Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions is based on the Gifford Lecture series delivered by Walter Burkert at St Andrews University in 1988–89. The preface reviews the mandate delivered to lecturers by Lord Gifford’s will, remarking on the developments that have occurred in the field of ‘Natural Theology, in the widest sense’ in the roughly one hundred years between the date of the will and the date of Burkert’s lecture series. Burkert notes that while natural science has been steadily in ascendance, the idea and ideal of Nature has been in decline—while religion, however problematic it has become, retains a tenacious grip on the human imagination. This combination of factors leads Burkert to direct his inquiry towards the role of human biology in the evolution of religious phenomena.
The first chapter, ‘Culture in a Landscape: Situating Religion’, introduces the methodological approach Burkert intends to take to his topic. He focuses on Mesopotamian, Jewish, Greek and Roman religions, treating religion as a universal phenomenon with specific cultural instances. Various definitions of religion are reviewed, and then Burkert proposes his own system of characteristics. The chapter then turns to an introduction of sociobiology and a defence of its application to the current subject. It concludes with a discussion of language development and transmission. In the second chapter, ‘Escape and Offerings’, Burkert turns to a discussion of the phenomenon of ritual sacrifice, particularly as it is used to pacify deities and avert disaster. He discusses substitutionary acts and the ‘part for whole’ pattern in Greek sources, linking it to biological phenomena such as predator-prey relations. He then turns to an examination of castration and circumcision as a particular instance of self-sacrifice, and a discussion of the tradition of the scapegoat as a similar phenomenon operating on a larger scale.
The third chapter, ‘The Core of a Tale’, examines certain common narrative sequences (for example, the quest narrative), and speculates on the possible biological sources and equivalents to such sequences (for example, the quest for food). Special attention is given to Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale as it applies both to Greek and Mesopotamian religious narratives and the anthropological and biological narratives recounted by Burkert. He speculates briefly on the major difference between Propp’s morphology and the biologically driven sequence, which is the presence, in Propp, of a helper figure who grants a magical means to fulfil the quest goal. The chapter concludes with discussion of several narratives common within the four religious systems under consideration. The fourth chapter, ‘Hierarchy’, discusses the development of religion from an innate awareness of rank, noting the idea of godhood as the position of supreme dominance. Burkert makes special reference here, as in the previous chapter, to scientific observations of chimpanzee societies.
The fifth chapter, ‘Guilt and Causality’, examines the idea of guilt as an attempt to formulate a narrative of causality. Burkert discusses instances of plague being connected to the wrath of a deity in the Illiad and the Jewish Scriptures, and describes the atonement rituals conducted to remove pestilence. He then traces the short leap from the idea that disease is the result of transgression to the idea that strict adherence to religious rituals will prevent disease. The sixth chapter, ‘The Reciprocity of Giving’, furthers the discussion of preventative devotion, expanding the concept to the idea of obedience, or even sacrifice, in return for prosperity, rather than simply an absence of punishment.
The seventh chapter, ‘The Validation of Signs: A Cosmos of Sense’, discusses the development of divinatory systems. Burkert argues that the lack of immediately practical meanings that characterises human perception of the natural world leads to a tendency to read otherwise insignificant phenomena as signs, which in turn point to ‘a universal signifier who has established the meanings we are summoned to understand’. He finishes by discussing tribal and territorial markings carried on the body, and, finally, the importance of religion with regards to the making and overseeing of oaths. Finally, the conclusion briefly reviews the argument made in the preceding chapters, and then goes on to speculate on the effects of continued human and cultural evolution on the phenomenon of religion.