Human sacrifice tends to serve one simple purpose in fantasy novels: to indicate that the society practicing it is barbaric and/or evil. Countless victims are slaughtered in the name of some perverse deity who apparently craves blood for no other reason than as a demonstration of wickedness, and Our Heroes almost never come from such a society unless they are also rebels against it. But human sacrifice (in the sense of ritualized killing—the sacrifice of lives in war, for example, is another matter) has been practiced in a number of real-world human societies, where the entire population was made up of real people, rather than the one-dimensional caricatures bent on slaughter that populate so many fantasy novels.
For these societies, human sacrifice was a deeply meaningful act. For modern Westerners, however, it is often incomprehensible. Because of this, its literary depictions all too frequently become little more than a way to mark some group of people as Other—as alien, primitive, hardly human. This simplistic, reductive approach does not do justice to the reality, and calls up unpleasant associations with racism and other forms of prejudice. (For a well-known example, just consider the twisted, elf-sacrificing, evil-god-worshipping, black-skinned drow of Dungeons and Dragons.) By considering the motivations and meanings that might surround the act of sacrifice, however, an author can explore alternatives to our familiar ways of thinking, and create fantastical cultures that are rich instead of flat, nuanced instead of stereotyped. The use of sacrifice in a novel can become meaningful instead of decorative, just as it is for the people who practice it.
Each culture that has practiced human sacrifice has done so in different ways, for different reasons. Rather than attempt to address them all broadly, I will discuss in detail the culture area most familiar to me: pre-conquest Mesoamerica, which includes both the Maya and the Aztecs. Sacrifice took a number of forms in that area, and was intricately linked to several aspects of life; the possible reasons Mesoamerican peoples believed it was so necessary go far beyond the simple excuse of evil gods.
Forms of sacrifice
First of all, we must identify just what sacrifice entailed in ancient Mesoamerica. Though the stereotypical image is of a priest cutting out a victim's heart on top of a pyramid in the jungle, actual sacrifices were of many different types.
One type, perhaps surprising to those only familiar with the above image, was self-sacrifice, which was non-fatal. Self-sacrifice (or autosacrifice) instead involved ritual blood-letting. The sacrificer, at least in major rituals, was usually a high-ranking noble, often male, but sometimes female; commoners may have done their own, less public sacrifices, but these are not recorded in the murals and inscriptions that constitute most of the surviving record. He or she used some sharp object (such as a thorn, a stingray spine, or a thin blade of obsidian) to pierce some part of the body; women often pierced the tongue, men the penis, and both sexes the earlobes. Once the cut was made, the sacrificer drew strips of bark paper or even thorn-studded rope through the hole, stimulating further blood flow and soaking the paper, which was then burned.
This was, of course, far from the most extreme form of sacrifice; the victim volunteered and then survived the process, after all. Nevertheless, it can't have been pleasant; anyone who has gotten ear or body piercings knows what kind of pain that causes, and that is with a machine, a (usually) small wound, and no paper (much less thorns) being dragged through the hole after the fact. Ritual blood-letting must have been an extraordinarily painful process, especially given the parts of the body chosen for piercing. The sacrificers may well have drunk liquids to dull the pain or aid them in achieving a trance state before performing their rituals, as neither visual depictions nor eyewitness accounts of these events ever give any hint that the blood-letters cried out in pain. History rarely records such details, of course, so it's difficult to be sure.
Other kinds of sacrifice did involve killing the victims. The heart sacrifice, mentioned above, was one of these; another common practice, sometimes carried out in combination with heart-removal, was to flay the skin off the body of the victim. This practice was particularly associated with the "Flayed God" Xipe Totec. From what we know of ancient ritual, it seems that priests might don the skins and dance in them as a part of the ceremony—a truly gruesome image whose power is as undeniable as it is disturbing.
Cenotes, natural wells in the limestone that makes up much of Mesoamerica, were the site of another form of sacrifice. In this instance, victims were hurled from the edge of the rock to the water below. They might die in the fall, or drown when they were left in the cenote; sometimes they were mutilated before being cast down, as knife marks on the bones show. Archaeologists have discovered a great many skeletons, both animal and human, in the waters of these natural wells. They have also found countless valuable objects mixed in with the bones; it appears that, just as sacrifice did not always involve death, neither did it always involve human life and blood. The sacrifice of items of value is distinct from the sacrifice of people, but not unconnected; the underlying concept of meaningful loss is related.
