Today I encountered Lesson’s less amusingly named but no less interesting paper on Human Sacrifice [PDF], whose abstract is one of the most libertarian things I have ever read:
This paper develops a theory of rational human sacrifice: the purchase and ritual slaughter of innocent persons to appease divinities. I argue that human sacrifice is a technology for protecting property rights. It improves property protection by destroying part of sacrificing communities’ wealth, which depresses the expected payoff of plundering them. … Human sacrifice is spectacular, publicly communicating a sacrificer’s destruction far and wide. Further, immolating a live person is nearly impossible to fake… To incentivize community members to contribute wealth for destruction, human sacrifice is presented as a religious obligation. To test my theory I investigate human sacrifice as practiced by the most significant and well-known society of ritual immolators in the modern era: the Konds of Orissa, India.
Of course, it is not exactly a rigorous test, but it is still an interesting case.
Leeson’s argument is not as crazy as it sounds at first glance. Suppose you have two very similar villages living near each other; neither has any particular advantage over the other. Each produces food each year, but food production varies due to natural vicissitudes. Some years village A produces more food; some years village B produces more food. Let’s suppose A has more food. Village B might decide to go steal some of A’s food. But war is expensive: B will only want to go to war if they can reasonably hope to steal more than the cost of war.
This sets up a situation where A has two potential war-avoiding strategies. A can pay off B, giving them enough of their surplus food to make them not want to go to war, or A can burn their surplus food, making war pointless.
The first option is a good idea if you have some hope of someday trading for surpluses with Village B in the future; the second option is a good idea if Village B is full of treacherous backstabbers and you’d rather burn your crops than let them have a crumb.
Burning crops is all well and good, but what if your enemies don’t believe that you’ve really burned them? What if the sacrifice is essentially fake, like Prometheus deceiving Zeus by wrapping bull bones in glistening fat? Your enemies might attack you anyway, despite your sacrifice.
Then you need a harder to fake signal, like spending your wealth on expensive trade goods which are then publicly destroyed–and the price and death of slaves, Leeson argues, is particularly difficult to fake.
There follows some math and a description of human sacrifice among the Konds (also spelled Khonds and Kondhs) of India, which I shall quote a bit:
Kond communities sacrificed humans. Their victims were called meriahs. Konds
purchased these persons from meriah sellers called Doms (or Pans) … In principle meriahs could be persons of any age, sex, race, or caste. In practice they were nearly always non-Konds. …
Every community held at least one of these festivals every year. Typically a
single meriah was sacrificed at each festival. But this was a lower bound. Kond country visitors occasionally reported sacrifices of upwards of 20 meriahs at a time
(Selections from the Government of India, 1854, p. 22). The general impression of
British officers who visited Kond country was that “the number of Meriahs annually
immolated” was large — very large — indeed, “far larger than could readily be
credited” (Selections from the Government of India, 1854, p. 28; see also, C.R.,
1846a, p. 61). …
Immolation festivals were large, raucous, three-day parties at which attendees
engaged “in the indulgence of every form of wild riot, and generally of gross excess” (Macpherson, 1865, p. 118). The villages that composed each community took turns
sponsoring the festival—purchasing the meriah and hosting the party. …
These festivals’ main event was the immolation itself, which took place on
the party’s third day. On this day the sponsoring Kond village’s head brought the
meriah, intoxicated with alcohol or opium, to a spot previously appointed for the
In some cases the victim’s arms and legs were broken to prevent his motion. After
this and some final prayers, the priest gave the word, and “the crowd throws itself
upon the sacrifice and strips the flesh from the bones, leaving untouched the head
and intestines” (Macpherson, 1865, p. 128). While cutting the victim to pieces in
this fashion was common, Konds sometimes used other modes of immolation — all
of them spectacular and spectacularly brutal — ranging from drowning the victim
in a pit of pig’s blood to beating him to death with brass bangles, always followed
by cutting him into small pieces…
The meriah thus slaughtered, the festival reached its crescendo. The chief gave
a pig or buffalo to the priest and the meriah’s seller, concluding the event. Each
of the participating villages’ representatives took a strip of the corpse’s flesh and
departed for their settlements where they shared it with their village members who
buried the flesh in their fields.
The British, of course, put a stop to the ritual–a classic act of white people destroying POC culture.
You can read the paper yourself and decide if you think the Kond case supports Leeson’s thesis.
The Kondh are adept land dwellers exhibiting greater adaptability to the forest and hill environment. However, due to development interventions in education, medical facilities, irrigation, plantation and so on, they are forced into the modern way of life in many ways. Their traditional life style, customary traits of economy, political organization, norms, values and world view have been drastically changed in recent times. …
The Kondh family is often nuclear, although extended joint families are also found. Female family members are on equal social footing with the male members in Kondh society, and they can inherit, own, hold and dispose off property without reference to their parents, husband or sons. … Children are never considered illegitimate in Kondh society and inherit the clan name of their biological or adoptive fathers with all the rights accruing to natural born children. The Kondhs have a dormitory for adolescent girls and boys which forms a part of their enculturation and education process. The girls and boys sleep at night in their respective dormitory and learn social taboos, myths, legends, stories, riddles, proverbs amidst singing and dancing the whole night, thus learning the way of the tribe.
Apparently Khonds don’t need to sleep, unlike us mere mortals. It’s just the myth of the noble savage, the peaceful egalitarian who sings and dances all night in harmony with nature.
No explanation is given for the photo of the “meriah sacrifice post.”
Traditionally the Kondh religious beliefs were syncretic combining totemism, animism, Ancestor worship, shamanism and nature worship. … In the Kondh society, a breach of accepted religious conduct by any member of their society invited the wrath of spirits in the form of lack of rain fall, soaking of streams, destruction of forest produce, and other natural calamities. Hence, the customary laws, norms, taboos, and values were greatly adhered to and enforced with high to heavy punishments, depending upon the seriousness of the crimes committed.
This is what pretty much every religion believes.
The practise of traditional religion has almost become extinct today. Many Kondhs converted to Protestant Christianity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century due to the efforts of the missionaries of the Serampore Mission. … Significantly, as with any culture, the ethical practices of the Kondh reinforce the social and economic practices that define the people. Thus, the sacredness of the earth perpetuates tribal socio-economics, wherein harmony with nature and respect for ancestors is deeply embedded whereas non tribal cultures that neglect the sacredness of the land find no problem in committing deforestation, strip-mining etc., and this has led to a situation of conflict in many instances.
Yes, everyone knows that people who practice slash-and-burn agriculture just love nature.
Say what you will for Leeson’s theory, at least he doesn’t LIE to us.
The Wikipedia page about Hamatsa is very interesting.
The Kwakwaka’wakw are an indigenous group from the Pacific North West Coast (ie, British Columbia.) During the long, dark, wet winters, tribe members traditionally entertained themselves via ceremonies put on by different “secret societies.” These were documented back in the 1880s by Franz Boas, the famous anthropologist. (Modern Kwakwaka’wakw society is probably pretty different, given that life has changed a lot in the intervening 140 or so years.)
According to Wikipedia’s version of Boas’s account, there were four main societies: The war society (Winalagalis), the magical society (Matem), the society of the afterlife (Bakwas) and the “cannibal” society (Hamatsa).
Hamatsa was the most prestigious. Whether or not they practiced literal cannibalism or something that just sounds like cannibalism remains a matter of debate, because their rituals were pretty secret.
In defense of the “it’s just a symbolic ritual” argument, the transubstantiation of the Eucharist into the body and blood of Christ, followed by the congregation eating it, sounds a lot like cannibalism and has surely confused some folks over the centuries, but no serious Christian literally believes they are committing cannibalism.
In defense of the “it’s totally real cannibalism” argument, real cannibalism is a thing that sometimes happens and that some anthropologists have been quick to cover up or downplay because they don’t want to say anything bad about other peoples.
Here is Wikipedia’s account of the Hamatsa initiation rite:
In practice the Hamatsa initiate, almost always a young man at approximately age 25, is abducted by members of the Hamatsa society and kept in the forest in a secret location where he is instructed in the mysteries of the society. Then at a winter dance festival to which many clans and neighboring tribes are invited the spirit of the man-eating giant [Baxbaxwalanuksiwe] is evoked and the initiate is brought in wearing spruce bows and gnashing his teeth and even biting members of the audience. Many dances ensue, as the tale of Baxbaxwalanuksiwe is recounted, and all of the giant man-eating birds dance around the fire.
Finally the society members succeed in taming the new “cannibal” initiate. In the process of the ceremonies what seems to be human flesh is eaten by the initiates. Boas describes the hamatsa initiate as eating actual human flesh without chewing. After the ceremony, the initiate is forced to drink large amounts of sea water to induce vomiting, thereby voiding the body of potentially harmful toxins. All persons who were bitten during the proceedings are given expensive presents, and many gifts are given to all of the witnesses who are required to recall through their gifts the honors bestowed on the new initiate and recognize his station within the spiritual community of the clan and tribe.
Based on this account, if I may be so bold as to suggest anything after reading just a few paragraphs on Wikipedia, the ceremony sounds not pro-cannibalism, but anti-cannibalism. Cannibalism is the wild state from which the initiate is removed; he eats human flesh (or symbolic flesh) but is then made to vomit it up; he bites people, but then he apologizes. He goes from feral man-eater to civilized member of the society.
The picture at the top of the post was taken by Edward S. Curtis, an amazingly talented photographer who documented Native Americans and life generally in the American West in the late 18 and early 1900s.
In the Land of the Head Hunters has often been discussed as a flawed documentary film. The film combines many accurate representations of aspects of Kwakwaka’wakw culture, art, and technology from the era in which it was made with a melodramatic plot based on practices that either dated from long before the first contact of the Kwakwaka’wakw with people of European descent or were entirely fictional. …
Some aspects of the film do have documentary accuracy: the artwork, the ceremonial dances, the clothing, the architecture of the buildings, and the construction of the dugout, or a war canoe reflected Kwakwaka’wakw culture. Other aspects of the film were based on the Kwakwaka’wakw’s orally transmitted traditions or on aspects of other neighboring cultures. The film also accurately portrays Kwakwaka’wakw rituals that were, at the time, prohibited by Canada’s potlatch prohibition, enacted in 1884 and not rescinded until 1951.
The potlatch was (is) a related ritual involving feasting and gift-giving; a great deal has been written about potlatches–the Wikipedia page probably isn’t a bad place to start if you are unfamiliar with them.
The Canadian government saw them as wasteful because they apparently also involved the destruction of large amounts of property, and so outlawed them. This was an unproductive and stupid law, as Boas pointed out:
The second reason for the discontent among the Indians is a law that was passed, some time ago, forbidding the celebrations of festivals. The so-called potlatch of all these tribes hinders the single families from accumulating wealth. It is the great desire of every chief and even of every man to collect a large amount of property, and then to give a great potlatch, a feast in which all is distributed among his friends, and, if possible, among the neighboring tribes. These feasts are so closely connected with the religious ideas of the natives, and regulate their mode of life to such an extent, that the Christian tribes near Victoria have not given them up. Every present received at a potlatch has to be returned at another potlatch, and a man who would not give his feast in due time would be considered as not paying his debts. Therefore the law is not a good one, and can not be enforced without causing general discontent. Besides, the Government is unable to enforce it. The settlements are so numerous, and the Indian agencies so large, that there is nobody to prevent the Indians doing whatsoever they like.
On the other hand, the destruction of property at potlatches sometimes included the destruction of slaves, at least among the Tlingit. I don’t know if this happened in every society that held potlatches, but killing slaves is a practice the government certainly had an interest in stopping.
