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Join the conversation! There are now 47 comments on this chapter's page 90. Honoring Elites: Chinayë’s Story. What are your thoughts?
  1. Alectric says

    How could bulls/lambs/beasts be seen as willingly sacrificing themselves? Did they actually think these animals somehow understood they were being sacrificed and why, and were on board? I don’t think I’ve heard this concept before, of animal sacrifices needing to be seen as willing by the animal itself. Or do you just mean willing to be given up by the owners/hunters of the animals?

    • It was actually quite a common requirement in the ancient world that animals being sacrificed indicate their willingness to go, typically with their docility. One example that many readers might be familiar with was the oracle at Delphi: animals to be sacrificed had to be perfect (like the gods), healthy (Minoan bull-jumping, Etruscan gladiatorial contests, and Mesoamerican ball games were likely demonstrations of the victims being maximally full of life at the time of their sacrifice), and the animals were actually required to nod their consent as they were led to the altar. Each of those requirements was usual in the ancient world. Anything less would have been offensive to the gods. (Furthermore, at Delphi, for the omens to be good the animal also had to tremble, which I take indicated awareness of what was happening, a kind of “informed consent”.)

      And note that “willing” and “consent” don’t mean “enthusiastic agreement.” “Fine, whatever, go ahead” is willing consent.

      It was all part of the correct performance of the ritual, and if you got any part of it wrong, down to mispronouncing a word, you’d have to start the whole ritual all over again. The knowledge of how to perform all the rituals properly is one of the things that led to a separate class of priesthood.

      • I get the feeling that what we’d call “free” consent wasn’t a part of it (as in, there was no socially acceptable alternative to consent), but I imagine I’m getting ahead of the comic a little there.

        • You’re not getting ahead at all! This is the perfect place to explore it, and I’d like to hear your thoughts in more detail, BJ.

          By “free consent” I take you to mean voluntary choice undertaken by your own independent free will? “Consent” doesn’t mean actively choosing to do something, but rather passively allowing it to happen. But taking your meaning as intended, you present an interesting philosophical question there. More than one, actually.

          Let’s take as given:
          (1) that you have an internal unconscious sense of the right thing to do in a given situation;
          (2) that this sense is most strongly shaped by your daily lived experience of what other people feel to be socially acceptable;
          (3) that this sense is strong enough to drive behavior without your even having to consciously ask whether it’s the right thing to do—and it’s strong enough to override your individual selfish impulses; and
          (4) that we evolved to be this way because we are an inherently social species. (Probably don’t even need to mention this last one.)

          Presuming these statements to be true, then
          Question 1: To what extent—if at all—can any altruistic act be the product of truly independent free will? (Altruism being acting for the benefit of others at one’s own expense.)
          Question 2: Can altruism be reframed as a self-interested voluntary act, where the worth gained even by losing one’s life for the sake of others “feels” worth it? Or would that conflict with the definition of “altruism?” Would that be too cynical a view, that even the most selfless act is at its core selfish, performed consciously or not in one’s own self-interest?

          I’m willing to bet others can come up with more questions that these givens present. (And note that I rather sneakily failed to answer even my own questions.)

          I’d like to hear your answers, though!

          • First, amazing comic, and I appreciate the depth of research that went into it.

            Second, pertaining to the thread, I agree that “free will” is an illusion. Humans have the power to choose, but there’s ample research clearly showing us choice is easily manipulated. Just listen to this podcast of Hidden Brain for many examples. Whether it’s manipulated by associated memories or by social pressures, it’s just two sides of the same coin.

            The real question I’d love to see answered is this: Is the erosion of altruism in a society a direct reflection on the breakdown of meaningful social communities that exist within it? In other words, do we, as social creatures, cease investing ourselves in the people and communities around us when we feel that our sacrifice isn’t being shared amongst the whole?

          • Well, what I actually was considering was the social consequences of refusing, rather than a philosophical question of free will! As in, is someone freely consenting if their elders…strongly expect them to consent? Will there be no consequences for not becoming a sacrifice? In band society, the alternative to going in the same direction as the rest of the band is to strike out on your own – which is, of course, difficult (not just socially, but in terms of where your next haunch of meat is coming from). In a tribe-clan society, if your choices are between consenting to death and not consenting, and subsequently becoming a social pariah in a society where that’s a painful and ultimately short existence anyway, then is it consent or coercion?

