Sacrificial Rituals Past and Present


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Sacrificial Riituals Past and Present
copyright©Anne Baring


I have put this article up because of the despicable sentence given (April 2019) by an Iranian Court to Nasrin Sodouteh, a woman lawyer who dared to speak up on behalf of women's rights. She was sentenced to 148 lashes and 38 years in prison. This barbaric sentence which is designed to kill her is typical of a ritual of sacrifice designed to protect the group from the contamination of an individual who threatens the status quo.


Mass murder is a side effect of progress in technology. From the stone axe onwards, humans have used their tools to slaughter one another. Humans are weapon-making animals with an unquenchable fondness for killing.” John Gray, Straw Dogs, p. 92

Is John Gray's statement true? The lion tracks and kills the antelope for food; the sparrow-hawk falls upon the blackbird for the same reason. The jackdaw steals the kestrel’s eggs and the parent bird can only watch and cry out piteously. All this happens instinctively, without a second’s reflection. The prey is sighted, the predator animal or raptor bird pounces. But with us, who have developed the ability to put space between thought and action and to reflect on our actions, what leads us to kill members of our own species in the way that other species kill for food? What leads us to circumcise males and inflict FGM on girls?

Why does war remain a permanent feature of the human condition and why we do we practice what is, effectively, human sacrifice on a massive scale yet don’t recognise or name it as such. Deeply unconscious and archaic instincts control the “rational” decisions of political leaders who take us into war – decisions which may lead to the sacrifice of thousands, if not millions of human beings, yet we aren’t aware of how we are controlled by these instincts. Certain groups within Islam believe that the martyrdom of their sons and daughters in the cause of killing an enemy is noble and approved of by God. Certain Christians believed that God was guiding them in the current policy of the United States in the Middle East: they welcome the scenario of conflict there because they see it as the prelude to the final battle of Armageddon announced in the Book of Revelation which is to be followed by the Second Coming of Christ. Both Christians and Muslims are mythically prepared to accept the slaughter of thousands as acceptable to God, even approved of by Him.

Having justified their use to ourselves in the interests of self-defence, we spend colossal sums of money preparing for war with weapons that are destined to destroy life on an apocalyptic scale. Even the fact that the residue from certain weapons such as cluster bombs containing depleted uranium can last 4.5 billion years and leave terrible effects on the human body doesn’t seem to deter us as long as they affect and destroy the enemy. The question that needs to be asked and answered is why an ideology like Communism or a belief-system such as Christianity or Islam gives people permission to kill those they designate as their enemies or the enemies of God. The lesson, as John Gray writes in his latest book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, is that “nothing is more human than the readiness to kill and die in order to secure a meaning in life.”

Why is it that the teaching of the greatest spiritual leaders has had no apparent effect on the human species’ addiction to war? It seems that nothing short of some kind of natural or man-made catastrophe will change the mind-set that creates and justifies ever more terrible weapons of mass destruction.

Christopher Browning concludes his book Ordinary Men – Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland with the words,

“I fear that we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimisation are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratisation, and in which the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behaviour and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts… to induce “ordinary men” to become their “willing executioners.” p. 223

As long ago as 2500 BCE, in Sumer, laws already existed to protect the weak and vulnerable from the predatory acts of men who would murder and steal. Our present system of justice in the United Kingdom, painstakingly established over hundreds of years, exists to protect people from each other – even, through hard-won civil rights, to protect people from the overweening power of the state. It has abolished the death penalty. Yet in the context of war or defence against an enemy, barbaric acts are not only accepted as necessary but glorified and celebrated when they lead to the defeat of an enemy. Operation “Shock and Awe” is, from a moral perspective, a disgraceful title to be applied to a campaign but typical of the military mind-set that seeks to terrify the enemy into submission and boast of its anticipated victory. The bombing of Hiroshima is an example of this barbarism. With hindsight, such barbaric acts may be questioned, even condemned, but at the time, they are justified because they are considered essential to achieving victory and to ensuring our own survival.

In the last century the lives of some 200 million people were sacrificed in war. Deliberate policies of starvation and persecution were instituted in regimes led by Hitler, Stalin, MaoZedong, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Robert Mugabe, among others. The Second World War culminated in the fire-bombing of Hamburg and Dresden and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 150,000 died in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq and it is thought that well over 400,000 civilians died in the war in Iraq as well as 4,424 American soldiers. Despite the fact that it could have been prevented if the order to intervene had been given by the United Nations, we were the helpless witnesses of the terrible massacres in Rwanda and the continual shedding of blood in conflicts in other African countries, including Darfur, Somalia and the Congo where millions now face starvation. These figures do not include the millions (civilian and military) who were and are physically crippled and permanently emotionally traumatised by their experiences.