You ask if those [Tlingit] women were put to death? Forget now which of the many slaves you mean. But of course not. Thank God not one has been sacrificed since Hampus is Governor; he has purchased them free on the C[ompany] account, & one slave woman we purchased by a general subscription for 700 R[oubles] B[anco] or 200 R[oubles] S[ilver] — A few months ago the Indians hada great festival. You must know that the conclusion of building new houses, or Barabors as they call them, is a great fete with them, to which they invite all their neighbors at a great distance… Before parting they give away everything they possess, not only all their provisions, but blankets, in one word everything, so that they are quite, quite poor now. At the end of such a fete it is their custom to sacrifice slaves, but before these strangers arrived, Hampus called 7 or 8 of our Teone or chiefs, & forbade them to kill anyone. He promised to give them now & then some present, & to invite them each year to dinner, besides which positively told them, that the moment they attempted to kill one of their slaves, he would fire upon them & their village. The consequence of this was, that they liberated 19 slaves & gave them as a present to the Company. I went with Hampus to see some of them, & expected to see their faces radiant with joy over their liberty. But you could not have guessed they had been doomed to die. To me it was something wonderful as I gazed at them; one was a pretty little girl of 9 – 11 years old…
A little more googling suggests that the Kwakwaka’wakw did it, too, eg:
The Kwakiutl [Kwakwaka’wakw] Winter Ceremonial changed when blankets replaced animal skins and human sacrifice. This resulted in the emergence of a secular potlatch sometime after 1862…
From Human Trophy Hunting on the Northwest Coast, an article by Joan Lovisek, in The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians. It appears that with the arrival of interesting trade goods from whites, the locals had less reason to sacrifice slaves, and so switched (plus they were officially forbidden to do so.) Coppers–large pieces of copper obtained via trade and beaten into a rectangular shape–were sacrificed instead. Luckily for the coppers, they could be repaired and re-sacrificed, and became a kind of currency.
Of course, destroying goods was never as important as giving them away.
I woke up this morning with the realization that I needed to make a meme about Nongqawuse. (Context.)
These were the result:
In 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide in order to reach a UFO they believed was accompanying comet Hale-Bopp.
In 1978, 918 followers of cult leader Jim Jones committed suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid–the origin of the phrase, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”
Mathematician Ted Kaczynski, unable to find a publisher for his manifesto, Industrial Society And Its Future, turned to mailing bombs to professors.
82 Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, died when their compound burned down during a raid by the ATF. It appears that the Branch Davidians set the fire themselves.
The Thugs were an Indian cult that ritually strangled and murdered travelers.
Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in 1995 when he bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in what he claimed was revenge for ATF’s siege against the Branch Davidians.
Hong Xiuquan claimed to be Jesus’ little brother and lead the Taiping Rebellion, which resulted in the deaths of 20-30 million people.
Lee Harvey Oswald
Nongqawuse was a Xhosa prophet who convinced her people that if they sacrificed all of their cattle, the British would be “swept into the sea.” The Xhosa sacrificed their cattle, the British did not get swept into the sea, and mass famine resulted.
Charles Manson was a cult leader whose followers carried out 9 murders in the 70s.
Welcome to our final installment of James Frazer’s Totemism and Exogamy, published in 1910. Here are some hopefully interesting excerpts (as usual, quotes are in “” instead of blocks):
“Another large Dravidian tribe of Chota Nagpur who retain totemism and exogamy are the Mundas. Physically they are among the finest of the aboriginal tribes of the plateau. The men are about five feet six in height, their bodies lithe and muscular, their skin of the darkest brown or almost black, their features coarse, with broad flat noses, low foreheads, and thick lips. Thus from the physical point of view the Mundas are pure Dravidians. Yet curiously enough they speak a language which differs radically from the true Dravidian. … This interesting family of language is now known to be akin to the Mon-Khmer languages of Further India as well as to the Nicobarese and the dialects of certain wild tribes of Malacca. It is perhaps the language which has been longest spoken in India, and may well have been universally diffused over the whole of that country as well as Malacca before the tide of invasion swept it away from vast areas and left it outstanding only in a few places like islands or solitary towers rising from an ocean of alien tongues. …
“Another well-known Dravidian tribe of Bengal among whom totemism combined with exogamy has been discovered are the Khonds, Kondhs, or Kandhs, who inhabit a hilly tract called Kandhmals in Boad, one of the tributary states of Orissa in the extreme south of Bengal. …Their country is wild and mountainous, consisting of a labyrinth of ranges covered with dense forests of sal trees. They are a shy and timid folk, who love their wild mountain gorges and the stillness of jungle life, but eschew contact with the low-landers and flee to the most inaccessible recesses of their rugged highlands at the least alarm. They subsist by hunting and a primitive sort of agriculture, clearing patches of land for cultivation in the forest during the cold weather and firing it in the heat of summer. The seed is sown among the ashes of the burnt forest when the first rains have damped it. After the second year these rude tillers of the soil abandon the land and make a fresh clearing in the woods.
“The cruel human sacrifices which they used to offer to the Earth Goddess in order to ensure the fertility of their fields have earned for the Khonds an unenviable notoriety among the hill tribes of India. These sacrifices were at last put down by the efforts of British officers.”
The text says no more on the subject, but Wikipedia recounts:
Traditionally the Kondh religious beliefs were syncretic combining totemism, animism, Ancestor worship, shamanism and nature worship.The Kondhs gave highest importance to the Earth goddess, who is held to be the creator and sustainer of the world. Earlier Human Sacrifices called “Meriah” were offered by the Kondh to propitiate the Earth Goddess. In the Kondh society, a breach of accepted religious conduct by any member of their society invited the wrath of spirits in the form of lack of rain fall, soaking of streams, destruction of forest produce, and other natural calamities. Hence, the customary laws, norms, taboos, and values were greatly adhered to and enforced with high to heavy punishments, depending upon the seriousness of the crimes committed. The practise of traditional religion has almost become extinct today.
In another report, Colonel Campbell describes how the miserable victim is dragged along the fields, surrounded by a crowd of half intoxicated Khonds, who, shouting and screaming, rush upon him, and with their knives cut the flesh piecemeal from the bones, avoiding the head and bowels, till the living skeleton, dying from loss of blood, is relieved from torture, when its remains are burnt, and the ashes mixed with the new grain to preserve it from insects. Yet again, he describes a sacrifice which was peculiar to the Khonds of Jeypore. It is, he writes, always succeeded by the sacrifice of three human beings, two to the sun to the east and west of the village, and one in the centre, with the usual barbarities of the Meriah. A stout wooden post about six feet long is firmly fixed in the ground, at the foot of it a narrow grave is dug, and to the top of the post the victim is firmly fastened by the long hair of his head. Four assistants hold his out-stretched arms and legs, the body being suspended horizontally over the grave, with the face towards the earth. The officiating Junna or priest, standing on the right side, repeats the following invocation, at intervals hacking with his sacrificial knife the back part of the shrieking victims neck. O ! mighty Manicksoro, this is your festal day. To the Khonds the offering is Meriah, to kings Junna. On account of this sacrifice, you have given to kings kingdoms, guns and swords. The sacrifice we now offer you must eat, and we pray that our battle-axes may be converted into swords, our bows and arrows into gunpowder and balls ; and, if we have any quarrels with other tribes, give us the victory.
Let’s return to Frazer:
“While totemism combined with exogamy is widely spread among the aboriginal tribes of India, it is remarkable that no single indubitable case of it has been recorded, so far as I know, in all the rest of the vast continent of Asia. In the preceding chapters we have traced this curious system of society and superstition from Australia through the islands of Torres Straits, New Guinea, Melanesia, Polynesia, Indonesia, and India. On the eastern frontier of India totemism stops abruptly, and in our totemic survey of the world we shall not meet with any clear evidence of it again till we pass to Africa or America. If we leave India out of account, Asia, like Europe, is practically a blank in a totemic map of the world.”
EvX: Too bad there’s no MAP. A map would have been useful.
“When we pass from Asia to Africa the evidence for the existence of totemism and exogamy again becomes comparatively copious ; for the system is found in vogue among Bantu tribes both of Southern and of Central Africa as well as among some of the pure negroes of the West Coast. We begin with the Herero, Ovaherero, or Damaras as they used to be called, who inhabit German South-West Africa.
“The Herero are a tall finely-built race of nomadic herdsmen belonging to the Bantu stock, who seem to have migrated into their present country from the north and east some hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago. The desert character of the country and its seclusion from the world long combined to preserve the primitive manners of the inhabitants. A scanty and precarious rainfall compels them to shift their dwellings from place to place in order to find pasture for their cattle ; and an arid, absolutely rainless coast of dreary sandhills affords no allurement to the passing mariner to land on the inhospitable shore. … But when the first rains, accompanied by thunderstorms of tremendous violence, have fallen, the whole scene changes as by magic. The wastes are converted into meadows of living green, gay with a profusion of beautiful flowers and fragrant with a wealth of aromatic grasses and herbs … Now is the time when the cattle roam at large on the limitless prairies, and beasts of all kinds descend from their summer haunts in the mountains, bringing life and animation where the silence and solitude of death had reigned before. …
“In their native state the Herero are a purely pastoral people, though round about the mission stations some of them have learned to till the ground. They possess, or used to possess, immense herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and goats. These are the pride and joy of their hearts, almost their idols. Their riches are measured by their cattle ; he who has none is of no account in the tribe. Men of the highest standing count it an honour to tend the kine ; the sons of the most powerful chiefs are obliged to lead for a time the life of simple herdsmen. They subsist chiefly on the milk of their herds, which they commonly drink sour. From a motive of superstition they never wash the milk vessels, believing firmly that if they did so the cows would yield no
more milk. Of the flesh they make but little use, for they seldom kill any of their cattle, and never a cow, a calf, or a lamb. Even oxen and wethers are only slaughtered on solemn and festal occasions, such as visits, burials, and the like. Such slaughter is a great event in a village, and young and old flock from far and near to partake of the meat.
“Their huts are of a round beehive shape, about ten feet in diameter. …
“A special interest attaches to the Herero because they are the first people we have met with in our survey who undoubtedly combine totemism with a purely pastoral life ; hitherto the totemic tribes whom we have encountered have been for the most part either hunters or husbandmen…”
EvX: The text claims that the Herero do not wash the vessels they use for holding and storing milk, but if I recall correctly, they actually use urine to this effect, due to their area being quite dry. (Frazer may not have considered urine a cleaning agent, or may have simply been ignorant on this matter.)
It took almost 400 years between Columbus’s arrival in the New World and the complete military domination of the USA by the invaders–but it happened.
The Americas before Columbus arrived were a place of amazing contrasts–from the igloo-dwelling, hunter-gathering Eskimo to the literate, city-building, cannibal Aztecs. At the southern tip of of Patagonia lies the Tierra del Fuego–so named because the nearly naked locals opted to cope with their frigid climate by carrying fire everywhere.
The oldest still-occupied towns in the US are the Acoma and Taos Pueblos of New Mexico, built nearly a thousand years ago (though today the vast majority of residents live in newer housing with electricity and running water built nearby the historic pueblos.) But the oldest overall is Cahokia, occupied between 600 and 1400 AD:
Cahokia was the largest and most influential urban settlement of the Mississippian culture that developed advanced societies across much of what is now the central and southeastern United States, beginning more than 1000 years before European contact. Today, Cahokia Mounds is considered the largest and most complex archaeological site north of the great pre-Columbian cities in Mexico. …
Cahokia became the most important center for the peoples known today as Mississippians. Their settlements ranged across what is now the Midwest, Eastern, and Southeastern United States. Cahokia was located in a strategic position near the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. It maintained trade links with communities as far away as the Great Lakes to the north and the Gulf Coast to the south, trading in such exotic items as copper, Mill Creek chert, and whelk shells.
Mill Creek chert, most notably, was used in the production of hoes, a high demand tool for farmers around Cahokia and other Mississippian centers. Cahokia’s control of the manufacture and distribution of these hand tools was an important economic activity that allowed the city to thrive.Mississippian culture pottery and stone tools in the Cahokian style were found at the Silvernale site near Red Wing, Minnesota, and materials and trade goods from Pennsylvania, the Gulf Coast and Lake Superior have been excavated at Cahokia. Bartering, not money was used in trade. …
Although it was home to only about 1,000 people before c. 1050, its population grew rapidly after that date. According to a 2007 study in Quaternary Science Reviews, “Between AD 1050 and 1100, Cahokia’s population increased from between 1400 and 2800 people to between 10,200 and 15,300 people”. an estimate that applies only to a 1.8 km2 high density central occupation area. Archaeologists estimate the city’s population at between 6,000 and 40,000 at its peak, with more people living in outlying farming villages that supplied the main urban center. … If the highest population estimates are correct, Cahokia was larger than any subsequent city in the United States until the 1780s, when Philadelphia’s population grew beyond 40,000.
