Human Sacrifice, Hierarchies, and Mimetic Theory
Human sacrifice seems pretty abhorrent to us nowadays, but back in the ancient day it was a fundamental part of societies.
In a study of ninety-three cultures across Asia, Oceana, and Africa it has been concluded that sacrificial practices helped establishing authority and set up the class based systems we still recognize today. For each of the cultures studied, the researchers recorded the presence (or absence )of human sacrifice and the level of social hierarchy. Unsurprisingly, cultures that had little differences when it came to wealth and status were labelled as being egalitarian while those with strict hierarchies passed down generations, as having high social stratification…and a higher likelihood to prize sacrifice.
Sacrificial victims were typically of low social status (like slaves) while the scarifiers were often highly regarded individuals such as priests and chiefs. This instilled a sense of fear in the lower classes that prevented them from causing a stir or rising against the ruling class.
Often sacrifice was viewed as some kind of “social catharsis.”
I’m sure if he was living today, Rene Girard would have probably yelled “of course!” In 1961, he published the seminal work “Deceit, Desire, and the Novel” in which he explores this idea as one of the lynch pins of society throughout the ages.
Girard posits that we “borrow” our desires from others. No, you don’t really want Fuji water because of some chemical reason…but because you’ve been conditioned to think it’s better to drink by other people. You don’t desire the object, you desire to be the model- to have the power of knowing what to desire and what not to desire. Sound strange? Well, of course it is – it is a theory after all.
So, wait – what does this have to do with sacrifice? Well this theory is based on the idea that desire is a struggle which ultimately leads to violence. Girard himself says, “If there is a nomrla order in societies, it must be the fruit of an anterior crisis.” Let’s say there is something wrong in this ancient society – not enough rain, a plague on the crops, a sickness that won’t stop circulating. Someone who is “the other” in some way (even if it is as unavoidable as hair color) will be blamed and sacrificed. The ruling class, who at least has some sway over the masses, riles others against this baseless “other” until the sacrifice is made. Once the sacrifice has been made and things get better, the victim is then sacrelized and, you guessed it, if things go wrong again they’ll sacrifice a similar “other”.
But what happens if the sacrifice doesn’t “work”? Well, they just decide that it wasn’t enough to sacrifice one person and go after more…
This image is from wikimedia commons and is licensed under creative commons.