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Sacrificial Origins, with Mythologist Norland Têllez

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    After taking a break from our dedicated MythBlast conversations over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays,we are back to discuss “Sacrificial Origins,” the latest essay in JCF’s MythBlast series from writer, director, artist, teacher, and mythologist Norland Téllez (which you can read here), our guest this week in Conversations of a Higher Order to discuss his latest entry in JCF’s MythBlast series.

    Many of you know the drill by now. I will get us started with a few questions and comments, but no telling where the conversation will go from there. It will be your thoughts, reactions, observations and insights that make this a communal exchange of ideas rather than just another interview. Please feel free to join this discussion and engage Dr. Tellez directly with your questions and comments.

    Norland, I have a couple observations and a question. Can’t help but notice a theme in your recent essays – a willingness to dive into the deepest, darkest, strata of myth. I’m sure that makes a few readers uncomfortable, given public touchy-feely perceptions of Joseph Campbell as an upbeat, optimistic prophet of wishcraft (reading “follow your bliss” as merely a feel-good mantra).

    I was once asked in a public forum what the difference is between Joseph Campbell and the all-too-common stereotype of New Age adherents (which admittedly is a stereotype that certainly doesn’t apply to everyone who falls under that rubric). My response?

    “Joseph Campbell is not afraid of the dark.”

    Primitive Mythology is a prime example of of Campbell’s willingness to explore the harsh realities of civilizations and cultures in thrall to a “living” myth – it’s not all rainbows and butterflies.

    At the same time, Campbell has garnered criticism from the other end of the spectrum when he documents actual mythological practices, as in this excerpt from a yet-to-be-published manuscript, drawn from a number of obscure interviews:


    Why should one bother to, any more than you would try to reconcile the Navajo story?

    It’s about time we stopped feeling that we have to believe in the Bible. It’s the most over-advertised book in the world. It’s very pretentious to claim to be the word of God, or accepting it as such and perpetuating this tribal mythology, justifying all kinds of violence to people who are not members of the tribe⁠: “There is no God in all the world but in Israel.” That leaves out everybody else. This is one of the most chauvinistic views of morality⁠.


    Did I say anything quite like that? No, I said that was the way it was. And this kind of thing has maintained the structure of society, hasn’t it? But I didn’t say it was all right.

    I appreciate that you, too, are not afraid of the dark – but observations of what is, whether yours or Campbell’s, are not endorsements – far from it!

    A secondary observation relates to how this theme of sacrifice plays out today – not just in the religious celebration of the mass, but in the secular realm through film and literature. My favorite example is Shirley Jackson’s story, “The Lottery.” When The New Yorker first published this short story in 1948, the initial public reaction was negative and visceral, but this piece is widely recognized today as a classic (in fact, I often shared this in class during my years teaching literature in junior high – it’s a compelling tale with the power to crack open the mind of cynical adolescents).

    And now a question. In your essay, you note that

    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.”

    Does this stepping down from the literal practice of physical sacrifice into a symbolic ritual prove effective? Are deaths from violence, whether on the individual (homicide) or collective (war) scale lower as a percentage of the human population than in ages past? I think they may be – but is this a result of our embrace of symbolism vs literally acting out these rites (and maybe we should include so many unnecessary deaths from hunger, poverty and disease, often a result of oppression and economic violence).

    Or is the gradual switch over millennia from literal to more symbolic re-enactments of ritual a function of the evolution of human consciousness?

    I’m not sure there is a definite answer, but I would appreciate your thoughts on that, and where you believe humankind goes from here?



      Thank you, my dear Stephen. I always look forward to engaging our readers in the mythological dimension, especially when it comes to this question of the mytho-historic origins of organized human life on earth.

      This is indeed a fascinating question in all fields of inquiry. The search of origins in cosmology as in evolutionary biology have led to amazing discoveries. But when it comes to the psychogenesis of the human spirit, we must emphasize again and again, that this quest is not for the faint of heart. As we can learn from Primitive Mythology in a kind of “fundamental anthropology,” to use Girard’s formulation, we come to discover a much darker and more brutal reality underlying humanity’s spiritual origins. The place into which we are led ad inferos is certainly no Paradise, no Golden Age or Homeric chain of origins linking up humans to Olympian Gods. Just like Greek mythology proper, this quest leads us through the heart of scandal and human sacrifice. For what we find at the deepest and darkest root of our spiritual life is the gruesome spectacle of primal murder and its anthropophagic rite.

