Have virgins ever been tossed into volcanoes to appease the gods?

February 15, 2013

Dear Cecil:

My query concerns the common conception of primitive cultures sacrificing virgins by throwing them into the maw of an active volcano. Many people seem to think this actually happened, but I can’t find even one reliable report of human sacrifice this way. Is it a Hollywood invention? Tell me the truth, Cecil. Have any virgins anywhere ever been tossed into a live volcano to appease an irate god?

Cecil replies:

As with so many popular beliefs, the answer boils down to: (1) this story is mostly Hollywood BS, but (2) not 100 percent. To get a better handle on things, let’s look at different permutations of the concept, starting with the least plausible and working up.

Virgins have been thrown into volcanoes to appease god(s). This is the story in purest form — so pure, in fact, that I haven’t been able to find any actual examples of it. The closest I got was the 1932 film Bird of Paradise, starring Dolores del Rio as native girl Luana. Plotwise it breaks down as: boy meets girl, boy hooks up with girl, girl is betrothed to someone else, boy steals girl, boy is cursed by volcano goddess Pele, girl sacrifices self to appease Pele and save boy. Long in the public domain, the film is available for free download and worth every penny.

I need to point out a couple things, though. First, while Luana’s primitive culture is perfectly willing to sacrifice her to placate the volcano god, it doesn’t actually do so. She sacrifices herself.

Second, volcanoes suitable for throwing women into for the most part don't exist. The popular idea is that a volcanic cone has a lake of molten lava inside, perhaps with a rocky promontory jutting out from the rim to provide a convenient spot for victim-flinging. In reality, an erupting volcano typically spews lava up or outward from a cone, vent, or fissure, after which the lava flows laterally along the flattish surfaces nearby. One could, I suppose, shove a sacrificial individual into one of these flows and thereby incinerate her (or him), but that doesn’t constitute tossing a virgin into a volcano as the trope is usually understood.

Virgins have been sacrificed on, if not in, volcanoes. I’ll go out on a limb and say this is 100 percent true. The mummified remains of numerous murdered Incan children, many of them female, have been found on the upper slopes of volcanoes in the Andes. For example, a girl was discovered on Mount Ampato in Peru in 1995 and two girls and a boy on Llullaillaco in Argentina in 1999. The victims, aged six to adulthood, were well dressed and nourished, suggesting they’d been fattened for the slaughter. I don’t know if on examination any of the children were found to be virgins but will politely assume they were.

Archaeologist Johan Reinhard, who led the expeditions that found the Ampato and Llullaillaco mummies, has conjectured that sacrifices at Ampato were intended to stop a volcanic eruption nearby. The site is only reachable when volcanic heat has melted the snow, and in fact Reinhard was only able to get there because of an eruption at the time.

Humans, but especially children, have been sacrificed to the gods, or to accompany deceased rulers who presumably were going to join the gods. This is so abundantly and widely true that it may not seem worth mentioning, but we ought not to let our interest in a particularly baroque sacrificial mode blind us to the larger truth, namely that our species has slaughtered innocents by the uncountable thousands since antiquity, without even the excuse of war. Examples:

  • In the Bible, the cornerstone of the Western moral code, Abraham famously comes close to sacrificing his son Isaac, and Jephthah actually does kill his daughter in return for winning a war.
  • As part of the funeral rites of the Incan ruler Huayna Capac a thousand people were sacrificed, including many children.
  • The sacrificial cenote, a big sinkhole at the Mayan city of Chichen Itza, was found to contain the skeletons of children mostly from 7 to 15 years old. It’s guessed that the victims were selected for their beauty and freedom from blemish, signifying innocence, youth, and (temporarily) health.

Getting back to volcanoes:

  • In Indonesian legend, a princess and her husband prayed to the god of the Mount Bromo volcano to give them children. The volcano delivered a total of 25, but required the last be offered as a sacrifice. Today, villagers commemorate the event by throwing food, livestock, and money into the crater, which more practical types wait below the rim to catch.
  • American writer Armstrong Sperry claimed he witnessed the sacrifice of a young man thrown into a lava pit in the Solomon Islands, and says he narrowly escaped the same fate.
  • Classical legend says the Greek philosopher Empedocles threw himself into Mount Etna as a sacrifice after healing a woman near death. Why? Who knows? We’ll file this one under “alcohol may have been involved.”
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References

Browne, Malcolm W. “Relics of Carthage Show Brutality Amid the Good Life” New York Times 1 September, 1987: C1.

de Anda Alanís, Guillermo. "Sacrifice and Ritual Body Mutilation in Postclassical Maya Society: Taphonomy of the Human Remains from Chichén Itzá’s Cenote Sagrado." New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society 105 (2008): 190.

Gaither, Catherine et al. “ArchaeologyMortuary Practices and Human Sacrifice in the Middle Chao Valley of Peru: TheirInterpretation in the Context of Andean Mortuary Patterning” Latin American Antiquity 19.2 (Jun., 2008): 107-121.

Galvin, John. “New evidence shows that human sacrifice helped populate the royal city of the dead.” National Geographic 2006. Online edition, accessed 27 January, 2013. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0504/feature7/

Hershfield, Joanne “Race and Romance in ‘Bird of Paradise’ ” Cinema Journal 37.3 (Spring, 1998): pp. 3-15.

Michelson, Truman “Maiden Sacrifice Among The Ojibwa” American Anthropologist 36 (1934): 628-629.

Owen, James. “Druids Committed Human Sacrifice, Cannibalism?” National Geographic (20 March, 2006).. Online edition, accessed 28 January, 2013. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/03/090320-druids-sacrifice-cannibalism.html

Polgreen, Lydia “Some Congolese see Hope In a Caldron of Liquid Fire” New York Times 23 September, 2008: A16.

Sperry, Armstrong. “Cast Alive into the Molten Heart of a Volcano” World Magazine 23 May, 1926: 8-9.

Tiesler, Vera, and Andrea Cucina. "Procedures in human heart extraction and ritual meaning: A taphonomic assessment of anthropogenic marks in Classic Maya skeletons." Latin American Antiquity (2006): 493-510.

Vinter, Phil. “Stealing food from the gods: villagers offer gifts to appease the volcano” Daily Mail 6 August, 2012. Online edition, accessed 28 January, 2013.

Waugh, Rob. “Incan mummy frozen after human sacrifice still has infection in lungs after 500 years – giving new insight into diseases of the past” Daily Mail 26 July, 2012. Online edition, accessed 28 January, 2013.

Wilford, John Noble “Entirely Preserved Inca Mummies Found” New York Times 7 April, 1999: A1.

Wilford, John Noble “Mummy Tells Story of a Sacrifice, Scientists Say” New York Times 22 May, 1996: A13. 

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