Monthly Archives: January 2013

Blood Rituals; Religion or Realism Part IV

Having established in Parts 1-3, that prehistoric humans almost certainly had ample reason to be anxious about blood, and that they also had a survival instinct which probably included throwing a person to their bloody death to ensure group survival; the next step to understanding the reasons why blood ritual continued is to conclude that at some point in time, humans connected supernatural predator gods with human characteristics such as creativity, parenting, and food requirements.

'Saturn Devouring One of His Sons', by Francisco Goya

‘Saturn Devouring One of His Sons’, by Francisco Goya

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, “Maimonides suggested that the entire sacrificial cult in Judaism was ordained as an accommodation of man’s primal desires”, and that “sacrifice is an ancient and universal human expression. Sacrifice existed among the Hebrews long before the giving of the Torah” (Encyclopedia Judaica, 2010). Consequently, primal bloody sacrifices must have evolved into elaborate, yet gruesome, religious rituals, which were carried out for thousands of years by people from countless cultures around the globe.

deity first_death

The Olmec civilization was the first known civilization in Central America (1200BC-400BC), and is often referred to as the mother culture, because it appears to have influenced the cultures that post-dated it, including the Mayans and the Aztecs. Although there is not a great deal of information about the Olmec religion, we do know that they were polytheists, worshipped jaguar and maize gods, and were a stratified society ruled by priests. The Olmecs also built stone temples and a step pyramid which most likely were used for rituals, which included blood sacrifice (Lambert n.d.).

deity bloodlettingbb

While there appears to be a significant correlation between blood sacrifice and the natural human fear of being devoured, as well as the reliance on the predator for providing scavenged meat, there is also a great deal of evidence indicating that agricultural societies were more inclined to partake in human sacrifice, than pastoral societies who sacrificed animals. The reason for the different types of sacrificial victims was most likely because agriculturists, like the Olmecs, did not have enough animals available to substitute as scapegoats (Ehrenreich, 1997, p.61).

The term scapegoat was coined by the Jewish, as an animal offering that substitutes for the actual human culprit, deserving the punishment (Encyclopedia Judaica, 2010). So, while some religions use animal sacrifices in place of humans, it is this “ritual substitution that casts the shadow of human sacrifice over all those holy altars in front of the [Jewish] temples” (Burkert, The Problem of Ritual Killing, in Hamerton-Kelly, Violent Origins, p. 163; Ehrenreich, 1997)

To be continued…

deity wpid-photo-apr-17-2012-120-pm

Sources:

Burkert, W. (1979). Structure and history in Greek mythology and ritual. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ehrenreich, B. (1997). Blood rites: Origins and history of the passions of war . New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company LLC

Encyclopedia Judaica. (2010). Jewish virtual library. Retrieved from jewishvirtuallibrary.org

Lambert, T. (n.d.) The Olmec  civilization. Retrieved from http://www.localhistories.org/olmecs.html

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Blood Rituals; Religion or Realism Part III

Similar to other primates, humans most likely evolved socially as protection against predators. The weakest among them would have been sacrificed; thrown to the predator to save the rest. Naturally, the struggle to choose a victim would have been intensely emotional. Any willing victim, who sacrificially offered his body to be torturously devoured by the carnivorous beast, would have become a saint in the eyes of the saved. “The source of human [inclination towards sacred] violence, is…in the powerful emotions associated with courage and altruism that were required for group defense” (Ehrenreich, 1997. p.47).

sacrifice2

It is here that we see one of the most powerful and precarious aspects of blood sacrifice—it ignites and intensifies the emotions of everyone in the group simultaneously. It is precisely these intense emotions that cause the group to “leave mundane things behind and transmute into a new kind of being, larger than the sum of its parts, more powerful than any individual” (Ehrenreich, 1997.p.1).

mayre16b

While the notion of blood sacrifice must certainly have been a means of survival in the midst of predators, another aspect of human fascination with blood might also have stemmed from the anomaly of female menstruation. One can only suppose what prehistoric humans might have wondered, when a female bled continually for several days, from between her legs no less, without injury or death.

On one hand, the woman’s blood flowed from the same place as new life emerged; yet on the other hand, spilled blood was normally the result of  injury and often caused death. Many times, bleeding was caused by powerful predators that devoured humans as foodstuff.

