In many mythologies, crimes that went unpunished heralded misfortune. Plutarch’s Greek Questions tells the story of the young girl Charila who, orphaned and destitute, went to the king to beg and plead for food. The king struck her in the face for all to see, slapping her with his sandal. The girl immediately hanged herself from a tree on the outskirts of Delphi. Such was the desperation to which hunger had driven her.
Meager harvests had caused the grain supplies of the people and their king to dwindle, and the suicide of a young girl of low social standing had passed unnoticed. As Roberto Calasso writes in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, the king’s crime—driving Charila to suicide, and remaining ignorant of her death—had gone unpunished. This worsened the food shortages and hunger; drought and erosion devastated the whole city of Delphi. In Ancient Greece, when hardship and scarcity struck, it was customary to consult the oracle. The priestess Pythia prophesied that for Delphi to return to normality, the death of Charila, the girl who had slain herself, had to be atoned.
The same was true for the khalifa Haroun Al-Rashid, a character in one of the first stories of the Thousand and One Nights, who discovered a chest in a river that held a woman’s dismembered body. Haroun Al-Rashid refused to be judged or slandered for bringing misfortune upon his people by allowing the crime to go unpunished, so he zealously sought out the culprit until he was found and tried.
Plutarch’s example is the most pertinent to what follows here. A mass grave was discovered near my mother’s home in Durango. When I say near, I mean two blocks away. As far as deaths are concerned, all estimates are illusory, so I am forced to give the official number: eighty-nine corpses. In that place alone. There is little difference between these bodies and the dismembered woman inside the chest Haroun Al-Rashid and a fisherman found in the river. But there was only one person in that chest. According to the prosecutor, 331 bodies have been found in mass graves in the state of Durango alone. As far as we know, no one has been identified as directly responsible: notable among those imprisoned and linked to the crimes are the Pacific Cartel bosses M-10 and M-14, and some members of the Sinaloa Cartel. Those few identified as connected with the crimes have been given sentences of varying lengths, and kept out of sight.
The crimes linked to or unleashed by drug trafficking may seem abstract to us, until eighty-nine bodies are unearthed and brought to light in a city that was hitherto oblivious to their existence. If we still believed in the Delphic Oracle, or for that matter in any religion, when we asked her to explain drought, scarcity, or hardship, she would tell us we must atone for the death of Charila, the girl who hanged herself. Which is to say that the deaths of all these people must be atoned for. We must atone for the deaths of those buried in secret. But how? What does it mean to atone for a death? Even the word atonement has lost its referent.
When the King of Delphi visits Pythia, she answers him: “Make peace with Charila, the virgin suicide.” Calasso’s interpretation of this passage couldn’t be clearer. When the king receives Pythia’s sentence, he does not understand. To begin with, he would have to remember Charila. His first fault was not knowing with whom to make peace, since he was oblivious to the crime he had committed. He needed to remember how he had treated the girl who had approached him to request some grain; he needed to remember that he had struck her, that he had harmed her, and he had to recognize his transgression. Then he had to find her there, hanging from a tree, the tree where she had chosen to kill herself. Then give her a proper burial. And despite all this, even then it wasn’t enough: all these actions must be remembered through a ritual of atonement. In Ancient Greek culture, to atone was to purify. All purification implies a sacrifice, whether real or symbolic. “By forgetting the poor when he distributed food, the king had denied them life,” writes Calasso. Charila’s sacrifice showed the king’s indifference toward Delphi, and her sacrificial act—hanging herself from a tree—went unnoticed. In other words, it was a sacrifice without ritual. The priestesses of Delphi are devotees to Apollo, the “truth-loving god.” To be a ritual sacrifice, Charila’s sacrifice must involve recognition; it must be carried out consciously. All ceremony elevates a sacrifice to the level of knowledge. The king’s true crime was not only to have slapped an orphan in the face with his sandal, but also not to have known she had hanged herself, not to have known she was dead, to have been unaware of her fate.
To atone for his crime, the king had to perform a symbolic ceremony. The king gave food to the people of Delphi, to show he was not indifferent to their hunger. Then, before the people, he slapped a doll dressed as Charila, and the doll was given a proper burial in the place where Charila had died. This ritual marked the end of the drought. The crime was elevated into recognition, and the awareness was solidified with a ritual commemorated long afterwards in the city of Delphi. Few examples explain atonement so well: the ritual puts an end to impunity, and the sacrifice acquires a ceremonial dimension. And the city can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that a mistake has been formalized as part of a social practice, in such a way that it will be remembered.
The dead who lay and probably still lie secretly beneath the soil of our country have much in common with the Greek Question as told by Plutarch and revived in Calasso’s book. The story of Charila allows us to interpret recent mass murders and disappearances in Mexico in mythological and ethnological terms. These deaths are sacrifices without ritual. They resemble Charila not in the act of suicide but in the King of Delphi’s indifferent reaction. The dead of this land have been murdered; the crimes are clandestine. The murderer not only killed—a crime in itself—but he hid his deeds from the rest of the world, distancing them from our consciousness. Worse yet, symbolically, he deprived them of a proper burial.
If asked the cause our country’s misfortunes, the oracle would say over and over to the King of Delphi: “reconcile yourself with those buried in mass graves.” Above all, this reconciliation implies accepting that an offense was committed. The first thing the King of Delphi must do is to identify those buried. The only way to atone for these unpunished crimes is to bring them to light. The king’s indifference not only permitted their murder, but allowed them to be buried, and their killers, just like the corpses, to remain invisible. It would not be enough to merely disinter the bodies and try those responsible, but the society would have to elevate that sacrifice into a ritual. Recognition of the crime would put an end to an unconsummated sacrifice.
This, however, is not how it goes. Our situation is very different from an updated and symbolic interpretation of a classical scenario. Without an understanding of ritual and sacrifice, the King of Delphi has no understanding of the oracle, and therefore of higher laws. When we bury corpses in mass graves, we no longer believe ourselves deserving of drought or catastrophe: we give other explanations for our misfortunes. Perhaps no higher power will punish us, but we certainly deserve our misfortune and degradation as a society. It is a collective shame none of us should forget.
The places where the bodies lay, and where they certainly still lie scattered like mysteries beneath what is seen, can tell us nothing of what they are or were; that place near my mother’s house, where eighty-nine bodies were found, tells us nothing of what it was, nothing of the crime that occurred there. It is a grassy wasteland devoid even of garbage. It is as if the bodies were still hidden, like their killers, and the victims themselves. These clandestine mass graves, rather than being released from their secrecy, soon pass into greater indifference, not only on the part of the King of Delphi, but all of Delphi. Instead of being seen, ritualized, and symbolically remembered—after all, any symbol is a conscious object—the secret graves were covered with earth. With earth, which is another kind of dust. Dust, which is another way the wind blows. Wind, which is another—and perhaps the truest—form of forgetting.