Like many early cities, Cahokia has distinctive, flat-topped pyramids, (here called “mounds”)–probably not because pyramids are magical or because the Cahokians were in contact with Egyptians or aliens, but because it’s the easiest large shape to build. The Cahokians lacked good stone build with and draft animals to haul materials over long distance, so Cahokia’s 120 mounds were built largely of compacted earth:
To achieve that, thousands of workers over decades moved more than an “estimated 55 million cubic feet [1,600,000 m3] of earth in woven baskets to create this network of mounds and community plazas. Monks Mound, for example, covers 14 acres (5.7 ha), rises 100 ft (30 m), and was topped by a massive 5,000 sq ft (460 m2) building another 50 ft (15 m) high.” …
Monks Mound is the largest structure and central focus of the city: a massive platform mound with four terraces, 10 stories tall, and the largest man-made earthen mound north of Mexico. Facing south, it is 100 ft (30 m) high, 951 ft (290 m) long, 836 ft (255 m) wide and covers 13.8 acres (5.6 ha). It also contains about 814,000 cu yd (622,000 m3) of earth. The mound was built higher and wider over the course of several centuries through as many as ten separate construction episodes, as the mound was built taller and the terraces and apron were added.
Since the mounds are made of dirt and it rains in Illinois, erosion is an issue.
Excavation on the top of Monks Mound has revealed evidence of a large building, likely a temple or the residence of the paramount chief, which would have been seen throughout the city. This building was about 105 ft (32 m) long and 48 feet (15 m) wide, and could have been as much as 50 ft (15 m) high. It was about 5,000 sq ft (460 m2).
A large flat plaza located adjacent to Monks Mound was a place where games and public rituals took place.
The Cahokians (and Mississippians in general) had mastered the art of copper working, producing fine ritual art like the dancing warrior to the left. Copper can be worked and shaped while still cold; the Mississippians had not learned how to make bronze nor smelt iron.
The Cahokians also built a Stonehenge-style “Woodhenge”:
a ceremonial area with a 412 feet (126 m) in diameter circle of 48 upright wooden posts. Archaeologists date the placement of at least one of the posts to approximately 950 CE. Archaeological research has shown that four of the posts were at the cardinal locations of north, south, east and west, the eastern and western posts marking the position of the equinox sunrise and sunsets. Four other posts in the circle were shown to be at the summer solstice sunrise and sunset and the winter solstice sunrise and sunset positions.
If you make your sundial big enough, it can double as a clock–a useful trick for a society with a priestly class that wants to do special ceremonies on specific dates.
Woodhenge was eventually dismantled (and moved elsewhere), and the site converted to a cemetery. Some of the burials were of wealthy individuals–perhaps rulers–but most appear to be victims of mass human sacrifice:
A large rectangular pit was dug into the southeast corner of the mound and a mass burial of 24 women was made in it….
A small platform was constructed near the southeastern ramp and four young males with their arms interlocked and missing their hands and skulls were laid out on the platform. Some researchers have concluded that the four men may represent the four cardinal directions.
In a pit excavated next to these four men were placed the bodies of a large group of young women. This mass grave contained the remains of 53 females ranging in age between 15–30 years of age, arranged in two layers separated by matting. The young women show evidence of having been strangled before being arranged in neat rows in the pit. Analysis of bones and dental traits of these women have led archaeologists to believe these individuals were not from the same social class and ethnic group as other individuals interred in the mound. …
Next to this mound to the southwest another mass burial was made. This burial is the most grisly found at the site, containing 39 men and women who appear to have been violently killed. … The victims were then killed and thrown over the edge of the pit. These people showed signs of meeting a violent end, including several being incompletely decapitated, some with fractured skulls and others with fractured jawbones. The evidence shows that some of these individuals were buried alive: “From the vertical position of some of the fingers, which appear to have been digging in the sand, it is apparent that not all of the victims were dead when they were interred – that some had been trying to pull themselves out of the mass of bodies.” The presence of arrowheads in the back of some of these victims, coupled with the beheadings and other evidence of violent death, has led some researchers to conclude that these victims show evidence of warfare or were even the losers of a rebellion against the rulers of Cahokia … On top of them were the remains of 15 elite individuals laid out upon litters made from cedar poles and cane matting . Radiocarbon dating of the cedar poles used for the litters in the top layer burials in this pit determined that this burial was made approximately 100 years after the woodhenge circle had been constructed, or in approximately 1030 CE.
Since the Mississippian culture had not entirely disappeared by the time European chronicles arrived in the area, we actually have an account of a royal Mississippian burial accompanied by ritual sacrifice. According to Wikipedia:
Upon the death of “Tattooed Serpent” [of the Natchez,] in 1725, the war chief and younger brother of the “Great Sun” or Chief of the Natchez; two of his wives, one of his sisters… his first warrior, his doctor, his head servant and the servant’s wife, his nurse, and a craftsman of war clubs all chose to die and be interred with him, as well as several old women and an infant who was strangled by his parents. Great honor was associated with such a sacrifice, and their kin was held in high esteem. After a funeral procession with the chiefs body carried on a litter made of cane matting and cedar poles ended at the temple (which was located on top of a low platform mound); the retainers with their faces painted red and accompanied by their relatives dressed up in their finest garments, were drugged with large doses of nicotine and ritually strangled. Tattooed Serpent was then buried in a trench inside the temple floor and the retainers were buried in other locations atop the mound surrounding the temple. …
Cahokia is only one of the Mississippian people’s many settlements–at least 85 similar sites have been discovered, and that’s just the Mississippians. Other cultures also built mounds, such as the Watson Brake site in Louisiana, built around 3500 BC. (Perhaps these were really all the same culture, but archaeologists classify them as different ones.) The Mississippian sites are generally distinguished by:
Earthen pyramids or mounds
The development of large-scale, corn-based agriculture
Large trade network extending from the Rockies to the Atlantic, Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico
Social hierarchy and centralization of political power, with cities like Cahokia dominant over smaller towns
De Soto observed people living in fortified towns with lofty mounds and plazas, and surmised that many of the mounds served as foundations for priestly temples. Near present-day Augusta, Georgia, de Soto encountered a mound-building group ruled by a queen, Cofitachequi. She told him that the mounds within her territory served as the burial places for nobles.
But like Etzanoa, by the time the Europeans returned, the settlements had been abandoned, most likely due to diseases caught from the French and Spanish.
In Hunters, Pastoralists, and Ranchers: Reindeer Economies and their Transformations [PDF,] Ingold describes the social distribution of food among hunter-gatherers. In normal times, when food is neither super-abundant nor scarce, each family basically consumes what it brings in, without feeling any particular compulsion to share with their neighbors. In times of super-abundance, food is distributed throughout the tribe, often quite freely:
Since harvested animals, unlike a plant crop, will not reproduce, the multiplicative accumulation of material wealth is not possible within the framework of hunting relations of production. Indeed, what is most characteristic of hunting societies everywhere is the emphasis not on accumulation but on its obverse: the sharing of the kill, to varying degrees, amongst all those associated with the hunter. …
The fortunate hunter, when he returns to camp with his kill, is expected to play host to the rest of the community, in bouts of extravagant consumption.
The other two ethnographies I have read of hunter-gatherers (The Harmless People, about the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and Kabloona, about the Eskimo aka Inuit) both support this: large kills are communal feasts. Hunter gatherers often have quite strict rules about how exactly a kill is to be divided, but the most important thing is that everyone gets some.
And this is eminently sensible–you try eating an entire giraffe by yourself, in the desert, before it rots.
Even in the arctic, where men can (in part of the year) freeze food for the future, your neighbor’s belly is as good as a freezer, because the neighbor you feed today will feed you tomorrow. Hunting is an activity that can be wildly successful one day and fail completely the next, so if hunters did not share with each other, soon each one would starve.
Whilst the successful hunter is required to distribute his spoils freely amongst his camp fellows, he does so with the assurance that in any future eventuality, when through bad luck he fails to find game, or through illness or old age he can no longer provide for himself and his family, he will receive in his turn. Were each hunter to produce only for his own domestic needs, everyone would eventually perish from hunger (Jochelson 1926:124). Thus, through its contribution to the survival and reproduction of potential producers, sharing ensures the perpetuation of society as a whole. …
Yet he is also concerned to set aside stocks of food to see his household through at least a part of the coming winter. The meat that remains after the obligatory festive redistribution is therefore placed in the household’s cache, on which the housewife can draw specifically for the provision of her own domestic group (Spencer 1959:149). After the herds have passed by, domestic autonomy is re-establisheddraws on its own reserves of stored food.
But what happens at the opposite extreme, not under conditions of abundance, but when everyone‘s stocks run out? Ingold claims that in times of famine, the obligation to share what little food one has with one’s neighbors is also invoked:
We find, therefore, that the incidence of generalized reciprocity tends to peak towards the two extremes of scarcity and abundance… The communal feast that follows a successful hunting drive involves the same heightening of band solidarity, and calls into play the same functions of leadership in the apportionment of food, as does the consumption of famine rations.
I am reminded here of a scene in The Harmless People in which there was not enough food to go around, but the rules of distribution were still followed, each person just cutting their piece smaller. Thomas described one of the small children, hungry, trying to grab the food bowl–not the food itself–to stop their mother from giving away their food to the next person in the chain of obligation.
Here Ingold pauses to discuss a claim by Sahlins that such social order will (or should) break down under conditions of extreme hunger:
Probably every primitive organization has its breaking-point, or at least its turning-point. Every one might see the time when co-operation is overwhelmed by the scale of disaster and chicanery becomes the order of the day. The range of assistance contracts progressively to the family level; perhaps even these bonds dissolve and, washed away, reveal an inhuman, yet most human, self-interest. Moreover, by the same measure that the circle of charity is
compressed that of ‘negative reciprocity* is potentially expanded. People who helped each other in normal times and through the first stages of disaster display now an indifference to each others’ plight, if they do not exacerbate a mutual downfall by guile, haggle and theft.
I can find no evidence, either in my reading of circumpolar ethnography, or in the material cited by Sahlins, for the existence of such a ‘turning-point’ in hunting societies. On the contrary, as the crisis deepens, generalized reciprocity proceeds to the point of dissolution of domestic group boundaries. ‘Negative reciprocity’, rather than closing in from beyond the frontiers of the household, will be expelled altogether from the wider social field, only to make its appearance within the heart of the domestic group itself.
Thus the women of the household, who are allowed to eat only after the appetites of their menfolk have been satisfied, may be left in times of want with the merest scraps of food. Among the Chipewyan, ‘when real distress approaches, many of them are permitted to starve, when the males are amply provided for’…
In situations of economic collapse, negative reciprocity afflicts not only the domestic relations between husband and wife, but those between mother and child, and between parent and grandparent. If the suckling of children is the purest expression of generalized reciprocity, in the form of a sustained one-way flow, then infanticide must surely represent the negative extreme. Likewise, old or sick members of the household will be the first to be abandoned when provisions run short. Even in normal times, individuals who are past labour have to scavenge the left-overs of food and skins (Hearne 1911:326). In the most dire circumstances of all, men will consume their starving wives and children before turning upon one another.
Drawing on Eskimo material, Hoebel derives the following precepts of cannibal conduct: Not unusually . . . parents kill their own children to be eaten. This act is no different from infanticide. A man may kill and eat his wife; it is his privilege. Killing and eating a relative will produce no legal consequences. It is to be presumed, however, that killing a non-relative for food is murder. (1941:672, cited in Eidlitz 1969:132)
In short, the ‘circle of charity’ is not compressed but inverted: as the threat of starvation becomes a reality, the legitimacy of killing increases towards the centre. The act is ‘inhuman’ since it strips the humanity of the victim to its organic, corporeal substance. If altruism is an index of sociability, then its absolute negation annuls the sodality of the recipient: persons, be they human or animal, become things.
