Meaningful Violence: Reflections on the Dynamic of Human Sacrifice

William Harmanreprint from Soundings An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. LXXXIII, No. 1, Spring 2000, pp. 119-35. Note year of presentation, viz. 2000….. so that, clearly, this essay is not informed by any writings on the topic after 1999. See Addendum at end.


I  begin with two vignettes:

ONE. In April, 1989 in the Texas-Mexico border town of Mata­moros, Mexico, the remains of thirteen human bodies – mostly bones, boiled entrails, and chunks of flesh -were discovered in a large cooking cauldron inside a shed on property occupied by a group of drug smugglers who practiced a brand of religion and sympathetic magic called Palo Mayombe. The tradition, with roots we can trace to Africa, proposes that the vital forces of sacrificial victims offered to appropriate spirits will provide ritual practitioners with unusual powers. Members of the group were strict abstainers from alcohol and drugs. The “highs” they experienced, they said, came from the spirits they worshiped. The leader of this group, Adolfo Constanzo, had convinced members that their efforts to evade law enforcement authorities were guar­anteed success if they could sacrifice to the spirits carefully selected humans resembling the people the group sought to evade. The thirteen victims included five American college students on Spring Break in southern Texas. The others were Mexican. The sacrifices apparently involved ritual murders, usually stabbings, dismemberment of the bodies, cooking and ceremonial eating of portions of the remains. Authorities were able to apprehend the group partly because of the overconfidence the rituals instilled. Many believed that they had truly become invisible and invincible (Gallerne 1993).

a  Goat sacrifice in Tamilnadu–Pic by Harman

TWO.  In north eastern and southern India we find a thriving cate­gory of goddesses best designated as “fever goddesses.” In the South, the term “Mariyamman” is most common; in the North, “Sitala” is more current. The names of these goddesses vary widely, but they have similar characteristics. The vast majority are understood to protect individual devotees and entire villages from illnesses of all sorts, particularly virulent and death-dealing plagues such as cholera, tuberculosis, and smallpox. Each spring, before the onset of the hot season, a time associated with plagues, devotees worship these goddesses enthusiastically with blood offerings which help to avert the goddesses displeasure and satisfy their perceived need for blood (Whitehead 1921). Goats, chickens, and water buffalo are beheaded in front of their images. People lacerate themselves, offering their own blood, or they perform risky or physically demanding acts by walking on fire, piercing themselves, or going into religious trances (Sitala in Spring n.d.). There are rare human sacrifices, but about these most people generally avoid speaking (Assayag 1992, 335, 345ff.; Kinsley 1986, 145). The media occasionally will take note of them, but only briefly, even when those responsible have been brought to answer by the law. The reality of these sacrifices in the Bengal area has served as inspiration for the exaggerations of the film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). The film is a parody, but it is a parody based on actual, though rare, practices. It is tempting to decry these instances of violence as senseless and meaningless acts. But such pronouncements ignore the possibility that premeditated homicide can have or be invested with purpose, significance, and meaning. No complicated event considered devoid of its context can responsibly be brushed off as “meaningless” without a careful examination of its context. What we may find repulsive or difficult to understand is not necessarily without meaning. “Meaningless” in this case is more dismissive than descriptive.

Here is the basic issue: what does homicide mean to those who experience it or who appropriate it as something ultimately meaningful, as a sacrifice? On the theoretical side we have much to learn from the work of Maurice Bloch and his cross-cultural consideration of sacrifice. Sacrificial killing (which may include the act of suicide) is inherent in the religious worldview. We find it even in those traditions in which killing is explicitly condemned. In Judaism, hidden human sacrificial motifs embedded in the relationships between Cain and Abel and between Abraham and Isaac have been persuasively explored by Hyam Maccoby. In Buddhism, the death of the Buddha can be understood as a quintessential sacrifice in which his death becomes the exemplary instance of pas­sage into Nirvana, a model to be followed by disciples when they relinquish desire and then life itself on the occasion rebirth. The Buddhist vow of celibacy among monks becomes a form of human sacrifice: progeny are eliminated, sacrificed, for the sake of the tradition. Indeed, parents of young monks often talk of how they have sacrificed their grandchildren to the monastic order, and that sacrifice is emphasized by the fact that monks traditionally enter the monastery at the beginning of the spring harvest, the time when young men are most needed in their families and when their loss is most keenly felt.’

In a nutshell, sacrificial killing, implied or explicit, has something to do with the rise and persistence in any tradition of dualism. Conventional dualism suggests firm, nearly impermeable barriers between the forces of good and the forces of evil. These barriers can be breached on certain occasions, and most dramatically with violence. Bloch discusses a very different sort of dualism, one that avoids valuations of “good” and “evil.” He describes “a bifurcation of life between exaggerated chaotic vitality and a transcendental, permanent order, which is the basis of institutions . . .”(1992, 43).

