The Spanish conquistadors were appalled when they came upon extensive human sacrifices and cannibalism in Aztec Mexico some five centuries ago, and they killed an unnecessarily large number of this "master race" in the name of Jesus Christ. The bones were thrown to the dogs, which the Aztecs also liked to eat. An estimated two hundred and fifty thousand people were being killed and eaten annually, about one percent of the population of the whole region. It is argued by a student of the subject, Michael Harner, that this increment of meat went far toward making up for a serious protein deficiency in the Aztec diet.
When asked the reason for the sacrifices, which were conducted always with religious rituals, the Aztec spokesmen replied that the god managing the Sun depended on them. If the sacrifices were suspended, the Sun would not rise and set, and this glorious Age of the Sun would terminate in chaos. So quite aside from the matter to dietary protein, the stability of the cosmos was at stake. There had to be here, as elsewhere, a religious justification for cannibalism and human sacrifice.
The Spaniards were not impressed by this argument. They by now had many centuries of experience in confining their sacred cannibalism to the body and blood of Christ, which they absorbed whenever they partook of Holy Communion, which, if they were devout, ought to have been daily. The authority for this was Jesus Christ himself, as confirmed by no less than Saint Paul. This ritual sacrifice and cannibalism sufficed, and does to this day among the majority of Christendom. Nor did the Spaniards sacrifice animals, or even slaughter them ritually, which the ancient Jews, who almost always avoided any semblance of human sacrifice, faithfully performed according to the precepts of the Old Testament, and the Muslim followed suit.
No culture has been free of cannibalism in its history, nor are most religions that profess gods fully exempted today. Apparently cannibalism touches upon some vital nerve center of historical religion. Else there would be only the onetime universal practice, which would have been stopped, and there would not have continued the substituted sacrifice and eating of animals nor the complicated symbolic sublimations whereby at the same moment religious believers both eat and do not eat human flesh. There has never been anything but sacred cannibalism except in dire life emergencies, such as occur now and then.
Actually it is easier to understand why cannibalism originated and flourished than why it has been severely constrained and, in some god-supporting religions, abandoned. Cannibalism, like killing others of his kind, is spontaneously human. It is a product of the set of mechanisms that generate when the self-aware, self-fearing human first appears. Seeing his alter ego in himself, he sees himself in other. He is continuously seeking to assimilate himself; he seeks to assimilate himself in others.
The identification with others is but a prelude to empowering himself by his ingestion of others. One does the same with the gods, here abetted in one's actions by the perceived behavior of the gods. The gods are frequently cannibalistic, he thinks. Gods fall to Earth or are cast down to Earth or are cast down to Earth and are devoured. Gods encounter one another electrically in meteoritic and cometary forms in the sky, are split up, are attracted and repelled.
When Giorgio di Santillana comments on the "baffling" bloody battles of the gods in Mesopotamian legends, he might as well have spoken of all legend and of the cannibalism of the gods. It may always be moot whether men got their ideas of warfare, sacrifice, and cannibalism from the gods. They say so in holy writings, but who can trust sacred scripture and get a degree in astronomy without being as contradictory as the gods themselves?
A decline in celestial divine struggles and in the horrendous fears incited thereby in humans may explain why cannibalism has declined. The less fearful the human, the less inclined to sacrifice and the lesser the oblation. Man, it may be said to his credit, drives a hard bargain with his gods. The Aztec-Nahua rites were the last large-scale frank cannibalistic exercises, although small populations in Africa and Oceania pursued such practices until this century, and, from time to time, cannibalism is reported in chaotic and deprived human settings, as in Germany during the Thirty Years' war of the 16th century and in Cambodia during the terrible Indochinese wars of the mid-twentieth century.
Yet the Aztecs were two thousand years removed from what we suggested were prime catastrophic motivators of cannibalism. So far as we know, the latest universal catastrophes brought on by exoterrestrial forces were in the eighth and seventh centuries before Christ. Later, however, Mexico and Central America were subjected to extremely heavy volcanism (related, we think, to the earlier exoterrestrial episodes) with clouds of ashes that darkened the days and obscured the sun.
None can scientifically estimate the duration of memories. Many of today's customs go back thousands of years, indeed probably to the very first men, so obdurate and obsessive is the transmission of collective experience. With occasional heavy disasters and appropriate mythology, a people can behave in the ways of their remote ancestors.
