Four books contend ritual sacrifice
is baked into modern religious beliefs
Four books from Emile Durkheim, Robert Calasso, and David Carrasco
Ideas regarding ritual sacrifice among early humans, in the Vedas and among the Aztecs
Ritual sacrifice is an ancient human practice that predates any coherent system of religious beliefs and probably stories of mythological characters or events. Yet, ideas about sacrifice have shaped religious practice around the world. The sacrifice of God, a god, or a divine person is the core belief and focus of some religions, including Christianity. This paper explores the emotional roots of sacrifice and ideas about sacrifice among early humans, in the Vedas and among the Aztecs. I argue that ritual practices and ideas about sacrifice that eventually gave rise to early religions grew out of a powerful need to sacrifice, rather than vice versa. One plausible scenario is that the emotional proclivity to sacrifice among early humans motivated the development of ritual practices which then required a conceptual rationale. However, it’s more likely that the emotional needs of a highly vulnerable and threatened species, ritual practices that expressed those needs, and ideas that explained the urgency of sacrifice developed in tandem rather than in a linear fashion.
Emile Durkheim: The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a French sociologist sometimes referred to as “the principle architect of modern social science.” Durkheim was a bold and creative thinker who paid no attention to the boundaries between and among anthropology, sociology and philosophy of religion. He was also a theorist who was never satisfied with conventional explanations of social phenomena, or with description and data absent identification of deeper causes or forces.
In his classic, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) Durkheim examined Australian Aboriginal ritual practices and ideas to understand the earliest expressions of religious awareness in human groups. The first part of Durkheim’s definition of religion has never been improved upon: “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things … “, and then (questionably), “that is to say things set apart and forbidden,” followed by “beliefs and practices which unite into one moral community called a Church all those who adhere to them.” According to one commentator, Durkheim “assumed that man has some sort of innate religious nature regardless of social conditions” which is reflected in experience of the sacred that led to a strict conceptual division between the sacred and the profane; and which strengthened (or perhaps created) the moral unity of communities.
The reality that Aboriginal ideas of the sacred were embodied in totemism led to, or (more likely) strengthened, Durkheim’s belief that early religious ideas were projections of the power of Society onto the cosmos. The bold hypothesis that “god is nothing else than society apotheosized” is consistent with Durkheim’s analysis of totemism: “For the Australians, things themselves, everything which is in the universe, are a part of the tribe.” In totemism, natural objects and phenomena have a tribal identity just as men do; furthermore, according to Durkheim, “ … we may rest assured that this way of conceiving the world, (i.e., through classification systems that define group membership) is independent of all ethnic and geographic particularities …” (p.144)
Yet, for Durkheim, the highly developed classification systems of totemism were combined with a “belief in a diffused impersonal force,” which “always remains actual, living and the same.” (p.189) Durkheim refers to this force as a “quasi-divine entity” whose energy is “diffused
through all sorts of heterogenous things …” (p.189) Durkheim reminds readers that many other ancient peoples were cognizant of an impersonal force referred to by various names such as mana, wakan or orenda. Durkheim quotes an authority on Native American spiritual beliefs: “No word … can explain the meaning of this term among the Dakota,” which, “ embraces all mystery, all secret power, all divinity.” According to Durkheim, … “no enumeration (of natural objects or phenomena) could exhaust this infinitely complex idea. It is not a definite or definable power … it is Power in an absolute sense.”
In this world view, “there is nothing in the world which does not have its quota of orenda; but the quantities vary. There are some men or things which are favored…” (p. 193) Mana, wakan, orenda can be acquired and used “in all ways for good or evil ” (p.194). This impersonal force is not a supreme being, “the mana is located nowhere … and it is everywhere.” (194) The totem, Durkheim asserts, “is the means by which an individual is put into relations with this source of energy, if the totem has any powers, it is because it incarnates the wakan.” (p.195)
To summarize: in Durkheim’s theory of early religious practices among Australian Aboriginals and tribal peoples around the world, experience of the sacred is associated with totemic classification systems through which all natural phenomena are assigned group membership in order to tap the power of an impersonal mysterious quasi-divine force which is at once everywhere and nowhere, and which can serve both good and bad ends. Durkheim underlines the idea of ancient peoples that this impersonal force can be found in specific places, animals or people to varying degrees but “repels all personification …” (p. 195)
Durkheim on sacrifice
Durkheim’s account of sacrificial rites among Australian Aboriginal tribes begins with close analysis of Robertson Smith’s contention that ”before all, it (sacrifice) is an act of alimentary communion,” (p. 337) i.e., shared food that strengthens the bond of kinship between the worshipper and his god, or an impersonal quasi-divine force. Durkheim allows that the sacrificial meal must be accompanied by prayers and other ritual acts. Nevertheless, “the alimentary communion is one of the essential elements of the sacrifice” (p.337) by which they (tribal members) assimilate the sacred principle residing in the totemic animal. Durkheim summarizes Robertson Smith’s theory: “Sacrifice was not founded to create a bond of artificial kinship between a man and his gods, but to maintain and renew the natural kinship which primitively united them.” (p.338)
However, Durkheim takes issue with Smith’s view that the use of sacrificial offerings as tribute to propitiate (i.e., win the favor, assuage the anger) gods or divine beings who ruled over peoples of the earth, much like kings, was a late development. According to Durkheim, well before there were kings, or gods who acted like kings, human beings made offerings to the “sacred beings” on whose favor all depended. Regarding the Aboriginals, Durkheim insists that “the oblations which he is thus forced to make every year do not differ in nature from those which are made later in the rites properly called sacrifices.” In Durkheim’s view, the early sacrificial rites of humans both joined humans with the sacred (conceived impersonally) through consumption of a totemic animal; and was an offering to sacred forces which stood apart from human beings and their tribal groupings. The mystery of the sacred as both joined with human beings through alimentary communion and as distinct, a power completely other than humans, was embodied in religious rites of the earliest humans, according to Durkheim. “ … We have no grounds for saying that the idea of oblation is a late idea of civilization,” (p.342), Durkheim asserts. He states: “ … the sacrifice is partially a communion; but it is also, and no less essentially, a gift and an act of renouncement.” (p.343)
Durkheim believed that ancient ideas regarding the necessity of sacrifice arose from the death and renewal of vegetation and animal species on which the tribe depended for life; and that sacrificial rites were an imaginative response of early humans to the connection between decay, death and rebirth in biological species. In his view, “sacred beings exist only when they are represented as such in the mind, “ (p.345); and “They attain their greatest intensity at the moment when the men are assembled together … when they all partake of the same idea and same sentiment.” (p.345) Religious beliefs and sacrificial rites bring about “internal and moral regeneration” (p.346) of tribal groups, an adaptive strength which accounts for the persistence of religion in the view of some social anthropologists.