Sacrifice in the mythic past
This entire complex of practices had, as we might expect, a mythological underpinning. Sacrifice was not merely a human act; the gods did it, too, in story after story.
Autosacrifice appears in an Aztec myth about the creation of mankind in the Fifth Sun or current age of the world. In this tale, the god Quetzalcoatl goes down into Mictlan, the underworld, to retrieve the bones of the peoples who lived in previous ages. He gives them to Cihuacoatl, a goddess, who grinds them to a flour for dough; then he and the other gods let blood from their own penises onto the dough, which soon becomes the first two humans.
Reading a sexual meaning into this is not difficult; given where the blood was taken from, a connection between blood and semen is obvious. But more generally, we can say that sacrifice was a necessary step in the creation of life—a theme which appears again in other myths. A Cakchiquel account of how corn came to be says that it was found hidden in the body of the coyote after he was killed and quartered; interestingly, the same story goes on to say that the corn was mixed with blood from a serpent and a tapir to make men, in an echo of the Aztec myth mentioned before. The maguey, a plant with a dozen different uses in Mesoamerican society, was likewise created from the death of the goddess Mayahuel. More generally, a tale given in the Histoyre du Mechique (History of the Mexica) tells how the gods decreed that the Earth Monster would be the source of all things necessary for life, but she, offended by her mistreatment at their hands, demanded human hearts and blood in exchange. Just as the preceding myths describe sacrifice as a necessary step in the creation of humans or specific crops, here sacrifice is necessary to the creation of life in general.
Another Aztec myth, recorded by the sixteenth-century Franciscan missionary Fray Bernardino de Sahagn, tells how sacrifice was involved in the creation of the sun and the moon. The gods realized that without the light and movement of the sun, there would be no life, and someone would have to sacrifice himself for there to be a sun. Tecuciztecatl volunteered; Nanahuatzin was then chosen as the second sacrifice, and agreed willingly. They performed penances, Tecuciztecatl with costly objects, Nanahuatzin with rough ones, and were dressed for the sacrifice, Tecuciztecatl richly, Nanahuatzin poorly. When the time came for them to leap into the fire, though, Tecuciztecatl's courage failed and he flinched back, but Nanahuatzin sacrificed himself without hesitation, and was purified and transformed into the sun. Shamed by his fellow god's bravery, Tecuciztecatl then also jumped in. The two together were too bright, though, and so Tecuciztecatl's light was dimmed to become that of the moon, because of his cowardice. The later part of this same myth tells that the sun refused to shift from a fixed place in the sky, and demanded blood from the gods themselves in exchange for his movement.
These examples are far from exhaustive, but they should suffice to illustrate the theme; sacrifice was the motivating force of the Mesoamerican cosmos. It features repeatedly in creation myths as an essential element of the process, without which there would be nothing, but its necessity did not stop there. Sacrifice had to go on, out of mythic time and into human time, for the cosmos to continue functioning. Without it, there would be drought, famine, disaster—the end of the world. In a fantasy setting, this could become quite literally true.
Sacrifice and politics
Moving out of the mythical past and into the lived reality of ancient Mesoamericans, sacrifice played a number of other important roles. From this angle, it was very much a political tool, used to legitimate rulership and control conquered peoples.
The controlling aspect of sacrifice is most obvious when we look at the conduct of war—or rather, the aftermath of war. The capture of enemy nobles was critically important, perhaps more so than their death (at least, their immediate death in battle). A dead noble, after all, could be replaced, and the people he ruled could move on. A living noble in the hands of another city was a different matter. Mayan cities victorious in warfare might hold enemy nobles prisoner for years on end, bringing them out on ceremonial occasions to be tortured and then returned to captivity, before finally being executed. Aside from the sheer psychological damage this might do to defeated foes, it could have a magical effect; it's easy to imagine the torture of a ruling noble bringing disaster on his distant city, thereby becoming a form of long-distance warfare.
On a less Machiavellian front, self-sacrifice played a crucial role in the concept of Mayan kingship. Nobles were the ones who performed public sacrifice, and the king was the chief noble among nobles. Blood-letting rituals were a demonstration of primacy, and may even have gone beyond the surface of the material world into the realm of the spiritual. Speculating on the ideology and motivations of ancient people is difficult at best, particularly when so few written records of those people have survived, but Linda Schele and David Freidel, authors of A Forest of Kings, suggest an interpretation of the practice which, if not historically verifiable, still offers interesting fodder for a writer's thoughts.