None can deny that some of the Israelis of today see themselves as reenacting the scenes of the Israeli conquest of Palestine of 3400 years ago. Prime Minister Begin was himself a "Moses buff" who enjoyed greatly long discussions about "those days" with other members of the "Club." Yet he appeared to all the world as a substantially secular figure, operating efficiently amidst high Twentieth Century technology. Although anti-religious in a conventional sense, but professing a racial credo claimed to be consistent with ancient Teutonic legend, the Nazis of Germany between 1942-5 consigned millions of European Jews of all shades of religious belief to death by methodical gassing and burning. They murdered many millions of other Europeans, too. The routine, almost automatic procedures used for most of this holocaust, and the absence of traditional religious rituals in its execution, seem to remove it from the scope of religious study. No conventional religion would tolerate such conduct.
Still, the initial impulse, in Hitler and other Nazis, was that of "purification of the race" and the creation of a new master race (" chosen people") to rule the world. Nor did Hitler's status rank below that of the divine heroes of legend; his book, Mein Kampf, was given to newly-wed couples in place of the Bible.
The rituals frequently staged by the Nazi rulers of Germany were as spectacular and soul-stirring as any in history. The holocaust, however, was not a matter of public spectacle and in this regard was a source of sacrificial strengthening in the minds of some thousands who directly participated in the killings.
One might venture that these were special ceremonies reserved for the Nazi priesthood. There is small chance that the Nazi genocides would have stopped with the Jews. Gypsies were already suffering the same fate. The treatment meted out to civil populations in Eastern Europe teetered on the brink of genocide. If the Nazis had won World war II, there would have been ample opportunity to extend the holocaust in East Europe, Asia and Africa; a successful cleansing genocide of six millions might readily extend to sixty million, or until some historical accident would happen to stop the process.
Sacrifice and anthropophagy are still in the religions of a billion people and in the everyday life of almost totally secularized billions. The typical American follows the secular rules of eating, being very early in life told, "Don't just shove the food into your mouth." We are advised that "it is bad to eat between meals," we are told to "wash before coming to the table," to "set the table properly," to dress decently for dinner, eat the proper foods in the proper order, to serve foods in the proper order (' no dessert before the meat'), that father carves the meat, to leave a bit on the plate, to observe decorum at the table, and, in lesser numbers, to pray before every meal."
There are a hundred or more such typical rules of etiquette, rationalized as prophylaxis, "consideration for the feelings of others," and other particular explanations involving breeding and health. But there also were and are rules, of course, for the genteel cannibal, and well-educated sacrificer. The proverbial Englishman who used to dress for solitary dinner in the jungle was doing his part to hold the universe (and his own mind) intact. It was, of course, a joke when Cathedral Dean Jonathan Swift, viewing Ireland's dismal economic state in 1792, sardonically recommended that the poor sell their babies to the rich for eating.
Slater, a careful scholar of the Greek mind, thought the Greeks more mad than other peoples. Especially did they dwell in their myth upon parents eating their children. This he blamed upon the fathers for putting down the mothers, who thus, in fancy at least, revenged themselves pedophagously.
The children of Alsace are treated around Christmas time (at the feast of Saint Nikolaus, December 6th), to cookies in the shapes of children distributed by Saint Nikolaus (Santa Claus) who is accompanied by Rubezahl, a gigantic man in a mask and cloak, a late impersonation of Wotan, and who can best be identified with Saturn, as indeed can Santa Claus. The one gives the imaged cookies to the good children; the other menaces the bad children. It should be recalled that infant sacrifices and cannibal rites to Saturn survived well into Christian times; in the present rites, unconscious of origins, the ancient rites are sublimated more or less in playfulness.
Ritual is prominently displayed in matters having to do with alimentation. But it covers all aspects of religion, therefore all aspects of life. There is a rule for everything. Man, deprived of instinct, is a habit-former, an obsessional creature. Not only is his language founded upon obsessive reiteration, not only are his dietary manners as well, but likewise his sexual, affectional, social, agricultural, industrial, physical, and learning behavior. In all of these regards, religion and ritual come in the beginning of human existence and remain forever.
If religion persists despite the extensive and eroding process known as secularization, or rationalization, or pragmatization, it will do so logically in the centers of life prone to chaos and accident. That is, religious rites focus upon and persist in the fearful and catastrophe-prone areas and, as from a lantern, diffuse their light perceptibly and gradually into the secular.
