Human Sacrifice

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Human Sacrifice

“Thus, tongueless, and swollen with words she could never again pronounce, each girl would be led in procession to the sound of solemn music, wrapped in veils and garlanded with flowers , up the winding steps of to the city's ninth door. Nowadays, you might say she looked like a pampered society bride.” - Margret Atwood, in The Blind Assassin (2000, 209).

Beauty lies in the eyes of beholder. And so does terror. Human sacrifice was a dramatic combination of both. It was simultaneously a spectacular show of the aesthetics of making holy (Beattie, 1980) and a terrorizing venting of collective violence (Girard, 1987). As a religious ritual practiced globally and throughout history, human sacrifice involved killing of victims in order to communicate with or please a supernatural recipient, “in order to acquire benefits for an individual or a community” (Green, 2001).

Postcards to Gods: Body as Palimpsest

At the center of this communication with the supernatural is the body. The body is the site of inscription. Not merely cultural inscription in a Foucauldian sense, but of a different type of inscription - a symbolic code that shared between the priest and the gods. Archaeologists come across bodies butchered with blades, crushed with blocks of flint (Green, 2001). "A dismembered torso of a six-year-old boy, placed there after his legs had been hacked off," (53) and in a pit alongside, an adult female whose body had been "drastically mutilated" (54). "Her head lay apart from her trunk and both femurs had been deliberately broken off... the pelvic girdle itself had been crushed by a huge block of flint."

What is already inscribed on the body is scratched off - mutilation, dismemberment and disembowelment through the use of spears, blades and weapons. To communicate with the supernatural, the absolute other, these weapons act not only as pens but before that as rubbers, dusters or scratching tools, to inscribe a completely different stylus and a unique encoding that the body is usually not meant to bear. As a site of inscription, the body becomes a palimpsest.

The body itself is not a site of inscription for a response to the sacrifice. But the process is not uni-directional. Gods or nature respond provide feedback, either through direct communication with the priest whose own body enters an altered state to become receptive to this response, or through the interpretation of omens that follow. The priests in that sense interface with god(s) or nature on behalf of the rest of the community. The god(s) that run the course of nature are the mystical kernel around which there is the rational shell of religious rituals.

Exchange Value: The Economics of Sacrifice

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The Merchant of Venice

But the body is not mere carrier of a message. In a second sense, the flesh and blood are themselves the objects of exchange. If life, health, food and security are considered to have been bestowed by a supernatural being, then the body that they nutrition and protect belong to that being. According to Karl Marx (1977, 400) what is loaned by a lender to a plebeian becomes “transformed through his consumption of the means of subsistence, into flesh and blood”. The flesh and blood are therefore the lender's money. This phenomenon, he says, “is worthy of Shylock”, referring to the character in Shakespeare's play Merchant of Venice.

The flesh and blood, even if they belong to the gods, are of no use value to the the gods, however. They do not need it. “There's more depends on this than on the value,” Balthazar says of the ring in the Shakespeare play. The value of the sacrificed body is merely exchange value. They are being given back to gods only with the expectation of tangible returns. Do ut des – I give so that you may give.

If the welfare of the society can be gained in return for an individual's life, this exchange is economical.

Ritual as Reenactment: Sacrifice as Theater

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Sacrifice as Theater

The sacrificial body is also used as a site of performance. Inherent in the very meaning of the "ritual" is a reenactment of a prior event. While a debate on the primacy of ritual or myth remains unresolved, ritual in itself, as a cultural practice, is nothing but repetition. For Walter Burkert (1987, 151) it involves “action patterns used as signs” and is therefore “a form of nonverbal communication”. The sacrificial body then becomes what Crary (1992) would call a "screen or a membrane" on which this communication is projected. It is erected on an altar and therefore given a central position and made the primary site of action.

Rituals "introduce embellishments" (Mack, 1987) and allow the use of "a surrogate victim" - violence against home can suffice to replace more generalized violence. "Ritual provides the example", as it "makes substitutions" (17). For onlookers, this apparatus can be seen as substituting their own body on the altar to facilitate an Aristotelian catharsis and purify them. This effect is re-mediated by the theater, long after human sacrifice has become outdated.

Scapegoat: Logic of the Mob

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Burn Witch Burn

“What kind of logic is it that finds the cause of an epidemic in one man, but only after it was decided that this man had secretly murdered his father and committed incest with his mother?” asks Rene Girard (1987, 84) referring to the myth of Oedipus. There indeed is none, except the logic of the mob. “At the time of Black Death, foriegners were killed and Jews were massacred, and a centry or two later, 'witches' were burnt for reasons strictly identical” (86) to the ones in the myth of Oedipus, Girard argues.

The scapegoat is one, against many, and is therefore defenseless. Like Oedipus, he is the stranger, the other, or the minority - which is as prone to being idolized and made into a hero as it is vulnerable to being seen as an impurity that is the root of all problems in the community.

“At the instant the scapegoat is selected, through a nonconcscious process of mimetic suggestion, he obviously appears as the all-powerful cause of all trouble in a community that is itself nothing but trouble. The roles are reversed. The victimizers see themselves as the passive victims of their own victim, and they see their victim as supremely active, eminently capable of destroying them. The scapegoat always appears to be a more powerful agent, a more powerful case than he really is.” (ibid, 91). The choice of the scapegoat is arbitrary. Scapegoating in itself is functional nonsense. It does not follow a logic. To blame him is a delusion that the society does not question or analyze. “The agitation and fear that preceded the selection of the scapegoat and the violence against him are followed, after his death, by a new mood of harmony and peace” (91) and that is the function that the ritual serves.

As a ritualized practice, this effect can also be seen in capital punishment, in which a body is sacrificed to an abstract transcendental concept of justice. The body is seen as an impurity, an agent that could hurt the balance of the society, and therefore must be removed for harmony and peace to prevail.

Scape-goat: Sacrifice and Sons of Abraham

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Sacrifice of Isaac

Theatrical practice began possibly with the substitution of an animal for a human sacrifice. Dramatists are descendents of priests in that sense. Muslims all over the world sacrifice goats and rams every year to re-enact the story of Abraham who, according to the Bible and the Koran, was willing to sacrifice his son before God sent an angel who replaced him with a ram - for a remediation.

An odd kind of descendants of the sacrificial priests are Islamic terrorists, especially those involved in the contemporary practice of broadcast beheadings, which began with the videotaped beheading of American Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. It “has grown into a more systematic tool of political expression”, according to Arjun Appadurai (2006), who sees the trend as a return to “the simplest form of religious violence, the sacrifice…” (p. 12). “My father's Jewish. My mother's Jewish. I'm Jewish," Pearl said, before he was beheaded and cut into 10 pieces - his killers replacing the goat back with a son of Abraham.


Appadurai, A. (2006). Fear of small numbers: An essay on the geography of anger. Duke University Press.  

Atwood, M. (2000). The blind assassin. Nan A. Talese.  

Beattie, J. H. (1980). On understanding sacrifice. Sacrifice, 29–44.  

Burkert, W. (1987). The problem of ritual killing. Hamerton-Kelly, RG (Hg.), Violent Origins. Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation, Stanford, 149–176.

Crary, J. (1992). Techniques of the observer. MIT Press.

Girard, R (1987). Generative Scapegoating. In Violent origins. Hamerton-Kelly, R. G. (ed). Stanford University Press.  

Green, M. (2001). Dying for the Gods. Tempus Publishing, Limited.  

Marx, K. (1977). Capital, Volume 1. New York: Vintage.

Shakespeare, W. (1977) The Merchant of Venice. ed. 2nd Series. London: Methuen.