The History and Challenges of Theorizing Human Sacrifice

Floor mosaic in Beit Alfa Synagogue (c.5th century AD, Israel) depicting the Binding of Issac

Fig. 1: Floor mosaic in Beit Alfa Synagogue (c.5th century CE, Israel) depicting the Binding of Issac (public domain art available via Wikimedia Commons)

Human sacrifice refers to the practice of ritual killing of human beings as offerings to divine patrons, ancestors, or other superhuman forces. Early comparative studies on human sacrifice were heavily influenced by theories of historical relativism and social evolutionism. [1] Such theory approach is exemplified by the works of nineteenth century cultural-anthropologists Edward Tylor and Marcel Mauss, both of whom framed practices of human sacrifice as specific iteration of a general social feature, developed relative to various stages of human historical development. [2]

With the rise of social psychology throughout the twentieth century, theories of human sacrifice began to expand beyond the evolutionary framework. The most influential theoretical contribution on the social psychology of sacrifice can be attributed to Sigmund Freud’s writings in Totem and Taboo, where he grounded ritualistic killings of other human beings as a manifestation of the intrinsic destructive impulse of the human ego:

[quote]”…the killing of a person compels the observation of a series of rules which are associated with taboo customs. These rules are easily brought under four groups; they demand 1. reconciliation with the slain enemy, 2. restrictions, 3. acts of expiation, and purifications of the manslayer, and 4. certain ceremonial rites.”[3][/quote]

"...the object of the sacrificial action has always been the same, being identical with what is now revered as a god, namely with the father." Freud, from Totem and Taboo

[Fig. 2.]  “…the object of the sacrificial action has always been the same, being identical with what is now revered as a god, namely with the father.” Freud, Totem and Taboo

For Freud, human sacrifice, though may seem like an exceptionally savage type of practice, is in fact a form of collective manifestations of our basic personal neuroses:

[quote]”…taboo has become the general form of law giving and has helped to promote social tendencies which are certainly younger; than taboo itself, as for instance, the taboos imposed by chiefs and priests to insure their property and privileges. But there still remains a large group of laws which we may undertake to investigate. Among these I lay stress on those taboos which are attached (a) to enemies, (b) to chiefs, and (c) to the dead” [4][/quote]

Therefore, drawing from his own theories on the fundamental structure of human psyche, Freud claims that the underlying impulses of sacrificial killing are always present, though societies may find ways to redirect its compulsive neurosis towards less violent rituals that substitute the functions of human sacrifice:

[quote]”The original animal sacrifice was already a substitute for a human sacrifice, for the solemn killing of the father, and when the father substitute regained its human form, the animal substitute could also be retransformed into a human sacrifice.” [5][/quote]

 

Contemporary cultural theorist René Girard also considered the subject human sacrifice along similar psychological lines, arguing that all sacred rituals are externalizations of violent human tendencies. In this regard, Girard points to our mimetic desire – desiring of what others have that we lack – as the source of human violence:

[quote]”Whenever the disciple borrows from his model what he believes to be the “true” object, he tries to possess that truth by desiring precisely what this model desires. Whenever he sees himself closest to the supreme goal, he comes into violent conflict with a rival. By a mental shortcut that is both eminently logical and self-defeating, he convinces himself that the violence itself is the most distinctive attribute of this supreme goal! Ever afterward, violence will invariably awaken desire…” [6][/quote]

Interestingly, Girard frames such desire in existential instead of economic terms, arguing that mimetic desire intensifies presley when the basic human needs are satisfied:

[quote] “…Once his basic needs are satisfied (indeed, sometimes even before), man is subject to intense desires, though he may not know precisely for what. The reason is that he desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess. The subject thus looks to that other person to inform him of what he should desire in order to acquire that being. If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, the object must surely be able of conferring an even greater plenitude of being. It is not through words, therefore, but by the example of his own desire that the model conveys to the subject the supreme desirability of the object” [7][/quote]

While being functionally a “common feature” shared by many past societies, human sacrifice conceptualized in its most general sense is overly broad and abstracted for substantive understanding. One problem with existing evolutionary and psychological paradigms in conceptualizing human sacrifice is their tendency to abstract symbolic performances away from their specific political and economic context, and re-signify those particularized discursive practices with the singular logos of macroscopic “laws” (i.e. social evolution) or metaphysical concepts (i.e. the nature of being).

Human sacrificial rituals are differentiated relative to the tensions and constraints specific to the historical, temporal and spatial milieu of the corresponding discursive jurisdiction. Understanding differentiated sacrificial practices solely through theoretical abstraction runs the danger of washing away the intensely rhetorical character of these performances. Human sacrifices performed by Shang and Mayan rulers not simply “neutral” representations of developmental stages or human psychological conditions – they are rhetorical in the sense that are carefully staged political spectacles, stylized in the form of sacred violence for the purpose of shaping and maintaining societal norms.

