Posted by: aediculaantinoi | April 18, 2012

The “Pagans = Human Sacrifice” (according to Christians) Fallacy

I thank Jason Pitzl-Waters of The Wild Hunt Blog for making note of Academia Antinoi in his Pagan News of Note post today! (I’ll reserve comment on some of the other issues raised there for the moment…and possibly forever, as I don’t know that I really do have anything useful to add to the discussion.) I’d like to use as a jumping-off point for the present entry something that he wrote about in his entry yesterday, and which may also have some degree of relevance to something that Sannion wrote in his blog regarding Dionysos and Jesus. (But on the latter, possibly not–nonetheless, it’s very worthwhile to read his entry from yesterday!)

The specific bit in The Wild Hunt post from yesterday that I want to respond to is some words by Cristina Odone, a conservative Catholic, on the recent decision in Britain that information on and the histories of other religions besides Christianity (and therefore including modern paganism, under certain circumstances) can be taught in public schools (her full comments are here):

God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

Oh, har-har-har, many of us might be saying–here’s just yet another ignorant and overprivileged Christian using scare-tactics in the face of the no-longer-”privileged-because-only-legally-allowed” status of her religious viewpoint. It is really a kind of pathetic phenomenon that a huge number of Christians cannot abide even the possibility that another religion (and oftentimes, another form of Christianity) gets anything like equal footing in any situation; and, the matter at hand in British schools is not one of equal footing by any means, since non-Christian religions cannot take up more than 40% of the religion curriculum…and that’s for all of them. You can guarantee that Judaism might get 10% since it’s the “parent” religion of Christianity; you can guess that (grudgingly, I’m sure, in some sectors) Islam will get at least 10% because of the large numbers of Muslims in Britain due to the British Empire’s colonizing legacy, and likewise for Hinduism. So, that leaves 10% of the religion curriculum for Jainism, Sikhism, atheism, Zoroastrianism, Shinto (if one is lucky), and possibly paganism–if (and only if, as I understand it) there are students with pagan parents in the given class. That hardly seems like much of a threat…unless, of course, one is completely and totally insecure in one’s own religion, and the mere possibility of other options makes it impossible for one to be able to function…

But, all of that is a side issue.

The idea that modern pagans are only prevented by health and safety standards from having “human sacrifices” is pretty thoroughly ridiculous from a variety of viewpoints–why waste perfectly good humans, especially when there’s so few modern pagans to begin with? And just randomly sacrificing non-pagans? Nope, sorry, it wouldn’t work…and, despite the apparent wish and fantasy of many non-pagans that we really want them and their religious “purity” and so forth for our “nefarious” purposes…well, that’s awfully medieval, and awfully anti-Semitic in origin–read Chaucer’s The Prioress’ Tale if you doubt where this whole complex comes from. So, I hate to destroy all of their fantasies, but there will be no “martyrdoms” of Christians due to the pagan thirst for human blood through sacrifice–what is offered to the gods has to be of the highest quality, and I’m very sad to say that most Christians who have such complexes don’t remotely qualify as potential sacrifice material, even if human sacrifice were on the table as an option these days…which, I again emphasize, it is not.

But, it would also be entirely erroneous to suggest that polytheist societies the world over never practiced human sacrifice. (In fact, put “human sacrifice” into a Google image search and you get a whole pile of Aztec images coming up first!) Various other societies, including several in Europe, also practiced human sacrifice at various points. Several different Celtic peoples seemed to have done so, as did various Germanic peoples. In Greek myth, there are several occasions in which human sacrifice is either decried by the gods (e.g. Lykaon via Zeus) or in some manner somewhat condoned or even demanded (e.g. Iphigeneia via Artemis), so the “record” on that matter is a bit ambiguous. Rome had a great (but only apparent) distaste for human sacrifice–unless it was a foundational sacrifice, which has left a record both archaeologically and mythically (e.g. Romulus’ killing of Remus)…or, unless it was a Gaul (because they weren’t really “human” anyway and thus didn’t quite qualify as “human sacrifice”)…or in a variety of other circumstances, including devotio, which is to say, dedicating one’s own death to a deity or to the health and well-being of another person. The latter, in fact, is an accusation that many of the “historical” sources from late antique Rome make in regards to Antinous…but, let’s leave that matter aside for the moment.

