The principle of sacrifice is as old as human life itself. This book provides an overview of sacrificial practices around the world since prehistoric times. It also examines the reasons behind these rituals, and in the case of human sacrifice an attempt is made to understand the mentality of the 'victims' who often willingly went to their deaths.
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An Illustrated History
By Brenda Ralph Lewis
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Brenda Ralph Lewis
All rights reserved.
The Nature of Sacrifice: An Overview
Earth has always been a terrifying place in which to live and the idea of making sacrifices to propitiate its fury is as old as human life itself. First personalized into gods, then into more spiritual beings resembling humans, but infinitely more powerful, Nature's potential to assault and destroy has been humanity's perennial predicament. For thousands of years, offering sacrifices to appease these furious forces was humanity's only answer.
The idea that all misfortune had its origin in the supernatural world – whether it was disease, drought, famine, floods, volcanic eruptions or any other calamity – was recognized wherever people lived close to Nature and its depredations. Seeking for reasons, the conclusion was that some offence had been committed to endanger the relationship between humanity and the gods. Disaster was not only punishment, but signalled a break in the system that governed life on Earth. It also seemed evident that the gods were perpetually angry, and were unlikely to turn beneficent without prompting. Sacrifice, however, had threefold benefits: it could wipe out the offence, please the gods and spirits and restore the divine connection.
The modern scientific world has, of course, abandoned such ideas and relegated them to the realm of ignorance, backwardness and superstition. In doing so, science and technology have changed the ancient relationship between Nature and humanity. The modern imperative is to challenge and 'conquer' Nature, not tremble at its powers, perform rituals and so hope to avert its anger. Scientific cures for disease, engineering and aviation achievements, television, computer, nuclear and other technology, the unlocking of the Human Genome, the exploration of Space – all these in some way confront the 'natural' order and enable humans to perform feats Nature never intended. Even where the natural forces triumph, through destructive earthquakes, floods or other disasters that destroy homes, lay waste villages or cities and ruin lives, the basic quest is always to find some means of curbing their excesses, solve the problem and put Pandora's ills back in their box.
In modern society, therefore, the background against which religion and its sacrifices and rituals came to hold such a central place in the ancient world has lost its relevance. Among the 'advanced' western societies at least, humans need no longer feel helpless before the fury of forces they cannot control. Fatalism – the acceptance of whatever hand destiny might deal – is no longer the only option. For many, this is what is meant by 'progress'. For others who distrust this definition and find its implications unnatural, humanity has distanced itself from what was once its proper place in the world.
In this context, the age-old concept of humanity as part of Nature and destined to live in harmony with it, persists today only among those traditional peoples who, knowingly or unknowingly, have stood aside from modern scientific developments. Some tribes living deep in the Amazon jungle, for instance, are not even aware that the world has vastly changed, outdating their way of life, their customs and their practices by many thousands of years. Some native Americans, Australian Aborigines, Pacific islanders or tribes in Africa and the more remote parts of northern Asia remain faithful to the world of their ancestors, honour the same spirits, observe the same taboos and perform the same rituals. The way of their ancestors is the only way they know, and to them, the ancient concept still holds good: Nature is the force that governs everything and, though frequently awesome, it is one that can be made bountiful by means of the right offerings and the right rituals.
This, though, was never a static idea and fatalism in the face of Nature was never entirely supine. It did not take long for ancient peoples to realize that it was possible to 'make deals' with Nature. However volatile, violent or vengeful they might appear to be, the gods and spirits could be pre-empted. By offering sacrifices on the 'in case' principle, it was possible to tap into the most overwhelming power in the world. In this guise, sacrifices could serve as means of winning divine favour for specific as well as survival purposes – to ensure a good hunt or harvest, to grant fertility or success in war, to ensure protection for the family or community, to preserve good health and strength and generally acquire what was most meaningful and necessary in life.
Sacrifices could also serve to give thanks, for example, after seeking the help of the gods in war and winning a victory. The gods, it was believed, were due a share of the booty, an idea that emerged quite strongly during the Bronze Age, which began around 7,000 years ago. A fundamental change in weaponry took place at that time as the discovery of metals expanded Earth's usable resources. Now, it became possible to forge weapons out of bronze and later, iron, both of which proved infinitely more durable and deadly than the wood or copper previously used. Consequently, archaeologists have discovered that many thousands of weapons were thrown as thanksgiving sacrifices into the ancient wells and springs where gods dwelt. When improving metallurgical techniques enabled alloy steel to be made from iron some 4,000 years later, the sacrifices became even more lavish, as quantities of weapons, even more vast, were thrown into swamps, lakes and rivers.
Other inanimate sacrifices could take almost any form depending on location. People offered what they had or what was most easily available. Native Americans offered furs, tobacco and food. In Inca Peru, offerings consisted of llamas, guinea pigs, coca leaves, maize and other food, gold and silver ornaments, carvings or feathers. Elsewhere, crops, incense, flowers, fruit, water and even wine were sacrificed. Together with milk, honey, oils, and beer, water and wine were classified as libations essential to life and health.
