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Turchin on Human Sacrifice and Society

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Last week I posted on Human Sacrifice and State-Building, which focused on research findings published in Nature regarding the role of human sacrifice in establishing hierarchical societies. My interest was primarily in the way the gory practices of ISIS today seem to mirror this dynamic from prehistoric, ancient and chiefdom societies. Bogfriend T. Greer helpfully alerted me to the fact that noted scholar and cultural evolutionist, Peter Turchin also blogged regarding this research and took a critical posture.  Turchin, also addressed human sacrifice to some degree in his latest book, Ultrasociety, which has been on my list to read for his take on the role of warfare but which I have yet to do.

Turchin’s reasons for blogging this article are different from mine, so I suggest that you read him in full as I intend to comment only on selected excerpts:

Is Human Sacrifice Functional at the Society Level?

An article published this week by Nature is generating a lot of press. Using a sample of 93 Austronesian cultures Watts et al. explore the possible relationship between human sacrifice (HS) and the evolution of hierarchical societies. Specifically, they test the “social control” hypothesis, according to which human sacrifice legitimizes, and thus stabilizes political authority in stratified class societies.

Their statistical analyses suggest that human sacrifice stabilizes mild (non-hereditary) forms of social stratification, and promotes a shift to strict (hereditary) forms of stratification. They conclude that “ritual killing helped humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors to the large stratified societies we live in today.” In other words, while HS obviously creates winners (rulers and elites) and losers (sacrifice victims and, more generally, commoners), Watts et all argue that it is a functional feature—in the evolutionary sense of the word—at the level of whole societies, because it makes them more durable.

There are two problems with this conclusion. First, Watts et al. do not test their hypothesis against an explicit theoretical alternative (which I will provide in a moment). Second, and more important, their data span a very narrow range of societies, omitting the great majority of complex societies—indeed all truly large-scale societies. Let’s take these two points in order.

Turchin is correct that study focuses on Austronesian islanders in clan and tribal settings and that’s a pretty narrow of a base from which to extrapolate. OTOH, the pre-Cortez estimated population of the Aztec empire begins at five million on the low end. Estimates of the population of Carthage proper, range from 150,000 to 700,000. That’s sufficiently complex that the Mexica and Carthaginians each established sophisticated imperial polities and yet both societies remained extremely robust practitioners of human sacrifice at the time they were conquered and destroyed.

Maybe a more useful approach than simply expanding the data set would be to ask why human sacrifice disappears earlier in some societies than in others or continues to be retained at high levels of complexity?

An alternative theory on the rise of human sacrifice and other extreme forms of structural inequality is explained in my recent book Ultrasociety ….

….Briefly, my argument in Ultrasociety is that large and complex human societies evolved under the selection pressures of war. To win in military competition societies had to become large (so that they could bring a lot of warriors to battle) and to be organized hierarchically (because chains of command help to win battles). Unfortunately, hierarchical organization gave too much power to military leaders and their warrior retinues, who abused it (“power corrupts”). The result was that early centralized societies (chiefdoms and archaic states) were  hugely unequal. As I say in Ultrasociety, alpha males set themselves up as god-kings.

Again, I have not read Ultrasociety, but the idea that war would be a major driver of human cultural evolution is one to which I’m inclined to be strongly sympathetic. I’m not familiar enough with Turchin to know if he means war is”the driver” or “a major driver among several” in the evolution of human society.

Human sacrifice was perhaps instrumental for the god-kings and the nobles in keeping the lower orders down, as Watts et al. (and social control hypothesis) argue. But I disagree with them that it was functional in making early centralized societies more stable and durable. In fact, any inequality is corrosive of cooperation, and its extreme forms doubly so. Lack of cooperation between the rulers and ruled made early archaic states highly unstable, and liable to collapse as a result of internal rebellion or conquest by external enemies. Thus, according to this “God-Kings hypothesis,” HS was a dysfunctional side-effect of the early phases of the evolution of hierarchical societies. As warfare continued to push societies to ever larger sizes, extreme forms of structural inequality became an ever greater liability and were selected out. Simply put, societies that evolved less inegalitarian social norms and institutions won over and replaced archaic despotisms.

The question here is if human sacrifice was primarily functional – as a cynically wielded political weapon of terror by elites – or if that solidification of hierarchical stratification was a long term byproduct of religious drivers. It also depends on what evidence you count as “human sacrifice”. In the upper Paleolithic period, burial practices involving grave goods shifted to include additional human remains along with the primary corpse. Whether these additional remains, likely slaves, concubines or prisoners slain in the burial ritual count as human sacrifices in the same sense as on Aztec or Sumerian altars tens of thousands of years later may be reasonably disputed. What is not disputed is that humans being killed by other humans not by random violence or war but purposefully for the larger needs of a community goes back to the earliest and most primitive reckoning of what we call “society” and endured in (ever diminishing) places even into the modern period.

This also begs the question if burial sacrifices, public executions of prisoners and other ritualistic killings on other pretexts conducted by societies of all levels of complexity are fundamentally different in nature from human sacrifices or if they are all subsets of the same atavistic phenomena binding a group through shared participation in violence.

