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Reflections on The Thanksgiving Turkey as Ritual Scapebird: An Unconventional Narrative Reflections on The Thanksgiving Turkey as Ritual Scapebird: An Unconventional Narrative
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2022-11-24 09:09:10
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“Nothing so unites us as gathering with one mind to murder someone we hate, unless it is coming together to share in a meal.”

                                                               – Margaret Visser, The Rituals of Dinner

“When Audubon painted it, it was a sleek, beautiful, though odd-headed bird, capable of flying 65 miles per hour. Today, the turkey is an obese, immobile thing, hardly able to stand, much less fly. As for respectability, the big bird is so stupid it must be taught to eat”

                                                               --From Moneysworth, a consumer newsletter

Since the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock the turkey has been tied to the American character and sense of national identity. Its transformation as mentioned in the second quote above, also hints at a transformation in the American character. To be sure, traditionally the bird has not been a respected figure in America. The turkey is ceremonially linked to Thanksgiving, the oldest holiday in the United States but at the same time it is culturally rooted in ambiguity. Benjamin Franklyn proposal to adopt it as the nation’s symbol rather than the bold eagle, was more in the nature of a joke than anything else. In 1984, Andrew Feinberg wrote in The New York Times that by 1873, “turkey” had come to mean an advantage or easy profit; soon the word came to refer to anyone who could be easily duped or caught. According to Wicked Words, students before and after 1945 used the term to characterize an incompetent person who continually makes mistakes.

Turkey bashing can be traced back in part to the “turkey shoots” of colonial times. In the turkey shoot, live turkeys were tied to trees or put in boxes to be shot in the head. The “sport” is based on the shooting of wild turkeys at roost in the trees. According to a writer in 1838, turkeys are “easily killed at roosts, because the one being killed, the others sit fast.” Thus a “turkey shoot” came to signify a simple task or an easy target. Surprising to many, the bird the early Europeans encountered was not the bird that dominates modern hunters’ discourse. From the 17th through the 19th centuries, wild turkeys were characterized as showing an almost Disneylike friendliness towards people. According to Madison, “Wild turkeys, as the first settlers found them, were as trusting and unwary as they were plentiful.” The 20th-century effort to create or restore a “true wild turkey,” using everything from artificial insemination to high-tech trapping and relocation of turkey populations “tainted with domestic blood,” has been largely superficial. The so-called wild bird keeps revisiting the human scene, walking around in suburbia, midtown, the Bronx.


The mythology of antiquity offers two opposing models of the human-nonhuman animal relationship central to this discussion: the Orphic model and the Dionysian model. The Dionysian model is based on the primitive god Dionysus, the Greek personification of intoxication, ferocity, and the chase. Followers of Dionysus were famous for their frenzied dismemberment and devouring of live prey. Wild animal fled from their Dionysian pursuers, scattering in fear in all directions prior to being torn apart when caught. The legendary Orpheus was not a god but a mortal revered for the godlike, peace-bringing power of his music. Each morning Orpheus greeted the sun with his song. His melodies attracted the birds and other wild creatures; even the mountains were moved by his music. Orpheus charmed animals but he did not deceive them. He lured animals to himself but not to harm them. It is easy to imagine the turkey among the animals Orpheus would have charmed, because the turkey is drawn to music, of which there are some interesting accounts.

Dionysus and his followers, which included the Maenads, the “Raving Women,” also lured animals to themselves, as well as chasing them. These manic embodiments of “false Orpheus,” who finally tore Orpheus to pieces, drew the denizens of the forests and fields from their hiding places to suckle and soothe them as part of a destructive seduction ritual. It is easy to imagine the turkey among the animals fooled by their wiles, as the turkey’s allurability is a primary attraction of turkey hunting. Teasing “love sick” turkeys with sirens’ songs is a key element of the euphoria leading to the climax of pulling the trigger in turkey hunting. Turkey hunters brag about the erotic pleasure they get from mimicking turkey courtship behavior, imitating a “hot hen” so that a lovesick tom will “offer its head and neck for a shot”. It suggests a hatred that humans have had for nonhuman animals through the ages, rooted in our hatred of ourselves for being animals, which we project onto them.


At the same time that humans experience hatred towards nonhuman animals and the “degrading” condition of animality, because we are animals and because the knowledge that we are animals is embedded in our biology and in our status as creatures rooted in the natural world, thus despite Aristotle’s reminder that we are “rational animals,” we remain ambivalent. A basis for cautious optimism is the emnity that many people feel for animals, which may be gaining ground on the animus that has characterized so much of our relationship with other species and nature. Because of its mythic role in American history, the bird comes loaded with all of the ambiguity and “hypocrisy” that the role implies. Just as the wild (“sacred”) bird and the domestic (“profane”) bird join together ambiguously in the popular image and the DNA of the “Thanksgiving Turkey,” so the bird is increasingly being placed in the role of ambassador of a gentler concept of Thanksgiving. In some cases people are adopting turkeys and treating them as guests at the Thanksgiving table, showing, through a different set of symbols, that there are ways other than ritual apologetics to give thanks, do good, and exorcise guilt.