All this can be placed under the heading of human sacrifice but the word “war” tends to sanitise what is happening by putting it into the category of what is acceptable, because war has always been accepted. The media presents war as a gruesome form of entertainment, censoring the most horrific images of death, blood, dismemberment by explosive weapons and the desperate grief of survivors that might be too much for our fragile sensitivities to bear. 

Rituals of Sacrifice

An understanding of the deeper roots of the practice of sacrifice can benefit from exploring the rituals of sacrifice which have been practiced for thousands of years. If we can understand the archaic beliefs which underlie and give rise to our modern practices, we may gain some insight into the unconscious programming that holds us in bondage to these ancient rituals.

When did sacrificial rituals begin? And what beliefs gave rise to them, since belief precedes the act of sacrifice?
The meaning of the word “sacrifice” in Latin is “to make whole or sacred” – sacer facere. But what was the Whole that the act of sacrifice was meant to restore and what circumstances gave rise to the belief that it had been broken?

As has been explained elsewhere, lunar culture long predated solar culture and the emphasis in lunar culture was on the sacred unity or wholeness of life and on a cyclical process, eternally renewed, of birth, death and rebirth. The moon itself in many early cultures was held to be the abode of the souls of the dead. (Jules Cashford, The Moon, Myth and Image, p. 337-8) Observation of the moon gave people the idea that death was not the final end of life but one aspect of the cyclical round of life that would bring the spirit of the deceased back to life in this dimension. The full moon gave an image of the totality of the sacred order of life and the cycles of the moon gave an image of the process of death and regeneration within that unchanging image of eternity. The problem for human beings was how not to “break” the wholeness of life by killing the animals needed for food. In killing an animal, disturbing the soil and harvesting crops from the earth, people felt they were violating a primordial wholeness that was originally ‘given’, so they devised sacrificial rituals believed magically to restore the original wholeness which would assist rather than diminish their own survival.

However, because the moon held such significance, it is possible that the idea of sacrifice developed originally not only to restore wholeness but to ensure the return of the crescent moon. Jules Cashford writes in her book The Moon: Myth and Image about the rituals that grew from the need to keep the moon alive:

An instinctive identification requires that the moon itself should not die like human beings, for then human beings would die like the Moon…Many people continued to regard the Moon’s rebirth as the best, if not the only, hope they had for being reborn themselves. So it was crucial that the Moon should be kept alive.  p. 313

Watching the full moon wane and disappear into darkness may have led some communities to believe that a human sacrifice might be necessary in order to ensure its return either to help the moon to be reborn or to propitiate the deity, darkness or dragon/monster that had swallowed it up. Enacting the dark phase of the moon literally, the tribal practice would be to kill and dismember a “sacred” victim or to sacrifice some part of the body, such as the foreskin or a finger joint. Since the moon always re-appeared after such a sacrifice, it may have been assumed that the sacrifice of the body part or the death of the victim had caused the rebirth of the moon. So the idea developed that sacrifice was necessary to ensure the future return of the moon. Ritual sacrifice may have been seen as a necessity in order to restore the moon and with it the sacred order of eternal regeneration of life.

Taking this metaphor further, it would also have been natural to conclude that a sacrifice was necessary in order to ensure the regeneration of the crops or the restoration of health to the community if its survival had been threatened by famine or disease. Out of this archaic lunar mythology, rituals developed in certain societies where a man or woman or an animal (such as the lunar animal, the bull), was sacrificed and/or dismembered at the dark of the moon to ensure the regeneration of the moon in a new cycle or the regeneration of the crops on which the tribe depended for survival.

There is another aspect of the perceived disruption of unity which may be important. The very act of becoming conscious and aware that our humanness differentiated and distanced us from animals and plants ruptured the wholeness of the divine order by splitting life into a duality of perceiver and perceived. This separation from nature and from the life of the Earth, which seems to be an inevitable corollary of the birth of self-awareness or self-consciousness, is experienced as a wound, a guilt, an anxiety which leads to the development of sacrificial practices which will heal the wound, expunge the guilt and allay the anxiety. The modern phenomenon of young girls cutting themselves with a knife or a razor blade is an example of how a sacrificial ritual (shedding blood and inflicting pain) can allay anxiety. In this case, however, the ritual is directed against the self rather than against another as a substitute for the self.

