Solving the Pollution Problem with Human Sacrifice

By: The Scribe on Monday, April 1, 2013

Okay, so it wasn’t the kind of pollution you might see over the skies of a major city, but in ancient Rome, spiritual pollution was even more important—possibly important enough to sacrifice lives over!


One of the obscure ancient rituals from Rome was an observance called the Argei, which happened twice a year and which was so obscure that, well… by the time Augustus came to power, most of the people who observed Argei didn’t  even know what they were doing!

The Argei rituals were held in mid-March and mid-May. There were 27 shrines associated with the ritual—called the Shrines of the Argei, or sacra Argeorum—and during the March observance, participants visited all 27 shrines and are thought to have deposited puppet-like figures inside of them. These figures, or effigies, were thought to absorb pollution during the following months, and were then removed during the May observance.

And then thrown off a bridge into the Tiber River.

Tiber River

But the effigies weren’t always little figures made out of reed, straw, and rush and formed like humans… no, in fact it’s thought that one man for each of the families living near the banks of the Tiber were required to offer one man for sacrifice. However, this tradition was likely done so early that the original inhabitants of the area were Greek.

That said, Ovid wrote that the practice of human sacrifice during the Argei was put to an end by the hero Hercules and never actually practiced by the Romans themselves, so… take from that what you will.

Another writer, Dionysus of Halicarnassus, explained that the victims for these early human sacrifices were men over sixty—in other words, on death’s doorstep anyway—and that they volunteered for the ritual rather than were forced or chosen by outside parties.

There are many varied and differing opinions on what the Argei really were—another theory is that the effigies were representative of a very early mass sacrifice of humans, given in exchange for the river’s blessing to build a bridge across it—and even the early writers don’t agree on what it was!

Why would people celebrate something so obscure that they didn’t even know the origins of it anymore?

It’s not that strange, when you think about it… after all, how many modern holidays do you know the real origins of?


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