The Myth of Blood Libel V (“Sacrifice of Innocence”)

Female Statuette Accompanying Incan Child Sacrifice

This post attempts to more clearly connect the previous entries in the “Blood Libel” series to the shootings in Tucson. If readers have read these earlier entries in puzzlement, wondering what ideas such as persona, shadow and shame, individuation, or being “chosen”or “exceptional” might have to do with the tragic shootings, it is Mythfire’s hope that this post will make these connections more evident. Finally, whereas the previous posts have focused on these several dynamic psychological  principles, the present post will suggest how insights from the field of mythological studies might similarly enhance our understanding of human behavior.

In these earlier posts, Mythfire suggested that individuals and collectives – including but not limited to nations and organized religions – have an identity or mask, called a persona, which is most prominently displayed in their dealings with the outside world. Necessary for survival because it facilitates interactions with others, the persona asserts “I am (or we are) this desirable but not that undesirable trait.”  In general, positive characteristics with which we identify ourselves include purity, perfection, and the “good,” while impurity, imperfection, and the “bad” or “evil” are devalued, repressed and projected onto others. These repressed and projected energies comprise the personal or collective shadow which may have harmful effects on both owner and others when lived out unconsciously.

Before proceeding, Mythfire is concerned that its attention to political figures such as Sarah Palin or countries such as the United States has run the risk of politicizing psychology. This, of course, was and is not the aim. If we humbly acknowledge that at times we feel superior or exceptional in relation to others, “chosen” by virtue of religious or national affiliation, and also that at these and other times we engage in shameful actions which hurt ourselves and others, then we must de facto acknowledge that all of us as individuals and collectives have lived and continue to live out unconscious shadow energies.

What might the field of mythological studies add to this discussion?  To answer this question, we must first look more closely at the specific story or “myth” associated with the phrase “blood libel.” As Ruth Marcus noted in The Washington Post, blood libel generally refers to “the scurrilous accusation that Jews kidnapped and murdered Christian children to use their blood to prepare Passover matzoh,” which is the unleavened bread eaten during Passover. [1] Viewed as historical fact, this “accusation” has been used to justify all kinds of atrocities against Jews, most notably in the form of the Holocaust.

An important point to realize is that accusations of ritual child-sacrifice in the name of religion have not been restricted to Judaism.  As just a few examples, charges of child-sacrifice were leveled against the Phoenicians, by pagans against Christians, and by Christians against Gnostics as well as Jews.[2] Certainly, the ancient Greeks also have been accused of human if not child-sacrifice, including sacrifices to Artemis, “the Virgin Goddess of purity.”[3] The images that accompany this post in fact are of artifacts buried alongside children sacrificed 500 years ago to an Incan deity or deities. (See the note at the end of the post for more.)

In Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos, Kay Almere Read writes on the well-known but often misunderstood practice of sacrifice, including child-sacrifice, among the Mexica (or Aztec) people. For the Aztecs, children were associated with corn and whether the gods would or would not bestow a successful corn harvest on their followers. In short, in order for the gods to feed humans, the humans had to feed the gods.  Read calls it the “cosmic meal” or “an act of living beings in this cosmos reciprocally feeding each other.”  Sometimes this cosmic meal or deal only involved metaphoric sacrifices such as holding a child over a roasting fire without harming or killing it; other times it involved actual sacrifice, especially “at the height of the dry season, just before the rainy season began.” [4]

Sacrificial Gold Camelid or Llama

In drawing parallels with the Aztec and other ritualistic traditions, Mythfire is not claiming that during Passover Jews engaged in actual child sacrifice as charged by the blood libel. What a mythological approach suggests, however, is that the prevalence and staying power of the ideas expressed within the myth(s) means something to the human psyche. This meaning must at heart have something to do with a people coming together to commune with their god or gods in a way that solidifies the human-divine compact or relationship. Blood was and still is the “mortar” or binding agent in this relationship for many religious traditions, not just the Mesoamerican ones.[5]

