Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/October 1893/Criminal Festivals

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WHAT we now call crime is a normal fact of social life among ruder peoples, who have not yet risen above the lowest grades of manhood. Murder, theft, pillage, are glorious exploits or rarely sought-out amusements among such; and cannibalism is a system of alimentation more prized than all others. Primitive man in most regions has no repugnance against killing and eating other men, but rather finds enjoyment in it. This being the moral condition of most primitive peoples, we can comprehend without difficulty that their festivals had a cruel and criminal character. As human flesh is the most exquisite viand for cannibal savages, it was natural that when they met to celebrate any welcome event in a festal way they should regale themselves liberally with this precious food. The Fijians never failed in their cannibal days to mark every public solemnity, like the dedication of a temple, with a grand feast of human flesh: and they celebrated their victories in war by carving and roasting their slain enemies on the field of battle. The Monbuttos celebrate grand man-eating festivals on the field of battle after a victory. The New-Zealanders carved up immediately after the battle their vanquished and wounded enemies, while prisoners were reserved, partly to be eaten by the braves, and partly for grand public festivals in which human flesh was the principal dish.

Murder is a pleasure to the primitive man, as with the Javanese, who tests the quality of his new dirk by plunging it into the heart of the first man he meets. It is quite natural, therefore, that there should be meetings among these people for the enjoyment of this pleasure, at which they engage in murderous festivities at the expense of some unfortunate victim. The red Indians, returning from an expedition, used to give themselves up to sanguinary orgies upon their prisoners, binding them to a stake in the midst of the village, when men, women, and children would inflict petty tortures upon them till they died, killed by pin-prickings.

We see, then, that in the beginning of civilization crime is individual and collective; there are crimes which each man commits on his own account, and criminal festivals, collective crimes, perpetrated by a whole tribe, a people, etc.

The same rule prevails with those very numerous crimes which are connected with religious ideas, such as human sacrifices in honor of defunct ancestors and then of the gods, who are only deified ancestors. Among so savage peoples, these ancestors would have been fierce and cruel men, to whom human sacrifices, killings, and massacres would be supposed by their adorers to be pleasing; in fact, the Tahitians believed that their god Oro was very well satisfied when wars were bloody; and the Chibchas said that no sacrifice was so dear to the gods as sacrifices of human blood. For this reason many were killed among the most savage peoples in honor of ancestors and the gods. These religious crimes, too, were individual and collective—that is, the sacrifice was sometimes performed by one man, sometimes by a family, and sometimes by a whole tribe, according as a personal, a family, or a tribal concern was to be commended to the gods.

According to this view, we should be tempted to believe that when crime began to be the object of legal repression and moral repulsion, all these individual and collective crimes, festivals, and human sacrifices would disappear. It is not so. By a curious contradiction, individual crime has disappeared sooner than collective crime. The branding by the public opinion of peoples who have become sufficiently civilized, of murder, theft, and cannibalism as offenses, may have prevented individuals from committing them, but did not prevent the whole people celebrating the criminal festivals which their savage customs had engendered, although they were contradictory of the changed condition of public morality. In fact, we find among very civilized peoples official festivals and ceremonies which are wholly worthy of the most savage races.

It is a general belief among primitive peoples that human blood, possessing marvelous qualities, assures fertility to the fields and stability to houses, and on that account a large number of homicides are committed among such peoples: for each man tries to assure the benefits of bloodshed to his own fields or to his house. Among the civilized Aryans of India this barbarous custom existed no longer; whoever killed a man to use his blood for such a purpose would have been condemned as a murderer; but the ancient usage still survived in public ceremonies.

War is often made by primitive peoples for the purpose of eating the enemy who is slain, for the enemy is then only a special kind of game. With some peoples who have advanced a little, and who have abolished their cannibalistic customs, we find that human flesh is the essential dish in certain banquets celebrated in honor of victories. In Dahomey, after fortunate wars, there were public festivals in which banquets of human flesh were a sacred custom, although the Dahomeyans were not cannibals; and it was the king's function to eat the heart of an enemy's chief slain in war.