A significant number of religious traditions propose that, in addition to the reality we all know and inhabit, there is a transcendent or sacred realm. These traditions insist that we somehow interpret and understand the world in which we live – this immanent, profane, and mundane world – in light of the postulated sacred, transcendent reality, and of the rules and principles this transcendent reality provides. Indeed, many traditions suggest that this transcendent realm supersedes the immanent and profane one. Following the sacred rules and laws becomes more important than simply fending for ourselves, watching out for the law, getting ahead, or acceding completely to the familiar cynicism of daily life. Bloch tends to follow Durkheim in suggesting that the transcendent, sacred reality is the world of socially created norms, rules, and inviolable traditions to which individual drives, impulses, and desires must be subordinated. And so the rules of this transcendent order become sacred and inviolable, as do its demands and obligations.

Different interpreters of religion, as well as different traditions, will conceive of this transcendent reality differently. It can be called the world of the spirits, the demands of The Torah, the Will of Heaven, Nirvana, Moksa, to name only a few. In order to survive and prosper, each tradition must demonstrate in convincing and occasionally dramatic fashion that the transcendent realm to which it bears witness is ultimately credible, and is at least as real as normal, everyday experience. Such a demonstration will persuade community members that the less immediately obvious transcendent realm rightfully makes radical demands on this ordinary, immanent world. The transcendent reality must subordinate all else to itself. Nothing is more important than the requirements that transcendent reality imposes, no matter how senseless they may appear by the standards of the world. And such a demonstration cannot be easy.

The practical, immanent, this-worldly perspective is one in which birth, growth, expansion, and prosperity tend to be themost laudable of values. They appear to have an intrinsic and undeniable worth. It is the world of the tangible, the quantifiable, and the observable: physics, chemistry, law school, and business school. The transcendent reality – which to most people is invisible and unverifiable – is quite different. It is a postulated world of ideals: the worlds of theology, mythology, and tradition passed on by elders worthy of veneration and unquestioned obedience. It is not immediately natural for most of us – save the elite few with a high “mystic quotient” – to make significant concessions to the requirements of a postulated transcendent reality, areality that is unverifiable. Nor is it particularly practical in the short run.

In the face of a need somehow to reify the transcendent and to bring transcendent values to bear on the lives of people inclined to take what they can in this life and in this reality, certain strategies have proven effective. One strategy is to create ritual dramas in which this transcendent reality asserts itself powerfully and unforgettably. Divinely ordained rituals of initiation will often accomplish this, particularly when they involve suffering and violence (Bloch 1992, 65ff.). These ritual events – such as those described by Hogbin in New Guinea – place the initiates and their parents in a supernormal, surreal reality and impose on them bizarre strictures and rules by proclaiming the temporary arrival of transcendent norms in the community. Such rituals in­volve very real moments of violence, isolation, terror, and near­ death, and so command in prospect and retrospect the  kind of allegiance and reverence we can find today among war veterans of World War II or any seasoned Marines who have survived the violence of  training on Paris Island.[2] People endure such vio­ lence in part because a sacred, transcendent value (whether we call it “the commands of the ancestors,” “duty to one’s country,” “sacred honor,” or simply “becoming a real man”) sanctifies and enjoins their doing so. Impressive rituals often involving trans­fixing violence and dramatic suffering become the embodiment and example of the claim that the transcendent realm is the lo­cus of superior power and of a more salubrious reality.

In many traditions, the transcendent reality asserts itself most dramatically, visibly, and coherently when ritual intermediaries (priests, shamans, and the like) determine that dire circum­stances call for sacrifice.[3] In the currency of the immanent world in which we live, and on the face of it, a sacrifice is almost always a terrible waste, a potlatch ceremony of sorts, celebrated for the sake of transcendent onlookers. Victims are rarely old or de­crepit or dispensable or even diseased. Ideally, they are strong, handsome, beautiful, in their physical prime. They can be first­ born sons or virgin daughters. Even when animals are substituted for humans, the animals are young and exemplary for their spe­cies (Bloch 1992, 48ff.) The point here is that the subordination of vitality, strength, and growth is clearly acted out in the killing of the sacrificial victim. The sacred realm demands it or deserves it.

The cognitive choice that sacrifice leaves us is this: either we insist that the sacrificial death is meaningless and senseless be­cause there is nothing  to these claims for some supposed tran­scendent reality; or we must at some level acknowledge a transcendent realm. Meaninglessness and senselessness are senti­ments against which humans naturally recoil.  Such  sentiments are the emotional and intellectual vacuums religion is designed to fill. Rather than permit the act of sacrifice to remain meaning­less, people make it meaningful – ultimately and transcendently meaningful  – by deciding to affirm, accept, and acknowledge the reality of the transcendent. Sacrifice forces the scholar’s interpretive hand, turning us into  committed  participants  if  we wish to claim our place in the community in which sacrifice oc curs. Sacrifice  creates commitment, psychically  and socially.[4] To that social dynamic  I now tum.