For instance, baptism, ceremonializing the creation of new life in the world is a critical juncture, hence persistently ritualized; the Christian Baptists, who are relatively non-ritualistic and even anti-ritualistic, nevertheless are insistent that baptism into the church should occur by total immersion of the freely consenting new member in water to signify death of the old life and rebirth in the new. Baptism in a church is general among the French, even though the population has abandoned almost all rituals of the Roman Catholic Christian religion. Early Christian leaders believed that they had found in the Deluge of Noah the ultimate precedent and model for baptism, which repeats for each "saved" initiate the end of the wicked world and the entrance into a new epoch.
Rituals are centered upon the creation of the world and man, upon the first time everything was done, upon catastrophic breakdowns of an age and the beginning of new ages, and upon the rites de passage of human life - - birth, maturation, marriage, and death. Filling in as important subcategories of these are such features of human existence as warfare, where the gods are the models and the gods "Bless our weapons," as the Kaiser of Germany (and many others) once prayed.
Celebrations of cosmic breakdown are a feature of the focusing of rites upon controlling the world against chaos, as in the case of the Aztecs. The New Year is ignored by no culture, because it stands for the end of one age and the beginning of another; the usual rationalizations are afforded, that harvests are now gathered, that the calendar now repeats itself, etc. Nonetheless, beneath the considerable excitement, stirs the anxiety that the year may not repeat itself, the sun may not turn backwards to reenact the seasons, that once upon a time the world went out of control and could not provide assurances of the repetition of its orderly cycles.
The bacchanalia were orgies named for Bacchus or Dionysus, a god, reputed to have traveled the world with a wild troop of both sexes, carrying wands and serpents, acting out a mad composition of dancing, drinking, battling, sacrificing, cannibalism, and feasting. Regular and sporadic orgies, patterned upon the mythology, persisted for centuries before Christ until the Roman Senate with some success banned them for their flagrant challenge to morality and political order.
The crimes attributed to Dionysus were infinite, yet he received a place on the Olympian council of gods, replacing the gentle Hestia, according to one legend. Dionysus was a sky-god, perhaps originally an errant and destructive comet; the orgiastic behavior accompanying him resembles the kinds of social disorder that have been historically reported upon the fear-inspiring apparition of cometary bodies.
The saturnalia of the Greco-Roman world are more precisely applicable to prehistoric events, when the god Saturn was allegedly overturned in a revolt of his wife and children, particularly Jupiter. The last days of the year are regarded as the period when chaos begins, and the new year is seen as the coming of a new age.
"Even if, as the result of successive calendar reforms, the Saturnalia finally no longer coincided with the end and the beginning of the year, they nevertheless continued to mark the abolition of all norms and, in their violence, to illustrate an overturning of values (e. g. exchange of condition between masters and slaves, women treated as courtesans) and a general license, an orgiastic modality of society, in a word a reversion of all forms to indeterminate unity."
So says Mircea Eliade. Types of saturnalia are found throughout the ancient world - - the Middle East, the Mediterranean, China, Japan, and tribal societies of America. The Hebrew religion is not excepted, according to Santillana and von Dechend. And they continue in many places today.
Eliade merges the saturnalia with creation myths. This is contra-indicated by his own evidence. The catastrophe of Saturn and the end of its Golden Age involves the destruction of a preexisting, ante-deluvian, "old world," and therefore comes long after the original creation.
The dramaturgy of the Babylonian Akitu Festival is illustrative of "the abolition of lost time, the restoration of primordial chaos, and the repetition of the cosmogonic act." The god Marduk slays the dragon of chaos, Tiamat, and creates the cosmos from the fragments of its body, including man from the blood of a demonic ally of Tiamat. In the chaos all social forms are confounded, as in the Roman Saturnalia. It is probable that both creation and recreation are handled together in the drama; that is, Marduk (Jupiter) is in a sense a creation god but the Babylonians and Sumerians had older more authentic creation gods; Marduk would be, let us way, a recreation god. Eliade implicitly grants this, when, in discussing the Akitu drama, he adds, "The creation of the world... is thus retroactualized each year," and, a little later, "the hierogamy is a concrete realization of the 'rebirth' of the world and man."
