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Rituals are pervasive because they are such useful mechanisms of social coordination. (Revised version of paper presented at Melbourne University Medieval Roundtable in February 2022.)
The three Indian Service Chiefs salute fallen soldiers during Navy Day activities at Amar Jawan Jyoti, India Gate. (Wikimedia commons.)
The very first large-scale human constructions in stone were ritual centres. Whether it is Göbekli Tepe (11,500BP) in Anatolia, the ritual centres of Malta (5,600BP), Stonehenge (5,000BP) or analogous constructions in other places around the world, in almost all societies that came to build in earth and stone, the first structures built to a significant scale have been ritual centres.
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Nor is this just a feature of the early development of complex societies. States throughout the ages have invested considerable resources in constructing ritual centres, or at least places for grand rituals, and then invested considerable resources in regularly holding such rituals.
The monumentalism of Pharaonic Egypt and of the Khmer Empire can reasonably be seen as rituals of authority expressed in stone. In labour-service autocracies, particularly with access to water transport, labour service has a “use it or lose it” quality: it cannot be stored and costs much less if used in the farming off-season.
By so mobilising farmer labour in the off-season, rulers manifest, express and signal their authority. They also mobilise resources that might otherwise be used by others, further protecting their social dominance. So, we end up with ritual spaces which themselves are constructed by recurrent, even repetitive, expressions of power.
The construction and use of such ritual centres by states has also enabled and expressed alliances between rulers and the providers of ritual services that has been so much a feature of the development and evolution of states. Providing ritual services, while administering systems of taboos, and norms of legitimacy, has been central to the function and authority of priestly and religious classes across history: brahmins, rabbis, imams, pastors and priests of all varieties. A pattern that has extended into their secular equivalents. Something that is very obvious in totalitarian societies.
Even in our modern, highly technological, rational and scientific modern democracies, state processes are habitually ceremonially ritualised. Most notably in the courts but also in the operation of Parliaments and in simple things such as use of salutes in the uniformed services. In Australia, acknowledgements of country before academic seminars and other events are rituals.
Once you start noticing, the pervasiveness of ritual in human societies, including our own, is perhaps ritual’s most striking feature.
What is a ritual? A ritual is a, typically recurring, pattern of behaviour that signifies beyond itself.
Rituals being recurring patterns is perhaps the simplest thing to understand about them. Their repetitive nature permits economising on effort and far easier coordination with others. People can learn the ritual, so they know what to do and when, what others will do and when. We tend to develop personal rituals as habits, precisely because of the ease and comfort of repetition. The capacity of ritual to provide a sense of control and catharsis is why they are a feature of certain mental disorders.
Rituals we do with others create a shared framing for interaction. Consider salutes. They frame an interaction, signifying mutual attention. Doing the salute correctly for your service signifies you have internalised its practices, that you are more deeply of the service. Salutes also signify the acknowledgment of hierarchy: the subordinate salutes, the superior returns the salute. The subordinate initiating the salute signifies acceptance of the service’s hierarchy. The superior returning the salute signifies that the subordinate has their attention. Doing this every time one interacts with a superior when on-duty physically and cognitively habituates the acceptance of hierarchy. The repeated actions of the body train the mind. In any service that may require following orders that cost one’s own life, habituating the acceptance of hierarchy, of chain-of-command, is crucial to the effectiveness of units, and of the service.
The rituals of (legal) courts—rituals of space, clothing, action—can be readily understood in similar ways. The rituals of courts acknowledge the seriousness of the proceedings; they show respect to the participants; mark when proceedings start and finish; mark where authority lies; they structure the actions and expectations of participants, especially the lawyers.
The Confucian philosopher Xunzi (Xun Kuang, 310-235 BC) analysed rituals as expressions of, and orderings of, our hopes, longings and knowledge. So, rituals display certain attitudes and emotions. By repetition, we can cultivate certain attitudes and emotions. Rituals allot different responsibilities, privileges, and goods to different individuals, thereby helping to prevent conflict. They give a place to human impulses that cannot be eliminated; constrain, shape and channel those impulses into behaviour that is peaceful, orderly, respectful and beneficial. They can be used to bind ruler and ruled.
