Sacrifice, Scapegoating, and Love

An offering made as a sacrifice to the gods - of plants not of people

Restoring Harmony through Human Sacrifice

With the start of the harvest, and before the rains began to fall, the ancient Aztecs ended their celebration of Ochpaniztli with a human sacrifice. The name “Ochpanaiztli” means “sweeping the way,” which may have been, as a Wikipedia article suggests, a reference to the winds that swept across the valley as winter drew near. [1]

The holiday was celebrated to honor the goddess Tlazolteotl. A complex deity, she demanded sexual purity while, at the same time, inciting people to adultery and prostitution, both considered immoral to the Aztecs. Indeed, they would punish offenders by beating them to death or crushing their skull. To avoid this fate, a person could admit her sins to Tlazolteotl and be forgiven. According to the anthropologist, Catherine Di Cesare, the festival of Ochpaniztli offered a time to do that. As one might say, one could sweep one’s sins away. It was perhaps ironic that the the goddess who inspired lust would also receive one’s confession. [2]

But the festival was not just for the individual. The community benefited, as well. As Di Cesare writes, the “curative and cleansing aspects helped to reestablish cosmic and communal harmony.” [3] Maintaining or restoring harmony was an important part of many sacrificial rites and rituals.

Reasons to Sacrifice

But the Aztecs were not alone in their willingness to take human life for ritual purposes. The Incas did this also, as did the Baganda people of East Africa and the Tunisians. Until 1833, so did the Pawnee of North America who would kill a young woman once a year as part of their Morning Star ceremony. [4] Although some killings were about human wealth and power, often sacrifices died to satisfy the gods’ bloodlust, to guarantee victory in battle, to make crops grow, or to otherwise mollify one’s deities.

As Elizabeth Benson points out, in the Andes, the natural world was uncertain and at times violent. People sought control over the extreme weather that threatened crops, the floods that could destroy one’s home, the earthquakes, the thunder that started fires. They created ceremonies to appease the gods who ruled over these things. Thus, the Incas spilled blood through ritual battles, and they murdered other human beings in elaborate rituals. [5]

Sacrifice and the Afterlife

The South American feelings about sacrifice and being sacrificed probably had something to do with what they believed about the afterlife. The Incas, for example, believed that one’s spirit lived on forever. Thus, they not only sacrificed their enemies, but also children of their own community. To be chosen as a sacrifice was an honor. Parents were expected to be happy that their children were taken. Benson writes, “All cultures that practiced child sacrifice seem to have believed in some sort of afterlife, and the persons sacrificed were usually specially chosen for this glorification, which united them with the sacred ancestors.” [6]

The Aztecs, on the other hand, did not believe the soul continues on after death, except for warriors who died in battle. Their spirits would live on, but only for four years. They even they would dissolve into the source of life. [7] That may be why, according to Inga Clendinnen, in Aztecs: An Interpretation, no one volunteered to be an Aztec sacrifice. Their sacrifices were either war captives or slaves, and they may have been drugged to secure their cooperation. [8] Merging with the source of life might not be a terrible thing, but few of us look forward to such a fate.

Sacrifice Among the Gods

But sacrifice is not just for humans. The Viking god, Odin, sacrificed himself by giving up an eye, then hanging himself from the Yggdrasil, the tree at the center of the world. As a god, he sacrificed “himself to himself.” That means that part of him survived the ordeal in order to accept the sacrifice made by the other part, a part that died. He didn’t make this sacrifice for his people, however. Instead, he died to gain wisdom, something he’d desired for a long time. [9] The Hindu god, Purusha, gave up his life by allowing himself to be dismembered so the world could be made from his parts. [10]

Perhaps the self-sacrifice we know best is that of Jesus. This death made the Christian faith what it is. Without it, Christianity would have little purpose. Jesus became the ransom, his blood cleansing our sins, taking them away forever. Those who believe he was god sacrificing himself to god, dying to himself, then being reborn, trust that by the action of their god, they will have blessed, eternal life. The gift was freely given, and given for everyone, no matter how evil. By doing this, Jesus has healed the community now and forever.

An offering made as a sacrifice to the gods - of plants not of people


Obviously, that doesn’t mean we have stopped hurting one another. We might not kill people as part of a sacrificial ritual, but we still cause murder, and we sacrifice one another by denying medical care, food stamps, housing, decent education, clean rivers, parks to the poor, the black and brown, and those who are vulnerable in so many ways. We imprison refugees, attack homosexuals, profile black and brown individuals, and intimidate women and children. The norm in the United States is still that of the the rugged, white, male. Everyone else is sacrificed.

This sacrificing is a kind of scapegoating. Instead of confessing our sins and making atonement, we refuse to acknowledge them. All our shame, self-hatred, and insecurity gets focused on the scapegoat. By laying them on the shoulders of the unlucky and the powerless, we think we can escape our own failures. If they become animals, garbage, monsters, then we, at least, are better than they are. To maintain our sense of importance, we sacrifice others.