Rituals of sacrifice – whether animal or human – served the purpose of restoring the lost feeling of unity and were, in essence, a defence against fear, above all, the fear of the death or the extinction of the tribal group. With the increase of consciousness, the old instinctive trust in the eternal renewal of life began to fade and death became the feared enemy. In the ritual of sacrifice, people got rid of their fear of death by sacrificing a surrogate victim whose death would ward off the possibility of it happening to them. The death of the other ensured one's own survival. Obviously fear then, as now, was an essential warning instinct in the face of danger, but it is rather the anticipation of a feared future event that nature, an angry deity or an enemy might inflict on the tribe that is the issue behind the act of sacrifice. It is possible that the sacrifice of heretics and apostates in Christianity and Islam had its distant origins in this belief. The safety of the group could only be preserved if it was “pure” - uncontaminated by heresy. The Old Testament has several examples of the practice of getting rid of anyone who threatened the given order in order to protect the community from the risk of offending the deity. Here is a passage from Deuteronomy:

Should your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or your daughter or the wife of your bosom or your companion who is like your own self incite you in secret, saying ‘Let us go and worship other gods’…you shall surely kill him. Your hand shall be against him first to put him to death and the hand of all the people last. And you shall stone him and he shall die, for he sought to thrust you away from the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves. (Deuteronomy 13: 7, 11)

We know that scapegoats – whether human or animal – were, in different societies, selected for sacrifice or sent into wilderness carrying with them the sins of the people and thereby removing the possibility of divine punishment falling on the community. Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac may come into this category. Sometimes those chosen as victims or scapegoats would be criminals, the crippled or the insane. As recently as eighteenth century England, men and women who had been imprisoned for a variety of crimes were sent to penal colonies in America and Australia – effectively banishing them from the community and thereby, so to speak, getting rid of the contamination of their presence. This is one late example of the survival of the practice of sending a scapegoat into the wilderness, carrying with him the “sins” of the community.

The greater the threat or need, the greater the sense of guilt and anxiety, the greater the sacrifice that was demanded and offered. This ancient theme of sacrifice is carried forward into the great Christian myth, where, in the doctrine of vicarious atonement, the sacrifice of a single man, believed to be the Son of God, is held to have redeemed the sins of humanity for all time. Christians annually commemorate and mourn the sacrificial “death” of the Son of God and His resurrection after three days. The preceding mourning period of Lent is marked by processions in Spain and elsewhere, accompanied by penitents who flagellate themselves and shed their blood. A similar ceremony of self-flagellation and the shedding of blood is enacted by Shi'a Muslims, commemorating the murder of Hussein, the grandson of Mohammed. These modern sacrificial rituals are the distant legacies of a time when human sacrifice and the shedding of blood brought the hope of life’s renewal and protection against catastrophe.

Frazer, in his monumental study, The Golden Bough, describes how, in many places in Europe during the Neolithic era, the tribal chief or priest-king was sacrificed if he showed any sign of sickness or weakness or if adversity had fallen on the community in the form of famine or sickness. The king was both the personification of the life of the community and the divine life of vegetation. Any sign of weakness or illness in the king or high-priest threatened the survival of the tribal group because he embodied and guaranteed the life of the tribe. He was believed to be half-divine and half-human – a belief which survived far into historical times in the divine right or the divine descent of kings and is still held in certain countries such as Nepal. If the king or leader fell ill, it was thought necessary to kill him and choose a new leader who would renew life for the whole community. In certain communities, year after year, a victim, who was possibly a substitute for the king or chief, was chosen to be ritually sacrificed in order to ensure the regeneration of the crops.

Stravinsky’s dark ballet, The Rite of Spring, performed for the first time in 1913 amid huge uproar on the eve of the First World War, tells the story of the ritual sacrifice of a young girl by the clan or tribe in order to ensure the return of the crops in spring. The rhythmic stamping on the earth, the selection of the victim and her murder by the tribal shaman vividly re-create an archaic rite. Stravinsky chose a young woman as the focus of his powerful and disturbing ballet, but we know that a young man was often sacrificed or a young couple who were forced to have sexual intercourse in the fields before they were killed.