What is called juridical anthropophagy occasionally gives rise to a peculiar species of criminal festivals. Among the Battas of Sumatra, a numerous people, agricultural, peaceful, and law-abiding, who have a regular system of laws, an alphabet and a literature, and are not cannibals, the adulterer, the night-robber, and those who traitorously attacked a city or a village, were condemned to be eaten by the people. They were tied to three stakes, their arms and legs stretched out to form a cross, and then, at a given signal, all those present would rush up to them and hack them up with hatchets and knives, or simply with their nails and teeth. The torn-off pieces of flesh were eaten at once, raw and bleeding, being first only dipped in a mixture composed of citron-juice, salt, etc., prepared in advance in a cocoanut shell. In adultery cases the husband had the right to choose the first piece.[1]

The Dyaks have a criminal festival associated with the peculiar custom of head-hunting. Since in many tribes a young man can not marry till he has presented a human head to his sweetheart, he hides himself in the shrubbery of the jungles and watches for his victim for days at a time, till he kills him and cuts off his head. Then he returns to his village and announces his triumph by blowing upon the sea-shell that serves him as a hunting horn; the children and the women come out to meet him, give him an ovation, and lavish upon him the most exaggerated and hyperbolical praises; and the bleeding head is borne in great pomp to the house of the chief. Before hanging it up in front of the dwelling, children are caused to suck its blood, in order that they may draw courage from it. Yet the Dyaks are a peaceful people, for homicide is very rare within their tribes. "Not the thirst for carnage, or. the love of murder," writes Temmink, "or any spirit of vengeance, induces them to cut off heads. They are not authropophagic. A hereditary superstition, passed into a custom, causes them to commit acts which they believe to be meritorious." In fact, the Dyaks, like the Battas, have an undisputed reputation for sincerity, frankness, and honesty.[2]

It is especially religion that gives its sanction and consecrates these collective crimes, by preserving them in customs associated with its dogmas and rites. The Phœnician race, even when it had reached the highest degree of its civilization, still retained human sacrifices at Tyre, Sidon, and Carthage. The festivals of Moloch were real orgies of blood; the priests burned children in honor of the god, and the people, excited by the spectacle, were seized with such an agitation that many men were injured by the frenzied crowd. These horrors were repeated at Upsala by the Scandinavians, and at Rügen and Roncova by the ancient Slavs; yet the Scandinavians and the Slavs, although they were not so civilized as the Phœnicians, were people who had made considerable advance. Still, this is not so astonishing as to find human sacrifices in use even among the Greeks, with whom in the period of their grandeur the throng, at the mysteries of Bacchus Zagreus, cut up a goat, a sacrifice which was only a substitution; for anciently, according to Plutarch, it was a man that the throng cut to pieces on the altar of Dionysos Omostes—Dionysos, the flesh-eater. At the Thargelia, the Athenians gayly decorated a man and a woman who had been entertained at the expense of the state, escorted them in procession, and burned them at the entrance to the plain. The Celts bought slaves, whom they entertained liberally, and at the end of the year conducted in great pomp to the sacrifice. Every twelve months the Scythian tribe of the Albanians, according to Strabo, fattened a slave whom the people then massacred with lance cuts before the shrine of Artemis.

The great solemn popular festival of the Khonds included the annual immolation of a victim. After three days of indescribable orgies, in which women often participated dressed like men and armed like warriors, the victim was bound to a stake in the midst of the forest, and left there all night alone; in the morning the people returned, with a great noise of bells and gongs, singing and shouting; when the multitude had become well intoxicated with the uproar, and greatly excited by disorderly dances, the grand priest would command silence and recite a long prayer, and would then slay the victim, usually with a single stroke of the knife. The multitude, which had been waiting for that moment, rushed upon the C{uarry with piercing cries, each one trying to tear off a piece of the palpitating flesh, to hack the body to pieces.

