One of the great things about this blog is the comments we receive from interested, informed readers. Yesterday we received this one from Justin Sanity, who has a fascinating store of knowledge and experience in the area of ‘satanic ritual abuse’ and the witch hunts and panics that it has inspired over the centuries.
Have you ever wondered where the myth of ‘cults that murder and eat babies’ originated? We’ll let Justin tell you:
THE BIZARRE IRONY OF CHRISTIAN SRA PROMOTION
[I studied these subjects in college, but there’s a wonderful website called “Jesus Never Existed” that is less about rabid atheist anti-christian propaganda and more of a portal to succinct summaries of modern biblical scholarship. Endlessly fascinating – I recommend it]
Although I do think that theories about moral panic and sexual sublimation such as that espoused by David Frankfurter are correct, there is also a very simple and historic origin for the myth of The Cult That Murders & Eats Babies
Christians of the early second century didn’t have much of a formal church organization. They had no “houses of worship” akin to Roman pagan temples or rabbinical Jewish synagogues. They gathered in each others’ homes once a week, to hold their Eucharist ceremony. Roman authorities understood little about Christians, and considered them a “suspicious little cult” because they wouldn’t participate in veneration of the Emperor as a deity and because they performed their own religious ceremony “in secret”, i.e., in private residences rather than in public. Roman suspicion often grew into paranoia, when they learned that the Christian Eucharist involved eating something representing “the body” of their god Christ, and drinking something representing “the blood” of Christ. The cannibalistic inference to eating the body of your God and drinking His blood was very apparent to some Romans, and before long there were rumors that the Christians were using human beings to represent the body & blood of Christ in their Eucharist ceremony, literally eating a human body and drinking a human’s blood. Rumors turned into “exposes” by Roman writers, and eventually to formal accusations by some Roman authorities, that Christians not only ritually sacrificed and cannibalized a human person in their Eucharist, but that they ate the flesh and drank the blood of human INFANTS specifically. The historic reality of these accusations by Roman authorities and how the early Christian apologists debunked them, is documented in the writings of “Church Fathers” Justin Martyr and Tertullian among others.
But, why were early Christians accused of ritually murdering and eating BABIES specifically?
The Roman populations many Christians were living among practiced something called “exposure”. They had no reliable birth control devices, no safe medical abortion, no adoption agencies and no social welfare system. Unwanted pregnancies and subsequent unwanted children could be a serious problem for many Roman families. Their solution to this problem was – they took unwanted babies out to the edge of town and left them there, out in the open, to die of exposure. This seems very callous to us, but the Romans had a supporting mythology for this practice which provided satisfactory rationalizations to for them. They believed that whether an abandoned infant lived or died was a matter of cosmic “destiny”. If it was the child’s destiny to perish, that was in the hands of the gods now, but it might be the child’s destiny not only to survive but possibly even to prosper beyond the parent’s wildest imaginings. You can read about this mythological rationalization for “exposure”, here:
The early Christians did not practice “exposure”. The Christians practiced a pioneering form of social welfare within their community, which we know as “charity”. The needs of the less fortunate Christians were seen to by the more fortunate ones, and the community as a whole would pool their resources to care for their disabled, their widows and their orphans. Christians would often rescue infants left out to die of exposure, take them to their homes, and the community would care for and raise these children communally. THAT is the true origin of the baby eating rumors. Romans would spot a Christian bringing an exposure infant into their home, and remembering the rumors about Christians using human beings as substitutes for Christ’s body & blood, would assume the Christians were using RESCUED infants for their Eucharist.
There is a great irony, here. The origin of rumors about The Cult That Murders & Eats Babies is in fact based on a misunderstanding about acts of genuine Christian charity in their early communities.
A fascinating footnote: we wonder whether this trope from the days of early Christianity might have formed the basis for the infamous Jewish ‘blood libel’: the idea that Jews (themselves a minority population within later Christian European cultures) were in the habit of kidnapping and murdering Christian children, and using their blood to make their Passover matzoh?
The parallels are certainly striking, and this sort of story seems to repeat itself over and over again throughout history, with different reviled or misunderstood groups standing in for the Cult that Murders and Eats Babies. As we peel back the layers of the onion on Hoaxtead, it’s good to bear in mind that this is not the first hoax of its kind, nor will it be the last.