Building on Sacrifice. A Proto-Indo-European "Common Heritage"?

Paola Raffetta

paola @ transoxiana.org

Extended version of the paper presented at the Conference: "Iran: cultural-historical tradition and the dynamics of development", organized by the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow (RSUH) (Office of Iranic studies of RSUH of the Chair of eastern languages, Chair of politology and jurisprudence, Center of Globalisation and Comparativistics of the Institute of Philology and History of RGGU) together with the Cultural Center of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Moscow. RSUH, 14-15 February 2006.

Full text at http://www.paolaraffetta.com.ar/extension/building_on_sacrifice.html

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.


This short paper will propose some questions on the relationship of Building and Sacrifice in the Indo-European context and will search for its link to Proto-Indo-European (PIE) ideological complex. We will be bringing to attention the fact that many ancient, modern, and even some contemporary sources refer to traditions linked to (animal, including human) "sacrifice" (either ritual or symbolic) on the context of establishing a new building, either domestic, civil, or religious. We will be drawing from sources from India to America, and from the second millenium b.C. to modern times, in a cultural frame that we can loosely regard as Indo-European. I believe that the reapparition of similar schemas along the IE world might be derived from common PIE roots. The obvious differences among these themes is more easily explained because of the different contexts of their record, but some traces can still be seen in context, when broadening the range of the samples taken, but limited to indo-european speakers.



I will call some basic facts that might have its roots in ancient (proto-?)indoeuropean ceremonial. In the first case, I will introduce a practise among contemporary argentine builders including a ritual sharing of roasted-beef and the owner's sacrifice, who pays for it. Then, back in time, I will present two other cases of building on sacrifice: the "Devil Bridges" and the Basilica of Luján. Thus, three cases of domestic, civil, and religious architecture recorded from Germany to Argentina in a christian context. Then the Indo-Iranian sacrificial practises will be contrasted. The meaning of the sacrifice and the interaction between construction and deconstruction in IE contex will be implied.

How does a barbacue become a sacrifice?


In present-day Argentina, while buildings are being constructed, we can still find the ritual of the filling of the higher concrete slab (hormigonado de la losa), and the "sacrifice" offered later by the property owner for the builders' sake.

The concrete (hormigón) is prepared as soon as the sun rises by two hodmen (peones) and an overseer (capataz). Cement and water are located in front of the mouth of the concrete mixer (hormigonera), and the overseer faces it. Stones and sand are located at each side of the mixer. Then the hodmen, on the overseer's command, add sand and stone to the mix of cement and water than the overseer is preparing, while the hormigonera rummages and rumbles. The mix of water and cement is the more delicate part, as it is believed to be the soul of the concrete. Then the timbered slab is filled by pouring the concrete mix inside the mould.

By midday the work is done and a big asado (roasted -cow- meat) is prepared and served to the workers. After lunch they are given the rest of the day off. Both the meal and the half-day off must be payed by the owner of the building. In our times, people commonly refer to such an expense as a "sacrifice". Of course, people understand that any failure to fulfill this ritual would result in the crumbling of the buiding, as the workers -feeling mistreated- could simply pour some sugar into the concrete and make the floor crumble as soon as the framework is removed. In that sense, the asado is a kind of dakshina, a sacrificial fee. This kind of "sacrifice" is devoid of any religious implicance, appears as a private exchange among individuals, and the Divinity is not involved, but not fulfilling this duty would almost certainly result in misfortune.

Illustration I: Asado (Argentine roasted meat)
Source: www.3men.com/Images/asado_1.jpg

How did the Devil build the Bridge?

devil's bridge

In Europe (Germany, etc.) and America (Guatemala, Costa Rica, etc.) we can find several old bridges known as "Devil's Bridge", and others with different name but similar legend behind. Those legends coincide to remark some basic facts:

a) the builder of the bridge engages in a relationship (wager, race, request for help, etc.) with the Devil;

b) the Devil will build a strong bridge in due time in exchange for a victim (most legends record the Devil asking for the soul of the first living being that crosses the bridge);

c) the Devil, after having finished the bridge, is fooled, and an animal (a dog, a cow, a chicken, etc.) is given instead. The Devil, cheated, leaves in anger, but the bridge remains.

It seems that a life, a sacrifice, is needed to make a bridge strong and solid. It is a fact that the process of christianization of Europe turned the ancient sacrifices into evil acts, exactly as the "Zarathustrian reform" turned the cosmogonic sacrifice of Gayomart into Ahriman's assault on Creation, as is stated along the Bundahisn.

Although along the Christendom the sacrificial death is associated with Evil, the benefical effects of that sacrifice remain being enjoyed, as in the Iranian version, where the deaths of Gayomart and the Bull served to create all that was valuable to them. We are probably facing a long and lost tradition of sacrificial ideology, and the echo of an early substitution of possibly human victims with domestic animals (horses, bulls, lambs, roosters, etc.) prior to the demonization of bloody sacrifices and the incorporation of Christ's sacrifice as the last one, being only reenacted during Eucharistic mass. And as mass repeats the fundational sacrifice of Christ, all IE "pagan"sacrifices reenacted the cosmogonic ones.