And, before the weaving of cloth, coupled with the cycles of the moon, the woman’s monthly flow of blood would have most likely been seen as a supernatural and awe-invoking event.

Chauvet Cave, painted "sorcerer" figure/bison-woman

Chauvet Cave, painted “sorcerer” figure/bison-woman

The woman’s monthly event may have been the muse which inspired the Venus figurines, cave paintings, and goddess worship in ancient times, and is possibly the impetus for male blood-letting as seen in various ancient, as well as indigenous, cultures and religions.

To be continued…

Venus of Willendorf

Venus of Willendorf

Sources:

Ehrenreich, B. (1997). Blood rites: Origins and history of the passions of war . New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company LLC

Blood Rituals; Religion or Realism Part II

religion2

Nearly everywhere in the modern world, the first Homo sapiens are depicted as robust and fearless hunters, heaving spears at wild mammoths or roasting freshly killed animal flesh over an open fire.

One need look no further than the Holy Bible to realize where this image may have originated. The Jewish, Muslim, and Judeo-Christian creation myth in the book of Genesis clearly states that since the beginning of time, God gave mankind dominion over all of the beasts of the earth.

"The Garden of Eden" by Lucas Cranach der Ältere, a 16th century German depiction of Eden


“The Garden of Eden” by Lucas Cranach der Ältere, a 16th century German depiction of Eden

Yet, while the earliest humans adapted to the elements of wind, rain, fire, and harsh temperatures, they were also regarded as prey by certain carnivorous predators. It is possible that the earliest weapons were not created for hunting, but for defense against the carnivorous predators who viewed the humans as food.

lion-carrying-impala

Darwin reasoned that hominid’s evolution into a social animal “might not have happened if they had been strong enough to withstand predators one-on-one” (Ehrenreich, 1997. p.53). In addition, Dutch biologist Adriaan Kortlandt, concluded that “for early hominids, breaking a leg would have been fatal due to carnivore predation” (Kortlandt, “How Might Early Hominids Have Defended Themselves?”; Ehrenreich, 1997). Clearly, Homo sapiens must have learned from these horrendous encounters that not only was there safety in numbers, but that the gods were insatiably hungry for blood.

mayre16b

Walter Burkart illustrates what may have been the first sacrificial offerings, in Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual:

“[Imagine] a group surrounded by predators: men chased by wolves…or in the presence of leopards. The utmost danger is met with excitement and anxiety. Usually there will be but one way of salvation: one member of the group must fall prey to hungry carnivores, and then the rest will be safe for the time being. An outsider, an invalid, or a young animal will most likely become the victim. This situation of pursuit by predators must have played a momentous role in the evolution of civilizations, while man, as a hunter, became a predator himself” (Ehrenreich, 1997)

Burkart’s story is compellingly synonymous with the classic ethical dilemma of the lifeboat scenario. Who should be thrown over the side to lighten the load and save the rest; the mother, the lawyer, the child?  Once again we see the sacrificial victim being thrown to the predator, the sea (Ehrenreich, 1997. p.59).

It also stands to reason that Homo sapiens initially tasted blood not as hunters themselves, but as scavengers who tread warily, waiting for the prevailing predator to leave the carcass of his last kill. “Careful examination of archaeological evidence in a number of sites, has led to the conclusion that hominids and even early Homo sapiens…likely obtained the meat they did eat by scavenging the kills left by more effective predators…”(Ehrenreich,1997.p.39).

religion3

Blood sacrifice may well have originated from Homo sapiens justified fear of a bloody death by predator, however, Homo sapiens must also have had a desire to placate the carnivore, after all, it was his provider of life-giving scavenged meat.

Bruce Bower, in a 2010 article from Science News explained that fossilized bones, dated over 3 million years old, show marks from stone tools that had been used to scrape the meat and marrow from the bones. And although Lucy’s species does not show evidence for hunting or fire, “her kind must have competed with other scavengers to salvage meat from animal carcasses” (Bower, 2010).