      A great deal of psychoanalytic practice concerns this “shadow work,” and it is no different when dealing with the geneology of Ideas.

      But what does it mean? In what sense was it necessary for organized human life? For obviously such performances serve no purpose from the survivalist utilitarian point of view. Yet they must have been psychologically necessary in a way we barely understand.

      Now to answer your question directly:

      “Does this stepping down from the literal practice of physical sacrifice into a symbolic ritual prove effective? Are deaths from violence, whether on the individual (homicide) or collective (war) scale lower as a percentage of the human population than in ages past? […] Or is the gradual switch over millennia from literal to more symbolic re-enactments of ritual a function of the evolution of human consciousness?”

      I think you can make a case for the implicit tenets of these questions as complementary sides of the same mytho-historic coin. One can easily show through statistical analysis that we are better off in general than the general population was, say, during the Middle Ages or the Neolithic Period, etc… But that is not saying much. I should hope we are better off than Medieval peasants or cave dwellers! But a great many still remain bound to the modern serfdom of the working class, ethnic wars, etc. MLK famously spoke, for example, of the woeful discrepancy between our technological advancements and our moral decay.

      The second point to make is to clarify the scope of the concept of “evolution” in the context of cultural and historical phenomena. One must be careful here, lest we slide unwittingly back, a la Jordan Peterson, into a kind of social or cultural Darwinism, which was widely used in its time to justify the intersection of white-supremacist and capitalist ideologies— as it is today. That is the problem with the ever-popular phrase “the evolution of consciousness.”

      I know that the use of “evolution” in this popular context is meant metaphorically, used as a symbol of the individuation process, but this term, due to its empirical origin, always slides back into the scientific meaning in which it becomes the literal effect of genetic mutation. Evolution literally means a change in the genetic structure of the organism. Talk of the evolution of consciousness would have to coincide with the discussion of the early period of hominid variation and evolutionary permutation. But once we get to the current form of human consciousness and our language faculty, there is literally no evolutionary change taken place that would distinguish us from the earliest specimens of homo sapiens.

      Now, the process of “cultural evolution”—in the last analysis, a misnomer—concerns directly the process of sublimation, as Freud called this dynamic of symbolic substitution. Or we may call these historic changes part of the process of cultural “sublation” (Aufhebung) to use the Hegelian term Giegerich prefers, a key term for describing the logical operation of the dialectical process in its three-fold sense: “a) negating and canceling, b) rescuing and retaining, c) elevating or raising to a new level” (The Soul’s Logical Life 67). This is what happens from stage to stage of cultural development: a sublation of one stage into another. Rather than evolution, we are dealing with the revolution of mytho-historic forms of consciousness.

      So you mention my allusion to the image of Christ of Cross. Clearly we can see how it has performed the three-fold function of sublation. The literal killing and anthropophagic rite is canceled in its literalism. At the same time, the image of the crucified God rescues the primordial sense of the sacrificial act. And finally, through its “negative interiorization” (Giegerich) it places its anthropological meaning at a higher level of development.

      If we wanted a shorthand, we might say that sublation is the result of the sublimation of the ages; one happens at the individual, the other, at the collective level. It would be a kind of alchemystically inclined dialectical materialism.

      But the historic alchemy of cultural sublation is obviously not about the changes in the genetic structure of the brain or the human genome. What it concerns is a cultural matter, the prima materia of history, caught in the collective process of self-creation in time. Thus the alchemy of mytho-history concerns the changes and transformations of the human spirit across the ages.

      So although “evolution” is not the right word here, as you can see, we may yet speak legitimately of development and even “advancement” in the specific technological sense. We can certainly compare a bow and arrow or poisoned darts with semi-automatic weapons and nuclear bombs and still be able to say: “we are so much more advanced than these benighted primitives!” But when you consider the diabolical purpose of such massive arsenals of mass destruction which can destroy all life on earth many times over, the nature of our “advancement” is surely begging to be qualified and delimited.