And, of course, there are various stories and accounts in Near Eastern archaeology–including in bits of the Hebrew Bible–that mention human sacrifice (and in particular child sacrifices to Ba’al) was something of a “problem” and a common custom in various cultures inhabiting that area of the world. We are given to understand that the Hebrew God–who shall be referred to in the remainder of this blog post in the Graeco-Egyptian manner as “Iao,” in alignment with my own practice, and in accordance with the custom of this blog–does not approve of human sacrifice at all. While the story of Abraham and Isaac is meant to demonstrate this, in a kind of roundabout way (and perhaps, ultimately, not very effectively), it is an important and in fact foundational moment in the history of the major “Abrahamic” monotheistic religions.

Now, Christians and Muslims are pretty insistent that their god is the same as Iao–although many Jews will not agree on that matter, and never have, but that’s a side issue–and Muslims have done a pretty decent job of following the “rule of thumb” that human sacrifice doesn’t fly with that god. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for–to my knowledge, any–Christians. Let me explain why.

Though it is too quickly and too often forgotten, the standard (little “o”) orthodox view on Christology is that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human; it was his incarnation as a human that made his ultimate “sacrificial” death both possible and valid for the purposes of Iao’s plan for the redemption of humanity. And while we who are polytheists are quite used to the possibility of theomachy (the death/slaying of a deity), and of the sacrificial deaths of deities (for what could be “made holy” [i.e. sacrificio] more than deities, who are often thought to be the very essence of holiness already?), and the litany of them is long and esteemed (though not as extensive as many atheists seem to think…but that’s another story!), adding in the element that when Jesus died, he was both human and divine changes things considerably. (The element of his apparent monotheism is also a bit anomalous–if he really is one person of a triune godhead, and he really did die during the crucifixion, then some part of what Christians think of as Iao had to have died–very likely, the human part, which is to say, the only part that has any sympathy or similarity to all of us, at least in the Christian view.) Now, rather than focus on the matter of the lack of creativity of this view of Iao, and that the best this version of Iao could come up with to redeem humanity was to commit a gross act of human sacrifice/theomacy that is both against his entire modus operandi and outline of best practice from the phase of the Hebrew Bible, and which also amounts to quasi-theo-suicide (!?!), let’s just take this matter as seriously as every Christian should, but apparently has managed not to do.

No matter if the sacrifice of Jesus’ death was a once-and-for-all, “he did it so no one would ever have to again” sort of affair, we’re still dealing with what is human sacrifice. It is human sacrifice that is endlessly re-represented in the central iconography of the religion; it is human sacrifice that is endlessly repeated in millions of sacred communion rituals and in the central “mystery” of the Mass on a daily basis; it is an event upon which the validity and the community and the theology of the entire Christian theological tradition is based and rests and finds all of its meaning. And, not to put too fine a point on it, I again emphasize that it’s human sacrifice, plain and simple.

Any argument to the contrary is the very definition of “special pleading.” If Jesus was fully human–which Christian theology insists he was–then his death, required by the Christian understanding of Iao, is human sacrifice. (Even if it is other types of sacrifice, e.g. “god-sacrifice,” as well.)