American theorist Kenneth Burke also addressed the limitations of evolutionary mode of investigation by suggesting a new dramaturgic approach of analyzing symbolic actions. [8] In his Permanence and Change, Burke proposed that “[r]ather than thinking of magic, religion, and science as three distinctively successive stages in the world’s history, the author would now use a mode of analysis that dealt with all three as aspects of motivation.” [9] It is important to note that Burke’s emphasis on “motivation” does not suggest a strictly “psychological” orientation; rather, the term “motivation” could be better understood as a shorthand for relativized symbolic performances – actions that are “locally” embedded within the framework of a larger Weltanschauung. [10]

In light of understanding the problematic rhetorical contingencies underpinning certain specifically “staged” sacrificial dramas, it might be helpful to consider Burke’s comment on rendering judgment on those highly political representations – “We need not here decided whether it is, in any given case, correct or incorrect. We need simply note that where it has occurred, one thenceforth has purposes which have been ‘revealed’ to him.  And regardless of how they may have come about, he may even be expected in time to reconstruct from them, out of his memories as revised, some appropriate setting that corresponds in function to the ‘heuristic’ ascent of some ‘magic mountain’ on which engraved tablets were discovered…” [11]

Expanding from Burke’s dramaturgical approach, this essay would suggest a “topological” approach in mapping out the discursive contours of human sacrifice as a form of localized mythical speech. As Roland Barthe pointed out in his Mythologies, critics ought to go beyond the “details of the linguistic schema” in order to give adequate comparative account of differentiated mythical speeches:

[quote]”We must here recall that the materials of mythical speech (the language itself, photography, painting, posters, rituals, objects, etc.), however different at the start, are reduced to a pure signifying function as soon as they are caught by myth. Myth sees in them only the same raw material; their unity is that they all come down to the status of a mere language.” [12][/quote]

Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis, from  Sophocles' "Electra" ("The Sacrifice of Iphigenia", 17th century painting by François Perrier, public domain art available via Wikimedia Commons)

Fig.3: mythos of sacrifice — Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis, from Sophocles’ Electra (“The Sacrifice of Iphigenia”, 17th century painting by François Perrier, public domain art available via Wikimedia Commons)

Forms of mythical speeches such as human sacrifice that cuts across multiple lifeworlds would inevitably take the form of a differentiated manifold – with much of its substantive symbolicity obscured under numerous relativized “folds” of orientations depending on the point of observation.  As the manifold metaphor suggests that the understanding of mythical speeches (and more generally all symbolic actions) is constrained by multiple layers of relativized dimensions, and that specific rhetorical implications of those actions cannot meaningfully analyzed under a singular abstracted frame of observation.

To obtain a comprehensive comparative understanding of differentiated symbolic landscapes of human sacrifice, one must find way overcome the problem of inanalyzability of the rhetorical manifold without oversimplification or over-abstraction.  Here I would propose a way to conduct topological mapping of rhetorical manifold by taking advantage of the differentiated aspect of the rhetorical manifold, specifically by focusing on the topology of local rhetorical landscapes – examining specific examples of “staged performances” and the particular political and economic conditions underpinning that performance. Any manifolded symbolic practices can be described by a collection of topological charts, similar to the ones found in an atlas, rather than by a abstracted “law”.   One may then examine relations between various topological elements (e.g. relations between symbolic performances, mythos, and material conditions) within the orientation of that specific locality. At the same time, each localized topological “map” lies within an orientable subset of the manifold (given the specific structural similarity between Mayan and Shang rituals) to which the rules of finite frames of observations that are relevant to the selected case study can be applied. If the selected topological projections from different localities of the manifold share many specific features that are translatable into the each other locality’s frame of observation, then meaningful comparative analysis may be rendered between these differentiable cases from the same rhetorical manifold, and possibly reconstruct the abstracted form of human action into a compilation of topological rhetorical mappings. [13]  These intensive localized interpretations are at the same time considered in relation with the larger manifold rather than being treated discretely, which allows the comparative investigation of structurally similar symbolic performances such as human sacrifice from disparate material and discursive localities.

 


 

Notes:

[1]  Max Weber, On the Methodology of the Social Sciences, trans. Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch (Illinois: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1949), 52: “With the awakening of the historical sense, a combination of ethical evolutionism and historical relativism became the predominant attitude in our science. This attitude sought to deprive ethical norms of their formal character and through the incorporation of the totality of cultural values into the “ethical” (Sittlichen) sphere tried to give a substantive content to ethical norms.”

 See also, Richard E. DeMaris, “Sacrifice, an Ancient Mediterranean Ritual,” Biblical Theology Bulletin vol. 43 no.2 (2013): 60-73.

 

[2] Edward Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom. 4th ed. (London, UK: 1903).