Eliade tends to force all celebrations and rites into illo tempore, "those first great days." He has made an important contribution to the theory of the history of religions by assembling from all over the world evidence of the obsessive reiteration in human activities of the earliest days of mankind. However, he scarcely considers whether real events lay behind this compulsive return to origins of all peoples, a mechanism exactly consonant with Sigmund Freud's mechanism of compulsive reenactment of traumas. Freud, when he essays to explain the origins of the mechanism, postulates a primordial social crisis among the hominids whereby the "father" is killed by the "brothers" of a horde to gain access to the females whom the "father" monopolized; this theory is so weak, as I have shown elsewhere, as not to deserve treatment here.
Eliade does not offer a theory to explain compulsive repetition of chaos and creation, the most prominent of all ritual behavior. He quotes lines from Jensen's Mythes et Cultes chez les peuples primitifs that call out to the original events: "The sacrilege of not having remembered is logically expiated by remembering with special intensity. And because of its special meaning, blood sacrifice is a particularly intense 'reminder' of this sort."
Perhaps relevant as well is an inscription of the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I: "The Light God Ra said: 'You are forgiven your sins. The slaughtered victims remit your extinction. ' Such is the origin of the sacrifice of victims."
The shocking psychic fear associated with human creation and the terrors of the active sky can be combined to explain why mankind has persisted, openly or beneath many kinds of subliminatory activities, in reenacting the earliest scenes. But the general catastrophes were several, accounting for the succession of gods, whereas the creation trauma was singular and unique. The human has been responding not only to the successive natural catastrophes which, of course were also treated as recreations. In racial memory the traumas blend over time. It is noteworthy that they have not entirely merged, with all distinction erased, but they have apparently merged enough so that on the one hand the historian and theorist Eliade does not separate them chronologically, and so that on the other hand most creationist scholars who hold to a literal interpretation of Biblical history are preoccupied with the Deluge of Noah, seeing it as the unique catastrophe that sculpted the face of the Earth.
Mankind, in bursting forth upon the Earth, experienced catastrophe, and thereafter was confirmed in his catastrophized memory by a succession of natural catastrophes. His global sense of the sacred, a sense that Otto and others have described as ambivalent feelings of fearful danger and creative power, expanded with each quantavolution of nature and relaxed between the age-breaks.
Rituals are attempts at close encounters with the gods. They are a primary instrument for controlling oneself and the environment as the gods approach. We find the formula quite clearly perceived by theologians who refer to the sacrifice as the use of an intermediary, the oblation, to communicate between the mundane and the divine. "Sacrifice is ... offered to a divinity in order to establish, maintain or restore a right relationship of man to the sacred order," thus writes R. L. Flaherty in the Encyclopedia Britannica article on sacrifice.
The means of ritually controlling the gods (for "communication" conveys the subservient theological mood more than it does the aggressive political mood) can be analyzed. They are scarcely exotic, though often esoteric. First, man behaves in imitation of the gods. This is in every sense the same as the behavior of the child with respect to his adult guardian and model. It is intended to gather in oneself the strength of the god, and at the same time disarm the god from directing aggression to him. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," as the saying goes. So, if the god fights, the man fights. If the god rages, man rages. If the god bestows generous gifts, so does the man. And so on.
Appeasement of the god's proven potential for aggression against his very worshiper, as well as his enemies, takes many forms. Giving of one's most valued possessions is the most appropriate sacrifice. All manner of bribery, solicitations (it must be discovered what the god wants, even if by trial and error), prostitution (whether as vestal virgins or as temple harlots) - - these are common gifts.
Nor does worshipful man stop short of trickery. That god knows what one thinks does not prevent the most ludicrous practicality and flamboyant excesses. "It can't hurt to perform the rites." Do this and that, not because it is right in the eyes of god, but "lest you die;" ritual is to be performed, not understood, nor does it matter to understand. The important thing is to obey the command. Miserliness is common too: "We are not sacrificing at all to Awwaw this year, since rain has fallen early," remarked an Iyala priest of Nigeria, quoted by Paul Radin.
Much of ritual therefore is a kind of tactical game to exploit the gods. The human encountering god is thrown into a panic, He often overcompensates and contradicts his own view of god as all-wise . He will stop at nothing to be on the right side of his god - never mind inconsistencies, preserving other life values, and saving a personal relationship. It is the politics of absolute autocracy to some, to others the politics of a monarchical court with its courtiers, to still others a two-person game, intensely personal.
