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Sunday, April 10, 2016

War as Human Sacrifice (1): Early GRRM and mythology

In a recent conversation with a friend about A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones, the idea of war as a ritual of human sacrifice was raised. As soon as I heard this idea, my brain itched. I have seen or heard of it before, but where?

Seven Times Never Kill Men

This novella is one of the few works in which George R.R. Martin has mentioned the god of war Bakkalon. Unlike "Soldier" of the Seven Gods, Bakkalon takes on the striking image of a pale child. An odd image, unless you connect it with the theme of war as a form of human sacrifice, particularly of the young. Some how, war --- or violent conflict since the dawn of humanity --- always revolves around the young.

The human warriors in the novella, known as the Steel Angels (sounds like the name of a biker gang), worship Bakkalon with fervor. They have invaded an alien planet by slaughtering the natives, a peaceful species of furry animals called Jaenshi.

The Jaenshi probably look like Ewoks of Return of the Jedi, because George Lucas was apparently inspired by this story when he wrote the screenplay and even gave the original illustration to his character designer as a model for Chewbacca. Jaenshi children are cut open and hung on the walls of Steel Angels' stronghold.

Published in 1975, the parallel to the Vietnam war is unmistakable. Unlike the Viet Cong, however, the Jaenshi seem utterly incapable of picking up weapons to defend their homeland. Instead they huddle around and worship their own god, who seems equally indifferent to their death and suffering. Only a handful reluctantly follow a human leader who tries to organize an armed resistance.

Meanwhile, the Jaenshi god begins to appear in the dreams of the prophet of Steel Angels. He sends out a platoon of Steel Angels to seize the god's statue and bring it back to their camp. The feeble rebellion was swiftly crushed, unlike the bloodless, romantic battle in Return of the Jedi. The violent aggressors win. Or do they? A year later, we are told, Steel Angels have begun to sacrifice their own children on the wall ...

The symbolism is a bit more explicit in this story than it is in ASOIAF, but in ASOIAF the idea is subtly pervasive. Children are fed to the god of war. Even the (apparently?) winning side cannot escape this bloody human sacrifice. The children of Tywin Lannister and Cersei, Roose Bolton's son, and Walder Frey's hundred offspring, they are hardly luckier than the Stark children. And there are the commonfolk orphans, associated with Brotherhood Without Banners, who are attacked by the Brave Companions in AFFC.

In Seven Times, GRRM does not make clear to which god the human children were sacrificed, Bakkalon or the Jaenshi god. In parallel, who's to say for what the American young men fought in Vietnam? It might be the indifferent universe (for getting drafted, for example), or the military industrial complex, or the anti-communist, freedom-and-democracy idealism. To which god were they offered? That is a central question that continues to haunt the Vietnam generation, GRRM included.


I finally scratched the itch in my brain and remembered where I had heard of this war-as-sacrifice idea before. The battlefield of Kurukshetra, on which millions of warriors across ancient India came to fight and die, has been interpreted by many literary critics and historians as an alter of human sacrifice for the gods.

In a society like ancient India and Sparta (and possibly the Persian empire), the warrior class is destined to die on the battlefield. It is the duty they are born into, assigned by society. The ultimate and perfect warrior in the epic, Bhishma, explains that Kshatriyas must attain his honor and glory through killing and being killed on the battlefield. The poem repeatedly asserts that anyone who dies on Kurukshetra goes directly to heaven.

The super-massacre on Kurukshetra described in the poem is both viscerally exciting and highly ritualized. It is both realistic and symbolic, particularly with the mythical meaning of war and death intertwined in the story. The conflict is not only the culmination of a family battle over the throne. In the multi-layered epic, it is also a war between the gods in heaven and the asuras underground, which is very likely a representation of historical conflicts between the invading Aryans and native tribes in India. Philosophically, the war symbolizes dharma and adharma (not the same as the Christian good versus evil), as explained in Bhagavad Gita.

The war, described as daily battles with arbitrary rules of conduct for both sides (not unlike the Trojan War in Homer's poem), seems highly ritualized. Aren't killings just killings? Yet modern warfare between nation-states is different in execution from violent conflicts in primitive societies (see Jared Diamond's The World Until Tomorrow). Even though modern wars are as much about resources and territories as ever, the way they are conducted is relatively confined. Indiscriminate and random killings are no longer accepted by civilized societies --- No, they only send young men to shoot and stab each other in a confined area, very much like Kurukshetra.

With the disappearance of mandatory draft (or conscription) and increasing use of remote weapons (drones, missiles), war is becoming ever more abstract to us. Except, somewhere in the world, blood of the young is still spilled by the bucket and we are usually not very clear why. The practical goals and intent of wars are ever more difficult to discern. The meaning and goals of violent conflicts, such as those purportedly for religion and ideology, are becoming increasingly psychological rather than material. I wonder how an alien observer studying humans would make sense of our warfare. Would they interpret it as a ritual in which we compulsively engage, a destruction we instinctively inflict on ourselves?

But I digress. The battlefield as an alter on which the blood of young men is sacrificed to gods is not an uncommon concept in the realm of Hinduism-Buddhism. Again I am astonished by how the ancient Hindus were able to get straight to the heart of the matter.

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