Origins of Scapegoating the Feminine

The practice of scapegoating is central to the creation and continuation of societies organized as dominance hierarchies. In such societies, scapegoating is used to suppress political movements, ethnic groups, genders, or persons who challenge the dominant social order or symbolically constitute a threat to those in power. The individual or group scapegoated is blamed for misfortune or seen as a menace, then marginalized, cast out, or destroyed.

The need for scapegoats reveals the inherent instability of patriarchal societies that depend on dominance hierarchies. By scapegoating an individual or group, those ‘higher up’ the power structure become more cohesive and relieve themselves of anxiety. Nevertheless, they fail to deal with their dependency on someone to debase and vilify to justify the inequality and fragmentation on which their power depends. 

Before the emergence of patriarchal dominance hierarchies, the scapegoat was a symbol of perfection. Rather than purging an unacceptable quality or person, sacrificing a scapegoat was an attempt to recognize and mend the social group’s failure to witness the interdependency of life. The scapegoat sacrifice was an expression of their willingness to incorporate “evil and death along with life and goodness into a single, grand, unifying pattern.”⁠1 In contrast, patriarchal dominance hierarchies use scapegoating as “a concrete expression of radical status difference.”⁠2 The lower you are in the hierarchy, the greater the likelihood of being scapegoated. 

The experience of being scapegoated still carries both the association with specialness and devaluation and result in what Brinton Perera called the scapegoat complex. The complexes, as defined by CG Jung, are

“psychic fragments which have split off owing to traumatic influences or certain incompatible tendencies…. Complexes interfere with the intentions of the will and disturb the conscious performance…. They appear and disappear according to their own laws; they can temporarily obsess consciousness, or influence speech and action in an unconscious way. In a word, complexes behave like independent beings….”⁠3

Through the trauma of scapegoating, devalued aspects of the self, along with a perverse specialness for being chosen (such as fantasies of grandeur), can function like a fragmented part of the personality aggravated by the fear of further alienation. According to Jungian analyst Sylvia Brinton Perera, the scapegoat complex is an aspect of all women living in patriarchal societies: 

“Few women do not have an active scapegoat complex. Glorified by themselves and the collective as chosen ones, and equally despised as illicit, alien, second-class and victim, they are too often the silent and patient vessels of necessary, but derogated, shadow qualities.”⁠4 

We women are typically desired and loathed by those who scapegoat us. In our efforts to feel safe, we often manipulate our beliefs, emotions, and bodies in ways that might appease would-be aggressors. With hopes of not being scapegoated, we ingratiate ourselves to those we perceive as more powerful. Some even turn on women who have been scapegoated to distance themselves from a similar fate. 

Women weren’t always scapegoated. In fact, archaeological evidence suggests the first deities in hunter gatherer societies were female.⁠5 Even as our ancestors began to live in villages and cities, these early planting peoples continued to honor feminine qualities and worshipped both gods and goddesses.

It wasn’t until around four thousand years ago that goddesses, women, and feminine aspects of human nature came under assault following a period of severe drought that led to starvation, Diasporas, and conflict. The agriculture-based cities of Mesopotamia found themselves threatened by nomadic tribes — the Indo-European cattle herders from the north and the Semites of the southern Syro-Arabian desert who tended sheep and goats. Not unlike recent history, when northern nations colonized their southern neighbors, spirituality was the focal point of colonizers’ attempts to dominate psyches and cultures. 

The Indo-Europeans preferred to assimilate those they conquered rather than destroy what went before them. According to mythologist Joseph Campbell, “The Indo-European style was to let their gods take over the local shrines, marry the resident goddesses, and even assume the names and role of the cities formerly in charge.”⁠6 A similar practice is witnessed today in Japan where the original spirituality, Shinto, a form of animism, assimilated Buddhism and Confucianism. In the seventh century, Japanese Prince Shotoku created a metaphor for this new spirituality: “Shinto is the trunk, Buddhism is the branches, and Confucianism is the leaves.”⁠7 Likewise, when the Indo-Europeans entered goddess-worshipping villages and cities, they combined perspectives to support a more integrated spiritual philosophy. Campbell concluded, “By this means, the comparatively barbarous, warlike thunder-hurlers of the original invading pantheons became progressively tamed and tempered to the domestic manners of an agriculturally based, proper civilization.”⁠8 