There must be blood
There are two other key features of Durkheim’s account of the origins of sacrificial rites and of the imaginative world in which these rites played an essential role: (1) the importance of blood, conceived of by early humans as “a sacred liquid,” (p. 126) and (2) “when a sacred thing is sub-divided each of its parts remains equal to the thing itself.” (p. 229)
According to Durkheim, Aboriginal tribes believed that human blood and hair contained sacred power to a greater extent than other parts of the body. Durkheim maintains that “human blood is so holy a thing that in the tribes of Central Australia, it frequently serves to consecrate the most respected instruments of the cult.” (p.137) In some rites, “streams of blood are poured upon the rocks which represent the totemic animal and plants. “ ( p. 137) Blood and hair are sacred in a way other parts of the body are not because in the Aboriginal world view, “the human organism contains within its depths a sacred principle, which visibly comes to the surface in certain determined cases.” (p.138) The loss of blood in accidents, or as the result of physical assault may often serve as a reminder of human vulnerability; but blood sacrifice among the Aboriginals regenerated the sacred power of human beings which was always in danger of decay and death. Furthermore, “the part is equal to the whole,” so that “The smallest drop of blood contains the same active principle as the whole thing.” (p.229)
In the world view of Australian Aboriginals, sacred things must be set apart from the profane world to the extent possible, a guideline (virtually an axiom) which explains why, in Durkheim’s view,“ the images of totemic beings are more sacred than the beings themselves.” (p. 133) Durkheim asserts that “the totemic plants and animals live in the profane world and are mixed up with the common everyday life” (p. 133) whereas objects which represent the totem can be sequestered in a protected space. “The representations of the totem are therefore more actively powerful than the totem itself, ” Durkheim maintains (p. 133). Durkheim does not discuss why, in totemism, the profane everyday world causes the sacred power to deteriorate. One of the main functions of sacrificial rites, especially blood sacrifice, may be to combat the ascendency of the profane in everyday life. It seems that all religions struggle with this challenge through a wide variety of ritual practices, and through the cultivation of solitude for spiritual adepts.
Roberto Calasso: The Celestial Hunter
Roberto Calasso is an Italian literary polymath with encyclopedic knowledge of world literature, mythology and ancient religions. Superlatives do not do Calasso justice. The Paris Review once described him as a “literary institution of one” and opined that “Both critics and admirers have called Calasso a “neo-gnostic,” a master of secret knowledge.” He has written two great books about sacrifice, Ardor (2010), about Vedic ideas and rituals, and The Celestial Hunter (2016), about the effect on early homo sapiens of evolving from animal to human and from prey to predator. I discuss ideas about sacrifice from Ardor below.
Calasso has a revelatory story to tell about early human history, many thousands of years before there were gods or religions:
There was a lengthy period in prehistory when homo sapiens experienced “communality with animals.” (p. 35) “In the time of the Great Raven, when man was hunted and went hunting, when he was not just man but an animal or spirit or god and he hunted another thing of equally uncertain and changeable nature.” (p.35) Furthermore, “People maintained their kinship with the animal by wearing its skin.” (p.36) “Contact with the skin of a dead animal made it possible to communicate with all other animal species. It was the lingua franca of metamorphosis.” (p.36) Hunting myths and rituals presupposed a communality, an extreme intimacy between the hunter and the animal being hunted. Killing was the ultimate sign of a primordial affinity that did not allow separate existence of either the animal or the human...” (p. 48) Nevertheless, hunting began to detach humans from animals. Calasso asserts that Spartan initiation rites “harked back to a point in the past to a state of commingling with the animals from which humans had detached themselves by … becoming the ones who killed wolves and bears.” (p.36)
In Greek myths, gods and goddesses (e.g., Artemis) hunted for pleasure, for sport, killing animals with no utilitarian purpose, outside the law or morality, but without physical contact with animals. Artemis killed with arrows because “The arrow eliminates physical contact, ” “The virginity of Artemis; the avoidance of contact.” (p.53) Humans learned to kill animals at a distance as a way of psychologically separating themselves from prey.