As is typical in Confucian thought, rituals are endorsed entirely for the effect they have on humans by their doing, the attitudes they cultivate and display. Properly approached, properly done, rituals display, manifest and reinforce the rules and patterns of proper behaviour in ways that elevate people’s behaviour. While Chinese civilisation participated in the Axial Age abstraction of thought (including about matters normative), it (mostly) did not generate or early acquire an Axial Age religion, so Chinese philosophy retained a persistently this-worldly focus. (Buddhism did spread to China, but was periodically suppressed, so that it became part of the fabric of Chinese society, but far from a dominant one.)
Mass rituals harness the power of “moving together in time”. The power of such rhythmic commonality of action can be seen in dance and in drill.
Armies have harnessed the power of habituated, embodied, coordination through use of drill. Drill not only enables better coordination of weapons on the stress of the battlefield, it bonded soldiers together within a habituated hierarchy and set of actions. When drill was (re)introduced to European armies by Maurice of Nassau (1567-1625), it took only a few decades for military drill to spread across Europe, for it made armies much more effective by its habituating of the coordinated acceptance of hierarchy, of command-and-control, along with substantially quicker and crisper manoeuvre. Thereafter, drilled armies regularly defeated un-drilled armies on the battlefield. What seems ritualistic can be deeply practical.
Through magic and liturgy, rituals can have an association with the supernatural. That is an association specific to particular varieties of rituals. It is not an association that is remotely universal to rituals, nor required for them to have significance or to be effective.
It is useful to distinguish between the sacred:
things valued in a way such that any trade-off against them is likely to be resisted or refused and may be seen as a betrayal or violation. Contrasts with the non-sacred (the profane), where trade-offs are readily accepted.
And the divine:
the realm of transcendent doctrines and authority insulated from replicable accuracy feedback. Being so insulated enables faith to anchor a common normative language (and mythic narratives).
The division between the sacred and the profane does not require any invocation of the supernatural. It simply requires distinguishing between the realm where trade-offs are resisted, even anathematised, and those where they are far more readily accepted, even pervasive.
Rituals can invoke the divine, but they can also express the sacred without requiring any such invocation. Public, and especially mass, rituals typically invoke authority and connect participants to the invoked authority. Rituals typically signify acceptance—active, habituated acceptance—of the invoked authority. To participate in ritual is to participate in the physical expression of public discourses of legitimacy, where participation implicitly or explicitly signal acceptance of that discourse. They signify mass acceptance thereof. The effort and resources put into ritual constitute powerful signalling devices, including to participants.
Statues of the eternal President and the eternal Secretary-General, Mansu Hill Grand Monument, Pyongyang. (Wikimedia commons.)
This clarifies the appeal of rituals to states, especially autocratic states and even more so to totalitarian regimes. Totalitarian regimes are profoundly intrusively demotic: they demand universal allegiance across all realms of society and by all persons in them. Hence totalitarian regimes regularly turn elections into rituals of mass acceptance of their authority and the discourse that legitimates that authority. Such elections become a series of rituals of participation that invoke the sacred authority of the people/the volk/the liberated masses, while co-opting their acceptance of the authority, and the legitimating discourse, of the regime. Thus, the utility of “empty” elections: pretences of democracy turned into displays of authority, subordination and acceptance. They demonstrate the power and utility of ritual.
A lot of regime propaganda in totalitarian regimes has a similar function of habituating the signalling of the acceptance of the authority of the regime via the use of stock, even ritual, phrases and framings. With enforced, even ferociously enforced, systems of discourse taboos: especially about what may (or may not) be said and even what has to be said.
In a situation where loyalty is compulsory, public effort, particularly public abasement, is a signal of commitment to the object of compulsory loyalty. It is, in biological and economic terms, a costly signal. While that can lead to cults of personality, attendance and participation in public rituals are also a signal of commitment to the signifying focus of the ritual. The greater the belief, the internal cognitive commitment, the lower the opportunity cost of attendance and participation. Hence the value of ritual (and even more personal abasement) as a costly signal.
