A Libertarian Writes about Human Sacrifice

 

800px-Castes_and_tribes_of_southern_India._Assisted_by_K._Rangachari_28190929_281478342954529
Meriah Sacrifice post, Khond people, India

I’ve written before about Peter Leeson’s work–he tends to write papers with exciting names like An-Aarrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization.

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
sacrifice. …
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 Wikipedia page on the Khonds is not particularly insightful, because the Wikipedians have decided not to allow any British Raj-era sources be used for information. This is, of course, base censorship. The page overall is not up to Wikipedia’s usual standards:

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.[5]

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.

Totemism and Exogamy, pt. 3/3: Mundas, Khonds, and Herero

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):

Mundas:

Birsa Munda, 1875–1900, “Indian tribal freedom fighter, religious leader, and folk hero who belonged to the Munda tribe.”

“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.

Meriah sacrifice post

Castes and Tribes of Southern India, (1909) assembled by K. Rangachari, recounts:

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.

Herero woman

Africa:

“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.)