If we turn to Bronze Age Mesopotamia c. 2,800 BC, the 16 astonishing burials discovered in the 1920’s by Sir Leonard Woolley at the Sumerian city of Ur, have given us an image of sacrificial ritual in all its barbaric splendour. Here were uncovered the bodies of king A-bar-gi and 68 women including his queen and many court servants – charioteers, musicians, female servants and soldiers – who seem to have been taken into the grave shafts and slaughtered where they stood. The exquisite artefacts found on the women included white leather diadems sewn with “thousands of minute lapis lazuli beads, and against this background of solid blue were set a row of exquisitely fashioned gold animals, stags, gazelles, bulls, and goats, with between them clusters of pomegranates.” Others were adorned with gold beech leaves, lapis lazuli and carnelian and the queen wore beautifully worked necklaces of lapis and gold which hung in cascades down to her waist, as well as huge double lunate earrings. Near them was a wonderful harp with, rising at the front of it, the head of a Bull adorned with a magnificent lapis-lazuli beard. Over the harp were scattered the bones of the gold-crowned harpist. (Campbell, The Masks of God) All these artefacts and more are now on display in the British Museum. Nothing comparable to them has since been excavated in Mesopotamia.

In Nubia, in Egypt, similar rites of sacrifice have come to light with the discovery by George Reisner in 1913-16, of immense burial chambers dating from the middle of the third millennium, and lasting several hundred years. Four or five hundred bodies were sacrificed at the time of the king’s death, principally women, children and servants. Their contorted bodies showed that they had obviously died of suffocation.
Sophocles’ great play, Oedipus the King, tells the tragic story of king Oedipus who blinded himself when he discovered that he had unknowingly murdered his father and committed unwitting incest with the woman whom he believed to be his wife, realising that these two “sins” had been responsible for the blight and famine that had fallen upon the land of Thebes. He knew that only by taking the punishment for these “sins” of parricide and incest on himself, could the land be healed of the curse that had fallen on it.

Human as well as animal sacrifices to the goddesses and gods in the ancient world were common. In the Iliad, Homer tells the story of the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, in order that the goddess Artemis would grant the Greek ships a fair wind to sail to Troy. Perseus, on his way back from killing Medusa, rescues the king’s daughter who, tied to a rock, had been offered as the ultimate sacrifice to a great dragon that had been ravaging the land. In the case of Iphigenia, her sacrifice set in motion a train of catastrophic events – the murder of her father Agamemnon - who had actually performed the sacrifice - by her outraged mother Clytemnestra, followed by the murder of Clytemnestra and her husband by her son Orestes, who, according to tribal custom, was required to avenge the crime of patricide. In the end, only the intervention of the goddess Athena broke the chain of vengeful acts of sacrifice.

Whether we look at ancient practices in the West, or in India, or in China, Africa and South and Central America, we find traces of the sacrifice of human beings, sometimes a child, or the first-born as in Carthage (sacrifice to Moloch), and Canaan (sacrifice to Baal), in Aztec Mexico and Mayan Yucatan in order to propitiate the gods and ward off catastrophe. The bodies of young children have been found high in the Andes, preserved for centuries by the icy conditions. Over millennia, rituals were imposed such as circumcision, castration or celibacy in the service of goddesses and gods — the sacrifice of a bodily part or of infants or first born in order to secure the well being or the survival of the tribal group. There seems to have been no concept of the survival needs of the individual until relatively recently. What mattered was the survival of the group. Individuals were offered as sacrifice to ensure the survival of the clan or tribe or the regeneration of the crops.

Adding to this catalogue of sacrificial rituals are the holocausts of animal sacrifices to goddesses and gods: to Poseidon, Zeus and Artemis in Greece, to Kali in India and to Yahweh in the temple of Jerusalem. I doubt if there is a culture that hasn’t at some time sacrificed animals to a deity.

As early as 3000 BC in Egypt as evidenced by the Narmer Palette there is evidence that a variation of the archaic idea of ritual sacrifice had begun to evolve: the sacrifice of the enemy in war. Soon after, scenes of conquest begin to be carved on the walls of temples in Egypt and Mesopotamia. We see victims who have been beheaded or bludgeoned by a mace lying at the feet of the pharaoh or king. This was an ominous extension of the earlier idea that ritual sacrifice would ensure the return of the crescent moon or the regeneration of the crops. On this hypothesis, the wholesale extermination of others – now designated “the enemy” – seems to have become a new way magically to avoid death: the blood of the enemy shed in battle was thought to increase the life of one’s own tribal group, even to increase the divine power of a king or ruler. At the same time, goddesses and gods were co-opted to serve the territorial ambitions of the ruler or ruling group, just as God is invoked today, millennia later in the current war in Iraq, to give divine sanction to the protagonists. Since fear lies at the heart of sacrificial rituals, it follows that communities which feel threatened, either by natural forces or by attack by other groups, will experience relief from fear in the sacrifice of others.