            But, I’m glad to engage with your questions nonetheless, as they are quite enlightening.

            1) At the most basic philosophical level, I don’t believe in free will, for all that I cherish it most dearly. A human being is a collection of billions of cells that interact with the environment and communicate through electrical and chemical triggers. So, even if you’re pursuing altruism out of love for your fellow man, you’re doing that because of our old pal Sera giving you a high-five.
            2) So yes, altruism is ultimately driven by one’s own self-interest, or as I usually see it, by what one values (and again, what makes one happy is a result of one’s brain, which is a part of one’s body – I have limited knowledge of neurobiology, obviously!). When you do something altruistic, you are saying that you get good feelings from doing the right thing, and you value the good feelings you get from acting for others more than the cost to yourself. Or, as Fate/stay night (Unlimited Blade Works route) put it, you’re selfishly pursuing selflessness. And I think Sera will tell you that it’s still worth it. :)

            • Ah, I see what you mean in your first paragraph. Certainly there’s a spectrum there, just as there is with any other heroic deed. All probably fear death (to the extent they’ve contemplated it), but all still go through with it, only for different reasons. Some act heroically because how could they not—it’s simply what one does in that situation—they’re not weighing the risks before acting. Others because of a strong sense of duty, even though they’re well aware of the risks, it’s what must be done. Others because they’re fucking brave—though scared shitless, they do it anyway because it’s the right thing to do, especially if it’s to protect those they hold dear. And still others because they’re more afraid of the alternative—the shaming you mentioned, or being executed for cowardice, or the certainty of present suffering vs. the uncertainty of going through with it.

              You might be interested to know that, at the funerals of Natchez leaders, men from the leader’s family were expected to step forward and volunteer to join him in death. But if the men chickened out, then elder women of his family would step forward in disgust to preserve the family’s honor. French explorers witnessed such events in the early 1700s, and those were probably representative of age-old practices. One can imagine the shame those “cowardly” men must have endured ever after, and certainly that might have been an incentive to volunteer as you suggest.

              But is selecting the lesser of two evils—when one is compelled by circumstance to choose one or the other—no longer a voluntary choice? As demonstrated by the Natchez, there is still a choice, and one is free to choose a life of shame over untimely death. Does the mere fact that one hadn’t willingly chosen to face this dilemma make one’s choice of evils any less voluntary?

              This is actually an important point for Constitutional Law. Recall from the volume on self-incrimination that the Fifth Amendment protects us from the government overcoming your free will to force or trick you to incriminate yourself involuntarily, out of your own mouth. I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar theme shows up later.

              To other readers: Please do share your own thoughts! This participation section is the best part of the comic for a reason!

              • Stepping back for a few days to allow others to participate if they choose, but I want to say that you’re giving me flashbacks to my Criminal Justice classes in college. In a good way, with all the professors I loved to argue with.

                Still kinda want to go back and finish my degree someday.

              • Anyway. I think you’ve actually answered this question in the Crim Pro unit, and briefly in the Entrapment section of Criminal Law. Generally, we say that if someone’s coerced, it’s not consent. Which is why Miranda exists – the police must cast a magic spell to ask the suspect’s permission to coerce them, and the suspect must cast the counter-charms to refuse permission. If they don’t, the police are permitted to engage in coercive custodial interrogation on the subject – which can get someone to “consent” to confessing to a crime they didn’t commit. Likewise, if the police overcome someone’s resistance and get them to commit a crime, it’s entrapment. And to use a more on-the-nose comparison, a conscript can always refuse to serve if they’re willing to accept the consequences, ranging from a jail term and the status of “convicted felon” to being shot at dawn. But we don’t generally see a conscript as consenting!

                Now, this is a society where being divorced is financially equivalent to being blinded. If you become a clanless pariah, you effectively lose a significant portion of your basic rights (so basically, a felony conviction), in a society that’s already the most violent social structure in history. So I would personally say that a sacrifice is a conscript. (Though of course, Chinaye – and probably most of the sacrifices – did genuinely buy into the idea that being sacrificed was her honor and duty.)

