One of the favorite games people like to play with other people's religions is to claim they engaged in regular human sacrifice. Somehow the notion that criminals and prisoners of war being ritualy slain for religion is somehow a lot more distasteful than heretics and murderers being ritualy slain in the name of religion and justice. I started out curious about this notion of sacrifice, and of human sacrefice, and along the way I have learned a few startling facts.
First of all, sacrefice, originally, had nothing to do with virgins being slain on a stone altar. It has nothing to do with giving something up, "sacrificing" for the greater good, or doing without. It has nothing to do with a wealthly environmentalist "sacrifincing" his Prius for the good of the planet (ever wonder where all that lithium for the battery is coming from?). Instead it comes from the Latin "Sacre" meaning something seperate. In this case, something seperated out from the mundane and dedicated or otherwise made untouchable. Something dangerous or "bad" could be sacre. Someone made ritually unclean could be sacre. This is, when you think about it, probably where the idea of giving something up as "Sacrifice". It is no longer available, it is seperate, it is sacre. Someone who decides to give himself up to his god, is not sacrificed when the knife plunges into his chest, he was sacrificed, made "sacre" when he dedicated his life to his god. He then is ritually killed, feeding his god with his essence, or something along those lines.
It is important to seperate, if you will, out these two elements. First is the dedication of the item, plant, animal, space, time, being to the god, gods, or what have you. Then comes the act: the ritual smashing, burning, slaying, or killing. The sacrifice occurred when the object was set apart, seperated, and dedicated. It is now sacred.What happens next varies. An object can be thrown into a lake, well, or destroyed by burning. It can be given to a temple or utilized by the priesthood exclusively. The animal can be slain and eaten by the priests.
Now come the interesting part. Their seems to be an utter fascination by the part of moderns, to find charge other cultures with human sacrifice. Given the lurid depictions in so many "B" movies, it must feed some sort of need, or have deeper conotations than I am willing to entertain. So we have people wondering if those friendly Indians running the local casino establishment once sacrificed virgins on a buckskin altar. We have historians confident that ancient Druids conducted human sacrifice, despite their being very poor evidence (Caesar wouldn't lie, now would he? Those Romans were so honest! They keep telling us just how honest they are!) We have Spanish testimony to all the depredation those Aztecs committed, including all those lurid details about human sacrifice. We have numerous testimonies from missionaries gossiping about human sacrifice by those awful savages, heard third and fourth hand, at least they did before those earstwhile missionaries saved them from their savagery.
I was astounded when I went looking for primary sources, eyewitness accounts, they seem to evaporate quickly, like the morning mist on a summer's morning. Just like all those "historical" accounts one reads about in the bible. All those dependable accounts of pagans sacrificing, ahem, i mean, ritually killing their children to Molech or some other invisible creature. Maybe their are hard accounts of human ritual killings, eyewitness accounts of Incan priests slaying a young girl, skinning her, and then wearing her skin in a bit of sympathetic magic, witnessess that don't have some political or theological axe to grind. I have been wondering if we have a bit of academic credulity here, a display of ivory tower naivete, than mistakes a tale for a report, a poetic metaphor for a newspaper item. Even Barbara Walker, of "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets", seem to fall for the King Killing mythology as a literal tale, history wrapped up in myth.
This is the idea, that when the king can longer perform his kingly duties, or when a year has passed, he is killed, either by the priesthood, or by his successor. Now, while I can grant that people, in a bid for some powerful sympathetic and symbolic magic, might try to literally enact their own mythology, I would like some proof of this. It is quite the charge, but I am rather perplexed that intelligent people are quite willing to believe this, given the spotty and flimsy evidence. But then again, we are culturally quite prejudiced when it comes to the religious habits of the "primitives" and their ability to think logically.
In short, it seems the only people I have ever run across that have a tendency to interpret their religion literaly, rather than metaphorically, are those belonging to the tribe of the Christians. I was astonished when I discovered that my pastor at my Bible College believed in the literal blood of Christ kept in a vessel in a literal Heaven, a literal temple, and that was what was washing our sins away. I guess we had literal sins I was not aware of. Another pastor displayed a "World News" tabloid whose headlines screamed that Russians had drilled into Hell, and a bunch of demons had flown out of the hole! This, he waved the paper, proves Hell exists! Oh my, I slunk deep into my chair.
In short, only those religious practioners who seem to follow the Abrahamic religions, and by extension, all zeus pater derivatives, ever seem to interpret their religion and mythos literally. After all, isn't it the Catholic Priesthood that teaches the Communion wafer and wine become literaly flesh and blood after it is ingested?
It should be clear that probably the root of all this is threefold: one is that story of the Consort of the Goddess who dies (or is slain) and later resurrected are all metaphors for the practice of agriculture. The divine male child who later grows up to be the Goddess's consort is the Wheat, Barley, etc that is slain in the Summer, and Rebirthed in the Spring as the berries (which are "dead") are sown (buried) in the ground. The wild plants seeds, too, have lain, "buried", in the ground over the Winter. I suppose upon reading these stories about the killing of John BarleyCorn we are supposed to believe English killed a surrogate every late Summer. The second reason for all this nonsense, is that Christian are ready to project their own shadow onto these "savages", and thus feel morally superior, since they killed their god once, while these "primitives" have to do it every year or so. It seems lost to them that the core of their religion involves the ritual killing of their god, and every Easter they kill him again in a thousand passion plays. This, then, is what all the fuss is about. Third, is the habit of intellectuals to think the worst of others outside their hallowed halls, and to accept conclusions that vindicate their prejudices, and not check out citations unless they are intensly jealous of the books author. It is an amazingly irritating habit to read archaeologists speculating about a culture seperated by a thousand years with a confidence that goes way beyond hubris.
Come to think of it, there is probably a fourth cause, and its the tendency to believe anything in print. Amazing but true!