Lektuereempfehlung zum Thema „Opfer“

Ich bin wieder auf einen faszinierenden Text zum Thema gestossen: On Progress and Irony: with particular reference to the abandonment of human sacrifice


As a recognized institution, performed shamelessly under its own name, human sacrifice has existed in many forms, from the very beginning of what we are pleased to call civilized life. Royal tombs of the earliest dynasties in Egypt, Sumeria and China were „staffed“ with the slaves, bodyguards and personal attendants of their deceased masters, slain to accompany them into the other world. Sometimes the kings themselves were sacrificed, likely enough as incarnations of the god whose recurring death and rebirth was seen as renewing the cyclical order of the world, on earth as in heaven. Children were slain at the inauguration of new buildings or cities, and their bodies buried beneath the walls; the murder of Remus by Romulus at the beginning of Rome may be a disguised memory of just such a „foundation sacrifice“, a custom for which Biblical documentation may be found in 1 Kings 16:34. Aside from these regular and public solemnities, private individuals as well as rulers might offer up a victim on any number of special occasions: fulfilling a rash vow, responding to an ominous portent, contending with extraordinary distress, or merely seeking some particular favor. And of course war has always produced the greatest opportunities for collecting this sort of god-fodder.


The men of those transitional times discovered that there is at least one other way of being both religious and conscientious, a way equally distinct from the archaic mentality of abject submission to arbitrary power (which all Fundamentalisms tend to perpetuate) and from the New Age (really new in Plutarch’s time, and still calling itself „new“ in our own!) of generally pacific, but rather flaccid and loose-jointed benevolence. Their consciences had come to be at odds with their religion. They inhabited a radically unsettled world: they were still at sea between two distinct moral continents, and they had as yet no assurance that they would arrive safely at the more comfortable shore. For they still believed in their old gods – whether Yahweh, Jupiter, or Dionysus the Devourer – and they still held, by and large, the traditional views of their powers and appetites. Yet even while believing that human sacrifice was something which the gods desired very much, they chose, more often than not, to withhold it from them, forfeiting the favors which they believed it would purchase, and even putting themselves (as they thought) at mortal risk from the displeasure of those as-yet-unreformed „powers above.“

It is not easy for us to take the measure of such men, because we have so largely lost the sense of being subject to the power of gods who are morally inferior to ourselves; gods who must be taken seriously, but who are also somehow contemptible, against whom we must marshal our best efforts: to educate them, eventually, but in the meantime (a „meantime“ which lasted, as we have seen, for at least some hundreds of years) to resist, thwart, or circumvent them as far as humanly possible. Whence came this impulse to withhold human sacrifice? We may never find a certain answer to that question, since the impulse first made itself felt so long before anything like a philosophically articulated theology had arisen to give human values some semblance of clarity. And where did the men of those times find the spirit to play their daring game with the murderous gods, the courage to impose so resolutely, and in the end so successfully, this protracted embargo on heaven? . . . O admirabile commercium! That may be the greatest mystery of all, a mystery in the fullest sense of the word, a mystery of progress.


No, I will not condemn Themistocles, a Greek hero in the mould of Odysseus, who always applied his reason where it would be most effective – though I deplore, as he did, the panic which brought the Athenians to such a dreadful moment. And certainly I will not revile King Saul, who in establishing the Hebrew monarchy created one of the core institutions around which the religion of Israel eventually civilized itself. These were only two of the human participants in that millennial endeavor, that long, loud and ultimately fruitful conversation among gods and men, including men of many different races, classes and types. Prophets, priests, kings and commanders all took part in this dialogue. Some of their parts may be identified with fair precision, but it is not always possible to assign unambiguous praise or blame: many details escape us now. We can only gratefully remember that, in at least one particular facet of our lives, the human race at that time changed itself, irrevocably, for the better.


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