Monday, March 7, 2011

The Joy Of Sacrifice

A proper fever has the benefit of producing some truly distorting hallucinatory effects – from which, sometimes, I get my best ideas.  In this case, having seen a documentary about the Donner Party of 1848/49, which gets grisley in the second half, I found myself a few hours later laying on my back, thinking about human sacrifices - which of course I perceive from the viewpoint of a D&D fanatic.  The question arises, what are the bounds of human and non-human sacrifices; what is the result; and what purpose do they serve?

Naturally, there are quite a few DMs who would look sourly on the idea of a player character intentionally going about the practice of sacrificing anyone - or indeed, even sacrificing an animal, if it comes to that.  But sacrifices were common participatory events practiced by numerous societies, and were not seen as amoral in the least.  It seems to me that it's a topic worth some discussion .... particularly since I believe I've worked out a few interesting D&D angles about it.

To begin with, a sacrifice isn't just a question of stepping up to a stranger on the road and 'sacrificing' them forthwith.  It is a complicated matter, particularly as the subject or creature to be sacrificed is highly relevant, as is the location where the sacrifice is to occur, as is the exact time of day and date of the year on which the sacrifice is to take place.

This last point, the time of the sacrifice, can be found in a variety of places as attached to actual historical supreme beings.  The Deities and Demigods book seemed to consider it worthwhile listing all the various dates for the beings inside - even if quite a few of the dates are dead wrong - making things very convenient.  Of course, the actual time of day is not generally mentioned, but a DM can decide this ad hoc - whether it's the cliched midnight, breakfast or three in the afternoon.  A time is important, as it establishes a tension to the event, suggesting that there is an important window that must be passed through in the few seconds that it's opened.

Of course, the gentle reader can always go the way of the Aztecs, who clearly felt the window was open for lengthy periods, as they would perform sacrifices - continuously - over a period of days or even weeks, slaughtering actual tens of thousands of persons at a single go.  One after another body was sliced open, the heart produced, the body kicked down the high steps and the blood spattering, oozing or draining in a healthy stream.  No one alive has any conception of what that was really like - though several African dictators in the last century have taken a real shot at the experience.

What the Aztecs really understood was place.  These multiple sacrifices had to be done upon elaborate temples built up into the sky, giving a real aura to the spreading distribution of massacred bodies.   The altars were of such-and-such a size, and there had to be just so many steps to the pinnacle of the murderous priestly factory for the sacrifices to be carried out.  A player character thinking in terms of following sacrifice as a religious rite has to have it explained to him or her that some ground work needs to put into the matter before guts and organs find their way to the open light.  There is a foundational principle involved here, to say the very least.

Architectural considerations are not the final word, either.  The thuggee cults of India were decorated extravagantly with sculpture and added jewels and precious metals, plus heaps of valuable woods and abundant flowers in bloom.  Remember that, before your character can go hunting through the countryside for the appropriate victim, its a good idea to lay out the garden where orchids, carnations or perhaps zinnias can be carefully cultivated and harvested for the blessed event.  Be sure, too, to have the necessary gowns weaved and tailored, the appropriate carpeting shipped in and laid out in the right pattern, the timbers stacked just so and the thousands of torches, candles or pots of oil gathered so that the whole area will be properly lit.

It is, after all, a great performance.

Now then, at last, the victim.  Take note that in D&D, the race is absolutely the issue.  One can talk of virgin humans or virgin elves, potentially of either sex, but one does not make any suggestion of virgin dwarven princesses, or virgin orcs, or virgin frost giants.  There is a cachet to be considered here - and that being that the virgin ought to seem, well, virginal.  That is, that he or she look fairly fetching in the designed embroidered silk gown.  It just wouldn't do for the stunning headress to be marred by the presence of horns, brow ridges or knobby shoulders.  This isn't Star Trek.  No, the fact of the matter is that virginal sacrifice isn't a politically correct consideration - it is an event presented for the beautiful people.  The more elohim-like, the better.  No dogs allowed, sorry.

Now, one has to ask from a D&D perspective, what exactly is gained by the sacrifice of a virgin (keeping in mind that the Aztecs were not sexually particular).  Certainly, in the real world the logic was sound ... the purity of the sacrifice donated the sacrifice that the community was making.  We are losing the most amazing person in the community to prove that we really do, seriously, want good crops please - this is not just a casual request.  Look who we're willing to live without to get them!  And so, hack, burn, distribute the ashes, job well done, let the good weather commence.

The Aztecs worked on the principle of look how many people they were willing to give up - namely, the loss in potential slave labor - but the idea is the same.  We 'sacrifice' - now make with the abundance of food.  It's a contractual agreement.  Payment equals return.

But since in D&D we know there's an afterlife, what happens to the soul of the sacrificed victim?  We know the pretty girl has a soul, and we know it's going somewhere.

The Hindus weren't unclear about that - the soul was destined for reincarnation, which wasn't necessarily guaranteed by the sacrifice.  The life leading up to the sacrifice was what mattered.  Remember, most suttee sacrifices of the Hindu faith were married women, killed because their husbands died.  The virgin thing is really more European ... but I'm writing this in English, so most of my readers are Europeans.  But please accept my utter respect for my non-virgin sacrificing readers.  I understand you make a fair case.

