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Thread: Sacrifice in Religion -an anthropological perspective

  1. #1 Sacrifice in Religion -an anthropological perspective 
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    I recently listened to a podcast that included a "theologian" who lectured about "sacrifice" and "ritual." The "theologian" adhered to the view by Rene Girard that sacrifice is a form of victimizing and scapegoating, which, to those who haven't studied religion from an anthropological or sociological perspective, might seem intuitive.

    However, I take issue with Rene Girard's view, which includes that all sacrifices are the same as human sacrifice.

    Mention the word “sacrifice” in a religious context and, for many people, thoughts of young virgins tossed in volcanoes by a Polynesian King or lying on altars below the obscenely sharp obsidian blade of an Aztec ruler. Or perhaps they’re reminded of the story of blind faith by Abraham who was prepared to murder his son for a god that commanded it.

    While human sacrifice is a part of many cultures in antiquity and even, in some unfortunate instances, modernity, this type of sacrifice is relatively rare. There are those that take a Girardian view of ritual and sacrifice and assert that sacrifice is a form of victimizing or scapegoating an individual. The Girardian will often point to the self-sacrifice of Jesus as an example of a god on earth exposing the “scapegoating mechanism.” One of the many faults with this way of looking at sacrifice and other religious rituals is that to do so, one must assume that the intent is to victimize -to create a scapegoat.

    While it is certainly true that human sacrifices are victims, it is a very myopic view to assert that they’re all scapegoats (certainly some or even many were), and it isn’t true that, in most cases, the intent of sacrifice is to create a victim.

    Sacrifice is a perceived method of communicating with gods or ancestors and is a process that has existed for thousands of years in human history and prehistory. We have evidence of it going back to the time of Neanderthals depending on what you consider to be sacrifice.

    For the anthropologist, a sacrifice is a special kind of offering. A mere offering to the gods by the average religious adherent deprives the worshiper of little. A libation of oil here; a tithe of coin there… But a true sacrifice creates a significant cost to the worshiper. In antiquity, we see evidence in both written and material record of sacrifices that truly put the worshiper (the religious adherent) in a situation where piety becomes more important that personal gain, wealth or even well-being. The sacrifice demonstrates that piety with the level of piety directly proportional to the level of sacrifice.

    The vast majority of sacrifices in the archaeological record do not involve the taking of human life . Rather they include the offering of first fruits, first lambs, finest bulls or the best ox, significant portions of one’s wealth, etc. The worshiper hopes that the god to whom he is offering a sacrifice will reciprocate, bringing good fortune in the way of rain, keeping the locusts away, etc. The worshiper shows respect to the god or an ancestor in the way he might to a king: there might be a desire that the god would offer forgiveness or perhaps expiation for some transgression.. In this regard, forgiveness is a more abstract concept than simple reciprocity. The worshiper may also seek to show abnegation by demonstrating to the god that he is practicing self-denial and seeking the pity or favor of the god. Very often, the sacrifices come at a time when good-fortune has seemingly been bestowed upon the society in the form of a good harvest or success in battle.

    Pascal Boyer (2001)[1] explores several reasons for sacrifice described by ethnographers like Roger Keesing (1982)[2] and notes that while sacrifices are “presented as giving away some resources in exchange for protection, the brutal fact remains that the sacrificed animals are generally consumed by the participants.” The result is a “communal sharing” and a social function that brings people of the community together. The meat is shared and those who can’t afford to provide an animal of their own often still benefit from the sacrifice, receiving meat and gifts.

    Sacrifice is often about sharing resources and giving up that which is valuable and nearly indispensable. Even in cases where human sacrifice was practiced. The Girardian would suggest that the sacrificed individual was victimized as a scapegoat, but very often the sacrifice went willing and probably believed the offering of life to be an honor. Even with instances of sacrifice where consent wasn’t possible, as with infant and child sacrifices found in various places of the ancient world such as Peru’s central coast as early as 5000 BCE, the Levant from around 3000 BCE, and Carthage, Tunisia dating to around 800 BCE, the sacrificial “victim” was honored. Great care was taken in Peru, for instance, to place mica over the eyes and a clear quartz rock in place of the heart suggesting magical intent. One doesn’t bother to take such expensive and detailed care of scapegoats.

    Human sacrifice, even among the Aztec, doesn’t seem to be about scapegoating or victimizing. A recent excavation at Teotihuacan[3] revealed more than 80 human sacrifices that some have suggested were prisoners of war, perhaps sacrificed to dedicate the temple they were excavated from. But, even here, there has been indication that the “victims” were willing and honored participants, largely due to the positioning of the bodies as well as their adornments. These were among the finest and most skilled warriors of the society at the time.

    From the point of view of the sacrificers in cultures like the Aztec, the gods are being repaid a debt. The Girardian would suggest, however, that those sacrificed are the unwanted of society -the expendable. The Girardian would also suggest that human sacrifice is the same as the sacrifice of animals and material goods[4]. But the Girardian misses the point of sacrifice in much of religion. There are undoubtedly religious cults throughout human history that have exploited the “disposable” members of their society for the appearance of pious sacrifices to gods or ancestors. But there are many, many more that place high importance on true sacrifice being that which is vital or most valued to the individual and the society: prize bulls, intricately carved jewelry, ornately plumed birds, fiercest predators, first-picked crops, etc. And, when it came to humans, skilled warriors and virgins were highly valued, thus offered as payment to the gods.