The more autocratic the state, the more it generally invests in mass, public rituals. For the more it seeks to generate mass signals of loyalty.
Ritual trains the brain through the actions of the body and interactions with others. In particular, through repetitive habituation of actions and interactions.
The power of such habituation of action and interaction comes from immersion in the ritual, in the shared experience, through use of all the ways we apprehend reality.
Psychologist John Vervaeke points out that there are four forms of knowledge: propositional, procedural, perspectival and participatory—episteme, techne, noesis and gnosis. Knowledge that, how, of and in. (Academic philosophy notionally acknowledges this but, especially in the Anglosphere, has mostly ignored it: it is episteme all the way down.)
The various forms of successful apprehension of reality are truth, capacity (or power), presence and attunement. Rituals typically attempt to convey a sense of shared experience and acknowledgement across all those modes of apprehension.
In rituals, we say (or sing), we do, we see and we hear. Moreover, we experience and we do these things together. A mass ritual typically engages all four modes of apprehending reality and does so as an experience of togetherness.
Even before the development of farming (but even more after it), the population density sufficient to permit construction of ritual centres also created interaction and coordination problems that participation in shared rituals could ameliorate, including through the cathartic release of shared experience. Indeed, the construction of such ritual centres could itself be a bonding and coordination-enhancing experience. The experience of such construction, and the social memory of it, would enhance the role of rituals engaged in therein in the management of social emotions.
Ritual’s “multimodal” range (observe, recite, do; all from within the ritual) maximises the breadth of cognitive embodiment through bodily action of public affirmations, tied in with conventions and social norms. Hence, all religions have rituals, regardless of their belief structure.
One of the barriers to understanding ourselves is that we tend to be far too conscious of being conscious. Our consciousness is an instrument of focus and cognitive activation, allowing us to focus our attention and reasoning on specific things and to transfer packages of information to others, and receive such packages in turn. Consciousness has a recursive quality, which enables self-awareness. So, sleep is turning our instrument of focus off, meditation is quieting our focus, being “zen” is calming our focus to eliminate distraction, being “in a flow state” creates an immersed awareness.
Consciousness has the social function of allowing information to be exchanged from mind to mind. But the expansion of human cognitive capacities also meant that human minds came to operate on two systems:
System 1 is old in evolutionary terms and shared with other animals: it comprises a set of autonomous subsystems that include both innate input modules and domain-speciﬁc knowledge acquired by a domain-general learning mechanism. System 2 is evolutionarily recent and distinctively human: it permits abstract reasoning and hypothetical thinking, but is constrained by working memory capacity and correlated with measures of general intelligence.
Jonathan St. B.T. Evans, ‘In two minds: dual-process accounts of reasoning,’ Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Vol.7, No.10, October 2003, 454-459.
This creates the need for a mechanism of focus: something that both activates and directs System 2 thinking. Consciousness is thus: that part of cognition that acts as a mechanism of focus and activation and, in self-conscious beings, packaging of information for exchange.
As an instrument of focus, our consciousness is also a filter (both in the narrowing that focusing requires and in what has sufficient cognitive presence to be focused on). But consciousness is not itself much of an instrument of thought. Most of our thinking, our cognition, is not conscious, not even when we are deliberating on some issue that we are consciously focused on. Which is why answers can pop “into our head” (i.e. our conscious awareness) at unexpected times and with unexpected insights. But the very present-to-us nature of our consciousness obscures that we can have many reactions and emotions that have arisen from the processes of natural and sexual selection, and which drive our behaviour. Reactions and emotions whose dynamics we are (at best) only partially conscious of.
While we cannot consciously lie to ourselves, for we cannot consciously believe what we don’t believe, that does not mean we are always aware of why something resonates with us. We are not always aware of what make some belief or framing compelling to us.