This is gruesome, but let us assume it is true (I have not read the accounts Ingold cites, so I must trust him, and I do not always trust him but for now we will.)
The cold, hard logic of infanticide is that a mother can produce more children if she loses one, but a child who has lost its mother will likely die as well, along with all of its siblings. One of my great-great grandmothers suffered the loss of half her children in infancy and still managed to raise 5+ to adulthood. Look around: even with abortion and birth control widely available, humanity is not suffering a lack of children. ETA: As BaruchK correctly noted, today’s children are largely coming from people who don’t use birth control or have legal access to abortion; fertility rates are below replacement throughout the West, with the one exception AFAIK of Israel.
Furthermore, children starve faster and are easier to kill than parents; women are easier to kill than men; people who live with you are easier to kill than people who don’t.
“Finally, as the footsteps stopped just outside the igloo, it was the old man who went out to investigate.
“He emerged to see a disoriented figure seemingly unaware of his presence. The being was touching the outside of the igloo with curiosity, and raised no protest when the old man reached his hand out to touch its cheek.
“His skin was cold. …
The figures, of course, were the last survivors of the Franklin Expedition. They had buried their captain. They had seen their ship entombed by ice. They had eaten the dead to survive. …
Inuit nomads had come across streams of men that “didn’t seem to be right.” Maddened by scurvy, botulism or desperation, they were raving in a language the Inuit couldn’t understand. In one case, hunters came across two Franklin Expedition survivors who had been sleeping for days in the hollowed-out corpses of seals. …
The figures were too weak to be dangerous, so Inuit women tried to comfort the strangers by inviting them into their igloo. …
The men spit out pieces of cooked seal offered to them. They rejected offers of soup. They grabbed jealous hold of their belongings when the Inuit offered to trade.
When the Inuit men returned to the camp from their hunt, they constructed an igloo for the strangers, built them a fire and even outfitted the shelter with three whole seals. …
When a small party went back to the camp to retrieve [some items], they found an igloo filled with corpses.
The seals were untouched. Instead, the men had eaten each other. …
In 1854, Rae had just come back from a return trip to the Arctic, where he had been horrified to discover that many of his original Inuit sources had fallen to the same fates they had witnessed in the Franklin Expedition.
An outbreak of influenza had swept the area, likely sparked by the wave of Franklin searchers combing the Arctic. As social mores broke down, food ran short.
Inuit men that Rae had known personally had chosen suicide over watching the slow death of their children. Families had starved for days before eating their dog teams. Some women, who had seen their families die around them, had needed to turn to the “last resource” to survive the winter.
Infanticide, cannibalism, and human sacrifice were far more common prior to 1980 or so than we like to think; God forbid we should ever know such fates.
“Many Neolithic groups routinely resorted to infanticide … Joseph Birdsell believed that infanticide rates in prehistoric times were between 15% and 50% of the total number of births, while Laila Williamson estimated a lower rate ranging from 15% to 20%.:66… Comparative anthropologists have calculated that 50% of female newborn babies were killed by their parents during the Paleolithic era. Decapitated skeletons of hominid children have been found with evidence of cannibalism. …
“Three thousand bones of young children, with evidence of sacrificial rituals, have been found in Sardinia. Pelasgians offered a sacrifice of every tenth child during difficult times. Syrians sacrificed children to Jupiter and Juno. Many remains of children have been found in Gezer excavations with signs of sacrifice. Child skeletons with the marks of sacrifice have been found also in Egypt dating 950-720 BCE. In Carthage “[child] sacrifice in the ancient world reached its infamous zenith.”:324 …
“According to Shelby Brown, Carthaginians, descendants of the Phoenicians, sacrificed infants to their gods. Charred bones of hundreds of infants have been found in Carthaginian archaeological sites. One such area harbored as many as 20,000 burial urns. …
“… the exposure of newborns was widely practiced in ancient Greece, it was even advocated by Aristotle in the case of congenital deformity — “As to the exposure of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.” …
“The practice was prevalent in ancient Rome, as well. … A letter from a Roman citizen to his sister, or a pregnant wife from her husband, dating from 1 BC, demonstrates the casual nature with which infanticide was often viewed:
“I am still in Alexandria. … I beg and plead with you to take care of our little child, and as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. In the meantime, if (good fortune to you!) you give birth, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it.” 
“In some periods of Roman history it was traditional for a newborn to be brought to the pater familias, the family patriarch, who would then decide whether the child was to be kept and raised, or left to die by exposure. The Twelve Tables of Roman law obliged him to put to death a child that was visibly deformed. …
“Philosopher Han Fei Tzu, a member of the ruling aristocracy of the 3rd century BC, who developed a school of law, wrote: “As to children, a father and mother when they produce a boy congratulate one another, but when they produce a girl they put it to death.” …
“Buddhist belief in transmigration allowed poor residents of the country to kill their newborn children if they felt unable to care for them, hoping that they would be reborn in better circumstances. Furthermore, some Chinese did not consider newborn children fully “human”, and saw “life” beginning at some point after the sixth month after birth.
“Contemporary writers from the Song dynasty note that, in Hubei and Fujian provinces, residents would only keep three sons and two daughters (among poor farmers, two sons and one daughter), and kill all babies beyond that number at birth.”
“It was not uncommon that parents threw a child to the sharks in the Ganges River as a sacrificial offering. The British colonists were unable to outlaw the custom until the beginnings of the 19th century.:78
“According to social activists, female infanticide has remained a problem in India into the 21st century, with both NGOs and the government conducting awareness campaigns to combat it. …
“In the Eastern Shoshone there was a scarcity of Indian women as a result of female infanticide. For the MaiduNative Americans twins were so dangerous that they not only killed them, but the mother as well. In the region known today as southern Texas, the Mariame Indians practiced infanticide of females on a large scale. Wives had to be obtained from neighboring groups.”
In 2005 a mass grave of one- to two-year-old sacrificed children was found in the Maya region of Comalcalco. The sacrifices were apparently performed for consecration purposes when building temples at the Comalcalco acropolis. …
Archaeologists have found the remains of 42 children sacrificed to Tlaloc (and a few to Ehecátl Quetzalcóatl) in the offerings of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan. In every case, the 42 children, mostly males aged around six, were suffering from serious cavities, abscesses or bone infections that would have been painful enough to make them cry continually. Tlaloc required the tears of the young so their tears would wet the earth. As a result, if children did not cry, the priests would sometimes tear off the children’s nails before the ritual sacrifice.
It is perhaps more profitable to ask which cultures didn’t practice some form of infanticide/infant sacrifice/cannibalism than which ones did. The major cases Wikipedia notes are Ancient Egypt, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (we may note that Judaism in many ways derived from ancient Egypt, and Christianity and Islam from Judaism.) Ancient Egypt stands out as unique among major the pre-modern, pre-monotheistic societies to show no signs of regular infanticide–and even in the most infamous case where the Egyptian pharaoh went so far as to order the shocking act, we find direct disobedience in his own household:
3 And when she [Jochebed] could not longer hide him [the baby], she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink.4 And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him.
5 And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river’s side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it.
6 And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.”
7 Then said his sister to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?”
8 And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” And the maid went and called the child’s mother.
9 And Pharaoh’s daughter said unto her, “Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages.” And the women took the child, and nursed it.
10 And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, “Because I drew him out of the water.”
I don’t know the actual infanticide numbers in modern Muslim countries (le wik notes that poverty in places like Pakistan still drives infanticide) but it is officially forbidden by Islam.
Today, between the spread of Abrahamic religions, Western Values, and general prosperity, the infanticide rate has been cut and human sacrifice and cannibalism have been all but eliminated. Abortion, though, is legal–if highly controversial–throughout the West and Israel.
According to the CDC, the abortion rate for 2013 was 200 abortions per 1,000 live births, or about 15% of pregnancies. (The CDC also notes that the abortion rate has been falling since at least 2004.) Of these, “91.6% of abortions were performed at ≤13 weeks’ gestation; … In 2013, 22.2% of all abortions were early medical abortions.”
To what can we attribute this anti-infanticide sentiment of modern monotheistic societies? Is it just a cultural accident, a result of inheritance from ancient Egypt, or perhaps the lucky effects of some random early theologian? Or as the religious would suggest, due to God’s divine decree? Or is it an effect of the efforts parents must expend on their few children in societies where children must attend years of school in order to succeed?
In ecology, r/K selection theory relates to the selection of combinations of traits in an organism that trade off between quantity and quality of offspring. The focus upon either increased quantity of offspring at the expense of individual parental investment of r-strategists, or reduced quantity of offspring with a corresponding increased parental investment of K-strategists, varies widely, seemingly to promote success in particular environments. …
where r is the maximum growth rate of the population (N), K is the carrying capacity of its local environmental setting, and the notation dN/dt stands for the derivative of N with respect to t (time). Thus, the equation relates the rate of change of the population N to the current population size and expresses the effect of the two parameters. …
As the name implies, r-selected species are those that place an emphasis on a high growth rate, and, typically exploit less-crowded ecological niches, and produce many offspring, each of which has a relatively low probability of surviving to adulthood (i.e., high r, low K). A typical r species is the dandelion Taraxacum genus.
In unstable or unpredictable environments, r-selection predominates due to the ability to reproduce quickly. There is little advantage in adaptations that permit successful competition with other organisms, because the environment is likely to change again. Among the traits that are thought to characterize r-selection are high fecundity, small body size, early maturity onset, short generation time, and the ability to disperse offspring widely. …
By contrast, K-selected species display traits associated with living at densities close to carrying capacity, and typically are strong competitors in such crowded niches that invest more heavily in fewer offspring, each of which has a relatively high probability of surviving to adulthood (i.e., low r, high K). In scientific literature, r-selected species are occasionally referred to as “opportunistic” whereas K-selected species are described as “equilibrium”.
In stable or predictable environments, K-selection predominates as the ability to compete successfully for limited resources is crucial and populations of K-selected organisms typically are very constant in number and close to the maximum that the environment can bear (unlike r-selected populations, where population sizes can change much more rapidly).
Traits that are thought to be characteristic of K-selection include large body size, long life expectancy, and the production of fewer offspring, which often require extensive parental care until they mature.
Rushton’s book Race, Evolution, and Behavior (1995) uses r/K selection theory to explain how East Asians consistently average high, blacks low, and whites in the middle on an evolutionary scale of characteristics indicative of nurturing behavior. He first published this theory in 1984. Rushton argues that East Asians and their descendants average a larger brain size, greater intelligence, more sexual restraint, slower rates of maturation, and greater law abidingness and social organization than do Europeans and their descendants, who average higher scores on these dimensions than Africans and their descendants. He theorizes that r/K selection theory explains these differences.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that the article states, “Rushton’s application of r/K selection theory to explain differences among racial groups has been widely criticised. One of his many critics is the evolutionary biologistJoseph L. Graves, who has done extensive testing of the r/K selection theory with species of Drosophila flies. …”
Genetics or culture, in dense human societies, people must devote a great deal of energy to a small number of children they can successfully raise, leading to the notion that parents are morally required to put this effort into their children. But this system is at odds with the fact that without some form of intervention, the average married couple will produce far more than two offspring.
This is a series on the animist religions popularly known as Voodoo. Yesterday we discussed various West African forms and their notable tendency toward human sacrifice (and even cannibalism.) Today we are hopping the Atlantic to examine the thankfully less-homicidal, local Voodoo variants. (Tomorrow’s post is here.)
The trans-Atlantic slave trade created new religious communities by mixing up adherents from different parts of Africa and exposing them to new religions traditions–Protestantism in the US, Catholicism in Haiti and Latin America, and various Native religions.
The results are the forms of Voodoo you are probably familiar with, due to their frequent depictions in popular media, Halloween productions, and Louisiana tourist shops.
Voodoo makes for better fiction than reality, because in reality, Voodoo doesn’t work. (If Voodoo spells for power and money worked, Haiti would have conquered the planet and would be fabulously wealthy. Who needs nukes when you could just take out you enemies with Voodoo Dolls?) Voodoo’s popularity is based, instead, on appealing psychologically to its adherents.