See also, Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert, Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function, trans. W. D. Halls, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1964).

[3] Sigmund Freud. Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics, translated by A. A. Brill (New York, NY: Random House, 1961), Ch.II-3: “Inclined as we may have been to ascribe to savage and semi-savage races uninhibited and remorseless cruelty towards their enemies, it is of great interest to us to learn that with them, too, the killing of a person compels the observation of a series of rules which are associated with taboo customs. These rules are easily brought under four groups; they demand 1. reconciliation with the slain enemy, 2. restrictions, 3. acts of expiation, and purifications of the manslayer, and 4. certain ceremonial rites. The incomplete reports do not allow us to decide with certainty how general or how isolated such taboo customs may be among these races, but this is a matter of indifference as far as our interest in these occurrences is concerned. Still, it may be assumed that we are dealing with widespread customs and not with isolated peculiarities.”

 

[4] Freud, Ibid., Ch.II-3: “Through the analytical study of the symptoms, especially the compulsive actions, the defence reactions and the obsessive commands. These mechanisms gave every indication of having been derived from ambivalent impulses or tendencies, they either represented simultaneously the wish and counter-wish or they served preponderantly one of the two contrary tendencies. If we should now succeed in showing that ambivalence, i.e., the sway of contrary tendencies, exists also in the case of taboo regulations or if we should find among taboo mechanisms some which like neurotic obsessions give simultaneous expression to both currents, we would have established what is practically the most important point in the psychological correspondence between taboo and compulsion neurosis. …We have already mentioned that the two fundamental taboo prohibitions are inaccessible to our analysis because they belong to totemism; another part of the taboo rules is of secondary origin and cannot be used for our purpose. For among these races taboo has become the general form of law giving and has helped to promote social tendencies which are certainly younger; than taboo itself, as for instance, the taboos imposed by chiefs and priests to insure their property and privileges. But there still remains a large group of laws which we may undertake to investigate. Among these I lay stress on those taboos which are attached (a) to enemies, (b) to chiefs, and (c) to the dead;

 

[5]  Sigmund Freud, ibid. at Ch.IV-6: “ The theanthropic god sacrifice into which unfortunately I cannot enter with the same thoroughness with which the animal sacrifice has been treated throws the clearest light upon the meaning of the older forms of sacrifice. It acknowledges with unsurpassable candour that the object of the sacrificial action has always been the same, being identical with what is now revered as a god, namely with the father. The question as to the relation of animal to human sacrifice can now be easily solved. The original animal sacrifice was already a substitute for a human sacrifice, for the solemn killing of the father, and when the father substitute regained its human form, the animal substitute could also be retransformed into a human sacrifice.”

 

[6] René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 156-157:

“Far from being restricted to a limited number of pathological cases, as American theoreticians suggest, the double bind—a contradictory double imperative, or rather a whole network of contradictory imperatives—is an extremely common phenomenon. In fact, it is so common that it might be said to form the basis of all human relationships.

Bateson is undoubtedly correct in believing that the effects of the double bind on the child are particularly devastating. All the grown-up voices around him, beginning with those of the father and mother (voices which, in our society at least, speak for the culture with the force of established authority) exclaim in a variety of accents, “Imitate us!” “Imitate me!” “I bear the secret of life, of true being!” The more attentive the child is to these seductive words, and the more earnestly he responds to the suggestions emanating from all sides, the more devastating will be the eventual conflicts. The child possesses no perspective that will allow him to see things as they are. He has no basis for reasoned judgements, no means of foreseeing the metamorphosis of his model into a rival. This model’s opposition reverberates in his mind like a terrible condemnation; he can only regard it as an act of excommunication. The future orientation of his desires—that is, the choice of his future models—will be significantly affected by the dichotomies of his childhood. In fact, these models will determine the shape of his personality.

If desire is allowed its own bent, its mimetic nature will almost always lead it into a double bind. The unchanneled mimetic impulse hurls itself blindly against the obstacle of a conflicting desire. It invites its own rebuffs and these rebuffs will in turn strengthen the mimetic inclination. We have, then, a self-perpetuating process, constantly increasing in simplicity and fervor. Whenever the disciple borrows from his model what he believes to be the “true” object, he tries to possess that truth by desiring precisely what this model desires. Whenever he sees himself closest to the supreme goal, he comes into violent conflict with a rival. By a mental shortcut that is both eminently logical and self-defeating, he convinces himself that the violence itself is the most distinctive attribute of this supreme goal! Ever afterward, violence will invariably awaken desire…”

 

[7] René Girard,  Deceit, desire, and the novel; self and other in literary structure, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 155

 

[8] See Kenneth Burke on Motivations being shorthand terms for situations, Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change, An Anatomy of Purpose, 3rd edition (California: University of California Press, 1983), 29-30.: “The discovery of a law under simple conditions is not per se evidence that the law operates similarly under highly complex conditions. We may be justified, however, in looking for evidence of its operation in some form, as it either becomes redirected or persists vestigially.”

