human sacrifice (allusion to Abraham)

Mary Storm umadevi at SFO.COM
Thu Apr 23 21:40:33 UTC 1998

J Kingston Cowart wrote:
> The instances of human sacrifice brought forward from the Hebrew
> scriptures by Mary Storm are not rituals per se, but are isolated
> instances.  Jephthah's case, in particular, may be read as a lesson
> against hubris and manipulation of the deity, although it shows that
> human sacrifice was a cultural element--at least to some extent.

These are not isolated acts. The mention of sacrifices at Tophet and the
concern evidenced by the practice indicate a repetitive pattern. The
presence or absence of human sacrifice is sometimes used as a critical
measure of a culture. This may take the critic onto shaky ground, as the
practice was widespread in many of the world's traditions. The desire to
remain ignorant of human sacrifice within the lineage of one's own
tradition seems to be a common wish, almost as pervasive as the practice
itself has been. Plutarch, in looking back to the Persian Wars, was
appalled at the readiness of the Greeks to sacrifice three young men to
Dionysus, "the Eater of Flesh," before a battle. Plutarch was appalled
because he knew that Roman civilization emerged from the Greek, and that
this grim side of Greek culture was an integral part of the
Mediterranean religious patrimony. For the Romans, as well as the
Greeks, the Persian Wars were the great struggle of Greek against
barbarian; the fight for humanity and civilization. Thus to acknowledge
this act of Greek religious cruelty was to question the very foundations
of Plutarch's world. On the other hand it is sometimes surprising when
an expected critic is open to the presence of human scarifice.  For
example, the sixteenth century Spanish missionary Bartolomé de Las
Casas, in pleading for an understanding of Mesoamericans and their human
sacrifice rituals, wrote: "It can be persuasively argued from the fact
that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice to Him his only son Isaac, that
it is not altogether detestable to sacrifice human beings to God."   The
terrible violence of human sacrifice makes it easy to interpret the
practice as "primitive" or "barbaric." Yet as Plutarch and Bartolomé de
Las Casas learned, human sacrifice was often part of religious systems
that might initially appear repugnantly alien, but upon reflection must
be understood as representing universal religious impulses.
Mary Storm

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list