However, this is still a long way from the mainstream, which officially considers the charm of a turkey to consist in the fact that the bird tastes good, while providing the easiest way to feel part of a community, by eating and saying what everyone else does. Otherwise, the turkey is considered a “dirty bird,” addicted to filth and infected with harmful bacteria, that becomes magically clean only by being sprayed with acid, irradiated, cooked, and consumed, a “stupid” creature that figures in the seemingly incompatible role of a sacrifice (a pure, precious offering), while serving as a scapegoat under the collective idea that heaping society’s impurities onto a symbolic creature and “banishing” that creature can somehow bring purification.

Scapegoats are not just victims; they are innocent victims who are blamed and punished for things they are not responsible for. Theoretically, scapegoats are not seen as such by scapegoaters, because scapegoating is not about evidence but about transferring blame. The role of recognizing a particular instance of scapegoating belongs to the “outsider,” someone who sees the ritual from an unconventional standpoint, be it historical, cultural, subcultural, logical, or intuitive. In reality, people’s perceptions of a scapegoat event of which they are a part may be more or less clear. The scorn heaped on the turkey at Thanksgiving shows a degree of uneasiness and defiance that indicates an awareness of scapegoating by those who practice it.


The idea of the Thanksgiving turkey as a scapegoat may seem like a parody of scapegoating, but that is what a scapegoat is – a parody of guilt. The scapegoat after all is a goat. Animals, social animals especially, have been scapegoats in storytelling, myth, and history every bit as much as humans, and probably more. Under European penal codes, from the 12th to the middle of the 18th century, “guilty” animals were tried and convicted of crimes for which they were punished by being buried alive, burned alive, mutilated, hanged, and, in classic scapegoat fashion, banished from the place of their alleged crime. In light of such history the so-called White-House turkey pardoning ceremony, in which each year prior to Thanksgiving Day, the President of the United States “pardons” a single turkey from slaughter, can be seen as an inverted scapegoat ritual, a parody of a parody, burlesquing the acquittal of the accused.

So how does the Thanksgiving turkey fit the scapegoat pattern? Consider that not everybody is happy at Thanksgiving or Christmas as they’re supposed to be. Two cultures coincide during the holiday season, the official “pious” culture epitomized in the 20th century by Life magazine and the Saturday Evening Post, and nowadays by the neo-conservative, religious Right element, versus a miscellany of dissident, unhappy, irreverent, and marginalized individuals and groups, the two cultures being straddled by curmudgeons who lampoon the sanctities from secure posts within the system. If a citizen wishes to express discontent with the day derision of the turkey comes in handy. Blaming the bird allows a certain amount of criticism and resentment to seep into a celebration that Life magazine once said does not brook angst or serious criticism.

The turkey thus functions as a bearer of impious sentiments deflected from their true causes, like the obligation to be thankful, whether one has reason to be thankful or not. Sorrow, death, suffering, injustice—these are not the fault of the bird whose fate, after all, is to be murdered for the meal, which is a cause of many people’s great unhappiness. But these negatives contradict how things are supposed to be, how we’re supposed to feel, and what may be properly expressed.

As a ritual scapegoat bearing a burden of sarcasm, the turkey fits into the carnivalesque tradition of taunting and torment stretching from Dionysus to Rabelais and beyond. Opposite the sanctimony of pious occasions, the carnivalesque spirit emphasizes sarcasm, indecent abuse, the banquet, and a grotesque concept of the body. Just as the banquet and the grotesque body go together in the carnivalesque tradition, so the human body and other animal bodies are grotesquely mixed in it. The “transformation of the human element into an animal one; the combination of human and animal traits is, as we know, one of the most grotesque forms” of the carnivalesque style.


Nobody laughs at the Eagle. For impiety you have the Turkey. The turkey is the grotesque body at the core of America’s Gargantuan holiday feast, exhibiting those “physical and moral abnormalities” that have marked scapegoats through the ages. The modern bird’s swollen body, distorted physical shape, and inability to mate naturally remind us not only of the cruel arbitrariness of fate, but of the sinister power of humanity. The carnivalization of the turkey functions as a magic formula for conquering our fear of being a “turkey.” We poke so as not to be poked at. By devouring another, we master our fear of being devoured. Today the fear of our own potential for gluttony, of being helplessly manipulated by the cosmic scheme, our fellow man, and our own folly has been transposed to the Comic Monster we are about to consume. Man triumphs over the world, devours it without being devoured himself.”

In the age of obesity, America must somehow manage its portion of humanity’s primeval desire to have “somebody” suffer and die ritualistically for the benefit of the community or nation at a time when the consumption of nonhuman animals has become morally problematic in the West as well as industrialized to the point where the eaters can barely imagine the animals involved in their meal. The turkey is a kind of test case. Either eating meat is fun, as a journalist said in an interview about turkeys, or eating meat is mean, as a child told her mother why she would not eat turkey at Thanksgiving. As the single most visible animal symbol in America, the de facto symbol of the nation and the icon of American food, the turkey brings into focus the conflict between animal rights people and the rest of society. In any case, there is more to being thankful than eating a turkey.

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