….The most complex society in their sample is Hawaii, which is not complex at all when looked in the global context. I am, right now, analyzing the Seshat Databank for social complexity (finally, we have the data! I will be reporting on our progress soon, and manuscripts are being prepared for publication). And Hawaii is way down on the scale of social complexity. Just to give one measure (out of >50 that I am analyzing), polity population. The social scale of Hawaiian chiefdoms measures in the 10,000s of population, at most 100,000 (and that achieved after the arrival of the Europeans). In Afroeurasia (the Old World), you don’t count as a megaempire unless you have tens of millions of subjects—that’s three orders of magnitude larger than Hawaii!

Why is this important? Because it is only by tracing the trajectories of societies that go beyond the social scale seen in Austronesia that we can test the social control hypothesis against the God-Kings theory. If HS helps to stabilize hierarchical societies, it should do so for societies of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions, and so on. So we should see it persist as societies grow in size.

Well, human sacrifice persisted into the classical period of Greece and Rome, though becoming infrequent and eventually outlawed, though only during the last century of the Roman republic. That’s a significant level of complexity, Rome having become the dominant power in the Mediterranean world a century earlier. Certainly human sacrifice did not destabilize the Greeks and Romans, though the argument could be made that it did harm Sparta, if we count Spartan practices of infanticide for eugenic reasons as human sacrifice.

What muddies the waters here is the prevalence of available substitutes for human sacrifice – usually animal sacrifice initially – that competed and co-existed with human sacrifice in many early societies for extremely long periods of time. Sometimes this readily available alternative was sufficient to eventually extinguish human sacrifice, as happened with the Romans but other times it was not, as with the Aztecs. The latter kept their maniacal pace of human sacrifice up to the end, sacrificing captured Spanish conquistadors and their horses to the bloody Sun god. Human sacrifice did not destabilize the Aztecs and it weakened their tributary vassals but the religious primacy they placed on human sacrifice and the need to capture prisoners in large numbers rather than kill them in battle hobbled the Aztec response to Spanish military assaults.

Comments? Questions?

An end times update, updated

Monday, October 5th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — will these end times never end? ]

Back in November of last year I noted that a site that promulgates the prophecies of “one of the most significant Islamic books that have ever been written” had updated its estimation of the arrival of the Mahdi from “late 2013” to some time “either in 2015 or 2016” with variants
On a variety of sites this group has claimed, eg:

Most likely, the beginning of the End of Time is in 2013, the appearance (arrival or coming) of the Imam Mahdi (Mehdi) is in 2013, and Jesus Christ (p)’s return [or second (2nd ) coming as referred to by Christians] is going to be in 2022, in-sha-Allah.


On Our Numerical Based Analysis Of The Quran And Hadith, The Official Beginning Of The End Of Time And The Coming Of The Imam Mahdi Will Most Likely Be In 2014 And Jesus Christ (p) Will Come Down From Heaven To Earth In 2022, In- sha Allah (if Allah is willing).


The beginning of the End of Time, including the emergence of the Imam Mahdi (Mehdi), will most likely be either in 2015 or 2016 (possibly on September 22 or 23, 2015), while Jesus Christ (p)’s return [or second (2nd) coming] is in 2022, in-sha-Allah (if God is willing).


And as September 22 and 23 2015 were rapidly coming up on us, I thought it was important to note that last version.

In my earlier post, I mentioned some specific references to IS and al-Baghdadi which had featured in a page that’s no longer available except on the Internet Archive:

So their eschatology has an Islamic State component, as indeed does Al Baghdadi’s.


Here’s how their quantitative prophetic estimates have vared as dates pass and prophecy fails:

June, 2014:

Year 2014 probabilities

Oops! September, 2015:

Year 2015 probabilities

Oops! In fact there’s an update posted just three days ago

Oct 1 2015

We squeaked by September 23rd, and now 2015, of which less than three months remain, is edging out 2016 in the odds.

Les jeux sont faits, rien ne va plus?


Ah, so!

Meanwhile, Erdogan of Turkey may be seeing himself, as some of his followers apparently see him, as either a prophet or divine figure — according to Today’s Zaman, an organ of the Gulen movement.

Will these end times never end?

The rose is my qibla

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — some light refreshment after dark sides and devilish walks ]

SPEC WBE Sepehri



  • Sohrab Sepehri, Poetic Voices of the Muslim World
  • Wallace Black Elk, The Greenfield Review, vol 9, double issue 3 & 4
  • with thanks to Joseph Bruchac & Rabia Chaudry

    Of border crossings, and the pilgrimage to Arbaeen in Karbala

    Saturday, December 13th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — as one headline put it, 20 Million Shia Muslims Brave Isis by Making Pilgrimage to Karbala ]

    You may remember IS / Daesh bulldozing the berm separating Syria and Iraq (upper image, below) not so long ago:

    SPEC border crossings

    Putting that into perspective is this image from the border between Iran and Iraq (lower image, above), as millions of pilgrims queue up there on their way to Karbala for Arbaeen, the final day of the Shia’s forty days mourning for Imam Hussein.