According to Calasso, hunting in this pure, virginal form separated the individual from the tribe for the first time: “This is the first solitary profile, detached from any tribe, that we come across in nature. In the background, animals and plants.” ( p.47)
Sacrifice as purification for predation
According to Calasso, “The history of no other animal has seen such a swift change in its way of life as that of mankind: from primates gathering fruits and roots pestered by predators, to an omnivorous - and therefore carnivorous – animal, a biped who goes about in a group hunting quadrupeds often larger than him.” (p.97) “Man becomes a predator so that he can distinguish himself from every predator and from every other animal.” (p.97) Humans learned to kill animals from a distance, “with obsidian tips that penetrated the skin.” (p.97)
Calasso maintains that “The hunt is the place where the primordial separation occurs … the prey becomes the hunter.” (p.98) Hunting animals in groups permanently changed the relationship of humans to the rest of the animal kingdom: “Man’s detachment from the animal was the great event among all events in human history.” (p.98) Prior to developing hinting prowess, “Man, for a long time, was a primate among many and lived … in terror of certain predators, knowing that he was one of their favorite foods.” (p. 98) Calasso asserts that “The step to predation was … immensely risky, disruptive. It altered relations between Home and every species around him;” however, “Homo didn’t know how to deal with that new part of his nature. … He invented hunting as a nonessential gratuitous activity.” (p. 99)
Hunting animals in groups was only the first step in how humans restructured the natural order. Calasso asserts that “humans were preparing to take over the whole animal kingdom;” humans “wanted to exploit all animals.” (101) However, there was a psychic cost, “a state of guilt” (p.102), not for killing per se which “is normal practice for a very large part of the animal world,” (p.101) but possibly because “he used objects specially devised for killing” and “in that form of imitation involving the use of prostheses.” (p.101) Humans then began “killing and butchering meat while addressing certain words and gestures to invisible entities.” And “It was glory and guilt interwoven.” (p.102)
In Calasso’s view, the primordial guilt of early humans arose out of predation and the transition to meat eating as a way of life. Calasso believes that “Guilt is inevitable for anyone who is predator and prey,” (p.102), an idea that might be news to many in our civilization in which factory farms slaughter millions of animals daily without most meat eaters ever coming close to the technology of slaughter or to the animals killed for food. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the great majority of modern humans feel the slightest remorse for meat consumption or gratitude to slaughtered animals. However, early humans were not separated from animal slaughter, and they did experience both guilt for killing animals with weapons in large numbers and gratitude to the animals for the food they provided.
According to Calasso, sacrificial rites arose out of the radical world altering change in the relation of humans to all other animals embodied in the culture of predation, hunting in groups with weapons that separated humans from their prey in the act of killing and a preference for meat consumption over a vegetarian diet. Furthermore (though Calasso does not say so) the guilt of early humans was gnawing; it could not be eliminated as humans around the world glorified hunting and increased their dependence on meat consumption. Something had to be done to sanctify predation for meat consumption, and to ward off a sense of being unclean for somehow (not well understood) violating the natural order that humans had transcended through their enhanced capacity for social organization.
The strange logic of blood sacrifice
Calasso’s discussion of blood sacrifice among early humans is preceded by a lengthy disquisition of the power of symbols, or in Calasso’s language, “the act of substitution, the act with which it was established that a stood for b, that a took the place of b, that a represented b.” (p. 109). Readers unused to the thin air of philosophical argument may have limited tolerance for these ruminations. Perhaps a simplification will be useful: early humans’ big brains acquired the capacity to substitute mental representations of things and phenomena in the world for the things themselves; and to experience these mental representations as full embodiments of whatever they represented.
To provide a coherent account of the logic of blood sacrifice among early humans, Calasso must explain how the ritual sacrifice of animals could relieve the guilt of killing animals for food. Some ancient thinkers such as Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, were sarcastic about the use of sacrifice to produce meat for human consumption. Theophrastus had scathing things to say about consumption of “that part of the animal not kept aside for the gods.” (p.122) Theophrastus believed that “under the patronage of divinity we slaughter and rip to pieces” … animals we enjoy eating.” (p.122) In this view, animal sacrifice that led to human consumption of meat was inherently corrupt. For blood sacrifice to retain its integrity (as atonement or purification), “humans couldn’t therefore experience any “pleasures” of eating meat.” (p. 123). Animals had to be entirely burned to create a sacrificial act. Calasso asserts “Theophrastus even recognized that this was the most ancient form of sacrifice.” (p. 123)
Calasso states that “The most difficult, most crucial question about sacrifice relates to the necessity of destruction that the sacrifice (every sacrifice) implies.” (p.123) And “The self-sufficiency of the world implies its perpetual self-destruction,” (p. 123). “ … to keep death away it is necessary to cause death.” (p.123) He continues, “To placate an invisible entity is a feeling that can be easily understood. But why the placation has to take place through the killing of an animal has never been fully explained. And yet this has been a feature of … many cultures. Every other question about sacrifice depends on this.” (p. 124)
Curiously, instead of concisely explaining the logic of blood sacrifice in his inimitable way, Calasso reprises the oddity of the logic of purifying the killing of animals with more killing. He writes: “Blood sacrifice was blood poured over a wrong , to heal it …”( p. 124) “ … an absurdity extended over the whole ancient conception of sacrifice. Sacrifice is an act of guilt, as the only means of placating – temporarily, the guilt that is added to and laid over another act of guilt.” (p.125) “Only the shedding of blood stopped a process that had been started by the person who had shed the blood. A process that could seem nonsensical even to the ancients.” (p.126)
Arguably, Calasso’s discussion of substitution, and Durkheim’s analysis of the logic of totemism provide the key to understanding the emotional necessity of blood sacrifice among early humans. For early humans, the blood of animals equaled food which contained life itself in its sacred form which required death. Killing animals for food depleted and unbalanced the cosmos which could only be restored through blood sacrifice, i.e. food for the gods, container of the sacred, that would otherwise have been used as human food. The blood of animals substituted for and was a stand in (conveniently) for human sacrifice. Stated more abstractly, the deep logic of early sacrifice is that the sacred (however defined) feeds on death in the same way that life feeds on life. Stated more concretely: animals that potentially could have become human food were burnt in a way they could not be eaten and were offered to the sacred cosmos (however imagined) as divine food. On special occasions, parts of sacrificed animals could be eaten as a means of uniting humans with the sacred order. The blood of life and blood of death were joined in a communal feast, just as life and death are joined in biology.