Without a theory of origins and earliest history it is perhaps impossible to say whether man modeled kingship upon gods or gods upon kings, Whether rituals were practiced among men and them upon gods, or vice versa. Our particular theory here would make kingship and politics initially religious and soon afterwards transferred into a partially secular sphere, there ultimately to be pragmatized and secularized.
Later one could have a secular republic such as the U. S. A. or France, highly ritualized with specific rules excluding religion from the rituals. Finally one would arrive at the Marxist republic, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and others, where the very permission of religious ritual is viewed as an anomalous and temporary concession. Consistent with its denial of religious ritual, religious faith and revelations are treated as mental aberrations.
Religion without ritual is fear without defenses. Secularism without ritual must be the same. The suppression of supernatural belief does not eradicate the existential fear of man but only its referents - gods, spirits, etc.
The French Revolution after 1789 burst upon both the political regime and the church. Churches were seized, the clergy laicized. A great Feast of the Supreme Being was inaugurated, conducted on the Champ de Mars in Paris. It is clear that the Supreme Being was Reason and Nature. Some churches were rededicated as temples to the Goddess Reason, who was sometimes represented by a pretty girl. New rituals were improvised to replace the old ones.
Numerous writers have pointed out that the supernatural is actually irrepressible and finds it way into astrology, "life in other worlds," " the unexplained" (an enlarging, logically boundless area), and the like. Furthermore, the religious finds its way into the divinization of political heroes - - "St. Karl Marx," "Comrade Mao," the entombed and preserved Lenin, the charismatic leader Mussolini, or de Gaulle, or Franklin Roosevelt, or Gandhi, et al.
We offer no argument against this line of reasoning. A religion of the supernatural, of faith and of revelation can be educed from such secular social phenomena. We would only wish to supplement them. There may be a reciprocal growth in secular ritual to accompany the loss of religion and its ritual.
Two phenomena accompanying modern secularization display conspicuous growth, and may be surrogates for ritual. One is bureaucracy, the other centralization. The two are interconnected: the logic of bureaucracy tends to centralization. The logic of centralization demands bureaucracy. One sees the shadow of religion and ritual in the two. The French Revolution, anti-religious, gave a great boost to centralized bureaucracy throughout the world.
Centralization is a search for a central truth and law toward which all procedures may be directed. Bureaucracy supplies the procedures. Large-scale armies, mass media, huge building complexes, human and computerized industrial giants, mass transportation, global planning - - all of these supply, whatever else they provide (and religion once supplied a distribution system for food out of sacrifices) reiterative, compulsive (compulsory, too), routinized activities lending a feeling of awe and security to those whom they engage and serve. The idea of "efficiency" is offered frequently as a purely secular notion, an activity that can be carried on without a hint of the supernatural or the rite. In the first place, "efficiency" like "god" is all things to all people, hence is not to be accepted as meaningful at face value. Efficiency as a reduction of activity (energy) between two points (from "here" to a goal) to a minimum is flagrantly contradicted by bureaucracy. Efficiency seemingly contradicts sacrifice and ritual, superstition and magic, but actually religious ritual can and has been over the ages consistently intended to be efficient. The idea is not new; it is only aimed at different goals. One can be sure that ancient priests worked continuously to increase the efficiency of fires on altars.
The orders, rules, and laws, practically all now in written form, which pour out of the ruling organizations of the world take up many thousands of large volumes a year. Is this not ritualized behavior? It secures those involved from the nagging fear of existence, acting as a lifeline for the weak psyche to grasp. The summary effect of this overwhelming flood of order is to tell people what they must do and how to go about doing it, in the sacred written word of authority.
Gone for most modern people is the lifeline of religious ritual; in its place is secular ritual. We think of the novels of Franz Kafka (The Castle, Amerika) and of George Orwell (1984) to illustrate our point. It is untrue, although Dostoevski wrote so in The Brothers Karamazov, and one hears it often said, that "if God doesn't exist, everything is allowed." After all, is it not said of the great Soviet State that "Whatever is not forbidden is compulsory"?
The problem is too large for discussion here. I mean merely to add for consideration that the secularized world has a rich and abundant ritual, as well as secular divinities, charismatic experiences, and supernatural "pastimes" that are more serious than religion to their practitioners. The modern secular child knows more rules than the ancient religious child. And so, too, the adult of this world today. At some stage hereafter we must contrast the two modes of life and evaluate them.