Sacrificial Rituals Today

If we look at our sacrificial rituals today – first of all at the ease with which we still sacrifice young men in war and secondly, at suicide bombing as a weapon of war – we have to ask whether these modern rituals are not rooted in age-old customs and beliefs that still have the power to influence the modern psyche. It seems that now, as then, it is a mixture of fear and survival instincts that lead to the vicarious sacrifice of others in the hope of warding off a threat to the group. The rites of sacrifice now have a new context: the war against the ‘Axis of Evil’ or against America, “the Great Satan”. In this polarised conflict of good versus evil, no effort will be spared to eliminate the enemy – particularly as each side perceives the other as evil. George Bush’s words, “I will settle for nothing less than complete victory” (30/11/05) invites the same response from the other side. The revolting beheading of prisoners or hostages by Islamist groups in Iraq re-enacts the archaic habits of ancient sacrificial rituals.

To humiliate and murder a prisoner is enhancing the survival of one's group since it sends the message, “We are more powerful than you are since we hold the power of life and death over this prisoner.” Similarly, the torture of prisoners in the Abu Grhaib prison in Iraq sends out the same message: “We are the superior people; you are powerless victims in our hands.” Here I should mention the sacrificial ritual of the Iranian Court sentencing a woman lawyer (Nasrin Sotoudeh) to be given 148 lashes and a prison sentence of 38 years (April 2019). She  dared to speak up for women’s rights, thereby threatening the current oppressive rule of the Iranian theocracy. Here is a perfect example of how an individual who threatens the group must be eliminated or sacrificed for the good of the collective.

A Palestinian woman, Maryam Farahat, known as “The Mother of the Struggle” and a democratically elected member of Hamas and the Palestinian Legislative Council, who encouraged three of her sons to die in a suicide attack on Israel, claims she would be proud if her three remaining sons followed suit (Sunday Telegraph 29/1/06). Her loyalty to the group is total and absolute – to the extent that she is willing to offer her sons as sacrificial victims to help that group to survive. The lives of her sons have no value as individuals per se, only as units of the religious group. In her words: “Encouraging my sons to be martyrs is serving Islam.”

It is very difficult to differentiate oneself as an individual from the collective thinking and beliefs held by the group. In the First World War those suspected of desertion were shot. Conscientious objectors had the greatest difficulty asserting their right not to take part in battle. Freedom of speech is such a precious freedom because it gives the individual the possibility of speaking out against persecutory or fascist tendencies in government or against beliefs which threaten the integrity and survival of the individual. When the group to which he belongs goes into survival mode, these freedoms may be suspended and undermined as they have been recently in the United States and, to a lesser extent, thanks to the vigilance of the Judiciary, in the United Kingdom.

This allegiance to the group can be seen, even today, in the desire of Islamic Fundamentalists (Afghanistan and Pakistan and now Iran) to curtail the freedom of women who are, so to speak, sacrificed to the fear that the community will be polluted if freedom and education are granted to them. Women are threatened and even murdered to preserve the “purity” and hence, by implication, the survival power of the group. Similarly, women who have been raped by the enemy are expelled or ostracised because the rape has broken the sacred “wholeness” of the community. We saw this in the war in Kosovo where, in a Muslim culture, raped women were deemed to have polluted the community and were ostracised. This has happened more recently with the Yazidi women taken captive and enslaved by the Islamists. Now (2019) they are not welcomed back into the community and some are having to abandon their children in order to be allowed to return to their families in Iraq. This has also been documented in Darfur where husbands have immediately divorced raped women. The rape has weakened the group and the woman who has been raped is marked as polluted and removed from the community. 

Even now, young men are indoctrinated with the idea that it is their patriotic duty to offer their lives in the service of their country or their religion. The phrase Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (sweet it is to die for one's country) goes back to Roman times (Horace). Parents were expected then and still are now to accept this sacrifice with good grace and without protest. Grief yes but protest no. I remember my father telling me the story of how, when he was seven c. 1914, his father asked him whom he loved best. First, he answered “Mother”, then, when told that was wrong, “Father” but his father looked him in the eye and said, “No, the right answer is King and Country.” 