Perhaps without having to resort to the blood libel charges of child-slaughter we can already see the same or similar meaning at work in the original Passover story. Here, Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, inflicts ten plagues on the Egyptian Pharaoh so that he will be persuaded to free the Israelites from bondage. The last of these plagues is God’s slaughter of the Egyptian first-born children, after which the Pharaoh immediately frees the Israelites. The term Passover itself refers to the sparing by God of the Jews from the same slaughter of their first-born. By killing a lamb and dabbing its blood on the sides and top of their doorframes, the Israelites marked their homes so that God would pass over and thus spare them from death.

When looking mythologically at the Passover and other sacred stories it is important to keep in mind the rule of thumb that in myth, as in dreams, “everything belongs.” In terms of the component parts of the Passover story or myth, the slaughter of Egyptian innocents is essential to the freeing of the Israelites from slavery; similarly, the sacrifice of an innocent lamb is necessary for the sparing of the Israelites from the same slaughter. [6] Analytical psychologist Edward Edinger states that psychologically this theme of sacrificial slaughter “means that the psyche is in bondage to the tyrannical power principle symbolized by the Pharoah. A lesser authority (the power-driven ego) is functioning in place of the Self (Yahweh).” That is, blood and sacrifice free the tyrannical human ego of its illusory beliefs in purity, innocence, grandiosity, and supremacy so that it is thereby restored to a humbler relationship with the divine, i.e. God or Self — a relationship characterized not only by humility but also awe or wonder, fear, and reverence  (In psychological parlance this humbling balance-restoring process is referred to as the relativization of the ego.) [7]

Male Statuette with Gold Face

In The Fate of America: An Inquiry Into National Character, author and analytical psychologist Michael Gellert discusses another Old Testament story: God asking Abraham to sacrifice his child Isaac. Gellert writes: “The torment a man must suffer in sacrificing his son is a good analogue for what is involved in sacrificing the young, immature part of oneself. Innocence causes suffering, but, because of the attachment we have to innocence, the sacrifice of it causes even deeper suffering.” It is only through our reluctant and painful sacrifice of innocence that a “more highly evolved, mature” state of being can be realized.[8]

Is it all that difficult to imagine the overwhelming torment and suffering experienced by people whose own children were sacrificed to the gods in ancient times? Perhaps it also is not that difficult to see how the notion of loss or sacrifice of innocence applies in several regards to the shootings in Tucson, beginning first and foremost with the terrible loss of innocent life which occurred that day. Furthermore, it is with this idea of loss of innocence that the psychological thrust of the earlier Mythfire posts merges with this entry’s mythological analysis. Put psychologically, a loss or sacrifice of innocence results when — through an authentic experience of shame we realize that our actions and their outcomes contrast so strongly and painfully with the intentions of our persona, i.e. the image we have of ourselves and present to the world. Sometimes referred to as “losing face,” this shaming loss or recalibration of the persona (with an accompanying relativization of the ego) can lead to greater maturity for both individuals and collectives if  tended to carefully with sufficient honesty and consciousness.[9]

When a loss of innocence occurs tragically – and this need not be limited to loss of life but also “treasure,” i.e. material wealth – the ego must ask itself difficult questions. As concerns Tucson, some of the questions presently being asked thus far concern the cost of maintaining the rugged individualist or cowboy persona, especially as it holds onto individual rights such as the right to own certain types of weaponry. Other questions being addressed focus on our (mis-) treatment of and views concerning mental illness.

To continue down the same path we have been on is not only lacking in compassion but is to invite more tragedies of the kind which happened in Tucson. Put differently, ancient peoples engaged in child-sacrifice so that the gods would grant worshipers continued growth and prosperity. Unfortunately, for those of us living today without such mythological or psychological sensibilities it sometimes takes multiple losses or sacrifices of innocence until a mature re-balancing of priorities — a re-harmonization with what is truly important — is consciously undertaken by the collective. Only through this process, however, might “sacrifice” regain its original meaning: “to make sacred.” In other words, with the proper attitude re-harmonization is at one and the same time a process of re-sacralization.