                Of course, what we call consent in the 21st century is a result of a long chain of philosophical and legal evolution that we’re still figuring out. And we haven’t even gotten to those freaks in England who came up with that strange idea that the individual was important, yet!

                Also curious to hear anyone else’s thoughts, if we got some!

      • I shouldn’t have said that exclusively in the past tense. Even today, if you say just one word wrong, major world religions will hold that the whole rite is void and needs to be done over.
        Example: This Catholic priest was taught to say “We baptize you” when performing Baby’s First Sacrament. He said it that way his whole career. But that’s wrong. It’s Jesus doing the baptizing, not the community. So, as Jesus’s representative, the priest was supposed to say “I baptize you.” Because of that one word, a whole bunch of people never really got baptized, which also invalidates their First Communion and possibly affects the validity of their marriages in the eyes of the Church.

        • Please don’t get me started on this. For the sake of this thread, I’ll avoid taking a sharp tangent into theological territory, suffice to say it seems the Catholic Church promoted Eric Cartman to pope; “Respect Ma’ Authority!”

  2. STM says

    How do we know what clothing looked like back then?

    • Because drawings, paintings, carvings, statues, and even articles of clothing themselves still survive. We’re in the Bronze Age here, and there’s plenty to go on, but we’ve found such things going back deep into the paleolithic. And new discoveries are made every year! In addition, there are some excellent resources out there on the history of clothing (often confusingly called “costume history”), and I’m fortunate that my wife is (1) a fashion designer, (2) who also used to design historical costumes for opera, and (3) who’s now a university professor teaching the history of dress among other things, so I have all kinds of cool resources just lying around the house.

      Which I then get to completely ignore for pages like this, which aren’t meant to look like any specific culture in particular. This sort of funerary human sacrifice happened everywhere from Mesopotamia to Mesoamerica, so I got to exercise my artistic license to mix and match looks for something that could just as easily have happened in Knossos or Khem, Anyang or Illinois. (The story itself is based on an actual archaeological find, but I don’t want to specify which one because I really do want it to represent a Bronze Age “Anywhere.”)

      • Can you link to more information about the find here? I’m very curious to learn more about what we know from finds and primary sources so I can work to separate fact from the sensationalist stories that permeate my brain.

        • Look up the tomb of Pu-Abi, a priestess/queen (yes! a woman ruler!) during the “First Dynasty” of Ur, which lasted about 150 years starting around 2600 BC. The site is very well documented—its discovery and long careful excavation made archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley famous, changed archaeology forever, and even changed our understanding of early religion. (And it’s also where Agatha Christie met her husband, after first taking the Orient Express to join the dig; and the excavation inspired her novel “Murder in Mesopotamia,” while… but I digress).

          Burial chamber of Pu-Abi
          Human sacrifice chamber, possibly laid out as if they'd been taking part in a banquet.

          You might recognize Ur as the hometown of the biblical Abraham, the claimed patriarch of what would (much, much) later become the highly unusual religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which we’ll get to before you know it. Ur was a Sumerian city-state just a handful of miles to the northeast of the first city-state we saw, Eridu. A lot of early biblical stories seem to have their origins in stories from Ur’s founding mythology, including the great flood and Isaac being saved from sacrifice by the discovery of a ram or goat ensnared in a thornbush. In fact, a pair of gold and lapis sculptures of rams/goats caught in brambles were found in one of the “death pits” accompanying Pu-Abi’s tomb. Interestingly, Pu-Abi wasn’t even Sumerian, but Semitic… but I digress.

          Ziggurat of Ur.
          (Above is the ziggurat of Ur, as lovingly envisioned in Mohawk Games’ “Old World.” I’m listening to the soundtrack right now as I write this. They’ve never heard of me, and didn’t pay me to link to them. Nobody ever does, sigh. But I digress.)

          The ziggurat of Ur was way, WAY bigger than the largest Eridu temple I showed a few pages back. You can tell that, by this time, the city-states were quite populous and sophisticated. Up at the very top is the temple of the god, and also where the priests could study the heavenly bodies in the night sky far from the light pollution and smoke from all the hearths and fires below. But I digress.