No tradition, society, or group can long exist if unsanctioned murder and violence are feasible or permissible. We learn  early that such killing is a forbidden act, save under mutually agreed­ upon circumstances. When sacrifice occurs, the victim is ideally quite innocent,  in addition  to being young, vigorous,  and full of promise.[5] And so, when ideal sacrificial killing occurs – killing untinged by worldly considerations of punishment or revenge – it involves a suspension of norms and, at some level, a sense of corporate responsibility for an otherwise senseless and forbidden death. A temporary and exceptional state of affairs prevails. The ideal sacrifice creates corporate involvement, which is to say, corporate guilt. The community shares the responsibility for the immolation, and this shared responsibility confirms the sense of solidarity among participants. The act brings together all who participate and who must make some kind of sense out of their participation. Indeed, in those few rare instances of reported sacrificial activities by Satanic groups, young people discovered to be responsible have admitted that their shared culpability in deliberately taking a life bound them together in a common fate that required each to depend on the other to maintain mutual and common secrecy. In a larger community in which sacrifice occurs, no one is really responsible because everyone is. Sharing creates community, and here we find people sharing the responsibility, the blame, and the ideology that transforms blood-spattering, blade-wielding violence into something sublime and necessary. “Shared suffering,” says Jacques Ellul, “creates community.” People come together in a premeditated, cold-blooded act that would normally be forbidden and inappropriate. It is a strangely corporate conspiracy, and the extent to which people sense the conspiratorial nature of the act reflects in some measure the bonds generated among co-conspirators who constitute the community. Sacrifice thus puts people into a position of mutual dependence, mutual guilt, and mutual vulnerability, making them mutually responsible for what could be described by outsiders as senseless violence.

Sacrifice also increases cohesion in the community by helping to define who is “in” and who is “out.” To sacrifice is to offer up that which is a part of the community. Studies by Levi-Strauss (1963) on totemic sacrifice underscore this. Among the groups he studied, communities offer for sacrifice one of their own, that is, the animal to which they believe themselves to be related an? from which they believe they are descended. But human sacrifice, though dramatic, is infrequent. It is a practice likely embed­ded in many traditions, but which those traditions may well have sought to conceal or deny.[6]  What about the more frequent practice of animal sacrifice? In almost every case, the animal is a “stand-in” for the community, or for a human individual. In ancient Judaism, the “sin offering” sacrifice was celebrated to expiate for certain defilements: the guilty laid their hands on the head of a goat or a bull, identifying with the victim, which, as a representative of the guilty, was sacrificed. Blood was sprinkled on the altar and the environs to purify the guilty and to re-establish a proper relationship with Yahweh. Animals and other objects (foods, effigies, replicas, even money) offered in sacrifice tend to be associated in some analogous way with the lives and identities of the members of the community.

SAC- AGARTALA devotees-sacrifice-a-buffalo-calf-as-part-of-a-ritual-during-the-durga Devotees sacrifice a bull at Agartala in India

Sacrificial animals tend also to be domestic rather than wild, living in the human community and associated with its daily lifestyles. Voudon traditions in Haiti sacrifice chickens, goats, and occasionally cattle. The choice of sacrificial victims tends to define the parameters of what the community understands to be a part of itself, and of what individuals or objects can credibly represent the community in a transaction between the immanent and the transcendent spheres. What is sacrificed must be civilized, humane, domesticated, culturally significant. What is sacrificed tells us what people value and who they understand themselves to be. Sacrifice not only creates community; it delineates community. For this reason, sacrifice tends to be concerned with human victims who are “on the margins,” who, in fact, demarcate the lines between the “ins” and the “outs.” Aztec human sacrifice most often involved victims from enemy communities who were captured in battle. Before they could be sacrificed, these prisoners of war had to enter the Aztec cultural world by learning the Aztec language, dressing like Aztecs, learning the sacred Aztec dances. Only then were they likely to be willing, fit victims.

Violent sacrifice does more. Usually in communities where sac­rifice is found, there are ritual practitioners designated to per­form the rites. Either their training or their demonstrated spiritual gifts set them apart as worthy of performing sacrificial acts on behalf of the larger group. These are a special elite: they know the proper ritual acts that will allow them to despatch the intended sacrificial gift. They are authorized by the community to take life without bearing full responsibility. They do not an­swer to the same rules or norms as would be imposed on them in ordinary times and ordinary circumstances.

The administration of this violence bestows on these practitioners directly – and on willing community participants indi­rectly- a divine status. The power to give life, to preserve it, and to take it away are powers normally emanating from the transcen­dent realm. To take a life without having to answer to the com­munity for doing so is to assume ultimate and transcendent power. Normally those who arrogate to themselves the powers to murder are forced to justify their acts or to deny them. Sacrifice, then, is the temporary act of arrogating unto ourselves the pow­ers and prerogatives normally reserved for the transcendent, whether that transcendent be understood as society reified in the form of capital punishment, an arbitrary but inscrutable deity, or Satan. To sacrifice is to approach the level of the transcendent: it involves setting aside, destroying, and offering to the transcen­dent a portion of the community’s vitality.

At the same time it involves drawing nearer to the transcen­dent. If a sacrifice is a gift, it must be given in a context where it can be received. The givers must enter into a world where the transition from the immanent to the transcendent is possible, at least temporarily. Such a context is sacred, and it sanctifies all who participate. To participate in this process is therefore to as­sume temporarily not simply the life-and-death prerogatives of the transcendent, but also to step into the sacred presence of the transcendent. That is is why so many sacrificial acts require the preliminary purification and preparation of participants, as well as final purifications of the environs and of the object to be offered up.

