Most people have always thought human sacrifice was bad

A few days ago a minor controversy about the cultural context of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica cropped up. A writer at Science, wrote a piece, Feeding the gods: Hundreds of skulls reveal massive scale of human sacrifice in Aztec capital. The article was good. But it elicited some emotional responses from readers. As one sees in the earliest writings of the Spanish, the Aztec penchant for human sacrifice often results in a moralistic reaction.

The writer of the piece took to Twitter to disagree with the moralistic tone of many who read her article. It being Twitter, her original series of comments were easy to misinterpret or exaggerate, and she had to post a follow-up clarifying some issues. Below is a response to one of her original assertions.

Basically, I agree that our feelings about sacrifice today are irrelevant to understanding it. To understand human history and something scientific that relates to humans it is important to set aside feelings, at least for the moment. That being said, let me remind the reader that this is not the attitude of many science writers when a story has a “social justice” angle. We all know if a science article has a social hook which appeals to emotional or moralistic impulses in the readership, it will probably be injected into it for purposes of clicks and adding an extra layer of meaning and relevance. For various reasons, Aztec human sacrifice is better presented in a dispassionate manner, as Mesoamerican human sacrifice doesn’t lend itself easily to a standard social justice narrative (i.e., the “villains” are not white).

The Aztec Empire, or the Triple Alliance if you prefer, was built on brutality. From what we can tell it was an analog in the New World to what the Assyrian Empire had been in Eurasian antiquity: a polity bound together through brutal coercion.

Here is one tale from Aztec history that is well known:

In 1323, they asked the new ruler of Culhuacan, Achicometl, for his daughter, in order to make her the goddess Yaocihuatl. Unknown to the king, the Mexica actually planned to sacrifice her. The Mexica believed that by doing this the princess would join the gods as a deity. As the story goes, during a festival dinner, a priest came out wearing her flayed skin as part of the ritual. Upon seeing this, the king and the people of Culhuacan were horrified and expelled the Mexica.

Note that the legend is recounted whereby the other native peoples of Mexico were horrified by the Aztec behavior. This highlights the reality that human sacrifice seems to elicit negative reactions generally. It’s not arbitrary. In Carthage Must Be Destroyed the author spends a great deal of time exploring the reality of child sacrifice in that society. A practice in decline in the Phoenician homeland, for some reason it reemerged in the western Mediterranean much more vigorously. Classical observers found the practice grotesque, and their descriptions of Carthaginian child sacrifice were suspected by many scholars as being scurrilous. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the truth has been established by the discovery of bones of children in urns. The key point to note is that ancient observers were just as judgemental as modern people.

Though human sacrifice persisted in some form in many antique societies, it is clear that what was once a common occurrence in the Bronze Age world became rarer with time, until it was no longer socially or ethically acceptable. Researchers in the field of cultural evolution have explored the emergence and decline of human sacrifice. Though there are no current definitive conclusions, it seems likely that it crops up in societies which have transitioned toward being highly inegalitarian. But, it declines again in societies which scale large enough to the point where more abstract ideological and political systems must bind groups of people together. The Classical Western world, India, and China, all seem to be marked by a recollection of normative human sacrifice (e.g., Iphigenia), and a turn away from it.

The inequality aspect is important. Though some people willingly gave themselves as human sacrifices, there are recurrent themes of low-status individuals within the group (e.g., slaves) or outsiders (prisoners of war) being given to the gods. There is debate as to the nature of the Aztec “flower wars”, but one traditional explanation is that they were driven by the need for victims of human sacrifices.

In other words, Aztec human sacrifice can be contextualized in a generalized framework. But that is not where the writer of the original piece went on the Twitter thread. Rather, she seems to have bracketed the practice by modern social and political considerations, “centuries of colonial oppression and destruction.” To be frank, it is a strongly Eurocentric narrative where everything before European colonialism is viewed as a prologue to the true story. The only story that matters. The context of Aztec human sacrifice that matters to many people steeped in this way of thinking is what the Spaniards did to the native peoples of the New World after the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Like ethical tachyons the present blasts back into the past, and reshapes our whole perception of it in current terms. The Aztec tendencies toward brutality, oppression and grotesque customs such as human sacrifice, are inconvenient to this framework.

The cultural conditioning isn’t that of a Western individual who lives in a consumer society at the tail end of a two-century path of growth, domination, and maturation. Rather, the cultural conditioning is of a whole class of intellectuals steeped in understanding all social and historical relations as but mirrors of the one which defined the 19th and 20th century. This viewpoint also asserts that this period, these people, are sui generis. It is profoundly Eurocentric to the bones.

