Ch1 L38: Beliefs – part XII (sacrifices V)

  1. In the last post, we discussed who was chosen to be sacrificed and how the selection took place [1]. We should keep in mind what we discussed was just one of the many stories and there were different rituals with their own unique details and I just picked up the one which would help us study the transition from the magic [2] to the religion era. We saw that the king would be sacrificed when his virility ebbed away, and in order to preserve his divine spirit [3], his successor killed him in a battle and became the new king.
  2. The problem with letting king age was he might’ve naturally died. To avoid which, some cultures decided to perform the sacrifice by the end of a fixed term which was mostly determined astrologically. For example, in the southern part of India, the fixed period was 12 years [4].
  3. The kings were intelligent and influential enough to convince people that someone else could be sacrificed on their behalf. So, they introduced the idea of temporary kings. By the end of each term, a poor person was selected to be the king and to have the nominal authority for certain days, then he would be sacrificed instead of the real king [5].
  4. However, in some cultures, kings couldn’t convince people to kill a peasant which didn’t have any divine power, so they had to sacrifice someone who was believed to share the same soul. Who’s closer to a king than his son?
  5. Among the Semites of Western Asia the king, in a time of national danger, sometimes gave his own son to die as a sacrifice for the people. Thus Philo of Byblus, in his work on the Jews, says: “It was an ancient custom in a crisis of great danger that the ruler of a city or nation should give his beloved son to die for the whole people, as a ransom offered to the avenging demons; and the children thus offered were slain with mystic rites. So Cronus, whom the Phoenicians call Israel, being king of the land and having an only-begotten son called Jeoud (for in the Phoenician tongue Jeoud signifies ‘only begotten’), dressed him in royal robes and sacrificed him upon an altar in a time of war, when the country was in great danger from the enemy.” When the king of Moab was besieged by the Israelites and hard beset, he took his eldest son, who should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. [6]
  6. We can analyze the reason behind the sacrifice. As long as you have kids to guarantee to pass your genes, we could sacrifice the rest [7]. That’s one reason for sacrificing their son. Another reason could be the power struggle. Kings decided to kill/sacrifice their son to have fewer threats. This situation is well-portrayed in the famous and archetypal play “Oedipus the Rex”. Oedipus was born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta. Laius wished to thwart the prophecy, so he sent a shepherd-servant to leave Oedipus to die on a mountainside. However, the shepherd took pity on the baby and passed him to another shepherd who gave Oedipus to King Polybus and Queen Merope to raise as their own. Oedipus learned from the oracle at Delphi of the prophecy that he would end up killing his father and marrying his mother but, unaware of his true parentage, believed he was fated to murder Polybus and marry Merope, so left for Thebes. On his way, he met an older man and killed him in a quarrel. Continuing on to Thebes, he found that the king of the city (Laius) had been recently killed and that the city was at the mercy of the Sphinx. Oedipus answered the monster’s riddle correctly, defeating it and winning the throne of the dead king – and the hand in marriage of the king’s widow, who was also (unbeknownst to him) his mother Jocasta [8].
  7. We can detect the trace of the taboo [9] of incest [10] in this story which deserves a punishment. Jocasta, upon realizing that she had married her own son, hanged herself. Oedipus then seized two pins from her dress and blinded himself with them. Besides, the deterministic [11] belief is noteworthy. In the first post about the magic era, we discussed that they believed that their actions affected natural courses. Developing astrology and relating the position of the planets or stars to their life, again very superficially, changed their belief and made them seek the cause in the sky.
  8. Very soon, they realized the importance of the Sun in their life [12], giving them warmth and causing the growth of crops. Apart from that, darkness is a source of fear because we’re less able to perceive dangers. Therefore, sunlight was a sign of protection. Thus sun worshipping shouldn’t sound surprising. It’s, at least, more logical than worshipping an animal [13].
  9. It would be an easy question if I asked you when they worshipped the Sun. Obviously on Sundays. It’s good to know that Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn were respectively used to name the days starting from Sunday [14].
  10. The fixed position of the stars or planets at certain times which indicates a pattern created meanings and stories in their mind [15]. There must be some messages for them. For instance, they discovered the temporal adjacency [16] between the cycles of the moon [17] and the height of tides or they could astronomically predict the annual flood of Nile [18] which significantly helped them evolve agriculture. They developed astrology and built observatories to discover those secrets up to the point that they took their most important decisions or set dates for events based on the position of stars. The word disaster is reminiscent of the belief in stars and what would happen if they stopped blessing you.
  11. When you search for meaning and you can’t find it, you’ll replace it with something else. Because the void of ignorance is so scary that you’d rather fill it up with anything. That’s how people who looked for deeper meanings in the sky, not only made up some stories to justify the existence of a pattern but also they applied them to predict people’s fate or in general future. Again the belief in their method made them cherrypick the outcome of their predictions, maneuvering on their success and ignoring or finding an excuse for the counterexamples [19]. To be continued …


[1] Link to the previous post.

[2] We started studying the magic era in the 30th post. Link

[3] We discussed the belief in soul or spirit in the 34th post. Link

[4,5,6] Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough. Link

[7] In the 33rd post, we discussed that sacrificing has the rational basis: to give up temporary benefits for long-lasting gains. Link

[8] Link to the Wiki page about Oedipus.

[9] Link to the post about taboos.

[10] Link to the post about totems and incest

[11] Link to the Wiki page about determinism.

[12] Link to the Wiki page about Solar Deities.

[13] Again you can refer to the post about totems. Link

[14] Link to the Wiki page about the names of the days of the week.

[15] I can say that from the 13th post, we’ve been discussing meanings and how they’re created. Link to the first post about meaning.

[16] I created the term “The law of adjacency” to explain how we relate two or more things to each other. The adjacency can be spatial, temporal, or conceptual (similarity). Link

[17] The ancient people were aware of the lunar phases which dates back to 25000 years ago. Link

[18] Link to the Wiki page about flooding of Nile

[19] Link to the post about counterexamples

The featured image is taken from the following website: Link

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