Still, if your particular world doesn't operate on reincarnation, where does pretty Susie Sunshine find herself the moment after the ritual burning?

If it is a sacrifice by the local village for the sake of good crops, the reader would fairly judge that Susie finds herself in the Happy Hunting Grounds or Gladsheim or whatever wonderful heaven the village promotes.  She's given her all for her fellow villagers and she deserves a decent reward.

But what if Susie is sacrificed by a nasty, evil cult who just loves to put cherry tarts on the slab before sending them to the afterworld?  Doesn't it seem a little strange for them to willingly promote Susie to an afterlife of cloudy goodness, considering their rather darker politics?  Yes, it does to me too.

That's why it is absolutely necessary that Susie does not, by means of the ceremony, enter the afterlife as a virgin.  She's got to go deflorante, you understand.  And if the ritual's got any magical quality at all, as the ritual progresses, Susie's sacchrine soul has to gain a whole other kind of sweetness - you know, the sort where she develops a particular tasty craving for the ritualistic practice as it commences.  For the point is that Susie is being stolen from her certain place in heaven and being sent, instead, the other way.

Now here is where I think I've got a new perspective on this whole matter.  Because the sort of creature that Susie winds up as once she is in Hell isn't just another random soul bathing at the netherworld's Jersey Shore ... no, no, no, Susie is a special transit to the underworld.  Her appearance there as some deadly sort of mezzodaemon or worse creature is precisely what makes it worthwhile for the evil priests to build the temple and fashion the sculpture and grow the flowers and set the difficult moment of re-education.  It's a powerful motivation for the underworld forces to urge their priests to undergo the dangerous practice of stealing young girls in the night and going through all that awful bother.  For just how do the worst demons of hell come into existence, anyway?

I'm sure in the very least Susie would start spelling her name with a 'z.'


Oddbit said...

Earlier in my career as a player I played in a custom campaign with a character of a darker bent, forced to work with a demon to advance his abilities. I honestly didn't think too thoroughly about the process and somewhat regret the missed opportunity. While we still faded to black for the actual procedure, I could have spent more time picking the subject and setting up the environment.

The question for me does arise though, while the sacrifice of the victim requires turning to a darker bent, this sounds like one of the greater ceremonies. Do you think lesser ceremonies might simply have the focus on the act of the priests to kill or torture the subject through the deities preferred method? (Disease, pain, decay, draining, and so on...) And do you think that these still qualify as sacrifices, or more as ceremonies involving the death of a subject?

Alexis said...

Clearly with such a wide variety of sacrificial practices, there's room for ceremonies of all kinds. I think what interests me primarily is how the particularism of the ritual produces particular kinds of transmigrated souls into the afterworld. I wanted to explore that, just to get people thinking.

Oddbit said...

That brings up quite a myriad of possibilities. Especially given your game lacks alignment. Each religion with demons, devils, spirits, angels, archons and other otherworldly beings representing and serving those worshiped by cults and religions could be the result of such a sacrifice. A goodly god inducting them as a spiritual guardian.

I also wonder about the subjects soul not necessarily being sent to another plane, but also perhaps becoming trapped as a greater undead? Another interesting concept. Perhaps even being the method of creating the kinds of undead that spawn other undead (thus explaining how the first came to be).

Jess said...

If the community is giving up its most valuable members, wouldn't that suggest the ultimate sacrifice is ... a PC? :)

The Jovial Priest said...

Dear Alexis

Thank you for, "But please accept my utter respect for my non-virgin sacrificing readers. I understand you make a fair case."

I needed a good chuckle.

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...


I think that they've probably weighed the benefits of such a sacrifice with the risks of killing someone who has friends that can kill the entire town.

Capcha: Halve. Perhaps the favored method of sacrifice in this town?

richardthinks said...

in D&D, the race is absolutely the issue... one does not make any suggestion of virgin dwarven princesses, or virgin orcs, or virgin frost giants.

Quite so. Because sacrificing orcs in exchange for divine favour is the PCs' job.

Which makes me think: if diabolical rituals make terrible demons and pharaonic burials make gods, maybe fairly meaningless stabbings down dungeons make for a neutral sort of recycling. What if the souls of all those orcs and goblins and minor demons the PCs kill just come back as more orcs and goblins and minor demons? If they became aware of this the PCs would have a choice: either keep doing it in order to level up/extract protection money from outland villagers, or find another solution that might actually reduce the numbers of monsters in the world.
If they took the monster-reducing path, other adventurers might not be pleased.

I've also always wanted to take a leaf out of The Nuer and have the high priest of Orkheim say "well, if we can't get our human virgin I guess we'll have to settle for sacrificing a cucumber instead."

Lasgunpacker said...

Interesting. I guess it depends on what is important, the sacrifice of a body, pure and perfect, or of a soul, pure and perfect. (maybe both).

And is the soul being tainted by the death (going to the 9th circle of heck) or is it being released to go to heaven?

Seems like different evil theologies would treat things differently.

How did the druids conceive of such things I wonder?

Brian said...

EHP and his minions are getting played . . .