The Nature of Sacriifice

"Cities Without … something important"

"The most noticeable thing about all the cities of ancient central America – Mayan, Zapotec, Toltec, Olmec or the unknown builders of Teotehuacan, is something you don’t notice at all until someone points it out … then it suddenly becomes remarkable and shakes your confidence in the traditional archaeological view of endlessly warring city-states.

Take, for example, Teotehuacan. The place is vast. No photograph or description can prepare you for the sheer size if it. There are five entrances with car and coach parks: from Entrance One to Entrance Three at the opposite end of the Avenue of the Dead is 5 kilometres, lined with stone pyramids, ruined palaces and public buildings. The part restored and open to visitors is agreed by archaeologists to be a small part of the original – the Houses of Parliament & Whitehall in London, the White House & Capital in Washington, or Red Square & the Kremlin in Moscow – the public centre of a city of at least 200,000 inhabitants. Yet this stone city had no walls


Thw Avenue of the Dead, Teotihuacan

The Mayan cities – thousands of sites - were, with only one exception, without walls. Great sites such as Uxmal, Chichen Itza and Palenque were linked by raised roads called sacabobs, and some sites were linked by canals, but none other than Tulum had walls. El Castillo – the castle – at Chicin Itza is a Spanish name: in reality it is a religious pyramid with a temple at the top.

All the ancient cities of Europe and the Middle East – Jericho, Ur and Babylon; Athens, Troy and Rome; London, Toledo and Berlin … all had their walls and their defences against invaders. Places like Palenque, Tikal and Monte Alban were vast enterprises in stone. The citizens could have built walls had they had wanted. They didn’t build walls so they presumably just didn’t feel the need for them. Why? It cannot have been that these were a more cultured, civilized, peaceful people because, if archeologists are right, they were in military competition with each other for centuries and, even if the archeologists are wrong and they weren’t, every city has a ball park where a rubber ball was knocked through stone hoops to score points and losing teams were often sacrificed. Perhaps we should introduce that incentive in the premier league – it could make soccer more interesting.

The Spanish conquistadores led by Hermann Cortes conquered the Aztecs, destroyed their capital Tenochtitlan and killed tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. They justified their ruthless duplicity by referring the huge number of victims sacrificed to the Aztec gods. There was without doubt some European ‘spin’ on Aztec behaviour, and the Catholic Church – itself hardly a model of tolerance and charity in the Spanish Inquisition – set out deliberately to collect and burn all trace of Mayan, Zapotec, Aztec and other meso-American written wisdom and of conquered cultures; to collect the carved images of other religions and destroy them. Just as the Muslim conquerors of Alexandria are reported to have burned the books of its famous library to heat the baths; and as the Roman Army burned the vast library of Carthage, so the Spanish collected and burnt the books of the Mayans.

As a digression, and lest we become too censorious of those who perpetrated these violations against culture and the common heritage, we should remember that the Taliban destroyed the two thousand year old statues of Buddha in Afghanistan only five years ago. And before we jump to the conclusion that these outrages were the work of others, recall that a vast museum of priceless unpublished manuscripts of the great composers like Mozart and Beethoven was destroyed in the Dresden fire-storm caused by American and British bombing towards the end of World War II.

Even though contemporary Spanish accounts of Aztec behaviour with regard to human sacrifice are slanted so as to justify their own behaviour towards indigenous peoples, it is clear that human sacrifice was practiced on a wide scale. It is also clear that the Aztecs went out to do battle with other tribes with the intention, not of killing the enemy, but of taking as many prisoners as possible, and taking them back to Tenochtitlan where they were sacrificed to the Aztec gods.

So, the aim of war in meso-America was not to kill the enemy soldiers but to capture them alive and then kill them as a sacrifice to their Gods. How does this square with our concept of sacrifice?

If we look back at the First World War we speak of the millions who ‘sacrificed their lives’ for King and country. Poet Wilfred Owen speaks of the sacrifice being too great: that we had no right to fool the ordinary soldiers with such concepts. He calls the words “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” an “age old lie”.