 

[9] Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change, prologue. xxv.

 

[10] Burke, Permanence and Change, ibid. at 25: “Insofar as schemes of motivation change, one may expect a change in the very motives which people assign their actions… It is a term of interpretation, and being such it will naturally take its place within the framework of our Weltanschauung as a whole.”

 

[11] Burke, ibid., 157-158.

 

[12] See Roland Barthe, Mythologies, translated by Annette Lavers (New York: The Noonday Press, 1972): 113-114:

“We must here recall that the materials of mythical speech (the language itself, photography, painting, posters, rituals, objects, etc.), however different at the start, are reduced to a pure signifying function as soon as they are caught by myth. Myth sees in them only the same raw material; their unity is that they all come down to the status of a mere language. Whether it deals with alphabetical or pictorial writing, myth wants to see in them only a sum of signs, a global sign, the final term of a first semiological chain. And it is precisely this final term which will become the first term of the greater system which it builds and of which it is only a part. Everything happens as if myth shifted the formal system of the first significations sideways…

…It can be seen that in myth there are two semiological systems, one of which is staggered in relation to the other: a linguistic system, 114 the language (or the modes of representation which are assimilated to it), which I shall call the language-object, because it is the language which myth gets hold of in order to build its own system; and myth itself, which I shall call metalanguage, because it is a second language, in which one speaks about the first. When he reflects on a metalanguage, the semiologist no longer needs to ask himself questions about the composition of the languageobject, he no longer has to take into account the details of the linguistic schema; he will only need to know its total term, or global sign, and only inasmuch as this term lends itself to myth. This is why the semiologist is entitled to treat in the same way writing and pictures: what he retains from them is the fact that they are both signs, that they both reach the threshold of myth endowed with the same signifying function, that they constitute, one just as much as the other, a language-object.”

 

[13] Ernest J. Wrange, “Public Address: A Study in Social and Intellectual History.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 33 (1947), 451-457: “…it is axiomatic that the extant records of man’s responses to the social and physical world as expressed in formulations of thought provide one approach to a study of the history of his culture.”

A Brief Note on Human Sacrifice in Classical Mayan Culture

Goddess_O_Ixchel

Mayan Moon Goddess with rabbit, Museum of Fine Arts Boston MA

In my previous postHuman Sacrifice during Shang Dynasty“, I  examined the historical background of renji (人祭 / ritual human sacrifice) practiced during Shang dynasty China (c. 1600 BC to 1046 BC). It is important to note that the kind of large-scale human sacrifice practiced by Shang rulers, though extraordinary, is not historically idiosyncratic. Human sacrifice rituals similar to that of renji were also found pre-Colombian Mesoamerica, most notably in Mayan and Aztec societies. [1]  As scholars have already performed excellent analyses on the political economy of ritual human killings in Aztec empire (see, The Accursed Share by Georges Bataille), this post will focus only on large-scale human sacrifices as practiced in pre-Colombian Mayan society.

Human sacrifice rituals similar to that of renji were also practiced by the Mayans. To be sure, Mayan and Shang belief systems were quite different from one another, with each side embodying a heterogenous set of religious practices. For instance, monotheistic themes that were prevalent in Shang rituals are notably absent in Mayan mythos. Furthermore, in contrast with the abundant textual record from the Shang dynasty, much of the classical Mayan mythologies have been destroyed during the Spanish conquest, and the few surviving pre-Columbian Mayan written artifacts remain largely undeciphered. Nonetheless, when looking at mythical rituals in the specific form large scale human sacrifices, it is possible to delineate a relatively large set of common elements between the two otherwise distinct civilizations.

Mayan glyphs - a logographic writing system similar to written Chinese

Fig. 1: Mayan glyphs – a logographic writing system similar to written Chinese

It is important to note that unlike the Shang, whose practice of ritual human sacrifice has long been well-established by historical records, human sacrifice in Mayan culture remained relatively unknown and received little scholarly attention until the late 20th century. Mayan human sacrifice only became widely studied after the 1970s, when archaeologists began to uncover large amount of new textual and archaeological evidence that shed light on Mayan sacrificial rituals. [2]  Whereas the practice of ritual human sacrifice in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica was previously thought to be limited to the Aztec culture, whose imperial reign over the Valley of Mexico lasted from c.1400 AD to 1521 AD, it is now evident that such practice has been prevalent in Mayan culture centuries prior to that of Aztecs. [3]    Current findings indicate that ritual human sacrifice has been continuously present in Mayan city-states throughout Yucatán regions [4] from the Classic period (c.200AD – c.900AD) up till the arrival of Spanish colonial forces in the 16th century. [5]

Also unlike the Shang dynasty, classical Mayan region has never been unified into a monolithic kingdom.  Instead, Pre-Columbian era Mayan societies existed as multiple mutually independent city-states. [6] Classical Mayan city-states were organized around numerous densely-populated and sophistically developed urban areas.  Those urban areas served as centers for politics, commerce and religion, and they were the sites where Mayan priest-kings performed human sacrifice ceremonies (see fig.2 & 3 below).