The archaic survival instincts which speak through the collective members of the group as well as its leaders are very powerful: the life of the individual counts for nothing when they are aroused. The group is ruthless in protecting its survival needs. It will sacrifice the individual without hesitation since, from its archaic perspective, the survival of the group is of primary importance. To move from tribal allegiances to awareness that our primary allegiance should now be to the survival of planetary life is a huge step and it is questionable whether, as a species, we will be capable of taking it.

Maybe we need to look further back to the pre-human influences on our genetic history. It has long been held that it is dangerous to assume that human aggression derives from animal nature and to see biological inheritance as determining human practice. People think that this counteracts free will and free choice. But unless we know what unconscious survival habits control and influence us, we are not free.

Walter Burkert, in his book Creation of the Sacred concludes that the human habit of sacrifice may be rooted in the animal’s experience of falling victim to predators. His book is interesting because it shows how many of our religious beliefs and rituals are rooted in the instinct to sacrifice for the sake of survival.

Humans, like animals experience terror when they are trapped and, like animals, they struggle to escape from a dangerous situation. An animal often has to sacrifice a paw or a leg to get out of a trap or the jaws of some predator. Being the helpless prey of a stronger animal/human being is experienced as a catastrophic event and such an experience is a deeply imprinted memory in the human species as well as in any animal species that provides food for a predator. Two of the greatest human fears are falling victim to a natural catastrophe like a tidal wave, an earthquake or a volcanic eruption and becoming the prey of another human being and losing control of one's ability to survive.

Many species of animal have to kill in order to survive. Maybe we humans carry this awareness deep in the unconscious layers of our psyche. Many thousands of years ago, we looked to a shaman who had a strong connection with another dimension of reality to mediate on behalf of the clan or tribal group and develop rituals which would ensure or assist our survival. The modern psychotherapist who has the specialist knowledge that may help to extricate the client from a difficult situation or give him/her insight into it may be the descendent of the shaman.

So, as Burkert suggests, we have the scenario of:
1. the fear of evil, disaster or catastrophe
2. the intervention of mediator with special knowledge or skills
3. the naming of the cause - therefore possibility of salvation/escape
4. rituals of atonement and/or sacrifice to escape from evil/catastrophe      

Are we perhaps still unconsciously bound by the spell of these archaic beliefs whenever we sacrifice the life of others or those of our own tribal group? By naming the enemy to be eliminated and projecting evil onto him to absolve ourselves from the contamination of guilt, we thereby (in our own eyes) ensure our own survival. We also find that the power to allay anxiety is vested in belief in a supreme male - either priest or tribal leader. "the primal male".

This goes back to animal behaviour. The safety of the group lies in a powerful male leader. It follows from this that we discover the same pattern in religions of submission to a powerful male priesthood headed by the Pope (Primate) or other supreme leader. Negative projections fall onto other groups who do not belong to that belief system or onto individuals who challenge the authority of that religion by rejecting it or proclaiming a new version of it. These may be sacrificed in order that the system may become stronger and more controlling. Hence the execution of heretics and apostates.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition we find the equation 
The disaster (of the Fall) leads to human suffering/anxiety
intervention of the priesthood
hidden cause revealed
confession of guilt and rituals of sacrifice and absolution

In the politics of tyranny:
anxiety of people
intervention of a tyrant-leader
hidden cause revealed
solution – ritual sacrifice of the alien group or individual
guilt and anxiety lifted through projection

characteristics of tyrant/psychopath
grandiose posturing
paranoid projections
absence of conscience, compassion or awareness of guilt.

In psychotherapy we find the same pattern:
psychic wound or insoluble problem giving rise to anxiety/guilt/depression
intervention of the therapist
the hidden cause revealed
rituals of confession and healing
the withdrawal of projections and the sacrifice of the old unconscious state

In a situation such as the Gulags of the former Soviet Union, the concentration camps of the Nazi regime or Pol Pot’s regime of eliminating the intelligentsia of Cambodia, we find the collusion of prison guards who, through fear, carry out the orders they are given: “I was afraid they would get rid of me too.” (guard of Pol Pot’s prison camp). The fear of becoming the prey of the tyrannical regime enforces a moral paralysis. Robert Conquest writes in Harvest of Sorrow, his harrowing documentation of the Great Famine in the Ukraine in 1932-3: “The main lesson seems to be that the Communist ideology provided the motivation for an unprecedented massacre of men, women and children.” p. 344

The effect of these tendencies so deeply buried in the unconscious depths of the psyche is that rituals of sacrifice endure and flourish today in the modern world and we are powerless to counteract or overcome them unless we become conscious of how tenacious they are and how they still control our response to events.


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