Human sacrifice at the Getty
Human sacrifice can still pull in the punters. To put it another way, more than 60 of us got together at the Getty on Friday at a workshop to discuss this curious phenomenon across a wide range of cultures, ancient and modern – from the Phoenicians to Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (human sacrifice of a kind, I suppose), via the Hebrew Bible, classical antiquity (it’s the sacrifice of Iphigenia in the picture), the Aztecs and French eighteenth-century painting. I was performing on the Roman engagement with this ritual.
One of the questions that preoccupied the participants was a simple one: did it ever actually happen? Is it one of those practices that we project onto outsiders whom we don’t particularly like (like some people have claimed for cannibalism or sacred prostitution)? That is to say, is it a cultural distancing device – a nasty habit that defines “us” by the simple fact that “we” don’t do it?
That is what is called the “revisionist” position. The other side argue that this is a weasel tactic, adopted by a load of squeamish academics who cant face the fact that human beings can do such horrible thing to each other. (Or at least that they used to do very horrible things: there’s not much support for any modern forms of human sacrifice except in movies, or in the metaphorical sense of what is happening to both sides in Iraq.) For the “non-revisionists” the history of religion is stained by human blood.
Of course, the evidence is as tricky as could be. Suppose you find the remains of an Iron Age man in a bog, with some very odd vegetable remains in his stomach and an axe in his cranium. Is that a clear case of human sacrifice, after a ritual meal? Maybe. But it could equally well be a vicious murder following coincidentally on a feast of Iron Age delicacies?
In the ancient world, the cause célèbre are the Phoenicians. Greek and Roman writers are full of stories about their nasty practices of child sacrifice. And indeed some macabre cemeteries (tophets) full of infant cremations have been found in the Phoenician world. It looks at first sight like an open and shut case against the revisionists. But even here it is a bit more complicated. Although I didn’t quite get to the bottom of this on Friday, it seems that we don’t find any (or very many) child graves apart from those in the tophets. So what is to say that these aren’t just baby graveyards, for the naturally dead? Have we just been led astray by the cultural prejudice of classical writers to invent mass human sacrifice?
Fast forward a millennium or two and the next big problem are the Aztecs. The Spanish Christian colonisers have produced some of the most lurid accounts of human sacrificial ritual that there are – thousands of victims, their hearts being torn out, etc etc. But here too the evidence is not as clear as it seems. There is a question of what the Spanish were trying to do and how much they understood of what they may (or may not) have seen. (Human sacrifice, like WMD, is one of the best alibis for invasion.) The Aztecs were obviously not a crowd of stay-at-home pacifists and they killed a lot of people very unpleasantly. But was it religious ‘sacrifice’ as Christian accounts present it. Or was it “just” warfare and the violent suppression of conquered peoples?
I have to confess that on Rome I steered rather clear of these issues. That was partly because the evidence really doesn’t let you decide which way to jump. On three occasions in the third and second centuries BCE, for example, they buried alive a pair of Gauls and a pair of Greeks. A ritual killing certainly – but was it “sacrifice” in the technical religious sense. But it was also because there are some more interesting questions to be posed. Never mind whether they ever did it or not, an enormous amount of Roman writing puts the idea of human sacrifice at centre stage. Roman intellectuals used it as a way of discussing the whole ritual of animal sacrifice – which was the defining act of Roman paganism. Could you really draw a distinction between slaughtering animals and slaughtering humans? They wondered. Was sacrifice always murder?.
And of course – as if to put it on the agenda of Roman culture for all time – Virgil’s Aeneid itself ends with a hint of human sacrifice, lying at the very heart of Rome’s foundation legend. When Aeneas finally gets the upper-hand against his enemy Turnus in the closing lines of the Aeneid, he is at first minded to be compassionate and spare his enemy. But then he spots that Turnus is wearing a trophy taken from Aeneas’ young friend Pallas, whom Turnus had killed. Aeneas instantly changes his mind and, in revenge, puts Turnus to death. But the word Virgil uses is a very marked one: immolare, which means not just ‘kill’, but much more precisely ‘sprinkle sacrifical meal and slaughter in religious sacrifice’.
In the cultural imagination at least, Rome’s first victory was marked by human sacrifice.