"Sacred Cenote" from late-Classical Mayan city Chichen Itza, a site where human sacrifice remains were centrally disposed

Fig.2: “Sacred Cenote” from late-Classical Mayan city Chichen Itza, a site where human sacrificial remains were centrally disposed

Similar to Shang, the Mayan human sacrifice were carefully organized and elaborately choreographed public spectacles. A detailed first-person account of the Mayan human sacrifice spectacle has been made by the 16th Century Spanish Catholic priest Diego de Landa, who conducted valuable early studies on Mayan religious practices during his tenure as the Bishop of Yucatán:

[quote]“When the day of the ceremony arrived, they [the sacrificial victims] assembled in the court of the temple; if they were to be pierced with arrows their bodies were stripped and anointed with blue, with a miter on the head. When they arrived before the demon, all the people went through a solemn dance with him around the wooden pillar, all with bows and arrows, and then dancing raised him upon it, tied him, all continuing to dance and took at him… If his heart was to be taken out, they conducted him with great display and concourse of people, painted blue and wearing his miter, and placed him on the rounded sacrificial stone. …then the falcon executioner came, with a flint knife in his hand, and with great skill made an incision between the ribs on the left side, below the nipple; then he plunged in his hand and like a ravenous tiger tore out the living heart, which he laid on a plate and gave to the priest; he then quickly went and anointed the faces of the idols with that fresh blood. At times they performed this sacrifice on the stone situated on the top step of the temple, and then they threw the dead body rolling down the steps, where it was taken by the attendants, was stripped completely of the skin save only on the hands and feet; then the priest, stripped, clothed himself with this skin and danced with the rest. This was a ceremony with them of great solemnity. The victims sacrificed in this manner were usually buried in the court of the temple…”[/quote]  [7]

Fig.4: relief from Terminal Classic period Chichen Itza (c. AD 830-950), depicting human sacrifice by decapitation

Fig.4: relief from Terminal Classic period Chichen Itza (c. AD 830-950), depicting human sacrifice by decapitation

Although human sacrifice was of great political and religious importance in pre-Columbian Mayan societies, they were nonetheless performed as exceptional spectacles rather than everyday religious rituals. Similar to the case of the Shang, most Mayan religious sacrificial practices only involve non-human offerings such as animals. Ritual mass killings of human beings are reserved in only in two types of situations – the killing of enemy captives in victory celebrations, and the mass slaughtering of slaves in  those rare “occasions of great tribulation” (such as severe drought or flood). [8]

It is also important to note that for the most part of the Mayan history, the predominant technique used in their human sacrifice rituals is decapitation (see fig.4) [9] – possibly as reenactment of the Xibalba lords — rulers of the Mayan underworld — decapitating the legendary Mayan ancestor twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque (see fig.5 below). [10] [11]  According to writings from Popol Vuh, the oldest surviving pre-Columbian Mayan mythology, the death of the legendary hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque gave birth to the maize god  – the mythological signification of the Mayan staple crop. [12] The well-known “removing the heart” methods were only found to be commonly practiced during the later stages of Mayan civilization, possibly due to Aztecs influences. [13]

Jarron_Maya_2_-_Ixquic_y_los_Señores_de_Xibalbá

fig.5 Ixquic (mother of the Mayan hero twins) entangled by Mayan maize god’s serpent leg, standing before the lords of Xibalba

At this point, it might be appropriate to step briefly away from the minutiae of Shang and Mayan mythical practices, and instead look at the larger picture of human sacrifice. The practice of human sacrifice and ideas justifying these violent rituals mutually shapes and maintains one another. Even if violence is an inherent human condition, personal violent compulsions can only be transformed into collective rituals via collectively shared beliefs. Furthermore, it is important to note that effects of this dialectical relationship between sacrificial practices and their corresponding mythos are not contained within the sphere of religious life. Collective ideas, even in the form of “religious superstitions”, do not simply emerge from thin air ad libitum; rather, they both inflect and reflect human’s social and material conditions. Perhaps it is not too far of a stretch to consider human sacrifices in Shang and Mayan societies were not idiosyncratic incidents – but enduring repetitions of strictly regulated and carefully staged spectacles of ceremonial violence.

