Sacrificial Origins

Killing the Soul into Being

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The Sacrifice

14" x 16" Oil on Canvas

Winnetca, California
June 2021

The search for origins has always figured among the greatest adventures of humankind and its epic journey on earth. “Who are we?” “Where do we come from?” “Where are we going?” are fundamental questions which never fail to touch our mind and lift our hearts on the seat of philosophic wonder. Looking back into the birth of humankind, the question opens up an epic dimension of mytho-history as humanity’s journey on this planet through the eons. 

In Primitive Mythology, the first volume of the Masks of Gods, Campbell joins the search of origins and first beginnings by taking up mythographic materials from around the world which date back to the earliest of times. Drawing freely from the world stores of mythic histories and esoteric wisdom, Campbell does not necessarily romanticize this quest. He does not invoke myths of a Golden Age or an earthly Paradise before the Fall to absorb the more shocking accounts of mythic history. Having decided to look for the deepest origins of the human body and psyche, we cannot shy away from the darkest roots of the human spirit. In the face of the less savory facts of our historic past, when we look back to the primordial “pre-historic” origins of the light of humanity, we should not be surprised to find a more terrifying reality.

Reading through Primitive Mythology, we find the climax of the Aztec festival dedicated to Chicomecohuatl, the young goddess of the corn, for which “a young slave girl of twelve or thirteen years, the prettiest they could find” (222) was chosen to play the role of the divine being. The harvest festival, which lasted for several days, culminated in the gruesome sacrificial slaughter of this young girl. Dressed and made up in the likeness of the goddess, she was forced to dance and cheer people all day long, going from house to house to announce the bounty of the harvest. Looking through the eyes of Fray Bernardino Sahagún, a direct witness to the local festivities, the climax of the Aztec festival was a literal horror show:  

The multitude being assembled, the priests solemnly incensed the girl who personated the goddess; then they threw her on her back on the heap of corn and seeds, cut off her head, caught the gushing blood in a tub, and sprinkled the blood on the wooden image of the goddess, and the walls of the chamber, and the offerings of corn, peppers, pumpkins, seeds, and vegetables which cumbered the floor. After that they flayed the headless trunk, and one of the priests made shift to squeeze himself into the bloody skin. Having done so they clad him in all the robes which the girl had worn; they put the mitre on his head, the necklace of golden maize-cobs about his neck, the maize-cobs of feathers and gold in his hands; and thus arrayed they led him forth in public, all of them dancing to the tuck of drum, while he acted as fugleman, skipping and posturing at the head of the procession as briskly as he could be expected to do, incommoded as he was by the tight and clammy skin of the girl and by her clothes, which must have been much too small for a grown man. 

(qtd. Primitive Mythology 223-224)

In view of such a gruesome spectacle, we cannot but feel revulsion at these ancient festivities. Campbell cannot help but to react as any one of us today would do:

No wonder, we may say, if the Spanish padres thought they recognized in the liturgies of the New World a devil’s parody of their own high myth and holy mass of the sacrifice and resurrection! 

(Primitive Mythology 224)

The collective horror that Campbell here expresses in view of such bloody “satanic” deeds points to another more recent “leap” or watershed in the history of the human soul. Campbell gives utterance to the fundamental psychological difference that separates the stage of culture in which human sacrifice was not only acceptable but the very source of the sacred, and the stage in which it is not. 

Our pious as well as secular festivals have learned to do with symbolic substitutes that ultimately shield us from the murderous violence of the sacred. This is a fundamental cultural shift which René Girard—someone who has much to say about sacrificial slaughter and the violence of the sacred—seems to attribute exclusively to the Christian legacy. But as a scholar of Maya culture, I should mention the fact that this revolutionary shift, where the institution of human sacrifice was abolished in favor of a symbolic substitute, had already taken place in the pre-Columbian world. The Maya of Mesoamerica, who were the most progressive in this regard, had already instituted the symbolic substitute of human sacrifice while retaining a certain fixation on the blood of Kings. 

Ixquic receiving the saliva of the First Father

As we can read in the pages of the Maya Bible known as the Popol Vuh, the Mother of the Twin Heros, Ixquic or “Lady Blood,” was the first to overcome the Death Lords of Xibalba by means of an intoxicating substitute for her actual heart. As the merciful mother of the gods, Ixquic must be credited with the beginning of this transformation, one which the Twin Heroes would ultimately make “official” and institute with a seal of blood.

Nevertheless, under the rubric of the “Love-Death” mythologem, Campbell comes across a fundamental image of transformation and psychic humanization embodied in the institution of ritual sacrifice. But rather than a heavenly cradle or a lost paradise, what we find at the origin of the human soul points to a pre-historic festival of primordial self-slaughter. 

In a similar vein, Freud discovers from the psychological side a similar primordial scene of ancient murder. In Totem and Taboo, he makes use of the Darwinian concept of the primal horde in order to invent an origin myth of his own, a psychoanalytic myth which culminates in this one sentence: “One day the brothers who had been driven out came together, killed and devoured their father and so made an end of the patriarchal horde” (141). In the horrifically literal image of the dying and resurrecting god as in the patricide of the primal horde, the self-sacrificial “uroboric” logic of the human soul breaks through the light of mythic history. 

Putting an end to the endless night of pre-history, with its meaningless cycles of death and reproduction, a sacrificial killing of an innocent human victim—not unlike the figure of Christ— is a primordial image of the pre-historic origin of the human soul on earth. The uroboric image of primordial self-slaughter thus lies in the cradle of humanity’s spiritual emergence. Eveidently, the literal act was needed for the space of the symbolic to truly open up. In this way we may say with Wolfgang Giegerich that the human soul “killed itself into being,” as he emphatically writes, considering “sacrificial killings as the primordial [act of] soul-making” (Soul-Violence 205). In the breakthrough of the kill, the human animal becomes “castrated,” traversed by the order of the signifier, in order to emerge as a being of spirit, language, and culture. The human animal (homo) is thus transformed into a creature of myth and knowledge (sapiens), in one blow revealing the psychic essence of human being in the world. Finally, as Giegerich begins to explain the riddle of the internal mytho-logic of sacrificial self-slaughter: 

In the sacrificial blow, the soul knocked its natural instincts out of itself and ipso facto knocked them into itself as (no longer natural, but human-cultural) images of gods or as archetypes. The blow is the reversal. It is the origin of the images.

(Soul-Violence 212)

Norland Téllez is an artist and teacher with over two decades of experience in the entertainment industry. As a scholar of myth and history, he remains committed to critical thinking through the power of the mythic image.

WORKS CITED

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. Vol 1 of 4 Vols. New York: Penguin Compass, 1976.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1950.

Giegerich, Wolfgang. Soul-Violence. Vol 3 of 6 Vols of Collected English Papers. Lousiana: Spring, 2005.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. Vol 1 of 4 Vols. New York: Penguin Compass, 1976.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1950.

Giegerich, Wolfgang. Soul-Violence. Vol 3 of 6 Vols of Collected English Papers. Lousiana: Spring, 2005.