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Sacrificial Origins

"Mictlantecuhtli (left), god of death, the lord of the Underworld and Quetzalcoatl (right), god of wisdom, life, knowledge, morning star, patron of the winds and light, the lord of the West. Together they symbolize life and death." Codex Borgia (p. 56) via Wikipedia. Public Domain.

The search for origins has always figured among the greatest adventures of humankind in its epic journey on earth. “Who are we?” “Where do we come from?” “Where are we going?” These fundamental questions never fail to inspire philosophical wonder; they help to open up the epic dimensions of mytho-history as humanity’s philosophical journey through the meaning of being and time. 

In The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell joins the search for origins by taking up mythographic materials from around the world dating back to the earliest of times. Drawing from the treasure troves of world mythology, Campbell does not romanticize this quest; he understood that if we want to grasp the deepest foundations of the human psyche, we cannot shy away from the brutal beginnings of our race. Looking for the primeval origins of the light of humanity, we should not be surprised to find a much darker vein. 

The climax of the Aztec festival dedicated to the young goddess of the corn, Chicomecohuatl, is among the examples Campbell draws from James Frazer’s immortal classic The Golden Bough, wherein “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 and share its archetypal destiny. The harvest festival lasted for several days as the young girl was celebrated in the likeness of the goddess, forced to dance and cheer people all day long, and finally made to go from house to house in order to announce the bounty of the harvest. Taking up the account of Fray Bernardino Sahagún, a direct witness to the local festivities of the times, the climax of this Aztec festival cannot but appear to us as a literal horror show (please be warned, the following account contains graphic depictions of ritual violence):  

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 the revulsion that overcomes Campbell in his immediate reaction:

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 kind of collective horror that Campbell alludes to in view of such bloody “satanic” deeds points to another more recent leap or watershed in the history of the human soul. For there is a fundamental psychological difference that separates the stage of human culture in which human sacrifice was not only acceptable but the very source of the sacred, and the stages in which it is not (with notable exceptions!). Our pious as well as secular festivals have learned to do with symbolic substitutes rather than literal bloodshed — especially human blood! This has been a veritable “transcendental” or mytho-historic change that ultimately helps to shield us from the murderous violence of the sacred. 

Under the rubric of the “Love-Death” mythologem, therefore, Campbell comes across a fundamental image of transformation and psychic humanization. Rather than a heavenly cradle or a lost paradise, however, what we find at the root of the soul’s emergence is the festival of humanity’s primordial self-slaughter. 

Putting an end to the endless night of pre-history and its meaningless cycles of death and reproduction, a sacrificial killing of an innocent human victim — not unlike the figure of Christ — lies at the cradle of humanity’s spiritual emergence. Evidently, 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 is symbolically “castrated” of its biological determinateness; for only then can the slain creature resurrect as a being of spirit, language, and culture. The human animal (homo) is thus transformed into a being of myth and conscious self-awareness (sapiens). As Giegerich finally explains the internal psycho-logic of sacrificial killings: 

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)


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