      Martin Weyers

        I appreciate Campbell’s resolve to look at human sacrifice with scientific impartiality. However, I’m wondering how the Aztec ritual with its literal killings meets the requirement of “compassion as the fundamental religious experience and, unless that is there, you have nothing.” (Power of Myth) I must think of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (or the less famous St. John Passion). The mythic power of these works results from their ability to lead us to an identification with the suffering Christ. I’m wondering how the important “god of compassion”, on the other hand, might be served in a cult, that celebrates the literal killing of an adolescent slave girl.


          Hi Martin, I think you bring a fair question. What does compassion have to do with the gruesome spectacle of human sacrifice? In view of the archaic sacred, how can we say that compassion constitutes the fundamental religious experience?

          Although such a question can appear reductive in some sense, we shouldn’t assume that the universal form of such foundations is the same from age to age. Even where the mythic form remains relatively the same, the historic content undergoes radical transformations which in turn alter the meaning of the archetypical form itself.

          So it is possible to argue, for example, that the sacrificial killing of the archaic context expresses a pantheistic pity for all individual life forms that are so condemned to the cycles of life and death, etc. In the sacrificial ritual, humankind takes hold of death and its negative power required to set the stage for rebirth.

          We might also invoke the Gita to find an example of a profound metaphysical sense of compassion in the very act of sacrificial slaughter.

          Nevertheless, such answers remain a little too “idealistic,” and it has taken the work of René Girard in more recent decades to dispel what he calls “the romantic lie” under which we hide the most critical issue that religion must contend with: how to contain and harness the internal threat of violence within a society.

          Finally, there is one way in which Campbell’s statement remains correct: compassion is the fundamental religious experience for us, on our side of the historic watershed of Christianity. But the fact that this Christian compassion emerges from the image of bloody crucifixion—staging the primal scene of human sacrifice—suggests a connection to the archaic experience of the sacred which can never be erased.



          Stephen, I don’t recall what I have been doing wrong with the links again, but I apologize that when I was trying to include links tonight they did not work–I thought I was by now able to include the links directly using certain icons. Due to my errors my posts are “awaiting moderation.”



          I am also reminded in your last sentence of the above response that sacred is the word scared all jumbled up, as if being scared can be the result of witnessing/experiencing something sacred–I love to call these “Word Scrambles.” When I have pondered this, I often feel that the word scared must have had many layers of meanings and not always just fear. Of course, it has the word scar in it, like anything that might leave a scar on our psyches, which may go along with what you write about the crucifixion never being able to undone. Certain things we see can never be unseen it seems.



          What dark topics. I have a few thoughts and ideas I have heard I will share. I will start with one of those “I have a friend who has a friend…” or “I have a cousin who…” story. In my case, it is a “I have a cousin who…” story.

          I have a cousin who is a fundamental Christian minister. She has told me that in her studies the reason that fundamental Christians will show the cross but not a cross with Jesus hanging on it is because it shows the violence of the crucifixion and that that is (in her words) Satan’s glory to see Jesus crucified on the cross, that Satan loves nothing better than to see this. That is interesting to me that the crucifixion was there to kickstart humankind’s compassion. She has also mentioned to me the idea that when Jesus was crucified it was intended for the purpose of there being no more human sacrifices necessary–that Jesus shed his blood for all our sins (including previous human sacrifices for which there will be no more need of, we might assume). So then we have to wonder if people have compassion only when they themselves somehow equally receive it? Such as in the Our Father prayer, “forgive us our trespasses/ as we forgive those who trespass against us.” People are told that Jesus who died on the cross for us has forgiven us of our sins and has therefore sacrificed his life/shed his blood for us. I often do wonder how children tolerate or absorb this image and the gruesome story of Abraham who was going to sacrifice his own child until he suddenly heard God’s voice tell him not to. Also, one wonders if part of the reason in this Bible story that it is written that God at first told Abraham to sacrifice (kill) his own son is so that children might learn to fear God. One would think that Abraham’s son would never want to walk anywhere with his father ever again in case God (or his dad) might change his mind again. I now feel inspired to in the future write about how those takes may have affected children in Catholic school back in the day–including myself. They always sounded a but surreal to me or as if some madness had overtaken people’s minds. It didn’t even sound or feel real or “human.” When I thought of Jesus dying on the cross I thought it was because people were short-sighted and mean. I did not think of it as human sacrifice–but as a sacrifice that people would have to make by imposing upon themselves the sacrifice was really how terrible their own loss of a holy man and healer in their lifetime. Another sacrifice, I thought, was the guilt they would probably live with to know they could do such a thing to someone who did nothing to hurt them except to go against the political grain of the time.  I always thought these stories too gruesome to share with my daughter when she was young. She heard them later from her Christian and Catholic friends and family members and when she got old enough she could make up her own mind about religion and/or spirituality. (I also did not expose her to certain fairy tales when she was young if they were extremely violent.)

