A Strange Form of Human Sacrifice
Across the globe, it was once a part of many traditional cultures to perform construction sacrifices to appease god or gods and thereby protect large-scale buildings like dams, bridges, and castles.
Known variously as hitobashira in Japan, daa saang zong/da sheng zhuang in China, myosade in Burma, and tumbal proyek in Indonesia, these words/phrases all express the same brutal reality of sacrificing humans to protect structures from being destroyed by natural disasters such as tsunamis or attacks from hostile enemies.
The ritual was performed to strengthen the structure, not literally, but by ensuring its protection via appeasing offerings made to the spirits in the construction area. The ritual was mostly done close to the structure's primary support.
Even though the effectiveness of the ritual cannot be proven scientifically, this ritual has impacted development in many countries. Some scientists agree that construction sacrifice may have encouraged the burgeoning of complex civilizations in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific maritime.
Archaeologists who analyze ritual activities in China also found that elites used the ritual as a strategy for gaining social power. During the Longshan period (ca. 2500-1900 BCE), human sacrifices as part of the wall-building ceremony effectively connected the community and encouraged the formation of early Chinese governments. Human sacrifice was a tool for the social elites to ingrain fear and show their power. Victims were frequently people who posed a threat to the elites or had fallen out of their favor.
It is fair to mention that most East and Southeast Asian countries have historically participated in construction sacrifice. Although some countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, tried pinning the blame on association with Europeans for the origin of construction sacrifice, they did so while unaware of the practice's historical depth that goes back to ancient times.
This misplaced blame was possible because construction sacrifice appeared in Northern Europe as well. Other areas of the world where construction sacrifice either occurred or has been described in folk traditions include Romania and the early United States.
The Varieties of Construction Sacrifice
Lingering Superstition Related to Construction Sacrifice
Some people are still bothered by the creation of new spaces because they fear that something ominous or haunting was once in its place, which might point to a somewhat ubiquitous human anxiety about disrupting spiritual presences through construction.
For example, an early 20th-century Southern U.S. superstition goes as follows: "if you build a new house and move at once into it, one of the family will die." This refers to the Southern American superstition that moving in quickly when one built a new home could lead to a death in the family. Superstitious people would leave part of an old house intact when rebuilding it or building a new structure in its place. This gives the old spirits proof that the new structure is not yet finished, and wards off the possibility of a family member's death.
Romanian Live Entombment and "Shadow Theft"
There were certainly varied reasons behind—and methods of carrying out—construction sacrifices. In Romania, for instance, construction sacrifices were carried out for two reasons: a) so the spirit of the place would be gratified and not take the life of any person living there, and b) so the structure gained increased stability.
Such sacrifices were done through live entombment, beheading, execution, or being placed in a jar. After the passage of time, concerns over human welfare seeped further into these cultures and the custom of human sacrifices grew much more humane, even though the fact that people were being killed remained.
After the inhuman practice of live entombment disappeared, stealing one's shadow became the new ritual in some places. "Stealing one's shadow" refers to the idea that when a building was constructed, a soul (a person's shadow) would be added.
In Romanian folklore, a man's shadow would be measured with a piece of reed or rope and then buried at the construction site. After whatever length of time it took to build the structure's wall to the exact height of the measured man (which could be anywhere from a number of days up to a year), the man would be killed. The idea is that the person has been deprived of their soul and transfers some of the spiritual potency to the structure itself.
As for the Javanese, the spirit of a sacrificed person was called penunggu (one who waits) which suggests the concept of a spirit with a guardian function (guarding entity) rather than pemilik (owner). The concept of "one who waits" is consistent with the Southeast Asian belief that a person's spirit retains a connection with his or her mortal remains, particularly the skull. This means that, for the Javanese, the victim of a construction sacrifice continued to guard the structure. It also meant that the sacrifice of the body was necessary since the spirit's location after death was bound to where its skull lay.
While most of the writing on construction sacrifices suggests that this behavior was an appeasement ritual to the spirits that resided at the building site, other records suggest varying rationale. In the case of Burma, for example, the sacrifice was made not to appease the spirit residing at the site but to obtain protection from the spirit of the person being immolated at a particular site.
Not even the first precept of the Buddha, to not kill living things (an abominable act), was able to abolish the practice of human sacrifice in Burma. The Burmese Buddhists—even the royalty—were unable to withstand the introduction of novel secularity and stubbornly adhered to traditional spirit worship.
A well-prepared human sacrificial ritual was carefully planned by the Manipuri brahmins, the court astrologers. The Burmese, in common with all Mongloid tribes, believed that when a person suffered a violent death, they became nats (god-like spirits). Nats were thought to hate when the place they abided in was meddled with. It was thought that they would cause serious harm to those who dare disturb their homes.