Entering into the presence of the transcendent or the sacred, assuming powers normally associated with the transcendent, and, in the end communing with the sacred by consuming the remains of the sacrificed object – all these acts are forms of elevat­ing the community from the profane to the divine.

The communion meal is an event worthy of some attention here. It is quite common for the entire community to consume the body of the sacrificed victim, particularly if that victim is an animal. Indeed, in several cultures, the only time when meat is eaten is on the occasion of a sacrifice. Participants are dining with the transcendent power to which they have made a precious offering. To dine with another, to share the ingestion of a com­mon substance with another is, in many cultures, a symbolic way of declaring equality, at least temporarily. To share in the food of the sacrifice is to arrogate unto ourselves the momentary privi­leges and rights normally reserved for the sacred and transcen­dent recipient of sacrifice. To offer food to the divine, and then to eat it ourselves, seems a striking form of pretension. It is a bit like the king who, in the midst of his coronation ceremony, in­sists upon crowning himself. The sacrifice, therefore, declares the primacy of a transcendent reality and it re-enacts a moment when the distinction between transcendence and immanence are obliterated, a moment when normal, ordinary, profane folk be­come closely associated with, even identified with, this transcen­dent order. Further, they are reinvigorated by that participation. In consuming the sacrifice, community members are strength­ened both literally and figuratively. They may return to ordinary life with the nourishment returned to them from a sacred source. They are empowered to succeed in worldly tasks, knowing full well that this power comes from a transcendent source. Bloch speaks of “rebounding violence” in sacrificial ritual, violence that becomes redirected outside a community as a result of the sacri­fice. After a group sacrifices or performs violent initiations, he says, it will often engage in aggressive and expansionist acts di­rected toward those outside the group. The use of sacrificial or initiatory ritual as a prelude to such outward aggression is a key element of his theory (1992, 37-43). His reading poses a needed counterpoint to the widely-known theories of Rene Girard, who believes that sacrifice is a sort of ritual sublimation of violence, that it “redirects violence into ‘proper’ channels” (1977, 10).

For Bloch the sacrifice is forward looking. It is frequently something that occurs as a prelude to, and not, as for Girard, a substitute for, acts of grandeur, war, expansion, or the establishment of new horizons. Sacrifice clears away the hesitations and second thoughts arising from an awareness of failure and inade­quacy. The act is a self-affirming, empowering, celebration of a community’s victory, power, and vision.

Rather than witnessing a ceremonial beheading, as might well happen in Haiti or India, most young Westerners today first en­counter chicken as a cooked commodity on their plates or in cel­lophane packages at the food store. Why blood sacrifice has receded from view will vary with the tradition. In some cases, eco­nomic as well as aesthetic concerns prevail: to destroy something the community values highly can become an excessive expendi­ture of precious resources, or of emotional investments. [7] But sac­rifice also raises other issues.  Its primal, basic, and violent character evokes strong emotions, and the more established tra­ditions have discovered that the evocation of such emotions can be repugnant, disruptive, or offensive, rather than conducive to uncompromising commitment. In part, this is because the more established traditions  must change if they are to survive. They seek to provide something quite different from the needs those traditions met in their formative and less established periods. In brief, as an established tradition matures, what its members ex­pect from religion changes, sometimes quite radically.The sacrifice is a motif found in many religious traditions, but the mottf of blood sacrifice has frequently been disguised or atten­uated. Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and even Bud­dhism exhibit clear instances. Particularly in the West, where we prefer our violence sanitized, we choose to avoid most real re­minders of vulnerability and mortality of the flesh. And we find it disturbing when diligent attempts to recreate such violence cine­matographically through  special effects have an impact on im­pressionable young eyes. We are expected to become hardened to it, to dismiss it, not to take it seriously.


In simpler societies, the sacrifice is a powerful experience, evoking associations of wonder, fear, awe, and ordered empower­ment that may not always have been welcomed at the time.[8] It would have been a form of radical spiritual shock therapy. The sacrifice tore people from their more reliable, predictable, this­ worldly existence and forced them into another reality that was mysterious and numinous, and threatening. But in the modern era such an experience is rather upsetting for most of us. What we seek in religion is a sense of comfort and a reassurance that the way things are need not be radically altered, that nothing radical is really required of us. Established Western traditions tend neither to expect nor tolerate from religion an adrenalin rush: freeway traffic, production deadlines, and designer drugs will do that. And so, in many cases, the sacrifice has been watered down into what is now a symbolic or commemorative act.

Robert Fuller, writing as an advocate of pacifism, has insisted that if we are to eliminate war from the world, we are going to have to come up with something “just as good” (1983, 19). War, he notes, is exciting. It galvanizes people. It gives them a clear sense of unity, purpose, and direction. It is romantic, and it stirs the imagination. It provides a clear vision of who is righteous (us) and of who is evil (them). It gives us heroes and villains, and it melds themes we – a la Woody Allen – find compelling: love and death.

