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New Worlds: Blood Sacrifice

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When it comes to blood sacrifice — animals or humans — the logic is the unchanged from other forms of the practice. Nothing good comes without a cost; the powers that be require appeasement to turn their wrath aside, payment to bestow their blessings.

This doesn’t always mean death. Mesoamerican societies like the Mayans and the Aztecs are notorious for their human sacrifices, but pop culture often misses the fact that their elites also practiced ritual bloodletting, piercing their earlobes, tongues, or even (for the men) genitalia, sometimes dragging a thorny string through the hole to encourage more copious bleeding, as an offering to the gods. The Sun Dance ceremony of the Great Plains similarly incorporates the notion of participants’ suffering as a holy sacrifice. Continuing down that thread leads us toward ascetic practices found in many parts of the world — but that’s a future essay.

Most of the time, though, when we talk about blood sacrifice, we’re talking about killing the sacrificial object. After all, if the logic here involves offering something of value to the gods, well, what has more value than a life? If life is precious, then what is more precious than a human life? And at the most tragic extremes, if human life is precious . . . then what is worth more than the life of a child?

While no doubt there have been individual people who enjoy sacrifices because of their personal cruelty and bloodthirst, on a society-wide level, that isn’t what drives this practice. Instead it’s the bedrock belief that this is what the world demands. For the rains to come, for the earthquakes to stop, for your wife to bear a healthy child after three miscarriages, for victory in war, for a prosperous and peaceful reign, for safe passage into the afterlife, a price must be paid.

And the bigger the gift, the higher the price. Animals can be sacrificed for relatively small causes — especially smaller, less valuable animals like chickens. Those are the routine payments of this system, while creatures that require years of investment to raise (e.g. horses) or are rare in their specifics (an all-black bull instead of an ordinary piebald one) are more for special occasions.

Although I attempted to make a distinction last week between offerings (which are used in their normal fashion), and sacrifices (which are destroyed for reasons outside normal use), it’s worth noting that animals slaughtered for the altar are often not wasted. Who gets to eat them varies — all ritual participants, the clergy of that deity, the general public, etc. — but it’s very common for food in a ritual to be consumed rather than burned or left to rot purely for the benefit of the gods. In fact, Hesiod’s Theogony records a Greek tale in which Prometheus tricks Zeus into accepting the bones from a sacrifice, while humans keep the meat and fat: an etiological myth, explaining the origins of that practice.

Human sacrifice is a different matter. Cannibalism exists, of course, but I can’t think of any instances in which it’s combined with this sort of offering to the gods; the two practices tend to serve very different purposes. And while you do have instances of enemy captives being sacrificed as part of the rites of war, you also have numerous setups in which those killed for ritual purposes are members of the community, highly honored before their deaths and promised a reward after.

Did anyone ever volunteer to be sacrificed? Our records on this are fragmentary and kind of inherently unreliable (the people keeping the records are not the sacrificial victims), but I suspect it probably did happen some of the time. After all, martyrs of more recent centuries are often spoken of as going willingly or even joyfully to their deaths, firm in the belief that they’ll be rewarded in the hereafter. I have to imagine the same could be true of ancient pagans. That having been said, I also don’t believe that was true all the time; countless people will have been taken against their will, especially if no volunteers were forthcoming. It’s one thing to honor those sacrificed and talk about the wonderful afterlife they’ll enjoy, quite another to put yourself in their place.

At least some of them were drugged before they were killed. Not all, though; enemy captives in Mesoamerica might be tortured repeatedly before their final deaths, since their suffering was part of the point. And some deaths are swift while others are more protracted. If the priests are executing fifty servants to inter in a dead king’s tomb, efficiency probably matters, while a single person whose death is the climax of an elaborate ritual can be put through a more complex process.

Nor does the ritual end at the moment of death. Much of what we can surmise about sacrifices from pre-literate cultures comes from the way they handle the bodies afterward. Especially in ancient burials, we find both humans and animals laid out with care, even mummified or given similarly detailed post-mortem treatment. They’re meant to go on and serve the burial’s central occupant in the afterlife — remembering that in societies like this, “you get to serve the king in the underworld” is framed as a great outcome, far preferable to the fate you’d have if you died as an ordinary peasant.

Sacrifices of this kind are a worldwide phenomenon, so far as I know, but more of an ancient one than a modern one. While the concept isn’t gone today, most of the major world religions eschew the practice of blood sacrifice. Their concept of the relationship between the mortal and the divine is less transactional, less focused on the idea that we must pay the gods with material resources in exchange for their blessings. In fact, some of those theologies hold as abhorrent the idea that one can buy divine favor, with blood or any other coin — a mentality that probably would have puzzled many of our ancient ancestors, for whom that trade was a given.