    References

    1. Boyer, Pascal (2001). Religion Explained: the evolutionary origins of religious thought. Basic Books

    2. Keesing, Roger (1982). Kwaio Religion: the Living and the Dead in a Solomon Island Society. Columbia University Press

    3. Sugiyama, Saburo (2005). Human Sacrifice, Militarism, and Rulership: Materialization of State Ideology at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, Teotihuacan. Cambridge University Press, pp. 226-230.

    4. Examples of both of these Girardian positions can be seen in Rene Girard’s Violence and the Sacred, pp. 10-13, J.H. Press 1993


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    I would be inclined to agree with you on the point of sacrifice being more of an honorable thing to many of those societies than a scapegoating.There is a lot to be said for it, human and otherwise, when it puts the livelihood, if not the life, of an individual at odds, if the person is willing then they must be trying to either appease a God pay respects to that God.

    Scapegoating isn't a major necessity in antiquity because it's a means to either keep or gain power and questions over power were a more simple thing to determine than they are now. Perhaps Rome and Greece had scapegoat sacrifices, but that's only likely because of the way they operated. Ancient Rome and Greece are very akin in social structure to some modern societies, given that they had a 'republic' that ended in totalitarianism every time they tried it, giving one man supreme power over the state, needing to make an enemy to fight that "he would be the best man to lead against". I'd see any culture as advanced as ancient Greece capable of scapegoating, but any culture less advanced as Greece much more likely of not having internal power issues, and much more likely to be religiously inclined and led.


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    The archaeological evidence shows that Greek culture was actually least likely to resort to scapegoating and more likely to venerate a sacrifice or place higher piety on sacrificing the best of one's crops, livestock, or wealth. Animal sacrifices within the tenemos of a Greek temple were accompanied by ritualistic social events that allowed for a redistribution of wealth. If you were poor and had no ox to sacrifice, you still got to eat the meat.

    One's status undoubtedly determined which cuts of meat were available to one, with the best cuts going to the priestly class. But the society was able to give payment to the gods in order to survive droughts, war, etc.

    The treasuries of Greek temples were also filled with sacrifices, from which city-states like Athens was able to finance military events, protecting Greek interests and warding off invaders.
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    Does human sacrifice not relate to assigning a scapegoat in groups?

    It usually happens that in any group, a scapegoat is eventually identified and agreed upon by the members; a forced version of which is seen in "Survivor".

    I think human sacrifice is indeed a religion subject; but assigning a scapegoat is more like a psychology subject.

    "The Lottery" is something I highly doubt would ever occur - human groups would far prefer to prosecute the scapegoat for their sacrifice rather than leave it up to random chance that they lose a "quality" member!

    Just look at witch execution records.
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    hmm, I didn't know that. I suppose it isn't surprising, but at the same time corruption in Greece came much later than in Rome, in terms of the lives of their rules. I would have to guess, though, that Rome would probably have had a few scapegoats in their history, as they were a virtual monarchy for centuries, no?

    this is most definitely a good subject.
    Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools, because they have to say something.
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    I would agree that all sacrifices cannot be lumped together with human sacrifice.

    Human sacrifice is scapegoating regardless of how people dress it up. When people in power inflict that on others, it serves to perpetuate fear in others and maintain the power of people in charge.

    This history explains why Jesus Christ clarifies what sacrifice should be by saying:
    "love one another".
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    Quote Originally Posted by dedo
    Human sacrifice is scapegoating regardless of how people dress it up. When people in power inflict that on others, it serves to perpetuate fear in others and maintain the power of people in charge.
    While this is true in some cultures, it most definitely isn't the case in others, perhaps even most. What, then, do you say of those cultures in which you had to be of some elite status or importance to "earn" the right and privilage to be a sacrifice to gods?

    This history explains why Jesus Christ clarifies what sacrifice should be by saying:
    "love one another".
    That's what the mythology of Jesus says, however, this is but one cult of a single religion among the thousands in human history/prehistory. We can hardly be expected to base or organize the actions of all religions on those of a single cult.
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    Human sacrifice is more often about honor and respect to the Gods than it is about scapegoating. If an individual goes willingly, with the intent to bring good fortune upon his/her people then I don't honestly see how they could POSSIBLY be a scapegoat. All sacrifices are essentially the same, if they are severely detrimental to the person paying them. A lost oxen is a large price to pay, and one that won't be done lightly. The reasons behind the sacrifices are much more sincere than you would believe, dedo, with the only real exceptions being the overly 'civilized' cultures that resort to power struggles.
    Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools, because they have to say something.
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    I don't think all sacrifices are the same.

    As far as people that had to "earn" the right to suffer human sacrifice, then I would be curious as to whether the people in power actually offered themselves up for sacrifice.

    Also, the motivations of people can be different. An individual can have noble motives and still be part of another person's effort to wield power.

    A Nazi SS officer can sacrifice himself for his comrades in a noble gesture of self sacrifice. He was still under the influence of superiors who were not noble.

    Thus, when self sacrifice is directed toward acts of compassion, this should help people individually and collectively direct their energies in a positive direction.
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