Owen is quoting from Roman writer Horace and the words mean: “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”. We are expected in time of war to be willing to sacrifice ourselves for concepts like “freedom” or “liberty” or “my country” (by which we mean our leaders - Tony Blair. George Bush. Sadam Hussain. Robert Mugabe. Kim Jong Il … and so on.) The concept of dieing for your tribe is dangerously close to killing for one’s tribe – which means killing others, just because they are from a different tribe, which was the root cause of genocide in Rwanda and the behaviour of Serbs in Bosnia a few years ago.

To return to my main theme, the reasons why the Catholic Church has been so adapted and absorbed into central and South American native culture are only partly due to the ruthlessness with which it evangelized. There is also an important point of contact between Christian theology and eons-old meso-American concepts of sacrifice: the Christian God was a willing sacrifice, who gave his own life for the sins of the people.

Native peoples of meso-America could understand the willing sacrifice, in a way we cannot. For us, war means going out and killing people – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Serbia, Chechnya, Palestine, Israel. The western ‘civilised’ concept of war is little more than state terrorism, where people are bombed into submission – in the case of Japan, nuclear bombed into submission - and euphemisms such as “collateral damage” are a thinly disguised attempt to hide the fact that many more non-combatants are killed than fighters. I suggest that ancient central America cities did not need walls because in war a central American Indian tribe did not try to capture an enemy city or interfere with the old, the young or women not part of the army. They fought only enemy soldiers to capture and sacrifice them.

When a Roman soldier, an English soldier at say, Agincourt, a redcoat at Waterloo, men in the trenches … in short, when any “civilized” soldier went to war, he went in the knowledge that he might be killed. I suggest that when an Aztec or Mayan or Toltec or Zapotec soldier went to war, he went in the knowledge that the enemy would try to capture him and sacrifice him to the appropriate God.

Such people were ready to accept the concept of a self sacrificing God.

It is interesting here to digress a little and refer back beyond cities without walls to the urge that impelled humans to gather in cities in the first place. Anthropologists have tried to study the thinking and motives leading to the first cities, but there is a snag. When cities have been rebuilt and expanded over centuries or millennia, the beginnings are lost. Jericho dates from about 10,000 years ago. When Joshua brought down the walls, the city was already 5 or 6 thousand years old. You need an original city, where the city as it began can be investigated.

Caral, Peru a 5000 year old city from the very start of a civilisation

At Caral in Peru, a team of archeologists headed by Dr Ruth Shady found such a city and began excavations. They found no walls. The conventional wisdom is that cities grew up for the protection of inhabitants, but no sign was found anywhere in Caral of warfare or defence. In a Horizon TV Programme about 18 months ago American anthropologist Jonathon Haas said that the conventional wisdom had been proved wrong – and he was a leading proponent of the theory! He said:

You seemed to really have the beginnings of that complex society and I'm able to look at it right at the start and I look for the conflict and I look for the warfare, I look for the armies and the fortifications and they're not there. They should be here and they're not and you have to change your whole mind-set about the role of warfare in these societies and so it's demolishing our warfare hypothesis. The warfare hypothesis just doesn't work.”

The archeologists uncovered a religiously aware people who built pyramids, traded with other communities, used recreational drugs and showed no sign at all of warfare.

It is worth asking the question of what, then, did motivate early groups of individual farmers to form the first cities. The Horizon programme suggested that the motive might have been trade. The people of Caral grew and worked cotton, including the fibre needed for fishermen’s nets, used 40 kilometers away on the coast. Caral was too far from the sea to fish, but the people ate fish, while 40 kilometers away the fishermen used cotton nets but did not grow cotton … the inference is that the cotton was paid for in fish. Artifacts from other, more distant cultures were found at Caral too, evidence of much wider trade.

However, because Caral traded, this does not make it certain that the reason for forming a city was trade. The vast complex of pyramids at Caral could only have been built if the society was sufficiently large and complex to allow the builders – both labourers and craftsmen – free time to spend on a group project without an immediate impact on survival. The same is true, of course, of Stonehenge: the fact that it was built is testimony to the fact that the society responsible for the enterprise had both the time to spare and the inclination to use the time in this way. It used to be thought that the pyramids and other great works of Egypt were built by slaves, but we now know that most of the unskilled labour was provided by farmers paid in kind in the off-season.

