Human Sacrifice and the Deficient Magical
“It is common to both the Renaissance and our own era that the most terrible exterminations take place: then those of the Inquisition, now those of which the dictatorships were, and are, guilty. The gas ovens of ‘The Twelve Year Reich’ (perhaps only a harbinger of what is to come) are the stake of the Inquisition with the horror quantified into larger dimensions, befitting the general and progressing quantification of our day. (Most likely it was the ‘same’ people then as now who were guilty.)” — Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin (p. 158 n 23).
It’s a worrisome thought, really, that the fuller meaning of “chaotic transition” (or “havoc”) might also entail human sacrifice on a mass scale, and something which, in Gebser’s assessment, might make Holocaust and Inquisition look like child’s play — and one might add to that, The French Terror, the Red Terror, and the Black Terror. For it appears from some of Gebser’s remarks that his anticipated “global catastrophe” involves some resumption of the deficient magical, and human sacrifice is one of the chief symptoms of the deficient magical.
Recently published research on human sacrifice (reported in Nature and summarised in Quartz) is timely, in that respect. The Quartz article asks “Was a modern, unjust society built on the bones of human sacrifice?” The researchers found a strong correlation between human sacrifice and high social stratification (inequality) suggesting human sacrifice was a means of social control.
That conclusion, though, rests on an assumption of calculating rationality, a coldly designed ritual affirmation and justification of social hierarchy and inequality — that human sacrifice had a (more or less conscious) rationale. Gebser, on the other hand, seems to hold that it is a manifestation of the decayed or deficient “magical” structure of consciousness, and one associated with Angst (anxiety) and in “a maelstrom of blind anxiety”.
All higher civilisation, Nietzsche insisted, was erected upon a crime. That’s what the title of the Quartz article suggests, too — modern society was erected upon the “bones of human sacrifice”. But it’s ambiguous, as periods of intensified human sacrifice, in the name of some supernatural power or higher destiny, seem to mark both an ending and a beginning. In Nigeria, reputedly, it is customary for the opening of a new road to be inaugurated by a blood sacrifice, usually a chicken. Crossroads (because of their connection with the meaning of “crisis” or “crucis”) were frequently places of sacrifice, where convicts were executed, or witchcraft was presumed to be practiced. Crossroads are places of anxiety, because they represent change, and this becomes particularly poignant when we speak of “the crisis of the modern age” or, as Mr. Fukuyama did, America at the Crossroads and Our Posthuman Future. And large scale inequality also constitutes a social crisis — a parting of the ways.
Human sacrifice, a “maestrom of blind anxiety”, social crisis, and the return of the deficient magical all seem strongly correlated with a sense of a “parting of the ways” — thus with the meaning of “chaotic transition”, too. The evidence strongly suggests that — and it’s worrisome in that respect, although one must take care not to be drawn into the vortex of this maelstrom oneself, or what Gebser calls “the demonic”.
Human sacrifice had become a veritable orgy in the waning days of the Aztec Empire as they, by magical means, attempted to stave off the prophesied “end of the world” which finally came for them in the form of Cortes. Witchhunt and Inquisition marked the waning days of Christendom and the Late Middle Ages. Then, as now, problems in the functioning of society were attributed to the malevolent influence of some supernatural agency — witchcraft in their time. The document called Malleus Maleficarum (or “Hammer of the Witches“) purported to provide ample (and rational) evidence that the problems of social order were the result of widespread witchcraft, leading to torture, Inquisition, and the stake. German Angst (and not just German Angst) after the World War and the events of the interwar years rationalised all the problems of the functioning of German society as the malevolent influence of der Ewige Jude, the “eternal Jew” and in “international Jewry”, and claimed to find just as much “evidence” for that as the Inquisitors did in the Malleus Maleficarum for a coordinated conspiracy of witches against Christendom, necessarily calling for social purification by fire.
The French Terror (amongst other and more recent colours of terrorism) was also an irruption of human sacrifice and again corresponded to a social crisis of the ancien regime. The “Old Adam” had to be liquidated so that the “New Adam” could have a future, and this human sacrifice was also performed in the name of a supernatural agency — “the goddess of Reason” (but, as we know, there is a very close affinity between Athena and the Gorgon, or Minerva and Medusa, or Dionysus and Hades). And although The Terror was justified in the name of “Reason”, the Terror itself exceeded by far the bounds of the reasonable, and owed more to magical thinking and “the maelstrom of blind anxiety” that always attends civilisations in crisis and at a crossroads. And behind all forms of human sacrifice or blood sacrifice and the scapegoat lies the “deficient magical” itself.