A criminal ceremony exists among the tribes of the interior of Sumatra, which is without doubt the survival of an ancient and very cruel custom, that has passed in the course of time into a civil and religious duty. These people, although of rather gentle disposition, piously and ceremoniously kill and eat their aged parents, in the belief that they are performing a sacred duty. At the appointed day the old man who is destined to be eaten goes up into a tree, at the foot of which are gathered the relatives and friends of the family. They strike the trunk of the tree in cadence and sing a funeral hymn. Then the old man descends, his nearest relatives deliberately kill him, and the attendants eat him.

With some peoples animals take the place of human victims; but what we have said is sufficient to show that even with these peoples collective crime was formerly a solemn ceremony, although individual crime was already regarded as something to be oondemned.

Till very recent times the people of Ispahan celebrated what they called the festival of the camel, or of the sacrifice of Abraham The high priest of Mecca sent his adopted son, mounted on a blessed camel, which was led through the city with great pomp. At a given moment the king shot an arrow into its Hanks; in a wink the poor animal was thrown down, hacked to pieces, carried off, and distributed widely. Every one wished for some of it, if it were only the smallest fragment, to be put into a kettle of rice. The Ghilicks and the Ainos adopted a bear, and fed it freely till the day of the public festival, when the people struggled for pieces of it.

Sometimes, in these criminal festivals, the public only plays the part of a spectator. It does not itself kill the victims, but only witnesses the slaughter, the bloodshed, which executioners are commissioned to perform. In Etruscan funerals the relatives of the deceased caused a convict to be publicly tormented: sometimes they blindfolded him and gave him a stick; then the executioners excited dogs against him, and the unfortunate victim had to defend himself with his stick. Such spectacles, which seem to have been amusing to the populace, are represented in many Etruscan paintings. The shows of gladiators at Rome, fights of gladiators with one another, and of gladiators with wild beasts, were simply transformations of the funeral sacrifices of the Etruscans, but more ferocious, for they generally ended in the death of a large number of men. The passive Roman people had such a passion for these games that they became a means of political domination; parties sought to secure the votes of the populace by giving them spectacles in which large numbers of men and beasts were killed.

In ancient Mexico, where crime was punished very severely, and was pursued with much energy, an immense throng came together every year to witness the numerous and terrible human sacrifices in honor of the god Huitzilopochtli. The spectacle, with its atrocious cruelties, was a source of delight to a people among whom intoxication, theft, and murder were punished with death, and who possessed a remarkable political organization and civilization. This transformation of the populace into spectators was, without doubt, an advance; but it is nevertheless surprising that such ceremonies should have been tolerated among peoples so civilized.

We see, therefore, that collective crime has opposed a greater resistance than individual crime to the progress of civilization. But why have these criminal festivals endured so long, while individual customs have been undergoing transformation? "The axiom, the whole is the sum of its parts, does not apply to multitudes," writes M. Reclus. M. Sighele has brought a large number of proofs to the demonstration of this precept—that is, that the aggregate of many men presents some characteristics that are not found in the unities that compose it.[3] The psychology of a multitude of men is a special psychology; for the passions, the inclinations, and the thoughts of the individuals who compose it are combined in such a way that the conduct of a man mixed with a crowd will be quite different from that which he would observe if he were alone. The phenomenon we are studying is the effect of a similar difference between the characters of an aggregate of men and the characters of its units. A crowd of men is always more afraid of the new, more conservative, than are the men who compose it. For that reason a usage is more stable and less subject to variation in proportion to the number of men who observe it. The larger the multitude grows the more intense does its misoneism (hatred of novelty) become.

