Tag Archives: Anthropology of religion

Sacrifice and the Anthropology of Religion

Aztec human sacrifice, from Codex Mendoza, 16t...
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Mention the word “sacrifice” in a religious context and, for many people, thoughts of young virgins tossed in volcanoes by a Polynesian King or lying on altars below the obscenely sharp obsidian blade of an Aztec ruler. Or perhaps they’re reminded of the story of blind faith by Abraham who was prepared to murder his son for a god that commanded it.

While human sacrifice is a part of many cultures in antiquity and even, in some unfortunate instances, modernity, this type of sacrifice is relatively rare. There are those that take a Girardian view of ritual and sacrifice and assert that sacrifice is a form of victimizing or scapegoating an individual. The Girardian will often point to the self-sacrifice of Jesus as an example of a god on earth exposing the “scapegoating mechanism.” One of the many faults with this way of looking at sacrifice and other religious rituals is that to do so, one must assume that the intent is to victimize -to create a scapegoat.

While it is certainly true that human sacrifices are victims, it is a very myopic view to assert that they’re all scapegoats (certainly some or even many were), and it isn’t true that, in most cases, the intent of sacrifice is to create a victim.

Sacrifice is a perceived method of communicating with gods or ancestors and is a process that has existed for thousands of years in human history and prehistory. We have evidence of it going back to the time of Neanderthals depending on what you consider to be sacrifice.

For the anthropologist, a sacrifice is a special kind of offering. A mere offering to the gods by the average religious adherent deprives the worshiper of little. A libation of oil here; a tithe of coin there… But a true sacrifice creates a significant cost to the worshiper. In antiquity, we see evidence in both written and material record of sacrifices that truly put the worshiper (the religious adherent) in a situation where piety becomes more important that personal gain, wealth or even well-being. The sacrifice demonstrates that piety with the level of piety directly proportional to the level of sacrifice.

The vast majority of sacrifices in the archaeological record do not involve the taking of human life . Rather they include the offering of first fruits, first lambs, finest bulls or the best ox, significant portions of one’s wealth, etc. The worshiper hopes that the god to whom he is offering a sacrifice will reciprocate, bringing good fortune in the way of rain, keeping the locusts away, etc. The worshiper shows respect to the god or an ancestor in the way he might to a king: there might be a desire that the god would offer forgiveness or perhaps expiation for some transgression.. In this regard, forgiveness is a more abstract concept than simple reciprocity. The worshiper may also seek to show abnegation by demonstrating to the god that he is practicing self-denial and seeking the pity or favor of the god. Very often, the sacrifices come at a time when good-fortune has seemingly been bestowed upon the society in the form of a good harvest or success in battle.

Pascal Boyer (2001)[1] explores several reasons for sacrifice described by ethnographers like Roger Keesing (1982)[2] and notes that while sacrifices are “presented as giving away some resources in exchange for protection, the brutal fact remains that the sacrificed animals are generally consumed by the participants.” The result is a “communal sharing” and a social function that brings people of the community together. The meat is shared and those who can’t afford to provide an animal of their own often still benefit from the sacrifice, receiving meat and gifts.

Sacrifice is often about sharing resources and giving up that which is valuable and nearly indispensable. Even in cases where human sacrifice was practiced. The Girardian would suggest that the sacrificed individual was victimized as a scapegoat, but very often the sacrifice went willing and probably believed the offering of life to be an honor. Even with instances of sacrifice where consent wasn’t possible, as with infant and child sacrifices found in various places of the ancient world such as Peru’s central coast as early as 5000 BCE, the Levant from around 3000 BCE, and Carthage, Tunisia dating to around 800 BCE, the sacrificial “victim” was honored. Great care was taken in Peru, for instance, to place mica over the eyes and a clear quartz rock in place of the heart suggesting magical intent. One doesn’t bother to take such expensive and detailed care of scapegoats.

Human sacrifice, even among the Aztec, doesn’t seem to be about scapegoating or victimizing. A recent excavation at Teotihuacan[3] revealed more than 80 human sacrifices that some have suggested were prisoners of war, perhaps sacrificed to dedicate the temple they were excavated from. But, even here, there has been indication that the “victims” were willing and honored participants, largely due to the positioning of the bodies as well as their adornments. These were among the finest and most skilled warriors of the society at the time.

From the point of view of the sacrificers in cultures like the Aztec, the gods are being repaid a debt. The Girardian would suggest, however, that those sacrificed are the unwanted of society -the expendable. The Girardian would also suggest that human sacrifice is the same as the sacrifice of animals and material goods[4]. But the Girardian misses the point of sacrifice in much of religion. There are undoubtedly religious cults throughout human history that have exploited the “disposable” members of their society for the appearance of pious sacrifices to gods or ancestors. But there are many, many more that place high importance on true sacrifice being that which is vital or most valued to the individual and the society: prize bulls, intricately carved jewelry, ornately plumed birds, fiercest predators, first-picked crops, etc. And, when it came to humans, skilled warriors and virgins were highly valued, thus offered as payment to the gods.

Edit: I just noticed that there’s another post in this week’s Four Stone Hearth that compliments this one quite well. Or, perhaps, I compliment his… Anyway, I highly recommend: Chahokia: Human Sacrifice on the Mississippi, which describes the practice of mass sacrifice by the Mississippian Culture dating to ca. 1150 CE. The blog is Running ‘Cause I Can’t Fly and here’s an excerpt:

As for the female sacrifices, Pauketat said important women may have been chosen because of their status. “These female sacrifices might not have been of unimportant people. This may have been a very honored role to fill. It may have been people who were impersonating some kind of corn goddess,” he said, “And their duty was to die.”