According to Calasso, around the fourth century, C.E., “sacrifices were no longer celebrated in the form that had been normal for centuries.” (p.137) Christianity transmuted the meaning of blood sacrifice while retaining its emotional power: only through the willing sacrifice of a divine person, Jesus, could human beings be reconciled with God who accepted his Son as blood sacrifice. Christian theology depended on the logic of substitution that was implicit in animal sacrifice among early humans, i.e., blood equals food which equals offerings which restores the cosmos defiled by killing animals for food and killing other humans, along with myriad cruel practices such as slavery. The rise of Christianity is a testimony to the power of primordial guilt familiar to early humans, easy to rationalize away but difficult to emotionally suppress.
Calasso’s Ardor: Ritual sacrifice among the Vedas
Ardor (2010) was published six years before The Celestial Hunter and contains a wide-ranging discussion of ritual sacrifice in Vedic India more than three thousand years ago. Themes presented in The Celestial Hunter appear in Ardor but with an important difference: primordial guilt grew out of the need for food, for the inherent destructiveness of eating, not just from predation and the transition to from a vegetarian diet to the consumption of meat. “ … the final act from which all others followed was the act of eating – or at least the act of severing, uprooting. Every act that consumes a part of the world, every act that destroys;” and “The act of eating is a violence that causes what is living in many forms to disappear.” (p.48) The Vedas were deeply affected by the awareness that human life depends on the destruction of other living beings. Living essence was being taken from the cosmos. Sacrificial rites, e.g. “pouring milk into the fire – every morning, every evening … serves to give sustenance to something else, in the invisible.” (p.48)
Calasso asserts that for the Vedas sacrifice was “the act by which evil is repeated and directed , in its entirety, toward consciousness, through gestures and formulas … the supreme remedy … in combating evil,” (p.49) and (even more to the point) a substitution ... a last swift operation … so as to offer the fire something instead of himself. The sacrificer offers food to avoid becoming food himself.” (p. 49)
Calasso believes that the Vedas “more so than with any other people, remained in contact with remote prehistory, which showed through in their myths and rites.” (p.49) Vedic guilt over the act of eating was greatly intensified both by the human transition from prey to predator, “the first act against nature,” (p.51) and by the slaughter of domestic animals. To justify its necessity, form was given to the theological edifice of the sacrifice … “ (p.50) Early humans were weak and vulnerable to a host of predators; but “at a certain moment (which may also have lasted a hundred thousand years) humans decided “not to fight against his adversaries but to imitate them; … the being who had been prey taught himself to become a predator.” And “A response to this upheaval was the sacrifice, in its many forms.” Ritual sacrifice was a creative imaginative “response to that immense upheaval within the species – and an attempt to redress the balance that had been upset and violated forever,” (p.51) a Vedic version of original sin.
Vedic ritual, as described by Calasso , had obsessive compulsive features; there was a “meticulous obsessiveness” (p.57) about ritual practices and continuous around the clock sacrificial rites to cope will deep primordial guilt over not just killing animals for food but eating domestic animals such as cows and oxen “who until then had been support for life itself.” (p.58) Combined with guilt was a fear that the gods, the cosmos, or an impersonal karma would exact retribution. “Those who eat will be eaten.” (p.49)
In summary, both The Celestial Hunter and Ardor delve into the deep psychology of early humans who as a species (1) did not initially distinguish themselves from animals; (2) were prey to other stronger animals better genetically equipped than themselves to be predators; (3) became scavengers before becoming a formidable predator; (4) learned to hunt large animals in groups using pointed weapons that allowed killing at a distance; (5) felt a primordial guilt over the separation from the animal kingdom associated with predation and domestication of animals; (6) became increasingly aware that the destruction inherent in eating all food, not just animals, was reflected in the destructiveness of social life, with its many zero sum games; (7) found that ritual actions, especially blood sacrifice, relieved guilt and anxiety when animals who were potentially food for humans were destroyed in a sacrifice and offered to invisible beings; (8) learned to assuage the guilt of killing animals for food by killing the same (or other) animals for sacrifice through mental substitution, i.e. animals conveniently took the place of humans in sacrificial rites through the equation of human life – blood – human food and food for the gods destroyed in the sacrificial fire.
Early humans were sensitive to the killing of animals in a way living humans are not, according to Calasso. Ancient hunters wanted to believe that animals hunted for food gave up their lives willingly; to this end, some sacrificial rites expressed gratitude to the animals killed so that humans could survive. “ … Siberian hunters speak with gentleness and devotion to the bear they are about to kill. “ (p. 60) Myths were developed in which animals expressed their willingness to be hunted and killed. Compare this attitude to a civilization that depends on factory farming in which people have no contact with the animals they consume daily, no remorse for animal slaughter and no gratitude to animals whose deaths in the millions daily support both basic sustenance and gourmet meals, without limit at a certain level of affluence for a species, some of whom once felt guilt and anxiety about the act of eating itself, predation, meat consumption and the killing of domesticated animals such as cows and oxen.
