“Human sacrifice tends to serve one simple purpose in fantasy novels: to indicate that the society practicing it is barbaric and/or evil.” I found this quote while researching human sacrifice. It was made in the article “The Logic of Sacrifice” by Marie Brennan on the website strangehorizons.com.
Brennan goes on to say that “Countless victims are slaughtered in the name of some perverse deity who apparently craves blood for no other reason than as a demonstration of wickedness, and Our Heroes almost never come from such a society unless they are also rebels against it. But human sacrifice has been practiced in a number of real world human societies, where the entire population was made up of real people, rather than the one-dimensional caricatures bent on slaughter that populate so many fantasy novels.”
While most people immediately conjure up an image of Aztec, Mayan or Incan cultures and their ritual sacrifices, they were not alone. Many people are aware of animal sacrifices made to the various Gods throughout history to appease a deity, gain favor, ensure victory in battle or ensure a great crop, fertility, whatever.
Human sacrifices have been performed in cultures since the dawning of time. Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt, Neolithic Europe, Germanic tribes, Ancient Chinese, Ancient India and even Tibet have all practiced human sacrifice. The Phoenicians and Carthaginians practiced the sacrifice of infants.
Archaeologists have found numerous infant remains in Carthaginian sites. In Tophet, one of what is believed to be several child cemeteries, 20,000 urns were found. In addition to archaeological evidence, there is corresponding references in the Bible saying that children were sacrificed at a place called Tophet to the god Moloch. Greek historian Plutarch, as well as his contemporaries Tertullian, Orosius, Diodorus, Siculus and Philo also make mention of these sacrifices.
My point in the historical reference of real world human sacrifice is to illustrate the fact that humanity is very familiar with the concept and its meanings. Sure some cultures had different uses for the human sacrifice other than appeasing deities. Some discerned the future from remains, entrails, and blood. Some used it in some manner to connect with or speak to the dead. There are any number of methods and meanings.
We even see human sacrifice still being used in modern video games. In Final Fantasy Type-O, a character can sacrifice a life to summon a God of War. Summoning the god inevitably turns the tide of the war. In Dungeons and Dragons, in the Book of Vile Darkness, human sacrifice is also mentioned.
Human Sacrifice, Evil and Barbaric Cultures in Writing
The problem I have with saying human sacrifice in a fantasy novel serves to illustrate the society is barbaric or evil is perception. I believe how an individual interprets human sacrifice depends entirely upon whether or not they can view the society for what it is and the sacrifice’s place in the society. If an individual views all sacrifices as evil and barbaric regardless of their use or meaning then sure, they will see any society practicing human sacrifice as evil.
If a person views all sacrifice as evil, then that person is not who I am concerned with. For all other people who make judgments based on context and more information, these are the people whose perception is affected. How a society is portrayed, how the sacrifice is portrayed within the society determines a reader’s perception, not the simple statement that a culture performs sacrifices.
I can offer a modern example of this concept although it is in film. Take Mel Gibson’s movie Apocalypto. In this movie, based on how the sacrifice is portrayed it seemed cruel, inhumane and wrong. But when taken in context with the Mayan’s religious views a different opinion might be formed.
We are introduced to the belief systems of these Mayans through scenes of a plague infected girl prophesying a coming of an eclipse, a man running with a Jaguar and raiders who will wipe out the civilization. When the captives are taken to the top of a large step pyramid, they are sacrificed one by one by the priest. When the eclipse occurs he announces to the crowd that the God has been satisfied. Later in the movie, the prophesies about the jaguar and the raiders is shown to come true.
In showing this view of Mayan beliefs in prophesy and how they handle natural events, we are made to see them as primitive. As a primitive culture, they do not have the benefit of explanation of events with science and technology. So in light of this, can they be held responsible for believing whatever explains the world and natural events to them? Are they truly evil or just naïve? If they perform sacrifices because they feel they absolutely must to survive, is this evil?