The scapegoat, as you probably know, is an ancient custom of sacrifice. The community laid its hands upon a goat, transferring its sins onto the poor creature, and then killed it or drove it out into the desert to die. The cruel custom is reputedly still practiced in parts of Spain, where instead of a goat, a donkey is selected, and the community’s sins are laid upon the poor donkey whereafter it is beaten to death with sticks. This is the deficient magical, for had they understanding at all, they would know that Jesus had offered himself up as the sacrificial scapegoat — the “Lamb” — to “bear away the sins of the world” himself, so that human beings no longer had to practice human or animal sacrifice as rituals of “atonement” or expiation. The poor beast is made to bear the burden, and pay the price, for what is only human self-loathing and self-contempt in the form of guilt. None of that is necessary. It belongs to the meaning of “paganism”
The return of the deficient magical with the breakdown of the perspectivist or mental-rational consciousness structure, and its return in the form of ritual blood sacrifice or dismemberment, is the thing that Gebser dreaded most about the “chaotic transition”, but which also seems to be implicated in his enigmatic notion of “the law of the earth”. The law of the earth might be called “the revenge of Gaia”, but which has some association with the cult of the Terrible Mother, the dark shadow side of the “Goddess”. This is Kali the Devourer, whose cult of Thugees (ritual murderers and assassins) is where we get our word “thug”. Kali represents, in some degree, the deficient side of the magical. Some think there is no relation between the present Kali Yuga (or “Dark Age”) and Kali Ma, the “Dark Mother“, but I think they are quite wrong, as the name of both comes from the same root meaning not only “dark” but also “time”. Gebser spends quite a few pages of print discussing the root meaning of the word *kel in respect of its subsequent derivations of “cave” or “cavern” (darkness) or time, and refers to Kali only in passing, which is strange, because the ego’s fear of being dismembered, swallowed and devoured by the darkness of the so-called “unconscious” is the meaning of Kali the Devourer. And magic, in its effective phase, was the budding human ego’s original line of defence against being devoured by time and the Darkness. Hence the association of both magic and rationality with power and empowerment. The fear of being devoured by “Kali” into Non-Being is the very reason for “the maelstrom of blind anxiety”. Kali appears to be the emanation called “Vala” in Blake’s mythology — the wandering earth spirit called “the Shadowy Female”. As Kali is the consort of Shiva, Vala is the consort of the Zoa named Luvah.
One must understand this about the Kali Yuga. It represents the lowest point or nadir of humankind’s spiritual existence, exemplifed by the quantification of time. This total quantification represents the “Fall of Man” — a fall from what is called “eternity” (or ever-present origin) into time, and from infinity into finiteness. It is in this sense that Gebser speaks of “progression” as also “distantiation” — the Prodigal Son who grows progressively more distant and remote from origin. Yeats’ “widening gyre” of his poem The Second Coming is the Yuga cycle. The Falconer is what Gebser calls “the human Itself” — the core or nucleus of the human form, and it is identical with “origin” or “ever-present origin”, while the Falcon is the human ego consciousness, which, in its “widening gyre” — the path of the Yugas — threatens the whole with disintegration by losing connection with the Falconer or the “Itself”. The Falconer and the Falcon correspond to McGilchrist’s “Master” and “Emissary” in his book on neurodynamics and the divided brain called The Master and his Emissary.
It is the “widening gyre”, corresponding to the loss of the “vital centre” or nucleus, that is the “maelstrom of blind anxiety”. You don’t want to be on the circumference of the cycle or circle. You want to be at the centre — the “still centre of the turning world” and known as the Tree at the centre of the Garden of Eden. The circumference is the maelstrom. The ego nature is all circumference, and that’s the cause of its anxieties.
Much more could be said about the Yugas (and the Kali Yuga) in relation to the “Four Ages of Man” as known to the Greeks — golden, silver, bronze, and iron — and how these pertain to the “Fall of Man” but also to the meaning of Blake’s “four Zoas” of the disintegrate human form. But, basically stated, the “Fall of Man” is really only about the Fall into Time and into the forgetfulness and sleep of time.