The cult of martyrdom that was the mainstay of the early Christian tradition, and which persisted after the period of Christian persecution was over (and continues to persist to this day!), and which is also heavily responsible for some of the worst abuses of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism in the modern world, is a direct result of this cheapening of human life and this regard for human life which suggests that these religions’ version of Iao is somehow “pleased” with humans willingly giving up their lives–which is to say, sacrificing–on behalf of their deity or making some point about him in the face of opposition. Saul of Tarsus’ words, that in order to save the soul of someone in the Corinthian community, that person’s body had to be slain, has been the basis of so much Christian dealing with anyone it does not agree with–or, rather, that it cannot convince to follow its rules and submit to its authority–rather than the actual words and most important teachings of their religion’s ostensible founder, deity, and “willing human sacrifice,” Yeshua ben Yoshef, a.k.a. Jesus of Nazareth, on “love your neighbor as yourself” and many similar such statements. I know for a fact that there are Christians out there who wish for those “glory days” once again, so that they could punish with total impunity anyone who does not accept their particular version of Christianity.

Don’t get me wrong–most of the Christians I know personally, and all of the Christians that I consider my friends, do not think anything near to these types of thoughts, and do not wish anyone harm of the least sort. It is not any of these with whom I have difficulties.

But, I greatly resent it when certain Christians of a particular ilk make throwaway comments about supposed pagan human sacrifice in the modern world while quite myopically not realizing that they would not have a religion at all if the theological value of–or, more accurately, demand for–human sacrifice was not a cornerstone of their religion’s foundation and its continued liturgical vitality.


  1. Carlos Fuentes has a great little bit about this in relation the Spanish conquest of Mexico in his story “The Two Shores” (in the book The Orange Tree) where the narrator talks about how the Christian god who sacrifices himself for man being much more appealing than the Aztec gods who demand man as a sacrifice. It’s a great tale which touches on a whole bunch of interesting themes!
    I did a paper on the colonisation of the New World a few years ago and drew some howls of protests from two Catholics in my class when I suggested that one of the reasons the idea of cannibalism so fascinated the Europeans at the time was because Catholicism contains implied cannibalism in the Holy Communion. My point wasn’t that Catholics are cannibals, or that there is anything wrong with the belief in transubstantiation, but simply that people often pick on those aspects of other cultures which in fact reflect their own culture. By externalising an issue people can avoid confronting how it actually manifests in their own psyche and culture as a whole. Hence, the focus on the plight of women in Islamic fundamentalist states serves to divert the gaze from the sexism inherent in Western cultural practices, while the focus on female genital mutilation draws people away from confronting Western practices of unanesthetised circumsion on newborn boys, to pick just two examples.

    • That’s an excellent set of observations–thanks so much for commenting!

      The “cannibalism” issue reminds me of the Eddie Izzard bit in his Circle show about cannibalism and vampirism being things that were innovated on the first day of the new religion when Jesus is reporting back how things went to his father, etc. It was pretty funny…

    • “western cultural practices… unanesthetised circumsion on newborn boys”

      You can make that “American cultural practices”, cause I live in Belgium and have never heard of male circumcision being particularly widespread as a practice in Europe beyond the Jewish communities. And I was honestly quite surprised when I learned just a few weeks ago that apparently male circumcision of newborn boys is such a widespread practice in the uSA.

      • Indeed–in my experiences in Europe, it’s pretty uncommon for males to be circumcised automatically, unless they’re Jewish or Muslim. I knew a few people in Ireland who had it done for health/physical reasons or complications in childhood development, etc., but they were in the vast minority.

        In the U.S., on the other hand, it’s so common as to be expected, and even treated as compulsory. (And now, missionaries and health officials from the U.S. are also suggesting it be done to everyone in Africa for sexual health reasons, etc.)

      • Adding a little more, because of this:

        And now, missionaries and health officials from the U.S. are also suggesting it be done to everyone in Africa for sexual health reasons, etc

        I know it’s not the topic of the post but I am glad I am not the only one who thinks it’s odd. To be fair I have not read much on the topic for why this specifically would help, unless Africans are just too inherently dirty and unable to comprehend how to clean their bits.

      • @Soli: Scientific research has shown that circumsised men have a smaller risk of contracting STD’s (though condoms are still the best way to prevent said diseases). Perhaps that is the reason?

