Appaloosas, Tigers, and Demons
We're Not in Louisiana Anymore
As the fall football season kicked off across the South with the much-anticipated Louisiana State University (LSU) vs. Florida State University football game played over Labor Day weekend, one could almost hear all the Southern belles, young and old, gasping and clutching their James Avery crosses as this trailer for a new FX show rolled across their screens at a commercial break:
FX is owned by Disney, and the absent-minded soul in FX’s advertising department who failed to make the connection between the audience who would be watching this game and their opinions on demonology in media did not do much to ameliorate Mickey Mouse’s strain across the ever-worsening cultural divide in America:
Interestingly, U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-Benton) shares his name with his alma mater’s mascot, LSU’s Mike the Tiger.
Mike’s Fearful Symmetry
The life of the Bengal tiger anointed as Mike is very different than most, even than those tigers kept in captivity across the world. Mike’s captivity is far from banal: he has a livestream, a Twitter, and has even received a COVID-19 vaccination. He lives in a spacious habitat less than a quarter mile from LSU’s Tiger Stadium.
Even moderns can agree that it is curious as to why our society, replete with quality healthcare, automobiles, transport, and Netflix would spend so much care on an exotic apex predator, spending even close to $1 million furnishing this natural enemy of man with a new habitat. But we should not be surprised to find these hangovers from the past drifting into all the snappiness of our dapper human present, like some sort of strange social appendix. René Girard covers this territory well in Violence and the Sacred:
“Members of the community, then, are less suitable as ritual victims than are nonmembers. That is why ritual victims are chosen from outside the community, from creatures (like animals and strangers) that normally dwell amidst sacred things and are themselves imbued with sacredness.”
Mike lives very close to the stadium where the “ritualistic sacrifice” of the football game — together with its winner and loser — takes place. He is treated as almost human, given a quality place to live, healthcare, and fame. He has even been given a very human name, a name a United States congressman from his own state bears, as opposed to “Kitty”, “Stripey”, or “Cheeto”. At his habitat, a telling plaque reveals Mike’s real purpose, and why such expense, care, and attention is lavished upon him:
Girard quotes Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo:
“‘In other words, the sacrificial animal was treated as a member of the tribe; the sacrificing community, the god and the sacrificial animal were of the same blood and members of the same clan.’
[…] We have remarked that all victims, even the animal ones, bear a certain resemblance to the object they replace; otherwise the violent impulse would remain unsatisfied. But this resemblance must not be carried to the extreme of complete assimilation, or it would lead to disastrous confusion. In the case of animal victims the difference is always clear, and no such confusion is possible.”
As the plaque clarifies, Mike must “[embody]” the “spirit” of the fans themselves, the group that identify with the LSU tribe. Mike is so prized because he is a substitute “sacrificial” victim. His throat is not slit at the end of a loss by the LSU team in lieu of killing the football team (who also represent the fans), but it may as well be. Sacrifice, even simulated, is the purpose of football.
Football is nothing more than a pagan ritual intended to effectively and (relatively) bloodlessly diffuse the unease of the group caused by a mimetic crisis. The most famous “football rivalries” are never those teams very different, but those much more alike. Harvard University does not have a rival in Texas A&M, nor does Reed College rival the U.S. Naval Academy. Stanford University versus Auburn University cannot spur a real rivalry; the audiences for those games are too culturally dissimilar for any mimetic rivalry to arise. Therefore, there is functionally no purpose to the game, because it is ultimately a sacrifice to resolve mimetic rivalry, which can only arise in communities that are alike. However, in the case of the famous Auburn versus University of Alabama rivalry, where almost all the fans come from the same small and culturally homogenous state of Alabama, a rivalry is much more enticing. The sacrifice will be much “closer to home,” so to speak, and thus the win and loss of one team and the other provides a delectable, appealing sacrifice for all, in order to dissipate the mimetic tensions that arise in culturally homogenous communities.
