87 - Man Vs. Chaos: Human Sacrifice Throughout History

87 – Man Vs. Chaos: Human Sacrifice Throughout History

First of all, we’d like to thank everyone who helped nominate us for four different categories in the Madison Area Music Awards!

Sunspot is up for
Alternative Performer
Rock AlbumWeirdest Hits
Hard Rock/Punk Song – “Messiah Complex”
Drummer/Percussionist – Wendy Lynn Staats

The Madison Area Music Association is a charity that runs these awards every year as a fundraiser for music programs in the local schools, so it all goes to a good cause. By supporting us and voting in the contest, you’re help less-advantaged kids get instruments in their hands. Please visit the MAMA Awards site and cast your vote for Sunspot in those categories.

Wendy Lynn is also one of the finalists for Strings Player of the Year at the Wisconsin Area Music Awards, it’s not a voting award, but it’s an exciting nomination (and she’ll find out if she’s the winner by the next podcast!)

So, speaking of charitable contributions, this week’s topic is human sacrifice. And if the heart of charity is giving something up, then I can’t think of anything more charitable than giving up your life (or the life of someone that matters to you.) But in most societies today, we completely disapprove of sacrificing someone to appease the gods (although it still happens, as this shocking story of human sacrifices in Uganda in February of 2016(!) to bring “good luck” for an election attests to.)

That Uganda story feels horrific and savage and sad in the current age, and of course the idea of human sacrifice is an affront to our modern “civilized” society. But it doesn’t matter which culture you trace your background to, sacrificing human beings is somewhere in the history of it, it’s baked into all of our history at some point. A journal article that just came out talks about how human sacrifice can be attributed to the development of social hierarchies in human society.

So, the study was done of dozens of societies in Austronesia – that’s a particular area of the South Pacific and Australia (and a word I’d never heard before, so learning is fun!) And they found that the more egalitarian a society was (the more people were treated equally), the less human sacrifice was practiced. The more stratified a society was (as in the more differentiation there was in social class between the haves and have nots), the more human sacrifice was performed.

Here’s the money quote from the study:

Religion has long been proposed to play a functional role in society, and is commonly claimed to underpin morality. Recent evolutionary theories of religion have focused on the potential of pro-social and moral religious beliefs to increase cooperation. Our findings suggest that religious rituals also played a darker role in the evolution of modern complex societies. In traditional Austronesian cultures there was substantial religious and political overlap, and ritualised human sacrifice may have been co-opted by elites as a divinely sanctioned means of social control.

Bingo. Just a little something to think about next time someone is talking about modern income inequality . The more difference there was between the upper class (religious and political) and the lower class, the more they performed human sacrifices. Those sacrifices were often prisoners, either prisoners of war or criminals.

So, using human sacrifice as a method of social control makes sense. It can be used as a form of capital punishment that feels like it’s for a good cause (you get to control troublemakers, put fear into the population, and tell the plebes that it’s all for the good of the harvest), but why would we ever sacrifice a human being in the first place? Why would us giving something up, whether it’s an animal sacrifice or the bodies of someone we love – make any kind of difference to a divine being to grant us favor or not?

My personal theory on it can be best explained by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and her five stages of grief. In the end, grieving comes to the same place, acceptance. But to get to that step, you need to deny it, to be angry about it, and at some point, you try and make a deal. That’s where sacrifice comes in.

How many times have you prayed in your head, even without thinking, that you would do anything to get what you wanted in the moment?

“Dear God, I’ll stop eating bacon if you help me make it through this heart attack.”
“Dear God, I promise I’ll be a better person if you can make my wife love me again.”
“Dear God, I’ll never take a drink again if you get me out of this traffic stop.”
“”Dear God, You can give me the disease, just make my child healthy again.”

It’s an involuntary reaction to something that we cannot control. I was just reading Charles Duhigg’s new book, Smarter Faster Better and the first chapter is about how humans are simply more motivated if they are in control and that applies if they only feel that they are in control, even when they obviously are not.

Who felt less in control than early humans? Between disease, famine, drought, natural disasters, war, etc… every random thing that happened to them they had to try and find some kind of explanation for. In the end, they always had to surrender before a higher power because they were powerless to prevent a lot of the tragedy that befell them.

When they hit the bargaining stage, they tried to sacrifice whatever they could to give them some kind of advantage, some kind of control. The survival of their entire tribe might be at stake in a war or a famine (and there was a point in human history where our entire species was down to a thousand reproductive adults), so they did anything to put themselves at an advantage. And that included giving up their lives and the lives of the people that they cared about the most.

And hey, you don’t have to be a cultist to have human sacrifice as part of your religion, it doesn’t matter if you’re Judeo-Christian or you’re someone that believes in the god from Joe Versus The Volcano, chances are that it’s in there.

This child-friendly guide to how the God of the Old Testament tested Abraham’s faith and asked him to sacrifice his only son is a quick eye-opener (SPOILER ALERT: God changes his mind at the last minute.) But the Bible has several examples where people make a bargain with God, whether it’s for a great victory or a good harvest. And Jesus is the ultimate human sacrifice because he’s half-man, half-deity, and he is sacrificed so we no longer have to keep kosher food rules (I guess the early Christians really wanted some shellfish…)

Throughout history, various methods of human sacrifice have been used to appease the gods. One of my least favorites is the Thuggees of India, roaming bands of violent young religious fanatics who would rob travelers and sacrifice them to their god Kali, often by strangling them with a dirty handkerchief. The Thuggees are the bad guys in Gunga Din, the Beatles’ Help!, and most famously Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom (where the sacrifice is heart ripping instead of dirty handkerchiefs!)