It is equally true that, because a complex society built stone circles or pyramids with a religious context, the purpose of such a society cannot automatically be assumed to have been religious. This suggestion would appear to remain, though interesting, a digression from my main theme. So what kind of gods were worshipped at Caral – a relevant question when religion was apparently so important. We can tell very little about the matter, beyond saying that there is no evidence of human sacrifice. Very little can be said about the gods of Teotehuacan either – especially as an early and enthusiastic Mexican archeologist blew up all the temples on top of the pyramids to see what was underneath. (He found pyramids underneath!) We do, however know rather more about the gods of the Aztecs and the Maya. And about their calendar inherited from the Totelcs, which seems to have some bearing on the extremes of sacrifice pursued by the Aztecs.

The Aztecs seem to have been a fairly primitive, nomadic tribe who came from what is now northern Mexico or southern USA to the central valley of Mexico around 1150 AD and built their capital Tenochtitlan on marshy ground and over a lagoon. They shared with other tribes from the same area similar, largely astral, gods and had some background of human sacrifice. Teotehuacan was already empty and abandoned and the Aztecs left it severely alone – fearful of the ghosts of the ‘old people’. They appear to have quickly adopted the Toltec or Olmec calendar, also adopted further south by the Maya, as well as adopting some of the gods of central Mexico, though changing the rituals.

I think the calendar is at least as important as the gods. According to this complicated arrangement there were two ‘years’ – one of 13 months of 20 days (260 days) and another (very much like the Egyptian one) of 12 months of 30 days + 5 ‘unlucky’ days not part of any month (365 days). Every day had two names, one convenient name and one ritual name. It takes 52 years for the two calendars to ‘mesh’ and reproduce the exact pattern of days again. The start of the new cycle was known as the day of new fire and for some important reason (now lost in the mists of antiquity) many of the tribes of meso-America thought that the sun might not rise again for the new cycle, so willing volunteers sacrificed themselves to ensure it could use their blood to give it the strength to rise.

There was an old myth - and I can’t find it now to quote it exactly – that one of the Gods sacrificed himself when the sun refused to rise, and the sacrifices were in memory of that myth. Of course, as Jaques Soustelle comments, the Aztecs are not the only people in the world to have indulged in human sacrifice. Traces of it remained in the Middle East of the Bible and in Semetic religions of the region, and there were traces among the Greeks; Moloch like Uitzilopochtli demanded human victims and the Koran states that heroes fallen on the field of battle go up to heaven. However there is, Soustelle says:

“…no denying that no other people was so obstinate … as the Aztecs in offering hearts and blood to the sun god … Human sacrifice spread to agrarian rites and the cult of the rain god. … women dressed and bedecked like the earth goddess danced before victims who were then decapitated … victims were thrown into the lagoon to appease Tlaloc, and victims burned in honour of the god of fire.”

Human sacrifice, little known during the classical age of meso-America and banned altogether by the ‘God’ Quetzalcoatl, was (re-)introduced into Mexico by northern tribes, who were carried away by the calendar they adopted and seriously misunderstood the myths that went with it, turning the concept of a self-sacrificing God into actual sacrifice – rather like using the sacrifice of the mass as a reason for sacrificing humans on the altar. The strange thing is that culture and cruelty are not mutually exclusive. The Aztecs produced great art, so did other, quite savage cultures across the globe and across history. Cruelty as a concept varies from society to society but it has often gone hand in hand with artistic achievement.

"However, human sacrifice could be considered as idea separate from barbarous cruelty:

Where the human sacrifices practiced in Mexico are concerned, can we attribute them to a taste for torture and cruelty, a deliberate wish to inflict suffering? I do not think so … There are historical accounts that show captors offering to spare their captives’ lives and the captives refusing, voluntarily placing themselves under the knife of the tlamcazqui.

No effort was made to make the victims suffer more than necessary and, in fact, they were given a drug called ololiuhqui to dull the pain. Usually the victim personified the god being worshipped at that particular rite and wore his ornaments and mask … Warriors knew that they would rise into the eastern sky and join the sun god.”

"This is not very different from a suicide bomber who is taught that he will go straight to paradise if he or she dies ‘for Islam’. The difference seems to be an acceptance of sacrificial death as inevitable: “Today it is your turn, tomorrow it will be mine,” the Emperor Montezuma is reported to have said to a renowned Tlaxcaltec chief who had fallen into his hands.

