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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 []