The aura and air of not only a football game, but a football game of a famous rivalry, provides additional excitement and interest. It is akin to a festival. Girard explains Freud:
“The festival, for example, is ‘a permitted, or rather an obligatory, excess, a solemn breach of a prohibition.’ The coincidence of the permitted and the prohibited brings to mind the sacrificial process: ‘when the deed is done, the slaughtered animal is lamented and bewailed. . . .’ This is hardly surprising, because sacrifice and festival are one and the same rite. ‘There is no gathering of a clan without an animal sacrifice, nor—and this now becomes significant—any slaughter of an animal except on these ceremonial occasions.’ […] In many instances the motif of rivalry makes its appearance in the guise of a contest, game, or sporting event that has assumed a quasiritualistic cast. Work is suspended, and the celebrants give themselves over to drunken revelry and the consumption of all the food amassed over the course of many months. I have no doubt that these festivities commemorate a sacrificial crisis.
[…] We are dealing here with an animal pharmakos, a calf or cow that assumes, not some vague and ill-defined sins, but the very real (though often hidden) hostilities that all the members of the community feel for one another.”
Sacrifice Still Matters
Florida State University’s “mascot” is the “Seminoles,” a Native tribe local to the Florida area. Anticipating that it would soon be seen as culturally inappropriate to have, functionally, Native Americans as sacrifices (although this dynamic is never discussed), enterprising individuals associated with Florida State moved to work out a mutually agreeable relationship with the Seminole Tribe of Florida so that the “mascot” of the Appaloosa horse Renegade and the Seminole warrior Chief Osceola would be “symbols” (rather than mascots) that would reflect the rich cultural history of the Seminole Tribe, rather than any uncomfortable appropriation by the present-day non-Native Floridians.
The person who “inhabits” Chief Osceola must meet certain requirements: be a person of “high moral character” (so far to date, also male, but the times, they are a-changin’), maintain a 3.0 grade point average, and commit to years of training followed by double-digit hours per week of on-the-ground work. This raises an interesting question: why can’t Chief Osceola be portrayed by some young man of relatively questionable moral character and low intelligence who happens to be a decent enough horse rider with enough time on his hands to do the job?
When viewed through a Girardian lens, it’s a rather simple answer: because the “sacrifice” that is the “symbol” of Chief Osceola astride Renegade must be a worthy sacrifice. The person who is going to be “symbolically slaughtered” while “inhabiting” the persona of Chief Osceola must be someone who is “worthy” of being slain, who fully represents the community and the height of who they are and all they aspire to be. If some 19-year-old low-impulse idiot who’s already knocked up a few waitresses bestrides Renegade and becomes Chief Osceola — and we all know about it — it just doesn’t quite work, does it? Chief Osceola, even in his imaginary persona, must be noble, pure, and spotless, or at least, we must be given enough pretext to allow ourselves to imagine him as such.
We can continue the thought exercise further and imagine what were to happen if the noble young lad selected to inhabit Chief Osceola were to find himself the subject of a cheating scandal on the Florida State campus. Wouldn’t the community find it functionally worse that their Chief Osceola was the subject of such an allegation, even if the scandal contained almost the exact same set of facts and circumstances as another allegation made toward a male member of campus who was not Chief Osceola? Of course. One allegation would make the front page of the Tallahassee Democrat and the other might make a five-minute segment on the evening news. You don’t need me to tell you which would be which: you already know, and the fact that you already know shows the power of symbols.
This allegation would be so shocking because the character of the person who inhabits Chief Osceola would be stained — the sacrifice would be imperfect — and this action by this person would reflect on the community of Florida State in a far more grave way than that of a mere student. The choices, the character, and the repute of the man who inhabits a quasi-fictional character based on a historical Seminole who died of an abscess on his tonsil in 1838 still matters.
It still matters because sacrifice still matters.
