Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Transition From Cannibalism to Human Sacrifice

To the shaman, fire could be seen both as a fearful symbol of physical annihilation, and also as a doorway and connecting force to the ethereal realms of the dead- a powerful, magical, and dangerous gift of one’s ancestors and also a means by which to reach them. Cooked meat (including cooked human meat) was safer to eat than that eaten raw. If one threw food into the fire, it would sizzle, as if in agony, and then turn to ash and pungently smelling smoke, useless to the living, but perhaps satisfying one’s dead ancestors, or the gods, with an offering of its consumed, transformed essence. What could be more natural than to offer some of the meat to one’s gods after a successful hunt? It is likely that some shamans were among the first to observe that cannibalism could be dangerous, in that serious diseases could be transferred from the eaten to the eaters. Better to eat it cooked rather than raw, and even better to offer it to the gods, and not eat it at all. That realization, combined with a circumstance in which food was plentiful and a tribe might have on hand an excess of prisoners which might normally be eaten, may have provided the opportunity for the next leap in human social and moral evolution – the age of Human Sacrifice and the beginning of organized religious cults. To kill one’s prisoners and throw them onto the fire so that one’s gods or ancestors could eat them, and thereafter reward those making the sacrifice, may seem barbaric now, but it was progressive then, especially if one’s sacrificed enemies were “uncivilized” cannibals. It satisfied a need for “spiritual insurance,” based upon pure speculation, of course- a tribute to the shaman’s genius in exploiting his depth of knowledge in the psychological weaknesses of himself and those around him. In addition, the profundity of the practice and the complex rituals which developed in order to cope with the deep general ambivalence toward it greatly enhanced the authority of the spiritual leader who presided over it, transforming him from a freakishly eccentric, filthy clan medicine-man into a high priest, with a vision of the tribe’s future, sanctified and clarified by blood-sacrifice.

(c) Copyright 2009 by A. Rogolsky

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