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The Fires of Love-Death

Tzompantli at Templo Mayor, Mexico City. Photo by Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata. Creative Commons, via WikiMedia.

All roots are dark, and the deeper they go the darker they get until they touch the light of the primal fire of the human soul. In Masks of God, Volume 1: Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell turns our gaze to the aboriginal origins of humankind, a truly mythic eon of human cultural evolution, where we should not be surprised to find the bloodiest rituals ever concocted by the brain of man: the sacrificial killing of young girls served up for cannibalistic frenzy. 

Although there is evidence to suggest that the sacrificial human victims of the archaic “dark ages” were just as often males, one also finds a preponderance of myths where the sacrificial creature is principally a young woman. As Campbell highlights in Primitive Mythology, citing another horrific account of anthropophagic rituals (please be warned that the following account contains psychic images of sexual violence):

The particular moment of importance to our story occurs at the conclusion of one of the boys' puberty rites, which terminates in a sexual orgy of several days and nights, during which everyone in the village except the initiates makes free with everybody else, amid the tumult of the mythological chants, drums, and the bull-roarers—until the final night, when a fine young girl, painted, oiled, and ceremonially costumed, is led into the dancing ground and made to lie beneath a platform of very heavy logs. With her, in open view of the festival, the initiates cohabit, one after another; and while the youth chosen to be last is embracing her the supports of the logs above are jerked away and the platform drops, to a prodigious boom of drums. A hideous howl goes up and the dead girl and boy are dragged from the logs, cut up, roasted, and eaten. (p. 170-171)

Such is the blissful eon of the mythological age at the twilight of the gods. We thus catch a glimpse of a primeval time and place in which human victims were totally absorbed into the archetypal drama of self-renewal to the point of extinction, obliterated by a literal outburst of murderous mythic violence. And yet, within the archaic context, such sacrificial killings were evidently the only way to keep in touch with the blood of transcendence as a concrete manifestation of the collective psyche.

Setting aside our spontaneous anachronistic horror at such gruesome spectacles, we would have to recognize that, at some basic level, these collective rituals worked. That is, they performed the vital existential function they were meant to perform. But what was that function? In what sense was it necessary for such festivals to be instituted in the primordial organization of human society? 

At the time Campbell wrote Primitive Mythology, there was no solid answer to this question. Campbell even seems content with the old 19th-century hypothesis of Leo Frobenius which essentially says that the existence of these rites “are but the renditions in act of a mythology inspired by the model of death and life in the plant world” (171). At the same time, he is constantly noticing the link between sacrificial rites and the real feeling of communitas that binds the existence of a people or tribe. There is little doubt that a fundamental root of our sense of transcendence lies in the archetypal experience of the “living spirit” in communitarian union. As Campbell highlights this collective moment of transcendence in the puberty rites cited above:

The ceremonies continue for many nights, many days, uniting the villagers in a fused being that is not biological, essentially, but a living spirit—with numerous heads, many eyes, many voices, numerous feet pounding the earth—lifted even out of temporality and translated into the no-place, no-time, no-when, no-where of the mythological age, which is here and now. (p. 170)

Absorbing its actors into the archetypal drama of self-renewal, the sacred space of the eternal no-where and no-when becomes a “necessary illusion” for setting the stage of collective rape and murder. It takes the “power of myth” to sanctify the hordes of primal violence in their institutional containment. On this score, there is no need to disagree with Steven Weinberg: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.” (A Designer Universe)

One may recall in this critical connection the mythic intervention of Krishna into the heart of Arjuna, the legendary Pandava General, as he stood upon the Kurukshetra battlefield described in the Gita. Krishna must help Arjuna clear his troubled conscience which is burdened with the prospect of having to slaughter members of his own family. Krishna’s advice, considered a summit of mythic wisdom, in effect performs an archetypal “dehumanizing” move, a “cosmic perspective in which the soul participates” to cite James Hillman (Re-Visioning Psychology 168), managing to strip the victim of her basic humanity:

The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [the “untouchable” outcaste]. (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 5, Verse 18)

Myth is always the gateway to a “sacred space”—setting apart a no-where and no-when in a particular place and time—which is needed to prepare the spiritual ground for the orgiastic festivals of bloodshed and human sacrifice. Just like today, the mythic force of nationalisms of every sort are mobilized into “the hearts and minds of the people” in order to win their support for the horrors of modern warfare and the hegemonic struggle for global dominion. There is no mass murder without the transcendence of a poetic vision.


Never expecting to find it in the holy of holies, we may feel far removed from such “primitive” notions of human sacrifice and sacred anthropophagy. But they are not as foreign as they seem. On the contrary, these specific notions feel oddly familiar. Is not the bloody image of Christ on the Cross, served-up on the “communion table” of the eucharist—where his flesh is to be eaten and blood drank—the sacrificial image of the primal murder and its sacred anthropophagic rite?

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