As they describe it, ritual blood-letting by the king forged a connection between the material world and the world of the spirit. The sacrifice of noble blood thinned the barriers so that gods and ancestral spirits could pass through more easily. Countless murals and other images depict a being known as the Vision Serpent rising from the "blood scrolls" (an artistic convention used to represent bleeding) or the smoke of the burning, bloodstained bark paper; the purpose of the ritual may have been to manifest that spirit. This Vision Serpent is related to Kukulkan, the Mayan deity analogous to the Aztec Quetzalcoatl; through self-sacrifice, the king could ritually draw this power into the material world, validating his power as the ruler of his people, and making communication with the divine possible. In this sense, then, autosacrifice could stand as a kind of Eucharist; just as the doctrine of transubstantiation states that the wine and wafer become the blood and body of Christ, bringing the divine into the presence of the people, so might the smoke become the Vision Serpent.
Although we can't be sure of the symbolism ancient Mesoamericans read into their rituals, we can be sure that sacrifice was a key element of Mesoamerican politics. Since it was necessary to the continued functioning of the cosmos, and the king was the organizer (and sometimes performer) of sacrifices, his power was in many ways founded on blood.
Who was sacrificed?
When all the forms of sacrifice are examined together, it seems that victims were not taken from a single segment of Mesoamerican society, whether one draws dividing lines according to gender, age, nationality, or social rank. Granted, it can be difficult to accurately discern the identities of the victims when all one has to go on are skeletons in cenotes or murals on temple walls, but it still seems that they may have come from many parts of society. Nobles would self-sacrifice, though perhaps not die; enemy nobles, from foreign regions, were often ritually killed. On the other hand, no doubt a good percentage or possibly a majority of those slain in other ceremonies came from the lower classes, who didn't have the power or wealth to escape being chosen. Women were killed for some rituals, men for others. Children were the preferred offerings to the rain gods, while other victims were mature. Players of the ritualized ball game widespread throughout Mesoamerica were highly respected, but also at risk of ceremonial death if they lost.
The circumstances must have often dictated who would be chosen. For example, the sacrifice for the Aztec veintena festival of Ochpanitzli had to be a woman, who was consecrated as the goddess Toci and ritually honored as the embodiment of the deity before being killed; a man could not be substituted in her place. The Vision Serpent rituals of the Maya seem to have been limited to nobles, and originally to the king himself, although in some cities the king may have resorted to sharing his power with other nobles in an attempt to keep his crumbling realm together. Beyond circumstantial requirements, though, it's not entirely clear how victims were selected.
Some of them may have been willing. Just as some Christian thought holds that martyrs are assured a place in heaven, so were Mesoamerican sacrifices said to be blessed. Accounts written by Spanish nobles who observed cenote sacrifices at Chichén Itzá state that the Maya believed victims dedicated to the gods did not die, though in practical terms they were of course never seen again. It is possible that some of those killed in various rituals volunteered for the position, seeing it as an honor or a duty for the greater good of their people. Others, no doubt, were conscripts; it's hardly likely that enemy nobles captured in war volunteered for the awful torments they were put through. Some victims may have been drugged, as autosacrificing nobles may have been, to make the process easier, but in other instances (such as with enemy nobles), pain and suffering may have been part of the point.
In all of this, there is a great deal more for a writer to work with than simplistic evil gods and societies full of psychopathic killers. The concept that the world will wither and die without sacrifice is a grim one, which might be lightened by willing victims drugged to feel no pain, or darkened by a pragmatic awareness of the consequences of failure, and conscription of victims when no one will volunteer. The role of sacrifice ideology in politics offers all kinds of possibilities for world-building beyond the familiar bland feudalism. And these Mesoamerican examples are only one instance of human sacrifice; looking at the practice in other areas of the world might produce even more possibilities.
Regardless of how it's used in a story, sacrifice is still a profoundly ambiguous topic. The image of life coming from death is a powerful one, but fundamentally it still depends on the blood, pain, and death of human beings and animals. A world which depends on these things for its continued functioning, or for the stability of its political institutions, is a dark and harsh one. But fantasy novels need not take place in worlds where the cultures of the good guys are pure and kind and the cultures of the bad guys are warped and cruel; there's far more potential when good guys and bad guys alike come from places that are mixed and complex.
"The Logic of Sacrifice," by Marie Brennan, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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