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References and Notes:
  1. Boyer, Pascal (2001). Religion Explained: the evolutionary origins of religious thought. Basic Books []
  2. Keesing, Roger (1982). Kwaio Religion: the Living and the Dead in a Solomon Island Society. Columbia University Press []
  3. Sugiyama, Saburo (2005). Human Sacrifice, Militarism, and Rulership: Materialization of State Ideology at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, Teotihuacan. Cambridge University Press, pp. 226-230. []
  4. Examples of both of these Girardian positions can be seen in Rene Girard‘s Violence and the Sacred, pp. 10-13, J.H. Press 1993 []

Anthropology of Religion

Sacrifice scene, with kalos inscription. Detai...
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I don’t often post on religious topics on this blog. At least not topics related to modern religion like Christianity. I’m more interested in ancient religion and expression of religion and belief in the material record of antiquity than modern squabbles about “belief in God,” etc.

But I took the time to listen to a podcast titled, “anthropology of religion” hosted by the Minnesota Atheists. It was an audio version of their public access television show I believe. Featured were two theologians discussing the anthropology of religion. Or so they thought. I actually took the time to leave a post on the podcast episode’s blog and I thought I’d share it here:


I listened with some fascination and a bit of dismay to the podcast interviewing Chester O’Gorman and Grant Steves. I was particularly shocked at the limited point of view O’Gorman applied to the subject of the anthropology of religion. Clearly his is a position of “theology” and not of science, so I kept telling myself to be patient and forgiving. But I’d still like to post a comment regarding some of his statements.

O’Gorman seems fixated with “victimization” and “scapegoating” in ritual and religious expression. While I’m familiar with the works of René Girard, I’m definitely not an expert. And, while I recognize that O’Gorman is channeling Girard, nearly verbatim in certain instances, I’ll confine my criticism to O’Gorman and not Girard.

O’Gorman’s admittance that his definitions of ritual and myth are “narrow” are one of the few statements I found agreeable. He says that ritual is the means of reenacting the process of victimization and that sacrifice must include a victim. Indeed, his exact words are, “there has always been a sacrifice at the center of ritual.” This is, of course, an absurd statement. There are many rituals that do not include sacrifices: marriage, baptism, the sweat lodge, the visionquest, pipe ceremonies, funerals, feasts, potlach, etc. In some of these, one can make some very abstract connections to sacrifices, but these are hardly the types of sacrifices that O’Gorman is referring to. And each of these rituals existed either long before or in complete ignorance of Christianity, so his remark that “we have them now” (rituals without sacrifice), doesn’t follow.

Sacrifice *can* be seen as including a victim, but it’s more accurately described as showing a degree of piety or dedication by offering personal wealth or otherwise valuable possessions for divine consumption. Wealthy Greeks sacrificed oxen in the Bronze Age by bringing their best stock to the temple and delivering to the priests within the tenemos of the temple where it was butchered and fed to the populace. In this manner, wealth was redistributed (with the priestly class getting the best cuts). This ensured the society as a whole benefited. The remaining bits of meat and skin were burnt on an altar, the gods getting their share via the smoke.

This is quite different from the type of sacrifice O’Gorman was alluding to when he states “things have evolved away from human sacrifice.” Here he seems to be implying that Christian religious doctrines have done away with the violence associated with sacrifice, leaving only the sometimes graphic and violent reenactments of an alleged messiah being sacrificed on a wooden cross. Christians the world over keep such iconography close to them in the form of little crosses on chains, which they periodically raise to kiss, or by mimicking a cross with a hand gesture.

Human sacrifice is actually very rare in the archaeological record and never more prevalent than within the histories of Christianity. O’Gorman says, “it’s only through Christian influence that ritual takes on a new connotation where sacrifice no longer happens.” O’Gorman should either give back his degree or demand a refund of his tuition! While Precolumbian Mesoamericans practiced human sacrifice, we cannot overlook the fact that this practice was halted primarily by Christian invaders who slaughtered these “savages.” While Maya, Incan, Aztec and a few other cultures stand out as including various human and animal sacrifices, their actions pale when compared to early and even modern Christians who burned heretics and witches during the inquisition, poured Kool-Aid for parishioners at Jonestown, ignited themselves at Waco, and took their shoes off for a never ending nap at Heaven’s Gate.

Most other religions, both extant and extinct, show evidence of many, many rituals that exist without any sort of sacrifice except, perhaps, that of time and effort. One of the most significant ritual exercises present in religions the world over is ritual prayer and incantation. While there are sacrifices associated with some (offerings of food, wine, anointments of oil, etc.), the vast majority show no evidence of sacrifice. And to suggest that the symbolism of sacrifice found in the myth of Jesus isn’t technically a sacrifice because a victim isn’t being exploited begs the question since it assumes that the mythos presented in the gospels are both accurate testaments as well as representations of actual events, all regardless of whether Jesus actually existed.

As a graduate student of anthropology whose focus is on the archaeological remains of cult and religious belief in antiquity, I’d have to say I disagree with O’Gorman at nearly every turn of his conversation. Clearly his main focus is “theology.” I suspect he’s genuine in his desire to align his studies with an anthropological perspective, but I also suspect this is tainted by the conclusions one must necessarily begin with when taking on the title “theologian.” Anthropologists are scientists. Scientists do not begin with conclusions to which they seek only data which fit, rather they observe data and arrive at conclusions.

O’Gorman is no anthropologist.

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