          The ziggurat was only part of an even larger ceremonial area, including the royal tombs where Pu-Abi was buried. There were stone chambers below ground for the burials (stone that had to be hauled in from far away, btw) with earthen ramps to get down inside. Pu-Abi’s tomb was remarkably undisturbed by later grave robbers, and had really marvelous treasures inside.

          Funeral adornment of Queen Pu-Abi
          (Here you can see the funeral adornment of Queen Pu-Abi. If you’re familiar with Sumerian mythology, you’ll recognize that these are the items the goddess Inanna had been stripped of during her passage to the underworld: a crown of gold flowers, a lapis necklace, a cape of thousands of valuable beads, and gold earrings. It must have been very heavy. I wonder if she wore it in life in her role as high priestess—that sort of emulation of the god was also a common practice around the world.)

          But it wasn’t the treasures that made this an important find. It was the 60+ other people who had accompanied her into the next life. Dozens of people had willingly walked down the ramp and gave their lives as part of the funeral rite, joining the queen as her attendants in the spirit world.

          Dozens of these willing sacrifices were young women (late teens, early 20s) dressed almost as ornately as the queen, laid out in rows. They all had silver ribbons woven through their hair, in addition to headpieces of silver and gold. Also laid out were the musicians, who had played gold-and-lapis decorated lyres (and presumably other instruments long destroyed by the acid soil, silver double flutes were found in other tombs nearby). Oxcarts that must have been full of goods had mostly decayed away along with their contents, leaving the skeletons of the oxen that had hauled them down the ramp and the young men who had attended the oxen. None of these people showed any signs of resistance. Despite the primal urge to survive, these people not only acquiesced but WANTED to give up their lives. They must have been seen as heroic, the same as a soldier who dives on a grenade to save his buddies or a firefighter who gives his life to rescue children from a burning building.

          Not everyone shared their heroism. A handful of soldiers appear not to have been told that they would also be attending their queen, perhaps added to the sacrifice as an afterthought in the passion of the rites? Their remains were found on the ramp in postures of struggle, completely different from the serene composure of the remains of the willing sacrifices neatly laid out on the floor behind them.

          When I said the young women all had silver ribbons in their hair, I should have said all but one. One of the young women was found to be gripping her silver ribbon tightly in the bones of one hand. It was all coiled up in her fist. (Item # 56 from chamber PG 1237. Woolley first thought it might have been in her… pocket? Because of COURSE ceremonial robes had pockets back then, /s.) The general interpretation has been that she arrived late, and hadn’t had time to do her ribbon up in her haste to get there. She probably thought she’d have time to do it before the ceremony began, but she didn’t get the chance.

          And now you know ONE of the inspirations for Chinayë’s story. There are plenty of similar finds (though without the wonderfully humanizing touch of the ribbon) down the millennia to as recently as the 1700s, when Europeans witnessed the voluntary human sacrifices at the funerals of Natchez chiefs in what is now southern Mississippi. Every now and then someone posits a theory that such sacrifices were not truly voluntary, but they tend to disregard the abundance of evidence of willingness we have, not only from the archaeological finds themselves, but also from various accounts that have survived.

          What’s even more cool is that, as we’ll shortly see, such human sacrifice practices tend to eventually…

          but I digress.

  3. Ben says

    I love the work you’re doing here, but I have to admit that some of the text following the sacrifice (“So as we’ve seen, the most meaningful…”, and anything before it, if there is anything) is barely legible for me due to the lack of contrast. Mind heightening that a bit?

    • I did that on purpose, hoping for an effect like fading back into consciousness, where you don’t really catch what’s being said at first. (And there’s nothing before the barely discernable bit you somehow managed to read.)

  4. Jason says

    I don’t know how y’all see it, but so far, this whole “civilization” thing look like a real horror show to me. While life in pre-civilization bands seems to have been quite good (at least according to this comic), with civilization people first lost their freedom, their equality. And then, this…

    So, basically science has proven Rousseau right, then?

    • But without civilization, there wouldn’t be webcomics! Or hamburgers! Or Santa Claus or space exploration! Think about what you’re saying, Jason.

      So what if you got to spend every day of your life surrounded by people who loved you, without the worries of money and work, without loneliness or depression or bills to pay. Would life really be worth living? Without webcomics? Really?

