Sacrifices then and now

In the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk archaeologists have found a tablet dating from the 3rd century BCE, listing the food to be given to the gods at the temple there. These gods were wooden statues. Unlike Egyptian statues which were made of stone, Mesopotamian temple gods were wooden. They needed to be; they liked holidays so they sometimes needed to be transported from place to place.

Apart from the question of how anybody could believe these wooden statues ate anything at all, their appetite was astonishing. The elements were drinks, grain, fruit and meat. At the most there would have been 12 gods in the temple at Uruk. Leaving aside the other elements, the daily allowance of meat was

21 top-grade sheep, fattened and without flaw, fed on barley for two years; 4 specially raised sheep, fed on milk; 25 second-grade sheep, not fed on milk; 2 large steers; 1 milk-fed calf; 8 lambs; 30 marratu birds (a wild bird, we don’t know what it was); 20 turtle-doves; 3 mash-fed geese; 5 ducks fed on flour mash; 2 second-grade ducks; 4 dormice; 3 ostrich eggs and 3 duck eggs.

How can this quantity be explained?

What actually happened will have been that a priest placed the food in front of the wooden statue and then departed. After the meal-time someone will have removed the ‘leftovers’. The priests ate what they wanted and sold the rest. Since the priests were the experts in knowing what the gods demanded, it is easy to imagine that the god’s requirements, as described by the priests, will have increased over the centuries. By the third centure BCE Uruk was thousands of years old.

We can imagine what this must have meant to the ordinary peasant farmer. You struggle to eke out a living and put food on the table for your family; but however poor and hungry you are, you have to take your best animals to the temple for sacrifice. It would be better for your children to starve to death than for all life on earth to end because the gods were dissatisfied with the sacrifices. How many animals needed to be taken? The priests were the experts on that.

How could the people have been so stupid as to believe such nonsense?

On the other hand, are we any different today? The words have changed, the theories have changed, but what remains the same is exploitation justified by technical expertise.

Then, people felt threatened by the anger of the gods. However dire the conditions of the peasant farmers, the gods needed to be propitiated. The people who knew how to propitiate them were the priests. By inflating the gods’ demands the priests made themselves rich.

People today still believe in superhuman forces which have to be obeyed whatever the cost. We no longer call them gods; we call them ‘the economy’, or ‘market forces’, but they perform the same function. They too threaten chaos unless we do what we are told by the experts with their technical knowledge. It is no accident that public discourse today is so full of talk about making sacrifices to avoid economic chaos. Again, the sacrifices are made by the common people; the experts, who know how to manipulate the superhuman powers controlling us, do very well for themselves. Maybe human nature hasn’t changed that much.

Behind these similarities lies a common assumption: that the forces governing the world are not sympathetic to human well-being. This assumption has of course been disputed by most of the world’s religions. They are right to dispute it.

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