To me when considering the ethical and historical frame of human sacrifice two facts jump out to me. First, it’s an empirical fact that at certain levels of social complexity human sacrifice seems to emerge, and at later levels of social complexity tends to be dampened and abolished.  The reason that it tends to be dampened and abolished is probably the reason that the Spanish found it easy to obtain native allies against the Aztec Empire: human sacrifice is a costly and brutal way to foster social cohesion. Across societies, there has been a general tendency to abandon the practice and create psychologically satisfying substitutes which don’t have the bloody downsides.

The second aspect is more primal: humans don’t like to die. It is true that humans will sacrifice themselves, or in the case of Carthaginian nobles, their own children, in exigent circumstances. Human nature exists, and many aspects are universal. The abhorrence of human sacrifice doesn’t emerge out of particular and unique elements of Western colonial culture,  it has cropped up in many societies, and I would suggest that the shoe is on the other foot here: those who argue for human sacrifice have to make the argument for it is necessary. And that is why so often humans who are sacrificed are those who can least choose to give their own lives. Slaves, children, prisoners, and criminals.

Unfortunately, the Western colonial narrative looms so large for many moderns that other cultures and other histories are erased in all their complexity. They gain depth and richness only as handmaids to the deconstruction and critique of the Western colonial narrative.

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17 thoughts on “Most people have always thought human sacrifice was bad

  1. Note that the legend is recounted whereby the other native peoples of Mexico were horrified by the Aztec behavior.

    How do we know that they were horrified by the generality rather than by the particular?

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  2. “Note that the legend is recounted whereby the other native peoples of Mexico were horrified by the Aztec behavior. This highlights the reality that human sacrifice seems to elicit negative reactions generally. It’s not arbitrary.”

    Horror at another group’s brutal practices is somewhat arbitrary, since all cultures possess brutal practices of their own, which they nearly always judge far more leniently. The Spaniards thought harsh execution methods such as quartering, and religious persecution, were justifiable. There is surely a process of normalization that occurs in every culture, specific to its own customs. Note that this does not deny sea changes in the general level of violence, which have obviously happened.

    My question is how this author would have reacted to a similarly dispassionate discussion of Southern lynching, another form of ritual killing. There is a foolproof litmus test to check how hypocritical members of the chattering classes are when they talk about disturbing rituals of a non-Western culture: “Would they be comfortable with Southern whites doing it?”

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  3. For those of you who think that PC and Post Modernism are a new phenomenon the subject of human sacrifice and cannibalism are a corrective. An anthropology professor named William Arens published “The Man-eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy” (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979) almost 40 years ago. In it Arens tried to show that the belief cannibalism was common in many cultures had been uncritically accepted, and careful examination of the evidence showed that it was very weak. Arens suggested that NO culture had EVER had culturally-approved cannibalism.

    Since then every article I have seen on the subject has been to the effect that ritual human sacrifice and cannibalism are real phenomena that are established by probative and trustworthy evidence. “New findings change thinking on human sacrifices” Associated Press January 23, 2005, and “Reconsidering Cannibalism: If You Are What You Eat, Mind if I Move to Another Table?” By Nicholas Wade in the NYTimes on 2 Jan. 2000. I also highly recomend: “Conquest: Cortes, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico” by Hugh Thomas https://www.amazon.com/Conquest-Montezuma-Cortes-Fall-Mexico/dp/0671705180/.

    I would not be at all surprised if anthropology classes in contemporary universities did not still teach Arens as holy writ.

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  4. It’s important to note that Aztec human sacrifice was not an innovation. It was an ancient practice in Mesoamerica, going back to the time of the Olmec, ca. 1000 BC. Marvin Harris suggested that it persisted because the Mesoamericans lacked large domesticated animals (other than dogs) that might have served as symbolic substitutes for humans, as they did in Old World civilizations. Michael Harner suggested that the human flesh provided by the sacrifices was a necessary supplement to the protein-poor Mesoamerican diet.

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  5. I think the example of the people of Culhuacan is not ideal for the argument, because even if someone is used to “ordinary human sacrifices”, he might still not be used to see a “mad priest” coming into your house with the skin of your murdered daughter around his head.
    The inhumane and delusional brutality of the Aztecs has really qualities on its own, especially the scale of the mass killings being very peculiar. Its like it was with the Europeans experiencing Ottoman warfare and cruelty, it was really a new quality, even for people being used to fights, killings and torture. Being flayed alive in front of a mirror or “forests” of impaled babies and children were just “something special” even for those times.

