Saturday, September 29, 2012

Human Sacrifice and the Gods That Call for It

This post is part of the History of the Devil series from Chapter 2: Devil Worship.

"Human sacrifices are one of the principal characteristic traits of Devil-worship..." HOD, P13, Paul Carus
When Carus says this, he means not the worship of the Biblical Devil, but rather a Devil; a type of god who is worshiped and appeased out of fear.  For, as Carus proposes, from fear is the origin of all religions.

Even though Carus is not talking specifically about the Biblical Devil, he doesn't hesitate to bring up how frequently human sacrifice is mentioned in the Bible.  Usually that is in association with worship of other gods, such as Molek in Leviticus 20:2-5.

The most notable Biblical pagan human sacrifice was in 2 Kings 3:  Moab rebelled against the Israelites, but the battle went very poorly for them.  Through Elisha, God had prophesied that the Moabites would be utterly destroyed.  Just as the destruction of the Moabites was nearly guaranteed, the Moabite king sacrificed his firstborn son on the city wall.  It does not mention to which god the son was sacrificed, but it was probably Chemosh (1 Kings 11:33).  Anyway, this sacrificed worked, because afterward the "fury against Israel was great," causing the Israelites to retreat back home!

The Biblical God considered human sacrifice detestable, at least by fire (Deuteronomy 12:31, Deuteronomy 18:9-12).  However, that didn't stop Him from commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering, or Jephthah from sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering to Him as a way of saying thank you for a battle victory.  And, of course, Jesus was the ultimate human sacrifice.

Carus suggests that:

"Progress in civilisation(sic) led to a modification but not to a direct abolition of human sacrifices." HOD, P12, Paul Carus
I am not so sure.

In this model, human sacrifices come first, and then get changed as the developing society becomes more sensitive to the loss of human life.  He suggests that the modifications come in various forms, such as allowing a chance for the person to escape sacrifice (like in the "sacrifice" of the Native Americans in the previous post) and sometimes:

"... human victims were supplanted by animals, as is indicated by various religious legends. Thus a hind was substituted for Iphigenia and a ram for Isaac." HOD, P13, Paul Carus

However, I am more inclined to believe that human sacrifice was a later invention.  At least, if you don't include killing captured enemies part of human sacrifice.  It seems that sacrifice is fundamentally about, well, sacrifice.  It is giving up something you would desire for yourself: the fruits of the orchard, a ram, etc.  The more you desire it, the more powerful the sacrifice, which is why firstfruits (Exodus 23:19) and perfect livestock (Leviticus 1:3) are preferred.  Following that line of thought, sacrificing of your children would be the pinnacle of reverence for your god; an echelon of piety which would take time to recognize.

In one of the more comically overreaching statements Carus makes, he discusses how cannibalism is the "height of abomination" of Devil-worship, where the partakers gain the attributes of the slain, and then he follows that with:

"The last remnants of the idea that the wrath of the Deity must be appeased by blood, and that we acquire spiritual powers by eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the victim still linger with us to-day in the medieval interpretations of certain church dogmas, and will only disappear before the searching light of a fearless and consistent religious reformation." HOD, P13-14, Paul Carus
This is aimed right at Christianity and Jesus saying that you have to eat His flesh and drink His blood (John 6:54-56).  While there is a hint of truth in it, to tie in ritual cannibalism with Christianity, from where there is no established cannibalistic history, is too much of a reach, even for me.

So I think that Carus goes astray a little in his assessment, but he still has still a lot of good content within his book, so I hope you'll join me as we dig into the historical details of the Devil-worship within different cultures in the coming chapters.

In closing, out this chapter, I'll leave you with Carus' summary view on the evolution of religions.  Note that by evil, he is referring more to adverting natural disaster, defeat in battle, or the wrath of the deity, and may best be thought of in contrast to the good, such as love, peace, tolerance, understanding, generosity, etc.
"We must remember, however, that certain superstitions, at early stages of the religious development of mankind, are as unavoidable as the various errors which science and philosophy pass through in their natural evolution.

"Religion always begins with fear, and the religion of savages may directly be defined as "the fear of evil and the various efforts made to escape evil." Though the fear of evil in the religions of civilised(sic) nations plays no longer so prominent a part, we yet learn through historical investigations that at an early stage of their development almost all worship was paid to the powers of evil, who were regarded with special awe and reverence." HOD, P14, Paul Carus


  1. Have you seen Cabin in the Woods?

  2. No, I missed that one. I just read the plot on Wikipedia. Wow, it took a rather unexpected turn, but I can see why you mentioned in in connection to the post.