One of the reasons we in the Western world have begun to see in the past few decades a return to primal imagery in newly resur­facing marginal traditions like Satanism is that many of us, partic­ularly the young, are looking for the kinds of experience sacrifice once provided in our own traditions. Like war, violent ritual sac­rifice provides very efficiently a thrill, an experience that suggests a sense of the numinous, that reinforces community, and pro­vides a definitive instance of acting “beyond the pale,” of arranging specific times and places when rules associated with the normal, the mundane, and the everyday simply no longer hold. Those who might be fascinated with such phenomena – or with the reports of such phenomena – may well be attracted to the texture of these definitive, irreversible, limit experiences, while at the same time discovering an alternative way to assert their iden­tities, to rebel against a lukewarm religiosity.

Stephen Carter’s observations about the way the country’s po­litical and legal institutions have trivialized religion seem relevant here (1993, esp. 1-44). He decries the Western legal and political establishment’s attitude that scorns serious, heartfelt religious commitment. It has, he notes, become far more genteel and so­phisticated to approach religion as an amusing hobby rather than as a source of passionate, life-sustaining, and perhaps even life-sacrificing commitment.

The extent to which satanic ritual sacrifices – particularly of humans – have occurred, has been grossly exaggerated by rumor-panics that have swept several parts of the country since the mid-1980s (Victor 1993; Richardson, Best, and Bromley 1991). Still, animal sacrifices have been widely documented and the ambivalence these events seem to produce suggests that the ex­pressed fear of such occult activity is accompanied by a fascina­tion with sacrifice and an interest in it (Raschke 1990).

Spirit possession, another quickly spreading religious phenom­enon in the Western world, is very closely associated with sacrifice (Bloch 1992, 32-33; de Heusch 1986, 34ff; Assayag 1989, 147; Zempleni 1986, l9ff). Here a person – indeed, in many communities, several people serially or all at once – abandon their bod­ies to a postulated transcendent realm. They lose  all control, move, shout, speak with no awareness of what they do. The illu­sion is that the transcendent has taken their bodies and that their minds, souls, and wills have been abandoned for use by the tran­scendent entity invoked. The recent popularity of Satanism and fundamentalist/Pentecostal Christianity stems from the same source. They are traditions competing for the same share of an experience-starved market. This, I think, is one of the reasons why fundamentalist Pentecostalism has been so vehement in pub­lic denunciation of Satanic themes perceived in music, films  and games, like “Dungeons and Dragons” (Victor 1993, 219ft). If Pen­tecostal Christianity is the fastest growing genre of Christianity in much of the world today, this is in part because it meets a need people have to experience an intensity associated with the tran­scendent by giving themselves, or a part of themselves, over to it.

Glossolalia constitutes a temporary sacrifice, and those who share the capacity to give themselves over to the transcendent in this way share a strong sense of community. When spirit possession occurs, as in the sacrifice, people may act assertively, speak ag­gressively, and still remain individually unaccountable for their acts. And as in the sacrifice, corporate responsibility for the events enables participants to be exempt from the norms of eve­ryday behavior. A transcendent reality is invoked to explain and understand screaming, shouting, writhing, trances, and the state of  unconsciousness  which  is  described  as being  “slain  in  the spirit.” The sacrificial implications of the metaphor are obvious.

HARMAN-cheek.spears Spears through cheeks as self-mortificationPic by Harman


HARMAN-FIREWALKunnamed Walking over fire — Pic by Harman

* * * * *

I have not been shy about offering some broad-ranging, and theoretical, suggestions regarding the experience of human sac­rifice. I wish now to propose a few final thoughts that might ad­dress the here-and-now question, “So what?”

Sacrifice concerns not simply renewals or beginnings. As Tom Driver and Brian Smith suggest, it has to do with definitive end­ings as well.[9] Human sacrifice constitutes a cataclysmic ending, such as was expected, in the estimates of many millennial groups, at  the  closing  of  the  second  millennium.  Several  millennial groups looked toward what they understood  would  be a crash­ bang finale to the world. If nothing else, 1999 constituted a series of unusual field-work opportunities for historians of apocalyptic and sectarian religious traditions. That pivotal calendrical end of the millennium, some groups thought, would be violent.  Many understood  that such an  end would  require,  in  almost homeopathic fashion, that believers  prepare for the foreseen violence by giving up all they own for the sake of a newly chosen inten­tional community, renouncing this world, abandoning conven­tional family connections, obligations,  and responsibilities. Certain  groups acted in proximate anticipation of, and in re­hearsal for, this end. David Koresh and the Branch Davidians,[10] Jim Jones and his community in British Guyana [11] Luc Jouret and the  French Canadian Order of the Solar Temple,[12] Shoko Asahara’s group Aum Shinri-kiyo, and Marshall Applewhite’s movement called Heaven’s Gate:  each of these traditions engaged in some form of suicide or homicide deliberately induced and cast in the language of sacrifice. Each tradition acted in ac­cord with a vision of the transcendent that contrasts sharply with the sane, stable, immanent world most of us know and affirm. It is a vision of radical sacrifice. It is tempting and, from a Western point of view, natural to label that vision “madness” or “mis­guided” or “meaningless.” But there are other perspectives  that understand  such  behavior  less  pejoratively.  Certain  religious figures in India, for example, savor the declaration that they are “mad” or “crazy” for their faith. Unpredictable lunacy can be the sign of thoroughgoing inspiration. “There is a nostalgia for madness …. ·. lovers, poets, and saints are mad, full of intense passion and desire for direct experience. A person may be mad for love or mad for God” (McDaniel 1990, 1).

