing the negative reciprocity of violence with the positive reciprocity of the gift.


Lévi-Strauss seems to imply that the two forms of reciprocity are interchangeable: “There is a link, a continuity between hostile relations and the provision of reciprocal prestations. Exchanges are peacefully resolved wars, and wars are the result of unsuccessful transactions.”[31] The symmetry of this formulation is deceptive, however. While it is not hard to grasp how the breakdown of peaceful exchange may lead to violence, the shift in the other direction is trickier to achieve, for no gift, however valuable, can ever fully compensate for the spilling of blood. That is why the settlement of a vendetta is generally accompanied by a sacrifice. When the goods offered as compensation are sheep or cattle, goats or pigs, animals are ritually slaughtered and the two sides share in a feast.


Theorists of religion have long debated whether sacrifice is essentially an act of offering and commensality or bloodshed and destruction. For Girard, of course, the latter aspect is most basic. But I have proposed that it is precisely the hybrid nature of sacrifice, embodying both hostility and generosity, that lets it serve as a mediating term in the transition between negative and positive reciprocity: “As the last act of hostility, the sacrifice redirects the violence against a neutral victim, breaking the cycle of vengeance. As the first act of generosity, it redirects the reciprocity in a positive direction, launching a cycle of nonviolent exchange. Sacrifice thus owes its pivotal position to its unique combination of nonreciprocity in violence and nonviolence in reciprocity.”[32] The sacrifice of an animal separates the violence from the reciprocity, diverting the former toward a target that presents no risk of reprisal while allowing the latter to resume on a peaceful footing.


But peaceful exchange is not just the pursuit of reciprocity without violence. It also involves a change in temporal orientation. Vengeance looks backward; seeking to cancel out a past offense, it repeats it in mimetic fashion, involuntarily spurring the other side to reciprocate. By contrast, gift exchange works by anticipating reciprocity. The murderer who wants to escape vengeance cannot wait for the other side to act; he must offer up a substitute for his own life in advance. If he succeeds in initiating a new cycle of positive reciprocity, he will no longer need to fear a return blow. Instead, he can look forward to receiving a return gift. This change in temporal orientation means that positive reciprocity is truly negative reciprocity in reverse.[33]

[1]   René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1977), 55.

[2]   René Girard, La Violence et le Sacré (Paris, Grasset: 1972), Pluriel edition, 26-27. The published English text of this passage (Violence and the Sacred, 13) contains an error apparently based on a Freudian misreading: “The desire to commit an act of violence on those near us cannot be suppressed without a conflict.” Girard actually writes that such a desire cannot be indulged without provoking conflicts.

[3]   Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 13.

[4]   Ibid., 81. On vengeance as a self-propagating vicious circle, see also Mark Rogin Anspach, À charge de revanche: Figures élémentaires de la réciprocité (Paris: Seuil, 2002).

[5]   Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 100.

[6]   Ibid., 12.

[7]   Simon Simonse, Kings of Disaster: Dualism, Centralism and the Scapegoat King in Southeastern Sudan, revised edition (Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 2017), 225.

[8]   Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 12-13.

[9]   Jennifer Larson, Greek Heroine Cults (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), 8.

[10] Helene P. Foley, Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 56.

[11] Raymond Verdier, “Le système vindicatoire,” in La vengeance, vol. 1, ed. R. Verdier (Paris: Cujas, 1980).

[12] Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 15.

[13] Ernest Gellner, Muslim Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 97.

[14] Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 14-15.

[15] Lucien Scubla, “Sur une lacune de la théorie mimétique: l'absence du politique dans le système girardien,” Cités 53 (2013): 116.

[16] Verdier, “La vengeance civilisée: du vindicatif au vindicatoire,” Stanford French Review 16.1 (1992), 51.

[17] Foley, Ritual Irony, 56.

[18] Mark R. Anspach, “Violence Against Violence,” in Violence and the Sacred in the Modern World, ed. Mark Juergensmeyer (London: Frank Cass, 1992), 13.

[19] Verdier, “Le système vindicatoire,” 23.

[20] Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 15.

[21] Verdier, “La vengeance civilisée,” 51.

[22] Lucien Scubla, “Vindicatory System, Sacrificial System: From Opposition to Reconciliation,” Stanford French Review 16.1 (1992).

[23] Pierre Clastres, Archeology of Violence (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2010), 310.

[24] Anspach, “Violence Against Violence,” 15.

[25] Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 279.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 481; quoted in Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 239.

[28] Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 239.

[29] Verdier, “Le système vindicatoire,” 16.

[30] Mark R. Anspach, Vengeance in Reverse: The Tangled Loops of Violence, Myth, and Madness (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2017), 10. Italics added.

[31] Lévi-Strauss, Elementary Structures, 67; quoted in Anspach, Vengeance in Reverse, 4.

[32] Anspach, Vengeance in Reverse, 21. Italics added.

[33] Anspach, Vengeance in Reverse, chapters 1-2.