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A Pharmakós (Greek: φαρμακός) in Ancient Greek religion was a kind of human scapegoat (a slave, a cripple or a criminal) who was chosen and expelled from the community at times of disaster (famine, invasion or plague) or at times of calendrical crisis, when purification was needed. On the first day of the Thargelia, a festival of Apollo at Athens, two men, the Pharmakoi, were led out as if to be sacrificed as an expiation. Some scholia state that pharmakoi were actually sacrificed (thrown from a cliff or burned), but many modern scholars reject this, arguing that the earliest source for the pharmakos (the iambic satirist Hipponax) shows the pharmakos being beaten and stoned, but not executed.

Walter Burkert and René Girard have written influential modern interpretations of the pharmakos rite. Burkert shows that humans were sacrificed or expelled after being well-fed, and, according to some sources, their ashes were scattered to the ocean. This was a purification ritual, a form of societal catharsis.[1]

Pharmakos is also used as a vital term in Derridian Deconstruction. In his famous essay "Plato's Pharmacy"[2], Derrida deconstructs several texts by Plato, such as Phaedrus, and reveals the inter-connection between the word chain pharmakeia-pharmakon-pharmakeus and the notably absent word pharmakos. In doing so, he attacks the boundary between inside and outside, declaring that the outside (pharmakos, never uttered by Plato) is always-already present right behind the inside (pharmakeia-pharmakon-pharmakeus). As a concept, Pharmakos can be said to be related to other Derridian terms such as "trace".

Some scholars have connected the practice of ostracism, in which a prominent politician was exiled from Athens after a vote using pottery pieces, with the pharmakos custom. However, the ostracism exile was only for a fixed time, as opposed to the finality of the pharmakos execution or expulsion.


Pharmakos and Pharmacology

The term "pharmakos" later became the term "pharmakeus" which refers to "a drug, spell-giving potion, druggist, poisoner, by extension a magician or a sorcerer."[3] A variation of this term is "pharmakon" (φάρμακον) a complex term meaning sacrament, remedy, poison, talisman, cosmetic, perfume or intoxicant.[4] From this, the modern term "pharmacology" emerged.[5]

As a Derridian term

In 1968, French journal Tel Quel published a long essay by Jacques Derrida named "Plato's Pharmacy" in two parts[6], which was later included in his 1972 book 'La Dissémination', translated into English as 'Dissemination' by Barbara Johnson. This book uses Plato's Phaedrus as a departure point. Without resorting to detailed analysis, here is a short explanation of the term 'Pharmakos' as used by Derrida.

Although the word-chain pharmakeia-pharmakon-pharmakeus appears several times in Plato's texts, he never uses a closely related term, pharmakos, which means 'scapegoat'. According to Derrida, that it is not used by Plato does not indicate that the word is necessarily absent, or rather, it is always-already present as a 'trace'. Certain forces, tendencies of linguistic association unite the words that are 'actually present' in a text with all the other words in the lexical system, whether or not they appear as words in such text. Derrida points out that the textual chain is not simply 'internal' to Plato's lexicon. It is possible for one to claim that all the 'pharmaceutical' [another component of the same chain] words do actually make themselves present in the text, although always hidden at the back, always showing stealth. 'It is in the back room, in the shadows of the pharmacy, prior to the oppositions between conscious and unconscious, freedom and constraint, voluntary and involuntary, speech and language, that these textual 'operations' occur'.[7] What is in stake here is the very idea of the inside/outside dichotomy; if the word pharmakos that Plato does not use still resonates within the text, then there can be no possibility of closure as far as a text is concerned. If the outside is always-already part of the inside, at work on the inside, then what is the status of the concepts 'present' and 'absent', 'body' and 'soul', 'center' and 'periphery'? However, it is important to remember that Derrida classifies pharmakos as something 'in the back room'; in other words, 'outside' present in 'inside' never becomes a pure presence, but remains hidden as a 'trace', a hint, an 'aporia'. Through his dogged insistence in this, he avoids the trap of what he called "Metaphysics of Pure Presence", or 'Logocentrism'.[8] Ignoring this would put the whole Deconstructive project of Derrida in terrible jeopardy.

In ancient Athens, the ritual of the pharmakos was used to expel and shut out the evil (out of the body and out of the city). To achieve this, the Athenians maintained several outcasts at public expense. In the event of any calamity, they sacrificed one or more than one outcast as a purification and a remedy. The pharmakos, the 'scapegoat', the 'outsider' was led to the outside of the city walls and killed in order to purify the city's interior. The evil that had infected the city from 'outside' is removed and returned to the 'outside', forever. But, ironically, the representative of the outside (the pharmakos) was nonetheless kept at the very heart of the inside, the city, and that too in public expense. In order to be led out of the city, the scapegoat must have already been within the city. 'The ceremony of the pharmakos is played out on the boundary line between the 'inside' and the 'outside', which it has as its function ceaselessly to trace and retrace'.[9] Similarly, the pharmakos stands on the thin red line between sacred and cursed, '... beneficial insofar as he cures - and for that, venerated and cared for - harmful insofar as he incarnates the powers of evil - and for that, feared and treated with caution'.[10] He is the healer who cures, and he is the criminal who is the incarnation of the powers of evil. The pharmakos is like a medicine, pharmakon, in case of a specific disease, but, like most medicines, he is, simultaneously, a poison, evil all the same. Pharmakos, Pharmakon: they escape both the sides by at once being and not being on a side. Both words carry within themselves more than one meaning, that is, conflicting meanings.