Wikipedia claims that Voodoo Dolls aren’t actually for doing harm to others, “The Hoodoo doll is a form of gris-gris and an example of sympathetic magic. Contrary to popular belief, Hoodoo dolls are usually used to bless and have no power to curse,” but this is obvious bullshit. “Sympathetic magic” is the idea of influencing one thing by doing something similar to another thing. So, for example, if you have yellow fever and I want to cure you, I make a little effigy of you, paint it yellow, and then wash off the paint, hoping this will “wash off” the “yellow” from you. Sympathetic magic goes both ways; if I can cure you of yellow fever by washing the paint off the doll, I can give it to you by putting paint on the doll.
Consider, similarly, a claim that “Christian prayer is only supposed to praise god and request good luck or favors, not to invoke harm against others.” A Christian might say that, but in reality, prayers like, “Dear God, please give me victory in battle so that I may defeat the infidel,” or “Please give Johnny a cold so he won’t go to school and beat me up tomorrow,” are pretty common.
There is a general reluctance on Wikipedia to write things that reflect negatively on one’s subjects. For example, the page on West African Vodun doesn’t mention the word “sacrifice” at all, though one wonders how those fetish markets obtain their large piles of animal parts for magic rituals if animals are not killed in some way. The Wikipedia page on the DRC only references cannibalism only in the footnotes, and that’s just the title of an article from which a statistic on the size of the Pygmy population is based. The DRC human rights violations page also fails to mention cannibalism, focusing instead on their more mundane forms of horrifically common violence.
Or take this Scribol article on West African Voodoo, which admits that animal sacrifice is part of the religion, but also says, “These days, Voodoo remains flexible and capable of assimilating ideas from different traditions. At its core, however, it is monotheistic, believing in a single creator god who is assisted by spirits known as “Orishas”.” No, Voodoo is not monotheistic; having a supreme deity who rules over lesser deities is not the same thing as having only one deity. The article is accompanied by this photo:
Wow, look at that expert focusing of the camera on something other than the actual subject of the photo so that you can’t actually tell what’s going on, and the convenient black-and white to make the blood not stand out! If you’re going to defend animal sacrifice as “not cruel” or sinister, then don’t turn around and act like you’re afraid to actually show it to us. The article also reassures us that human sacrifice hasn’t been part of West African Voodoo for a hundred years, though recent news articles tell a different story.
Still, it’s true to say that human sacrifice isn’t exactly “mainstream” in the region and governments in most of the affected countries are trying to stomp it out.
Luckily for us, sacrifice takes a milder form in most of the New World forms of Voodoo, with many adherents content to just pour out libations for the thirsty dead or hand them the odd cigarette.
As always, exceptions exist.
Palo is a Cuban variety of Voodoo with large Congolese influences, which also invokes the magic of human remains. According to Wikipedia:
The main practice of Palo focuses upon the religious receptacle or altar known as a Nganga or Prenda. This is a consecrated vessel filled with sacred earth, sticks (palos), human remains, bones and other items. …
Palo has been linked to a rash of grave robbing in Venezuela. Residents report that many of the graves at Caracas‘ Cementerio General del Sur have been pried open to have their contents removed for use in Palo ceremonies. In Newark, New Jersey, USA a Palo practitioner was found to have the remains of at least two dead bodies inside pots within the basement, along with items looted from one of the tombs.
I looked up the Newark case (the original article is from the WSJ, but you have to join to read it, so I linked to a copy from another site):
Unlike its close relative, Santería, which stops at animal sacrifice, Palo believes that dead humans can also help connect believers to the spiritual realm. Paleros, says Mr. Canizares, believe that “the body has a right to be resurrected as a religious aid.” In the mythology of Palo, he says, “there is nothing wrong with asking a skeleton to work with you.” …
Skulls are the most prized form of human remains put into the nganga. Effort is made to leave at least three-quarters of the skull exposed, to enhance the visual effect for adherents at services. The nganga is the home to the spirit of a particular Palo god as well as the spirit of the dead person whose remains are “fed to the nganga.”
Which brings us to grave robbing, or “so-called grave robbing,” as paleros like Mr. Canizares refer to it, objecting to Western judgmentalism. Palo doctrine insists that those who take remains from graves perform elaborate “permission rituals.” The dead are to be left alone if they say no. A palero can gauge skeletal interest by sprinkling liquor on a grave and listening for a rumbling sound–i.e., “yes.” Other permission rituals involve nailing an animal’s tongue to a tree so the spirit can speak through it.
How often do you think those tongues say “no”?
Not all skeletons are created equal: The more evil or powerful a person was in life, and the more violent the death, the better. This makes criminals and corrupt politicians especially appealing, along with murder victims and suicides. The longer a person has been dead, the better, too. An infant’s full skeleton is also highly prized for its power.
With its high concentration of Cuban immigrants, northern New Jersey has become a Palo hotbed. In 1999, Kearny, N.J., police charged a Palo priest and several followers with the theft of the remains of an infant dead for 83 years. Workers at the cemetery had found machetes in trees, and animal tongues.
Consider that it is not actually that easy to get from Cuba to the US! Unless Castro did something clever like load his most annoying population into boats and aim them at the US, one imagines that the average Cuban-American had to do something pretty daring and clever to get over here, or at least had a lot of money. Jumping over to Wikipedia for a second:
Fidel Castro sent some 20,000 criminals directly from Cuban prisons, as well as mentally ill persons from Cuban mental institutions, with the alleged double purpose of cleaning up Cuban society and poisoning the USA. Those people were labeled “unadmissible” by the US government, and with time, through many negotiations, have been returned to Cuba.
So Castro was pretty clever. (In case you were wondering, New Jersey has 83,000 Cubans, the nation’s third highest concentration after Florida and California.)
Continuing with the article:
…connections to a Palo conspiracy remained elusive until an informant led police to a religious-items store, or botanica, while a ritual was in progress in August of this year. Inside the pots were three skulls and body parts from five corpses. Police charged the store owner with burglary, theft and conspiracy. Just a month ago, Newark police raided the scruffy tenement at Central and Norfolk. Inside a basement worship room, 10-gallon Palo pots held at least two sets of human remains, including two skulls. … The other bones may belong to a juvenile. This, police say, raises the prospect of an unreported grave robbery or even a murder. The scene inside the worship room, says Newark Detective Donald Stabile, was ghastly. Animal parts were arranged on altars around the room. The basement “had an odor that you keep with you–like your first DOA.”
Photo that accompanied the article:
Let us be thankful that most Palo followers are content with grave robbing. Some, like serial killer Adolfo Constanzo, aren’t:
Constanzo was born in Miami, Florida to Delia Aurora Gonzalez, a Cuban immigrant mother in 1962. She gave birth to Adolfo at the age of 15 and eventually had three children of different fathers. She moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico after her first husband died and remarried there. Constanzo was baptized Catholic and served as an altar boy, but also accompanied his mother on trips to Haiti to learn about Voodoo. … As a teenager, Constanzo became apprenticed to a local sorcerer and began to practice a religion called Palo Mayombe, which involves animal sacrifice. His mother remarried and his new stepfather was involved in the religion and drug dealing. Constanzo and his mother were arrested numerous times for minor crimes like theft, vandalism and shoplifting.
They sound like lovely people! I hope we keep our policy of indiscriminate Cuban migration just because we hate Castro!
As an adult, Constanzo moved to Mexico City and met the men who were to become his followers: Martin Quintana, Jorge Montes and Omar Orea. They began to run a profitable business casting spells to bring good luck, which involved expensive ritual sacrifices of chickens, goats, snakes, zebras and even lion cubs. Many of his clients were rich drug dealers and hitmen who enjoyed the violence of Constanzo’s “magical” displays. He also attracted other rich members of Mexican society, including several high-ranking corrupt policemen who introduced him to the city’s powerful narcotics cartels.
Constanzo started to raid graveyards for human bones to put in his nganga, or cauldron, but before long he would need live human sacrifices instead of old bones. More than 20 victims, whose mutilated bodies were found in and around Mexico City, are thought to have met their end this way.
Constanzo began to believe that his magic spells, many of which he took from Palo Mayombe, were responsible for the success of the cartels and demanded to become a full business partner with one of the most powerful families he knew, the Calzadas. When his demand was rejected, seven family members disappeared. Their bodies turned up later with fingers, toes, ears, brains and even (in one case) the spine missing.
Finally Constanzo murdered an American, at which point politicians in Texas managed to do what politicians in Mexico apparently didn’t feel like doing, and got the Mexican police to do their fucking jobs:
Police quickly discovered the cult and that Constanzo had been responsible for Kilroy’s death, after a ‘good’/superior brain for one of his ritual spells. Officers raided the ranch and discovered Constanzo’s cauldron, which contained various items such as a dead black cat and a human brain. Fifteen mutilated corpses were dug up at the ranch, one of them Kilroy’s. Officials said Kilroy was killed by Constanzo with a machete chop to the back of the neck when Kilroy tried to escape about 12 hours after being taken to the ranch.
Costanzo committed suicide, but 14 of his associates were arrested and charged with murder, drug-running, etc.
I actually don’t object, abstractly, to the physical practice of animal sacrifice. Most sacrificed animals are eaten after wards. I eat animals; what does it matter if someone says a prayer over an animal before butchering and eating it?
I object to the spiritual notion that animal (and human) bodies contain magical powers or spirits that you can obtain by killing them. That is a road that leads to head-hunting, cannibalism, and murder.
One of the things I appreciate about Christianity and Judaism is that they have basically eliminated sacrifice. Judaism first did away with human sacrifice, symbolically in the story of Abraham, Isaac, and the ram, and then explicitly in the injunctions not to sacrifice your children to Moloch. This was no mere hypothetical; their neighbors regularly sacrificed children to Moloch.
Jews still conducted animal sacrifices until the fall of the Second Temple, after which there was nowhere to do the sacrifices, and so they stopped. Hypothetically they could resume if anyone ever gets around to rebuilding the temple, but this does not appear to be a priority, and I don’t think most Jews want to do animal sacrifices.
Christianity never had animal sacrifice of any kind, having begun with a replacement of all forms of sacrifice with deistic sacrifice in the form of Jesus’ death and resurrection. (As a result, some early Christian sects were vegetarian, due to the association between all forms of animal butchering and “sacrifice.”) The closest Christianity gets to sacrifice is the Catholic belief in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist, in which bread and wine are supposed to become, in some non-physical way, Jesus’ flesh and blood. Still, there is no threat of Catholics tracking down an actual Jesus and deciding to eat him.
But I’m off-topic. Grave robbing may be illegal in the US, but animal sacrifice isn’t; in 2009, for example, a Texas court ruled that Jose Merced, a Santeria priest (Cuban variety of Voodoo also common in PR,) was legally allowed to sacrifice animals in his home:
“Merced cannot perform the ceremonies dictated by his religion,” Judge Jennifer W. Elrod wrote. “This is a burden, and it is substantial. It is real and significant, having forced Merced to choose between living in Euless and practicing his religion.”
The court said Merced’s only available ceremonial space was in his house, due to the scarcity of Santeria temples in the United States. They also found that the Santeria priest discarded of the animal remains in a timely and sanitary manner.
As the sacrificial hour approaches, several priests (Santeros) are preparing the 40 assorted goats, roosters, hens, guinea hens, pigeons, quail, turtle and duck who grow noisy and nervous in their cages. Their lives will be taken in an exchange mandated by Olofi, Santería’s supreme god and source of all energy, to heal the broken body and spirit of Virginia Rosario-Nevarez and to initiate her into the Santería priesthood. …
Mounted against a wall in the back room shrine in Merced’s house are shelves containing clusters of small ceramic pots, ornately decorated and filled with shells, stones and other artifacts—the physical manifestations of the Orishas that reside in the room. To initiate Nevarez as a priestess, new godly manifestations of the old gods on Merced’s shelf must be born. To make this happen, animal blood will be spilled onto new pots, which the priestess will take home to begin her own shrine with her own newly manifested gods. …
Thea article then takes us through Merced’s childhood in Puerto Rico and introduction to Santeria. At the age of 12 he developed chronic stomach pain:
A medical doctor suggested exploratory surgery, but his mother wouldn’t hear of it. … he asked his mother to bring him to a woman his mother had been seeing for private spiritual readings. Even without him mentioning it, the woman told him about his intestinal pains and his nightmares. Hoping she could cure him, Merced began attending weekly séances at her home. …
The woman became his godmother in Santería, and she continued to treat him with herbal potions and spiritual readings. Over the next 18 months, he lost 60 pounds and had good months as well as bad.
