July 15, 2013

Walter Burkert On "Sacred Shivers of Awe"

Walter Burkert (born 2 February 1931 in Neuendettelsau) is a German scholar of Greek mythology and cult.

He has published books on the balance between lore and science among the followers of Pythagoras, and more extensively on ritual and archaic cult survival, on the ritual killing at the heart of religion, on mystery religions, and on the reception in the Hellenic world of Near Eastern and Persian culture, which sets Greek religion in its wider Aegean and Near Eastern context.
An excerpt from, "Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions" by Walter Burkert. 1998. Harvard University Press. Pg. 18. (Source): 
"Konrad Lorenz has drawn attention to the shudders of anxiety or even of elation that we still experience, shivers running down our backs and arms in appropriate situations, which are nervous reactions intended to raise the mane at the back and head, as they still do among gorillas and chimpanzees. For us, "hair-raising" survives mainly as a metaphor, but once it was part of the aggressive behavioral program. Today, when we speak of the sacred shivers of awe that characterize religion in particular, we may be forgetting that origin. Yet anxiety linked to aggression through biological inheritance manifests itself in our emotions, including patriotic and religious enthusiasm."
An excerpt from, "Violent Origins: Walter Burkert, Rene Girard, and Jonathan Z. Smith on Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation" edited by Robert Hamerton-Kelly. 1987. Stanford University Press. Pg. 159; and 169-170.
"In anxiety as well as in enthusiasm, we feel "shivers of awe" running down our back---and remember the role of "awe" in religion. These shivers are, physiologically, the residual nerves and muscles once used to raise the hair at back and head for aggressive display, as gorillas impressively do. The emotional experience still complies with what had been demonstrative action, ritual at the subhuman level; and artificial signals such as Hector's crested helmet may be adopted to make good for the lost abilities. Thus the sign is restored to its meaning."

"But some points of Lorenz's theory seem to be seriously undermined, such as his assertions about spontaneous, instinctive aggression in humans. I have not found any extensive discussion of the phenomenon that concerns us here, "the bond," i.e. solidarity wrought by common aggression; it seems to have been shuffled into the background, which is possibly a sign of some uneasiness. It is intriguing to note in this respect that the most dangerous variety, the welding together of a population in time of war by an outburst of patriotic enthusiasm, was tremendously effective in 1914 but did not work at all in the United States during the Vietnam war. Evidently there is no simple, predictable mechanism. I suspect the change has something to do with the news media. Aggressive solidarity, on the other hand, is still found to work nicely at protest demonstrations: confronting the authorities and the police, youngsters still experience the sacred shivers of awe."