On Moloch, Lancelot, Brad Pitt, and Masoch

January 9, 2007 at 5:48 am (reading notes)

On Jonathan Tu’s It’s a Definite Maybe, I stumbled across this post which mentions “Lemming’s third quarter sacrifice of seven goats to Moloch, the bull headed pagan diety [sic] of the Levant and one of the fallen angels under Lucifer, chief adversary of the Judeo-Christian God.”

Oh, the joys of tag surfing.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, in “Masochism/Lancelotism,” cites Theodor Reik’s reference to a man whose sexual fantasies hinged on “an imagined ritual of human sacrifice” in which “young men submitted to the stern priests of the primeval god” (80), compared by Reik to Moloch. Cohen writes, “The meticulously visualized rite included the careful judgment of each ‘athletic’ body by the high priest, who approves [for castration and sacrifice] only the most perfect” (80).

When the film Troy came out, a friend and I were musing on the veritable feast of bronzed man-flesh on the screen – the women were all in nightgowns, basically, but the men were on formal and full display, bulging obliques and clean ridges of ilii everywhere, an interesting refocusing of the Hollywood eye. He later wrote a poem about the absurdity of watching Achilles on screen with a real-life Brad Pitt in a hotel room, wondering “These are the children of the gods?” I haven’t sat down yet to suss out just what I think is going on with all these athletic bodies bleeding all this demigod blood, but the random intersection of two mentions of athletes in connection to Moloch within two days is sitting in a pot somewhere on a back burner of my mind, building up steam.

Of interest is the fact that in the unpointed Hebrew, Moloch is rendered מלך — without pointers for the vowel sounds, the word is indistinguishable from Melech, “king,” and indeed there are several Old Testament passages where the translation is less than certain. We might be dealing with an earlier or alternate appellation of YHWH, with an idol of the Israelites, with an Ammonite god, with a recouched Canaanite tradition. In any case, the central feature of the worship of Moloch appears to have been the passing of sacrificed children through fire. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes,

The offerings by fire, the probable identity of Moloch with Baal, and the fact that in Assyria and Babylonia Malik, and at Palmyra Malach-bel, were sun-gods, have suggested to many that Moloch was a fire- or sun-god.

Of course, we know other stories of children being passed through fire in some ritual designed to link them with deity; in the case of Achilles, for instance, the passing through fire was designed to make him immortal. C.J. Mackie writes, “The immersion of Achilles in fire therefore is a very significant moment in his life in that it signals the end of a ‘normal’ childhood (i.e. living in a house with his parents), and the beginning of a more remote and unusual existence (in a cave on a mountain with a centaur and his wife)” (329). The passing through fire removes him from the family structure and the trappings of mortality to a liminal space occupied by irregular bodies with irregular lifespans. Mackie further notes that in some sources, Thetis killed six other children in (failed) attempts to perform the same ritual of immunity – in essence, of immortality — to burn away the mortality from the corporeal flesh, from the container of the hybrid man-god. Pushing one’s children over thresholds like this is dangerous business in myths – as Sinfjotli discovers in Volsunga saga when she tests her sons before sending them off to Sigmund, sometimes what doesn’t make us stronger simply kills us.

In Troy, Thetis tells Achilles, “Your glory walks hand in hand with your doom.” Achilles tells a young boy who admits fear that nobody will remember his name. But it’s perhaps the moment of the cut, the moment when the human weapon slices through the sensitive flesh of the hero and he breathes not the breath of the Technicolor demigod but the last breath of a dying human man, that is finally the most famous. Immortality is boring. The hero needs a fall, judgment, maybe even a third-quarter (failed) sacrifice to Moloch, to get us interested.

Cohen, Jeffrey J. “Masoch/Lancelotism.” Medieval Identity Machines. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. 78-115.

Mackie, C.J. “Achilles in Fire.” Classical Quarterly 48 ii (1998): 329-338.


1 Comment

  1. jonathantu said,

    Thanks for catching the spelling mistake. You’d think after 50,000+ hits and almost two dozen threatening letters someone would’ve pointed it out.

    (This is also a ridiculously thick – as in involved – post. Nice job.)

    (And it’s not often I see someone so suited to having Geoffery Chaucer Hath a Blog in their links.)

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