Pharmakos does not only mean scapegoat, It is a synonym for pharmakeus, a word often repeated by Plato, meaning 'wizard', 'magician', even 'poisoner'. In Plato's dialogues, Socrates is often depicted and termed as a pharmakeus. Socrates is considered as one who knows how to perform magic with words, and notably, not with written letters. His words act as a pharmakon (as a remedy, or allegedly as a poison as far as the Athenian authority were concerned) and change, cure the soul of the listener. In Phaedrus, he fiercely objects to the evil effects of writing, which, obviously, is what makes Derrida so interested in this book. Socrates compares writing to a pharmakon, a drug, a poison: writing repeats without knowing, creates abominable simulacra. Here Socrates deliberately overlooks the other meaning of the word: the cure. Socrates suggests a different pharmakon, a medicine: dialectics, the philosophical form of dialogue. This, he claims, can lead us to the truth of the eidos, that which is identical to itself, always the same as itself, invariable. Here Socrates again overlooks the 'other' reading of the word 'pharmakon': the poison. He acts as a magician (pharmakos) - Socrates himself speaks about a supernatural voice that talks through him - and his most famous medicine (pharmakon) is speech, dialectics and dialogue leading to ultimate knowledge and truth. But, ironically, Socrates also becomes Athens's most famous 'other' pharmakos, the scapegoat. He becomes a stranger, even an enemy who poisons the republic and its citizens. He is an abominable 'other'; not the absolute other, the barbarian, but the other (the outside) who is very near, like those outcasts, who is always-already on the inside. He is at once the 'cure' and the 'poison', and just like him, the Athenians chose to forget one of those meanings according to the need. And, at the end, Plato put Socrates in what he considered to be the vilest of all poisons: in writing, that survives to this day. Phaedrus and Socrates both stand as a metonym [very significantly meaning "beyond names"] for the whole contest between speech and letters, for the central (if such an inappropriate word can be excused) theme of the Derridian project. The interplay between the words pharmakon-pharmakos-pharmakeus is another example of Derridian 'Trace'.

Pharmakos Ritual and Biographies of Poets

In Aesop in Delphi (1961), Anton Wiechers discussed the parallels between the legendary biography of Aesop (in which he is unjustly tried and executed by the Delphians) and the pharmakos ritual. For example, Aesop is grotesquely deformed, as was the pharmakos in some traditions; and Aesop was thrown from a cliff, as was the pharmakos in some traditions. Gregory Nagy, in Best of the Achaeans (1979), compared Aesop’s pharmakos death to the “worst” of the Achaeans in the Iliad, Thersites. More recently, both Daniel Ogden, The Crooked Kings of Ancient Greece (1997) and Todd Compton, Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero (2006) examine poet pharmakoi. Compton surveys important poets who were exiled, executed or suffered unjust trials, either in history, legend or Greek or Indo-European myth.


  1. ^ Walter Burkert. Greek Religion, p. 82.
  2. ^ Dissemination, translated by Barbara Johnson, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1981
  3. ^ Jim Lynn, The Miracle of Healing in Your Church Today. p.93
  4. ^ Michael A. Rinella, Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens, p.74.
  5. ^ Daniel J. Calcagnetti. Neuropharmacology: From Cellular Receptors and Neurotransmitter Synthesis to Neuropathology & Drug Addiction, First Edition. p. 2.
  6. ^ Jacques Derrida, from "Plato's Pharmacy"
  7. ^ Dissemination, p. 129.
  8. ^ Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976, ISBN 81-208-1187-9
  9. ^ Dissemination, p. 133.
  10. ^ Dissemination, p. 133


  • Bremmer, Jan N., "Scapegoat Rituals in Ancient Greece", Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 87. (1983), pp. 299–320.
  • Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.
  • Burkert, Walter, Structure and History in Greek Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979, 59-77.
  • Calcagnetti, Daniel J., "Neuropharmacology: From Cellular Receptors and Neurotransmitter Synthesis to Neuropathology & Drug Addiction", First Edition, 2006.
  • Compton, Todd, “The Pharmakos Ritual: Testimonia.”
  • Compton, Todd, Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History. Washington, D.C.: Center for Hellenic Studies/Harvard University Press, 2006.
  • Derrida, Jacques, "Dissemination", translated by Barbara Johnson, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1981.
  • Fiore, Robert L., "Alarcon's El dueno de las estrellas: Hero and Pharmakos", Hispanic Review, Vol. 61, No. 2, Earle Homage Issue (Spring, 1993), pp. 185–199.
  • Frazer, James. The Golden Bough. Part VI. The Scapegoat, pp. 252ff.
  • Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Trans. Y. Freccero. Baltimore, 1986.
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  • Hughes, Dennis, Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece, London 1991, pp. 139–165.
  • Nagy, Gregory. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, pp. 280–90 in print edition.
  • Nilsson, Martin P., Greek Popular Religion, 1940. See the discussion of the Thargelia in the chapter “Rural Customs and Festivals.”
  • Ogden, Daniel, The Crooked Kings of Ancient Greece London 1997, pp. 15–46.
  • Parker, Robert, Miasma, Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, pp. 24–26, 257-280.
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