I’m reading an interesting book, Eye For An Eye, by William Ian Miller [amazon]. (I don’t know anything about him. I just grabbed this off the shelf.) It’s a discussion of lex talionis style justice systems – a somewhat unsystematic ‘antitheory’ of justice, the author styles it. Lots of quoting from Old Norse stuff and Babylonian stuff and ancient what-not. Very colorful. Here’s a bit that’s interesting, in a subsection on “Paying Gods in Bodies and Blood”. Maybe Kieran will have something to say.
One uncanny, imaginative, and not quite dismissable theory by Bernhard Laum (1924), working mostly with early Greek and Indian evidence, claims to find the origins of money and value measurement in the partibility of animal bodies. That so many words for money are also the word for cow or cattle would seem to make the observation trite at least to the extent that a live animal is meant: Old Norse, fé (cattle, sheep, money), and Old English (féoh (cattle, cows, property), from which we get Modern English (fee), are cognate via the effects of Grimm’s law with Latin pecus (cattle), yielding our pecuniary. To be noted too is that cattle and chattel are different dialect forms of the same French word, with chattel developing a more general and money-like meaning of moveable property. Cows and sheep are among the earliest mesures of value; and their ties to the idea of money persist at the most basic levels of our money talk.
But what Laum is after is to show that the idea of the moneyness of animals comes not from their use in normal trade – the unit of a cow or an ox is too large in value, to say nothing of their large mass, to be a regular means of payment – but from their use as sacrificial victims. The place to look for the origins of money, he argues, both as a measure of value and a medium of exchange, is at the temples, in offerings and gifts to the diety. Laum finds that the whole idea of generalized measures of value, the idea of standardization itself, comes from separating out ritually pure animals for sacrifice. Animals of the same species were compared with each other, and from the comparison a normalized type was created, a qualitative norm. Rules of cultic sacrifice generate rules of quality and measurement: we thus arrive at a unit of the standard sacrificial ox, bull, ram, or lamb. (p. 36-7)
Some interesting reflections follow. The animals are cut up in all sorts of precise ways, so you get precise terms for smaller units of currency. (And that’s why all coins have heads and tails?) Animals used are sacred to the diety. In some sense are him (or her.) So you are offering a god for a god. A lex talionis eye for an eye arrangement. “The sacrifice of Christ is merely another manifestation of the talion: God for God, who is also a partible sacrificial lamb who is then also the object of worship.”
And in sacrifice there is a certain tendency to debase the currency. If you can sacrifice a cow, why not just an image of a cow? So it goes. Thus, we are prepared to accept pieces of paper as valuable because we’ve already agreed to think that a wafer can be a god. In for a penny, in for a pound of flesh, as it were.
Later there are some interesting reflections on loaves and feeding your followers from yourself. Apparently in Old English blafweard (literally ‘loaf guard, loaf owner’) decays into ‘lord’. Servant or householder member is ‘loafeater’. Shades of the last supper? He includes some interesting schedules of body part costs under King Ethelbert. Basically, more than half of Ethelbert’s law is apparently made up of an elaborate workman’s comp scheme: from grabbing of the hair, up through exposing and breaking bones, up through each and every possible lost finger. Miller refers to tales of fights in which the participants, rather than keeping count of how many orcs they have killed, like a certain elf and dwarf in Tolkien, keep track of how much they are going to have to pay, for all the damage they are doing, subtracting all the while the money they will receive for the injuries they are suffering, for which they will have to be compensated. Weird.