Hence the belief that those who are brutally buried alive under the most vulnerable points of defense—such as gate-posts, or at the corners of ramparts—will provide security for the city against any possible foe. Such a spirit is thought to be especially virulent, possibly because its remains were not properly buried, preventing the spirit from progressing as an ancestor and forcing it to remain in the limbo of death.
The gruesome details don't end there. The most desired sacrifice was a pregnant woman who nearing her term. One death; two nats. The foundation of Mandalay itself was believed to have sacrificed fifty-two men, women, and children. It was so gruesome that these horrible acts were denied strenuously by ex-officials who served under the King before the annexation and silencing of the country's chroniclers.
Did Any Ancient Cultures Oppose Human Sacrifice?
Although the custom of human sacrifice can be observed in many ancient cultures around the globe, some abolished or shunned it since early times. For example, the ancient Romans appear to have officially ended the practice by 97 BCE (at least according to Pliny the Elder).
There exist writings about rulers or influential people who offered themselves for sacrifice because they refused to see the innocent die. Here are a few examples:
- Ken Angrok: In Pararanton, an old Javanese historiographic, the ruler Ken Angrok is the avatar of a man who willingly offered himself as a construction sacrifice to the ascetic Mpu Tapa-Wangkeng.
- Spiro: To prevent any additional sacrificial victims, a Burmese queen was said to have drowned herself in the Kyaukese irrigation system.
- Monk in northern Thailand: Rhum mentions a story of a former monk in northern Thailand who became the guardian spirit of a reliquary by slitting his own throat.
How Did the Tradition of Construction Sacrifice Stick Around So Long?
Rural communities lived based on traditional folk knowledge, seeing it much like a code. This is how they understood reality, so they had little reason to question the sacrificial rituals. In commenting on Romanian belief about construction sacrifice, Robert Redfield explains this as part of their traditional community: the belief persisted because this was a folk society and oral culture that understood life through intergenerational stories.
One way to gain life experience was by listening and perpetuating what the elderly had to say. For such communities, the longer a person lives, the more prestige and authority that person has. As a result, everything their grandparents claimed happened, even if it was simply a story, must have happened exactly as told (at least, this was the way of the common mind).
Such convictions release cultural and existential pressures in two ways. First, they express inherited beliefs about foundation rites. Second, they act to create general confidence—that is, since the ritual has taken place, there will be no unseen lurking danger for the time being.
Those who performed construction sacrifices persuaded themselves into believing theirs was an act of righteousness, which released them from any measure of responsibility/liability for the sacrificed person's life. They label the human sacrifices as less-than-human animals, lowering the human sacrifices' moral stature to the point that the most heinous acts of violence against them are acceptable or even required.
The Persistence of Superstition About Construction Sacrifice
In some areas of the world, grandparents used to warn their kids and grandchildren to avoid buildings under construction to prevent their shadows from being stolen by construction workers. Today, this taboo has been utterly lost and modern people justify the warning in a logical explanation: to prevent accidents on construction sites, such as passersby getting hit by heavy instruments or materials falling from above.
In the United Kingdom, archaeologists found thousands of objects underneath the thresholds of houses, behind fireplaces, in chimneys, and/or on roofs consisting of dried cats, horse skulls, shoes, pointy metals, and witches' bottles. Most of the present owners of houses built in the 16th to mid-20th century refuse to remove the apotropaic objects as they were found, suggesting that even modern individuals believe in the effectiveness of the ritual.
Sources and Further Reading
Spinney, L. (2018, February 27). "Did Human Sacrifice Help People Form Complex Societies?" The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/02/did-human-sacrifice-help-people-form-complex-societies/554327/
Wessing, R., & Jordaan, R. E. (1997). "Death at the Building Site: Construction Sacrifice in Southeast Asia." History of Religions, 37(2), 101–121. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3176341
Benson, E. (2016, April 4). "Human sacrifice may have helped societies become more complex." Science. https://www.science.org/content/article/human-sacrifice-may-have-helped-societies-become-more-complex
Qian, Y. (2019). "Conflict and Identity: The Ritual of Wall Construction in Early China." Asian Perspectives, 58(2), 287-315. doi:10.1353/asi.2019.0017
Hulubas, A. (2017). "A Psychological Function of Sacrifices in Romanian Construction Rites." Bulletin of Integrative Psychiatry, 23(3), 89+. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A555806858/AONE?u=anon~f25a2947&sid=googleScholar&xid=b0c71c5b
Burma. The Directorate of Archaeological Survey. (1963) Mandalay Palace. The Directorate of Archaeological Survey.
Tsuda, Noritake (1918) "Human Sacrifices in Japan," The Open Court, Vol. 1918, Iss. 12.
Mariot, N. (2020). "On the role of dehumanization of victims in the perpetration of mass killings: Research notes." Violence: An International Journal, 1(1), 102–122. https://doi.org/10.1177/2633002420916979
Smith, D. L. (2016). "Paradoxes of Dehumanization." Social Theory and Practice, 42(2), 416–443. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24871350
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Joanna Maxine Jack