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Excerpt from Dreams

Human Sacrifice (p. 193)

From chapter "Human Sacrifice"

Most of us have read at least a little about the Aztec practice mentioned a few pages ago, of sacrificing humans to their gods. Some of the accounts are mind-boggling in their scale. One account, for example, of the rituals surrounding the reconsecration of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlán in 1487 suggests that 80,400 prisoners were killed in four days. These numbers are probably exaggerated; the priests would have had to kill fourteen people per minute the entire time. In contrast, at Auschwitz, the Nazis were able, with modern technology, to kill “only” at most 19,200 people per day. Most estimates these days run from an extreme low of suggesting the Aztecs sacrificed three hundred people per year to a realistic high-end estimate of twenty thousand people per year (although some still suggest the number may have been as high as 250,000 people per year). No matter the numbers, it’s clear that human sacrifice played an important role in Aztec society, with sacrifices for different festivals, sacrifices to different gods, and so on. The sacrificial victims were often enemy warriors, but each god required a different kind of victim, killed in a different way. Chicomecoatl (goddess of corn and replenishment) required young women to be beheaded and flayed. Tlaloc (god of rain) required children, and further, required their tears: children would be forced to cry before their hearts were pulled out. Huehueteotl (god of fire) required that captives’ hearts be pulled out and their bodies burned. Huitzilopochtli (god of war, and patron of Tenochtitlán) required Nahuatl-speaking prisoners, whose still-beating hearts would be torn from their bodies. Tezcatlipoca (the god of night, sorcery, and destiny; the most powerful god, known as “the Enemy,” or “the Enemy of Both Sides,” who would foment wars in order to provide food and drink for the gods) required a Nahuatl-speaking volunteer, as well as captives who were killed in ritual gladitorial combat.

Not only humans were sacrificed. The Aztecs bred dogs, eagles, jaguars, and deer specifically to sacrifice them. They also sacrificed vast numbers of quail, hummingbirds, rabbits, butterflies and other insects; and vast amounts of beans, grains, flowers, feathers, paper, rubber, and so on. They also cut themselves to offer their own blood to the gods.

Their stated reasoning was: “Life is because of the gods; with their sacrifice they gave us life. . . . They produce our sustenance . . . which nourishes life.” Central to the Aztec way of life was a belief that the universe required tremendous ongoing sacrifice in order to be sustained. All matter is tonacayotl, or the bodily sacrificial presence of the gods on earth: everything springs from the blood or the severed or buried heads, bodies, or fingers of sacrificed gods. Therefore we owe our lives to these gods, and need to nourish them in return with our own blood.

When people today mention human sacrifices performed by Aztecs and others—for human sacrifice has been practiced in many (though certainly not all) cultures—it is commonly discussed merely in terms of the bloodthirstiness and backwardness of these peoples, and contrasted to the “rationality” and “humanity” of this culture and its members.

Sam Harris, once again, continues to articulate many of the central beliefs of the mythology (and bigotry) of the scientific perspective, and also the commonly held belief that this culture is made up of (what once was God’s, but now is Science’s) Chosen People. In response to psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggesting that “every longstanding ideology and way of life contains some wisdom, some insights into ways of suppressing selfishness, enhancing cooperation, and ultimately enhancing human flourishing,”Harris stated (and my analysis of his comments is in the endnotes), “Anyone feeling nostalgic for the ‘wisdom’ of the Aztecs? Rest assured, there’s nothing like the superstitious murder of innocent men, women, and children to ‘suppress selfishness’ and convey a shared sense of purpose.Of course, the Aztecs weren’t the only culture to have discovered ‘human flourishing’ at its most sanguinary and psychotic. The Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Maya, Inca, Olmecs, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Teutons, Celts, Druids, Vikings, Gauls, Hindus, Thais, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Maoris, Melanesians, Tahitians, Hawaiians, Balinese, Australian aborigines, Iroquois, Huron, Cherokee, and numerous other societies ritually murdered their fellow human beings because they believed that invisible gods and goddesses, having an appetite for human flesh, could be so propitiated.Many of their victims were of the same opinion, in fact, and went willingly to slaughter, fully convinced that their deaths would transform the weather, or cure the king of his venereal disease, or in some other way spare their fellows the wrath of the Unseen.