Wisdom traditions include various ritual and physical practices to quiet the distractions of consciousness (especially, the distractions of focus), to attempt to minimise the effects of the filter of consciousness and to disturb our habituated patterns of awareness. Chinese philosophy in particular has a long history of wrestling with the limitations of what can be expressed through language. Though various forms of struggling with the filter of consciousness occur across wisdom and mystical traditions. The way ritual uses and habituates or disturbs the body to produce cognitive effects is very much about wrestling with the limits of consciousness.
The social use of ritual comes in signalling to others, and in creating a shared cognitive alignment, partly through the mutual signalling. The effort and resources put into ritual are powerful signalling devices, including to ourselves as we participate. The cognitive power of ritual comes from engaging all modes of apprehending reality in emotionally resonant ways. Hence, its power is reduced the less it so engages. Its bodily nature allows it to have an effect at (and beyond) the limits of consciousness.
Rituals put us in a differently-engaged cognitive and social space. Especially when it is used as a way of creating and/or delimiting the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Often by invoking the divine, or at least transcendent authority.
Our languages and our conceptualisations are cognitive tools. We invest in them when they have reinforcing feedback. And we abandon when they have sufficiently undermining feedback. Neither process is remotely a fully conscious one. So, rituals can accrue and lose functionality without either process being conscious, including being consciously intended.
To transmit words requires physical instantiation: in writing, in sounds, even in signs. In ritual, we socially coordinate our interactions with the physical world and our embodied existence. The social physicality of ritual aids such physically-manifested social coordination. Ritual has to be cognitively resonant but such resonance does not have to be fully conscious and often works better if it is not.
Rituals of sacrifice
The word sacrifice from from the Latin sacrificium (sacer, "holy"; jacere, "to make"). Something you give up as a gift to the divine.
Mexica (Aztec) ritual human sacrifice portrayed in the Codex Magliabechiano (Wikimedia commons).
A powerful example of the shocking power of ritual is provided by human sacrifice. Sacrifices are typically publicly displayed gifts, and gifts are investment in connection. (Gifts do not “balance”, for if they “balance”, they are not gifts, they are trades.) Alternatively, as in the conception of the Mexica (the core people of the Aztec empire), they are payments towards the debts owed to the divine for their forbearance. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the gift or the more respectful the debt-payment. Also, the greater the display of wealth and, in the case of human sacrifice, and expression of authority; of effective, legitimated power.
Human sacrifice is a vivid statement of power and subordination. Participating in such rituals of sacrifice implies accepting the authority of those presiding over the sacrifice. Public acceptance of authority, including via ritual, strengthens it for both superior and subordinate.
Polymath literary theorist Rene Girard has advanced perhaps the most extensive interpretation of the role of sacrifice in human society. His claim that human society is based on foundational murder is very likely correct.
Primatologist Richard Wrangham has argued very persuasively that a key to us becoming and evolving as Homo sapiens has been the systematic killing off of alpha males. Hence us being the most gracile and the most cooperative (and only surviving) species in genus Homo. Proactive (i.e. planned) aggression was systematically wielded by teams of beta males in a way that made us less reactively aggressive, given that proactive and reactive aggression use different brain circuits.
This process affected our physical, social and cognitive evolution. We are the most gracile members of genus Homo because our faces do not need to be robust to ward off blows, but do need to be effective at registering and communicating emotion.
Systematically killing off alpha males enabled much more robust cooperation. Especially as it enabled status through competence or success (prestige) and status through norm-adherence (propriety) to evolve as social currencies of cooperation, largely replacing status-through-dominance. Prestige is the managing-risk status game. Propriety is the managing-social-cohesion status game. More robust, peaceful and harmonious social order was achieved through systematic killing.
We not only have archaeological evidence for this but also anthropological evidence. Modern foragers still periodically kill off those who aspire to dominance. Displaying what anthropologist Christopher Boehm famously called “reverse dominance hierarchy”. Killing as a basis for social order has a deep history.
