Sacrifice the Virgin, Save the People

Woman Wearing White Backless Dress Standing On Concrete Boardwalk

When their people are in danger, good men and women will find a way to help, even if it means sacrificing themselves. According to Pliny the Elder, human sacrifice in Ancient Rome was abolished by a senatorial decree in 97 BCE, although by this time the practice had already become so rare that the decree was mostly a symbolic act. The Vedic Purushamedha (“human sacrifice”) is already a purely symbolic act in its earliest records. This was then followed by a period of embarrassment about violence in rituals of this sort as this period corresponds to the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, both of which place emphasis on ahimsa (“non-violence”). This period also corresponds to the composition of the Chandogya Upanishad (c. 8 – 6 BCE) which lists non-violence as a virtue. The Yasiitomi-ki, a diary of the fifteenth century CE, contains an old tradition called Hitobashira (“human pillar”) in which maidens were buried alive at the base or near some constructions to protect the buildings against disasters or enemy attacks. Therefore, apparently for a time, a very very long time ago, virgin sacrifice could be done for a number of widely accepted reasons – from winning a war, appeasing an angry deity, to architecture. Of course, the question of why there would be any need to sacrifice a virgin at all is a rather difficult one to answer as we are only left with traces of this practice. But, like with anything in history, we are never short of stories to help us understand the reason behind it.

File:Hyōgo chikutō hitobashira no zu LCCN2008660443.jpg
“Hyōgo chikutō hitobashira no zu” by Yoshikazu Utagawa (1852). Print shows a man presenting a city plan to the emperor at court with many ministers seated nearby.

Greek tragedy gives us a number of examples in which virgins are sacrificed – most of these virgins were of noble birth as they are often daughters of the king sacrificed to ensure victory in war. Also with remarkable frequency, their death scenes include details concerning their dresses. Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia to enable the Greek fleet to set sail from Aulis to Troy. The lines in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (lines 228-43) describes Iphigeneia as being “wrapped round in her robes”. The lines that follow discussed Iphigeneia’s saffron robe “falling to the ground.” In Euripides’ version of the story, Iphigeneia at Aulis, Iphigeneia, thinking she was on her way to her wedding, was dressed as a bride. Although Iphigeneia first begged for her life, she later went willingly to be sacrificed, reminding her distraught mother that in doing so she would save Greece. “You bore me for all the Greeks, not yourself alone”, she said – reiterating the sentiment of Praxithea that, just as boys go to war, girls get sacrificed, both for the good of the polis. This would have also explain to us the preoccupation towards the virgin’s dress. The virgin sacrifice would have been seen as somewhat of a “rite of passage” in the time of war. Where boys become men by donning their military gears and dedicating their young lives to their polis, girls became women by dressing for their sacrifice – also for their polis.

Jacques-Louis David: The Anger of Achilles
“The Anger of Achilles” by Jacques Louis David (1819)

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