Humanizing Human Sacrifice (Jun 25, 2012)

About a year ago, I noted my research into cannibalism and human sacrifice — the research led me to the practice of excarnation attested to in archaeology, which is described as the “de-fleshing” of a dead body, for ritual or practical purposes.

Now I’m no scholar, and I’m a hobbyist researcher at best, but my line of thinking has brought me to the conclusion that the ancient practice of excarnation is more or less what led to the practice of cannibalism and/or human sacrifice.

Here’s the practical side — people die (duh?), and rotting flesh not only smells bad, but it’s a source of disease, and it attracts undesirable scavengers and predators. You’re welcome to call me an idealist but I don’t think humans are driven to kill — cannibalism/sacrifice to my mind is therefore considered aberrant behavior.

This is not to say they are by nature abhorrent acts — many wild species can be cannibalistic. In the Assassin’s Creed sense, you can imagine that “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” There are pros and cons to virtually any kind of behavior, and they aren’t necessarily governed by morality.

For example, to say that “to kill a human being is immoral” would be in contradiction to the practice of Capital Punishment. You can’t have it both ways — killing a human being is either immoral or it is not governed by morality. No exceptions. Killing other humans as a part of warfare would therefore be immoral.

Which is not to say that killing as a part of warfare is or isn’t immoral, only that it creates logical inconsistencies in the acceptance and practice of some belief systems. Humans conduct warfare — it all has to be explained somehow. Similarly, humans conduct acts of sacrifice (material, temporal, etc) — and it has to be explained.

Far from condoning these acts, I’m looking for ways to explain them in a logically consistent manner. I’ve seen the effects of time and space and how they can distort reason, but the origin of a practice must still make sense. It took almost thirty years for me to understand violence, and I think I’m close to understanding (ritual) sacrifice.

It is to my understanding that humans do not naturally butcher or eat their own — however the practice of removing the flesh from a dead body as a means to prevent disease and predation makes sense. The question as to what happens next is where we begin to see things change. What do you do with the “leftovers?”

Some cultures burned their dead, though I can only imagine how horrifying this might be if you were wrong and accidentally burned a person who was not truly dead — and if you wait long enough to make sure the body begins to decay and you’ve passed the point where de-fleshing will do you much good — you still risk disease and predators.

Burying the dead creates many of the same horrors as burning the dead, and a determined scavenger will still get to the body — not to mention the cost in labor of providing the grave, burying the body, and the effects decomposition has on the affected area. (People have always been bad for the environment.)

“Sky burials” were used to great effect in areas that were warm and dry. Bodies were placed in hard-to-reach places (left for the birds?) away from inhabited areas so they could decompose without risking the community. There was time for those “not quite dead” to make it known — and fewer nightmares of immolation or live burial.

People don’t all like to live in arid climates however — food can be scarce, and droughts can produce many more problems than disposing of the dead — so the question of what to do with a dead body where scavengers are more determined, or the climate doesn’t quickly decompose a body become serious issues.

And thus, the manual separation of flesh from bone brings with it the question, “then what happens?” Each culture answers it differently, though time and distance distort purpose. Is there a famine? How did you feel about the person? (Friend or foe?) Imagine how warring cultures may have answered this question differently.

What do you do with the bodies of the hated dead? What do you do with the bodies of the beloved dead? How do you honor their memory? How do you resolve your feelings — and the feelings of others — toward the dead? Then what happens?

A culture often represents the evolution of a collective of social concepts. A practice which once served a practical purpose becomes habit and forms expectations. As habits are passed on, the original purpose can and will often be lost.

Moments of individual or collective madness enter the mainstream, and habits are dramatically altered. It’s important to note that one moment often isn’t significant enough to lead to the formation of a new habit, but can and may often lead to the alteration of an existing habit or expectation.

Habits and expectations are perpetuated. Time and distance lead to further loss of meaning — and then you have a practice which is no longer understood but which continues to be passed on nonetheless. My thinking is that a healthy society will more often than not, cease to perpetuate practices that no longer suit its needs.