SERIOUSLY THOUGH, WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE “HUMAN SACRIFICE” OBSESSION?
Following up on last week’s discussion, why DO so many people obsess over the idea of Satanic “human sacrifice” rites that, as a matter of fact, do not exist?
This is the single outstanding trope that the average person most commonly associates with Satanism, neck and neck with sinister black hooded robes and a complete lack of self-awareness.
(That last one is, conditionally, a fair rap. But if we started naming names we’d be here all day.)
In reality, barely a handful of real violent crimes have ever been executed by actual Satanists, and even fewer with any religious motivation.
So where does this idea come from? And maybe more importantly, why don’t we spend more time talking about just how weird it really is?
Like a true/false test about relativism, this is not a question that has any one particular right answer.
For example, in his seminally uncomfortable history of antisemitism The Devil & the Jews, Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg suggested that because Hebrew holy scriptures prescribe animal sacrifice, historical antisemites assumed that modern Jews continue blood sacrifice rites.
From there it is perhaps inevitable that public hysteria would parlay this into assumptions of human sacrificial rites as well–because once you’ve departed from reality anyway, why start auditing yourself now?
And as we’ve discussed before, there is almost no anti-Jewish or anti-Satanist conspiracy that is not essentially interchangeable on some level, a fact that will continue to go unexamined by society at large until the zeitgeist itself expires of old age.
More recently though, I was struck by the suggestion of religious historian and entree David Frankfurter in his book Evil Incarnate. You’ll notice this is the third week in a row I’m referencing this book, which tells you both that I liked it and am finally finished with it.
“Panicked belief in a society devoted to child sacrifice and perversions […] has long inflamed communities,” Frankfurter writes, tracing obsessive conspiratorial belief in evils like ritual murder back to the ancient world in examples like Roman cultural xenophobia.
“On the periphery of Roman culture lay cultures [supposedly] prone to cannibalism and human sacrifice,” and so “Roman culture became increasingly fearful of monstrous rituals.”
Perhaps some of these rumors had basis in historical reality–we do have archaeological evidence of blood sacrifice rites in a variety of cultures, including Rome itself incidentally–or maybe it was just convenient slander to justify Rome doing its Rome thing and interpreting borders as suggestions from a vanished past.
Either way, such tales cultivated the “the most basic belief that the people ‘over there’ are devil-worshipers or dangerous sorcerers.”
It’s not enough to perpetuate the belief that cultural outsiders commit violence but specifically that they do so in a ritual setting, so as to frame “horrific acts as essential” to that culture.
Or, as a friend once put it on Twitter, “It’s weird how the outgroup is full of witches.”
Evil rites of foreigners are one thing, but you can’t expect fears abroad to stay abroad. “When rituals are imagined to take place on the periphery, they are a source of horror and allure,” Frankfurter writes, but “when they creep inside, carried by immigrants, they pose a threat–even a conspiracy.” There’s that word again.
In his own book Europe’s Inner Demons, British historian Norman Cohn wrote of the creeping late BCE Roman paranoia about “Bacchanals,” which were basically just orgies but not, you know, the good kind of Roman orgy. Instead these were, well, foreign, and thus untrustworthy:
“Originally, we are told, the Bacchanalia were celebrated by a small association of women in broad daylight. But imported from Greece to Etruria and thence to Rome, the cult grew and changed until it involved large-scale nocturnal orgies” that included incestuous couplings and, yes, human sacrifice.
“Daily the evil grows,” the ancient Roman historian Livy wrote, warning that “its objective is the control of the state” and fretting that these ne’er-do-wells who go around having orgies with their family in the middle of the night like scoundrels instead of with their slaves in the afternoon like respectable people were doubtless plotting to kill us all at our estates and farms, one by one.
All because of the damn Greeks.
This trope of the perverted foreign cannibal religion persisted across Europe for centuries and well into the colonial age, and myths of “foreign savages” and their evil rites help fuel colonial enterprise even to this day.
Now of course we can all think of specific Satanic Panic-style allegations that do not appear to be racially or nationalistically motivated–there are lots of ways to Otherize people. But the larger rumor-panic milieu often contains traces of these fears.
Dennis Wheatley’s “black magic” thrillers alleged that Satanism spread from “the east.” By which he meant Russia, but really you could swap in almost any “eastern” destination for this value and get pretty much the same story.
In Michelle Remembers (lest we forget…), Lawrence Pazder imagined that Satan cults resembled African “witchcraft” he for some reason believes he encountered in Nigeria. Other Satanic Panic writers smeared practices like Voodoo, Santeria, or Palo Mayombe as “witchcraft” and devil worship.
More railed against vaguely “New Age” or “occult” beliefs as derivative of “eastern” religions like Buddhism and Hinduism or of indigenous religions; as pop culture critic George Case wrote in his book Here’s To My Sweet Satan, “yoga studios, health food stores, and occult shops […] all seemed to belong to the same broad, nebulous field of the unknown.”
Even when the imagined devil worshipers are fiendishly disguised as classic everyday white people, they’re framed as the inheritors of sinister foreign traditions–presumably communicated via immigration and miscegenation.
This indeed is the primary danger of imaginary Satanic rites–they migrate the dangers of the “over there” society into a previously safe domestic environment, via the accessible routes of our own homegrown subversives and degenerates.
So why the “human sacrifice” schtick? Sometimes it’s racism, sometimes nationalism, sometimes xenophobia or a much broader, less defined cultural paranoia; sometimes it’s an old prejudice in a new coat of paint, or it’s just a failure of imagination.
But most often, it’s a way of cementing what people already want to believe anyway: That their perceived enemies are not only antagonistic and not even just merely evil, but, as Cohn puts it, “absolutely anti-human.”
And thus, conveniently, all of our measures against them are not only justifiable but if anything too lenient, and all of your prejudices were exactly correct all along. Lucky break, that.