In Ardor, Roberto Calasso states that “The god at the origin of everything didn’t have name but a title: Prajapati, Lord of the Creatures.” (p. 67) Prajapati is an unusual god in that “Divine omniscience does not extend to itself,” (p.67) “the creator god who is not entirely sure he exists.” (p.68) Calasso asserts that “Prior to the drama of things generated, there was the drama of that which feared it could not exist.” (p.68) Prajapati was “the most phantom-like, the most anxious, the most fragile of all creator gods,” (p.68) “a lonely god, the source of all things … not an omnipotent god.” (p. 74) Prajapati responded to a command of a mighty voice, “Offer it” which “as he performed the offering, he realized it was he himself who had spoken: “That voice was his own (sva) greatness which had spoken (aha) to him.” Prajapati then gave out that sound: (svaha), the quintessential auspicious invocation that has accompanied countless offerings, up to today.” (p.75)
In Vedic thought, Prajapati does not build or create the cosmos like a craftsman might, rather “Creation … was not a single act, but a succession of acts.” (p.73) Creation poured out of Prajapati. The creation of the world left Prajapati “dismembered and exhausted.” (p.69) “He cannot look upon his work and say: “It is good.”(p. 69) How did Prajapati pour out himself in a continuous creation given that the very gods he created “… defeated and thwarted (him) during the very process of creation”? (p.80) The answer to the question of how Prajapati overcame the obstacles to creation is also the answer to why the cosmos was created; “With “ardor”, tapas, and with the “vision of ritual” … ardor stirs vision, vision heightens ardor.” ( p.81) Ardor connotes both desire and passion. Christians are familiar with the belief that “God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son” so that … In Vedic thought, Prajapati so desired the world that he offered himself, “exposed … to continual disintegration.” (p.81) But in Calasso’s account of Prajapati, ”There is no creation without death …” and an unbreakable connection between death and desire because “Hunger is a desire, but a desire that involves killing, for it makes something disappear.” (p. 81) Death “is an intrinsic part of creation (since successful creation is sexual … ) (p.81). But Calasso surprisingly misses the key idea: It is Prajapati’s fecundity, the ardor to create anew in very moment, in all directions and at every scale, that requires death. Only beings who die can be created anew at every moment.
Sacrifice restores Prajapati
Ardor is a thirst for existence, a hunger with a destructive side that can only be combated through sacrifice, which is “a wound - and the attempt to heal a wound. It is a guilty act, and an attempt to amend it.” (p.78) The wound sacrifice is intended to heal “is inherent in the very act when existence emerges, not only prior to mankind but prior to the gods.” (p.78) In the Vedas, Death is personified as in Ingmar Bergman’s movie, The Seventh Seal. “ … Death … invited the gods to seek out their lost father, it invited them to put him back together. The fire altar therefore not only saved Prajapati from agony, but it put his dismembered body back together at the instigation of death.” (p. 82)
According to Calasso’s reading of the Vedas, sacrifice was first developed by the gods, and then copied by humans as suggested by Death and directed by “Prajapati himself who taught the gods and people how to go further.” (p.82) In other Vedic texts, “Prajapati suggested the idea of sacrifice” to his daughter Sri, “the splendor of the world”, (p.84) as a stratagem to combat “the greediness of the gods.” (p.85) The creative source of the world could only be restored in a sacrifice “to be carried out every day.”(85) The knowledge that creation involves thirst for existence, hunger, strife and destruction that can only be contained through sacrifice “in some way compels the gods, forces them to look with everlasting favor on “he who knows thus.” (p. 86) It is plausible to view the Vedic account of creation as a projection of what this people experienced in the world, i.e., hunger, killing of animals, strife, destruction, but from the standpoint of the Vedas, human life mirrored the tensions, even contradictions inherent in a creator god who pours forth the world due to ardor, that is, to a passionate desire to give birth to others than himself but who must struggle for existence with his own creation. In the Vedas, Prajapati is compelled to create the world to explore his possibilities, as much a mystery to himself as to the gods and humans he creates. Ardor is a command to Prajapati from an unknown source that precedes creation – “Offer it”, that is, sacrifice yourself to find yourself. And he did.
Prajapati is a boundless immensity
Calasso asserts that for Prajapati another name was discovered, “Ka, Who? And beyond that, no other names were known. This was the indefinite limitless outpouring that was the very nature of Prajapati.” (p.87) “Little was known regards his boundless immensity … what stood out was the suffering, the long torment of his dismembered and ulcerated body.”(p.87) But Prajapati’s torment could be removed by sacrifice. “However much you offer, that is my happiness,” Prajapati responded to his interlocutors. (p.88) In sacrificial offerings, humans “sought to reassemble the lost identity of their father” (p.88) which Vedic seers came to realize restored a “happiness that came before all existence … in a space that came before everything and was able to contain everything. And this was Ka.” (p. 89) Prajapati was at once a god who was tormented and gradually dismembered but who had the capacity for perfect happiness. His nature was bi-polar; his creative outpouring “is uninterrupted and perpetual. It is the action that is carried out in the mind, in every mind, whether it knows it or not … “ (p.92)
The story of Prajapati is ancient, full of complexities and obscurities of an unfathomable depth which Calasso explores with his unmatched probing intelligence. It may come as a surprise to some that Prajapati has a physical manifestation available to all who seek it:
“the background noise of existence, the steady hum that goes beyond every sound graph … “
On the last page of Jennifer Egan’s great novel A Visit From the Goon Squad:
“Alex closed his eyes and listened: a storefront gate sliding down. A dog barking hoarsely. The lowing of trucks over bridges. The velvety night in his ears. And the hum, always the hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all but the sound of time passing.