Illustration II: Turner's Devil Bridge
Source: http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/artists/Joseph%20Mallord%20William%20Turner/The%20Devil's%20Bridge%20St%20Gothard.jpg

How does a Fundamental Stone resembles Human Sacrifice?

plan: Lujan Basilica

Back in Argentina, during the building of one the main local Christian churches, the catholic Basílica de Luján (1887), a large fundamental stone (1,2m3) was placed, buried four meters below the main altar. This qubic stone has a hole where the portraits of Roman Popes Pio IX and Leon XIII, and of the Buenos Aires Archbishop, were placed in along with some stones from the Cave of Nazareth and Mount Calvary, different metals coins and other relics, and a document signed by the Archbishop and other authorities.

This day, the Basilica's website states that its shape resembles that of Christ: the main altar being His head, the transept His arms, the aisles His veins, the holy-water basins by the gate the sore of His feet, the main nave His "body that sends purifying blood to the confessionals", and the communion altar His heart.1

The Roman Pope takes the title of Pontifex (Bridge Builder) Maximus, after the Roman royal head-priest, in charge of the calendar, master of time (and of constructions?). The Catholic Pontiff, successor of Petrus ("Stone"), is considered the "Head of the Church". Saint Peter's own burial is said to be just below the main altar of his own Basilica in Rome. Christ has also been called "the Rock", and "the Sacrifice". His own death on Mount Calvary (the Golgota), reminds the place where is located the skull (golgotha) of Adam.

Is there any trace here of an older tradition of building on sacrifice? In Wales, Merlin the wizard, while still being a (father-less) child, is said to have been almost entombed during the building of a king's property, on the priests'advice. Only his art -excelling that of the priests- saved him.2 German and English folklore still keeps legends of children and men entombed in fortification walls. Even St' Columba's priest, Oran, is said to have been walled up his church in Iona, and Gypsy legends mention the sacrifice of the builder's wife.3

So, is building an alloform of cosmogony? According to ancient lore, a sacrificial death was a repetition of creation, a way to deconstruct and allow the subsequent (re)creation. In Scandinavian mythology, Odin and his brothers killed Ymir to form the world. Iranian Yim is also regarded as king of the dead, and the first builder of the famous Vara, although the one sacrificed to form the world was Gayomard. Indian Yama is the first king and first dead, so also king of the dead. Roman Remus was killed by Romulus for tresspassing, at the moment of the founding of Rome. The PIE reconstructed common name is *Yemo, meaning twin. According to Lincoln's reconstruction4, PIE mytheme of creation includes two men (*Manu -man-, and *Yemo) and a bovine, and the sacrifice of the later by the first, thus creating cosmos and society from the man's body, domestic animals and edible plants from the bovine's.

If the construction of a building is regarded as a repetition of cosmogony, a sacrifice will be necesary to recreate the moment of the first sacrificial death and the first constructive event.

Illustration III: Basílica de Luján
Source: http://www.basilicadelujan.org.ar/pix/mapa05.jpg

Vastupurusa Mandala: just a symbol?

Vastupurusa mandala

The Cosmos, in Indian mythology, is an alloform of the sacrificed primeval man. According to Rig Veda X, 90, the Cosmo-sociogonic myth of vedic India, the whole world was made after the dismemberment of a cosmic giant, Purusa, by the gods. Among the slayers, we can probably count Mitra, as is depicted in Roman Mithrea, slaying the Primeval Bull.

The Vastu-Sastra or construction treatise introduces the vastupurusamandala, a figure (mandala) of a man (purusa) inscribed into a square whose parts corresponds to those of the house being built. Is there any relationship between the vastupurusamandala and the symbolic form of the Luján Basilica? Both construction models draw its shape from the one of a sacrificed man. Both are called "the Sacrifice" offered from itself to itself. Both represent the creation of a new order and a model to be repeated thereafter.

Illustration IV: Vastupurusa mandala
Source: http://www.chiofearth.com/images/Vastu-Purusa-Mandela.jpg (sic)

Fire altar: the cosmos unbuilt?

Let's take another case of building on sacrifice: it is the indian Agnikayana or "piling up of (the) Fire (altar)" as extensively detailed in the Satapatha Brahmana. This five-layered altar, made up of 108 bricks, represents bird-shaped Prajapati, the Year (Death = Yama), equated with Purusa5, as being the sacrificial victim after whose death the world is created. The building of the fire altar is a case of deconstruction of the cosmos. The victims offered serve as a medium to repeat the cosmogonic sacrifice, thus recreating the cosmos anew in an endless cicle of creation and decreation and recreation...