Every one can observe that it is easy for a man to change his individual habits, but that the habits of a family, being more fixed, are changed with greater difficulty. In fact, in some families there are ways that are preserved for two or three generations. But fixed as family customs are, they are unstable enough if we compare them to the usages of large aggregates, to the whole population of a city, for example. In all Europe, in Italy, France, and Germany some of the cities still celebrate the festivals of the middle ages, occasionally even Roman festivals, which plunge a whole population every year into the past again. The costumes, the banners, and the signals, everything in these festivals is old, and no one would be satisfied to use anything modern in them, for all their beauty would then seem to vanish. We find yet more superannuated usages when we consider still larger human aggregates; for while in the usages of a city we find survivals of its history, in the usages common to all civilized men we find survivals of the ancient primitive life, customs which appertain to the savage period. Of such, for example, is the worship of ancestors; for that exists no longer among peoples of high civilization, and rites relating to it have been nearly entirely abandoned. Yet these rites, which exist no longer in individual practice, still survive as a general usage among all Roman Catholic peoples, for the ceremony of the day of the dead is nothing else than a survival from the ancient ancestral religion. On that day all turn back in a mass to perform acts relating to that religion—visiting of the graves, renewing of the floral crowns, etc.—like those we find in use among savage tribes, although no thought or notion of the worship of ancestors is left among us. What does not exist as an individual practice still survives as a general usage.

A mass of men is thus always more afraid of novelty than the men that compose it: these may change their feelings and their ideas, but they come together; the feelings and ideas acquired by the individuals will have no influence, or but little, upon their conduct. What is the cause of this contradiction? Why is a mass of men always more conservative than its components? Man, according to the law demonstrated by M. Lombroso, hates all novelty and tries to preserve everything that exists—his ideas and feelings—so long as he can, without changing them. Yet, when very strong necessities urge him, man succeeds in disturbing his inertia: he changes his habits and his ideas, and rebels against institutions and laws which he had once venerated; but it is always a painful task, a disagreeable effort for every man, even the best endowed, to carry this revolution into the system of his ideas and habits. Difficult as this change may be for each man, it is still more so when a collective usage is concerned; for then the opinion of all the other men to the same effect and imitation re-enforce the neophoby (or fear of novelty) natural to the man. The struggle is not only against one's own conservative instincts, but also against the fear of being alone in neglecting a usage which all others observe. "Everybody does it," is the answer most persons will give you when you ask them why they practice some quite absurd and ridiculous ceremonies. Further, no one has any particular interest in these collective usages, and therefore no one has special reasons for abandoning them; for these usages to pass away there must, therefore, be causes acting upon the whole mass of those who observe them, producing gradual decadence. Now these causes would naturally act more slowly than those which produce individual changes of manners, ideas, etc.; they will act more slowly, too, as the aggregate of men subject to their influence is greater.

So the genesis of criminal festivals is explained. When crimes become the object of legal repression and then of moral repulsion, men begin, each on his own account, to abstain from committing them; their views in relation to criminal actions gradually change, and those acts which formerly appeared honorable and glorious become gradually blamable. But these criminal festivals, to which the ancient liberty and the ancient glory of crime have given rise, being usages common to a whole tribe or people, enjoy the advantage of the greater stability we have remarked in collective usages. Each man removes himself slowly from crime but to return to it, as a member of the tribe, when the time for these civil or religious festivals of a criminal character returns. Thus, the Dahomeyan, who is no longer a cannibal, becomes an anthropophagist again in the great public festivals that are celebrated after a victory; the East Indians slay men upon the foundations of a palace, but only when great public edifices are a-building; and the inhabitants of Sumatra, gentle enough in their ordinary customs, solemnly eat their old men, in the belief that they are thereby observing the most sacred of their duties as sons.

There is a still more curious side in this strange phenomenon. Everything old and superannuated—usages, customs, laws, etc.—is the object of an extreme veneration, especially among primitive peoples. The Tupis believed that if they should depart from the customs of their ancestors they would be destroyed; in some clans of the Malagasy innovation and evil are inseparable ideas; the Araucanians have many very ancient usages which they hold sacred and observe without any constraint; the Hottentot-Koramas are entirely free in their actions, except when ancient usages are involved. Since these criminal festivals survive long after crime has begun to be a morbid exception, they end by becoming sacred, profiting by the veneration attached to all ancient things; to abolish them or neglect them would be for these peoples a failure in the holiest duties. Consequently, the deed, which appears horrible and worthy of punishment when it is done by a single man, is regarded as honorable when it is performed by the whole tribe or the whole people in these festivals; the crime of the individual becomes the duty of the mass.

