The Religion of the Semites

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Religion of the Semites: The Fundamental Institutions by W Robertson Smith.

Smith The Religion of the Semites

This influential late 19th-century study of ancient near eastern religion was supposed to have been the first of three courses of lectures on the topic of the religious matrix–or “higher heathenism,” as the author sometimes calls it–against which background the teachings of the Hebrew Bible developed, comparing this matrix to other ancient and primitive cults. As a result, the book is a little less comprehensive than the title might suggest, but it focuses on the important topic of sacrifice

The “Semites” of the title are a broad culture (or “race,” in keeping with the academic jargon of that time) defined chiefly by language, and including Arabs, Hebrews, and Aramaeans. The author discountenances an ancient Babylonian emphasis–which had some vogue in his day and was later to enjoy more–as reflecting a more hybrid and metropolitan set of developments. (The same objection would apply to the Phoenicians.) While certainly referencing and weighing biblical evidence, he prefers to take as his paradigm the indigenous non-Abrahamic religions of Arabia. But his sources for these are largely obscure, and in at least one instance, problematic.

The explanation of sacrificial systems often reverts to a particular anecdote from the late fourth-century Egyptian chronicler Nilus, who reported the habits of Bedouins in his region. This striking story of camel sacrifice was later subjected to significant and justifiable skepticism, but not before it had exerted a widespread influence on the theory of religion. Mircea Eliade in his lecture “Cultural Fashion and the History of Religions” (1965) refers to it as the “Fabulous Camel” of Nilus. Still, although Eliade claimed that scholars who concurred with Robertson Smith “could not–or dared not–discuss the general problem of sacrifice without duly relating Nilus’ story,” it is far from clear to me that the loss of Nilus as a data point entails the collapse of the theory advanced in these lectures.

Throughout the work, Robinson Smith stresses the important point that “in ancient religion there was no authoritative interpretation of ritual. It was imperative that certain things should be done, but every man was free to put his own meaning on what was done.” (399) He thus counters the anachronistic tendency in the study of religion to retroject a modern, credal or doctrinal orientation onto ancient cults. At the same time, the fact that the “certain things” had become imperative implies that they were at least originally informed by an obvious motive, and most of Robertson Smiths’s effort is directed towards discovering and elucidating the motive of religious sacrifice. 

Part of the explanation involves the notion of totemism–conceptualized in a manner that owes much to J.G. Frazer, and nothing at all to Freud’s Totem and Taboo. Ultimately, the claim is that the sacrificial event was ab origine one of communion, with the god and among the people. It was an act of commensality that (re-) established kinship with the god in whose name the sacrifice was performed. Only later, with the development of notions of individual property and differentiated social classes, did it acquire explanations involving merit, guilt, compensation, and expiation. Public sacrifice preceded private sacrifice, and the former was properly religious, while the latter drifted toward magic. Interestingly, this genealogy of sacrifice reverses the common suppositions of Christian theology, according to which the communion of Christian sacramentalism is a late development out of an originally expiatory system of sacrifice. 

Besides the central argument, Robertson Smith does range over a variety of interesting and fundamental topics, particularly in the early lectures of the series. The religious developments of the hospitality code, the conception of holy places, the evolution of altars, and the origin and consequence of demons and jinn are just a few of the subsidiary issues considered. Many of these are given further treatment in appended essay-length notes. Additional Note F, on “Sacrifices of Sacred Animals” was worth the whole book to me, for the two pages devoted to ancient sources regarding the sacrifice of donkeys.