th blu nyt
th stRs u cant c
th hum tht nevr gOs awy”
This is Prajapati, “the id of what happens, a fifth column that spies on and sustains every event.” (p.94)
Aztec creation myths and sacrificial practices
David Carrasco’s book, City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization (1999) has an astonishing story to tell about Aztec myths of creation and regeneration and of rituals that required human sacrifice of enemy warriors and of Aztec women and children. This is a terrible story, not for the faint hearted, that begins with the killing and dismemberment of a female god, Tlaltecuhtli:
“Two sky gods, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, descended and declared that they needed to make the earth. They transformed themselves into two great serpents and each seized one side of Tlaltecuhtli , and squeezing with intensity, they tore her apart … One half of her dismembered body became the earth and the other half rose into the sky. … Her hair became the trees, plants and grasses, her skin became the flowers and herbs, her eyes became the springs, pools and caves, rivers and large caverns were formed from her mouth; and her nose became the valleys and mountains of the earth.”
The dismemberment and transformation of Tlaltecuhtli is only one of several Aztec creation myths. The Aztecs worshipped Huitzilopochtli, god of war. According to Carrasco, “ … the prologue to Huitzilopochtli’s story (i.e. birth), ends with the remarkable statement that “all the gods died when the sun came into being. None remained who had not perished.” (p.78) And “The discovery made in the Huitzilopochtli myth appears once more – the massive killing of gods brings about, or is part of, the cosmogonic act of creation … “ (p. 78) Soon after Huitzilopochtli’s birth, he “kills not just one goddess .. he annihilates many deities -- his sacrificial aggression extends to the killing of almost all the divine beings. (p.77)
Both Vedic and Aztec myths suggest that when creation involves the sacrifice of a god or gods, humans owe a debt that can never be repaid. The Vedas experienced a gnawing guilt that could only be alleviated through continuous obsessive sacrifice, not because of their personal evil actions or desires but because Prajapati, the creator god, was dismembered to bring the world into being, and required unending sacrifices to be restored. The Aztecs had a different reaction, closer to fear (even terror at the end of a 52-year cycle) than guilt. Carrasco asserts that “the Aztecs also suffered a “cosmic paranoia”, a haunting sense of cosmic insecurity, social instability, and cultural inferiority associated with threats posed by kingdoms … of the periphery and sacred histories of the past.” (p. 55)
The Aztecs were intensely concerned with the creation, stability and sustenance of the sun. Carrasco writes that “This is the cosmic condition facing humans in the Fifth Age of the Aztecs. The sun is “swaying from side to side,’ unable to achieve stability, or find its place, or initiate a creative movement. Even at the mythic level … the sun has profound difficulty finding its place and orientating the world.” (p. 80) Once again, the gods must “sacrifice themselves to ensure the motion of the sun.” Carassco quotes an Aztec text: “Let this be, that through us, the sun may be revived. Let all of us die.” (p. 80) In Aztec thought, sacrifice begins with the gods:
“Creation of the cosmos in Aztec and pre-Aztec Mesoamerica is directly tied to the sacrifice, not of one or a few deities, but to the increment in sacrifice the begins with one courageous warrior and spreads to annihilate all the gods who have gathered at the divine center of the world. The unstable cosmos that is created depends on massive ritual killing and an increment in divine death.” ( p.81)
Human sacrifice in Aztec rituals
Perhaps after this incomplete summary of Aztec creation myths, it will not come as a surprise that the Aztecs believed “human sacrifice is created by the gods to ensure their nourishment.” (p. 81) Carassco comments that “elaborate human sacrifice … increased to incredible numbers during the last eighty years of Aztec rule.” (p. 81) The Aztecs were feeding their gods to keep the cosmos in motion,” Carassco maintains.
Sacrifice was preceded by elaborate, time consuming rituals that involved priestly fasting, nocturnal vigils, offerings of various material goods, incensing and the pouring of libations and the transformation of exceptional enemy warriors into divine impersonators, i.e., “individuals ... whose essence had been cosmo-magically transformed into gods.” (p. 83) “All important rituals involved death sacrifice of either animals or human beings … but the most dramatic and valued … were the sacrifices of captured warriors, women, children and slaves.” (p.83)
Methods employed to kill sacrificial victims included “decapitation, shooting with darts or arrows, burning, hurling from heights, strangulation, entombment and starvation, and gladiatorial combat.” (p. 83) However, the Aztecs were famous for cutting the heart out of enemy warriors, some of whom had been given the role of divine impersonators. In this ritual sacrifice, the victim was held down on the sacrificial alter by four priests, “while the temple priest cut through the chest wall with the ritual flint knife (tecpatl). The priest grasped the still-beating heart, called “precious eagle cactus fruit”, tore it from the chest, offered it to the sun for vitality and nourishment, and placed it in a carved circular vessel called cuauhxicalli (eagle vessel). … “ the body, now called “eagle man” was rolled flailing down the temple steps to the bottom where it was skinned and dismembered.” (p.83) In several rites, the corpse was decapitated, the brains taken out and, after skinning, the skull was placed on a rack loaded with skulls. The captor of the victim, together with his relatives, celebrated with a ritual meal consisting of “a bowl of stew of dried maize … on each went a piece of the flesh of the captive.” (p.84)
The barbarity of the Aztecs’ sacrificial practices makes it easy to overlook the lengthy prelude in which victims were prepared for sacrifice. In the festival called Toxcatl, “Elaborate efforts were made to find the perfect deity impersonator …” The captive had to have a perfect body, musical talents, and rhetorical skills. “For a year prior to the sacrifice, he lived a privileged existence, “ (p.84) with servants, splendid clothing and jewels, and four wives during the last twenty days of his life. Victims were “ritually bathed, carefully costumed, taught to dance special dances.” (p. 83) Victims given the role of divine impersonators were expected to submit to their execution willingly, sometimes even dancing to their death on the sacrificial altar. Human sacrifice among the Aztecs did not begin with extended torture, quite the opposite.