Perhaps we, as individuals, don’t this very often. We might be generous and compassionate in the face of poverty, mental illness, racial differences. But there will be something that offends us, someone we blame for the state of the world. Every once in a while I am startled by the violent hate I see in the faces of patients who vilify protesters or liberals, but that doesn’t mean protesters and liberals don’t hate the police or the Republicans. It is so tempting to blame our problems on someone outside our circle of love and acceptance. We seem to need scapegoats.

Protecting Evil

Black Americans have been the white person’s scapegoat for centuries. bell hooks, in her book Salvation, talks about the many ways black people have been condemned, repressed, and sacrificed. Though black men have suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of frightened and angry white folk, black women suffer even more. For example, hooks describes assumptions made about a black woman’s body and the lack of support even the black community gives to their women who are raped. She traces the attitude of blaming the victim to slavery, when it was impossible for black people to speak up. Slaves and their descendants, she writes, learned to “protect evil rather than correct it.” [11] Most of us have learned that lesson.

By scapegoating one another, we protect evil. Uncorrected, evil flourishes until our society falls apart. To survive such madness, we deaden ourselves. Some of us sacrifice other people; others are sacrificed. Most of us do a little of both.

Regardless, we tend to flee from the truth of what lies within us. We do this with our addictions, our stories of grandeur, our electronic diversions, our affairs, the judgments that whirl in our mind, anything that will keep the silence at bay.

Reclaiming Our Humanity

In the silence we dislike lies our true self, the being that is connected to all life. To sit quietly in that silence, we must become comfortable with our discomfort. We must engage with our fears until we discover the faith beneath them.

Within all of us is a faith, a trust in the person we really are. We all have the capacity to love, though we might not have been taught how to feel or express that love. If love is, to us, a foreign thing, we must start by trying to care about ourselves. Those who scapegoat others do not love themselves. They may feel entitled, but that is bravado, not love. Underneath that bravado lie unworthiness and shame. But those of us who have been scapegoated also learned unworthiness and shame. To save ourselves and reclaim our humanity, to restore our democracy and protect our planet, we must uncover the lies we have been told and realize that we are sacred beings. We were put on this planet not to hate, but to love.

Learning to Love

Sacrifice is not a terrible thing. Self-sacrifice can be noble. Jesus sacrificed himself out of love, and that’s not a bad model. But while it’s a wonderful thing to risk our lives to save others, we are not called to sacrifice. We are called to serve and to care. We are called to heal ourselves and our world.

Talking about black women, hooks says that to heal, we must experience and express all our feelings. That’s how we come to self-acceptance and self-love. “To love,” she writes, “we have to let fear go and live faith-based lives.” [12] This means we need to reinvent ourselves, dissolve our shame, ease our suffering, and discover our compassion. Then there will be no more scapegoating and sacrifice will no longer be necessary.

According to the Christian faith, Jesus made the one, last sacrifice. No god can ever again demand our deaths to satiate his lust or soothe her anger. If there is any truth in that, we ought to take advantage of our reprieve and start healing the wounds that make us turn from god and from one another. It’s time to sit in the silence, embrace our feelings, accept our true natures, experience the oneness, and learn to love ourselves, other people, and our world.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Wikipedia contributors, “Ochpaniztli,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed October 4, 2020).
  2. DiCesare, Catherine. Sweeping the Way : Divine Transformation in the Aztec Festival of Ochpaniztli, University Press of Colorado, 2009, 73.
  3. Ibid 2-3.
  4. The Pawnee would choose a captive female and, through ritual and ceremony, turn her into the representative of the Morning Star. Then the community’s warriors would shoot her with arrows, and her soul would ascend into the heavens to unite with the Evening Star. Administrator, “The Pawnee Morning Star Ceremony,” Native American Roots, November 11, 2015,, accessed 10/3/20.
  5. Benson, Elizabeth P., “Why Sacrifice?,”Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Peru : New Discoveries and Interpretations, edited by Elizabeth P. Benson, and Benson, Elizabeth P., Anita Gwynn Cook, University of Texas Press, 2001, 1-20, 14.
  6. Ibid 18.
  7. Clendinnen, Inga, The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society: Essays on Mesoamerican Society and Culture, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 183.
  8. Clendinnen, Inga, Aztecs: An Interpretation, Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1991, 98-99.
  9. McCoy, Daniel, “Odin’s Discovery of the Runes,” Norse Mythology for Smart People,, accessed 10/3/20.
  10. Wikipedia contributors, “Purusha,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed October 3, 2020).
  11. hooks, bell, Salvation: Black People and Love, New York: Perennial, 2001, 102.
  12. Ibid 112.

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Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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