Human sacrifice, which has occurred across a very wide range of human cultures, comes in four general forms:
Killed to be interred with a chief or ruler. (This tended to be a feature of chiefdoms and early states, with killed humans later generally coming to be replaced by symbolic icons.)
Potent sacrifice: adult human sacrifice as a rare event. Such as consecrating public and communal construction, at times of stress and threat for the community, in the aftermath of war or to publicly signal destruction of wealth by sacrifice of purchased innocent outsiders (thereby deterring being raided).
Communal sacrifice: done regularly, on scale, where the sacrifices are (often) eaten.
The last is a characteristic of Mesoamerican cultures. Alone among complex urban civilisations, the tendency over time among Mesoamerican polities was for the occurrence of human sacrifice to increase, rather than dwindle away and be replaced by symbolic substitutes.
Also alone among complex urban civilisations, those cultures engaged in mass cannibalism of the mass sacrifices. Many, likely most, of the sacrifices were eaten, as is common with animal sacrifices. This pattern of mass sacrificial cannibalism evolved in societies where hunting remained the dominant form of access to animal flesh due to the lack of domesticated stock animals.
The limitation of animal food sources can be seen in the list of food animals domesticated in the Americas:
Guinea pig (Peru, 5000BC).
Llama (Peru, Bolivia, 2400BC).
Alpaca (Peru, Bolivia, 2400BC).
Muscovy duck (South America, 7-600BC).
Turkey (Mexico, 180AD).
Dogs (date uncertain).
Mesoamerica is the only region where urban civilisation evolved without any domesticated herbivore mammals. As the scale of urbanisation ratcheted up over time, the capacity to supplement diet by hunting reduced and so the pressure on access to protein and fats in the urban core increased. It also means, as Inga Clendinnen observed, these were societies:
where large-scale butchery of animals were unknown; where humans were the creatures men most often saw slaughtered. (Aztecs, p.370.)
Note, the question is not whether the animal fat and protein from the sacrificed was nutritionally important to the Mexica in general (as it is likely that around three-quarters of the population never got access to the flesh of the sacrificed). It is whether it was nutritionally important, or at least desirable, to the Mexica elite.
We Homo sapiens evolved as social carnivores, with highly cooperative subsistence and reproduction strategies. Notable features of that evolution including our throwing capacity (the best in the biosphere), our capacity for long-distance running (one of the best in the biosphere) and the shrinking of our guts as we shifted away from using them to ferment plants.
As a consequence of that evolution, humans have nutritionally-necessary proteins and fats but no nutritionally-necessary carbohydrates. Despite recent plant-food propaganda, Homo sapiens are typically preferential eaters of animal flesh, particularly animal fat. A preference that extends well back in our lineage. We have evidence of our Australopithecine ancestors using stones to break open bones to get at marrow and brains (so, highly nutritious, energy-dense, animal fat).
Historically, vegetarianism has been a result of poverty or religious conviction. (There have been no vegan cultures, as veganism is not sustainable for us humans without supplements.)
Of the three major food grains urban civilisations have been based on (rice, wheat and maize) rice is the most, and maize the least, nutritionally complete. Maize needs more processing than rice and wheat to achieve nutritional optimum and should, if meat is not available, be eaten with beans.
Human flesh, we are reliably informed, is tasty. It is also highly nutritious: human flesh is an excellent source of nutrition to build human flesh. In the absence of domesticated stock mammals, in civilisations based on the least nutritionally complete grain, the taste-and-nutrition “buzz” of human flesh would stand out dramatically.
Human sacrifice in Tenochtilan was likely in the range of 400-8,000 sacrifices per 100,000 population per year. So, from 250 to 13 people per sacrifice. Although not all sacrifices were eaten, the clear majority were.
Probably around a quarter of the population had at least some access to the flesh of sacrifices. So, at the low estimate, around 60 people per sacrifice. Assuming 20kg of flesh per sacrifice, that’s an average of 320g of flesh per fed person (more if it was only fed to adults). At the high estimate, that’s 6.4kg of human flesh per fed person per year (again, more if it was only fed to adults). At those rates, human flesh is at least a luxury food, possibly even a significant source of key (or at least advantaging) nutrients.
