In reading over the fourth chapter of Des choses cachées… in preparation for my forthcoming Imitatio monograph on the relationship between mimetic theory and GA, I came across Girard’s discussion of two myths quoted in Lévi-Strauss 1962 Le totémisme aujourd’hui. It is certainly serendipitous that the two myths discussed in the first chapter—the only myths set off as separate narratives in the entire book—both lend themselves so seamlessly to a Girardian analysis, almost as if Lévi-Strauss were throwing Girard across the years a theoretical softball. For both myths are thinly disguised accounts of emissary murders or lynchings, of group violence directed at a marginal or alien figure whose guilt is assumed in advance.

In the first, Ojibwa case we encounter six supernatural beings who emerge from the sea, one of whom kills a local Indian with his gaze, after which the others, the eventual founders of the five Ojibwa clans, “make him return to the bottom of the sea,” which no one can doubt is a narrative transformation of drowning.

In the second, Tikopia myth, Tikarau, whose eponymous relationship with the society is obvious, and who stands out as an individual in comparison with the unnamed Ojibwa figure, is chased by a group of unnamed gods to the edge of a cliff, from which he miraculously flies away; this again is an obvious transformation of the procedure of collective sacrifice/execution accomplished by forcing the victim to the edge of a cliff, where he may be expected to jump off rather than be torn to pieces by his persecutors, who thereby avoid individual contact with the victim and blame for his death.

Ignoring the fact that these are obvious disguises of murder, Lévi-Strauss explains the expulsion in both cases as an “impoverishment” of the original group, which introduces a “discontinuity” (37) allowing the remaining elements, that is, the totemic clans, to be separated (écartés) from each other. The scapegoated personage’s offense in both myths is described, in contrast to the “more discreet” action of the others, as “la conduite individuelle et malfaisante . . . d’un dieu avide et indiscret” [the individual, malicious conduct of a greedy and indiscreet god] (36), for which Lévi-Strauss offers a reference to the Scandinavian trickster-god Loki. In the Ojibwa myth, the removal of the sixth being allows the five others to beneficially divide up the social order, just as that of Tikarau, who flies away with most of the materials for the feast that was being prepared for his visit, permits the Tikopia to receive the benefits he leaves behind—the four vegetable elements associated with the four Tikopia clans—from the departed god’s anonymous companions. Lévi-Strauss incurs Girard’s criticism that by taking literally these representations of an individual’s non-violent or voluntary removal rather than interpreting this removal as a collective lynching, the anthropologist is acting in complicity with the myth-makers rather than revealing the originary violence they have concealed. Nor does Lévi-Strauss mention the obvious correspondence of the Ojibwa myth with the familiar phenomenon of the “evil eye.”

But once Girard has pointed out the signs of lynching, his analysis makes no other distinctions; like Lévi-Strauss, he treats both myths as essentially equivalent. For Lévi-Strauss, an “indiscreet” member of the supernatural group is eliminated by the others, who then (re)establish the beneficial division in clans; for Girard, the gods lynch one of their members, the myth disguising his murder as a “disappearance.” Neither shows any interest in the clear contrast between the two myths marked by the greater individualization of the Tikopia case.

I think we can accept Girard’s revelation of the image of scapegoating behind both myths without following him in his own leap off the cliff of social exchange and classification into the void of “mimetic crisis” and its resolution. Here and elsewhere, once Girard finds evidence of the pattern of emissary victimage he abandons any concern with the specific structures that emerge at the end of the myth; in his epistemology the only important moment is the first, the generation of something out of nothing, the emergence of the emissary victim/divinity out of the total dissolution of all preexisting structures in the “mimetic crisis.” But however real may be the ultimate basis for this kind of mythological representation, it remains a representation, not the account of a real event. Whether the eliminations at the center of both narratives be understood as murders or peaceful departures is less important than the function of these myths to provide originary explanations for the social orders in question. And the difference between the myths gives us an idea of the difference between the two societies that has relevance for our overall theory of human social organization.


Lévi-Strauss belonged to a generation that had learned to reject the over-simple ideas of human social organization that flourished during the early days of systematic ethnology in the latter part of the 19th century. The idea that all societies at a certain stage of development would practice “totemism” in the form of correlations between a set of edible animals and the various clans of a tribe, and engage in something like the Australian totem feasts described by Durkheim, had been demolished by the second decade of the twentieth century. The purpose of Lévi-Strauss’ little book is to examine a few cases of the “totemic,” so to speak in brackets, since the great variety of relationships between individuals, social groups, and totems, edible and otherwise, that fall under the overall rubric of “totemism” suffice to discredit the term’s earlier pretension to describe a well-defined mode of social organization.

