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A veritable encyclopedia of blood and gore produced by an English anthropologist out to demonstrate that the tradition of human sacrifice is universal. To some extent the book seems a latter-day Golden Bough, but while Frazer was intent on tracing a single theme--the killing of the king to ensure fertility--Davies enlarges the scope: for him, human sacrifice has a religious basis. Sometimes the sacrifice is a bribe to secure the fertility of land or individuals; but other motivations may also be involved: the need to provide companions in the afterlife, to honor one's ancestors or the Chief (as God-surrogate), to preserve buildings or other man-made incursions on the God-given terrain. In a larger sense, Davies posits a religious need to bind the living with the dead: to see a continuation in the cosmos so that death becomes a new beginning, a bridge from here to eternity. The element of belief, he maintains, led many a sacrificial victim to willingly partake in death rites--be they the Indian widow's immolation (the practice of suttee), the Aztec prisoners' ascent of the pyramids, or the self-destruction of Japanese Kamikaze pilots in World War II. Davies takes sharp issue with the materialist-protein cannibalism interpretations of sacrifice popularized by Hamer and Harris; but he equally pooh-poohs Arens' arguments questioning cannibalism's existence: too many eye-witnesses, codices, pots, and paintings attest to cannibalistic acts--all, he adds, for religious reasons. One gets the feeling that Davies somewhat deplores the loss of sacrifice with the rise of Western society and its death-comes-at-the-end antireligious attitudes; he all but suggests that a little ritual sacrifice might be better than mass warfare. But given all his evidence, does his hypothesis hold? Certainly scholars will assert that some of his data are weak--anecdotal, embroidered--and that not every large pot or dismembered limb should be taken as evidence of cannibalism. But Davies' focus on what clearly has been a part of human cultural tradition deserves attention and discussion. And his ghastly descriptions of sacrificial practices may also have a certain gruesome allure.

Pub Date: March 24th, 1981
Publisher: Morrow