Water had a particular place in the business of sacrifice, as the indispensable source of all organic existence. Wine sacrifice was hardly less significant. In ancient times, wine was considered the 'blood of the grape' and doubled as the 'blood of the earth' from which the vines sprang. Wine therefore acquired its own spiritual, life-renewing status.
Regeneration was vital among agricultural communities which deified the Earth as the fount of all survival. Farmers soon perceived the rhythm of the seasons, with death in autumn and winter, rebirth in spring and the flourishing of life in summer. This was a pattern neither humans nor animals could emulate. They simply aged or succumbed to some disease or accident and died. For them, there was no going back. The agricultural cycle, however, was a continual process of going back and performing the same processes year after year after year. Little wonder, then, that the cycle acquired an aura of magic that permeated crops, vegetables, trees and everything else that grew from the ground.
The ultimate ritual in the business of regeneration was the sacrifice of the gods themselves. All round the world, mythologies contained accounts of Creation that include this idea. In the myths of ancient Persia, for instance, Zurvan, god of time and fate, acquired a son to create the world by offering sacrifices for a millennium. Likewise, in ancient Mexico, Aztec myths told how the gods sacrificed themselves in order to create the Sun, a selfless deed re-enacted in Aztec human sacrifice.
When the Spanish conquistadors first arrived in Aztec Mexico in 1519, they were sickened by the scenes of wholesale carnage they witnessed at the sacrificial altars of the capital, Tenochtitlan, and elsewhere in the vast Aztec Empire. What they saw was bloodletting on a scale well beyond what was permissible, or even thinkable, in Europe. What they did not understand – or in many cases seek to understand – was that this was not just the atavistic cruelty of godless savages. For the Aztecs, human sacrifice and the subsequent offering of hearts and blood were imperative if the Sun, which kept their world in existence, was to survive.
Aztec society was so thoroughly infused with this principle that it was considered an honour to serve as a sacrifice, since it transformed 'victims' into gods and assured them of a place in the heaven reserved for heroes. As Christians, with no place in their faith for such practices, the Spaniards were utterly puzzled when some Aztecs they saved from the sacrificial knife demanded to die on the altar and so fulfil their perceived destiny. The same mentality marked the response of a Brazilian who, when his sacrifice was prevented, concluded that his life had no meaning now that he could not be offered to the gods and afterwards eaten.
Blood had another, equally fundamental significance in the sacrifice scenario. It was recognized as the major life-force of human beings, which was why ancient agricultural societies used to perform human sacrifice in order to feed the gods and the earth. In Africa, ancient America and elsewhere, this form of sacrifice was used to give regenerative meaning to the aging process of kings. These kings were not regarded as ordinary beings, even though they lived, sickened and died like everyone else. Great mana, or sacred powers, were ascribed to them, but when they grew old, these powers declined. This, in turn, endangered the well- being of the tribe, the continuation of their crops and therefore the very survival of a king's subjects. Rectifying this situation meant, in effect, killing the king so that his powers could be renewed and strengthened in a more vigorous successor. Once the deed was done, the king's blood was mixed with seedcorn and the belief was that this made the corn abundantly fertile.
The death of kings could be the occasion for human sacrifice in quite another way. Belief in life after death was common in ancient religions. The afterlife, it was thought, was much like life on Earth. Consequently, in Mesopotamia, China, Japan or ancient Egypt, entire retinues of servants, warriors and other royal attendants would be buried, sometimes alive, with a dead monarch. This would ensure that he was properly attended in his next life. In Japan this practice died out by the sixth century AD, due mainly to the pacific influence of Buddhism, but it still occurred in China for another thousand years or more. The sacrifices were normally criminals or slaves, but prisoners captured in war also figured in these rituals. In Africa, the slaves of deceased kings might be buried alive with their dead master, or they were first killed, laid out in the bottom of the royal grave, and the king's corpse was placed on top of them. The fact that the royal and the eminent were also buried with a mass of belongings – furniture, jewellery, clothing, weapons – increased the image of an important newcomer to the afterlife.
The next world, the repository of dead souls, was widely viewed as a staging-post on the way to the gods. Among its inhabitants were ancestors who, it was believed, could serve as intermediaries. Ancestors were themselves worshipped in many cultures, from Africa to the Pacific, among the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean and Europe and most notably in India, China and Japan. This widespread distribution has persuaded some scholars that most sacrifices were made to ancestors. If so, it would not have been surprising. Dead ancestors were believed to live in close contact with the gods, which gave their intercession an added value. There was virtually no end to the requests that could be made of the ancestors, and no limit, either, to the reasons for offering sacrifices. The purpose might be to atone for wrongdoing, obtain a favour or blessing, ensure good fortune or some other desired benefit or seek protection against disease and help in producing good crops.
