"BLOOD ATONEMENT" IN 19TH-CENTURY AMERICA

The closest thing to human sacrifice among white settlers of North American, at least until the present century, is found in the peculiar "blood atonement" doctrine of the Mormons, dating from the 1850s. By the middle of that decade, "prophet" Brigham Young had sensed a slackening of discipline among his followers, sometimes reflected in their sluggishness at paying tithes or open disrespect toward edicts issued by the ruling Mormon heirarchy. Young was not a man to suffer insolence, real or imaginary, and in 1856 he announced a church purification campaign that would come to be known as the Mormon Reformation. In addition to grilling by church inquisitors on a list of twenty-six questions related to faith and obedience, Mormons were also informed of a strict new disciplinary policy, recorded for posterity in the official church chronicle, Journal of Discourses.

'There are sins that men commit for which they cannot receive forgiveness in this world or in that which is to come, and if they had their eyes open to see their true condition, they would be perfectly willing to have their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins.

I know that when you hear my brethren telling about cutting people off from the earth, that you consider it a strong doctrine, but it is to save them, not to destroy them.

I know that there are transgressors who, if they knew themselves [that this is] the only condition upon which they can obtain fogiveness, would beg of their brethren to shed their blood (Anderson, 1993).

Four months later, Young added a chilling new twist to the doctrine of blood atonement, lifting it from theory to the status of an urgent moral imperative.

All mankind love themselves, and let the [blood atonement] principles be known by an individual, and he would be glad to have his blood shed. That would be loving themselves, even unto an external exaltation. Will you love your brothers and sisters likewise, when they have committed a sin that cannot be atoned for without the shedding of their blood? Will you love that man or woman enough to shed their blood (Anderson, 1993).

Through the late 1850's, that particular "love act" was carried out with great enthusiasm in some quarters of Utah and beyond, by "Danite" murder squads and ad hoc groups who undertook to "save" their neighbors by the most extreme means possible. Nor was plain killing enough to satisfy the code; rather, an offender should have "his throat cut from ear to ear, his tongue torn out by its roots, his breast cut open and his heart and vitals torn, including the selective removal of particular oragns for ritual use, reported among the Tiv people, from 1938 through 1949. The Tiv use certain body parts for different rituals--the knee cap, genitals, a tibia, the brain--and feel that every mother owes one child to the mbatsav ("league of witches") as a living sacrifice. Bohannan(1967) cites one case of ritual headhunting which sent three practitioners to the gallows. Nor are the believers all ignorant bushmen. Oke (1989) presents first-hand evidence of a ritual called iko-awo, performed at the request of a Nigerian army officers, in which the victim was flayed alive, his gutted corpse preserved as a point of contact with the spirit realm.

In Jury 1987, the Nigerian Tribune reported the case of a man who hired a ju-ju priest to sacrifice his own 13-year-old nephew. The boy was decapitated, his body dumped in a canal, while his head reposed in a box at the uncle's home. The relic was later introduced as evidence in court, with the uncle and his parents--the victim's grandparents- convicted of murder. In May 1989, the African Guardian, published in Lagos, Nigeria, declared that native shamans were using human blood, plus the breasts and pubic hairs of murdered women, to produce magic charms. A short time later, Nigerian essayist Wilson Asekombe wrote that "human sacrifice will soon become the number two cause of accidental death in West Africa, second only to traffic accidents" (Oke, 1989).

Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) has been another site of continuing ritual murders. Back in 1922, elders of the Mtwara tribe sacrificed their own chief's son to the rain goddess, believing that he had seduced a virgin scheduled to portray the goddess in a yearly celebration, thereby bringing on a brutal drought. Six tribesmen were convicted of murder and sentenced to death in that case, but their sentences were later commuted. Half a century later, Dr. John Thompson, heading Rhodesia's forensic service from 1963-77, described the case of a herdsman who butchered sacrificial victims and sold their "magic" organs to witch doctors. His downfall, leading to another death sentence, occurred when he supplied his foreman with a package of spare "beef," which happened to include two fingers and a human ear (Gaute and Odell, 1986).

Basutoland (now Lesotho) witnessed a series of 130 ritual murders between 1940 and 1958, related to procurement of human tissue--called diretlo--for magical purposes. Prior to imposition of British colonial rule in 1868, the samples had been lifted from rivals killed in war; without that ready source of victims, tribal shamans turned upon their own, removing flesh and organs from live victims who either died in the process or were murdered afterward to guarantee their silence (Gaute and Odell, 1986).

Two hundred miles to the northeast, in tiny Swaziland, eight persons were hanged in July 1981, as authorities sought to curb a new outbreak of "medicine" murders, condemned by the nation's prime minister as a "totally disgraceful and barbaric practice." Even militant South Africa has its problems with human sacrifice, were collectors of muti(a synonym for diretlo) remains sporadically active to the present day. A series of nineteen ritual murders, committed in the "independent homeland" of Venda between 1982 and 1984, sent twelve practitioners to death row, including a deputy cabinet minister and his son (Gaute and Odell, 1986).

Excerpt from essay published in the Journal of Psychohistory 24 (2) Fall 1996, by Michael Newton.




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