Fiji today conjures up the idea of a tropical island paradise and it’s said to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet to visit. But, they’ve got a pretty nasty sacrifice too. When a man died, the custom was to bury his wife with him.

Here’s the description from anthropologist Lorimer Fison from the 19th Century *Journal of Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland*:

When a woman is about to be strangled that she may be buried with her husband, she is made to kneel down, and the cord (a strip of native cloth) is put round her neck. She is then told to expel her breath as long as possible, and when she can endure no longer to stretch out her hand as a signal, whereupon the cord is tightened, and soon all is over. It is believed that, if this direction be followed, insensibility ensues immediately on the tightening of the cord; whereas, if inhalation has taken place, there is an interval of suffering.

An excuse for the practice of widow-strangling may be found in the fact that, according to Fijian belief, it is a needful precautionary measure; for at a certain place on the road to Mbulu (Hades) there lies in wait a terrible god, called Nangganangga, who is utterly implacable towards the ghosts of the unmarried. He is especially ruthless towards bachelors, among whom he persists in classing all male ghosts who come to him unaccompanied by their wives. Turning a deaf ear to their protestations, he seizes them, lifts them above his head, and breaks them in two by dashing them down on a projecting rock. Hence it is absolutely necessary for a man to have at least one of his wives, or at all events, a female ghost of some sort following him.

Okay, a god that forces people to get married and then wants the wives killed when the husbands died (and concubines killed as well when a Chief passes away)… ahem… what were we saying about human sacrifice as a form of social control?

European civilization isn’t much better, we’ve discussed The Wicker Man before at length in our discussion of the death of the great Christopher Lee and Asian cultures also got in on the deal. There’s a reason that one of the names of the Great Wall Of China is “the longest cemetery on Earth.”

Literature is bursting at its bloody seams of sacrifice. Homer’s Illiad (the epic poem about the Trojan War) is full of human sacrifices. Agamemnon murders his daughter to get safe passage across the sea, Achilles burns twelve Trojan prisoners alive to get the gods’ favor in battle, and these are the good guys.

In George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire and TV show, Game Of Thrones, the Red Priestess, Melisandre, burns heretics alive before the Lord of Light, R’hllor. She also seeks the sacrifice of one of the old King’s bastard children in order to achieve the favor of her god for Stannis Baratheon to win the War of The Five Kings.

Doctor Who’s classic story, “The Aztecs” is all about how one of his companions thought that she could change history by altering the Aztec culture of human sacrifice. In Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, escaping human sacrifice is the point of the film. And I didn’t think of this during the podcast, but since Mel also directed The Passion Of The Christ, you can say that he is the director when it comes to gory human sacrifices on film!

Offering up something we value in exchange for favor from a god is hardwired into our humanity. We’re still willing to give up human lives in exchange for something. The powerful are still sacrificing lives as a form of social control and even what-we-think-of-as civilized societies are still killing people in order to feel more control of a chaotic world.

We’ve replaced the term human sacrifice with “collateral damage”. It’s the drone strike that kills innocent people at a wedding to take out a few terrorists in exchange for security. It’s the lives destroyed by the War on Drugs in the name of law and order. It’s turning away asylum seekers because we’re afraid (and this doesn’t have to be the current politicized Syrian debacle, let’s talk about the MS St. Louis which was carrying hundreds of Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany and the US and Canada turned them away.)

Sure, there are plenty of urban legends of Satanists and Santeria and African mysticism, but take the rituals and religion out and add in platitudes like freedom and security. It’s not necessarily evil, like we think of ritual murder, but it’s important to recognize that we’re still the same creatures who screamed at the dark 70,000 years ago desperate for some kind of control in the chaos.

The song this week is inspired by the third stage of grief on the way to acceptance. This track is about bargaining with the man upstairs, called “Got Me In His Claws”.

I been so low,
because I got too high.
I begged and screamed,
and pleaded to make deals for my life.

I have surrendered,
to the Lord on high,
and I’ve made my peace with him,
I’ve made my sacrifice.

That sacrifice,
when I thought life,
could get no harder,
coming down on me,
I made every guarantee.

That I’d cut out all my lying,
I’d stop cheating on my tax,
I’d stop the smoking, midnight toking,
and start going to Mass.
I’ve had enough of these lost weekends,
All the trouble I used to cause,
Too close to my fate, I’m going straight,
The Devil got me in his claws.
That Devil got me in his claws.
That Devil got me in his claws.

Everything that you believe,
all you control,
everything you’ve achieved,
can go right down the hole.
You can surrender
to the Lord on high,
you can make your peace,
you can sacrifice.

That sacrifice,
when I thought life,
could get no harder,
coming down on me,
I made every guarantee.

That I’d cut out all my lying,
I’d stop cheating on my tax,
I’d stop the smoking, midnight toking,
and start going to Mass.
I’ve had enough of these lost weekends,
All the trouble I used to cause,
Too close to my fate, I’m going straight,
The Devil got me in his claws.
That Devil got me in his claws.
That Devil got me in his claws.

Share your thoughts on this episode!