After a first reading of City of Sacrifice, I concluded that the Aztecs were engaged in a grisly unfathomable cult of death; on further reflection, I have changed my view. In Aztec myths and rituals, “humans ate gods, gods ate humans …” (p.168) Through the logic of substitution familiar from Durkheim’s account of Australian Aboriginal rituals and Calasso’s discussion of blood sacrifice among early humans, sacrificial victims incorporated divine energy and nourishment before their death. Therefore, human sacrifice joined humans with the gods in a reciprocal offering, an intimacy in death followed by a cannibalistic communion feast. Among the Aztecs, human sacrifice was a vivid, emotionally overwhelming experience in which the distinction between humans and the gods was effaced, at least temporarily. Through sacrifice, humans could aspire to the same disdain for death characteristic of the gods who created the cosmos. Perhaps the Aztecs hoped that by joining with the gods in death they could acquire the ability to traverse the boundary between life and death possessed by the gods, at least some of the gods.
In the short run, human sacrifice was how the Aztecs warded off a sense of doom. Carrasco asserts that “Fear of an apocalypse … is the constant concern of Aztec religion.”(p.111) The Aztecs feared that “the cosmic order was periodically filled with so much tension, threat and instability that it could not be rejuvenated.” ( p. 111) “The primordial sun is the first New Fire, swaying from side to side, unable to achieve stability, to find its place or initiate a creative movement,” (p.111) a fear similar to apocalyptic ideas in Nordic mythology. In A History of the Vikings: Children of Ash and Elm (2020), Neil Price suggests that Nordic myth was shaped by enormous volcanic explosions in 536 and 539-40 CE that blocked sunlight for several years creating an impact “not unlike that of a nuclear winter” (p.76) leading to weakened sunlight, loss of much of the food supply from plants and extremely cold temperatures. Price asserts that “Current (2019) estimates suggest a temporary temperature drop of perhaps three and a half degrees Celsius.”( p.76) And “The worst of these effects went on for three years. In 2016, a team of climate scientists suggested that the long term, cumulative ecological impact of the dust veil persisted in varying degrees for up to eighty years.” ( p.77)
The loss of most sunlight for three years and possible long term effects on plant and animal life that lasted for many decades may well have created fear that the end of the world was at hand, a memory that had a powerful impact (Price believes) on Nordic mythology and possibly on mythologies around the world. It is also plausible that loss of much of the food supply led ancient peoples living in densely populated areas of the world to engage in civil violence and war, and strengthened cultural support for martial values such as ferocity in battle, physical courage, glorification of death in battle, etc. Bizarre and horrific Aztec rituals and beliefs may have been grounded in extreme climate change that was not remembered in historical documents, but was encoded in deep seated fear of apocalypse and rituals designed to periodically renew the cosmos, especially the sun.
Reflections on Sacrifice
Early humans and societies that appeared thousands of years later experienced a powerful emotionally inchoate need to engage in ritual sacrifice of animals and sometimes human sacrifice. Ideas were needed to provide a rationale for rituals to ameliorate a gnawing guilt and anxiety, and to strengthen the sense of communion with the sacred, initially conceptualized as a mysterious impersonal force and later as gods, or a creator god.
Every mythological and religious system is (in part) a projection of human concerns, obsessions and social relationships. Early humans, the Vedas and the Aztecs were consumed (so to speak) with orality, that is with food, the reality that “life feeds on life”, by the act of eating that included the tearing apart of food with teeth, with hunger and predation and with large scale killing of animals accompanied by growing awareness that they were a different kind of animal. According to Roberto Calasso, the Vedic creator god, Prajapati, “Producing his firstborn son, Agni, from his mouth, he makes him become a mouth, forced to devour food. From then on, the earth would be a place where someone devours someone else.” (p.74 ) Immediately, Agni turns toward Prajapati “with his mouth wide open … ready to devour his father.” ( p.74) Prajapati’s terror fragmented his identity and led to creation. Calasso asserts that “The offering ( i.e., creation) was … the only possible means for escaping from a deadly threat.” (p.76) In this extraordinary story, Prajapati offered himself as a sacrifice in cosmic creation to escape being devoured by his son, Agni! This is a myth that requires pondering to realize its full implications.
In City of Sacrifice, David Carrasco states that “the Aztecs were obsessed with the problems and possibilities of eating almost anything, and they developed a sophisticated cosmology of eating in which gods ate gods, humans ate gods, gods ate humans and the sexual sins of humans, children in the underworld suckled from divine trees, gods in the underworld ate the remains of humans, and adults in the underworld ate rotten tamales!” (p.168) Furthermore, “the Aztecs conceived of beings in their sky as a devouring mouth and the earth as a gaping jaw.” (p.168) Both the Vedas and Aztecs had a deep awareness that their society was destructive, willing to devour anything and everything that could sustain their lives, and that the gods, or a specific god, might do to them what they were doing to plants and animals, and to other human groups. Ritual sacrifice was a means of warding off the potential destructiveness of the cosmos, or of invisible beings whose sacrifice of themselves had created the world.