Nonetheless, we must remember that the “primitive” folk we encounter in modern times are as far removed from the origin of humanity as the members of more advanced societies, and that the rudimentary nature of their technology does not prevent their social order from evolving. This fact does not provide a brief for restoring totemism to its old status among the writers of Frazer’s generation, let alone attempting to situate it in a “Darwinian” tableau of social evolution à la Lewis Morgan (1818-1881), but it does suggest that we should be allowed a little freedom to speculate about how the variety of quasi-totemic phenomena might have evolved. Certainly whatever the relationships of recent or contemporary clan members to their so-called totems, it is not unreasonable to hypothesize that the original relation was indeed one of worship/sacrifice, and that over thousands of years many of these societies, for reasons that must be examined individually, embroidered variations on this simple pattern. More fundamentally, it also seems likely that the original “totemic” organization, whether it occurred through the splitting of an original group or the amalgamation of a number of groups (as we see at a much more advanced stage of civilization in the construction of the Greek Pantheon), was a response to the need to organize a society that for whatever reason was becoming more numerous and complex than could be maintained through the worship of a single theriomorphic divinity.


Although there is no inherent conflict between the specialized analyses of social science and the speculative conclusions of “humanistic” anthropology, the mind-sets are different, and the “total” anthropology that their synthesis would create can only be imagined for the distant future. Girard’s analyses as well as GA’s illustrate the fallacy that the ethnological expertise required to describe the complex relations between clans and “totems” in the societies examined by Lévi-Strauss suffices to explain the fundamental human qualities they reflect.

The passion for trees over forests that inhabits the social sciences is not really diminished by structuralism’s concern for defining the parameters of social variance; the difference between fundamental and superficial layers of structure is as much obscured as enhanced by the insistence on defining social orders through paradigms, and paradigms of paradigms. We should be mindful that the simplified cultural patterns observed in myth are likely to reflect earlier, simpler times, and above all that these patterns are not simply idealized reflections of ritual practices but in effect theories of overall social structures. Hence in our quest to understand the differences between Lévi-Strauss’ two myths, an internal analysis of the myths themselves in terms of an originary conception of the human may well prove more enlightening than detailed analysis of the constituent parts of the real-world totemic orders at a given moment.

The picture of the clans given in the Ojibwa myth is that of equivalence; the five founding beings are not distinguished from each other in any way. This appears to reflect the social self-consciousness of a hunter-gatherer economy with subsistence agriculture that has not reached a level of surplus production sufficient to permit the emergence of social hierarchy. I stress the element of social self-consciousness here because even a careful study of Ojibwa society at a given moment could not make clear exactly how the myth relates to the reality of the social order, any more than we can draw such conclusions from the myths and legends familiar to our own society.

Although the Ojibwa as they appear in the myth were not a hierarchical society at the “big-man” level, their organization in clans reflects a higher level of organization than that of a simple band. How then should we interpret the scapegoat figure whose evil eye brings about the death of an Indian and his own subsequent banishment/drowning? This unnamed being is individualized only in being more powerful than the others; he alone is blindfolded. That is, he alone has the power of the sacred; he incarnates sacred interdiction and its concentration of deferred violence. The original plan was by blindfolding him to maintain this force in its deferred state, but the course of the narrative reveals that this was impossible, that his sacred power was too strong. In contrast, the five surviving beings, the founders of the five totem clans, are not afflicted/gifted with this power. What this suggests is that the sixth being represents less a human usurper of the central role than a bearer of the power of the originary sacred. In the new context of the totemic social order, this sacred power is not acceptable; it is too strong. The bearer of the evil eye, however mythical his designation, is a placeholder for the excessive power of the sacred, which should not be concentrated in any individual; in the everyday operation of the evil eye, any unexpected evil may conveniently be blamed on such a concentration.

Clearly this is a scapegoating accusation; the human gaze has no magical powers either to harm or to hurt. But the point of the myth is to explain a social transition, and we must understand the scapegoating element in the context of this transition rather than assuming that scapegoating itself explains whatever social order subsequently emerges from it. What appears in the Ojibwa myth is that the strength of the originary unitary sacred must be destroyed in order that the new totemic society, with its divided sacrality, may survive. This is the “discontinuity” that Lévi-Strauss requires, and however justified Girard may be in reproaching the old master with neglecting the evil-eye theme, Lévi-Strauss gives the expulsion a specific function in the resulting system. Unlike the others, the sixth personage seems a “fictional” addition to the tale, since as far as we know there was never a sixth clan. (And even had there been, the myth could be said to explain its disappearance by the accusation, whether or not justified, that it attempted to arrogate to itself asymmetrical powers.) Thus the myth proposes a transition from a powerful, unitary sacred to a divided sacred where five beings rather than one share the sacred power.

