The Gods Must Be Hungry

EVEN BEFORE THERE was political correctness, civilized people would never dream of running down someone else's religion, but let's face it: sometimes you just can't help yourself. To read about a 12-year-old girl plied with liquor and left on a frigid mountaintop to die is to experience a revulsion that no degree of moral relativism can rationalize away. A revulsion, however, tinged with the faint, grim satisfaction of finding scientific evidence of an atrocity perpetrated in America that cannot by any stretch of logic be even remotely blamed on the Europeans.

Not, of course, that the religious practices of the Indians were previously unknown. There is ample documentation of human sacrifice compiled by the outraged Spanish conquistadors, who preferred to shed blood in the more straightforward enterprises of war and enslavement. Accounts of an Aztec priest ripping the beating heart out of a human offering was one of the great arguments for Christianizing the continent. In more recent decades, though, Western culture has made a high-minded effort to avoid sensationalizing such potentially embarrassing spectacles. The definitive 15-volume Encyclopedia of Religion, published by Macmillan in 1987, makes only a few passing references to human sacrifice in its entry on "Inca Religion." The author placidly observes that "offerings were selected from the great complementary ecosystems of nature (plants, birds, shells, the blood of animals-particularly llamas--and men) and culture (maize, coca, pepper, corn, beer, cloth, statuettes)." It must have gone very hard on the llamas.

To list human beings as sacrificial objects along with shells, birds and maize requires a very high order of intellectual detachment, but anthropologists today rise to the challenge. "There's been a tendency among conquering people to use sacrifice as an excuse to say, 'Those people are barbarians, those people should be taken over'," says John Verano, a Tulane University anthropologist who has written about ritual killings. "[But] within the context of [Aztec] culture, it all made sense. The sacrifice of human blood, and particularly the heart, was necessary to make the sun go around every day. It ties in to their stories of creation and myth. It was part of the cultural tradition."

And the cultures of Central and South America were hardly alone in this. In his book "The Highest Altar," writer Patrick Tierney documented the prevalence of human sacrifice in cultures from almost every part of the world. And not all of them are as extinct as the Aztecs and Incas. In 1988, Tierney visited a mountaintop near Lake Titica-ca, in Peru. A few days earlier, someone had brought a male college student to this remote site and slit his throat. Tierney saw ritual signs, such as a particular type of confetti, and empty liquor bottles. Alcohol was an integral part of Incan rites. He believes that "regular seasonal sacrifices" still take place in the Andes, in-eluding some by superstitious cocaine traffickers who want to enlist divine protection for their businesses. Asked about such claims, Michael Moseley, a University of Florida anthropologist who studies the Incas, says he's heard "rumors that during certain recent natural disasters, such as extreme droughts, sacrifice of young individuals had taken place" in modern Peru or Bolivia. He says he doesn't know whether to believe the rumors, but it "wouldn't surprise" him if they were true.

In the West, of course, society has left these things far behind, although not always as far as people suppose. Many scholars now endorse a new interpretation of the bas-relief frieze around the Parthenon, one of the best-known artifacts of classical antiquity. Rather than a benign procession honoring the goddess Athena (as was thought for two centuries), it is now believed to depict the sacrifice of one or more young women, the daughters of an early Athenian king, to ensure success in battle. The religious tradition of the West begins with a great renunciation of blood offering, when Abraham put down the knife and unbound Isaac. And it proceeds through the glorious sacrifice on Calvary, when God himself offered up his Son to redeem the world.

Modern people know better than to think that the sun needs a fresh heart to rise each day, or that natural disasters can be bought off with corpses. Funny, though, we keep on killing one another. We just don't have any reasons that would make sense to an Incan priest.