While arguing for explicit manipulative intentions on the part of Shang and Mayan rulers might run the risk of over-instrumentalizing and over-rationalizing their sacrificial practices, it is nonetheless difficult to overlook the powerful functioning of religious ritual in the maintenance of society, even without the presence of such explicit motives. [14]  Given the amount specific features shared  between the two separate and distinctly developed cultures in terms of their human sacrifice rituals, such idiosyncratic overlapping warrants further inquiry into the underlying conditions of the human sacrifices as practiced in Mayan and Shang societies. Given the lack of any known historical connection between Maya and Shang, I will seek in my subsequent posts to reinterpret the symbolicity of human sacrifice in those two societies within the context of their local political economies.

 

[divider]

Notes and References:

[1]  See generally, Georges, Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1988). See also, Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina, “New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society,” Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology, (New York, U.S.: Springer, 2007). See also, generally, Diego de Landa, Yucatan Before and After the Conquest,  tr. William Gates (New York: Dover Publications, 1937)

[2] See generally, Arthur Demarest,  Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Forest Civilization, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

[3] Robert J. Sharer and Loa P. Traxler, The Ancient Maya, 6th ed (California: Stanford University Press, 2006).  See also, Mary Miller and  Karl Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. (London, 2003), introduction.

[4] The region includes present-day Yucatán Peninsula, Sierra Madre mountains, the Mexican state of Chiapas, Belize, and portions of Guatemala and El Salvador.

[5] Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina, New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatment in Ancient Maya Society, (Springer: 2007)

[6] Robert J. Sharer and Loa P. Traxler, The Ancient Maya, 6th ed (California: Stanford University Press, 2006).  See also, Mary Miller and  Karl Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. (London, 2003), introduction.

[7] Diego de Landa, Yucatan Before and After the Conquest,  tr. William Gates (New York: Dover Publications, 1937), 51: “after a victory they cut off the jawbones from the dead, and hung them clean of flesh on their arms. In these wars they made great offerings of the spoils, and if they captured some renowned man they promptly sacrificed him, not to leave alive those who could later inflict injury upon them. The rest became captives of war in the power of those who took them.”

[8] Diego de Landa, Yucatan Before and After the Conquest,  tr. William Gates (New York: Dover Publications, 1937), 48-51.

[9] Fig.5, HJPD, “Chichen Itza,Yucatan, Mexico: Ballcourt reliefs,” Wikimedia Commons, available: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChichen_Itza_JuegoPelota_Relieve.jpg

[10] Robert J. Sharer and Loa P. Traxler, The Ancient Maya, 6th ed (California: Stanford University Press, 2006). See also, Susan D Gillespie, “Ballgames and Boundaries”. In Vernon Scarborough and David R. Wilcox (eds.). The Mesoamerican Ballgame, (Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1991), 317–345.

[11] Fig. 5 by Xjunajpù (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

[12] Coe, Michael D. “The Hero Twins: Myth and Image”. In Barbara Kerr and Justin Kerr ed. The Maya Vase Book: A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, volume 1. (New York: Kerr Associates, 1989), 161–184.

[13] Sharer and Traxler (2006), 751.

[14] See, e.g.,  James Carey,  “A Cultural Approach to Communication”: “A ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs.”

Human Sacrifice during Shang Dynasty

[box type=”note”]Fig.1, Bronze ceremonial axe (Yue / 钺) from middle to late Shang period, c. 1400 BCE ~ 1000 BCE, symbol of state power. Excavated from tomb M1 at the Sufutun site, currently part of the Shandong Museum collection. [/box]

Human sacrifice refers to the practice of ritual killing of human beings as offerings to divine patrons, ancestors, or other superhuman forces.  While the phenomenon of ritual human killings have been present in many societies throughout history [1], the types of human sacrifice that were practiced by ancient Chinese and pre-Colombian Mesoamerican cultures, which were exceptional in terms of the sheer number of people sacrificed, the frequency at which it was done, and the high degree of formalization of their sacrificial rituals. Large-scale, systematic human sacrifice functioned as important political and religious spectacles in Shang dynasty.[2]

The Shang dynasty marked the height of Chinese Bronze Age, where it ruled over the fertile Yellow River basin for more than half a millennium, from c.1600 BC to 1046 BC.   Traditional Chinese historiography has divided periods of Chinese history into ‘dynasties’ – a formal historical term referring to periods of “unified rule” (天下共主, lit. “a single sovereign uniting the world under Heaven”), where the land corresponding to the contemporary China-proper was ruled by a single sovereign clan. The change of imperial rule signaled a change in dynasty, and also signified a change in the Heaven’s mandate. [3] Officially, of course, imperial rule of China only officially started with the Qin dynasty under Emperor Shihuangdi in 221 BC. Prior to establishment of the Qin dynasty, the previous dynasties – Xia, Zhou, and Shang – were organized in the form of a confederate feudal state system, in which the state that managed to acquire hegemony via military conquest will be recognized by other feudal clans as having the Mandate of Heaven, and the monarch of that state would be referred to as Tianzi,which literally translates as “Heaven’s son.”  The title Tianzi, which once referred to those kings of the hegemonic feudoms during Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties, was carried on as the honorific title of the emperor throughout the imperial China, which lasted from 221 BC until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 AD.