In retrospect, a viewer can form different opinions. In one view, the sacrifice due to its gruesome and cruel nature as the victims are alive as their hearts are cut out is evil. Due to their condoning of this type of sacrifice, this by association makes the people evil as well. One could say that the Mayans of the city are evil but due to their distaste and disgust at seeing these sacrifices the captured tribe members are not evil. So by association, all members of that tribe are not evil. This would seem to be the meaning of things that the city people are evil and barbaric but the tribes living in the jungle are not.
At the beginning of the movie however, we are shown how the tribe hunts, kills and uses animals. We see their living situation of huts, no running water, dirt and no sanitation. This tribe is definitely barbaric and primitive on many levels. But they are not portrayed as evil. Evil, in my opinion, would be torturing animals for sport for example. These tribes people do not torture the animals. They kill them for food and other necessities.
Defining Primitive, Barbaric and Evil
All of this leads to the questions of what do the terms primitive, barbaric and evil mean? How do they relate to each other? Are these terms linked or can they exist as separate characteristics when describing a society? I am speaking of how the reader perceives the society. In the writing, good and evil can be defined based entirely on religious terms. Those who are dutiful and honor a deity are good, all others are evil. Outside of the beliefs set forth for the characters, in a reader’s mind, how are the soceity’s beliefs viewed? I argue that societies can be primitive or barbaric and not be evil. I even say they can practice human sacrifice and not be considered evil.
Evil whether in nonfiction or fantasy works I feel implies intended malevolence. The desire to inflict pain for no other purpose than the enjoyment of watching a person/animal in pain would be evil. Human sacrifice due to religious beliefs wherein a society is under the belief that without such sacrifice they will be destroyed is not evil. Misguided, incorrect yes but not evil as it is not done with maliciousness.
I would also argue that in a fantasy novel, if a society is performing human sacrifices for a deity that actually does require it they are not evil. If the deity demands sacrifice be performed, the deity is evil but not necessarily the society.
So in writing fantasy, the goal of indicating a society is barbaric and evil cannot be accomplished with the simple statement that they perform human sacrifices. There must be supporting information concerning the intention or belief system behind the sacrifice.
If the goal is to utilize the concept of human sacrifice for other purposes, supporting evidence must also be presented. There must be enough information to explain the reason for the sacrifice and its meaning to the characters. Personally, I use the act of sacrifice in my novel not as a barbaric ritual but to illustrate the great importance and power of life itself. It is an exchange of one life for another.
The article “The Logic of Sacrifice” is summed up by the author, “In all of this, there is a great deal more for a writer to work with than simplistic evil gods and societies full of psychopathic killers. The concept that the world will wither and die without sacrifice is a grim one, which might be lightened by willing victims drugged to feel no pain, or darkened by a pragmatic awareness of consequences of failure, and conscription of victims when no one will volunteer… Regardless of how it’s used in a story, sacrifice is still a profoundly ambiguous topic. The image of life coming from death is a powerful one, but fundamentally it still depends on the blood, pain, and death of human beings and animals.”
My thoughts on the meanings of primitive, barbaric and evil in relation to human sacrifice and their use in fantasy writing are simple. I believe it is the writer’s job to guide the reader into the society’s belief system. A reader must feel immersed in the society, must understand the intentions, motivations and ultimate meanings. Just as a fantasy writer must make a reader feel the desires of a society, there must also be a step back.
As the creator of your fantasy world and its societies, you must understand their ultimate profile. Are they evil? Are they outwardly evil or are they deceptive? Do they misguide others into believing they are good when they are not? Are they good because they are primitive? Are they good because they are more advanced and understand their world and choose not to be evil? In essence, you must know whether your societies choose to evil, choose to be good or are good/evil by default.
Your goal as a fantasy writer must be to make the reader see your world as you see it. You are their tour guide through your creation. So in a step back, a more outward view, you must guide them to either see your societies as good or evil. You must give them a reference for the understanding of the words barbaric and evil as well as for human sacrifice. You, the writer, must effectively provide your readers with the perception you wish them to have.
In other words, figure out your views on these words, translate them into your writing and be convincing. Simple, just like I said.