      • “So what if you got to spend every day of your life surrounded by people who loved you, without the worries of money and work, without loneliness or depression or bills to pay. Would life really be worth living? Without webcomics? Really?”

        How about Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach? How about any music that requires instruments other than drums, maybe, or requires a single virtuoso singer instead of a chanting chorus?

        (Can’t have a single virtuoso singer or player, after all. That would be showing off!)

        How about Shakespeare, Dickens, and Poe? How about the ability to read anything at all written in the past instead of having to rely on memories and oral traditions that start to get hopelessly corrupted once you get back even 50 years?

        How about being able to learn the beauty of mathematics complicated enough to include the number zero? How about moral philosophy more sophisticated than blind conformity to the group?

        How about not starving to death every time there’s a drought? How about not having to leave Grandpa to die because he’s too old to keep up? How about modern medicine? Indoor plumbing? Air conditioning?

        How about being able to rise to the level of your gifts instead of being the subject of jealous teasing your whole life by those without your gifts? How about not having to live with people that tear everyone down to try to make them equal? How about being able to emotionally grow enough so you can rise above your need for the approval of others, instead of needing to hyper-focus on others’ approval your whole life so you don’t get shunned and eaten by a lion? How about being able to just GO BE ALONE once in a while?

        I don’t know if life in a band would have been terrible enough that it wouldn’t have been worth living, but I sure as hell know I wouldn’t prefer it.

        • Bach? Shakespeare? You do realize that these developments in human evolution are only centuries old? Even “classic” mathematics only dates back a millennium (for Algebra) or two (for Euclidean Geometry).

          Before then, people didn’t know what they didn’t know. What people did know was that these shared sacrifices within these ancient communities bound people together in ways that maintained a healthy society. And a healthy society provided securities and technologies that far surpassed classic band societies.

  5. Nikolay says

    Just a note: the Current Page link on the front page was not updated to this page.

  6. Jeff B says

    “Check it out — she’s holding her beads in her hand. What do you think that means?”

    Umm… uh… we believe we’ve discovered a neolithic fertility cult?

  7. Cyrus says

    If I may nitpick briefly, I’m pretty sure all those arches are anachronistic for the bronze-age societies you’re depicting.

    • By all means, please do nitpick! Half the time, I’m counting on the comments to catch the errors I didn’t spot (and I truly appreciate all criticism). So please don’t take my response as anything more than further nitpicking.

      In another comment I mentioned that I tried to avoid having this scene resemble any particular place, instead wanting it to be a story that could have happened anywhere in the world that went through this phase, at whatever time they did so. It could be eastern or southern Asia, the Americas, the Fertile Crescent… So the clothes and architecture are purely fanciful.

      That said, I wouldn’t call those arches anachronistic. The ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians both invented arches very early in the Bronze Age. They’re a clever solution to the problem of large doorways: how to keep the top from falling in under the weight of all the brick or stone above it? First they came up with “corbel” arches, where the opposite sides are stepped up on an angle like an upside-down V. This transfers the weight sideways and down, converting tensile stress into compression stress. Eventually, they figured out that if they rounded that corbel shape, it worked even better for some reason. From there it was a short step to the “true” arch, where the compression of the curve is held by wedge-shaped stones with a central keystone. The true arch is superior in every way to the corbel, because the corbel arch depends on cantilevered steps: once the center of gravity of those steps goes past the side wall, it collapses. But a true arch can be of monumental size, big enough for city gates (look up Laish/Dan) or the Gateway Arch in St. Louis—so long as your wedges form a curve of the right shape—and all without the need for cement or reinforcement, as the compression from its own weight holds the whole structure in place. Bonus 1: If you take either archway and extend it, you’ve got a vaulted corridor. Bonus 2: If you take an archway and rotate it, you’ve got a dome. Again, all of these were known in the Bronze Age. Heck, later Bronze-Age Mediterranean peoples even discovered the much more sophisticated catenary curve (imagine you’re holding a cable by both ends, so it’s hanging by its own weight… now turn that curve upside down), where the entire structure is under self-supporting compression (as in the Gateway Arch). Pretty cool, right?