The Tikopia myth suggests a very different social self-understanding. In contrast to the unnamed “anthropomorphic supernatural being” in the Ojibwa myth, Tikarau is a named and individualized god, a lone stranger who visits the Tikopian community made up before his arrival indistinctly of men and gods, the latter being “direct representatives of the clans.” Only as a result of Tikarau’s visit do humans and sacred beings become distinguishable. The fact that Tikarau escapes with the non-vegetal components of the feast, although not discussed at length by Lévi-Strauss, suggests that the clan structure is no longer perceived as dividing up the entire social order, that there is a tension between this egalitarian division and at least the temptation if not the reality of a central usurper. Thus the Tikopia myth has much in common with the “sacrificial king” pattern that Girard discusses in La violence et le sacré, albeit without distinguishing between equalitarian subsistence groups and societies that generate enough of an economic surplus to have even a “sacrificial” king. In such societies, the sacred center is already occupied by a human being whose mythical or real expulsion/lynching would discharge the resentment generated by his scandalous usurpation. This would seem to be reflected by the fact that Tikarau alone is individualized whereas the other gods are anonymous and functionally indistinguishable from the humans—except that it is they who perform the expulsion/execution. Tikopia society at least until recently retained its traditional division into four clans, but the level of hierarchy within the clans, which are/were headed by chiefs, appears to be greater than among the Ojibwa. The disappearance of Tikarau may then be understood as a cautionary tale against the emergence of a single big-man, which may well have been a temptation of individual clan chiefs at the time of the emergence of the myth.

Thus in both cases the clan structure is described as emerging upon the expulsion of a figure representing a unitary, more powerful sacred. In one case, it is a shadowy figure who appears to represent a simpler past; in the other, he is a vivid personage whose expulsion, whether or not it recalls a real event, appears to reflect a fear of the emergence of a single dominant figure as a threat to the Tikopia’s division into four clans.


Finally we must ask what is indeed the “reality” behind these ritual murders. Is the Tikarau of the myth a mythologized version of a real individual chased off a cliff by the Tikopians and immortalized as a divinity, in an action perhaps subsequently consecrated in ritual, although no such ritual existed at the time the myth was told? As Girard’s analysis points out, other elements of the story, such as the “athletic contest” in which the protagonist “stumbles,” add to the “realism” of the myth. But the real question in both cases is the degree to which a specificevent is, as Girard implies, the source of both the myth and the Tikopian social order whose origin it describes.

As far as we know, neither the Ojibwa nor the Tikopia practiced human sacrifice. Human sacrifice is not characteristic of hunter-gatherer societies outside of a war context; it belongs rather to a hierarchical social order in which the central sacred figure has been assimilated to the human, so that the usurpation of the god’s ritual role facilitates the designation of a human substitute for the god in the role of sacrificial victim. This would not of course prevent occasional “emissary murders.” The possibility of an individual member of the society being substituted for whatever reason for the central victim/divinity of the originary event is not eliminated by the success of this event, but merely deferred; the risk of meeting this fate is the very sacred danger that inhabits the center and that the shared emission of the sign is meant to avoid. Any real or presumed attempt by a human to usurp the center on his own is likely to be punished by a lynching of this sort. It is not necessary that such lynchings be common, nor even that they occur at all; it suffices that they be feared, and this is indeed the foundation of all fear of the sacred.

It is surely no coincidence that the greater narrative detail of the Tikopia myth reflects an apparently more advanced social order where the temptation of usurping the center is greater. This more realistic lynching story, in contrast with the narrative poverty of the Ojibwa drowning, suggests that its inventor/teller gives a greater imaginary presence to the usurpation, whether or not he was influenced by the real experience of such an attempt on the part of a Tikopian.

But here is the crucial point on which I part company with Girard. That the divinity can fly away whereas the real man would have been killed is not simply a mythical lie; it is a consequence of the difference between the realm of signs, to which the gods belong, and that of mortal beings. What in the real world would be a lie is in the realm of myth a transfiguration. That the origin of the sign is associated with the sparagmos of its original referent is a point on which Girard and I are not in disagreement. But the human and its language would not exist if the designation of the victim and his/its dismemberment were not separated by a space/time ofdeferral within which the “verticality” of the sign could emerge. And just as the origin of the sign requires a time of deferral in which the moral unity of the community can be created, so the mythical representations of divinities as escaping the violence of the human community cannot simply be reduced to acts of méconnaissance that cover up “real” acts of violence. The personages in these myths, whatever their distant origins, are representations, and the supplement of freedom they embody as divine representations rather than mortals is already that of the originary sign itself, whose deferral of violence is what permits us to be human, and consequently in our thought, to conceive the more than human.


The point of these admittedly speculative analyses is to illustrate GA’s capacity to build on Girard’s insights rather than simply denying them. The originary hypothesis does not demand that we refuse to recognize either the reality or the mythic representation of “emissary murder.” But conversely, it is not enough to identify the emissary structure; its function in a specific narrative, and in the specific society that creates that narrative, remains one of representation, and consequently, of explanation. What Girard refers to as the act ofméconnaissance at the origin of human thought may better be understood as embodying what I call (see Chronicle 390) the fundamental paradox of signification.