What seems quite different to me is the sacrifice of children. A child cannot be a ‘willing’ sacrifice. One can argue about the age of sexual consent or the age of legal liability for crime, but the former seems to be, by general agreement, even by those at one extreme or the other of opinion, to be in the teens, while the latter appears to be about ten or twelve. At younger age than that, a child cannot be ‘willing’ to do anythin.– it must be taught, persuaded or trained.

"So what is the motive for child sacrifice? A book my children had when they were young, translated, I think, from Dutch, was called ‘How to Become King’ by Jan Terlouw. I have lost track of my copy and a 2ndhand copy from Amazon costs £74! I think I am the poorer for having lost it (and would certainly by poorer if I bought another copy!). A fictitious country is without a King and is ruled by seven well-meaning but over-bureaucratic ministers, like Minister Clean, the Minister of Health, who has a hygiene fad. The boy is said to be the rightful King, but each Minister sets him a ‘task’ to prove himself. The tasks are seemingly impossible, like halting the Wandering Churches of Ecume, continually on the move and destroying all in their path. The boy steers them so that they eventually jam up against each other

"Sacrifice occupies a very interesting place within Freemasonry. The whole 3rd degree ritual is based on death and resurrection: of the sacrifice of life itself for an ideal. In this regard, the establishing of a new assemblage of the Operatives is different in an interesting way from the consecration of lodges, chapters, colleges of other branches of Masonry. The Operatives try to follow the practices of ancient operative masons and build a new assemblage as our predecessors once built a temple. They begin (I understand) by lining up two rods some distance apart with the pole star and form the north-south line. The Grand Master Mason then chooses a point on the line as the centre, which all Masons must use and from which a Mason cannot err. By using a square, they then draw the east-west line. By joining the two points of the north and east, following the ancient skills they have both the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle and the diagonal of a square, living them the north-east corner oftheintended structure. Then comes the interesting part (as far as this paper is concerned): the Operatives, still following ancient custom, ask for volunteers as sacrifice to the building of the temple. From the volunteers, five are chosen, one for each corner and one for the centre. I think that our ancient brethren probably used a rod and rope tod draw a circle: the definition of a square given in the 2nd degree says "an angle of 90 degrees or the 4th part of a circle". a bit pointless if there was no circle. However, the important point is the voluntary sacrifice.

The idea of a willing sacrifice is one that was, by reputation at least, more common in the ancient world than we assume today. In the Dion Fortune novel 'The Sea Priestess' a first world war fort is being converted into a temple and during the work the builder 's mentally subnormal son falls into the sea and drowns.

"Maybe 'tis just as well," said the old foreman ... I was shaking all over, but Miss Morgan was utterly unmoved. She was very sweet to poor old Bindling, but it was a very cold-blooded kind of sweetness. I remembered the old man's words that a temple always demands a life in its building. Well, this one had had it."

Dion Fortune (a western esotericist par exellence) obviously subscribed to a widely held tradition that sacred buildings required a (willing) sacrifice.

underlying purpose of Freemasonry is, I suggest, the renewal of the personality rather as that of alchemy the refinement of the lead of self into the gold of spirit. The secret of both is that we are each a part of God (even this feeble frame there resides an immortal spark, as the 3rd degree ritual says). We seek to RETURN to the God whence we came and the sacrifice of all that hinders us on the path of return is the lesson we have to learn.

We are all guilty of the kind of indolence, intolerance, mistaken zeal or absent-minded pursuit of a desirable goal that leads to undesirable ends, though most of us fall short shaking the very roots of civilization or of human sacrifice. Yet collectively we share the blame and the credit for a civilised society or lack of it. Referring to ‘collateral damage’ does not excuse harm. Nor does it really excuse our own trivial excesses to say ‘sorry’ afterwards, though that is important too. Recognition of a fault or failing is the first step towards correction, and an important part of the Karmic learning process.


BBC Horizon Programme – ‘The Pyramids of Caral’

The Fours Suns’ by Jaques Coustelle; Andre Deutsch; 1971

The Sea Priestess” by Dion Fortune; Aquarian Press; 1989

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