“What would Haidt have us think about these venerable traditions of pious ignorance and senseless butchery?Is there some wisdom in these cults of human sacrifice that we should now honor?Must we take care not to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Or might we want to eat that baby instead?Indeed, many of these societies regularly terminated their rituals of sacred murder with a cannibal feast.Is my own revulsion at these practices a sign that I view these distant cultures with the blinkered gaze of a colonialist? Shall we just reserve judgment until more of the facts are in? When does scientific detachment become perverse? When might it be suicidal?”

Harris wrote about human sacrifice to shock or stun readers,using it as a trump to denounce cultures practicing it as de facto cults. To him, human sacrifice is so awful that its commission—even when all participants volunteer—outweighs any wisdom the participating culture may have had. The Aztecs are, then, to use his language, ignorant, unwise, psychotic, revolting butchers. The same is true of Celts, and Hurons. And so on. Why? Because they perpetrated human sacrifice.

But what if the Aztecs were in some sense right? What if these gods—or whatever you want to call these other beings—exist, and what if they need to be fed, or somehow served? What if—and let’s go with this for a moment; try to keep an open mind, just as we did with the ideas that scientists or Christians are right—the Aztecs were actually tapping into some power, or feeding some beings, who then gave the Aztecs something in return, or the Aztecs were aligning themselves with someone or something who fed off these still-beating hearts, just as the Aztecs believed?

If the Aztecs are to be believed, they killed humans and nonhumans in order to feed gods.

Tonight for dinner I had Chinese takeout. Part of this dinner included the flesh of a chicken (several, probably) raised in conditions that could charitably be described as forty-five days of hell that ended only in assembly-line death on a scale that dwarfs both the Aztecs and the Nazis (in the United States alone, 9.5 billion birds are killed annually in death factories). Other parts included the flesh of shrimp, grains, and vegetables, all raised and killed under equally hellish conditions. If we take those who tormented these nonhumans at their words, this torment (which the tormenters would I’m sure not acknowledge) happens not primarily to provide me with food (because food, even meat, does not have to include torture; when not at restaurants I try to only purchase the meat of grass-fed, free-range animals), but rather primarily to make them money.

My eighteen-year-old cat is dying of renal failure. During the last week she’s had multiple strokes, and can barely walk. She’s nearly blind. Most of the time she sleeps, deeply, and when she stirs, I carry her to where she can pee, wait till she’s done, carry her to the water dish, wait till she’s done, put her on the table, and feed her canned food tiny bite by tiny bite. I haven’t killed her because she still purrs when she eats, and she is not showing signs of pain or terror. But here’s the point: I feed her canned turkey and cheese, canned chicken and salmon, and canned beef with gravy. These turkeys, these cows, these chickens, these salmon, are raised, again, in horrific conditions. The “product” is mass-produced at tremendous psychological (for the victims) and ecological cost. These horrors are systematic. The people perpetrating these horrors are not perpetrating them to feed gods, or even primarily to feed cats, but rather to make money.

Just yesterday in the newspaper I read that a wealthy homeowners’ association near San Francisco asked for and received permission to kill one hundred acorn woodpeckers. The reason? The birds are poking holes in the houses (built in a forest which constitutes the birds’ home, for crying out loud), annoying residents, and reducing property values (in a collapsing market; perhaps they’d be better served, financially, to get a permit to kill those really responsible for the financial devaluation of their houses). These birds will be killed not to feed gods, but rather for financial reasons.

Between 17 and 70 million animals are killed—sacrificed is the word they actually use—annually by vivisectors. These are not killed to feed gods, but rather to make money. And don’t give me any shit about advancing knowledge; why do they want to advance knowledge? To make money.

But the motivation isn’t the point here. The point is that this culture routinely sacrifices others, and indeed is sacrificing the entire planet to maintain this way of life.