The relationship between the generations of a family did not cease with death. In death, ancestors were supposed to feel the same concern for their families they had shown while they were alive and were just as anxious to promote their wellbeing. The offering of sacrifices was, of course, the only feasible means of making contact with them and the only way of propitiating them should they become displeased.
There was, nevertheless, a hierarchy of ancestors that made some better prospects for sacrifice than others. If they had been lowly placed in life, ancestors received worship and sacrifice only from their nearest relatives. Some were not worshipped at all, since they were thought too unimportant to extract favours from the gods or deliver the benefits they had to dispense. Others, like the heads or founders of families, or a particularly wise man or woman, might be worshipped by entire communities and raised, in their estimation, to the status of gods in their own right.
Direct appeals to the gods through sacrifice could also be made, either in the absence of ancestor-worship or as an adjunct to it. Methods included libation, the pouring out of sacrificial wine or other liquid and the ritual spilling of blood, but there was another common practice – sacrifice by burning. There was a certain finality, a ritual commitment, in the destruction of a sacrifice by fire, and symbolic significance in the smoke as it curled towards the sky and so made contact with the gods.
Burnt offerings played a major part in ancient Greek and Jewish sacrifice and, for the Babylonians, there was no other way. All sacrifices were taken to Heaven by their fire god, Girru-Nusku, the intermediary between Heaven and Earth. Likewise, in India, Agni, the Vedic god of fire, brought humans into the presence of the gods after accepting their sacrifices.
Burnt offerings were, for obvious reasons, considered more suitable for the celestial gods, but in ancient Greece they were not thought appropriate for sacrifices to vegetation and fertility gods like Dionysius or Demeter. These ancient Greek sacrifices were known as apura hiera, or fire-less sacrifices. In Vedic practice, the same sacrifices could be made to all the gods, but the location was different: for the celestial gods, sacrifices were placed on a raised altar; for the earth gods they were placed on the ground. In ancient Greece, sacrifices intended for the gods of the underworld were buried, though they were sometimes burned either there or in a trench dug in the earth. Sacrifices to the water gods were similarly direct: humans or animals intended as offerings were drowned in lakes or rivers, and among the Norse Vikings of Scandinavia, they were thrown over cliffs to land in wells or waterfalls.
There was also a much simpler way of offering sacrifices, by placing them on a table or a mat and leaving them there for the gods to collect. In Ancient Egypt, this ceremony in which food and drink were left for the gods was termed 'performing the presentation of the divine oblations'. It took place every day. A daily sacrifice was also made among Hindus, this time comprising consecrated vegetables and rice, which were afterwards distributed among worshippers. In ancient Israel, priests and, after them, the laity, received the food sacrifices of the 'table of the shewbread' or the 'bread of the presence of God'. Consumption, however, was not part of Ancient Egypt and Greek practice in this form of sacrifice, though if the food disappeared after it was offered, the culprits were likely to be priests or attendants at the temple.
In many religions, priests or those appointed by God for the purpose were the most prominent among those responsible for the making of sacrifices, but before the development of priestly castes, the heads of households or the elders of a tribe were considered best qualified to make sacrifices. This was the case, for instance, in China where there were no professional priests. Apart from the paterfamilias, the only other individual with the right to make offerings was the king or emperor, who conducted the state sacrifices. Similarly, among the Aborigines of Australia, those thought most suitable to lead the acts of sacrifice were old men, who had acquired authority and deep understanding of tribal traditions. This occurred, for instance, among the Ila tribe of Zambia in situations of 'emergency' sacrifice when divine intervention was needed to transform an unsuccessful hunt. The oldest man among the hunters would lead the prayers for divine aid and, once a successful kill had been made, he led them again in offering meat as a thanksgiving.
However, the aged and eminent did not have a monopoly of sacrifice. In Vedic practice, it was possible to earn the right to make sacrifices by performing certain rituals. The complexity and severity of these rituals indicate that a proper state of grace had to be acquired before a sacrifice could be made. In this context, making sacrifices was itself a sacred act and would-be 'sacrificers' had to be purified before they were fit for contact with the sacred world.
Excerpted from Ritual Sacrifice by Brenda Ralph Lewis. Copyright © 2013 Brenda Ralph Lewis. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
One The Nature of Sacrifice: An Overview,
Two The Birth of Belief: Sacrifice in Prehistory,
Three The Wrath of Yahweh: The Bible Lands,
Four In Search of the Sun: Ancient Egypt,
Five A Classic Approach: Greece and Rome,
Six Twilight of the Gods: Northern Europe,
Seven Heart of the Matter: Central and South America,
Eight A Darker Continent: Africa,
Nine A Sacred Profusion: The Indian Subcontinent,
Ten Steppes to Salvation: Central Asia and China,
Eleven Invite to a Cook-Out: The Pacific Islands,
Twelve New Age, New Fears: A Modern Perspective,