  2. Actually YHWH did get child scrifices according to Israelite mythology. I read about a story of one of their early Kings (forgot which one) who was warring against an invading army and promised YHWH the first living thing he would see upon his return home, if YHWH would grant him victory against the enemy forces. COnsequently he won, and upon his return home the first thing he saw when coming back at his palace was his beloved daughter coming to greet him. He told her of his vow, and she said to him not to be come back on his word or to be sad, and she willingly gave her life to fullfill her father’s vow (much like Iphigenia eventually willingly let herself be sacrificed to grant the fair winds for teh Hellenes to sail off to Troy, as per Euripides “Iphigenia at Aulis”). Notice YHWH didn’t actually *demand* the sacrifice, but he didn’t stop it from happening either.

    • That sort of story is a widespread folktale type, found all over the place…but, even when such folktakes turn up in certain cultures, if they’re not altered or censored, as this one wasn’t, then there is an expectation that they’ll “go with it” to some extent…

      I suspect, in many cases, the problem may not have been child sacrifice so much as child sacrifice to other gods…You wouldn’t want the “good stuff” going to the other gods to honor them or make them more favorable if you were going for the corner on the god-market amongst that particular people, eh? Eeesh…

  3. I have to say that I wish more people put this level of thought into their religions. It’s shocking to me that there can be such ignorance and blindness of major themes in their faith, and that part of the point of the religion (to me anyway) is TO ponder and meditate upn these themes.
    This applies to all faiths too.

    • I certainly agree…

      There’s an opportunity for a lot of very interesting, useful, and potentially amazingly transformative and productive lines of thought in Christian theology, that simply have never been properly developed. The idea of incarnation, which was big in the early anti-gnostics (like Irenaeus of Lyon) is something that could have totally eliminated the mind/body dualism and anti-materialism of so much later Christian though, had it been properly observed and developed, but it wasn’t, so it didn’t, and we’ve had 1500+ years of “hate your body because it’s evil” instead.

  4. Just today there was an article about how the inquisition and
    the witch burnings at Salem coincided with brutal cold snaps that
    caused famine and diseases like ergot on wheat. The ergot caused hallucinations that people blamed on witchcraft. Maybe in addition to all that they were doing some sort of human sacrifice on a pyre.

    • Thanks for your comment!

      A great deal of the way capital punishment is used, and has been used, throughout history is its own kind of “judicial sacrifice” to the gods (and goddesses) of “Law, Order, and Justice” quite often. And, the use of the young and often disenfranchised populations of a country as fodder in wars as a kind of substitute sacrifice for the actual citizenry is a long-standing, and still-running, phenomenon in many cultures, including that of the U.S.

      As far as the ergot question is concerned with the witch-hunts and such: I personally don’t buy it. One need not seek an exterior chemical explanation for the human propensity to do cruel things to their neighbors under duress. This is particularly true in the case of the Salem witch trials in the U.S., where it was pretty much the people who were economically threatened and on a downturn that then suddenly cooked up accusations against lots of people who were doing better…and got their land handed to them out of the deal. (See the work of Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum in Salem Possessed for more info on this matter in particular, if you’re interested…)

  5. 1. But, but… if it was alleged in Israel 5000 years ago, it *must* also be true of Neopagans in Britain!

    2. I don’t know how much I buy Iphigenia counting as an endorsement of human sacrifice. Since Artemis snatches her away at the last minute to replace her with a hind (and drop her off to be priestess at the site of one of Her more violent foreign cults, so her brother can rescue her and bring Her idol back to “civilization” later), it’s always read on a more Abraham and Isaac-y level to me.