In a region without domesticated stock animals, so that hunting was the means for acquiring animal flesh, it is hardly surprising that Mexica warrior orders, the eagle and panther knights, were based on hunting animals and sought to capture their foes.
Explanations for Mexica human sacrifice, why these distinctive patterns of religious observance specifically in these cultures, that do not focus on the lack of domesticated stock animals that every other urban civilisation had plentiful access to, at least among elites, miss the point. In particular, claims that such sacrifice served various purposes of empire, when no other empires from other regions ever remotely went down this path, are not analytically useful. Especially as the Mexica were simply the culmination of patterns of human sacrifice and consumption that went back to the origins of urban civilisation in Mesoamerica.
It is clearly true that the Mexica, as with all the Mesoamerican civilisations from the early Maya and Teotihuacan onwards, evolved a rich mythological and symbolic system in which such sacrifices (and the consumption thereof) was embedded. But human culture has evolved as an adaptive mechanism, a mechanism to aid survival and replication. A mechanism so successful that we have gone from a species numbering in the tens of thousands to one numbering in the billions.
Epigenetic regulators, such as culture, are superior to genes in that they are more flexible and can adapt more rapidly.
Epigenetic regulators, such as culture, evolve to serve the genome.
Heather Heying & Bret Weinstein, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life. Portfolio, 2021. P.16.
Culture solves problems, using symbols, myths, and narratives to do so. Cultures involve schemas (patterns of belief) and scripts (patterns of action) that are reinforced by being functional and are undermined if they stop being functional.
Moreover, our conceptualisations are cognitive tools. We invest in them when there is reinforcing feedback, abandon them when there is not.
For instance, the Khond of the Western Ghats in India had a practice of purchasing innocent outsiders to burn alive in sacrifices to their Earth Mother Goddess. The flesh of the sacrifices was divided up and buried in fields as offerings to the Goddess. These sacrifices performed the same function as the potlatch feasts of the American Pacific North-West. These were both societies whose groups produced the same range of goods but had highly variable harvests from group to group. There were very limited opportunities for inter-group trade, so a bountiful harvest might attract raids from neighbours. Expensively purchasing outsiders for (very) public sacrifice expended problematic surpluses, just as gift-feasting and public destruction of property did in potlatch feasts.
The British were horrified by the sacrificial burnings of live humans and attempted to suppress the practice through punishment and education. Neither worked until a British resident (one Capt. Macpherson) asked the Khonds what the British could offer to make them stop. The Khond said they would stop if the British would arbitrate their disputes. The British agreed and the sacrifices stopped. Despite the elaborate theologising about the sacrifices, as soon as a more functional method of property protection was successfully offered, the Khond abandoned the practice.
Yes, the mythic narratives of Mesoamerica called for human sacrifice. But this made those narratives culturally highly functional in urban civilisations without domesticated herbivores.
Separating the eaten from the ordinary
So, what was the problem that led to the process of human sacrifice and consumption to be so highly ritualised? To be done in the settings, processes and ritual narratives it was? Because it is not possible to sustain a complex society if its members regard each other as food.
The highly ritualised nature of the human sacrifices put access to (human) flesh via cannibalism within the intensely demarcated boundaries required to make consumption of fellow humans compatible with a complex, highly urbanised society.
Those sacrificed were typically those who had already suffered social death (prisoners of war, slaves and condemned prisoners). Sacrifice and consumption was chosen over the slavery that was the normal option in other imperial orders. Those few who did not fall into such categories typically lived an exalted existence prior to their ritual death: elevated beyond the ordinary rather than already below or outside it.
The killing and consumption of human flesh was ritually, metaphysically and physically separated from ordinary human society—it was done on pyramids, all the way “up there” and so removed from the physical and social space of ordinary human interactions. Hence the ubiquitous pyramids created to hold, elevate and separate the sacrificial space that are features of all Mesoamerican civilisations.