The raiding Semites, however, took a different approach. Rather than assimilating, they replaced a pantheon of gods and goddesses with one god, Yahweh, and thus monotheism. They rejected the practice of syncretism, which according to Campbell allowed for the kind of interactions in which a Greek could relate to an Indian by observing who she called Zeus the Indian called Indra.⁠9 Instead, the nomadic Semites chose to reject the agriculturists’ deities, especially the Mother Goddess central to agriculture societies and the idea of Nature as a mediating life force. In rejecting the planting peoples’ Mother Goddess, they also rejected Nature and the qualities she represented. Campbell contended this led to the debasement of embodiment and the sense of being interconnected through body-based awareness, such as the emotions and instinct. “… One hates one’s body, one hates nature, one wants to get away from it.”⁠10 The consequences were far-reaching:

“The Goddess is called the Abomination, and she and her divinities are called demons and they are not given the credit of being divine. And along with that comes the feeling that the divine life is not within us; divinity is out there. The attitude of prayer is now toward, whereas in the old days it was turning inward to the immanent divine. After this change, how do you get to the divine? By means of this particularly endowed social group: the tribe, the caste, the church.”⁠11

In nature-based religions that stress the feminine aspects of spirituality, the body usually plays a central role in worship, such as through dance or ecstatic rapture. The Semites replaced dance with dogma and relatedness with rules for morality. To maintain the emphasis on masculine beliefs and behaviors, they also reinterpreted some of their old gods, including Azazel, which is how the modern conception of scapegoat emerged. 

Originally, Azazel was one of the nomadic Semite’s nature gods. As a nature god, Azazel represented the beauty of feminine sensuality. When the Semites began to worship Yahweh and practice monotheism, Azazel became a fallen angel and demon who corrupted women by teaching them how to use their femininity to manipulate men and taught men how to use weaponry and exploit their aggressive impulses. As such, Azazel was a threat to Yahweh and became the symbol for the scapegoat, signifying the evil that must be purged. Brinton Perera described Azazel as “redefined as a rebel angel, simplified, made opposite and evil in order to excise Yahweh’s shadow. The old god was made into demon.”⁠12

Although other examples of how religions and cultures subordinated and oppressed feminine aspects of spirituality and women exist, the transformation of Azazel is particularly relevant to scapegoating women with histories of sexual trauma. When feminine sensuality is demonized, women who are sexualized also become demonized. By projecting sin onto women’s bodies, men are absolved of responsibility for sexual trauma. Hence the nature of the ridicule of women who are raped — she wanted it; she was asking for it; she’s a whore. 

Granted, it’s been thousands of years since the first patriarchal dominance hierarchies and their respective religions emerged. Today, articles on the internet about increasing sexual pleasure are as easily found as discussions of the importance of remaining chaste until marriage. Nevertheless, sexual trauma remains an instance of scapegoating. Like the Hebrew myth of Azazel, we feel like carriers of sin. We feel shame. Some of us are stigmatized, but most of us self-alienate, feeling acutely that we have been tainted by the experience of sexual trauma. 

Over time, Azazel’s role changed. Rather than just condemned, he also became a symbol of the condemner. This Azazel is also part of the scapegoat complex. He is the negative, judgmental aspects of Yahweh that is also internalized in reaction to being scapegoated. He is the “raw contempt” doled out to victims that becomes a critical inner judge.⁠13 Both characterizations of Azazel — the condemned and the condemner — become part of us when we are scapegoated. We feel both the shame and the contempt, like two halves of a divided nature created by patriarchal ideologies and societies. Although our wounds are deeply personal, the scapegoat complex emerges in response to events that are inseparable from the larger social and culture context in which some men use women to purge themselves of their anxieties surrounding power and status. 

Questions to ponder: Do you feel the idea of a scapegoat complex applies to you? If so, how? Besides your experience with sexual trauma, have you had other experiences of scapegoating? In your community and country, where do you also witness scapegoating occurring?


1 Perera, Sylvia Brinton. (1986). The scapegoat complex: Toward a mythology of shadow and guilt. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books, p. 8.

2 Bellah, Robert N. (2011). Religion in human evolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, p. 266.

3 Quoted in Smith, C. Michael. (2007). Jung and shamanism: In dialogue. New York, NY: Paulist Press,  p. 128.

4 Brinton Perera, p. 52.

5 Campbell, Joseph. (2013). Goddesses: Mysteries of the feminine divine (S. Rossi Ed.). Novato, CA: New World Library.

6 Ibid., p. xxv.

7 Davies, Roger J., & Ikeno, Osamu (Eds.). (2002). The Japanese mind: Understanding contemporary Japanese culture. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, p. 128.

8 Campbell, p. xxv.

9 Ibid., xxi-xxii.

10 Ibid., p. 87.

11 Ibid.

12 Brinton Perera, p. 19.

13 Ibid., p. 20.

© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).