 According to official historical records compiled during the Zhou dynasty (1046 BC–256 BC), Shang was the second Chinese dynasty the quasi-legendary Xia dynasty (c.2070 BC –1600 BC). However as there are no conclusive archaeological records proving the existence of the Xia dynasty, Shang is so far the earliest confirmed Chinese dynasty in that the earliest written record were dated to this era. Written artifacts excavated from Shang archaeological sites were predominantly in the form of oracle bone script. These writings were used specifically during state divination ceremonies where the Shang ruler both acting as a king and as a high priest, would carve scripts concerning matters of state importance (such as military affairs, prayers for bountiful harvest, and matters concerning sacrificial offerings) onto specially prepared tortoise carapaces and cow bones. [4] The Shang king would then prod the oracle bones with a red-hot bronze rod, which would cause the bones to crack under the intense heat, indicating that the singular supreme deity of the Shang people, Shang-Di (上帝, lit.: “the lord from above”) had  answered the questions inscribed on the bones, and the cracks left on the bones were supposedly Shang-Di’s divine answers. only the Shang king could interpret  these and announce them to his people as divine mandates. Oracle bone script is the earliest known Chinese writing system; it is, nonetheless, a highly developed iconographic form of writing that resemble contemporary Chinese characters, and written in a grammar consistent with classical written Chinese. Thus, despite its ancient origin, the oracle script has been surprisingly legible for modern day archaeological scholars, perhaps due to the fact that it is, like contemporary Chinese, a purely logographic medium that transmits meaning without relying on phonetic representation, and therefore remained relatively static across millennia. [5]

Current understandings of Shang religious practices, mostly based from a relatively large body of surviving written records from Shang and the subsequent Zhou dynasties, suggest that a amalgamation of ancestor worship, natural totemism and shamanism practices were present in the Shang society. However, the religion practiced by the Shang ruling class is distinctly monotheistic in character, of which the Shang-Di (lit. “lord above) is recognized as the one and only divine Lord (Di). Shang political theology frames Shang-Di as an incorporeal, omnipresent, and omnipotent metaphysical deity whom wields absolute power over all human, natural and spiritual forces. While the Shang people viewed the spiritual domain (e.g. spirit of dead ancestors) is simply an extension of the human world and can be readily accessed, the divine will of Shang-Di is radically inaccessible except through the divination of the Shang king.[6]

figure2

[box type=”note”]Fig. 2. Guo Moruo 郭沫若(ed), Jiaguwen Heji 甲骨文合集 (Beijing: 中华书局影印本, 1980-1983), 1079. The oracle bone inscription reads: “甲辰 ····至戊陷人.丙午雨 (On the sexagenary cycle day of Jiachen…human were sacrificed on the hour of Wu, it rained on the sexagenary cycle day of Beingwu.”[/box]

A sizable portion of the oracle bones uncovered in Shang archaeological sites contain script specifically concerning human sacrifice (see figure 2 above).These written records are also corroborated by the discovery of numerous  sacrificial mass-graves in those sites. In most Shang sacrificial rituals, only animals and valuable chattels (such as bronze wares) would be used as offerings. There were only two exceptional circumstances where human sacrifices were made: xunzang 殉葬 and renji 人祭.  Xunzang 殉葬  (lit. “burial sacrifice”) refers to the practice in which personal slaves and servants of Shang king, upon their master’s death, were expected to commit ritual suicide or to “volunteer” themselves to be buried alive alongside with their master.  While the practice of committing ritual suicide upon the master’s death has lingered throughout Chinese history, the second type of human sacrifice, renji 人祭 (lit. “human offering sacrifice) is practiced only during the Shang dynasty period, and also the most massive in scale in terms of number of people killed in a typical  renji ceremony. The demographic pattern of Shang sacrificial victims is also quite interesting. Xunzang victims (or “volunteers”) were mostly personal slaves (i.e. house servants), and therefore in xunzang burial sites we could find a pretty even mix of male and female human remains. Renji victims, on the other hand, appears to be predominately male. Unlike xunzang, the people sacrificed for Renji were not personal slaves, but mostly prisoners of war and field slaves (keep in mind that Shang field slaves were typically captured from distant lands outside of Shang domain).

figure3[box type=”note”]Fig.3, oracle bone inscription (Heji 1027): “不其降冊千牛千人 shall one thousand cattle and one thousand human be sacrificed?” Guo Moruo (1980-1983), Heiji, 1027.[/box]

Specifically, renji functions as prayers to Shang-Di to deliver the Shang people from famine. This kind of sacrifice would only take place during periods of severe food shortage (usually due to drought or war).  Hundreds of captured slaves were typically executed during a renji ceremony, usually via decapitation (see figure 3). The corpses of the victims, along with their severed heads, were buried in mass sacrificial pits or collectively incinerated, in order to placate what they thought was an angry Shang-Di.