According to George Gherveghese Joseph, the mathematics required to build the bird-shaped altar involve a very sophisticated knowledge of geometry, and "the procedures described for their construction involve methods for approximating the values for the square roots of 2 and 5. (...) Solutions were achieved through the principle of dissection and reassembly and ingenious algorithms, including the so-called Pythagorean theorem"6

agnicayana design
Illustration V: Design of the Agnicaya
Source: http://www.nexusjournal.com/conferences/images/96-joseph.gif


This is just a sample of a vast number of stories spaning approximately four millenia of the history of Indo-European speakers, where there seems to be a symbolic link between deconstruction and construction, and this link is the sacrifice required to ensure the durability of the building. The sacrifice is the act of ritual deconstruction as a precondition to construction.

This understanding of deconstruction seems to a be present along the IE world during all ages and keeps present in our days, disguised in the form of customs and traditions, devoid of much of its religious context, but still regarded as needed to ensure the pervivence of its creation.

Selected Bibliography

Lincoln, Bruce- Myth, Cosmos, and Society. Indo-European Themes of Creation and Destruction, Cambridge, 1986.

- Death, War, and Sacrifice. Studies in Ideology and Practice, Chicago, 1991.

- Priests, Warriors, and Cattle, University of California, 1981.

The Indian Bundahisn. Thesaurus Indogermanischer Text- und Sprachmaterialien TITUS. On the basis of the edition Bundahisn hindi-, [ed.] Raqi- Behza-di- Tehran 1368 entered by P. Olivier, Frankfurt, December 1997; corrections and improvements by Carlo Cereti, Vienna, January 1998 / September 1998; TITUS version by Jost Gippert, Frankfurt a/M, 28.2.1998 / 22.6.1998 / 26.9.1999 / 1.6.2000. Institute of Comparative Linguistics of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universitt, Frankfurt am Main, the stav starho Prednho vchodu of Charles University, Prague, the Institut for Almen og Anvendt Sprogvidenskab of the University of Kopenhagen and the Departamento de Filologa Clasica y Romanica (Filologa Griega) de la Universidad de Oviedo. Visited Nov. 2002 http://titus.uni-frankfurt.de/texte/etcs/iran/miran/mpers/bundahis/bunda.htm

The Rig Veda, translated by R.T.H. Griffith, Delhi 1896.

The Zend Avesta. Trad. J. Darmesteter en Sacred Books of the East XXXI, Delhi, 1987.

The Satapatha Brahmana according to the text of the Madhyandina School, translated by Julius Eggeling. Sacred Books of the East, Delhi, 1987

Official website, Basílica Nacional "Nuestra Señora de Luján", Arzobispado de Mercedes, Lujan. http://www.basilicadelujan.org.ar/. Visited Sep. 2005.

The Devil's Bridge: folktales of Aarne-Thompson type 1191 translated and/or edited by D. L. Ashliman. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type1191.html. Visited Nov. 2005.

Christus: A Mystery by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. PART II - THE GOLDEN LEGEND - V - The Devil's Bridge. http://www.readbookonline.net/read/2859/12346/ Visited Feb. 2006.

"Merlin the Magician Rescues King Vortigen" in W. Jenkins Thomas, The Welsh Fairy Book. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/merlin.html. Visited Nov. 2005.

Human Sacrifice in Legends and Myths, translated and/or edited by D. L. Ashliman, 2003. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/sacrifice.html. Visited Feb. 2006.

Vini Nathan, "Vastu Purusha Mandala", pp. 151-163 in Nexus IV: Architecture and Mathematics, eds. Kim Williams and Jose Francisco Rodrigues, Fucecchio (Florence): Kim Williams Books, 2002. Visited Feb. 2006. http://www.nexusjournal.com/conferences/N2002-Nathan.html.

George Gherveghese Joseph, "The Geometry of Vedic Altars", pp. 97-113 in Nexus: Architecture and Mathematics, ed. Kim Williams, Fucecchio (Florence): Edizioni dell'Erba, 1996. http://www.nexusjournal.com/conferences/N1996-Joseph.html. Visited Feb. 2006.


1. Website Basílica de Lujan, Description of the Basílica: http://www.basilicadelujan.org.ar/html/07-basilica-b.htm

2. "Merlin the Magician Rescues King Vortingen" in W. Jenkins Thomas, The Welsh Fairy Book. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/merlin.html

3. Francis Hindes Groome, Gypsy Folk-Tales (London: Hurst and Blackett, Limited, 1899), no. 4, pp. 12-13. in Ashliman, Human Sacrifice in Legends and Myths, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/sacrifice.html

4. See Bruce Lincoln, Priests, Warriors, and Cattle and also Myth, Cosmos, and Society: Indo-European Themes of Creation and Destruction.

5. Satapatha Brahmana XI,1,6,36. S.B.E. 44, pp. 20.

6. "The Geometry of Vedic Altars", pp. 97-113 in Nexus: Architecture and Mathematics.

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