Human Sacrifice

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“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, and adult female whose body had been "drastically mutilated" (54). "Her head lay apart from her trunk and both femurs had been dliberately broken off... the pelvic gurdle itself had been crushed by a huge block of flint." What is already inscribed on the body is scratched off, and mutilation, dismemberment and disembowelment form a new stylus and a new encoding that the body is usually not meant to bear. As a site of inscription, the body becomes a palimpsest.

Exchange Value: The Economics of Sacrifice

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 (Capital, Volume 1, 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.

Ritual as Reenactment: Sacrifice as Theater