Thursday, March 4, 2010

Die for Your Country?

I want to take a closer look at human sacrifice throughout history and culture, attempt to assess it's origins, and understand it's religious significance. It appears as though human sacrifice is as old as civilization itself. We know that ancient Sumerian society, the cradle of civilization, placed a heavy religious significance on human sacrifice. If one looks to the past it is easy to find examples of human sacrifice across almost all cultures: Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Neolithic Europe, Greco-Roman antiquity, Celts, Ancient China, India, Pacific regions, Pre-Columbian America, and West Africa. There are two main types of human sacrifice:
  • The ritual killing of human beings as part of the offerings presented to the gods on a regular basis, or on special occasions.
  • Retainer sacrifice, or the killing of domestic servants to bury them along with their master.
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines human sacrifice as "the offering of the life of a human being to a deity. The occurrence of human sacrifice can usually be related to the recognition of human blood as the sacred life force. Bloodless forms of killing, however, such as strangulation and drowning, have been used in some cultures. The killing of a human being, or the substitution of an animal for a person, has often been part of an attempt to commune with a god and to participate in divine life. Human life, as the most valuable material for sacrifice, has also been offered in an attempt at expiation."

Gadimai festival in Nepal; over 200,000 animals sacrificed in 2009

According to Josef Kastein, in his book The History and Destiny of the Jews, ancient Jews believed "the blood was the seat of the soul."
The story of the Passover comes to mind. The blood of a sacrificial lamb caused the angel of death to passover the homes of the Jews. In Leviticus 17:11 it says, "for the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul." The story of the Passover was also a foreshadowing for the crucifixion of Jesus. Matthew 26:28 reads, "for this is my (Jesus) blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins."

Closely related practices found in some tribal societies are cannibalism and headhunting. Headhunting was common in China, India, Nigeria, Nuristan, Myanmar, Borneo, Indonesia the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Micronesia, Melanesia, New Zealand, and the Amazon Basin, as well as among certain tribes of the Celts and Scythians of ancient Europe. Some experts theorize that the practice [of headhunting] stemmed from the belief that the head contained "soul matter" or life force, which could be harnessed through its capture. This concept parallels the Sacrament of Holy Communion or Eucharist in many ways. The Eucharist is a Christian sacrament or ordinance, generally considered to be a commemoration of the Last Supper, the final meal that Jesus Christ shared with his disciples before his arrest and eventual crucifixion.

Jesus Christ on the crucifixion cross

Wikipedia says that "victims [of human sacrifice] were typically ritually killed in a manner that was supposed to please or appease gods, spirits or the deceased, for example as a propitiatory offering, or as a retainer sacrifice when the King's servants are killed in order for them to continue to serve their master in the next life." So it appears as though the common belief is that their is a kind of spiritual power in living beings, human or animal, that is released through death. So human sacrifice was thought of as an offering in exchange for favorable circumstance from the gods. There is evidently a deep mythological belief in the power of human sacrifice.

Depiction of Aztecs human sacrifice on temple stairs

A common thread among cultural human sacrifice practices is the dedication of sacrifices after the completion of a building or bridge. "There is a Chinese legend that there are thousands of people entombed in the Great Wall of China. In ancient Japan, legends talk about Hitobashira ("human pillar"), in which maidens were buried alive at the base or near some constructions as a prayer to ensure the buildings against disasters or enemy attacks. For the re-consecration of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs reported that they killed about 80,400 prisoners over the course of four days. According to Ross Hassig, author of Aztec Warfare, between 10,000 and 80,400 persons were sacrificed in the ceremony." There are numerous legends regarding sacrifices being buried alive in order to bring favor to a particular structure.

A particular practice of the Pawnee people, a native American people who lived along the Missouri river, called the Morning Star ceremony has some interesting parallels with Sumerian human sacrifice. The Pawnee mythologized that the Evening Star was Venus and the Morning Star was Mars. The Pawnee people would take a maiden from an enemy tribe who was meant to represent Venus and sacrifice her upon a scaffold that represented the “Evening Star’s garden in the west, the source of all animal and plant life.” This tradition strikes me as reminiscent of the mythology surrounding Venus as chief goddess of life and death and as mother earth to the Sumerians and Egyptians...but who knows I'm just guessing here. There does seem to be a universal mythological perception of the planet Venus as a female.

Moloch the name of a god or the name of a particular kind of human sacrifice
associated with fire of Middle Eastern origin.

I want to go back to my assertion that war is a modern outgrowth of ritualistic human sacrifice. We will use World War II as an example and look at some of the economic after-effects of the war. According to Wikipedia "the common view among economic historians is that the Great Depression ended with the advent of World War II. Many economists believe that government spending on the war caused or at least accelerated recovery from the Great Depression. However, some consider that it did not play a very large role in the recovery, although it did help in reducing unemployment. The massive rearmament policies leading up to World War II helped stimulate the economies of Europe in 1937–39. By 1937, unemployment in Britain had fallen to 1.5 million. The mobilization of manpower following the outbreak of war in 1939 finally ended unemployment." Also worth noting here is the significance of the Holocaust of World War II in this discussion.


[hol-uh-kawst, hoh-luh-]
1. a great or complete devastation or destruction, esp. by fire.

2. a sacrifice completely consumed by fire; burnt offering.

3. (usually initial capital letter) the systematic mass slaughter of European Jews in Nazi concentration camps during World War II (usually prec. by the).

4. any mass slaughter or reckless destruction of life.

When we look at the definition above it appears that I am not the only person that has made a potential connection between war and human sacrifice here.

Commonwealth Graves British Military Cemetary

The relationship between the military, the government, and the industry that supports them is commonly referred to as the military-industrial complex. "Total world spending on military expenses in 2006 was $1.158 trillion US dollars. Nearly half of this total, 528.7 billion US dollars, was spent by the United States. The privatization of the production and invention of military technology also leads to a complicated relationship with significant research and development of many technologies. The Military budget of the United States for the 2009 fiscal year was $515.4 billion. Adding emergency discretionary spending and supplemental spending brings the sum to $651.2 billion. This does not include many military-related items that are outside of the Defense Department budget. Overall the United States government is spending about $1 trillion annually on defense-related purposes."

I think that it is easy to see that there is a lot money to be made in war. If we look closely we can see some parallels in the relationship between modern economies with war and ancient civilization with human sacrifice. There was an ancient belief that sacrificial blood, especially that of a human, brought peace and prosperity through appeasement of the gods. It is also widely believed that through war modern societies achieve economic prosperity and incline. Could there potentially be a deeper spiritual connection between the spending of human lives in modern war and the purification and progress of human society; a sort of receiving by giving? The answer may lie in the age old words of Isaac Newton in the hermetic tradition, "as above, so below."

I wrote an entire post and didn't even include any bad jokes or puns. But don't worry though there is more to come!

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