Homo sapiens finally elevated themselves to a higher position on the food chain, they were no longer hunted scavengers but they held the position of the dominating hunters. However, the stories, myths, and cultural adaptations, which revolved around Homo sapiens season of being the prey, appear to have caused these people to retain the desire to make flesh offerings to the devouring predators of the past, in a mythical effort to save the rest of the group from harm. It is no wonder that the “universal attribute of the archaic deity is [that of] being a carnivore”(Ehrenreich, 1997. p.31).

religion-09

Sources:

Bower, B. (2010) Butcher may be the world’s oldest profession. Science News, 178(6),8.

Ehrenreich, B. (1997). Blood rites: Origins and history of the passions of war . New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company LLC

Blood Rituals; Religion or Realism Part I

blood imagesCALDVAA6Blood sacrifice is considered taboo in modern societies, yet most ancient religions seemed to view the practice as normal and even appropriate. Blood rituals were practiced for a variety of reasons, and it is important to recognize the environmental threats and challenges that were encountered by prehistoric people who survived in a world where nature offered sustenance and shelter, yet also delivered death and destruction.

blood panther

This universal dilemma kindled the notion of supernatural forces or gods, who controlled the elements of nature and the fate of humans. Cross-culturally, distinct yet comparable myths were created to describe these gods and their relationship to humans. Then, with the rise of agriculture and the development of stratified societies, the myths were re-enacted through rituals that often included the shocking ceremonial slaughter of humans or animals, as a means to propitiate, show gratitude, love, and devotion to those gods.

blood AncientAmericaAztecsHumanSacrifice

 

Yet underlying a genuine belief and respect for the deities, there were also more pragmatic reasons for elites to implement the practice of such a grisly ritual. The ‘religious’ bloody rituals were perpetrated as a type of psychological weapon, ideal for empirical domination and social cohesion; and they were also used as a method of acquiring organic resources, such as food and fertilizer—flesh, blood, and bones. This series will explore the possible origins of blood sacrifice, and examine the potential motivations behind the implementation of these gruesome rituals in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and the Ancient Middle East; with specific emphasis on the Aztec, Jewish, and Christian religions.

To be continued…

Human Movement and Exotic Species

In the September 2011 issue of WIRED magazine, Mario Aguilar discusses the ecological impact of Columbus’ voyage to the Americas. Aguilar garnishes his information from a book written by Charles C. Mann titled; 1493. The article explains how Columbus’s discovery of the New World obviously altered human civilizations, yet dramatically affected a multitude of plant and animal species as well. In this article, Aguilar quotes Mann as saying in his book; “Things are connected in ways that you would never expect.”

Four examples are given, regarding species that were influenced by the movement of humans around the globe.

plantain_16x9

The first example is the African Plantain, which has always been plagued by the scale, a species of insect. While in Africa, the Plantain was able to thrive despite the infestation of the scale because other species in Africa preyed on the scale, helping to reduce its population. But, when the Plantains were brought to the Americas, the scale insects not only killed off the plantain crops, but also helped to grow the fire ant population who fed on the sugary excrement of the scale insects.

Fire%20ant%20map_0

Another example is the Orchids that were once a thriving species in the moisture rich jungles of Southern China. However, when rubber plants were brought to South East Asia from the Amazon, the rubber plants drank up so much moisture that the morning mist no longer existed, and the orchids began to die off.

orchid-purple-yellow

The third example of species influence by human manipulation is the movement of earthworms which originally tilled the soil for English farmers. Yet when the earthworms were brought to the United States, they disrupted the nutrient absorbing fungi on the roots of sugar maple trees, ultimately leading to a decline in the sugar maple tree populations.

earthworms

Interestingly, although the earthworms caused a decline in sugar maple trees, they aerated the ground so well that maize crops were able to grow year round.

The last species mentioned in this article is the Colorado potato beetle which was transported to America in the manes of horses. This insect has afflicted potato crops, not only in America, but worldwide.

potato beetle

If you know of any other species that humans have moved around the globe please leave a comment!

Christianity and the Environmental Crisis

christiansgo green

Forty-five years ago, Lynn White wrote the words that were heard around the world: “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen” (Foltz; White, p. 34). Consequently, White’s proposal facilitated discussion regarding the influence of Christian dogma and its role as the driving force of the environmental crisis. For over forty years, Philosophers and Theologians have defended and opposed White’s brazen statement about Christianity. I propose that White’s generalization of Christianity is ambiguous and that true Christianity,the actual teachings of Jesus, contain ample resources for an ecological ethic.

