Ch1 L37: Beliefs – part XI (sacrifices IV)

  1. In the last post, we brought up the question that in the magic era “who must be sacrificed?” [1]. The answer varies among cultures and societies. let’s study some cases.
  2. Sir James Frazer [2] whose studies on the priesthood [3] of Diana’s temple at Nemi led to an exhaustive study of magic and religion, has mentioned in “The Golden Bough” [4] that there societies needed a person who could deal with nature [5]. They used magic [6] to right the wrong and protect the society. They’re called “King”. Frazer called them the priestly or sacrificial kings in order to avoid the confusion between them and sovereigns. Why were they called the sacrificial kings? Because they would be ultimately sacrificed.
  3. The rule of succession at Nemi was the old king was challenged by a young newcomer to a duel by swords. The rule was simple: it was a literally fight-to-death combat and the winner would hold title.
  4. Again the belief [7] in spirit [8] plays a great role in this story. They believed that if the king naturally died, his special (divine) (?) spirit would disappear and refuses to return, so killing meant to preserve the spirit.
  5. These days we have an established definition of eternal God through the Abrahamic religions [9]. However, people in the magic era had a different point of view: God, as the creator of the world, was long dead before.
  6. In answer to the enquiries of Colonel Dodge, a North American Indian stated that the world was made by the Great Spirit. Being asked which Great Spirit he meant, the good one or the bad one, “Oh, neither of them,” replied he, “the Great Spirit that made the world is dead long ago. He could not possibly have lived as long as this.” A tribe in the Philippine Islands told the Spanish conquerors that the grave of the Creator was upon the top of Mount Cabunian. Heitsi-eibib, a god or divine hero of the Hottentots, died several times and came to life again. His graves are generally to be met with in narrow defiles between mountains. When the Hottentots pass one of them, they throw a stone on it for good luck, sometimes muttering, “Give us plenty of cattle.” The grave of Zeus, the great god of Greece, was shown to visitors in Crete as late as about the beginning of our era. The body of Dionysus was buried at Delphi beside the golden statue of Apollo, and his tomb bore the inscription, “Here lies Dionysus dead, the son of Semele.” According to one account, Apollo himself was buried at Delphi; for Pythagoras is said to have carved an inscription on his tomb, setting forth how the god had been killed by the python and buried under the tripod. ” [10]
  7. So, to conserve the spirit, the king (man-God) must be killed to transfer the spirit to the successor. When would it happen? One solution would be using a physical sign such as losing virility or illness. “The mystic kings of Fire and Water in Cambodia are not allowed to die a natural death. Hence when one of them is seriously ill and the elders think that he cannot recover, they stab him to death. The people of Congo believed, as we have seen, that if their pontiff the Chitomé were to die a natural death, the world would perish, and the earth, which he alone sustained by his power and merit, would immediately be annihilated. Accordingly when he fell ill and seemed likely to die, the man who was destined to be his successor entered the pontiff’s house with a rope or a club and strangled or clubbed him to death. The Ethiopian kings of Meroe were worshipped as gods; but whenever the priests chose, they sent a messenger to the king, ordering him to die, and alleging an oracle of the gods as their authority for the command. This command the kings always obeyed down to the reign of Ergamenes, a contemporary of Ptolemy II., King of Egypt. Having received a Greek education which emancipated him from the superstitions of his countrymen, Ergamenes ventured to disregard the command of the priests, and, entering the Golden Temple with a body of soldiers, put the priests to the sword.” [11]
  8. In some cultures the king must be sacrificed at the end of a fixed term which was mostly related to astrology. They thought it would be unsafe to let the king reach the endpoint who might suddenly die naturally, or because he might’ve lost some of the divine power. So, they retired the king earlier by killing him.
  9. Then who would like to be the king? In some cultures, they democratically elected the sacrifice, but in order to thank or lure people to accept this deadly responsibility they gave them some privileges. The sacrificial king would be worshipped as an idol and received oblations. So, they didn’t need to work for that period. They might have been given the judicial or executive power. [12]
  10. In some cultures, they sacrificed the most handsome or beautiful person in a ritual that he was worshipped, received plenty of food and oblations. Those people were the first idols of society. When I was reading “The Golden Bough”, their similarities with the modern idols surprised me. The celebrities are among the most beautiful people, they’re rich because we’re willingly paying for their art (?!) [13], but they’re prisoned in their gilded cage, and we’re waiting for them to make a mistake to sacrifice them. We spread their stories, discuss them in gatherings, laugh [14] at their fiasco and believe that they deserve the punishment. I can say that we sacrificed them in a civilized way.


[1] Link to the previous post

[2] Link to the Wiki page about Sir James George Frazer.

[3] I haven’t seen it in any references but in my opinion, the word priest etymologically means someone who takes care of or protects something. Because I found it very similar to the word the Farsi (Persian) [Link] word (parastar) which refers to the act of preserving fire in  Zoroastrianism. It’s also linked to the German word (Priester) [Link] which is considered to be a root for ‘priest’. As we know Farsi is part of the Indo-European language [Link], so there could be a path from parastar to priest. Since parast is the root for worship many people falsely thought that the Zoroastrians worshipped the fire. But parast is the root for nursing as well (parastar means nurse), so it’s meaning would be someone who takes care of something.

[4] Link to the PDF of “The golden bough” which is highly recommended.

[5] You could start reading about sacrifices from the 33rd post [Link]

[6] Here’s the link to the post about magic

[7] As the title of this post indicates, we’re discussing sacrifices to understand the nature of beliefs more deeply. So, here’s the link to the first post about beliefs.

[8] We talked about soul and spirit in the post about animism. Link

[9] Link to the wiki page about Abrahamic religions

[10] [11] [12] You can refer to “The Golden Bough” Link

[13] I don’t know if we can call all their products art or not.

[14] We discussed laughter in the 6th post which is a form of warning or punishment [Link]. That might be the reason behind the cathartic effect of laughing at someone’s mistake. We’re sacrificing them in our mind which makes us feel better about ourselves. That’s why people feel offended when they’re the target of the laughter. They feel the pain. Besides, it shows a lack of empathy.

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