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Politics of Victimhood

A Culture's Seminal Myths

May 09, 1999|Laura Shamas | Laura Shamas teaches mythology at Pepperdine University and also at UCLA Extension

Horrific accounts of Serbian aggression are revealed daily, but commentators remind us that the Serbs feel victimized. How can aggressors be victims? As we struggle to comprehend the incomprehensible in Kosovo, the recognition of the resonance of victimhood in the mythologies of cultures from around the world may shed some light on the current crisis in the Balkans.

Themes of victimhood are important in mythology: They point out patterns of human behavior and reactions in the collective psyche related to oppression, suffering, submission and aggression.

A seminal battle in Serbian history is so meaningful to the national psyche that it has been transformed into myth. This tale, "The Field of Blackbirds" at Kosovo Polje, highlights the Serbian "victim" mind-set. In 1389, the Serbian hero Prince Lazar chose to fight to his death rather than surrender to the Ottoman Turks. According to legend, the conquering sultan gave Prince Lazar a chance to live, but he opted to die "with honor," along with the other Serbian knights. Turkish Muslims ruled Serbia for the next 500 years, yet, the defeated people commemorated the date. When Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic came to power in June 1989, he emphasized that he was taking office on the 600-year anniversary of Prince Lazar's death.

If a martyred hero story is central to a nationalist movement, the resonance of victimhood or "scapegoating" will be experienced collectively, as part of a cultural identity.

The scapegoat archetype has appeared in every civilization. The term "scapegoat" originated from ancient sacrificial rites, such as those in the pre-Hebraic and early Greek traditions. In ceremonies, two goats were sacrificed to atone symbolically for the sins of the community. One goat was killed in a blood-purging rite; the second goat "escaped," released in the wilderness, in exile, which signified the removal of communal faults, the collective "shadow." In ancient Greece, human scapegoats were paraded through the city before being stoned to death outside city walls.

The notion of victimhood has been a strong theme in the stories of many cultures. One example is a North American Indian tale from the White River Sioux. It focuses initially on an aging chief, Tawa Makoce, meaning "His Country." Tawa Makoce, the father of three sons and a daughter, had been a renowned warrior, but, in his later years, he was no longer capable of great feats. White soldiers drove his tribe across the Missouri River, forcing a battle between the White River Sioux and the Kangi Oyate, the Crow nation.

Tawa Makoce despaired after his three sons perished in the skirmish. But his beautiful daughter, Winyan Ohitika, declared she would not marry until she had avenged her dead brothers. Taking the war bonnet and her brothers' weapons, she rode into war. The Sioux were driven back, but Winyan Ohitika rallied them. Under her leadership, the Sioux charged forward; the Crow nation was driven from the Missouri River forever. But in the fight, many young Sioux died, including Winyan Ohitika's great love. So Winyan Ohitika slashed her arms and legs, cut off all her hair and never stopped mourning: The loss was too great. The military victory cannot ease her own sorrow.

In a story that seems all too similar to the Kosovo saga, a Japanese legend from the 12th century offers a story of grave loss resulting from revenge. The classic "Tales of the Heike" is part fable, part history and depicts exclusion, anger and victimization from two sides. Munemori was the son of Kiyomori, the leader of the Heike clan; young Munemori wanted to be a commander. However, the emperor gave the position to someone else, Narichika, of the Genji clan. These two related clans, the Heike and the Genji, were thus set against each other.

The rejected Heike clan rose to power and convinced the emperor to expel Genji leaders. But soon afterward, Kiyomori died and the exiled Genji leaders returned to take revenge. After a particularly disastrous battle, the despondent Heike were scattered throughout the countryside. Munemori, the new Heike leader, had a sense of foreboding, but he sailed his depleted fleet into a trap: There were twice as many Genji ships waiting in the narrow straits. The Heike fought valiantly but were annihilated. The result? The end of the Heike clan, and innumerable Genji losses.

In the 20th century, we have witnessed an ever-expanding cycle of "victims" who turn to violence, leading often to genocide. How can this recurring pattern of human behavior be altered and healed? The answer lies in our understanding of victimization, the resentment and anger that results from scapegoating and loss. In looking at Kosovo, it is the concept of loss that we're left with: loss on all sides and loss as the psychic origin of violence.*

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