Blood in the Superdome
Were Julius Caesar himself to rise from the dead and assume a role as CEO of a modern American company, he could not imagine a more fitting leaf in his laurel than New Orleans’ Caesars Superdome, where the LSU-Florida State football game took place. Its style evokes very much the Roman Colosseum, constructed by the pagan Roman Empire in 80 A.D.:
The Colosseum was a place where the Empire and her Roman citizens could enjoy entertainment dressed up in sacrifice and blood. Animals, like those of the mascots/symbols of the football teams, were no strangers to the Colosseum:
“Whilst the Emperor Commodus probably didn’t engage in fully-fledged one-to-one gladiatorial combats as portrayed in the film Gladiator (despite boasting that he had won an incredible 12,000 bouts over his ‘career’), he certainly did relish slaughtering beasts in the arena. So proud was he of his exploits in dispatching wild animals, that Commodus frequently had himself depicted as a second Hercules – complete with lion’s pelt and club. When he joined the games at the Colosseum he definitely wasn’t fighting fair though – in all likelihood the animals were tied up and didn’t have the opportunity to fight back, and Commodus often remained safely distant on a raised platform firing arrows at them. Once, according to Cassius Dio, the emperor personally picked off a hundred bears as a warm up act to the games. One of his favourite tricks was decapitating ostriches with his arrows, then tossing their heads into the crowd.”
Neither were enemies of the state, prisoners of war, or even Christians:
“Others, the lowliest of criminals and occasionally Christians during times of persecution, were not expected to fight at all– instead they were exposed naked to the lions, panthers, tigers, boars and leopards without weapons or protection. Sometimes they were dressed in animal skins to further incite the beasts. These gruesome capital sentences were a warm up act for the gladiator contests, and usually took place during the lunch-interval, a sort of macabre half-time show.
Not surprisingly, the prospect of such a violent and [publicly] humiliating death proved too much for many of those condemned to perish in the arena, and there are numerous recorded examples of prisoners committing suicide in the cells of the Colosseum’s underground before their turn on the sands above. According to Symmachus, a group of 29 Saxon prisoners strangled each other rather than face the animals, whilst one particularly lurid tale recounted by Seneca relates how a German venatore escaped to the bathroom just before a show and choked himself to death with the first thing that came to hand – the sponge with which Romans wiped themselves after answering the call of nature.” (via)
Sympathy for the Antichrist
I watched with glee while your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades for the gods they made
I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?”
Well, after all, it was you and me
— Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”
It is so interesting that many of the LSU-Florida State fans who would, likely at a very high percentage, identify as Christian and even regularly attend church services, fail to realize that they are participating in a pagan ritual at the very root and origin of which is human sacrifice (and not Christ’s), but of course they do not recognize it: that is why they continue to be football fans, because it works, even at the most base level of mere jest.
On the other end of the spectrum is the FX show “Little Demon”, the commercial for which stirred up so much controversy in the midst of this pagan ritual. The audience should be completely unsurprised that this show even exists and is being broadcast. It’s their own self-professed Christianity that brought it about.
The story of Christianity — properly understood — is the story of hearing the side of the victim. It is the story of the single person against the mob: the story of Joseph, the story of Moses, the story of Jesus. Christianity always hears and amplifies the voice of the innocent victim. This awareness is a catching virus and eventually infects all of culture. As I’ve explained before, this is what makes Christianity so dangerous, transgressive, and destabilizing. This transgressive nature of Christianity is exactly why “Little Demon” is even able to exist.
A Christ-haunted culture like our own was always going to tell the story of the Antichrist from the Antichrist’s perspective. America was never a Christian culture and certainly isn’t now, but it is certainly a culture that is haunted through and through by Christianity, by the specter of Jesus lurking on a crucifix somewhere above us, and that manifests itself in all sorts of curious and sometimes amusing ways. We can’t talk about this directly, of course, which is why everyone is so worked up all the time, but our lack of willingness to engage with it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
Even “Little Demon” is not really the story of the Antichrist (after all, no real-world scenario exists in which the Antichrist is female) and even, amid rather gruesome scenes and disturbing jokes, showcases Christian values in subverted ways, which is, of course, the only way that Christian values can be publicly and acceptably demonstrated in our present age. Ultimately, however, it is a rather plain family drama wrapped up in shock-jock horror-comedy replete, yes, with occultist and Satanic motifs.
