Human Sacrifice: Reality or Metaphor?

The Gathering Dark

In the cycle of the Horned God, there are four Harvests: the Harvest of Grain, the Harvest of Vine and Fruit, the Harvest of Nuts or Acorns, and finally the Harvest of Souls.

In October, as the light glows close upon the earth, and the shadows lengthen towards deep autumn, our natural inclination is to turn within. Deciduous trees turn inward, drawing their life force into the earth with a last fiery display, before they shed the outer trappings of life and stand in their bare bones. The animals move inside of burrows, caves, or hollows, even houses, to get away from the cold. Many birds leave and the atmosphere grows quiet without their songs.

For us, this natural inward turning is a time for reflection. Only by going within can we explore the nature of our souls, find our deepest dreams, and perhaps glimpse our own divinity. In the past, as the darkness  moved over the land, houses also grew dark and silent.  People gathered close to the fire, and in that circle of warmth and light, told stories, sang ballads, perhaps they spun and sewed, and did whatever work they could do  to tide them over the long winter months. Relationships deepened as people spent lots of time together in close quarters…


Astrologically the sign of Scorpio, straddling October and November, is the time to chase the stag into the forest, kill him, and take him home to keep the family fed throughout the winter. In agricultural societies, it was the time to cull the herds, to slaughter the animals that could no longer produce, and use them as food. This why the sign of Scorpio is associated with death, but also with rebirth and, in the old way of looking at change from one form to another, which is from mortality to spirit — Transformation.

All these journeys into personal darkness, all these deaths, comprise the Harvest of Souls. The Horned God, the Stag, rules over this time as Lord of the Hunt, for as we hunt him, he hunts us, luring us into the deep forest where we are confused by be shadows cast my the moon, where the paths end in the trees, or at the side of a lake or stream, where we lose track of where we are going, or even who we are.

Mystery of Eleusis: What Kind of Ritual Was This?

I have been thinking about the Eleusinian Mysteries and Persephone’s abduction into the Underworld in this context.

I may be mistaken, but I think that the Pagans of the ancient Mediterranean practiced human sacrifice. I also think Neo-Pagans have obscured this fact with a lot of psych-babble, Jungian theories of archetypes, etc. But my love of playing with symbols demands indulgence with this. Here goes!

Persephone, or Kore, the virgin child of a powerful matriarch is playing in a field of poppies, when Pluto, or Hades, rises up out of the earth and snatches, or even rapes her. She is taken down into his Kingdom under the Earth, where she is tricked into eating the seeds of the pomegranate. Because she eats the food of the Underworld, she is thought to have agreed to stay in Pluto’s realm forever as his bride.

I don’t know what sacrificial device the ancient Greeks used, but it seems that beautiful Virgins  have often been the sacrificial victims of choice. Poppies are the matrix of narcotics that lull people to into a sleepy, dreamlike state often associated with death.  This suggests that the virgin girl was drugged in preparation for her ravishment and demise. Pluto is the God of Death, and we know only one reason a mortal person would be taken into the Underworld — unless of course they are Faery Witches — is because they are dead.

I also wonder if the rape version ( though I think he words ‘abduction’ and ‘rape’ were synonymous at one time)  of the myth means that the virgin was raped and impregnated — this would strengthen the idea that new life would come out of death. Since the pomegranate is a womb symbol, Persephone’s eating of it could be another way of saying she is pregnant. I definitely think there was something sexual going on, an element practically erased  by a load of Victorian artists and illustrators.

Persephone eating the pomegranate seeds could also indicate her willingness to be sacrificed (sacrifices always had to be willing), but seeds are also symbols of re-birth. Seeds germinate under the soil in the darkness until they rise back up in the Spring. Death and rebirth was the theme of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Demeter, the mother of Persephone. goes mad with grief and blasts the earth with winter. This seems metaphorical because, though the sacrifice of virgins to the Gods, or priests of the Gods,  actually did take place in ancient times, it is hard to believe a woman could have so much power over the earth as to blight it until she got her daughter back. We do know she was assisted by Hekate who witnessed the abduction and strove with Demeter to rescue her daughter from death.