I’m interpreting “lost 60 pounds” as “his stomach was so bad he couldn’t digest food anymore and was starving,” rather than “he became increasingly healthy and worked off excess fat,” but I’m not positive.
Finally, Merced says that the Orishas spoke through the woman and told her that the only way to make his pain disappear was to get initiated as a priest. Merced was ready, but the ceremony was expensive, $3,000, and he didn’t have enough money. For a year after graduating high school, Merced saved up …
Anyone else get the impression that someone is taking advantage of sick people?
He had helped with other initiations at his godmother’s house but was never allowed inside the shrine-room. “I saw the animals going in alive and coming out dead,” Merced recalls. But he had no idea why. … If you’re not crowned [a priest], you’re not supposed to know. So when I went in to my ceremony, I didn’t have a clue.” … As the animals were brought in, he was told to touch his head to the animal’s head and its hooves to other areas of his body. The animal was absorbing his negativity. He had to chew pieces of coconut, swallowing the juice but spitting the coconut meat into the animal’s ear.
… The pieces of coconut represented Merced’s message—his thoughts, feelings, needs—which were transferred to the goat for direct passage to Olofi. His physical contact with the animal was also symbolic of his commitment to God. As soon as the animal’s blood was spilled, Merced’s negativity, which had been absorbed by the goat, was released. The purified blood then spilled into the pots. (bold mine)
Shortly after the initiation, he says his stomach pains subsided. “I never, ever have felt again the same pain that I used to feel before,” he says.”
It’s a pity this sort of thing doesn’t seem to replicate under controlled, scientific conditions, because if you could really cure chronic conditions just by sacrificing a few goats, modern medicine would be revolutionized.
Getting back to the legal situation:
Laycock had successfully represented the Santería church before the Supreme Court in 1993 after the city of Hialeah, Florida, tried to ban the ritual killing of animals not for public consumption. The Hialeah City Council enacted the ban specifically targeting the Santería religion after it learned one of its churches had plans to locate within city limits. The high court saw this ordinance as being applied exclusively to Santería and held it an unconstitutional restriction on the free exercise of religion.
Laws specifically targeting snake-handling Christian churches have been on the books in pretty much every Southern state but West Virginia for decades, (WV believes in freedom of religion or something,) and the SCOTUS seems fine with that. (Actually, the court might decide in their favor if they bothered to bring a case.)
The American South has its own Voodoo traditions, with Catholic and Haitian influenced Voodoo down in Louisiana, and the more Baptist flavored Hoodoo everywhere else.
Haitian/Louisiana Voodoo probably come closest to the form of an organized religion, in large part because Voodoo has been able to operate above-ground in Haiti, where about half the people believe in it, including their erstwhile dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier:
Duvalier fostered his cult of personality and claimed he was the physical embodiment of the island nation. He also revived the traditions of Vodou, later using them to consolidate his power with his claim of being a Vodou priest, himself. In an effort to make himself even more imposing, Duvalier deliberately modeled his image on that of Baron Samedi, one of the loa, or spirits, of Haitian Vodou. He often donned sunglasses to hide his eyes and talked with the strong nasal tone associated with the loa. The regime’s propaganda stated that “PapaDoc was one with the [loa], Jesus Christ and God himself”. The most celebrated image from the time shows a standing Jesus Christ with a hand on the shoulder of a seated PapaDoc, captioned, “I have chosen him”. Duvalier declared himself an “immaterial being” as well as “the Haitian flag” soon after his first election. In 1964, he published a catechism in which the Lord’s Prayer was reworded to pay tribute to Duvalier instead of God.
Duvalier also held in his closet the head of former opponent Blucher Philogenes, who tried to overthrow him in 1963.:132He believed another political enemy was able to change into a black dog at will and had the militia begin killing black dogs on sight in the capital.
Clearly the kind of guy you want running your country!
Personally, the vibe I get off Papa Doc is less Loa of Death and more Steve Urkel:
But maybe you had to be there.
Sadly, I can’t find the picture of Jesus endorsing Papa Doc.
Wikipedia gives some insight into the practice of Haitian Voodoo, which appears to revolve around death, worship, and spirit possession:
The practitioners of Vodou revere death, and believe it to be a great transition from one life to another, or to the afterlife. In some Vodou families, it is believed that a person’s spirit leaves the body, but is trapped in water, over mountains, in grottoes, or anywhere else a voice may call out and echo for a span of one full year and one day. … After the soul of the deceased leaves its resting place, it can occupy trees, and even become a hushed voice on the wind. …
As the songs are sung, participants believe that spirits come to visit the ceremony, by taking possession of individuals and speaking and acting through them. … In Haiti, these Vodou ceremonies, depending on the Priest or Priestess, may be more organized. But in the United States, many vodouists and clergy take it as a sort of non-serious party or “folly”. In a serious rite, each spirit is saluted and greeted by the initiates present and gives readings, advice, and cures to those who ask for help. Many hours later, as morning dawns, the last song is sung, the guests leave, and the exhausted hounsis, houngans, and mambos can go to sleep.
Vodou practitioners believe that if one follows all taboos imposed by their particular loa and is punctilious about all offerings and ceremonies, the loa will aid them. Vodou practitioners also believe that if someone ignores their loa it can result in sickness, the failure of crops, the death of relatives, and other misfortunes.  Animals are sometimes sacrificed in Haitian Vodou. A variety of animals are sacrificed, such as pigs, goats, chickens, and bulls. “The intent and emphasis of sacrifice is not upon the death of the animal, it is upon the transfusion of its life to the loa; for the understanding is that flesh and blood are of the essence of life and vigor, and these will restore the divine energy of the god.”
Hoodoo seems pretty mild, all things considered, involving more stories of witch doctors and sacrifice than actual witch doctors making actual sacrifices, and is less of a “religion” and more a collection of folk medicines and superstitions. Wikipedia explains:
The purpose of hoodoo was to allow African Americans access to supernatural forces to improve their lives. Hoodoo is purported to help people attain power or success (“luck”) in many areas of life including money, love, health, and employment. As in many other spiritual and medical folk practices, extensive use is made of herbs, minerals, parts of animals’ bodies, an individual’s possessions and bodily fluids, especially menstrual blood, urine, saliva, and semen.
Contact with ancestors or other spirits of the dead is an important practice within the conjure tradition, and the recitation of Psalms from the Bible is also considered spiritually influential in hoodoo. …
Hoodoo is linked to a popular tradition of Bottle Trees in the United States. According to gardener and glass bottle researcher Felder Rushing, the use of bottle trees came to the Old South from Africa with the slave trade. Bottle trees were an African tradition, passed down from early Arabian traders. They believed that the bottles trapped the evil spirits until the rising morning sun could destroy them.
*Googles “bottle tree”*
Hoodoo and Louisiana Voodoo are referenced frequently in American music:
Many blues musicians have referred to hoodoo in their songs. Popular examples include “Louisiana Hoodoo Blues” by Ma Rainey, “Hoodoo Lady Blues” by Arthur Crudup, and “Hoodoo Man Blues” by Junior Wells. The Bo Diddley song “Who Do You Love?” contains an extensive series of puns about a man hoodooing his lover. He also recorded an album titled Got My Own Bag of Tricks (1972), a reference to a mojo hand or trick bag. In Chuck Berry‘s song “Thirty Days” he threatens an ex-lover, telling her that he “…talked to the gypsy woman on the telephone […] she gonna send out a world wide hoodoo…”. Woody Guthrie wrote the lyrics for “Hoodoo Voodoo”, a song later performed by Wilco and Billy Bragg. Creedence Clearwater Revival made reference to it in their hit song “Born on the Bayou” with the lyrics, “And I can still hear my old hound dog barkin’, chasin’ down a hoodoo there….”
and folklore–God, Doctor Buzzad, and the Bolito Man is a good book if you’re interested in the subject, but since I don’t have my copy anymore, here’s a story I found on the internet:
The first Dr. Buzzard came to Beaufort on a slave ship. Almost as soon as he was given a cabin in which to live, his master learned of his magical powers. This Dr. Buzzard had so much influence over the other slaves that his master gave him a large measure of freedom to be used in the practice of witchcraft. When the slaves were allowed to pursue their ancestral customs and beliefs, they performed their tasks more cheerfully.
I have read elsewhere that the “first” Dr. Buzzard was a white guy, but after he died, the mantle was taken up by dozens of others, most of them black. I doubt anyone could prove it either way.
The people born in slavery and their descendents relied on those who “worked in root” for their medical needs. Roots were mixed with cemetery dirt, frog’s feet, hearts of owls, and crushed bones and used as charms.
…He wore purple eyeglasses, a custom which prevented others from seeing his eyes, and he seemed to be always chewing on a root. The root on which he chewed had magical power, according to Dr. Buzzard. He said if he went into a courtroom during the time a case was being tried, he could chew the root and affect the outcome of the case. He also used another procedure in affecting the result of trials. He concocted a powder by grinding together certain materials, and he sprinkled the powder on desks, tables, and chairs in the courtroom. After the powder had been scattered about the courtroom, Dr. Buzzard said the room had been “rooted” and the course of the trial in progress would change.
Dr. Buzzard’s routine also called for the use of black cat’s. He said there was no stronger force in the world than that of a bone from a black cat that had been boiled alive! The technique called for Dr. Buzzard to put a black cat in a kettle of boiling water, and when the hot water covered the cat, “ That cat would talk just like a man.
After the cat had been boiled, it was dropped into a sack (the water in which the cat had been boiled was poured into a container for future use, as it was considered to be powerful in the treatment of certain maladies) and taken to a creek. The cooked cat was then dumped into the creek. If the process of boiling the cat and dumping the remains into the creek had been done correctly, according to the unexplained techniques of voodoo, all the bones would float away from the bank of the creek or sink, except one bone. “That bone just floats right to me,” Dr. Buzzard said. That was the bone with the power. Anyone carrying that bone was safe from “the law and everything else.”
In Dr. Buzzard’s case, it was probably more important to be known as the kind of guy who would boil cats alive than to actually boil them alive–but you never know.
I thought perhaps the “Magical Negro” trope in movies had its origin in folks like Dr. Buzzard, but it appears that–O Brother, Where Art Thou? possibly excepted–the trend is a recent thing has nothing to do with Southern folklore. Besides, proper Hoodoo doctors are supposed to be a bit scary.
I see a certain similarity between the ecstatic dance and spirit possession of the Voodoo ceremonies; the ring shouts of American black churches; speaking in tongues, faith healing, and spirit possession in various Pentecostal or Charismatic churches; snake handling; etc. These groups are not all theologically linked, but they are all common in the South, where they may have influenced each other by proximity.
More likely, though, I suspect the impulse toward these forms of worship arose fairly independently, simply because they appeal to the people involved.
(Do you ever just want to link to about a dozen posts and say, “Here, read all of this quickly and then carry on?)
I did a fair amount of research on animist religious traditions–specifically, those related to West African Vodun–for the Satanic Daycare Posts. Most of that didn’t make it into the posts, but it did manage to give me nightmares.
(Content warning: human sacrifice)
The past three “Anthropology Fridays” have focused on Edward B. Tylor’s description of Animism, the general religious belief that non-human entities, like animals, plants, and stones–have souls or spirits. (AF1: human sacrifice; AF2: animal sacrifice; AF3: plant and object sacrifice.) Tylor believes that animism constitutes the original form of religious belief from which all others descended (an intriguing position, but nigh impossible to prove,) and that the practice of sacrifice (of people, animals, plants, and things,) follows naturally from the belief that their souls will journey on to the afterlife or spirit realm. Eg:
Of such rites in the Pacific islands, the most hideously purposeful accounts reach us from the Fiji group. Till lately, a main part of the ceremony of a great man’s funeral was the strangling of wives, friends, and slaves, for the distinct purpose of attending him into the world of spirits. Ordinarily the first victim was the wife of the deceased, and more than one if he had several, and their corpses, oiled as for a feast, clothed with new fringed girdles, with heads dressed and ornamented, and vermilion and turmeric powder spread on their faces and bosoms, were laid by the side of the dead warrior. Associates and inferior attendants were likewise slain, and these bodies were spoken of as ‘ grass for bedding the grave.’