      Corbel Arch from early Bronze Age Ur
      Here’s a corbel arch from the tomb of an early Bronze Age king of Ur.

      True Arch from early Bronze Age Ur
      Here’s a true arch from the moon goddess’s temple in early Bronze Age Ur.

      Mycenaean Bronze-Age corbel vault
      Here’s a Bronze Age Mycenaean corbel vault.

      Early Bronze Age dome tombs of Hafeet
      Here are dome tombs from the early Bronze Age, a little south of Al Ain in the UAE.

      Bronze Age Minoan catenary dome
      Here’s the catenary corbel dome of the Bronze Age Minoan Treasury of Atreus (once also called the “Tomb of Agamemnon”).

      • The diversity of your knowledge is exemplary.

        When I started reading this comic long ago, I inferred a few things about the character of its author. One who nerds out on arches was not on my list.

            • I visited it as part of a college trip to Greece when I was nineteen. In that context, I regret that I didn’t give it the admiration that it truly deserves.

              No photo does justice to how big the tomb is. It’s so hard to understand its size until you’re there in person. Our student group sat on top of the entryway for a photo. We did two photos, a close up of us, then one with us and the entire dromos. Looking at our full-dromos-pic, we were tiny specs in comparison.

              When you stand outside from afar, it just looks like a hill. When you stand inside, it’s dark and hard to grasp the sheer size and mass of the building, let alone its engineering. It’s using pyramid-sized and weight stones, but unlike the pyramids, this structure is hollow on the inside, plus it’s got a gigantic mount of dirt resting on top of it. And you can’t pick up the stones to grasp their weight and strength. It’s just difficult to comprehend its magnificence without thinking about what it is as you’re standing within it, especially for the period of time for which it was built.

              And finally, today’s modern construction equipment makes it almost impossible to appreciate the magnitude of work required to construct such a large structure. What type of sacrifice was required to construct such a gigantic structure is beyond my comprehension. It’s one of many reasons I really am enjoying this deep-tangent of a thread to this topic.

          • Actually, what I inferred is particularly relevant to this thread’s conversation. At first I thought you altruistic. I guess now I should instead reclassify that attribute as someone who regularly exercises “voluntary acts of self-interest.” :-)

  8. Jordy says

    “The actual blow would come from members of each victim’s own family, presumably to prevent any revenge killing later” – How do we know they were killed by a family member and not, let’s say, a priest? And why would revenge killing be an issue if the victims more or less consented to the ritual?

  9. Cyrus says

    (nitpicking intensifies)

    Ancient builders did corbel arches all the time, sure, and *some* of them had figured out how to do true arches (it’s easy to imagine that builders might have plastered over their brickwork to protect a valuable trade secret), but they used them extremely conservatively. Look how narrow that arch is in the Ur temple— and that was a work of monumental civic architecture. And where we see a wider span, in Laish, it’s buttressed on both sides by huge slabs of masonry. It’s like they knew arches could fail by collapsing outward, but didn’t understand the mechanics well enough, and didn’t want to take any chances.

    Those beehive tombs at Mycenae are awesome. I’ve been. If you’re traveling in Greece, they’re not to be missed. But their shape reveals the limit of their builder’s technique. They’re beehive shaped because there was no falsework, and they angle of their dome is the shallowest you can lay a stone without it sliding off, down into the tomb. It’s an intermediate development from corbelling.

    And look at the door! The one place you would think definitely calls for an arch, and what do they use? An enormous one-piece lintel! (Which, admittedly, is a baller move in a different way.)

    Preemptive counter-nitpick: using falsework on the Mycenaean tombs would have been hard because of the sheer size of the stones involved.

    Really, though, the colonnade in panel one was what got me worked up. That’s classical, through and through. You have to be confident in your design to balance arches on columns, and that’s not evident in bronze age structures.

    • (nitpicking intensifies)


      And you’re right, that kind of arcade wouldn’t be seen until Hellenistic/Roman architecture, if not later. I could whip out my artistic license here and get away scot-free, but sadly the real excuse is I just thought that it would look good there, and that’s about as deep as I thought about it. (Though if you’ve been to Knossos, it’s hard to imagine that those bull-leaping bronze agers couldn’t have managed arcades if they’d felt like it.)

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