Blog Archives

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.


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).

blood 15

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).

blood 14

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).


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.).

blood 17

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.

blood 18

To be continued…..


Beaton, J. Dr. (n.d.) The history of fertilizer, Retrieved from http://www.back-to-

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 (Encyclopedia Judaica, 2010)

Pohl, J. M.D. (2003). John Pohl’s Mesoamerica. Retrieved from, 2003)

Rodriguez, A.(2001) What happened to the blood? Retrieved from

Blood Rituals; Religion or Realism Part V

In 1998, Winkelman studied seven societies that practiced “legitimate human sacrifice which was a form of normative behavior, involving propitiation, as opposed to malevolent human sacrifice”(Winkelman,1998), and who practiced human sacrifice within the time frame of 1750 B.C. to the present (Winkelman,1998 p. 5, 11). “All seven cases of human sacrifice were found in societies with a high reliance upon agriculture, with sedentary and relatively permanent residence patterns…and relied upon domestic animals for food sources, but were not pastoral societies, and did not use milk products” (Winkelman, 1998. p. 6).


Additionally, six of the seven societies had priests, who acted as “elite sociopolitical functionaries and had roles in the communal religious activities associated with propitiation and calendric agricultural rituals” (Winkelman, 1998, p.5). Winkelman concluded that “human sacrifice was significantly and positively associated with the population pressure measures based upon total food supplies, adequacy of food storage, and meat protein” (Winkelman, 1998. p. 7).


Additionally, in a 2004 NASA study regarding Mayan agriculture, irrigation, and deforestation, Michon Scott (2004) concluded that because Mesoamerica was so densely populated around 800AD, that slash and burn agriculture could not possibly have supported the Mayan society’s food requirements, yet he gives no solution as to how Mesoamerican societies could have adequately provided food for such a dense population within a rain forest environment, with inadequate water supply, extremely poor limestone soils—“unsuitable for agriculture” (Scott, 2004).


Therefore, by combining the information from Winkelman and Scott’s studies, it is reasonable to infer that the pressure to cultivate high yield crops might well have spurred a more pragmatic and less religious reason for the Elites to impose blood sacrifice—might they have needed to obtain the blood and bones for crop fertilization?

Rich, fertile soil is a necessary requirement for growing healthy crops, and in Success with Organic Vegetables, Yvonne Cuthbertson (2006) stated: “Soil constitutes most likely to be in short supply are nitrogen, phosphate, and potash. Nitrogen is known as the leaf maker…phosphate is the root maker, and potash is essential for flowers and fruit” (Cuthbertson, 2006). Could this be the meaning behind the Mesoamerican flowery wars, which were fought to acquire enemies for use as sacrificial victims?


Cuthbertson went on to explain that the phosphate in bone-meal is “released slowly, aiding seed germination, stimulating root and pod growth, and promoting early ripening of roots and fruit…and dried blood is 12-13% nitrogen and is a fast acting fertilizer…”(Cuthbertson, 2006). Although Winkelman did not suggest that sacrificial blood was used as fertilizer, the essential findings of his study seem to connect blood rituals with food supply anxieties; “The magnitude of their [Aztec] sacrifice and cannibalism may reflect their extreme conditions” (Winkelman, 1998. p. 17). And, in comparison to “other societies with human sacrifice, the Aztecs were …the only society in the sample with a high risk for famine…had the highest population density, and the highest levels of overall warfare for land and resources”(Winkelman, 1998. p. 17).


To be continued….


Scott, M. (2004), Mayan mysteries: global hydrology resource center. Retrieved from

Winkelman, M. (1998) Aztec human sacrifice: Cross-cultural assessment of the ecological hypothesis. Ethnology, 37(3), 285.

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


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

Lambert, T. (n.d.) The Olmec  civilization. Retrieved from

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).


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).


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


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


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.


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.


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).


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).



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…