LynnWhite 1967

Lynn White 1967

In his 1967 essay,The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, Lynn White wrote, “Especially in it’s Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion that the world has seen” (Foltz; White, p. 34). Anthropocentric is a term used for the view that humans are to be valued higher than anything in the universe. White describes 2nd century Christians as having “established a dualism of man and nature” and “believing that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends” (Foltz; White, p. 34). White explains that the Christian worldview regarding nature stems from the belief that at the time of creation, man was given dominion to rule over nature; Christians alienated themselves from pagans by creating a “mood of indifference” towards nature, and that man has a “monopoly” on the spirit world, therefore “enabling him to exploit nature with no limit” (Foltz; White, p.34). White’s essay concludes with a call for the rejection of the “Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man” (Foltz; White, p. 36).

By prefacing the statement with “especially in its Western form”, White gives the reader a better idea of the style of Christianity that he is referring to, yet it is still not totally clear (Foltz; White, p.34). In 2011 there were approximately 41,000 separate Christian denominations and organizations worldwide (“Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life”). The Christian worldview is extremely diverse; there are approximately 2.18 billion Christians living all over the world within various cultural settings (“Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life”). In Anna Peterson’s essay, In and of the World? Christian Theological Anthropology and Environmental Ethics, she concurs that White’s “claims are too sweeping” (Foltz; Peterson, p. 319). Peterson clarifies this by stating that “claims about God shape claims about humans” which ultimately “shape views regarding nature”, yet “Christianity is a diverse, changing, and complex tradition” (Foltz; Peterson, p. 320). It is the interpretations of the Bible that cause some Christians to hold damaging views about nature, not Christianity in its original form.

White’s article is accurately titled, The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis, yet the claim is not made directly towards certain Christians during a specific historical timeframe; the claim is not that “Christianity [was] the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen”, the claim is that “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen” (Foltz; White, p.34). Claiming that 2.18 million modern Christians, from 41,000 separate Christian groups around the world are the cause and the driver of the environmental crisis is unsubstantiated (The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life). It is reasonable to argue that today’s environmental crisis may have origins within certain modernist Christian philosophy’s hundreds of years ago, yet non-ecological worldviews are also influenced by non-religious factors such as money, greed, power, and sheer scientific curiosity, and a host of other influences.

While there are tens of thousands of separate Christian denominations and groups worldwide that interpret the Bible in a multitude of ways, the core of Christianity is simply the belief in Jesus Christ as God made flesh and the resurrection of the dead, as well as the commission to follow the teachings of Jesus. Granted, notable historic Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas reasoned that the exploitation of nature was appropriate because “God made all creatures unequal”, and Augustine “insisted that ultimate value lies only in spiritual things” (Foltz; Peterson, p. 323-324), yet Christians do not follow the teachings of Aquinas and Augustine; they are required to follow the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus taught his followers something different. Similar to Eastern traditions, Jesus taught his followers to be mindful about consumption: “…the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Foltz; Mark 4:19 NIV). Jesus also spoke of God’s love of nature: “See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these” (Bible; Matt 6:28-29 NIV) Furthermore, the book of Revelations states that wrath will come and “destroy those who destroy the earth” (Bible; Rev 11:18 NIV). The book of Genesis, which is one of White’s main positions for argument, describes animals and sea creatures as holding intrinsic value: “God blessed them [birds and sea creatures] and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.’” (Bible; Genesis 1:22). These are just a few of the many passages in the Bible that admonish Christians to not over-consume and to take care of the earth and its creatures.

The Christianity which White boldly chastised for causing and driving the environmental crisis is based on a highly anthropocentric interpretation of the Bible, which was used by certain so-called Christians in the past, and is no doubt used even in this present day, as an alibi for the manipulation and destruction of nature which temporarily benefits certain groups of people. These particular interpretations contradict the message of Jesus, which is to be like Him and to love His creation; “…God so loved the world…” (Bible; John 3:16).

What do you think? Is Christianity the most anthropocentric religion that the world has ever seen? Why or why not?

god-loved-the-world

Sources:

Bible New International Version 1984

Foltz , Richard. Worldviews, Religion, and the Environment A Global Anthology. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2003. Print.

“Global Christianity.” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Pew Research Center, 19 2011. Web. 22 Oct 2012. http://www.pewforum.org/