Ceremonial homicide was separated off both physically and ritually, while being a regular calendrical event that was at the centre of civic life.
The killing was done in the most public way possible, so it was clear who was sacrificed for eating: hence the places of killing had to be structured to maximise their visibility. There was no secret killing, no secret consumption. Ritual was the only path through which consumption of human flesh was permitted, maximising the separation of the sacrificed-and-eaten from everyone else.
By being passed through this process of ritual, with its legitimising metaphysical discourse of god-feeding and the blatantly physically separated social space, the human flesh to be consumed was profoundly separated from ordinary society; so that human flesh could be consumed, even in people’s homes, even in their domestic and neighbourhood spaces, without seeing each other as food. An opened body, with its heart removed, tumbling down the stairs, having fed the gods, was now consecrated to feeding people. Human sacrifices ritually fed the gods so that they could practically feed the elite, and those favoured by it, without threatening the structure of the society. Indeed, such killing and consumption was used to reinforce the social order.
Mexica society was highly ordered and communitarian, from its agricultural and education systems to its strict laws, with a powerful sense of ordering obligations. Thus, murderers often suffered the social death of slavery, being condemned to be a slave of their victim’s family for the rest of their life.
Living in the shadow of the monuments of vanished civilisations, in a famine-ridden society, feeding the gods was typically theologised as payment of the debt for the divine forbearance that their society’s continued existence demonstrated. There seems to have been no term in Nahautl the literally meant human sacrifice; the term was rather nextlahualli or debt payment.
The Mexica did ritualised human sacrifice most intensely of all the Mesoamerican civilisations because they were at the latest iteration of the evolution of these patterns and had to cope with the highest population densities, so the most attenuated access to hunted animals. Which is why they not only failed to follow the pattern of cannibalism ending before the development of complex urban societies and human sacrifice being replaced by substitutes, they represent the opposite trajectory: human sacrifice and cannibalism becoming more prevalent as urbanisation, and so population density, increased. The pattern represented evolution for more motivation to fight, more terrifying spectacle, and more advantaging nutrient access as hunting becomes more stressed.
Ritualised, therefore highly orderly and ordering, violence being used to uphold and entrench a very effective social order.
There was cultural selection for more motivating, more terrifying, more nutritionally-advantage as populations increased, competition became fiercer and hunting became more stressed.
The Spanish ended the many centuries-old dynamic (that started with Teotihuacan sometime after 100BC and the Maya c.250 and was specific to urbanised Mesoamerica), not simply by bringing Christianity, with its ritualised symbolic eating of the flesh and blood of God-become-man, but by bringing cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, goats, horses … The Eurasian panoply of domesticated stock animals. With the arrival of such domesticated animals, no attempts were made to revive patterns that had lasted for perhaps 1500 years.
Later, Christian missionaries would introduce pigs to Pacific Islands to eradicate cannibalism. In the 1840s, the British ended Khond sacrificial immolation of purchased innocents—so wealth destruction to discourage being raided—by plausibly offering their mediation and peace-keeping services. Providing an alternative solution to the social problem that cannibalism or human sacrifice (or both) represented led directly to its abandonment, no matter how elaborately theologised or culturally embedded it had been.
Ritualising a single, transcendent, sacrifice
Moving from the Mexica, and the Maya, to their eventual conquerors, the Christian Mass provides a dramatic contrast to human sacrifice and consumption to expiate debts to the divine while still using ritualised notions of human sacrifice and the consumption of the flesh and the blood of the sacrifice. The centrepiece of the Mass being the consumption of bread and wine, ritually, and so metaphysically, transformed into the flesh and blood of a specific, transcendent Being; of God made flesh. The consumption of bread and wine re-conceived as the consumption of the flesh and blood of the sacrificed confirms the Crucifixion as a sacrifice.
But a single, for all humanity and all time, sacrifice. A metaphysically transformative, and never to be repeated, single event. A sacrifice that was transformative by not being ritually elevated into food for the gods but by God becoming man and enduring the degraded and public humiliation punishment of the despised criminal.
