[T]he strongest on earth will be the most influential in the spirit world, and…the ghost of a slaughtered enemy must serve the ghost of him who has taken the head – A. J. N. Tremearne, The Tailed Head-Hunters of Nigeria, 1912.
If you are lucky, you have a significant degree of choice in determining your place in the world. More fortunate still, perhaps, to be able to attain a position of status in the world that follows. Yet many domains of power are zero-sum, and can only be obtained at considerable cost to others. Thus, there is a calculus to be made by those whose status is contingent on force, where the acquisition and maintenance of power in the afterlife requires the control and physical destruction of people in this one.
Anthropologist Edward Tylor writes that during the funerals of great men among the Kayan people of Borneo, “Slaves are killed in order that they may follow the deceased and attend upon him.” Similar beliefs and practices are well documented in the ethnographic record. Anthropologist William MacLeod discusses the reasons for killing slaves across Pacific Northwest Coast societies, writing that, “In the Americas, generally, slaves were slain at times in order that their souls might render service in the spiritual world to those of the dear departed.” Putting it more directly later, MacLeod adds that, “Ordinarily slaves were killed merely that the deceased might have slave labor to wait on him in the other world,” and provides explicit descriptions of many of the methods used for killing slaves;
In the Puget Sound area and below on the Columbia river slaves were sometimes starved to death; sometimes tied to the corpse and left thus to starve—in which case if the slave as not dead within three days he was ordered strangled to death by another slave. On the Columbia also a slave's arms might be tied behind him and another slave ordered to stab the victim. Sometimes slave mortuary victims were merely thrown into the river and drowned. Among the Chinook and the Makah the slain slave was sometimes interred. Among the Shuswap and the Thompsons of the plateau it seems that slaves were usually buried alive under the corpse. With the northern Tlingit a slave might be cremated along with the corpse of his master.
We have one vivid description of an actual Chinook funeral with mortuary immolations. A chief's twenty-year old daughter had died. The corpse was wrapped in a mat and placed in a canoe-coffin. The father of the dead girl ordered a slave bound hand and foot and tied to the corpse; then both bodies, living and dead, were enfolded in a second mat, the slave's head being allowed to protrude in order that he might be able to breathe. It was then ordered that if within three days the slave as still alive in the coffin that another slave should strangle him, using a cord for the strangling.
Sociologist Maurice R. Davie notes how the pursuit of obtaining slaves to command in the afterworld is a fairly common motive for war across societies, writing in the The Evolution of War (1929) that, “Religion…conduces to warlike prowess among primitive peoples by assuring them that all whom they kill in this world will serve them as slaves in the next.” Similarly, the 10th century Islamic scholar Ibn Fadlan described the funeral practices of Oghuz Turk warriors, writing that, “If he has killed a man and been a warrior of note, they make as many wooden statues as he killed men and set them up on his tomb, saying: ‘These are his attendants and they will serve him in Paradise.’”
The belief that the hated enemies you kill wait at your command in the afterworld offers a powerful incentive to engage in violence. As I also discussed in a previous post on headhunting,
The reputational effect of being a successful headhunter is often connected to religious notions of warriors capturing the souls of defeated enemies by extracting their heads. Davie notes that, “Another religious motive leading to head-hunting is the belief that the slain become slaves to the victor in the next world. This notion is an incentive to warlike prowess among the Nigerian head-hunters.”
In some cases, these captured souls provide the warrior with protection or spiritual power. For example, among the Jivaro of Peru, anthropologist Michael Harner wrote that, “A man who has killed repeatedly, called kakuram or “powerful one,” is rarely attacked because his enemies feel that the protection provided him by his constantly replaced souls would make any assassination attempt against him fruitless.”
Killing can be used strategically, not only to obtain servants in the afterworld but to capture the identities of powerful or influential figures in this world. Anthropologist Franz Boas writes of the Kwakiutl fisher-foragers of the Pacific Northwest Coast that, “Names and all the privileges connected with them may be obtained, also, by killing the owner of the name, either in war or by murder. The slayer has then the right to put his own successor in the place of his killed enemy. In this manner names and customs have often spread from tribe to tribe.” Among the Asmat foragers of New Guinea, when a young man is initiated into the men’s cult, he assumes the name of a killed enemy from a rival community after being smeared with the “ash of the burnt hair and with the blood of the victim.”
A Walonga native of the Mongala district [Congo, Africa] wore suspended from a thong three heads, carved in wood, in memory of his three murdered brothers. This pendant was to keep him constantly in mind that he had still to avenge his brothers' death. Such is the custom in the Walonga village. Each of such wooden heads demands an expiation, the death of a man belonging to the tribe that killed his relatives. When the victim is slain, a great feast is held in the Walonga village. The murdered man is eaten, and his wooden head burnt.
Even where human sacrifice is presented as something of a privilege for the victim, the demographics of those killed often tells a different story. Archaeologist Bruce Trigger writes that, “While, especially in Mesoamerica, human sacrifice was represented as an honour for the victim, upper-class adults rarely if ever freely volunteered themselves. Human victims were mostly prisoners of war, criminals, strangers, and children.”
Archaeologist Laerke Recht writes that, “The Royal Tombs at Ur [in Mesopotamia] present some of the earliest secure evidence of human sacrifice,” and notes that “The deposition of offerings in conjunction with the construction of buildings is a well-known practice in the ancient Near East.” Recht describes some of the archaeological evidence,
From early periods [~5000BC] at the sites of Nuzi and Tepe Gawra [in Mesopotamia], children were placed under floors and in association with walls, suggesting that they could also qualify as building deposits. For example, infants were found in walls, below floors, and in a doorway at Nuzi; in a later phase, 11 infants had been placed under the wall in the corner of a room, with a vessel inverted over the remains.”
Notably, MacLeod also describes the sacrifice of slaves in conjunction with the construction of building new houses among some Pacific Northwest Coast societies.
Recht discusses examples of retainer sacrifice—“human sacrificial victims, killed at the funeral of their master,”—at Ur, writing that,
The largest number of retainers comes from the aptly named ‘Great Death Pit’, PG 1237 (Woolley 1934: 113 – 124). The main tomb of this pit was not identified. The individuals in the pit were all adults, six male and 68 female (Figure 4). The six men were all in a row against the northeastern wall and five were associated with an axe or knife. Below them, four women were associated with four lyres. The remaining part of the southwestern end of the pit contained the rest of the women in mostly neat rows, each in fine dress, with silver or gold hair decorations and jewellery. Some of the body parts were overlapping, proving that their deposition was simultaneous.
Recht also refers to a broader cross-cultural pattern of human sacrifice across early states, writing that,
The most common type of sacrifice is that of mortuary and retainer sacrifices. Found in Mesoamerica, China, Egypt, and the Near East, it is characterised by relatively large numbers of victims, an incredible wealth of goods, and larger sized tombs. The entire assemblages are such that they and ritual enactments at or near the tomb. Generally speaking, retainer sacrifice appears to be an elite, if not entirely royal prerogative.
Kings and their allies who built ladders of bodies to climb to their place amongst the Gods. Costly displays of power demonstrating the strength of the lineage and the state in this world, enacted in part so the great kings will have servants at their command in the next. This is a form of power that cannot grow from mutually beneficial cooperation, it can only be seized by force. Taken from the miserable victims, whose role in this world and the next is restricted to the unceasing bondage of tyrants, forever.