figure3[box type=”note”]Fig.4, oracle bone inscription (Heiji 32035) “shall human blood be offered on the day of Xinyou? 辛酉其若亦氿伐”[/box]

To pray for the end of the famine brought by Shang-Di’s wrath, the Shang king would demonstrate to the supreme deity of their devoutness through the specular spilling of sacrificial human blood. Oracle bone inscriptions refer to such sacrificial human blood as qiu (氿, lit. “cascade”), but the precise method for extracting the sacrificial blood unknown (see fig. 4).   The largest recorded human sacrifice of this kind was done by Shang king Wuding, where over 9,000 slaves were slaughtered as offerings to Shang-Di.

 

Posted by Keren Wang at 5/28/2015

 


 NOTES: 

1 See generally, Richard E. DeMaris, “Sacrifice, an Ancient Mediterranean Ritual,” Biblical Theology Bulletin vol. 43 no.2 (2013): 60-73.
See also, e.g.: Sigmund Freud. Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics, translated by A. A. Brill (New York, NY: Random House, 1961)
[quote]Ch.II-3: “The reconciliation customs practised on the island of Timor, after a victorious band of warriors has returned with the severed heads of the vanquished enemy, are especially significant because the leader of the expedition is subject to heavy additional restrictions. …Similar customs are found among the Palu in Celebes; the Gallas sacrifice to the spirits of their dead enemies before they return to their home villages.” Ch.IV-6: “… the first kings of the Latin tribes were strangers who played the part of a deity and were solemnly sacrificed in this rôle on specified holidays. The yearly sacrifice (self-sacrifice is a variant) of a god seems to have been an important feature of Semitic religions. The ceremony of human sacrifice in various parts of the inhabited world makes it certain that these human beings ended their lives as representatives of the deity. This sacrificial custom can still be traced in later times in the substitution of an inanimate imitation (doll) for the living person.”[/quote]
See also, Michael Rudolph, Ritual Performances as Authenticating Practices. (Berlin: LIT Verlag Münster, 2008);
John Noble Wilford, “Ritual Deaths at Ur Were Anything but Serene,” New York Times, October 26, 2009: [quote]“A new examination of skulls from the royal cemetery at Ur, discovered in Iraq almost a century ago, appears to support a more grisly interpretation than before of human sacrifices associajted with elite burials in ancient Mesopotamia, archaeologists say. …Archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania reached that conclusion after conducting the first CT scans of two skulls from the 4,500-year-old cemetery.”[/quote] Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/27/science/27ur.html
Austine Waddell, Tibetan Buddhism: With Its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology, and in Its Relation to Indian Buddhism (1895), at 516: [quote]”Human sacrifice seems undoubtedly to have been regularly practised in Tibet up till the dawn there of Buddhism in the seventh century.”[/quote]  

2 See generally, Wang Ping and Wolfgang Kubin, 甲骨文与殷商人祭 / Oracle bone inscriptions and human sacrifice during the Yinshang period / Jia gu wen yu Yin Shang ren ji, Chinese, 1st ed., (Zhengzhou, China: 大象出版社, 2007). 

3 陈启云, “封建与大一统之间——关于中国传统政体的理论和史实,” 学术月刊 2 (2007) 

See generally, 中国社会科学院考古研究所 , 殷墟与商文化-殷墟科学发掘80周年纪念文集 (Beijing: 科学出版社, 2011) 

5 See generally, Gao Ming 高明, Zhongguo Guwenzi Xuetonglun 中国古文字学通论, (Beijing: Peking University Press, 1996) 

6 See 《周禮-春官宗伯》: [quote]“以吉禮事邦國之鬼神示:以禋祀祀昊天上帝,以實柴祀日月星辰,以槱燎祀司中、司命、風師、雨師。以血祭祭社稷、五祀、五岳,以貍沈祭山林川澤,以副辜祭四方百物。”[/quote]

《商書 – 伊訓》: [quote] “嗚呼!嗣王祗厥身,念哉!聖謨洋洋,嘉言孔彰。惟上帝不常,作善降之百祥,作不善降之百殃。”[/quote]

See also, 《商書 – 湯誥》:  [quote] “爾萬方有眾,明聽予一人誥。惟皇上帝,降衷于下民。若有恆性,克綏厥猷惟后。…爾有善,朕弗敢蔽;罪當朕躬,弗敢自赦,惟簡在上帝之心。其爾萬方有罪,在予一人;予一人有罪,無以爾萬方。”[/quote]

See generally, 中国社会科学院考古研究所 , 殷墟与商文化-殷墟科学发掘80周年纪念文集 (Beijing: 科学出版社, 2011)E