    As for America and Amerindians, I think there was a widespread culture of bloodthirsty gods and very cruel executions throughout the American continent. I don’t say it was a common theme in all tribes and ethnicities on the continent, surely not, but it was so widespread that it seems to be very ancient and interconnected even beyond the Mesoamerican context.
    The Mesoamerican states, not just the Aztecs, just seem to have taken it to an extreme. Even the Assyrians can’t be directly compared, because they lacked such a strong religious motivation for the mass tortures and mass killings seen in Mesoamerica.

    Cruelty in warfare is something which can come up due to a very hard competition between groups fighting for their very survival and having no interest in taking captives alive or having to fear for their very own survival constantly. It has a lot to do with a policy of deterrence. The most common motivations for cruetly and atrocities is deterrence and revenge for the own losses and suffering.

    Also, there is not always a clear border between human sacrifices and an “ordinary execution”, even modern imprisonment, because there is that religous or at least moral aspect to it.
    The true human sacrifice is devoted to the gods and often has a purprose, bringing forward a plea to the gods. Like the last one Romans made in the face of absolute terror.
    But there are also those attested ritualised executions of captives, traitors, cowards, homosexuals, adulterers and the like, which had a strong religious impetus beside the more modern aspect of punishment following worldly rules or even laws. The execution itself was religiously charged.
    And weren’t the Roman circus games not somewhat religious in its origins?
    But those were no “pure human sacrifice”, which I would define as a plea to the gods for something concrete, even with victims being taken from the own people, especially children.
    Killing captives, hunting heads, making executions or giving a ruler company for the afterworld was fairly common, but what we see in America is more specific, it has its very own underlying religious worldview.

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  6. Re: Iffen: “How do we know that they were horrified by the generality rather than by the particular?”

    I don’t know that particular story, but there’s a lot of instances where expressions of horror or sadness at particular sacrifices are connected with general rejection of the practice. Abraham’s abortive sacrifice of Isaac is rejected by the Jewish God, but the story is generally understood today (?) as a comprehensive rejection of human sacrifice. The ancient Chinese poem “Yellow Bird” (黄鳥) expresses the grief of the people of Qin at the burial sacrifice of three prominent men on the death of their lord, but commentary has interpreted that as a more general rejection of human sacrifice. There is an explicit rejection of burial sacrifices in the Classic of Rites(禮記), in the second Tan Gong chapter (檀弓下): “When Chan Gan-xi was lying ill, he assembled his brethren, and charged his son Zun-ji, saying, ‘When I am dead, you must make my coffin large, and make my two concubines lie in it with me, one on each side.’ When he died, his son said, ‘To bury the living with the dead is contrary to propriety (殉葬非禮); how much more must it be so to bury them in the same coffin!’ Accordingly he did not put the two ladies to death.”

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  7. “Killing captives, hunting heads, making executions or giving a ruler company for the afterworld was fairly common, but what we see in America is more specific, it has its very own underlying religious worldview.”

    I agree with Mesoamerica being an outlier–it seems a culture can become so immersed in sadistic practices as to rip away a lot of the inhibitions against witnessing suffering (of ingroup members) that people naturally have. In his book about violence, Steven Pinker mulled on the possibility of entire populations becoming inured to such things if exposed to them often enough, from a young age, and in a positive context. Similarly, white children who attended lynchings seemed to acquire the notion that they were fun, since the crowd members were enjoying themselves.

    The other stuff, taking heads and whatnot, seems run of the mill, though. Plenty of tribes in Africa, PNG, India, etc. are documented as doing these things. Like those peoples, Amerindians usually kept female and juvenile captives alive, while killing the males.

    “Michael Harner suggested that the human flesh provided by the sacrifices was a necessary supplement to the protein-poor Mesoamerican diet.”

    Well, Mesoamericans never got the chance to develop an Axial tradition.

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  8. if we had records of corded war and funnel beaker ppl i bet they’d be nasty just like aztecs. the uniqueness of mesoamerica is partly that it was well recorded/remembered by a literate civilization.

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  9. Yes, I highly suspect there were a lot of Aztec-like societies in Eurasia whose practices were never historically recorded. Shang China sounds nasty, along with the aforementioned Carthaginians. Roman arena fighting is not taken as seriously as it should be, either. How is killing people for sick entertainment any more tolerable than killing them to appease the gods?

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  10. The striking thing about Mesoamerica, surely, is that here’s this whole region of the world where human sacrifice is universal and apparently unquestioned, in contrast with Eurasia where it was universally rejected. Different stages of civilisational development, perhaps, except that the Mesoamerican cultures don’t seem to be less developed in other respects than the some of the old world societies that gave it up: early Egypt, Sumer.

