Human Sacrifice and State-Building

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

A while back I had a longish post that argued that the mass executions practiced by ISIS drew from the long pagan tradition of ritualistic human sacrifice. Today in the news, some social scientists see evidence of human sacrifice as the catalyst for establishing and maintaining stratified, hierarchical and (usually) oppressive societies:

Human sacrifice may seem brutal and bloody by modern social standards, but it was a common in ancient societies.

Now, researchers believe the ritualised killing of individuals to placate a god played a role in building and sustaining stable communities with social hierarchies.In particular, a study of 93 cultures across Asia, Oceana and Africa, has found the practices helped establish authority and set up class-based systems.

Human sacrifice was once widespread throughout these Austronesian cultures, which used it as the ultimate punishment, for funerals and to consecrate new boats.Sacrificial victims were typically of low social status, such as slaves, while instigators were of high social status, such as priests and chiefs, installing a sense of fear in the lower classes.

….Analysis revealed evidence of human sacrifice in 43 per cent of cultures sampled.

Ritualistic killing of humans was practiced in 25 per cent of egalitarian societies studied, 37 per cent of moderately stratified societies and 67 per cent of highly stratified societies.The researchers constructed models to test the co-evolution of human sacrifice and social hierarchy and found that human sacrifice stabilises social hierarchy once the system has arisen. They said it also promotes a shift to strictly inherited class systems, so that people of a high social class will continue to stay important over time, because of ritualistic killing.

‘In Austronesian cultures human sacrifice was used to punish taboo violations, demoralise underclasses, mark class boundaries, and instill fear of social elites  – proving a wide range of potential mechanisms for maintaining and building social control,’ they wrote. ‘While there are many factors that help build and sustain social stratification, human sacrifice may be a particularly effective means of maintaining and building social control because it minimises the potential of retaliation by eliminating the victim, and shifts the agent believed to be ultimately responsible to the realm of the supernatural.’

Supernatural forces….like for example, because Allah wills it.

This Austronesian study conclusions sounds remarkably similar to the role of (allegedly) Sharia sanctioned horrific punishments meted out by ISIS and fetishistically recorded and widely disseminated in video propaganda. A religiously ritualistic rein of terror as a mechanism to reengineer Sunni Arab society in areas under the group’s control and cement the state-building efforts of ISIS.

For details of ISIS use of extremely ghoulish violence for propaganda and state-building, I heartily recommend ISIS: the State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

4 comments on this post.
  1. David Ronfeldt:

    Well stated. And it reminds me of the execution of Dan Mitrione by the Tupamaros in Uruguay in 1970. Here’s what I found for an old Rand case study:
    .
    “The Tupamaros, like other urban terrorist organizations, held a belief that the capacity to condemn a victim to death represented a high test of revolutionary justice and authority. Compared with bank robberies, press manifestos, abductions for interrogation only, and other small-unit tactics, the act of singling out a special person and condemning him to death seems to carry a special meaning in terrorist campaigns. It seems to be regarded as a mark of quality, a symbol of moral integrity, of having arrived at the status of a full-fledged revolutionary force.”
    .
    That’s the key point, which overlaps with your points. My elaboration may also be relevant:
    .
    “The death sentence against Mitrione reflected the special concern of Uruguay’s political culture for legalistic procedures and the international image of Uruguay as a bastion of democracy and civility in the hemisphere. The political discourse of the government and the Tupamaros was profoundly imbued with these concerns. Internal MLN proceedings as well as communications with the government were frequently very legalistic in nature. Moreover, the profound concern for the international image of the Tupamaros inclined its leadership to pass the death sentence, so as to preserve the credibility of diplomatic kidnapping as a means of revolutionary extortion for terrorist groups throughout the hemisphere.
    .
    “The execution backfired in terms of the domestic image of the Tupamaros. Until mid-1970, they had been gaining some popular sympathy and had embarrassed government officials on several occasions. Although they were not gaining widespread popular support, public apathy, cynicism toward governmental performance, and fear of involvement in the government-Tupamaro conflict seemed to be spreading. The execution of Mitrione, however, proved to be a very unpopular act that greatly damaged the Tupamaros’ image as an idealistic movement. The execution aroused new popular support for law-and-order measures.”
    .
    (source: http://www.rand.org/pubs/notes/N1571.html p. 68)

  2. zen:

    Hi David.
    .
    Much thanks! I know Latin America is one of your areas of expertis, so I’m glad that you see resonance between the Tupamaros (of whom I know little)and my argument. The roots of many states seem to be “blood and iron” and that gets to Moshe Halbertal’s thesis on the shift from “sacrificing to” to “sacrificing for” as well as my contention that the process is reversible in a theologically driven scenario.
    .
    You description also reminds me very much of the ad hoc, experimental ideological radicalization of Bolsheviks – their Red Terror “revolutionary tribunals” and later “troikas”, the earliest show trials that started while Lenin was still alive of “white guards” described by Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. Despite their radical atheism, the Bolsheviks adopted much ritualistic mummery and iconography with a Communist face. Especially the deification of Lenin’s corpse.

  3. Charles Cameron:

    Zen —
    .
    The idea of atheists adopting “much ritualistic mummery and iconography” along with your final phrase, “Especially the deification of Lenin’s corpse” reminds me of Robert Jay Lifton’s Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
    .
    Martin Bernal seems to have reviewed it for the NYRB in A Mao for All Seasons, and reading that in search of a decent Lifton quote, I came across Bernal’s summary of Lifton’s overall thesis in a series of books:

    Lifton has recently completed a major work on Hiroshima, and his new book on China is only one of a series in which he is trying to explain human thoughts and actions in terms of man’s fear of death and his wish to achieve immortality, or a relationship with the past and future. In his view, man can attempt this biologically through having children, spiritually through a detachable soul, actively through outstanding individual achievements, or socially through intimate involvement in a great and undying cause.

    He then goes on:

    One of the main elements in this view is the role of the death-defying leader.

    I don’t now nearly enough (which is probably more than enough for me) about Lenin, but I imagine that might be how Lifton would have viewed the Lenin apotheosis, too.

  4. zen:

    Charles that was very interesting – I think the death-defying leader is an archetype and deification and ascension to more than mortal status appears to be a cross-cultural constant.
    .
    Lenin, of whom I have a fair grasp but I am not an expert, would have been appalled at his deification and the religious overtones. Because of NEP and that Stalin was such a prolific killer, there’s a tendency to forget that ideologically, Lenin was much more of a dogmatic extremist in the intellectual realm than Stalin ever was (Stalin’s intraparty public posture, at least in the days before he was the absolute dictator, was the reasonable middle). Lenin’s instructions for his body, like his political testament, were set aside by Stalin who understood the need of peasant masses for familiar gestures in propaganda