Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


22.2.1  Religious Rites

So far we have discussed only secular or nonreligious rites. It is clear that governments, organizations and bureaucracies of every functional and ideological stripe can engage in what anthropologists call "enculturation" -- a promotion of social cohesion by means of shared experience and ritual performance. Xenologists expect that any extraterrestrial organization or community populated by creatures with human-analogous mentalities will find the ritualization technique an extremely useful cultural tool.. Since we have earlier concluded that religion may be common but not universal among alien races, it should come as no surprise that xenologists also believe that religious-oriented rites will play an important role in many ET societies.

Of course, these things are notoriously easy to misinterpret. Xenological field workers must be meticulous in their observations or they may arrive at wholly erroneous conclusions. As in anthropology, there is great danger in using one’s own culture to interpret an alien one. Care must be taken to correctly analyze the function of specific rites. Imagine a naive alien xenologist from a highly religious culture who attempts to examine certain rites on some arbitrary foreign planet. After observing the doings in a large, open-air cathedral there, the ET researcher quickly files the following report to Galactic Central:

A large congregation gathered together to witness a ritual combat, conducted according to precise ritualistic rules. The participants are dressed in appropriate identifiable garb, or costumes, as they engage in their ritual combat -- one side representing evil and the other good, depending upon the viewpoint of the members of the audience. Leading the congregation are priestesses dressed in appropriate garb, participating in ritualistic dances and chanting various formulas that are supposedly efficacious. Operating on the principle of sympathetic magic, the priestesses attempt to transfer the enthusiasm of the crowd to the appropriate combatants.801

The alien, of course, has really been observing a Saturday afternoon football game in an American stadium, not a communal supplication to some unseen supernatural deity.* But would hasty observation reveal the distinction?

The tool of ritual may take many shapes in alien cultures. As suggested earlier by Wallace’s list of religious behaviors, ritual behavior designed to promote social cohesion may take the form of prayer, communal dancing or singing, sacred feasts, taboos, physical contact with amulets or holy water, drug-induced dream states, and so on. Extraterrestrial religious cultures may exemplify all these and more. But perhaps most fascinating from the xenological viewpoint are those extreme human religious practices which involve murder and sexual activity. Such extremes may appear normal to other sentient races inhabiting other worlds.

Murder and human sacrifice have appeared in literally hundreds of human cultures on Earth. The ancient Carthaginians sacrificed many of their youth to the god Moloch. The children were laid on the hands of a calf-headed image of bronze, from which they slid into a fiery oven, while the people danced to the music of flutes to drown out the terrible shrieks of the burning victims. In India, the old Khond sacrifice of the Meriah involved a human subject held in captivity for long periods prior to the rite. After several days of devotional rituals and sanctification, the victim was put to death by strangulation or pressure. The body was then dismembered and the pieces strewn among the fields, except for the portion offered to the earth goddess which was buried. The Pawnees of North America also had an elaborate religious ritual in which human beings were sacrificed to the Morning Star. The blood of the victims was sprinkled over the fields to ensure and enhance crop growth.

People have been murdered, often in quite gruesome fashion, to appease various gods and spirits. In ancient Siam it was the custom to immure a living person into a wall, or crush him under the foundation stone of a new building, in order to give strength and durability to the structure. It was believed that the death created an angry ghost who would haunt the place and guard it against the intrusion of enemies. According to the famous British anthropologist Sir James George Frazer: When a new gate was made or an old gate was repaired in the walls of Bankok, it used to be customary to crush three men to death under an enormous beam in a pit at the gateway. Before they were led to their doom, they were regaled at a splendid banquet: The whole court came to salute them; and the king himself charged them to guard well the gate that was to be committed to their care, and to warn him if enemies or rebels came to assault the city. The next moment the ropes were cut and the beam descended on them.804 In Bima, a district of the East Indian island of Sambawa, when a new flagpole was erected at the sultan’s palace a woman was crushed to death under it. The woman must be pregnant at the time, since the ghost of such a female should be more fierce and vigilant than usual. Also, when the great wooden doors were set up at the palace, it was customary to bury a child under each of the door posts:

Officers are sent to scour the country for a pregnant woman or little children, as the case may be, and if they come back empty-handed they must give up their own wives or children to serve as victims. When the gates are set up, the children are killed, their bodies stripped of flesh, and their bones laid in the holes in which the door posts are erected. Then the flesh is boiled with horse’s flesh and served up to the officers. Any officer who refuses to eat of it is at once cut down. The intention of this last practice is perhaps to secure the fidelity of the officers by compelling them to enter into a covenant of the most solemn and binding nature with the ghosts of the murdered children who are to guard the gates.804