    Incidentally, given the generality of the practice, I’m of the view that the moral point of the story discussed is the betrayal and humiliation of the subject king, not the badness of human sacrifice as such.

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  11. The striking thing about Mesoamerica, surely, is that here’s this whole region of the world where human sacrifice is universal and apparently unquestioned, in contrast with Eurasia where it was universally rejected.

    just to be clear, remember mesoamerica is the size of northern europe. that culture gave up human sacrifice only during the roman period (some of it is roman suppression, some of it is christianization).

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  12. Walter Sobchak: “For those of you who think that PC and Post Modernism are a new phenomenon the subject of human sacrifice and cannibalism are a corrective…”

    And who are supposed to be the PC/Post Modernists in this issue? The people who says that no culture had ever socially-approved cannibalism, or the people who says that some societies have or had socially-approved cannibalism? The last seems more PC/PM, in the sense “there is not an universal truth; what is good in one culture could be bad in another – our values are nothing more than an Western and colonial social construct”

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  13. The evidence appears to be good that vikings practiced human sacrifice as well, with accounts coming from both Muslim and Christian sources that appear to be verified in archaeology. I think we are less certain about “blood eagle,” but probably refers to something morbidly disturbing.

    (Possibly my biggest disagreement with the BBC Viking show is depicting human sacrifice as a voluntary arrangement. There was really nothing in its take on Viking culture that would favor anything other than involuntary sacrifice, presumably of slaves and enemies.)

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  14. re: cannibalism. i got the sense that anthropologists thought that legends were always xenophobic tropes. that’s what i got from martin gardner’s summation in a book i read years ago…

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  15. “re: cannibalism. i got the sense that anthropologists thought that legends were always xenophobic tropes.”

    That is the Arens book I mentioned above.

    Miguel Madeira has fastened on to the wrong end of the dog. The first question is not values, it is facts.

    The PC/PoMo crowd says that human sacrifice and cannibalism did not exist as a matter of fact.

    The PC/PoMo crowd claims that the only reason westerners assert that they did exist is westerners are orientalists, racists, imperialists, xenophobes, and capitalist, who want to justify their oppression and genocide by slandering the noble savages of the lands they colonized and imperialised.

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  16. Just to be clear, remember mesoamerica is the size of northern europe. that culture gave up human sacrifice only during the roman period (some of it is roman suppression, some of it is christianization).

    Fair point. The relevant comparison is the new world in general vs the old world in general: after all, the Inca also practiced human sacrifice. Perhaps more importantly, northern europe didn’t host societies as sophisticated as the Aztecs or the Inca. Full-bore civilizations, with monuments and scribes and cities, rose and fell, but human sacrifice endured. That didn’t happen in the old world, except in the isolated case of Carthage.

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  17. Sure other people were nasty too and made human sacrifices, but in America in general and Mesoamerica in particular torture and mass human sacrifices reached an unprecedented level and were of integral importance to the religious and social system. It was not just one part of the culture and religious life, it was a central, crucial part of it. A lot of the other cultures we know practised human sacrifices only in desperate, unusual situations as some sort of last resort.
    Once they reached a certain cultural level and formed a state, the rituals were transformed, sublimated and finally left behind. In America the higher the culture, the bigger the scale, without a transformation but rather an escalation.

    A particularly cruel culture was present among various ethnicies of the Uto-Aztecan language group. Its not just about Aztecs. For example the tortures practised by the Comanches and the way they fought wars was infamous. Yet such practises were really widespread and taken very, very seriously in many American ethnicities.

    The Aztecs, as the extreme form, thought that the sacrificed blood keeps the world running. The natural machine must be fueled with blood. You see that not just with their fanatic mass killings of captives, but also in their pantheon and many other rituals they practised. Both Aztecs and Mayas, as well as other Mesoamerican ethnicities, used bloodletting and blood sacrifices of the elite too. Typical is that they not just let the blood flow, but used extreme measures to increase pain and make it a torture for the performer. To keep countenance while being in pain, bleeding, being mutilated or slowly killed was so essential in many Amerindian people.

    Of course, such things can be observed throughout the world, especially in warlike cultures, but again the magnitude and importance seen in the Americas seems to be special. Even more so if seeing similar patterns in different parts of the continent, from the North to the South. While in the old world similar tendencies were oftentimes much more spatially or temporally restricted. Thats why I think there must be some sort of Amerindian connection, be it at the roots or just a later adaptation, parallel development through contact and competiton on large parts of the continent. Like the Mesoamerican assimilation, just on an even bigger scale.

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