Despite the lack of mainline American cultural approbation, there are thmgs to learn about sacrifice from these groups if we seek first to understand the contexts in which they operate — and most likely will continue to operate in increasingly visible arenas. It should not surprise us when adherents refer to these events as sacrificial.

The jury is still out on Shoko Asahara. But in the end, the pow­ers of immanent, this-worldly jurisdictions did not prevail over Luc Jouret, Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite, or David Koresh. These men and many of their followers gave themselves to a per­ception, to a transcendent mandate many of us are likely to dis­miss and deride. Still, these sacrifices leave little doubt about the compelling power of that perception among those who arranged the sacrifices, or who submitted to their execution.


Several people have provided valuable advice in the writing of this paper and wish to thank them here: Paul Watt, Eric Silverman, Istvan Csicery-Ronay, Di­ane Jonte-Pace, Anne Barstow, Bnan Hatcher, and especially Brian Smith and Tom Driver.

  1. More. than almost any other major religious tradition, Buddhism’s explicit mention of the rite or of the category of “sacrifice” is rare or indirect. Rather, the acuity of sacrifice in Buddhism is implied in the context of what members of the tradition renounce for the sake of the faith. I am grateful to Thanissaro Bhikku, Abbott of Metta Forest Monastery, for his ins1ghts regarding th1s dynamic.
  2. Leon Festinger’s theory of “cognitive dissonance” offers one account of the psychological dynamics involved in how people regard as important or valu­able those experiences in which they have been forced to suffer to make personal sacrifices (1957, 1959).
  3. Sacrificial performances involving substitutional animal victims or proxy substances often become regularized, routinized, and calendrical events. However, occasional crises call for more dramatic sacrificial forms involving or suggestmg the tak1ng of human life. One interesting Christian example is that of Oral Roberts’ declaration in 1987 that God was going to “take him away unless believers managed to raise several millions of dollars for his struggling ministry. After isolating himself in a tower on the campus of Oral Roberts University, he waited either to be taken or for devotees to replace the sacrifice he would constitute with the sacrifice of financial substances. The money was raised and the potential sacrificial victim survived. Bloch  suggests, as does this example, that sacrifices function to “restore a problem of order in society” (1992, 37-39)
  4. For very different reasons, Nancy Jay proposes that sacrifice is central to this process: “Sacrifice is an extraordinarily efficient method for control of the production of religious meaning, especially effective in centralizmg and making exclusive the means of communication with the transcendent pow­ers that legitimate the social order” ( 1992, 149). Her provocative and care­fully documented theory proposes that sacrifice is, in part, a way for males to gain control over the processes of birth and death by symbolically elimi­nating the need for women to give birth and to transmute lineage rites. The blood and violence of sacrifice thus replaces and supersedes the blood and violence of physical birth.
  5. Obviously, this situation is not always the case as with – if we are to accept the premise – capital punishment as a sacrifice. But this ideal may well suggest why the aesthetically preferred execution of a sentenced criminal is one in which s/he willingly confesses the crime and accepts the Justice of impending execution. With confession comes the sense that guilt is in some measure absolved and the “sacrifice” approaches the ideal. Though not all sacrifices in the Aztec world were quite so elaborate, one of the more ideal was devoted to the deity Toxcatl. David Carrasco notes that the sacrificed “had to have a flawless body and musical and rhetorical skills. For a full year prior to his sacrifice, he lived a privileged existence in the capital. He had eight servants to ensure that he was splendidly arrayed and bejeweled” (1987, 523). Carrasco also mentions that the victim had to be sacrificed of his own free will.
  6. Hyam Maccoby (1982) has made this point in the context of the founding mythologies of Rome (Romulus and Remus), in Judaism (Cain and Abel; Abraham and Isaac; Moses and circumcision), and in Christianity (Jesus and Judas).
  7. This becomes, of course, the point: a sacrifice involves the loss of some­thing actually or symbolically. In his description of how Christians perform annual sacrifices of goats at the shrine of St. John de Britto in India, Selva Raj shows that a young consecrated goat, one specifically desig­nated for sacrifice, becomes symbolically a member of the community. It receives a name, is fed the same food consumed by the family, and when it wanders in the village it is treated less as an animal and more as a child, a member of the family that has vowed to sacrifice it ( 1994, 119-23).
  8. Compare this development with the similar development in the West of capital punishment which, in many societies, was once a very important public spectacle/ritual. Today, we are permitted to “experience” it only symbolically through news reports. Sanitized violence is preferred. Modern governments that practice capital punishment as a public, didactic act tend to do so in deference to traditional Islamic teachings. Saudi Ara­bia, for example, still practices public beheadings.
  9. Editor’s Note: See Tom Driver, “The Act Itself: Tracing the Roots of Violence in Ritual” in this issue, and Smith.
    Hyam Maccoby (1982) has made this point in the context of the founding mythologies of Rome (Romulus and Remus), in Judaism (Cain and Abel; Abraham and Isaac; Moses and circumcision), and in Christianity (Jesus and Judas).
  10.  Several of Koresh’s followers referred to him as the sacrificial “Son of God” and “The Lamb,” and insisted that the name of the Mount Carmel compound in Waco was deliberately chosen to recall the Biblical event in which Elijah’s sacrifice was consumed in fire, having been found more acceptable than the sacrifices of the priests of the Baal and Asherah (Bailey and Darden 1993, 25, 26476).
  11. In discussing the motives of Jirn Jones and his followers, David Chidester says, “Followers who willingly committed suicide understood their deaths as a revolutionary act of redemptive sacrifice” (1990, 285).
  12. Members of the Order of the Solar Temple accepted a death in flames as the only way they could contribute to the end of this evil age, thus enabling themselves to be reincarnated in purity to return to save the world (Aubert and Keller 1994, lll-17).