However, there was more to ritual sacrifice than controlling the potential destructiveness of invisible beings, or an impersonal cosmic order. Sacrifice and other practices were a way that “humans and gods … were constantly in the hunt for vital forces embedded in the bodies of gods, humans and plants.” ( Carrasco, p.168) “The flesh of those who died in sacrifice … was eaten with reverence, ritual and fastidiousness – as if it were something from heaven.” ( p. 169) Experience of the sacred was something more than relief from the guilt and fear that accompanied insatiable appetite and the willingness to kill whatever was edible to satisfy it.
The Aztecs believed in an animistic entity, teyolia, “or heart” (p. 180); “Human hearts received the divine force of teyolia when they accomplished the extraordinary in war, art, poetry, politics, or science.” Furthermore, “Certain very extraordinary individuals had enormous amounts of teyolia … (p.180) In a related but somewhat different concept, many ancient peoples around the world and several Native American tribes were aware of a sacred power referred to as mana, orenda, wakan which “is in no way a personal being,” and which “embraces all mystery, all secret power, all divinity.” (Durkheim, pp. 192-93.) Waken was viewed as “Power in an absolute sense,” such that “The various divine powers are only particular manifestations and personifications of it.” (Durkheim, p. 193.) People, animals, places contained different quantities of this sacred force, which if approached too directly, was exceedingly dangerous. One of the functions of sacrifice was to approach the sacred in a way that its power could be both tapped and contained.
Experience of the sacred power was not a cognition; according to Durkheim, “It is not even possible to define it by determined attributes and characteristics.” ( p.193) It is more like a feeling state connected to one spontaneous idea: whatever was perceived as sacred was of ultimate inestimable value, not just because of the association of the sacred with special powers, but also due to the relationship between the sacred and ecstasy. Calasso says regarding Vedic rituals that “every sacrifice is a boat sailing heavenward … “ (p. 8) According to Calasso, the cult of soma, probably an hallucinogenic drug, led to a state of awareness which “became the pivot around which turned thousands and thousands of meticulously codified acts.” ( p.14) For the Vedas, nothing else in life compared to this state of awareness; “they wanted to live only in certain states of awareness.” (p.14)
Ancient peoples drew a strict line between the sacred and profane, possibly because the two realms were experientially incompatible. Profane life with its focus on self-interest and frequent conflicts between and among individuals and groups acted like kryptonite on the sacred which was pursued in isolation, sometimes through austerities and in places that easily led to disorientation, e.g., the depths of caves, mountains, deserts, or alternatively through communal rituals. Those who sought shamanistic powers around the world for thousands of years were aware that unprotected contact with the sacred could lead to death or to psychic dismemberment. Shamanistic initiation was not for the faint-hearted. Those who sought unusual powers, especially healing powers, through close contact with the sacred risked death or madness, with no guarantees that they would survive as functional human beings.
Ritual sacrifice as offering and communion
The killing of animals in ritual sacrifice was both an offering to the sacred, conceived impersonally, or later to the gods, or a creator god. In alimentary communion humans were joined with the sacred, however conceptualized, through the logic of substitution: a sacrificial animal killed and burnt to ashes was human food which was human identity offered as divine food. The Aztecs genuinely believed that their gods were hungry for human flesh, while humans needed to consume human flesh consecrated by ritual into the gods themselves to maintain the cosmos. Aztec ideas and ritual practices were an extreme and bizarre expression of an idea that was common among early humans and later peoples and societies for many thousands of years: the sacred conceived impersonally, or the gods, or a creator god, sought to join with humans in a cannibalistic feast created by the use of fire.
In Ardor, Calasso asserts that “there is an immense variety of Vedic acts, but all - without a single exception - converge in one action; offering of something in the fire.” (p.72) Fire is a natural force that involves both creation and destruction; it is that which transmutes one thing into another. The belief of early humans and later peoples across the world in the power of sacrifice is reflected in cosmogonic myths in which the cosmos was created by the death of many gods (Aztecs) or a creator god (Vedas). Nothing was more powerful than sacrifice even among the gods and even in societies organized around military conquest. Prajapati offered himself as a sacrifice to escape the devouring mouth of his firstborn son, Agni. Prajapati was dismembered in the act of creation only to be recreated in the many worlds ready to create anew in every moment at all scales. The sacrifice of the gods, or a god, in ancient religions was not due to weakness, or necessarily love in the Christian sense, but to the capacity to create new worlds through the acceptance of death; and, in Hindu thought, to lodge the divine in created beings as a silent witness, i.e. atman. The sacrifice of the gods was Power incarnate, not just the power to be reborn but to be recreated in infinite forms.
Ritual sacrifice was a way that early humans joined themselves to the sacred in the most intimate way possible; but what was communion with humans to the gods? Ritual sacrifice has always been a reciprocal offering. How was Prajapati’s ardor satisfied by human sacrifice? Perhaps human awareness is food for the gods. By the logic of substitution, human food is transformed by sacrificial fire into a joining of divine energy and human awareness. The implication of Vedic thought (and Aztec ritual) is that the ardor of a god who created the cosmos became a hunger to be joined with, but not assimilated by, creation; and to be joined with a strange biological species that has been deeply aware of its own destructiveness at least since becoming a predator (rather than prey); and of its intimate connection to the sacred power “which acts in all ways for good and evil … (Durkheim, p. 194) for its own mysterious ends.
Calasso, Roberto, Ardor (2010), Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York City
Calasso, Roberto, The Celestial Hunter (English translation) published 2020, first released in Italy in 2016), Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York City
Carrasco, David, City of Sacrifice (1999), Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts
Durkheim, Emile, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (2012 in English translation), Martino Publishing, Mansfield Centre, Ct., initially published in France in 1912.
Williams, David L., The Mind in the Cave (2002), Thames & Hudson, London.
© Dee Wilson