    At a time when the sectarian anti-Shia brutalities of Daesh / IS are capturing the attention of many in the west, the presence of Christian priests participating in the Arbaeen proceedings (upper panel, below)) echoes Pope Francis’ recent gesture in offering his prayers in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul:

    SPEC christians at arba'een

    The enormous turnout for Arbaeen in Karbala this year — those gathering at the shrine are reported to number 17.5 million (lower panel, above) — can be seen as a mark of Shia solidarity and devotion in the face of possible violence from Sunni jihadists.


    One tweeter posted this image of a road sign seen along the pilgrimage route early in the forty-day period of mourning:

    If it rains Daesh, we will still visit Hussein

    The sign reads: If it rains Daesh, still we will visit Hussein!



  • Guardian: Isis breach of Iraq-Syria border merges two wars into one ‘nightmarish reality’
  • Iraq Live Update: Iran-Iraq border crossing … Millions queue to go Karbala

  • Shafaqna: Christian priests in the holy shrine of Imam Hussein (AS)
  • Iraq Live Update: Largest prayer congregation in the world

  • IB Times: 20 Million Shia Muslims Brave Isis by Making Pilgrimage to Karbala for Arbaeen
  • Nairobi tweets 1: Bulletproof?

    Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — taking a hint from the twitter stream of HSM Press and running with it ]


    As of Monday morning 11am California time:

    I now think it’s clear that the twitter stream I was commenting on in this post and the second in the series was not an official Shabaab feed, and thus untrustworthy as to its statements — although it’s exact status (fan, mimic, troll, loosely connected?) is undetermined.

    I am leaving the post up (a) for the record, and (b) for whatever minor interest it may still have.

    Original post:

    Al-Shabaab’s “HSM Press Office” had been tweeting up a storm during the Nairobi mall “operation” — it’s been shut down at least rwice, maybe more? — and some of the claims made are worth a little exploration. Let’s start with the “bullet-proof” claim:


    For some (not by any means exhaustive) historical context on that, consider this report from the Phillipines a decade ago:

    The kidnapped head of the Jesus Miracle Crusade, fiery televangelist Wilde Almeda, particularly has special powers that will protect him from bullets, said Robert Chua, a member of the group. Almeda and the 12 other members of his ministry went to the camp of the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf in southern Jolo island on Saturday to pray over 20 mostly-foreign hostages seized by the rebels from a Malaysian resort on April 23 and to convince the kidnappers to free their captives. The military says they together with a German journalist, Andreas Lorenz, are also now being held hostage by the notorious Abu Sayyaf.

    This, from Myanmar:

    Thailand said Wednesday it may give humanitarian asylum to Johnny and Luther Htoo, the twin boy leaders of a mystical rebel movement from Myanmar who have surrendered with some of their followers. Hunted and hungry, 14 members of the God’s Army group – nine of them children, including the charismatic twins – turned themselves over to Thai authorities on Tuesday after a year on the run along the Thai-Myanmar border. For more than three years, the boys fought to overthrow Myanmar’s military government, and their followers believe Johnny and Luther have magical powers that make them invincible in battle.

    Or this from the Lakota Ghost Dancers:

    The presence of the troops frightened the dancers into running for the outlying areas of the some skirmishes fought. One legend of the Ghost Shirt was born during one of these skirmishes. The Ghost Shirt was part of the special clothing worn while dancing the Ghost Dance. The Sioux were the only Indians to give the Ghost Shirt bullet proof qualities. (2-42) During one of the skirmishes with the soldiers, a lone Indian rode his pony within easy rifle range of soldiers, line and allowed them to fire on him. Whether true to the qualities of the Ghost Shirt he was wearing, or due to the poor shooting of the soldiers he escaped unscathed.

    And this, from Thomas Muentzer‘s Anabaptist deviants in Martin Luther‘s early Protestant Europe:

    They’re singing hymns. They literally are awaiting a glorious triumph. Muentzer assures them that he will catch the cannonballs in his shirthhsleeves. Of course, it turned into a slaughter. Five thousand ill-equipped peasants were slaughtered. The Peasants’ Revolt was utterly destroyed. It was one of those incredible explosions of apocalypticism that arise in history.


    Just whether the individuals in the Nairobi mall or tweeting for HSM Press take that “bullet-proof” reference literally or figuratively is an open question.

    For a sense of the levels of non-scientific thinking — ie shamanism aka “witchcraft” — in today’s Kenya, see for instance this semi-skeptical account and its apocalyptic touch, or perhaps Believe it or not: Witchcraft in Kenya, with this interesting and quite relevant paragraph:

    Another friend’s sister was victim of a grenade attack at a church in Mombasa. Shattered glass went everywhere but she, standing at the window, was not injured. She said that people were muttering things about the protection afforded by genies. Interestingly, she was at church but had recently converted to Islam, not that anyone knew. Not anyone visible, anyway.

    And before we assume that all these experiments pitting prayer against guns always turn out badly for the prayerful side — it’s worth noting that “fiery televangelist Wilde Almeda” survived to tell the tale….


    There’s a great deal more of interest on several levels in the HSM tweets, but I’ll break here and pick up in a following post.

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