    3. There is lots lots lots I could say about how to think about the Trinity, the death of Jesus, and other such things, but this isn’t the place. :D

    • Re: #2, certainly you’re correct. However, that’s more of the “ha-ha!” on the part of the gods, in a sense, since they didn’t do anything to curtail or dissuade the Greeks from sacrificing Iphigeneia. (And, in other cases, similar oracular pronouncements on having to sacrifice someone often pop up without any further comment or distancing from the gods involved…)

      I think I’ve mentioned it here in the blog before, but I don’t know if you’ve heard of the relatively recently re-read Dead Sea Scrolls version of the Abraham and Isaac story, in which it was Belial who suggested the whole sacrifice of Isaac from the start…so that the covenant would be broken, which would then entail death for the one who broke the covenant, i.e. in that case, the Hebrew God. Very interesting stuff…

      And on #3–oh, of course! And Christians of various stripes have their own way of explaining this; but as I am not a Christian, none of those have ever made much sense to me…nor do they need to. ;)

      • That’s an interesting take! I’ll get that deep in the reading someday. XD

  6. [...] to discuss today, I just wanted to note that (somewhat) following on from some of the topics of yesterday’s post, The Wild Hunt has done a story today on Catholicism’s fear of many things within its own [...]

  7. Were I being snide, I might make comments about a Catholic complaining about minority religions being given space in Britain – since it was only in the early 19th century that Catholics were given the same legal space as Protestants. One would have thought they might remember what it’s like…

    Incidentally, how would you compare the death of Jesus impacting on His human-God nature with the death of Antinous and his human-god nature? After all, if it’s OK for a man to die and later be worshiped as a god without necessarily losing the characteristics he had as a man (correct me if I’m misunderstanding/mistakenly parodying your beliefs), wouldn’t that potentially contradict the issue of the ‘human part of Iao had to have died’?

    • Very true–the people who are in some way oppressed in one area, especially when they suddenly get equal rights (as Catholics in the U.K. did) that they are used to enjoying in another location, forget very easily and quickly now that they have “majority” (or at least equal-to-the-majority) status. Alas…

      The second point you raise is a good one, and an important one, and I think the distinctions are useful to draw out. In most forms of Christianity (or at least the non-heretical forms of it), Jesus was never “just a human” at any point, he was divine long before, even if his divinity is not as long-standing as that of Iao; and then, he became human temporarily. Humanity was not in his initial nature, therefore, and while it may be part of his enduring nature as a result of his incarnation, it’s still “lesser” in every respect to his divine nature. (I’ve even heard that the slightly varied “hand of Sabazios” gesture that the Pope uses to bless people, in which the middle finger is bent slightly to be the same height as the index finger, signifies how Jesus’ divine nature had to “lower itself” to be equal to his human nature temporarily.)

      Antinous, on the other hand, started out human, and became divine later. While the anthropology (which is to say, the understanding of what humanity is) within Christianity is different than it is within the forms of polytheism I practice, and therefore the comparisons aren’t as close as they may seem initially, what I understand from this is that all of us who are human have the potential of divinity within us, whether that manifests simply as a connection to divine beings and realms during life and good and virtuous conduct, or as heroic apotheosis, or as simply becoming an ancestor after death, or into the possibility of becoming a god after death. Not everyone gets to become a god after death like Antinous did, but everyone can given the right circumstances. So, because Antinous was not divine from the start, and did not necessarily have direct divine lineage (like Herakles or Dionysos or others did…though he does seem to be related to Hermes via his Arcadian parentage, but the same could be said about almost every Greek population group that traces its lineage to some deity or other, including Zeus!), it isn’t as if his process of humanity and human life was ever a lowering or a lessening of himself. If anything, it was an elevating of his humanity to a much higher and more uncommon status because it was a fully realized human nature…which, now that he is divine, continues to persist in his interactions with us, and continues to inspire.

