Twins, Mirrors, and Taboos
Explaining ancient human sacrifices and prohibitions
Plato’s hatred – How to save a twin.
If you don’t mind, I would like to start with Plato.
In book 10 of the Republic, I believe Plato talked about three kinds of beings and the things they birth. This will be a weird but salutary introduction to imitation in the manner in which it will be discussed in this essay. According to him, god, who makes (the forms of) all things, is at the top of the echelon. Two, the craftsman who makes things from the raw materials. Three, the artist who makes the simulacrum of the things that were made by the craftsman.
Plato believes that while the artists engage in imitation (by copying the things the craftsman makes), even the craftsman is not left out in this exercise – he imitates the forms (idea) of things. As such, we can summarize and say that the craftsman works on a copy while the artist is not working on a copy but the copy of a copy. This distinction is essential for Plato. And yet he goes further to pass a normative judgment on the elements in this model.
The form is the authentic thing, things that are made are cool, but the simulacrum of the latter is trash, hence his negative attitudes towards poets, artists, and the like. One could say, without any remorse, that such normative judgment is reckless.
But that is not my main point; it is the fact that Plato’s mimetic theory does not distinguish between acquisitive mimesis and non-acquisitive mimesis. The reader should recall that the former leads to conflict, while the latter involves the imitation-desiring of a limitless resource, say acquisition of language. Acquisitive mimesis, on the other hand, leads to conflict because the object of interest – e.g., money, land, power – is always of limited amount.
While irrational, Plato’s animosity towards (art) mimesis is somewhat intelligible – (some) mimesis causes violence. He couldn’t situate what mimesis or what conditions must be satisfied for mimesis to lead to violence.
And Plato is not alone. The incomprehensibility of the distinctions of mimesis also explains such bizarre behavior and attitudes from primitives, such as the killing of twins and the fear of mirrors. In my home country, for example, Mary Slessor, a Scottish missionary, was often attributed to ‘abolishing’ the sacrifice of twins among the Efik people in the late 19th century.
In fact, I was under the illusion that such practices died with the 19th century until I came across an essay by the Nigerian Writer Feyi Fawehinmi, writing in a memorial essay in honor of his father:
“I came to sympathize with who he was and how he became that person. My dad was a twin. But having twin boys in 1932 – the year he was born – in Ondo is not what it is today. But nothing other than pure luck, my dad’s life was spared and Taiwo [the other twin] was sacrificed because back then having twin boys was seen as something terrible and one had to go.”
How to Save a Twin
Establishing that we are compulsively mimetic, in primitive societies, conflicts that result from acquisitive mimesis will have to be resolved one way or the other. In the absence of a resolution, according to the mimetic theory, humans wouldn’t have survived.
While the object is usually the original source of conflict in this framework, soon, mimetic rivalry takes over. The goal now changes from acquiring the object per se to defeating the model – the model becomes the obstacle.
When a society is embroiled in a bunch of mimetic rivalries, what results is the transfer of the violence to an innocent victim, a scapegoat, who is killed or sent off to exile, or arbitrarily punished. This scapegoating mechanism can return order to the chaotic, violent community via a psychological mechanism. This experience, the primitives see as the hand of a supernatural being.
In essence, you have a scapegoat, an arbitrary victim, the bad guy, becoming a divine being overnight. They say to themselves, “this works, this has to be the hand of gods.” Hence, what we have here is an anthropological theory for the origin of religion and culture, with the latter coming from the repetition of rituals. Explaining once and for all the vast range of ritualistic sacrifice in virtually all primitive societies – friends, it explains myth.
In summary, the irrational fears experienced by our ancestors towards mimesis are because of violence that is not uncommon because of imitation, (human) sacrifices turn out to be one of the ways of reducing the cycle of violence, and it tends to work because they believed it worked.
When I was growing up, I watched enough of the Yoruba and Igbo films of West Africa – depicting traditional societies – where the chief priest’s solution to the chaos in the town is the killing of a foreigner, say – a ritual. And because they believed it would work, because they believe the myth, it often works.
Another mechanism of taming violence is prohibitions and taboos. We see prohibitions a lot in primitive societies, some of which can be arbitrary. But the whole idea is if we can prohibit certain behaviors, it will reduce the cycle of violence because there will be less imitation and lesser mimetic rivalry.
(And the reader must make no mistake, this principle still applies to the modern human as presented in our hierarchical organizations, states, and countries. To abolish all kinds and types of hierarchy is to patently invite conflict that will inevitably arise from mimesis.)
Broadly speaking, the rigid caste systems in traditional societies is a marker of such prohibitions. Primitives knew there was a link between mimesis and violence, but again they just couldn’t situate the mechanism.
As Girard puts it,
“To understand human culture, it is necessary to concede that only the damming of mimetic forces by means of prohibition and the diversion of these forces in the direction of ritual are capable of spreading and perpetuating the reconciliatory effect of the surrogate victim. [Archaic] religion is nothing other than this immense effort to keep the peace.”
And societies that do not have these religious motifs in place will perish from the scorching heat of violence. Archaic religion based on myth, while barbaric, in this reading, is surprisingly pragmatic. This submission itself might sound shocking. It is shocking. So will an iPhone to a Roman citizen in 430BC.
We often overlook how much civilizations have shaped our opinion of things, and while terrible things have been done in the past by early humans, many of us wouldn’t have fared better because we wouldn’t know better. And the lonely, bright fellow who thinks different would have been – more often than not – amongst the first folk to be sacrificed during the chaotic times.
And for twins and mirrors, they are just weird reminders/manifestations of rivalries (that can never be justified.) So, the former are killed, while the latter is feared.
In the final analysis, among other things, the arena of the gods is associated with violence (emanating from acquisitive mimesis/mimetic rivalries). And the way ‘out of the violence’ is often brutal and crude –via arbitrary prohibitions and sacrifices.