Murder and Exile: What Actually Is a Scapegoat?

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Murder and Exile: What Actually Is a Scapegoat?

If you are at all interested in politics, lead a group of lackeys onto whom you often shift blame or just have a little brother, you’re very familiar with the term “scapegoat.” It’s someone who is forced to take responsibility for someone else’s misdeeds, which is weird, because have you ever met a goat? Those guys take shit from no one. If anything, they’re all about starting shit, both metaphorically and literally. So why do we call a patsy a “goat,” and why do we scape them? 

We don’t have time to get into all that, but we do know that the term “scapegoat” has roots in ancient rituals far more horrifying than pointing fingers. It all started with Yom Kippur, a Jewish day of repentance that was even less fun back in B.C.E. In those days, the non-festivities included choosing a goat to carry all the sins of Israel into the wilderness to the demon Azezel, who apparently hung out around there. It’s not clear exactly how the goat did this, as intangible concepts are notoriously hard to strap onto someone’s back. Maybe it was some kind of sin-eater situation, and the goat got to wolf down a delicious sin cake before being cast out into the great unknown.

Whatever the case, he definitely got the better job, because the ritual also included choosing another goat to straight-up sacrifice. Sometimes, God doesn’t like his offerings so symbolic. The point is, the original scapegoat was ironically something you wanted to be, given the alternative. In fact, the term “scapegoat” itself is kind of a misnomer. It stems from 1530, when some guy sat down to translate the scripture and mistook the Hebrew ʽazāzēl for ʽēz 'ōzēl, which coincidentally means “the goat that departs,” and decided to give it some snappier flavor. “Scape” was a common word back then, though it just meant “escape.” You know all those idiots who think the term is “escape goat”? They’re technically right.

But before you go developing any unsavory conspiracy theories, these sorts of rituals were by no means limited to the Jewish people. There’s evidence of scapegoating rituals in Ancient Syria and the Ancient Near East, but where it really gets weird is Ancient Greece and Rome, which practiced plenty of actual animal sacrifices but decided to go bizarrely symbolic with this one. In Greece, they’d choose a random dude and a lady, take them out for a lavish meal, then beat them with sticks and drive them out of the city. They did this whenever there was a plague or a war or probably even a spate of strappy sandal robberies — basically whenever it seemed like a good sin-cleansing was in order. It was even a standard part of some annual festivals as a preventive measure, because you really can never be too careful when it comes to sin.

In Rome, they did the full-on sacrifice thing, but they also cut strips of hide from the sacrificed animals and then ran around the city walls, slapping everyone they saw with the floppy flaps of fur. How Mel Brooks failed to include this detail in his History of the World, Part I, we’ll never know, but it was a serious oversight on his part. Again, getting thwapped in the face with the scapegoat scraps was actually a good thing and believed to cure sterility, if modern treatments weren’t demoralizing enough for you. Roman law also included more symbolic scapegoating, allowing your buddy to get whipped in your place as long as he was cool with it. 

Interestingly, “whipping boys” also have an uncomfortably literal origin story. It referred to commoners who may or may not have attended lessons with young royals so if the future king mouthed off to his tutor, somebody was there to be whipped, since whipping the future king was obviously not an option. It was supposed to keep the little lordlings in line on the assumption that they wouldn’t want to see their friend punished for their behavior, but depending on the royal in question, it might have been a bonus. (Hey, at least the whipping boys got a royal education.)

So how did “scapegoating” lose its association with religion, murder and exile and start meaning someone who gets unfairly blamed for stuff? Nobody really seems to know, but that usage wasn’t documented until 1824, at which point society had already begun shifting pretty far away from mandatory scripture study. In these godless times, it’s no wonder it’s become removed from its biblical origins, along with “nimrod,” “bigot” and “the writing on the wall.” 

Boy, you really don’t wanna know about “the writing on the wall.” Spoiler: It’s ghosts and slaughter.

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