 Assayag, Jackie. 1989. “Sacrifice et Violence: les genres de la possession dans le sud de l’Inde (Karnataka).” Nouvelle Révue d’Ethno-psychiatrie 13: 131-58.

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Aubert, Raphael and Carl-A. Keller. 1994. Vie et Morltde l’Ordre du Temple Solaire. Vevey, Switzerland: Editions Jouvence.

Bailey,  B. and  B.  Darden.  1993. Madman  in  Waco. Waco: WRS  Publishing. Bloch, Maurice.  1992. Prey  into Hunter:  The Politics  of Religious Experience.  Cam­bridge: Cambridge  UP.

Carrasco, David. 1987. “Human Sacrifice- The Aztec Rites.” The Encyclopedia of Religion.  Vol. 6. Ed. Mircea  Eliadea. New York and London: Macmillan. 518-23.

Carter, Stephen L. 1993. The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion.  New York:  Harper.

Chidester, David.  1990. Patterns  of Transcendence: Religion, Death,  and Dying. Belmont: Wadsworth.­

Festinger,  Leon.  1957. A  Theory  of  Cognitive Dissonance.  Evanston,  IL: Row  and Peterson.

Festinger, Leon and J.M. Carlsmith. 1959. “Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance.” joumal of Abnormal Social Psychology, 58: 203-10.

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de Heusch, L. 1986. Le sacrifice dans les religions africaines. Paris: Gallimard.

Hogbin, Ian. 1947-48. “Pagan Religion in a New Guinea Village.” Oceania, 18: 130-37.

Indiana Jones  and the Temple of Doom. 1984. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Paramount.

Jay, Nancy. 1992. Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Pater­nity. Fwd.  Karen  Fields. Chicago: University  of Chicago Press.

Kinsley; David. 1986. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass and Berkeley: U of California Press.

Levi-Strauss,  Claude.  1963.  Totemism.  Boston:  Beacon.

McDaniel, June. 1990. The Madness of the Saints: Ecstatic Religion in Bengal. Chi­cago: University of Chicago Press.

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Raj, Selvaj. 1994. Interactive Religious Systems in Indian Popular  Catholicism:  The Case of Tamil and  Santa! Catholics. Ph.D. Diss.  U of Chicago.

Raschke, Carl. 1990. Painted Black. New York: Harper.

Richardson,].,]. Best, and D. Bromley, eds. 1991. The Satanism Scare. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Sitala in Spring: A Festival of the Bengali Goddess of Health and Illness. N.d. Writ. and prod. Abhijay Karlekar and Adithi Nath Sarkar. Executive Prod. Joseph W. Elder. Contemporary South Asia Film Series. U of Wisconsin.

Smith, Brian. “Capital Punishment and Human Sacrifice.” Journal  of the American Academy  of Religion 68.1  (March  2000): 3-26.                                                                  .

Victor, Jeffrey  S.  1993. Satanic  Panic:   The  Creation  of  a  Contemporary  Legend.  Chicago: Open Court.                                                 .

Whitehead, Henry. 1921. The Village Gods of South Indza. Madras: Oxford UP.

Zempleni, A.  1986. “Possesion et sacrifice.”  Transe, Chamanisme, et Possession:  de Ia fete  a l’extase. Nice: Edition Serre.

oath 6 Tamil Tiger Recruit is inducted into LTTE ArmyBBC Documentary Video, 1991

VP homage 2005Pirapāharan pays homage on Black Tiger Day —TamilNet

7-Bodies that fight on

Cenotaph for Tamil Tiger fighters who died in the course of capturing KilinochchiPic by Ravi Vaitheespara, 2004. Depicted by Roberts as “Bodies that Fight On — but one could as readily refer to the message as “Seeds that spout new buds.” The latter conceptualization would be in step with LTTE propaganda and mobilizational imagery (see Hellmann-Rajanayagam 2005).


Farrer, DS 2014 “War Magic and Warrior Religion: Q and A with Farrer,” 20 October 2014,

Hellman-Rajanayagam, Dagmar 2005 “And Heroes Die: Poetry of the Tamil Liberation Movement in Northern Sri Lanka,”  South Asia 28: 112-53.

Maloney, Clarence (ed.). 1976. The Evil Eye. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mines, Diane 2005 Fierce Gods. Inequality, Ritual and the Politics of Dignity in a South Indian Village, Bloomington: Indian University Press.