Further out into the culture, beyond the dominion of FX, the United States government, under the auspices of the Biden Administration, showed an interesting turn with the recent appointment of Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, a Harvard-trained physician, to the role of White House National Monkeypox Response Deputy Coordinator:
He denies being a Satanist, while Twitter was quick to clip alleged receipts of photographs of occultist, Satanist imagery before he set his Instagram to private. Dr. Daskalakis notably has a tattoo of an inverted pentagram on his upper chest, which has caught considerable attention from the political/cultural right, but Dr. Daskalakis in the Politico interview counters that he was raised in the Greek Orthodox church and notes that he also has a large tattoo of Jesus over his stomach. Dr. Daskalakis also commented to Politico that the pentagram over his chest reads “I believe that there’s a light even in the darkest place.”
To see the almost twin emergence of Satanic imagery in both “Little Demon” and the positioning of Dr. Daskalakis to power should surprise no Christian. This is the essence of Christianity, that we would come to have sympathy for the devil, sympathy for the Antichrist. The story of Christianity is the story of Christ reaching down and inhabiting all the margins, even the ones that make Middle America squeamish and uncomfortable. And we must give credit to Dr. Daskalakis where it is due: there is “light even in the darkest place”, because of Christ. When Christ descended into Hell on that Saturday, He went even unto Dr. Daskalakis’ Instagram. Christians need not rejoice at the inversion of the world that elevates Satanic symbols over Christian ones — after all, only Christ is King, not Satan. But to profess the kingship of Christ means that there is ultimately no dominion that is not His own, including the realms of Hell. Christ, the sacred victim, is the summation of all patterns in reality, even the reality of the occult and the profane.
The triad values of “faith, family, and football,” held by so many of those LSU and Florida State fans, are essentially (relatively) conservative values. In this particular view of the world, life is lived in a generally pro-consumer fashion, but a very general sense of cultural mores around sexuality, gender expression, patriotism, and faith are upheld and mutually reinforced. “Weird” fringe entertainment like “Little Demon” do not enter the picture, but football is welcome as a beloved and important pastime for training up young men in virtue, competition, teamwork, and sport. One need only view the show “Friday Night Lights” to glimpse into this Weltanschauung. It is not unreasonable to assume that many of the viewers of the LSU-Florida State game, if given the option, would prefer a return to some 1980s to mid-1990s set of cultural values, albeit perhaps without the twin threats of the AIDS epidemic and nuclear holocaust lurking in the background.
But we are not in Louisiana anymore. These values were never going to last as bulwarks against the insidious nature of Christianity. Christianity secularizes culture, empathizes with the margins; secularized cultures naturally bring those margins to the center. It is precisely this dynamic, perhaps with a few other forces outside the scope of this post, that results in the Satanist-appearing White House advisor and the broadcast of a demon-filled show during a healthy game of Saturday night football.
The world we live in is no longer the well-structured, ordered world of the medievals, with its careful attention to the rhythms within time and walling off of the unravelling shadowy margins from the orderly civil center. No: we live in an inverted world, where the messy margins have not only filled the center, but found empathy, compassion, and expression there. Our bulwarks will never hold, but it is no matter: Jesus has more ambitious plans.
Christ the King has one agenda. He will take over everything in His curious quest to transfigure the world as we know it. We should not be surprised to find Him seeping out toward every corner as the message of the Gospel iterates over and over again, year after year, as we spiral down — or up — to the end of all things, even as we cling to all our garishly colored pagan rituals:
God is working this purpose out,
as year succeeds to year;
God is working this purpose out,
and the time is drawing near;
nearer and nearer draws the time,
the time that shall surely be:
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.
Arguments that this choice was a planned controversial marketing campaign fail to consider that the media conglomerates are so culturally removed from the sensibilities of the American South that this would be impossible to devise.