These sanguinary festivals have been able, by the effect of another cause, to endure long, even among superior peoples, like the Greeks and Romans. Unfortunately, crime, especially murder and crimes of blood, is not an action of which man has an innate horror; horror of crime, when it exists, is only the effect of a long training, of a painful education of civilization. Murder, M. Taine writes, introduces two extraordinary emotions into the moral and animal machine of man, which overturn it: on the one hand, the sense of all-power exercised without control, obstacle, or danger, on human life and on sensible flesh; and, on the other hand, the sense of bleeding death with its always novel accompaniment of contortions and shrieks. That is why all those who can dispose at their caprice, without any danger, of the existence of other men—kings, princes, and mobs—are usually inclined to cruelty. This tendency to the sanguinary pleasures of murder would be more lively among half-civilized peoples, who have been only a little while accustomed to respect for human life; and therefore criminal festivals, although contradictory to the state of individual manners, would be a choice amusement for them; for all the ferocious instincts which usually slumber in the man could give themselves free course in them. It explains to us, too, why men have tried to preserve these festivals by ameliorating them, when civilization would not tolerate their primitive ferocity; when human sacrifices became impossible, animals were substituted; when combats between men seemed too horrible, fights of animals—of cocks, bulls, and fishes—were instituted. It has been said that the minister who should try to abolish bull fights in Spain would provoke a general revolt. In these cases the multitude are only spectators of the carnage; but when a people like the Spanish loves these sanguine representations with so furious a passion, can we be surprised that people less civilized ardently lust after the pleasures of collective criminality, although their manners may be in course of amelioration?

Besides having a historical interest, the study of these criminal festivals is very important for criminology, because it brings numerous evidences in support of the atavistic theory of crime. In discussing the questions whether crime is a phenomenon of atavism, or whether at least atavism does not play a considerable part in criminality, many criminologists have maintained that while most savage peoples are thieves, cruel and dissolute, nothing authorizes the affirmation that the ancestors of civilized peoples resembled them. We have, indeed, no direct proof of this fact; but if, in default of proof, we examine the usages and institutions of these peoples, which are a kind of fossil remains of their evolution, we may conclude that the primitive ancestor of the Greek was no more moral than the Australian or the Javanese. These criminal festivals can be explained only by assuming an. ancient condition of moral disorder; which admitted, everything becomes clear, and is susceptible of a simple and logical explanation.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.


The prevalence of lake basins in glaciated countries is accounted for by Mr. J. C. Hawkshaw by assuming that whenever earth movements take place in limited areas they will tend to form basins. Since such movements are as a rule gradual, the basins will tend to fill up with water-borne detritus, the growth of vegetation, etc., as fast as they are formed. In glaciated countries, however, they arc occupied with ice, and that protects them from being tilled up by such processes, and they will be preserved to appear as lake basins when the ice melts. Such basins are probably more numerous in rainless countries than we are aware of, for, not containing water and not presenting a different appearance from the rest of the country, they do not attract attention. An instance of them is presented in the Raian basin of Egypt, which has been surveyed by Mr. Cope Whitehouse, with a view to making use of it in works of irrigation.

A series of Roman tools, more than sixty in number, discovered in a rubbish pit during excavations at Silchester, England, in 1890, are described by Sir J. Evans. Among them are anvils, hammers, chisels, gouges, adzes, axes, and a carpenter's plane. The find also included two plow-coulters, a sword-blade, a large gridiron, a lamp, and a bronze steelyard.

  1. Letourneau, La Sociologie d'après l'Ethnographie, Paris.
  2. Bertillon, Les Races sauvages, Paris.
  3. La Foule criminelle, Paris, 1892.