Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The dark side of paganism

Unlike neopaganism, ancient paganism was often steeped in rites of blood. When Pete Owen-Jones visited the Church of Thron, in Africa (Cononou, Benin), he was upset by the Voodoo practice of slitting and hurling to one side animal carcasses, including cats and dogs, in order to obtain communication with the spirits, and for no other reason.

But in Uganda, this kind of ritual propitiation involves the sacrifice of young children. The BBC report (Crossing Continents)states what is happening:

One witch-doctor led us to his secret shrine and said he had clients who regularly captured children and brought their blood and body parts to be consumed by spirits. Meanwhile, a former witch-doctor who now campaigns to end child sacrifice confessed for the first time to having murdered about 70 people, including his own son.

The Ugandan government told us that human sacrifice is on the increase, and according to the head of the country's Anti-Human Sacrifice Taskforce the crime is directly linked to rising levels of development and prosperity, and an increasing belief that witchcraft can help people get rich quickly.

In the course of our investigation we witnessed the ritual torching of the shrine of a particularly active witch-doctor in northern Uganda by anti-sacrifice campaigners. The witch-doctor allowed ceremonial items including conch shells and animal skins to be burned in his sacred grove after agreeing to give up sacrifice. He told us that clients had come to him in search of wealth. "They capture other people's children. They bring the heart and the blood directly here to take to the spirits. They bring them in small tins and they place these objects under the tree from which the voices of the spirits are coming," he said.

Former witch-doctor turned anti-sacrifice campaigner Polino Angela says he has persuaded 2,400 other witch-doctors to give up the trade since he himself repented in 1990. Mr Angela told us he had first been initiated as a witch-doctor at a ceremony in neighbouring Kenya, where a boy of about 13 was sacrificed. "The child was cut with a knife on the neck and the entire length from the neck down was ripped open, and then the open part was put on me," he said. (1)

Modern paganism as in Western countries is very different and should no more be culpable for this than modern Christians should be blamed for the madness of the crusades. The forms of modern paganism are largely eclectic and peaceful, and if they look to the past, it is to the best of the past, those parts of ancient paganism that were at peace and at harmony with nature.

But where Uganda does impact upon modern paganism is in its desire to capture a lost past, and not learn from the darker side of that past. Just as Christianity must learn from its persecution of pagans, and the crusades, burning and hanging of people for witchcraft, so modern paganism must distance itself and critique and not ignore those aspects of pagan religions of the past which committed atrocities in the name of religion.

The populist books of "ancient wisdom" and "secrets of the ancients" etc which fill shelves of book shops, and the modern kinds of pantheism and animism are in fact far distanced from the kind of animal and human sacrifice that took place in the past, but which can also claim a direct link in the atrocities committed in Uganda or the Voodoo sacrifices of domestic animals.

The Radio 4 programme "Crossing Continents" also made it very clear that what was happening in Uganda was not a delusion, like the Satanic Abuse fantasies which erupted in the last century in Britain and America. Unlike those, where no evidence
actually existed, the reporter noted that forensic examination of some of the body parts has indicated they come from human beings, and some of the child victims have actually survived being mutilated.

Joy Davidman, in her book, "Smoke on the Mountain", places sacrifices of this kind as the end result of a kind of idolatry, where the desire to placate the idol (or spirit) leads to an escalation in the bargaining process:

The essence of idolatry is its attempt to control and enslave the deity. If the idol has power over man, so has man power over the idol; he can bribe it, he can drive a bargain with it, by certain rituals and sacrifices he can compel it to grant his wishes. Or, so, at least, the idolater thinks. For an idol is not just an image, of one shape or another, meant to represent a deity. An idol is a material object, by the proper manipulation of which a man may get what he wants out of life.

Only, of course, he can't. The universe is not made that way; there is no such power in any material object. Sacrifice as much as you please, cajole and flatter as you please, beat your disobedient idol with a big stick if you please-the thing still won't give you what you want. In consequence, all idolatrous cultures tend to get nastier and nastier. If a small bribe doesn't succeed, they offer more. The idol will not respond to a dance of virgins with flowers? Very well, let's try a dance of warriors mutilating themselves with knives. You have cut off a lock of your hair and laid it before the idol, yet life is still dark? Try cutting your first-born's throat and offering him. Nor does the idol's continued silence teach you better sense, if you're a natural-born idolater. For if Mumbo-Jumbo is so bard to please, what a very great Mumbo-Jumbo he must be ! (2)

Ancient Carthage provides a chilling example of this.
Ancient writers such as Kleitarchos, Agathocles, Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, and the Christian theologian Tertullian (c 160 CE- 220 CE) all testify to the practice of child sacrifice in the realm of Carthage. In December 1921, the largest cemetery of sacrificed infants in the ancient Near East was discovered at Carthage, now a resort suburb of the city of Tunis.