“Animism” is a broad term that could be applied to thousands of religions; this post is specifically concerned with West African traditions and their religious descendants, aka Voodoo.
Organized religions like Christianity and Islam have conveniently (for me) written down their beliefs and worked hard to ensure that all of their members believe the same thing. Of course they don’t all believe the same thing, and there are always groups that are exceptions, but overall, we can say things like, “Jews are monotheists who focus on the diasporic experience;” “Muslims are monotheists who really like their prophet, Mohammad;” “Christians are monotheists but their god manifests in multiple different forms.” Talk to just about any adherent of these religions in the world, (Mormons excepted,) and you’ll find someone who agrees with one of these statements.
Polytheistic animist religions from non-literate societies are not so convenient. They happily morph and absorb new traditions and deities wherever they go–Catholicism where there were Catholics; Protestantism where there were Protestants; Islam where there were Muslims; indigenous American beliefs where there were Natives; and these days, apparently, Hindu iconography due to Hindus producing attractive-looking pictures of their deities. This creates a great deal of variation in individual local traditions, though we will be generally ignoring these to focus more on underlying commonalities and big-picture differences.
Of course, people are never content to leave names alone, presumably because there is some sort of elite cred to be earned by carefully enunciating the difference between “Voodoo” and “Vodou,” and because Vodou priests don’t like being associated with schlocky horror movies and Louisiana tourist shops.
For the sake of this post, if it sounds like “Voodoo,” I’m going to spell it “Voodoo.” If I mean a specific variant, like “Haitian Voodoo” or “West African Voodoo,” I’ll say that. If it’s a variety with a really different name, I’ll say something like, “Obeah Voodoo” or just “Obeah.”
I’ve collected some pictures:
Some Voodoo art is better looking, eg:
I think it’s reasonable to conclude that this religion involves a lot of penises.
All of the Voodoo variants basically believe that spirits exist, and you can get them to help you out by sacrificing things to them. These things can be anything from other people to cigarettes. The African varieties seem more likeley to involve human sacrifice, the Latin American and Caribbean varieties tend more toward animal sacrifice, and the American varieties toward herbal remedies and inanimate sacrifice, but exceptions always exist.
I should note that human sacrifice is not some kind of African universal, but it is more common than we like to think.
In 2001, the ritually-dismembered, headless torso of “Adam,” a Nigerian child about 5 or 6 years old, was found floating in the Thames. An autopsy revealed, via stomach contents and pollen found in his lungs, that he’d only been in Britain for a few days and had drunk a potion used in West African ritual magic. (There are approximately 180,000 Nigerians living in the UK.)
Nigerian Joyce Osiagede, the only person to be arrested in Britain as part of the inquiry, has claimed that the victim’s real name is Ikpomwosa. In an interview with ITV’s London Tonight, Mrs Osiagede said she looked after the boy in Germany for a year before travelling to Britain without him in 2001. She claimed she handed the boy over to a man known as Bawa who later told her that he was dead and threatened to kill her unless she kept silent. ..
Asked who killed him, she said a ‘group of people’. She added: “They used him for a ritual in the water.” Claiming the boy was six years old, she said: ‘He was a lively boy. A very nice boy, he was also intelligent.’ Detailed analysis of a substance in the boy’s stomach was identified as a ‘black magic’ potion. It included tiny clay pellets containing small particles of pure gold, an indication that Adam was the victim of a Muti ritual killing in which it is believed that the body parts of children are sacred. Bodies are often disposed of in flowing water. (source)
These cases more normally happen in Africa, but then we tend to lack official police investigations, autopsies, and BBC articles, but there’s plenty of documentation if you look:
Members would dress in leopard skins, waylaying travelers with sharp claw-like weapons in the form of leopards’ claws and teeth. The victims’ flesh would be cut from their bodies and distributed to members of the secret society. According to their beliefs, the ritual cannibalism would strengthen both members of the secret society as well as their entire tribe. (source)
According to various sources, ritual killings in Nigeria are performed to obtain human body parts for use in rituals, potions, and charms. The Lagos-based newspaper This Day explains that “ritualists, also known as headhunters, go in search of human parts at the request of herbalists, who require them for sacrifices or for the preparation of various magical potions”. …
According to This Day, ritual murders are “a common practice” in Nigeria. … Similarly, a 2012 Daily Independent article states that “in recent times, the number of brutal murders, mostly for ritual purposes and other circumstances, involving couples and their partners has been on a steady progression.” …
This Day reported that a confidential memo from the Nigerian police to registered security service providers indicated that ritual killings were particularly prevalent in the states of Lagos, Ogun, Kaduna, Abia, Kwara, Abuja, Rivers, and Kogi. … In 2010, one newspaper reported that dead bodies with missing organs were being discovered on a daily basis on a road close to Lagos State University that was described as a “hot spot for ritual killers.” A second newspaper reported in February 2011 that, in the same area, ten people had been killed in suspected ritual murders in the preceding two months. A 2009 article published by Agence France-Presse reported that, according to a state government official, the kidnapping of children for ritual murder was on the rise in Kano.
(I have removed the in-line citations because they make the article unreadable; check the original if you want their sources.)
Juju is sometimes used to enforce a contract or ensure compliance. In a typical scenario, a juju spell will be placed on a Nigerian woman before she is trafficked into Europe for a life in prostitution, to ensure that she will pay back her traffickers and won’t escape.
A BBC investigation into human sacrifice in Uganda has heard first-hand accounts which suggest ritual killings of children may be more common than authorities have acknowledged.
One witch-doctor led us to his secret shrine and said he had clients who regularly captured children and brought their blood and body parts to be consumed by spirits.
Meanwhile, a former witch-doctor who now campaigns to end child sacrifice confessed for the first time to having murdered about 70 people, including his own son.
The Ugandan government told us that human sacrifice is on the increase, and according to the head of the country’s Anti-Human Sacrifice Taskforce the crime is directly linked to rising levels of development and prosperity, and an increasing belief that witchcraft can help people get rich quickly.
Wow, that’s a terrible side effect of increased prosperity. (You know it’s bad when you have an “Anti-Human Sacifice Taskforce.”)
A witch doctor explains:
“They capture other people’s children. They bring the heart and the blood directly here to take to the spirits… They bring them in small tins and they place these objects under the tree from which the voices of the spirits are coming,” he said.
Asked how often clients brought blood and body parts, the witch-doctor said they came “on average three times a week – with all that the spirits demand from them.”
We saw a beaker of blood and what appeared to be a large, raw liver in the shrine before it was destroyed, although it was not possible to determine whether they were human remains.
The witch-doctor denied any direct involvement in murder or incitement to murder, saying his spirits spoke directly to his clients.
He told us he was paid 500,000 Ugandan shillings (£160 or $260) for a consultation, but that most of that money was handed over to his “boss” in a nationwide network of witch-doctors.
Remember, reputable economists and immigration experts all agree that stemming the tide of mass migration from Africa to Europe is physically impossible, but not to worry, because all of these migrants will revitalize the European economy with their fecund vitality.
Thankfully, there is an anti-child-sacrifice movement in Uganda:
Former witch-doctor turned anti-sacrifice campaigner Polino Angela says he has persuaded 2,400 other witch-doctors to give up the trade since he himself repented in 1990.
Mr Angela told us he had first been initiated as a witch-doctor at a ceremony in neighbouring Kenya, where a boy of about 13 was sacrificed.
“The child was cut with a knife on the neck and the entire length from the neck down was ripped open, and then the open part was put on me,” he said.
When he returned to Uganda he says he was told by those who had initiated him to kill his own son, aged 10.
Okay, technically, Uganda is more central Africa than west Africa.
Uganda has been shocked by a surge in ritualistic murders and human sacrifice, with police struggling to respond and public hysteria mounting at each gruesome discovery.
In 2008 more than 300 cases of murder and disappearances linked to ritual ceremonies were reported to the police with 18 cases making it to the courts. There were also several high-profile arrests of parents and relatives accused of selling children for human sacrifice. …
Both police and NGOs are attributing the surge to a new wave of commercial witch-doctors using mass media to market their services and demand large sums of money to sacrifice humans and animals for people who believe blood will bring great prosperity.
“Cases of child sacrifice have always existed, mainly in the Ugandan central region, but there is a new strain of traditional healers in Uganda and their geographical spread is mainly attributed to increased unemployment and poverty,” said Elena Lomeli. …
Maybe the BBC got the prosperity angle wrong.
“My experience working with victims suggests that the abusers are greedy people who want to get rich quick. In rural areas, people can sacrifice their own child. In urban areas, educated and rich people will look for somebody else’s.”
Looming food shortages and famine hitting Uganda’s poorest in the north and east are also feeding the demand for sacrificial rituals. “These are not poor people paying for these rituals, they are the wealthy elite taking advantage of the desperate poor,” said Binoga. “In January a 21-year-old woman was jailed for 16 months for kidnapping a child and trying to sell him to a witch-doctor for a large sum. These cases are on the increase.”
Ugandan police are increasingly linking the sudden increase in cases to organ trafficking. The anti-human trafficking taskforce said many of the bodies found in the past few months were missing organs such as kidneys, hearts and livers, a detail not consistent with many traditional ritualistic practices.
Sadly, Uganda may still be doing better than neighboring Rwanda (genocide) and the DRC (cannibalism):
Pygmy activists from Congo have demanded the United Nations set up a tribunal to try government and rebel fighters accused of slaughtering and eating Pygmies who are caught in the country’s civil war.
Army, rebel and tribal fighters – some believing the Pygmies are less than human or that eating the flesh would give them magic power – have been pursuing the Pygmies in the dense jungles, killing them and eating their flesh, the activists said at a news conference yesterday.
There have been reports of markets for Pygmy flesh, the representatives alleged.
“In living memory, we have seen cruelty, massacres, genocide, but we have never seen human beings hunted and eaten literally as though they were game animals, as has recently happened,” said Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of the Mbuti Pygmies in Congo.
… Earlier this year, human rights activists and UN investigators confirmed that rebels cooked and ate at least a dozen Pygmies and an undetermined number of people from other tribes during fighting with rival insurgents. There have been no reports of Congolese Army soldiers engaging in similar activity. (bold mine.)
That’s the end of the Africa section of this post.
Tomorrow we’ll look at the New World Voodoo varieties, where human sacrifice is thankfully less common. (Thank you, Columbus.)
Today’s author is Edward B. Tylor, 1832 – 1917, father of modern anthropology. According to Wikipedia:
[Tylor] believed that there was a functional basis for the development of society and religion, which he determined was universal. … Tylor reintroduced the term animism (faith in the individual soul or anima of all things, and natural manifestations) into common use. He considered animism to be the first phase of development of religions. …
Tylor’s first publication was a result of his 1856 trip to Mexico with Christy. His notes on the beliefs and practices of the people he encountered were the basis of his work Anahuac: Or Mexico and the Mexicans, Ancient and Modern (1861). … Tylor continued to study the customs and beliefs of tribal communities, both existing and prehistoric (based on archaeological finds). He published his second work, Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization, in 1865. Following this came his most influential work, Primitive Culture (1871). This was important not only for its thorough study of human civilisation and contributions to the emergent field of anthropology, but for its undeniable influence on a handful of young scholars, such as J. G. Frazer…
Tylor was an “evolutionist,” but not necessarily in the sense of having read Darwin’s Origins of the Species. Rather, the “evolution” of things–societies, philosophies, art styles, animals–from simpler to more complex forms over time was part of the zeitgeist of the age.
His methods were comparative and historical ethnography. He believed that a “uniformity” was manifest in culture, which was the result of “uniform action of uniform causes.” He regarded his instances of parallel ethnographic concepts and practices as indicative of “laws of human thought and action.” … The task of cultural anthropology therefore is to discover “stages of development or evolution.”