Maybe as the sacrificial killing ritual was taking place in a dark cave, or underground temple,  the mothers of the victims were  weeping and tearing their hair, whether ritually or actually, up on the surface of the earth. Greek poetry is full of women ritually tearing their hair for Adonis, so why not Persephone as well?

Our tender Adonis is dying!
What shall we do?
Rend your hair, girls,
and tear your dresses
.

(I think this fragment comes out of Sappho…)

As for the role of Hekate, I wonder if there had to be someone to take the body of the sacrificila victim to the tomb, and if it that task would  fall to the Priestess of Hekate?

The theme of the Harvest of Souls, the Death part of the Death and Rebirth equation, suggests that this Mystery must have taken place at the Agean equivalent of deep autumn on the threshold of winter.

Cave at Eleusis

Cave at Eleusis

Initiation at Eleusis

The only thing I have read that scholars seemed to be sure of about the Mysteries of Eleusis was that the initiates were taken on a journey through a temple, blindfolded, and put through some kind of ordeals. At the the end of the ritual, their blindfolds were removed and they were presented with a sheaf of grain. This was a symbolic statement that that which was harvested, or killed, and dragged into the Hades, would return in the spring as new life.

What was that about?

Considering that the ancient Greeks were probably better versed in the  cycles of Death and Rebirth than we are, it seems they would not be surprised, as scholars suggest, that the grain dies and comes back in the spring.  But if the actual sacrifice of children was demanded by the Gods to insure the fertility of the land, then it might be necessary to “initiate” adults into the knowledge that the lives of their children fed the lives of the population. If they really believed that the Gods and the land had to have blood, then this might persuade them that the sacrifice was worth making. Therefore the climax of the Rites of Eleusis would be a kind of comfort for them and help them to accept the way things had to be.

It is also possible that the whole thing was ritually performed as a Mystery Play; that none of it was really happening, but was enacted, and that the gift of emotional energy was enough of a sacrifice to the Gods.

But I think this may have been the case at a later date. Folklore is full of theories that the most primal Mysteries were  real, that the sacrifices were real, and the enactments and plays came about when cultures realized that the Gods and the land did not need blood to be fertile, that devotion was enough. Apparently animals came to be the sacrificial victims as replacements for humans, much as bread figures have become substitute Sacred Kings at Lammas.

Christ has associations with Eleusis and we know what happened to Him.  Could this connection indicate that Christ was pointing out his similarity to Persephone? Wasn’t His purpose to end such rites of sacrifice? Wasn’t he meant to be the Last Sacrifice that would render all future sacrifices unnecessary? He died so we could live…a scapegoat taking al our sins with Him. (Can’t see that it worked.)

The Power of Primal Consciousness

Even though we are long past belief in blood sacrifice, (or think we are, as I feel war is the blood sacrifice on a grand scale), there is a peculiar resonance in the psyche at the idea of the land and the Gods and the need for human blood. It is primal, perhaps stemming from our origins when we were intimately bound up with nature and were part of the economy of tooth and claw, both hunter and hunted. Maybe deep in our DNA, we sense this relationship to the earth is primal.

I heard a story once about a cat and a mouse. The cat brought a mouse into the house, but he had not hurt it yet — maybe just showing off. The mouse was alive , so the cat’s owner took the mouse out of the cat’s jaws and set it out in the yard. Instead of running away, the mouse came back inside the house and sat between the cat’s paws.

This weird story tells me that predator and prey have a kind of contract. I could come up with other examples of this that suggest that agricultural people, who still live close to these cycles, are aware of this contract. Perhaps long, long, long ago, our ancestors were also aware and that this dark time of year, this slide into winter when things must be given up for future life, is why we like such good scare. It is better to control your fear through a bit of Mystery play, than to acknowledge that you must survive the time of darkness and its Harvest of Souls.

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