In Roman times, Christians were suspected of cannibalism. Bread and wine being transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ clearly provided something for such rumours to emerge from. Once they gained a measure of power Christians were also notorious vandals, seeking to purify (sometimes by fire) the “demonic” pagan sacred buildings and spaces.
For the Christian Church, ritual spaces are enclosed, not elevated platforms in public plazas. Being humanly-constructed enclosed spaces maximised the contrast with the sacred groves, springs or grottos of the immanent polytheisms Christian faith sought to replace. The famous debate between Bernard of Clairvaux and Abbot Sugar over whether sacred spaces were for anyone who sought the numinous or were specifically for those who had undertaken more thorough spiritual commitment and discipline, was fundamentally predicated on the notion of sacred spaces as created within, and enclosed by, human construction.
Medieval Cathedrals were the tallest human constructions before modern skyscrapers. Lincoln cathedral was 160m tall when completed in 1300. The Great Pyramid of Giza was 146.5m tall. Cathedrals dwarfed the ziggurats of Mesopotamia (the Great Ziggurat of Ur was over 30m tall), and the pyramids of Mesoamerica (the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan was 71.5m tall). From the C13th to 1894, Christian cathedrals were the tallest buildings constructed.
Mass at Asidonia-Jerez Seminary, 2005. (Wikimedia commons.)
Like modern skyscrapers, but unlike ziggurats and Meosamerican pyramids, Cathedrals enclosed and encompassed the participants. However grand the structure, it was built to enclose the mass as a ritual for all participants that provided a moment of intimate communion with God. A manifestation of a congregational religion originally built through local communities of faith.
In Mexica human sacrifice, and in Catholic communion, what was otherwise ordinary (another human being, bread and wine) was ritually placed into the realm of the transcendent by invoking the divine. One ritual fed the divine, enabling those who were favoured within the society to then be physically fed by the sacrifices. The other enabled every worshipper to be spiritually enriched by the divine through an act of ritualised feeding. The communion of the Mass celebrated divine love, the sacrifices of the Mexica sought to fend off divine malevolence.
In both cases, we can see the power and utility of ritual. In the Mesoamerican case, especially the Mexica case, we can see the deep practicality of ritual as acts of shared performative faith. It enabled an act that would otherwise deeply corrode society (turning humans into food) to provide access to animal fat and protein from its most plentiful and directly nutritious source and to do so in ways that reinforced the social order.
It is easy enough to see the functionality of ritual. But how do we get to, how do we create, this functionality? Rituals are both designed and they have evolved, but they are designed to express ideas and to be doable. It is very implausible that their deeper functions are consciously intended and constructed.
Yet the reason why things resonate with us do not have to be conscious. It can sometimes be better if they are not. Especially if they are invoking deeper emotional and cognitive processes. Humans, for instance, often cloak their aggression towards others as being a concern for propriety. This is a strategy that can work better if the cloaking of such aggression applies to the (conscious cognition of) the aggressor themselves.
We humans are very good at strategically hiding our motives from ourselves while telling heroic narratives about ourselves. Hence other folk regularly look so much more self-interested than oneself and one’s confreres. The power of belief could not be harnessed anywhere near as well as it if this were not so.
Faith increases the commitment to religion, so the coordinating functionality of religion. And faith is a cognitive embrace, not just a doctrinal commitment.
Coordination through resonating, and so replicating, narrative is a feature of both religion and ideology. Religious or ideological commitment can be an effective block against free-riding. Ritual provides an embodied shared manifestation of, and investment in, such.
So, in seeking the origins of ritual, and their functionality, we should not underestimate the power of what “feels” wrong and what “feels” appropriate, what “seems” true. Rituals are embodied, they use the modes through which we apprehend reality, precisely because they are about, and go beyond, the limits of consciousness.
Rituals as embodied acts operate beyond the limits of consciousness. It is surely hardly surprising if rituals are also about, and go beyond, the limits of consciousness in how they come to be and evolve.
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