In the old kingdom of Ashanti in Ghana, several persons used to be put to death following an earthquake. They were slain as a sacrifice to Sasabonsun, the earthquake god, in the hope of satiating his cruelty for a time. Houses thrown down by temblers were sprinkled with human blood before being rebuilt. When part of the king’s own dwelling in Kumasi was knocked down, no less than 50 young girls were slaughtered to appease Sasabonsun. (The mud to be used in the repairs was kneaded with their blood.) On the island of Siau of the Sangihe Island group off the north east coast of Celebes, Indonesia, the volcano god received similar homage:

A child stolen from a neighboring island used to be sacrificed every year to the spirit of a volcano in order that there might be no eruption. The victim was slowly tortured to death in the temple by a priestess, who cut off the child’s ears, nose, fingers, and so on, then consummated the sacrifice by splitting open the breast. The spectacle was witnessed by hundreds of people, and feasting and cock-fighting went on for nine days afterwards.804

The ultimate in ritual human sacrifice, which might conceivably also be found in an extraterrestrial culture, was found among the so-called "cannibal kingdoms." Not only were people sacrificed to appease the gods, but they were systematically eaten as well. The primary motivation for this behavior appears to be religious and social -- such as a desire to achieve or maintain status in society.3010 We have already mentioned the Bima custom of eating the flesh of children to promote group solidarity among the ruling class. Another example of community unity via cannibalism was found among the Tupinamba of Brazil. According to an eyewitness account by a shipwrecked sailor in the early 1950’s, the Tupinamba combined ritual sacrifice (of prisoners of war) with cannibalism:

On the day of the sacrifice the prisoner-of-war, trussed around the waist, was dragged into the plaza. Old women painted black and red and wearing necklaces of human teeth brought out ornamented vases in which the victim’s blood and entrails would be cooked. The ceremonial club that would be used to kill him was passed back and forth among the men in order to "acquire the power to catch a prisoner in the future." The actual executioner wore a long feather cloak and was followed by relatives beating drums. The executioner and the prisoner derided each other. Enough liberty was allowed the prisoner so that he could dodge the blows, and sometimes a club was put in his hands for protecting himself without being able to strike back. When at last his skull was shattered, everyone "shouted and whistled." If the prisoner had been given a wife during his period of captivity, she was expected to shed tears over his body before joining in the feast that followed. Now the old women "rushed to drink the warm blood," and children dipped their hands into it. "Mothers would smear their nipples with blood so that even babies could have a taste of it." The body was cut into quarters and barbecued while "the old women who were the most eager for human flesh" licked the grease dripping from the sticks that formed the grill.2896

What we have here is a major community event! Menfolk and womenfolk, married and unmarried, soldiers and civilians, young and old, all join together in the joyous festivities. Babies early learn the taste of human blood and their socialization begins with the experience. Adults, by focusing their attention upon a single ritual victim, achieve group solidarity by communal feasting. Elders, by partaking of the flesh of the victim, lend continuity and the approval of tradition to the event.

Our last exemplar of religious ritual murder is taken from the Aztec culture, which existed in what is today central Mexico during the 12-16th centuries A.D. Unlike most other cannibal societies, the Aztecs went in for human meat in a really big way. The first Spanish visitors to Tenochtitlán observed racks containing literally hundreds of thousands of skulls down in the temple cellars. Later they were told that at the dedication of the great pyramid at the Aztec capitol, four lines of prisoners stretching two miles long each were sacrificed by a team of executioners working around the clock for four solid days. (That works out to about 14,000 victims.) Writes anthropologist Marvin Harris: Aztec cannibalism was not a perfunctory tasting of ceremonial tidbits. All edible parts were used in a manner strictly comparable to the consumption of the flesh of domesticated animals. The Aztec priests can legitimately be described as ritual slaughterers in a state-sponsored system geared to the production and redistribution of substantial amounts of animal protein in the form of human flesh.2896 Each prisoner had an owner, who kept him plump prior to slaughter on a heavy diet of tortillas. The victim was tended by the owner’s family, delivered by them to the executioner for public dispatch on behalf of the bloodthirsty sun god, and was finally eaten by the family after slaughter. (The favorite Aztec recipe, apparently, was a stew flavored with peppers and tomatoes.) Again we have a community event providing a focus on unity.**

Another extreme form of human religious practice which may have some xenological significance involves promiscuous sexual behavior. Much like ritual public murder, ritual community sex has proven a very useful means of achieving cultural cohesion. In some societies, public sex is somewhat limited and informal. Consider for instance the tradition of the Marquise Islanders, among whom marriage and sexual activity were culturally separate:

Before marriage, girls could enjoy sex with many men. But after marriage they had to confine their sexual activities to their husbands. On the day of the wedding, the bride gave a sexual farewell party to her old friends: She lay down, and her old friends lined up for their last intercourse with her. The longer the line, the prouder the bridegroom.951

Fertility rites are a somewhat more formal observance. Among the Pipiles of Central America, copulation took place in the fields that the moment when the first seeds of the next planting were deposited in the earth. Men were restricted to having sex only with their wives, a religious duty in default of which it became unlawful to sow seeds. The Peruvian Indians enforced no such restraints. In December, when the alligator pears began to ripen, the people held a religious festival called Acatay mita in order to make the fruit grow mellow: The festival lasted five days and nights, and was preceded by a fast of five days during which they ate neither salt nor pepper and refrained from their wives. At the festival men and boys assembled stark naked in an open space among the orchards, and ran from there to a distant hill. Any woman whom they overtook on the way they violated.804

There are many recorded cases of formal institutionalized religious prostitution in world history.*** Most common are the various forms of temporary temple service. It was the Babylonian custom that every woman, rich or poor, once in her life must submit to the embraces of a stranger at the temple of Mylitta, and to dedicate to the goddess Ishtar (Astarte) the wages earned by this sanctified harlotry. The stranger signified his choice by throwing a silver coin into her lap -- no matter how small its value, the woman had to accept the coin and have coitus with the man. Once the rite had been performed, according to Herodotus, the female was absolved of her obligations to the goddess and need submit no more. The sacred precinct was always crowded with women waiting to observe the custom; ill-favored ones might have to wait a long time, sometimes even years, before they had performed their service.

In Phoenician temples women prostituted themselves for hire in the service of religion, believing that by this conduct they propitiated the goddess and won her favor. "It was a law of the Amorites that she who was about to marry should sit in fornication seven days by the gate."804 In Cyprus all women were obliged by custom to prostitute themselves before marriage to strangers at the sanctuary of the goddess Aphrodite. The practice was regarded, not as an orgy of lust, but as a solemn religious duty performed in the service of the great Mother Goddess.

These rites were significant in that they seem to have served as initiation ceremonies into the status of marriage. Other sexual rituals appear to have been puberty rites. For example, in Armenia the noblest families dedicated their daughters to the service of the goddess Anaitis in her temple at Acilisena. There the girls acted as prostitutes for a long time through adolescence before they were given in marriage. The practice had widespread community approval, as "nobody scrupled to take one of these girls to wife when her period of service was over."804 A similar case was reported by the traveler Strabo during the 1st century B.C., who claimed that beautiful young girls of noble birth served as the consorts or concubines of Ammon in the temple at Thebes in Egypt. They held sacred office only through puberty, before which they willingly and freely prostituted themselves to any man who took their fancy. After puberty they were given in marriage, and a ceremony of mourning was per formed for them as if they had died.804

Religious prostitution was often considered a noble calling, the ancient equivalent of modern missionary work. Among the Chinese, Syrians, and Greeks, nearly every temple had its official prostitutes with whom intercourse (for a small fee) was considered an acceptable form of worship. According to Dr. David R. Reuben:

Many of these ladies were volunteers in the sense that they only worked for a year or so, donating all the proceeds of their labors to the church. When their time was up, the part-time prostitutes returned home to their husbands and families with greatly enhanced prestige.3011

Finally, sexual experience was sometimes viewed as a religious act in and of itself. Tantric Buddhism, as practiced in India, Tibet, and briefly in China during the 8th century A.D., maintained that the symbolism of sexual union between man and woman represented an ultimate mystical realization of supreme spiritual bliss. Ritual fornication was countenanced, even encouraged, in a culture which held that the orgasm was a major religious experience.

Xenologists believe that religious rites regarded as extreme or peculiar by humans -- such as sacred cannibalism or ritual prostitution -- may be considered natural and normal by other sentient races in the Galaxy. Indeed alien rites may appear to our eyes even stranger, even more odious than those which have graced the human cultures of planet Earth.


* Or would ETs interpret our football in unfamiliar (and perhaps upsetting) sociobiological terms, as for example the suggestion by some psychologists that the game represents a socially approved male homosexual ceremony?3197

** It is interesting that elements of symbolic ritual cannibalism exist in many "modern" religions. Christians regularly, for example, consume "the blood and body of Christ" during their Sunday communion rite.

*** Religious prostitution is not of historical interest only. There are a number of contemporary examples, such as the so-called "Happy Hookers for Jesus" of the Children of God.3041


Last updated on 6 December 2008