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Blood Rituals; Religion or Realism Part VI

While the Aztec working class no doubt believed that the gods required bloody offerings; the emperors and nobles who were responsible for organizing labor, supervising crop storage, and redistributing surpluses (Pohl 2003), may very well have realized the benefits of using sacrificial blood and bones as crop fertilizer.

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For instance, bones and blood have been used as crop fertilizer in other areas of the world and the Mesoamericans were known to have built a substantial canal system, similar to the canals of the ancient Greeks (800bc-200bc). Ancient Greek writings describe the use of these canals for delivering sewage to the “vegetable crops and olive groves” (Beaton n.d.). “Among the Ancient Greeks, nothing of any importance could occur, no decisions made, no journeys, or wars could take place, without the accompanying flow of the sacrificial blood”  (Ehrenreich,1997. p. 27).

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An Islamic agricultural publication from the 11th century showed that “farm practices of the period changed little from those of the Greeks and Romans” (Beaton n.d.). This ancient publication contained a poem, written by “Omar Khayyam, the astronomer-poet from Persia” that expresses the “effect that dead bodies and the blood of animals had on crop growth” (Beaton n.d.). This poem clearly illustrates the probable use of flowery wars for purposes other than propitiation:

 

“I sometimes think that never blows red

The rose as were some buried Caesar bled;

That every hyacinth the garden wears

Dropt in her lap, from some once lovely head”(Beaton).

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Although the Jewish were forbidden to consume blood, it was “permitted for other uses and the Mishnah (Yoma 5:6) states that the sacrificial blood that flowed into the Kidron was collected and sold to gardeners as fertilizer”(Encyclopedia Judaica). And according to another source, there was a drainage system with two holes at the base of the altar in King Herod’s temple where the blood of sacrifices was poured and sold as fertilizer (Rodriguez, 2001).

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In the early 1800’s, England had such a high demand for human and animal bones to be used for manufacturing phosphate fertilizer, that the country imported 30,000 tons of bones annually; “Justus von Liebig criticized the English for collecting bones from old battlefields and burial sites such as the catacombs of Italy” (Beaton n.d.).

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As you can see, while the Aztecs are well-known to have strung hundreds of skulls across the temple walls, the remaining skeletons may very well have been mixed with the victim’s blood and sent down the canals to be used as crop fertilizer.

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To be continued…..

Sources:

Beaton, J. Dr. (n.d.) The history of fertilizer, Retrieved from http://www.back-to-   basics.net/efu/pdfs/History_of_Fertilizers.pdf

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 (Encyclopedia Judaica, 2010)

Pohl, J. M.D. (2003). John Pohl’s Mesoamerica. Retrieved from    http://www.famsi.org/research/pohl/index.html(Pohl, 2003)

Rodriguez, A.(2001) What happened to the blood? Retrieved from http://biblicalresearch.gc.adventist.org/Biblequestions/whathappenedtotheblood.htm

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.).

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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

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).

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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).

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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 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.

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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…