THE BLOG

Harvest Rites: The Connection Between Fertility and Sacrifice

10/04/2010 12:10 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

At the harvest, one can easily imagine that the Earth Goddess has offered up Her life in the form of the fruits of the land, and that in doing so, She commits the supreme sacrifice. She expends all of Her generative energy. It is as if Mother Nature in autumn is in the midst of Her menopause, Her sacred seed spent. In grateful response, people fed Her fresh blood to replenish Her powers of procreation.

India has long practiced sacrificial obeisance to Mother Earth. As late as the 19th century, the Kandhs of Bengal sacrificed a person for the Earth Goddess, Tari Pennu, in order to ensure healthy crops and immunity from disease. Blood was especially important in the cultivation of turmeric, which needed it to develop its rich, red color. The Uraons of Chota Nagpur offered human sacrifices to Anna Kuari, who blesses the harvest. And the Lhota Naga of Brahmapootra severed the heads, hands and feet of their victims and planted them in the fields for fertilizer.

Aztec hymns tell us that Tonacacihuatl, Our Lady of Substance, was once the Goddess of the Hunt, Blood and Night, but as the people grew to depend more on agriculture, She evolved into the Earth Goddess. The son of Her fertility was the corn, which was depicted as being identical with the obsidian knife which was Her symbol. These were the phallic representations of Xipe, the young god identified with the corn and the sunlight, both of which grew up and increased to maturity from the depths of the dark earth.

Here, too, fertility, death and sacrifice are connected. The husking of the corn is perceived as the same act as the tearing out of a sacrificial victim's heart, both accomplished with the obsidian blade. At the celebration of the broom harvest of the Earth Mother, first an older woman, and then a young girl were beheaded and their blood spread on fruit, seeds and grain to guarantee abundance.

At the autumn equinox purification feast of the ancient Incas of Peru, families first bathed and then anointed their bodies with a substance called zancus which was made from grain mixed with human blood. It was also applied to the thresholds of their homes as a protective charm. The Indians of Guayaquil, Ecuador, used to sow their fields with blood and human hearts to assure the harvest. And the Bagobos of Mindanao in the Philippines offered human sacrifices when sowing the rice fields. The Bontoc and the Apoyaos of the interior of Luzon, also in the Philippines, hunted human heads to be offered at both planting and harvest times.

The sacrificial victim was meant to be an embodiment of the grain, and was chosen because of some obvious resemblance to it. For example, the Aztecs would kill young victims to represent young corn and mature ones to stand for the ripe. The Marimos of South Africa would choose a short, fat man, round as a seed. The Skidi Pawnees of North America would fatten their female victim before the kill to assure an abundant crop of plump corn.

The identification of the victim with the grain is also evident in the means of execution. A West African queen used to have a man and a woman killed with the implements of cultivation, hoes and spades, and then buried with the seed in the soil. One of the sacrificial practices of the Aztecs was to kill the victim by grinding her or him, like the maize, between two millstones.

With the martyred death of the sacrificial victim, the fertile blood seed, like the grain, brings life anew to the world. And, thus, the circle is complete. The death of the old grain, the old sun, the old season, feeds the continuing life of the people. The death of a representative person is then offered in obeisance as repayment of the ultimate debt of life. Death feeds life feeds death, the enduring saga of the eternal cycle of survival.