Lawrence E. Stager and Joseph A. Greene comment that:

The evidence that Phoenicians ritually sacrificed their children comes from four sources. Classical authors and biblical prophets charge the Phoenicians with the practice. Stelae associated with burial urns found at Carthage bear decorations alluding to sacrifice and inscriptions expressing vows to Phoenician deities. Urns buried beneath these stelae contain remains of children (and sometimes of animals) who were cremated as described in the sources or implied by the inscriptions.

Moreover, the osteological evidence reveals that most of the victims were children two to three months old, though some were as old as age five. So far no skeleton has shown any signs of pathological conditions that might have caused death. These were healthy children deliberately killed as sacrifices in the manner described in the classical and biblical texts.(5)

From its earliest days in the 8th century B.C., Carthage sacrificed animals  (lambs and kids) to Ba'al and Tanit, dedicating the offerings as ''substitutes for children.'' Traditionally, Dr. Stager said, archeologists have tended to the view that as Carthage advanced over the following 600 years, the practice of human sacrifice subsided as the sacrifice of animal substitutes increased. This is in keeping with the supposition by historians that human sacrifice, at first transformed into animal sacrifice, eventually evolved into the bloodless wine-and-wafer Eucharist of Christianity.
But excavations led by Dr. Stager and others have shown, he said, that in Carthage, the trend was reversed. The oldest burial layers at the Precinct of Tanit hold urns containing burned skeletal remains in the ratio of three children for one animal, but in a later era, the 3d century B.C., the ratio increased to ten children for one animal.(6)

The story of Abraham in the Old Testament is instructive in displaying how Jewish attitudes changed. The story tells how Abraham was prepared to be so obedient to his God as to sacrifice his only son Isaac, and up to the moment of sacrifice was ready to kill Isaac, until God provided a lamb instead.

The Old Testament scholar Richard Friedman notes that the first part of the story, in which God demands the sacrifice of Isaac and Abraham complies, to take him to the place of sacrifice, refers to the God by the plural name, Elohim (usually rendered "God" in English translations). The verses that record the sparing of Isaac come from a wholly different source in which the name of the god is Yahweh ("LORD," in English versions).

Friedman suggests that in the E version, Isaac is not saved. The story ends with the words, "And ABRAHAM returned to his servants." There is no mention of Isaac. And in the E version, there is no further reference to Isaac. Friedman also notes that
there is a midrashic tradition that Isaac actually had been sacrificed.(3)

If this is the case, then the Y story is an emendation which takes a familiar story (and sacrifice of children was also rife elsewhere in the near Middle East) and subtly transforms it into a story in which sacrifice is not required after all.

According to the Jewish scholar Shalom Spiegel, "the primary purpose of the story may have been only this: to attach to a real pillar of the folk and a revered reputation the new norm-abolish human sacrifice, substitute animals instead."

It is from Christianity, drawing on the Old Testament roots, that the renunciation and denunciation of human sacrifice is making headway in Uganda. The reporter on Crossing Continents was talking to a Ugandan Minister in charge of stamping out this practice, and it was clear that the Minister himself was very much a believer in good and evil spirits, and placed the sacrifice of children in the context of the demands of evil spirits.

The reporter was quite incredulous at this kind of belief, coming from the secular background of Western culture in which this kind of thinking is regarded much more skeptically. There was more than a hint in his questions that this practice should be educated out as superstitious, and eradicated that way.  But perhaps it is only within a language which can speak of sacrifice and spirits that persuasion can be made, as much as it offends the skeptics among us.
In the meantime, the relationship of modern Neopaganism to blood sacrifice is ambiguous, and Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, after a passage in which he praises the practice of flagellation as releasing power, comments that:

Sorcerers chiefly used the blood sacrifice; and while we hold this to be evil, we cannot deny that this method is very efficient. Power flashes forth from newly shed blood, instead of exuding slowly as by our method. The victim's terror and anguish add keenness, and even quite a small animal can yield enormous power. The great difficulty is in the human mind controlling the power of the lower animal mind. But sorcerers claim they have methods for effecting this and that the difficulty disappears the higher her the animal used, and when the victim is human disappears entirely. The practice is an abomination but it is so. (7)

So there is a mixed-message here, that on the one hand, blood sacrifice is "an abomination" but on the other that it is "very efficient". Perhaps it is time for modern neopagans to draw upon the Greek myths which parallel those of the story of Abraham:

The Greeks had two versions of a similar fable; one, that Agamemnon had a daughter whom he dearly loved, and whom he was ordered by the deity to offer up as a sacrifice. When preparations were being made, the goddess carried the girl away, and substituted a stag. The other is of a Greek king, who had offended Diana, when the sacrifice of his daughter was demanded; but she suddenly disappeared just before the fatal blow.(8)

(1) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/8441813.stm
(2) Smoke on the Mountain, Joy Davidman
(3) "Who Wrote the Bible" Richard E. Friedman.
(4) http://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm/frm/47585/sec_id/47585
(5) http://phoenicia.org/childsacrifice.html

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