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.”