Pocock, David. 1981 “The Evil Eye—Envy and Greed among the Patidar of Central Gujarat.” Pp. 210-10. The Evil Eye. A Casebook. Ed. Alan Dundes. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.    

Roberts, Michael & Arthur Saniotis  (eds. by invitation) 2006  “Empowering the Body and Noble Death,” Social Analysis, Spring 2006 50: 7-24, introducing articles by Douglas Farrer, Marie Lecomte-Tilouine, Michael Roberts and Jacob Copeman.

Roberts, Michael 2005 “Tamil Tiger ‘Martyrs’: Regenerating Divine Potency?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 28: 493-514.

 Roberts, Michael 2005 “Saivite Symbolism, Sacrifice and Tamil Tiger Rites,” Social Analysis 49: 67-93.

Roberts, Michael 2006 “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite Of Commemoration,” Social Analysis 50: 73-102.

Roberts, Michael 2010 “Self Annihilation for Political Cause: Cultural Premises in Tamil Tiger Selflessness,” in Roberts, Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 161-201.

Roberts, Michael 2010 “Killing Rajiv Gandhi: Dhanu’s Metamorphosis in Death?” South Asian History and Culture, 1: 25-41.

Roberts, Michael 2010 “Hitler, Nationalism, Sacrifice: Koenigsberg and Beyond…Towards the Tamil Tigers,”

Roberts, Michael 2011 “Death and Eternal Life: Contrasting Sensibilities in the Face of Corpses,” 29 June 2011,

Roberts, Michael 2014 “From Godse and Gandhi to the Selfless Sacrifice of the Tamil Tigers,” 13 June 2014,

Roberts, Michael 2014 “Running the Gauntlet in Academia:  The Case of “Selfless Sacrifice” — A Rejected Article,” 15 June 2014,

Roberts, Michael 2014 “The Induction Oath of Tamil Tiger Fighters at their Passing Out Ceremony,” 23 June 2014,

Schalk, Peter 2003 ‘Beyond Hindu Festivals: The Celebration of Great Heroes’ Day by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) in Europe’, in Martin Baumann et al (eds.) Tempel und Tamilien in zweiter Heimat, Ergon Verlag, pp. 391-411.

Tanaka, Masakazu 1991. Patrons, Devotees and Goddesses. Ritual and Power among the Tamil Fishermen of Sri Lanka. Kyoto: Institute for Research in Humanities, Kyoto University.


Filed under cultural transmission, heritage, Hinduism, historical interpretation, life stories, religiosity, Saivism, self-reflexivity, the imaginary and the real, zealotry

4 responses to “Meaningful Violence: Reflections on the Dynamic of Human Sacrifice

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  3. chandre+DW

    This writer says “In Buddhism, the death of the Buddha can be understood as a quintessential sacrifice in which his death becomes the exemplary instance of pas­sage into Nirvana, a model to be followed by disciples when they relinquish desire and then life itself on the occasion rebirth. The Buddhist vow of celibacy among monks becomes a form of human sacrifice: progeny are eliminated, sacrificed, for the sake of the tradition. Indeed, parents of young monks often talk of how they have sacrificed their grandchildren to the monastic order, and that sacrifice is emphasized by the fact that monks traditionally enter the monastery at the beginning of the spring harvest, the time when young men are most needed in their families and when their loss is most keenly felt.” I think this is sheer nonsense. This would have been relevant if this was true ONLY of Buddhism. But in fact, it is true of ALL acetic traditions before, during Buddha’s times and after Buddha’s times, not only in India but elsehwere.

    So, the rule of celibacy among monks, be it among monks in the Indian Tradition, or in Judaism Christianity etc., if it is to be regarded as equal to suicidal sacrifice, then it shows that the writer has absolutely no judgment. According to him, all religions that call for celibacy, or even individuals like Jean-Paul Satre and his companion Simon B who chose not to have children are practicing sacrificial suicide. Bravo!
    So, the author has falsified his own thesis by a Reductio ad absurdum.

    Has he not read about the Vedas? Seven of the twenty one Vedic Yagnyas require animal sacrifices. The most famous ones are the goat in Soma Yaga and the horse in Ashvamedha.The eighteen major Puranas and Upapuranas like the Devi-Bhagavata Purana and Kalika Purana prescribe animal sacrifice. The Jains and the Buddhists who rejected even animal sacrifice are the groups that pushed the Hindus to become vegetarians. There is not only no sacrificial suicide in Jianism, Buddhism an a number of such traditions, but also an explicit rejection.

    If the authors goes back to the 5th century BC after talking of modern day Mexico, has the author forgotten the “hecatomb” tradition in Greece, Carthage etc, where Goddess Athena was satiated with one hundred heads of cattle? Human sacrifice was far more rare but there are well studied cases.

    Has the author forgotten that those who hunted communists in Indonesia in the aftermath of the fall of Sukarno habitually drank the blood of those victims they beheaded?

    • THIS is an erudite and useful comment, CHANDRE.
      Note that the original article was written in 2000. My unreliable memory is that Bill harman moved to France at some point …. and I suspect that he may have passed away by now.[there are too many WILLIAM HARMANs in digital space to check this hunch.

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