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New Worlds: Offered in Sacrifice

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One of the most widespread practices in religion, especially in prior ages, is sacrifice.

I don’t just mean the sort that involves killing animals or humans — though I mean that too, and we’ll talk about it in more detail next week. I mean anything that involves giving up or destroying something of value, generally in a non-utilitarian fashion. That last bit is in my description because the line between “offerings” and “sacrifice” is not clear-cut; is it a sacrifice if you set out flowers or burn incense? By my way of thinking, the answer is no, because incense is made to be burned, and flowers get cut so they can decorate something else. But when you bury money for a ritual purpose, when you deposit a weapon somewhere it can never be used again . . . then it is sacrifice in the sense of giving up an item that could still have served some mundane purpose.

In that broad sense, sacrifice happens all over the place in human history. The psychological reasoning is easy to understand: if you want something good to happen, then you must in some fashion pay for it. But where do we see such payments being made?

Burial is one of the most common examples, to the point where we may not even think in terms of sacrifice when considering grave goods. As the furnishing of the grave gets more elaborate, though, you really start to see the expense involved. It’s one thing to bury an ordinary person with a few of their belongings, as we might still do today; it’s another to surround an elite burial with dozens of weapons, sumptuous pots and dishes, entire chariots or even ships, etc. And when the full panoply includes dead animals or humans, the “sacrifice” aspect becomes inescapable.

The effect being purchased by all that wealth going into the dirt is a good afterlife, especially in cosmologies where the underworld is presumed to be very much like the world we live in. Foundation sacrifices, by contrast, aim to improve that latter world, by ensuring the stability and prosperity of the structure above — which might be a house, a religious site, or a defensive fortification. These too can be bloody, but they aren’t always; it’s also common to bury money (archaeologists love this, since that helps date the structure) or items that in some fashion symbolically represent the hoped-for effect. Nor does the item have to be literally inside or underneath the foundation: one historical Chinese house I read about was found to have chopsticks hidden in the structure, because the word for them (kuaizi) sounds like “quickly sons,” i.e. a wish for the residents to have sons to carry on the patriline.

Bodies of water are another place we commonly find sacrificed items, though this comes with a caveat. Such places are also good for preserving items (at least inorganic ones, but also organics if the site in question is a peat bog), so there may be some survivorship bias here; sacrificial objects tied to trees, for example, are more likely to have decayed or been taken away by some later visitor. Still, it’s true that rivers, natural springs, cenotes, and those aforementioned peat bogs seem to have been favored places to deposit things meant for the gods. The question of why is less easily answered, and I suspect the reasons are more varied than they are for the clear-cut examples of burials and structures above. In essence, you’re calling on whatever divinity is associated with the body of water, asking them to do something that fits with the nature of the divinity in question. That could be anything from healing an illness to sending rain to slaughtering your enemies on the battlefield.

The same is true, of course, when you sacrifice something at a temple. I recognize that I’m stretching the term “sacrifice” somewhat here, but in some cultures there’s a tradition of donating valuable objects to such places. I don’t mean the kind of tithing many of us will have seen in our own religious institutions, where the money goes toward keeping the institution functioning; I mean donations of the sort that take the object out of circulation for good. In Japan there are numerous instances of weapons having been dedicated to Shintō shrines (maybe Buddhist temples as well; I can’t recall), and the Shree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala is famous for a particular vault — not opened since the 1880s — whose contents are estimated to be worth as much as a trillion U.S. dollars for their gold alone, leaving aside the historical and cultural value of the objects inside. But no one is sure, because the contents of that vault are dedicated to Vishnu, and there is strong opposition to opening it for appraisal.

Of course, not all sacrifices are associated with fixed and significant locations like castles, graves, or holy sites. Much religion and magical belief is practiced on such a vernacular level that it can take place anywhere people are — heck, a wishing fountain is a tiny echo of the practice. But since sacrifice almost definitionally means you’re getting rid of something valuable (otherwise it has no weight), then often you’re either placing it somewhere other people won’t easily be able to retrieve it . . . or you’re making sure there’s not much point in them trying.

One of the ways we can know that objects dug up by archaeologists were sacrifices is when they’ve been ritually “killed.” This is a term used to describe deliberate damage meant to render the object unusable: a pot has a hole bored in the base (found in Mimbres pottery), a blade is bent back on itself (many European sword deposits), and so forth. Archaeologists in some eras have admittedly been prone to declaring objects and practices “ceremonial” any time we’re not sure of the practical reason they might have served, but in these cases we’re looking at damage of a sort unlikely to happen in normal use. Therefore, we can be fairly sure it was inflicted for ritualized purposes, marking the end of the object’s mundane life.

I see relatively little of this sort of thing in speculative fiction. Blood sacrifices, certainly — like I said, we’ll get to those shortly — and occasionally grave goods, though so much of the genre skips over funerals altogether that there’s rarely much chance to showcase that aspect. Other kinds of sacrifice, though, are much thinner on the ground. Which is a pity, because it’s not all about livestock or people having their throats cut.

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1 thought on “New Worlds: Offered in Sacrifice”

  1. One of my favorite incidents from Louisa May Alcott’s March Family chronicles occurs in Little Men.

    Professor Bhaer, Jo’s husband, was overheard by younger students speaking about sacrifices to the older boys of Plumfield School in his classes about the Greeks and the Romans. So these younger kids decide to have a ‘saceryfice’ themselves. They build a bonfire, the loveable rapscallion convinces the girls and their cohort to throw in their favorite, most beloved treasures. With great reluctance they do so, and dance and sing around the fire. The littlest ones, Jo and the Professor’s sons, get so excited they too throw in the toys they’d been carrying, which included a lamb, and a doll made of some substance, that when heated by the fire, made them writhe into grotesque positions, which then sent the baby running to “Mamar” and the mischief is discovered.

    This description cannot and does not convey how very comic this event is within the book. It has nothing to do with any theme or story line — it could be called a ‘bottle incident’ — but it is the sort of thing that have made the March chronicles so enduringly charming and fun and interesting to our far far far later generations.

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