      To use a bad horticultural analogy here, the situation of Jesus is like transplanting a prize-winning rose to different soil, having it blossom, and then transplanting it back to another soil afterwards, all the while insisting that even though it didn’t necessarily bloom as nicely as it did when it won the prize, it was still prize-winning and perfect the entire time. Antinous, on the other hand, was a wild rose that bloomed beautifully and fully, and was so appreciated after that it was transplanted to many other places to have many other blooms, some successful and others not so much, but nonetheless…something no one ever expected to be as good as it was being better than it was thought possible.

      Does that make sense?

      • That does make a lot of sense in terms of Antinous, but I think you’re slightly off in the matter of the relationship of Christ’s divinity and humanity (from a historical-Chalcedonian perspective, that is. There are almost certainly some groups that hold beliefs as outlined by you). The hypostatic union isn’t an event in Chalcedonian thought – Christ didn’t become human, but instead always was and always will be (and always was and always will be divine). This is basically a consequence of God existing outside of time – how can you have an ‘initial nature’ when time has no meaning for you? All you can have is an eternal nature. The same goes for His divinity being as long-standing as that of Iao/the Father: the Son and the Father being ‘co-eternal’ is one of those unwieldy phrases that the creeds tend to hammer home. How this all works is a matter for debate or, perhaps more appropriately, confusion: Jesus-the-man clearly existed in time; Christ-the-Second-Person does not and how these aspects relate to each other is beyond me.

        Does the death of Antinous at such a young age have theological implications for his nature as a god, do you think? He died so soon after he appeared historically, one effect of which is that there can be a picture of ‘what Antinous was like’. Compare that to someone who lived a long time and the most we can say is ‘what he was like in his twenties’, ‘what he was like after his marriage but before his wife’s death’ and so on. Does the death of Antinous at a point when he seems to embody strongly one aspect of what a person might be make him easier to deify?

      • Christology, admittedly, has never been my strong-suit, nor really a very large interest of mine. (In fact, when in my M.A. in Religious Studies degree, we had to take either Christology or Ecclesiology, I took the latter because it could have possibly been useful to me, whereas the former never really would have been…except in a conversation like this!)

        I think your second point/question here, though, is very intriguing. It’s very true that people who live into their 20s always look back at their teens as this time of both great potential but also great embarrassment; and then, when people get in their 30s and 40s and so on, they look back at their life and go “I can’t believe I used to do that/think that,” etc. But, in a certain sense, Antinous died at really the apex of youth, where youth starts to become “mature” and fully responsible and citizen-like, not only for his own day, but for ours as well. He had been initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries by that point, which many people didn’t get to do until they were much older, if at all. While various people have suggested that he was stupid, or depressive, or moody, or any variety of other things, I don’t think there’s any evidence to conclude that definitively (or even speculatively), and I suspect that if he held the attentions of Hadrian, he was not just a pretty boy-toy, he would have been intelligent, inquisitive, and full of arete. I think that if we imagine various Greek and Roman ideals, thoughts of everlasting fame and heroism despite youth, and a kind of larger notion of divinity being limitless potentiality, then Antinous–having died on the brink of youthful maturity–is a kind of perfect image of that, the flower bursting forth for the first time, in a sense. As a human, he went as far as he could have given his circumstances (being that though he may have been of minor nobility, not everyone gets to do what he did), and then as a deity he could do almost anything and become like nearly any other deity, including many that don’t usually get syncretized to deified humans. If arete is represented as the acorn that can grow into the oak tree, the excellence of virtue that leads to the apotheosis of heroization/divinity, then Antinous dying and in essence fructifying as a divinity at the specific moment in his life that he did does mean that near-limitless potential could go in any number of directions deity-wise afterwards.

        Does that make sense, perhaps?

        So, yes, I think you raise a really interesting and powerful point in asking this question as you have! Thanks very much for doing so! :)

  8. Look at this link. It makes me so upset to read this. This is what the way the “other party” looks at this topic..

    • Which is exactly why I try to read as little of their writing as possible! ;)

  9. […] more than “human sacrifice.” I’ve certainly written about it before (including here and at, so it’s not new that I might be discussing […]

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