Barbara Ehrenreich’s BLOOD RITES is an investigation into the origins of war. Drawing parallels between ancient religions with their blood-soaked rituals, and the fact that for thousands of years a small band of humans had to ward off predators in the shape of tigers, lions and wolves, all without the arsenal of weapons that we have today, Ms. Ehrenreich tries to fill in a picture of the psychology of war. She makes the radical proposal that those ancient deities that demanded their blood-soaked sacrifices could be equated with predatory mammals looking to snack on human flesh.
The only effective weapon that ancient men and women had to fight with was fire. We know that the use of fire is very ancient because hearths dating back 750,000 years have been found in Israel. But the use of fire may have had less to do with keeping warm, than with keeping predators at bay. Images of rings of fire that abound in stories and operas (I’m thinking here of the ring of fire that Wotan uses to protect his sleeping daughter Brunnhilde), may have originated in the use of fire as a kind of fence around an encampment to protect the humans within.
Eventually, humans acquired better equipment in the shape of horses and arrows that meant that they could protect themselves far more efficiently from the big cats. Ms. Ehrenreich’s basic argument is that when humans made the gigantic leap from prey to predator, the “underemployed” males of the tribe, whose job it had been to fight off the predators, needed something new to do in order to channel their energies. That new something turned out to be war.
I do not know if Ms. Ehrenreich is right about this. But I think she is right to point out that there is much more to war than killing people, even though that is its salient feature. Now that I think about it, there is a religious quality about war, that is unexpected. After all, you do not expect sanctioned murder to be religious in nature. But it is striking that down through the ages, masses, sacrifices, libations and other religious acts have been performed before a battle has started.
If you are interested in a provocative discussion about war, read this book. Four stars.