          Like Martin, I also wonder how the ripping out of a human heart can bring compassion to a tribe, but I did like Norland’s explanation of this. While on one hand I find it difficult to see how they could feel/believe that a “sacrifice of one for the many” can evoke compassion when it is such a gruesome act leaving people to wonder who would be next, more likely identifying with the victim in first and foremost fear that it could have been them or that it could be them next time, on the other hand perhaps people would feel compassion for the heart once removed from the body while it is still beating (as I have read about this actually happening). So now I am waxing gruesome imagery too.

          I can probably truthfully say that for the most part I would rather not be thinking about this stuff; however, as Norland tells us it is an important part of our human history to understand.

          In shamanic/pagan circles sometimes symbolic sacrifice is done with things like offerings to the gods like certain herbs in the incense or like food or wine or juice. As people in the ritual take a sip of wine or juice from their own cup they also give a libation for the gods and give some libation back to the earth from whence it came that gave to us. In this way those in the ritual share and appease the powers that be by being generous and by acknowledging them for the gifts of the earth that the earth/cosmos brings to offer. Some churches see the sacrifice as offerings of money–such as when people tithe–many Christians believe that in order to receive “good” amounts of money you should sacrifice a certain percentage of your weekly paycheck. Catholics practices include observing Lent in which time while waiting for Easter and the resurrection of Christ all sorts of sacrifices are made not considered symbolic but considered real but just not all that dire: one person might sacrifice/giving their time to a cause or someone in need, another person might give up eating sweets for the time being, whereas monks or holy people such as priests, popes, or nuns might engage in either symbolic flagellation (beating oneself as Christ was whipped before he was crucified as in the Passion) or actual, actually drawing blood. A very small minority of people other than those in holy orders also cause self-harm actually or symbolically to be considered a sacrifice. I have always thought this extreme for our times in my humble opinion. You can read more about this here:

          Why do people still find it necessary to make such sacrifices? Maybe Lent is a good excuse to finally begin that diet or do that exercise you have been wanting to do. I am not sure why people make these sacrifices. Many Catholics stopped observing Lent by not eating meat on Fridays way back when, when I was growing up. In my family we did not eat meat on Fridays but had to go without or eat fish. Some people explained this as on Good Friday it was better to identify not with the flesh but with the spirit as if meat were more “grounding” than fish which would be less like our flesh and blood. We acknowledged to stay away from food items that were of blood sacrifice. We all loved fish and lived on a lake, so none of us ever felt like it was a sacrifice–except we knew the reasoning of staying away from food that was bloody. (That is rather gruesome or gross again.)

          What other types of sacrifices can people in these forums mention, whether symbolic like libations (which can be regarded as actual by some people, as if the gods will really be watching and hearing and somehow partaking) or actual such as giving up a certain food or a certain amount of your time to help out a cause? I guess the point is to somehow give some gift away and go with less or else to even suffer somehow. Maybe a mother has somehow sacrificed a lot for her children. Maybe you sacrifice a day off work if get called in for someone who is sick and can’t go to work.

          I had some other thoughts when reading the posts but for now I will end this response.



          No worries about links, Marianne – it’s not you. We had powered back some of the restrictions to allow participants to more easily post links, and a lurker late at night posted porn links in several forums (which James caught right after they went up and zapped off a PM to me, which I happened to see when I had to briefly leave bed the middle of the night, so was able to quickly remove them and block the miscreant). As a result, we increased security, which means I have to manually approve all messages with links.

          So go ahead and keep posting links – there may just be a slight delay before your message appears as I’m not online 24/7

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