The Burning of Zozobra and Other Scapegoat Rituals

Burning of ZozobraThe 89th annual Burning of Zozobra, a 50 foot effigy of “Old Man Gloom,” was staged last Thursday in Santa Fe, NM.  The ceremony is a part of the Fiestas de Santa Fe, a festival celebrating the 1692 reconquest of the city by Spanish colonists in 1692.  My wife and I were planning on going this year, since we only live about an hour away, but a combination of heat, laziness, and the newest episode of Breaking Bad kept us at home in the air-conditioning.  Over 30,000 people showed up to the burning this year.  We weren’t missed.

Zozobra (named after the Spanish word meaning “anxiety”) was created by local artist Will Schuster in 1924.  The original was a 6 foot tall marionette, constructed of cloth and wood, which represented the worries and difficulties of the residents of Santa Fe.  Schuster received his inspiration from a ritual practiced by the Yaqui people of Mexico, known as the Burning of Judas.  This ritual was performed during the week of Easter as a part of the Passion Play, in which the effigies of Judas and other villains was hanged on Good Friday and burned on Easter Sunday.

Before the Zozobra burning, participants fill the marionette with pieces of paper representing their troubles from the year before, such as unpleasant court papers, ticker tape from poorly made investments, and unattractive selfies. While the giant burns, so do last year’s bad memories.

Whether they knew it or not, the thousands of people gathered for the festival were taking part in a “scapegoat” ritual, where the blame of a perceived evil is laid upon a single source, and the destruction of that source brings a kind of equilibrium.  Variants have been practiced in numerous cultures throughout recorded history.

ZozobraSimilar to Zozobra was the ritual burning of Ravana, Kumbhakarna, and Meghanada effigies during the North Indian festival of Navratri, to celebrate their defeat at the hands of the folk hero, Rama.  There are also the stories told by Julius Caesar of the famous wicker men, large wicker effigies supposedly used by the Druids of Gaul to house human sacrifices as they were burned in an effort to please the gods, which served as the inspiration for the 1973 film, The Wicker Man.  In the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, a ritual burning or drowning of the effigy of Marzanna, the Slavic goddess of death, is enacted to mark the end of winter.

We also find the modern practice of effigy burning in the UK on November 5th, the well-known Guy Fawkes Night, where effigies of the anarchic hero are burned on bonfires to celebrate the failure of his attempt to blow the British Parliament House to smithereens.  And it goes without saying that the popular Burning Man Festival, held annually in Nevada, is another modern variant of the practice.

Scapegoat rituals don’t always involve effigies, though.  Often, a scapegoat will be an actual animal, or even human, which will take on the burden of representing a believed evil or sin within a community.  The subject is then sacrificed, as a way of making amends.  The term “scapegoat” derives from the use of an actual goat as described in the Bible:

“And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness:  And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto land not inhabited” (Leviticus 16:21-2).

scapegoatThe ritual described is said by Professor Ida Zatelli to be possibly derivative of an Eblaite ritual in which a goat is sent into the mountains with a sacrificial bracelet tied to its neck.

Possibly, the most well-known practice of this sort was the pharmakos, an ancient Greek rite wherein a human being was blamed for some disaster, whether it be natural or man-made, and expelled from the community.  It has been hotly argued as to whether the victims, called pharmakoi, were merely exiled or killed outright.

But even without an attached ritual, scapegoating is still practiced today.  Whether it be Alex Jones raising hoopla around FEMA, the American practice of Conservatives and Liberals pointing fingers at each other, or David Cameron blaming all of societies ills on the consumption of porn, human beings have a habit of moving the blame somewhere else.  The ability to recognize ourselves as possible sources of trouble seems to be out of the question.

Some of these rituals allow us to divert blame without pointing it at another person.  Unfortunately, the overwhelming paradigm of dogmatic materialism doesn’t recognize these types of practices as viable solutions to societal problems, meaning that events like the Burning of Zozobra can only be seen as entertaining diversions.

Maybe I should consider burning an effigy of James Randi, next year.

Frater Isla

Frater Isla also writes under the name Joshua Lee. He lives in Albuquerque, NM.For more of his work, visit .

5 Comments on "The Burning of Zozobra and Other Scapegoat Rituals"

  1. Simon Valentine | Sep 12, 2013 at 1:48 pm |

    fallacy of extension is fallacy of extension
    scapegoat scapegoat scapegoat

    the importance of seeing ‘an algorithm’ as ‘algorithm en toto’

    and the translation of algorithm to algorithm or shape to shape
    and the time in between as a force trapped in a conserved system

    placebo placebo placebo

    don’t detract from the facts?
    don’t detract from the facts.

    collapse a quantum system to force-bump the other side
    tell me baby is it gravy or another long ass ride
    have we reached the singularity, are we aquarian divine
    is all that physics systems bullshit industrial valentine

  2. Coincidentally, I was just reading Rene Girard today. Highly recommended if you’d like a deeper understanding of the scapegoat mechanism.

  3. And once again, at the end, the social sciences get caught between the hard science snobs and the total wingnuts. Ahhh… such is life. Anyway, it was still an interesting article on a fascinating subject. Thank you.

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