Evolutionism was distinguished from another creed, diffusionism, postulating the spread of items of culture from regions of innovation. A given apparent parallelism thus had at least two explanations: the instances descend from an evolutionary ancestor, or they are alike because one diffused into the culture from elsewhere. These two views are exactly parallel to the tree model and wave model of historical linguistics, which are instances of evolutionism and diffusionism, language features being instances of culture.
Also, things can arise independently, like echidnas and hedgehogs.
Anthropology basically abandoned this kind of thinking ages ago, partly because “evolution” as applied to human societies became a dirty word, partly because Marxist-Freudians took over the profession, and partly because cultures don’t always evolve uniformly and predictably from less to more complex.
That said, what I have read so far of Tylor’s work (one whole chapter!) is much better–and on a much more solid footing–than a great deal of what follows. He started from actual observations (most of which look pretty sound,) noticed a lot of parallels, and attempted to work out why. As a result, I think his work still interesting and valuable enough to be worth quoting.
For the sake of readability, I will be using “” marks, rather than blockquote-formatting.
“It is habitually found that the theory of Animism divides into two great dogmas, forming parts of one consistent doctrine; first, concerning souls of individual creatures, capable of continued existence after the death or destruction of the body ; second, concerning other spirits, upward to the rank of powerful deities. Spiritual beings are held to affect or control the events of the material world, and man’s life here and hereafter; and it being considered that they hold intercourse with men, and receive pleasure or displeasure from human actions, the belief in their existence leads naturally, and it might almost be said inevitably, sooner or later to active reverence and propitiation.”
“But a quaint and special group of beliefs will serve to display the thoroughness with which the soul is thus conceived as an image of the body. … Thus it was recorded of the Indians of Brazil by one of the early European visitors, that they ‘ believe that the dead arrive in the other world wounded or hacked to pieces, in fact just as they left this.’ Thus, too, the Australian who has slain his enemy will cut off the right thumb of the corpse, so that although the spirit will become a hostile ghost, it cannot
throw with its mutilated hand the shadowy spear, and may be safely left to wander, malignant but harmless.”
“Departing from the body at the time of death, the soul or spirit is considered set free to linger near the tomb, to wander on earth or flit in the air, or to travel to the proper region of spirits the world beyond the grave. …
“Men do not stop short at the persuasion that death releases the soul to a free and active existence, but they quite logically proceed to assist nature, by slaying men in order to liberate their souls for ghostly uses. [bold mine] Thus there arises one of the most widespread, distinct, and intelligible rites of animistic religion that of funeral human sacrifice for the service of the dead. When a man of rank dies and his soul departs to its own place, wherever and whatever that place may be, it is a rational inference of early philosophy that the souls of attendants, slaves, and wives, put to death at his funeral, will make the same journey and continue their service in the next life, and the argument is frequently stretched further, to include the souls of new victims sacrificed in order that they may enter upon the same ghostly servitude. It will appear from the ethnography of this rite that it is not strongly marked in the very lowest levels of culture, but that, arising in the lower barbaric stage, it develops itself in the higher, and thenceforth continues or dwindles in survival.
“Of the murderous practices to which this opinion leads, remarkably distinct accounts may be cited from among tribes of the Indian Archipelago. The following account is given of the funerals of great men among the rude Kayans of Borneo: ‘Slaves are killed in order that they may follow the deceased and attend upon him. Before they are killed the relations who surround them enjoin them to take
great care of their master when they join him, to watch and shampoo him when he is indisposed, to be always near him, and to obey all his behests. The female relatives of the deceased then take a spear and slightly wound the victims, after which the males spear them to death. Again, the opinion of the Idaan is ‘that all whom they kill in this world shall attend them as slaves after death.’
“This notion of future interest in the destruction of the human species is a great impediment to an intercourse with them, as murder goes farther than present advantage or resentment. From the same principle they will purchase a slave, guilty of any capital crime, at fourfold his value, that they may be his executioners.’
“With the same idea is connected the ferocious custom of ‘ head-hunting’ so prevalent among the Dayaks before Rajah Brooke’s time. They considered that the owner of every human head they could procure would serve them in the next world, where, indeed, a man’s rank would be according to his number of heads in this. They would continue the mourning for a dead man till a head was brought in, to provide him with a slave to accompany him to the ‘habitation of souls;’ a father who lost his child would go out and kill the first man he met, as a funeral ceremony ; a young man might not marry till he had procured a head, and some tribes would bury with a dead man the first head he had taken, together with spears, cloth, rice, and betel. Waylaying and murdering men for their heads became, in fact, the Dayaks’ national sport, and they remarked ‘ the white men read books, we hunt for heads instead.'”
EvX, here: Wikipedia confirms this report:
“There were various reasons for headhunting as listed below:
For soil fertility so Dayaks hunted fresh heads before paddy harvesting seasons after which head festival would be held in honour of the new heads.
To add supernatural strength which Dayaks believed to be centred in the soul and head of humans. Fresh heads can give magical powers for communinal protection, bountiful paddy harvesting and disease curing.
To avenge revenge for murders based on “blood credit” principle unless “adat pati nyawa” (customary compensation token) is paid.
To pay dowry for marriages e.g. “derian palit mata” (eye blocking dowry) for Ibans once blood has been splashed prior to agreeing to marriage and of course, new fresh heads show prowess, bravery, ability and capability to protect his family, community and land
For foundation of new buildings to be stronger and meaningful than the normal practice of not putting in human heads.
For protection against enemy attacks according to the principle of “attack first before being attacked”.
As a symbol of power and social status ranking where the more heads someone has, the respect and glory due to him. The warleader is called tuai serang (warleader) or raja berani (king of the brave) while kayau anak (small raid) leader is only called tuai kayau (raid leader) whereby adat tebalu (widower rule) after their death would be paid according to their ranking status in the community.
As the Dutch secured the islands they eliminated slavery, widow burning, head-hunting, cannibalism, piracy, and internecine wars. Railways, steamships, postal and telegraph services, and various government agencies all served to introduce a degree of new uniformity across the colony. Immigration within the archipelago—particularly by ethnic Chinese, Bataks, Javanese, and Bugis—increased dramatically. …
In 1901 the Dutch adopted what they called the Ethical Policy, under which the colonial government had a duty to further the welfare of the Indonesian people in health and education. Other new measures under the policy included irrigation programs, transmigration, communications, flood mitigation, industrialisation, and protection of native industry.Industrialisation did not significantly affect the majority of Indonesians, and Indonesia remained an agricultural colony; by 1930, there were 17 cities with populations over 50,000 and their combined populations numbered 1.87 million of the colony’s 60 million.
“Of such rites in the Pacific islands, the most hideously purposeful accounts reach us from the Fiji group. Till lately, a main part of the ceremony of a great man’s funeral was the strangling of wives, friends, and slaves, for the distinct purpose of attending him into the world of spirits. Ordinarily the first victim was the wife of the deceased, and more than one if he had several, and their corpses, oiled as for a feast, clothed with new fringed girdles, with heads dressed and ornamented, and vermilion and turmeric powder spread on their faces and bosoms, were laid by the side of the dead warrior. Associates and inferior attendants were likewise slain, and these bodies were spoken of as ‘ grass for bedding the grave.’ When Ra Mbithi, the pride of Somosomo, was lost at sea, seventeen of his wives were killed; and after the news of the massacre of the Namena people, in 1839, eighty women were strangled to accompany the spirits of their murdered husbands. Such sacrifices took place under the same pressure of public opinion which kept up the widow-burning in modern India. The Fijian widow was worked upon by her relatives with all the pressure of persuasion and of menace; she understood well that life to her henceforth would mean a wretched existence of neglect, disgrace, and destitution;
and tyrannous custom, as hard to struggle against in the savage as in the civilized world, drove her to the grave.
“Thus, far from resisting, she became importunate for death, and the new life to come, and till public opinion reached a more enlightened state, the missionaries often used their influence in vain to save from the strangling-cord some wife whom they could have rescued, but who herself refused to live. So repugnant to the native mind was the idea of a chieftain going unattended into the other world, that
the missionaries’ prohibition of the cherished custom was one reason of the popular dislike to Christianity. Many of the nominal Christians, when once a chief of theirs was shot from an ambush, esteemed it most fortunate that a stray shot at the same time killed a young man at a distance from him, and thus provided a companion for the spirit of the slain chief.
“In America, the funeral human sacrifice makes its characteristic appearance. A good example may be taken from among the Osages, whose habit was sometimes to plant in the cairn raised over a corpse a pole with an enemy’s scalp hanging to the top. Their notion was that by taking an enemy and suspending his scalp over the grave of a deceased friend, the spirit of the victim became subjected to the spirit of the buried warrior in the land of spirits. Hence the last and best service that could be performed for a deceased relative was to take an enemy’s life, and thus transmit it by his scalp. The correspondence of this idea with that just mentioned among the Dayaks is very striking. With a similar intention, the Caribs would slay on the dead master’s grave any of his slaves they could lay hands on.
“Among the native peoples risen to considerably higher grades of social and political life, these practices were not suppressed but exaggerated, in the ghastly sacrifices of warriors, slaves, and wives, who departed to continue their duteous offices at the funeral of the chief or monarch in Central America and Mexico, in Bogota and Peru.”
“Of such funeral rites, carried out to the death, graphic and horrid descriptions are recorded in the countries across Africa East, Central, and West. A headman of the Wadoe is buried sitting in a shallow pit, and with the corpse a male and female slave alive, he with a bill-hook in his hand to cut fuel for his lord in the death-world, she seated on a little stool with the dead chief’s head in her lap. A chief of Unyamwezi is entombed in a vaulted pit, sitting on a low stool with a bow in his right hand, and provided with a pot of native beer ; with him are shut in alive three women slaves, and the ceremony is concluded with a libation of beer on the earth heaped up above them all.
“The same idea which in Guinea makes it common for the living to send messages by the dying to the dead, is developed in Ashanti and Dahome into a monstrous system of massacre. The King of Dahome must enter Deadland with a ghostly court of hundreds of wives, eunuchs, singers, drummers,
and soldiers. Nor is this all. Captain Burton thus describes the yearly ‘Customs:’ ‘They periodically supply the departed monarch with fresh attendants in the shadowy world. For unhappily these murderous scenes are an expression, lamentably mistaken but perfectly sincere, of the liveliest filial piety.’ Even this annual slaughter must be supplemented by almost daily murder. Whatever action,
however trivial, is performed by the King, it must dutifully be reported to his sire in the shadowy realm. A victim, almost always a war-captive, is chosen ; the message is delivered to him, an intoxicating draught of rum follows it, and he is dispatched to Hades in the best of humours.'”
EvX, here. In 1859, the Macon Messenger published an obituary for King Gezo of Dahomey:
His majesty, the King of Dahomey, the great negro seller of Africa, has departed this life. He was in the habit of ransacking all the neighboring African kingdoms, for the purpose of making captives, whom he sold to the slavers. At his funeral obsequies, his loving subjects manifested their sorrow by sacrificing eight hundred negroes to his memory. He is succeeded by his son, King Gezo II.
“The April 20, 1859 edition of the Macon Messenger  carried a short obituary notice for King Gezo stating, “…His majesty, the King of Dahomey, the great negro seller of Africa, has departed this life. He was in the habit of ransacking all the neighboring African kingdoms, for the purpose of making captives, whom he sold to the slavers. At his funeral obsequies, his loving subjects manifested their sorrow by sacrificing eight hundred negroes to his memory. He is succeeded by his son, King Gezo II.”1. Marriages and Obituaries From the Macon Messenger; Willard R. Rocker 1988King Gezo’s soldiers also did a lot of beheading. Oh, yes, many of them were women, members of the “Dahomey Amazons,” so I guess they’re the sorts of folks that academics like to hold up as shining examples of how gender egalitarianism dominated the world before evil Europeans stepped in and changed everything.Of course, many of those women soldiers were foreign captives or child soldiers forced into the army by their families, so I find it difficult to get too excited about female empowerment that’s basically jut slavery.