Speaking of that concept not being gone, though . . . some years ago, in conversation with a friend, I found myself formulating an argument that the United States still practices human sacrifice; we just call it the death penalty. Sure, it’s not a religious rite, carried out by ordained clergy hoping to obtain blessings from the gods — but it’s predicated on the idea that by killing selected individuals, we can avert evil (i.e. further crime). Given the mounting evidence that the deterrent effect of capital punishment is at best extremely weak, that starts to look a great deal like magical thinking, not much different from the idea that you can end a drought by sacrificing someone atop an altar.

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3 thoughts on “New Worlds: Blood Sacrifice”

  1. [ “I found myself formulating an argument that the United States still practices human sacrifice; we just call it the death penalty.” ]

    More accurately, as even those politicians who formulate the laws in favor of gun access and block those which prevent gun safety regulations say about the numbers of mass killings — which are small in the far more massive pool of gun deaths in the USA, from domestic murders, toddlers accidently killing a family member, suicide, police killing ‘suspects’, etc. “This is the price we pay for staying safe.”

  2. Sacrifices are a really tricky thing to look up, in part because (and I’m going to Greek and Roman history here, just because it’s what I know) the people who are writing about it know how it works, and know that their audience knows how it works, and can’t imagine that anyone might need to have the details explained, so they don’t.During my undergraduate days, I remember reading a bunch of articles on JSTOR where authors were trying to figure out how much of the descriptions of (human) sacrifice in works of fiction they could use to infer data about animal sacrifice. Because human sacrifices in Ancient Greek novels are often pretty clearly intended as a disturbing inversion of the way that sacrifice is *supposed* to work, with the shock value coming from it being human rather than it being done strangely, the answer is clearly *something*, but figuring out how much is hard, especially because there wasn’t even today’s level of disapproval at the idea of taking a good scene from another author and putting it into your own book, so it’s hard to know how independent the sources are.

    And of course, human sacrifice has its own sources of confusion, because in the ancient (and medieval, and renaissance, and enlightenment, and modern) Mediterranean world, as well as in the colonized Americas, human sacrifice was one of the trifecta (or trinity) of things you attributed to people you didn’t like (along with cannibalism and immoral sex (which may be anything from “men having oral sex with women” to incest, to sex with corpses, to raping children)). Greeks write about how Romans do it. Romans write about how Greeks and jews do it. Jews write about how Greeks do it. Romans write about how Christians do it. Christians write about how pagans, witches, jews, satanists, etc. do it. And even when people (like Livy) are writing about how their *own* culture did it, they usually set it in the past and are trying to make a moral point, or emphasize just how desperate things are.

    And archaeology, as always, is incredibly useful but also incredibly hard to interpret. There are many articles writing about how the presence of infant skeletons in Carthaginian religious buildings argues in favor of the Romans being right about human sacrifice in that case, but then again I’ve also seen articles, written in exactly the same style, that use the presence of infant cemeteries inside cathedrals as arguments that the Romans were right about Christians sacrificing infants as part of their religion.

    So, bringing it back to writing, I guess one thing that we can definitely say is that it is absolutely, unquestionably, 100% reasonable to write about how Group A has a cottage industry of sensationalist violence porn about how Group B does these horrible things. Or Group A has a set of writers who seem like they *love* quoting, at length, the accusations that Group B makes against them, so that they can then offer refutations, and (sometimes) imply that “you know, it seems like they’re either writing from experience or they have really depraved imaginations, and maybe they’re accusing us of their own transgressions here”. Because if there is one thing that people believe even more strongly than their belief that they, personally, do not engage in human sacrifice, it’s that we tend to be absolutely certain that *someone* does.

    Hat tip to Philip Harland of Toronto for introducing me to the trinity of bad things that other people do, in his Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

  3. And then, after all that, I forgot one of the things that I was specifically going to mention, which is that at least one place where human sacrifice *does* get combined with cannibalism is when writers are accusing other cultures of human sacrifice, especially when those writers are Greek or Roman, and are centered in a cultural tradition that you eat the sacrifice. Aside from all of the Greek romance novels where the hero(ine) gets captured by bandits who engage in human sacrifice and cannibalism, there are absolutely writings accusing both Christians and jews of sacrificing and eating people (usually babies in accusations of early Christians, usually adult Greeks when accusing jews), and one of Greeks writing about how Romans do it.

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