Farming created more food, and more food made possible more people. Agricultural societies became more densely populated than hunter-gatherer societies. And farmers were more dependent on the weather than were hunter-gatherers, who had been free to drift from drought to areas that had more game and wild foods. Among agricultural people, relying on crops made life less secure. Domesticated plants were vulnerable to insect ravages in ways that wild plants were not. Archaeologists have found in the bones of children in agricultural societies more signs of malnutrition than that of people living from hunting and gathering, and the average height of early farming populations have been discovered to be shorter than that of hunter-gatherers. Also, more populous societies lived amid a greater lack of sanitation. People were careless about their refuse, their sewage and water supply. They knew nothing about bacteria, and their ignorance was costly. They suffered from disease epidemics that had been rare among hunter-gatherers. Perhaps fewer than half of the children of agricultural societies lived past the age of ten. And they attributed all this to the powers of evil spirits.
Needing rain for their crops, people in agricultural societies tried evoking magic in the form of imitation. Where frogs came out when it rained, witchdoctors might croak like frogs to suggest to their gods that they should start the rain. With agriculture were gods of fertility. Farmers knew enough about fertility to associate it with sexual intercourse. They believed that their gods created sexually, a father and mother god having created son and daughter gods. And men and women copulated in their fields as religious ritual to suggest to their gods that they should make their crops grow.
When a growing season ended, people saw their fertility god as having died, and when the growing season returned they saw their god as having been resurrected. One such god worshipped by the Greeks was Adonis. Adonis was believed to spend his annual death with the goddess Persephone in the invisible place where the spirits who had vanished dwelled: Hades. Each year when the growing season returned, Adonis was seen to have returned to living in blissful union with the fertility goddess of love, Aphrodite.
For good harvests, early farmers were eager to please the gods by sending them what gifts they could. It was believed that killing someone or an animal sent that creature, in the form of spirit, to the invisible world of the gods. People saw the sending of one or a few members of their society to the gods as a good bargain insofar as it served the survival of the entire society. Or someone might be sacrificed who had been a stranger seized on some pathway or held captive from war, perhaps after a purification ceremony – solving the problem of what to do with war captives.
Animal and human sacrifices appear to have been less prevalent in societies of hunter-gatherers, such as those on the plains of North America and in Australia. Sacrificing people took place among agricultural people in the Americas, such as the Olmecs. It took place in India and among farmers of Europe and the Middle East. Ancient Chinese farmers sacrificed. So too did the Egyptians and others in agricultural Africa. And sacrifice appears to have been part of the culture of Hebrew herders: the Old Testament describes the god Yahweh testing Abraham by telling him to take his son Isaac to the land of Moriah to offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains there.
Copyright © 2009-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.