Discover more from Obsidian Iceberg
🎓 On Sacrifice: the real kind, with corpses
An investigation of historic rituals involving the killing of humans. Why is this even a thing?
If you're not familiar with the story of Dido — also known as Elissa, founder of Carthage, and literary lover of the Trojan Aeneas — one of the reasons Elissa is still reasonably well-known is that medieval Christians held her up as a paragon of martial virtue. When a king from the region she settled in tried to marry her, she refused, claiming it would be disloyal to her dead husband — who was murdered by her brother, after he usurped her position back home. Dramatic stuff!
According to legend, she was ultimately pressured into agreeing to the second marriage by her own citizens. Then she built a big pyre, pretended it was for a ritual to absolve her of her marriage vows to her deceased husband, and threw herself into the fire.
My personal take on this is that if anything about the legend of Dido is true (and at least some of it seems pretty plausible to me), her decision (and the reason her people kept her legend alive) had nothing to do with piety or marital loyalty — I view it as a statement that Dido, and by extension the city she founded, was not going submit to a merger with the surrounding polities. Because of Dido’s sacrifice, Carthage remained independent and autonomous territory.
Not all examples of self-sacrifice in history are that straightforward, and I think there’s something to be learned from looking at the phenomenon in a more holistic, and less culture-bound, way.
For example, consider suttee (sometimes spelled sati) — a Hindu funeral practice where a newly widowed woman throws herself onto her husband's funeral pyre and burns to death with him. Before I read the excellent The Civilizations of Africa by Christopher Ehret (beware: it’s basically a college textbook), I mostly thought of suttee practices as an antiquated feature of a very specific patriarchy, unrelated to any other social phenomenon beyond low status for women. That was when I thought of it at all, usually while reading a fantasy series like Glen Cook's The Black Company.
Then I found out that elderly spouses who are particularly close sometimes die within weeks of each other, even now — they call it broken heart syndrome or the widowhood effect. Is it so outrageous that ancient societies might have noticed something similar, associated it with close bonding, and ritualized it? Suttee isn’t really that unique when you think about it.
According to Ibn Fadlan, a 10th century ambassador from Baghdad, Scandinavian settlers in Russia had a funerary practice that can best be summed up as the ritual murder of a rich guy's concubine-slave (apparently she volunteers — maybe her kids get something out of it?). He also saw them kill and cut up a dog, horses, chickens, but the sacrificial girl is definitely the eye-opening part. Evidently an old woman stabs her while men strangle her. Afterward, her body is burned with the animals and the dead rich guy. Emphasis on rich guy: sacrifice in Norse burials was relatively rare, this isn’t something that every woman was expected to do.
The more I think about this, the more it feels like a weirdly common phenomenon in humans — not necessarily the widow aspect, but rather the part where a person follows an important loved one into the afterlife. As weird and horrific as this sort of sacrifice seems to be a modern Westerner like me, it actually doesn't seem that outrageous for different cultures to have codified this sort of tradition to deal with the kinds of grief that come from seeing a loved one die.
Think about how common survivor's guilt is. It's generally associated with things like veterans of war, especially Vietnam, but survivor's guilt isn't the exclusive province of modernity or war.
I talked earlier about Scandinavian concubines getting sacrificed so they could follow their lovers into the afterlife. Now I’m going to note that high status women were also buried with human sacrifice victims — maybe slaves, maybe servants, sometimes animals, definitely stuff. It’s not limited to Northern Europe, either. Deceased Scythians were often buried in their kurgans alongside their horses, who were killed, i.e. sacrificed.
Sacral chiefship is the practice of burying servants in tombs to accompany rulers into the afterlife, so that they can continue to serve. It was a core component of culture in the Middle Nile region 5,000 years ago — and can be contrasted with other sorts of human sacrifice, like those practiced by the Aztecs (which were probably more about intimidation) or Niger-Congo kingdoms (which had nothing to do with the afterlife). We don't really know how many people were actually sacrificed by the Aztecs, and may never know, but apparently there's an argument to be made that their habit of taking war captives for later sacrifice meant that their war-related casualties were actually lower than what was seen in other societies with comparable technology and rates of war.
Anyway, in Brotherhood of Kings, Amanda Podany points out that sacral chiefships are not limited to kings. And although many of us are familiar with the idea of Egyptian servants following their Pharaohs into the afterlife, that phenomenon was not limited to Egypt. There's a tomb site in Mesopotamian Ur (modern-day Iraq) with male and female royals (presumably kings and queens) buried with beautifully attired young attendants. Some of the 16 tombs were filled with dozens of attendants, each killed with a single sharp blow to the head.
This piece by Mike Dash includes a phenomenal survey of folkloric leaders who make great sacrifices (e.g. Odin & Osiris) and the (very scant) historical evidence for kings who died due to ritual sacrifice. It also touches on the bog bodies of Ireland, which are much more likely to have been ritually sacrificed than corn kings — the phenomenon of the corn kings of Ireland, supposedly killed after 7 years to ensure a rich harvest, have almost definitely been wildly exaggerated. Sort of disappointing for my argument about how common sacrifice is across cultures, but…
For sure, the Celtic festival of Beltane involves sacrifice. Even now, people at festivals at least pretend they're going to burn a guy to death. Archaeologists do think that the Celts practiced human sacrifice: the Lindow Man apparently ate a "burnt bannock" before he was killed. It's a ritual food still used on Beltane, basically mistletoe pollen and unleavened bread. Then he was garroted, stabbed, and had his head bashed in before being tossed into a peat bog. Why? It’s hard to say for sure, unfortunately.
But here's a bold claim: Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies. The researchers claim that to have found evidence that human sacrifice stabilizes existing social stratification, and helps bring about caste systems — bringing us right back to Hinduism and the modern-day’s best-known caste systems. But the Romans flat-out considered the way they interred Greeks and Gauls alive to be religious sacrifice / ritual murder, and I think there’s an argument to be made that they had a fairly stable, stratified society. Incidentally, although they banned “human sacrifice” around 97 BCE, they kept on burying unchaste Vestal Virgins alive and drowned hermaphrodites. Evidently that didn’t count — what qualifies as “human sacrifice” is less of a bright-line thing than I would have expected, honestly, which makes thinking about this sort of question hard.
I’m a big believer in there being practical reasons behind a lot of rituals, and funerary sacrifice definitely feels like a ritual. There’s a lot of danger in assigning motivations to people in ancient (or modern…) cultures based on what amounts to pure speculation, but the neat thing about being a hobbyist fantasy author instead of a professional anthropologist is that I get to make assumptions and build a mental model of the world that might not necessarily be true in all the particulars… instead of just chalking up a bunch of bodies to “ritual sacrifice” and calling it a day.
So given that caveat, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to posit that some societies practiced human sacrifice not because they were cartoonishly evil, but because they developed a culture that treated it, however accurately, as representing a radical act of love.
PS: I considered adding a section on child sacrifice in places like the Punic world and among the Inca, but man, my kid is still really little and my mom hormones are still a’ragin’. I am not doing that right now. Nopeity nope.