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Notes on Images: The three artifacts shown above were found along with the mummies of three children sacrificed by the Incans 500 years ago. The oldest of the children, a fifteen-year-old girl dubbed “The Maiden,” wore a white headdress matching that of the above female statuette which was found buried alongside her. The gold camelid or llama was buried with a seven-year-old boy as was the male statuette, the gold face of which marked the child as being of “high social standing.” These and other photos of the mummies themselves, which may unsettle some readers, accompany a fascinating article found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/11/science/11mummu.html. (All photos belong to the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana in Salta, Argentina.)

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This concludes “The Myth of Blood Libel” series. The next post, still inspired by Tucson, will appear next Monday.


[1]http://voices.washingtonpost.com/postpartisan/2011/01/why_sarah_palins_blood_libel_w.html

[2] Jung, C.G. Collected Works 9i: 324.

[3] Lopez-Pedraza, Rafael. Cultural Anxiety. Einsiedeln, Switzerland: Daimon Verlag, 1990: 48.

[4] Read, Kay Almere. Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1998. See chapter 5 “The Cosmic Meal,” especially pages 132-134.

[5] An observation that is repeated with some frequency regarding Mesoamerica, and the Mayan people in particular, comes from page one of Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller’s book The Blood of Kings: Dynast and Ritual in Maya Art: “blood was the mortar of ancient Maya life.”

[6] As a celebration, then, Passover is in no small part a commemoration of the special relationship between the Israelites, or Jews, and God, in much the same way as the discussed child-sacrifices of the Aztec peoples. Of course, Christianity is itself “awash in the blood of the lamb,” meaning the human sacrifice of Christ on the cross. As with the Aztec and Jewish examples, the sacrifice of Christ is similarly commemorated in a communion ritual as well as Easter dinners, both of which bond believers together with God. Although this present post does not discuss in depth the importance of purity to these sacrificial rites, the ideas of purity and innocence hold true for lamb and Christ just as they do for children. As son of God, Christ is free of the human stain of concupiscence or desire. Church petitions against showings of  Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ when it first came to movie theaters had much to do with this idea of Christ’s innocent purity.

[7] It is important to stress several ground rules concerning the field of mythological studies. First, analyzing the Passover or any other story as a myth is not to say that the events concerned did not occur in history, or that the mythological interpretation negates other interpretations, especially the more traditional theological ones. Furthermore, if Mythfire goes on to state that there are additional parallels between some of these myths which we will not go into in this post for reasons of time and space, that is not to say that the myths and their corresponding religious traditions are exact parallels to each other.  It is only to say that there do seem to be enough correspondences in images and motifs that these myths can be compared favorably – which is why the field of mythological studies is sometimes referred to as comparative mythology. Illuminating similarities may be drawn which need not simultaneously ignore or disparage important differences between the traditions. Also, see pages 49-51 in Edinger’s The Bible and the Psyche: Individuation Symbolism in the Old Testament for more on the Passover myth.

[8] Gellert, Michael. The Fate of America: An Inquiry into National Character. Dulles, Virginia: Brassey’s, Inc., 2001: 280. Gellert’s book is highly recommended as an in-depth and penetrating analysis of innocence in the U.S.

[9] In fact, both Sharp and Edinger reference the loss or sacrifice of innocence when discussing the conflict between the persona and shadow. For Sharp see Digesting Jung: Food for the Journey, page 63; for Edinger see page 235 of Ego and Archetype where he writes: “the sacrifice of innocent purity also implies the realization of the shadow which releases one from identification with the role of innocent victim and the tendency to project the evil executioner onto God or neighbor.”

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