One of the things that sets us apart from the other creatures that share our planet is that we indulge in commerce. Trade.
Trade must have been around for a very long time indeed, from the first moment a person realised that he had too much of one thing and not enough of another. It just makes sense. And it must have made much more sense once we started farming, and manufacturing things like weapons or jewellery.
Another thing that sets us apart is religion. We have gods. We’ve always had gods.
It stands to reason, then, that we should try to trade with our gods. If I give you something precious, Oh Mighty Thing Up There, you will give me something in return. And so, we keep finding evidence that people sacrificed things to their gods. Swords were thrown into lakes. Food was burnt at altars. Jewellery was sunk into bogs.
The way commerce works is that the more valuable the thing you seek is, the more valuable the thing you offer in its stead must be. Precious offerings got larger rewards. And what could be more precious than a human life. And so people sacrificed other people to their gods. People were thrown into lakes. People were burnt at altars. People were sunk into bogs.
The old gods were nasty pieces of work. Blood gods. And some of them were very bloody indeed. When their temple on top of the great pyramid at Tenochtitlan was rededicated in 1487, the Aztecs claimed to have sacrificed 80 400 people in four days.
Most of these sacrifices were of captured enemies or of slaves. But for some, those sorts of lives were not precious enough. The Incas sacrificed their own children to their sun god.
The Carthaginians were said to sacrifice their own babies to their blood god Moloch. The consent of the parents was required.
It is hard to imagine what would motivate a parent to offer up their child this way. Or maybe it isn’t. Unlike the enemies and the slaves, these children were adored by their people. They were the favourites of the old gods. The special ones. They were showered with gifts. Raised up on high. They must have felt like gods themselves. Until the knives came out, and their empty husks were cast aside. And those parents?
I’m sure it wasn’t so bad to be the parent of one of your god’s favoured children. Their honour would be your honour. The respect, the admiration, the adulation must all have rubbed off on you, and if your economic prospects were somewhat boosted by the whole affair, who would hold that against you? Most of all, some of that godliness must have rubbed off on you, too. And when the knives came out? Well, it must have sucked. But the knives weren’t out, in the end, for you.
Luckily, the world moved on, and our gods became a little nicer. The story of Abraham and Isaac is said by some to represent a turning away from human sacrifice in the distant past, with the consent of the intended beneficiary.
Up until recently, all we’ve had to sacrifice to our gods (if we choose to believe in them) has been some of our stuff. We tithe. We donate. We drop some coins into the collection box. If we feel like it. We can give our time, too, I suppose. We can’t, however, give our children.
Not any more. There’s a new god in town. A god called Fame. And make no mistake, Fame is a blood god. At first, when Fame was a young god, he went out and found his own victims. Janis Joplin. Jimi Hendrix. Jim Morrison. Amy Winehouse. Curt Cobain. The list is endless. But these people were not sacrifices. They were victims of their own excess.
But then something disturbing began to happen. Ever heard of a sandboy? As in “As happy as a sandboy”. Sandboys were not happy at all. They were Victorian child labourers. They live short, miserable lives of grinding poverty, driving around carts laden with sand which they used to scrub peoples’ stone floors. Chimney sweeps were also child labourers. So was the little match girl. There were factory workers, miners, textile workers and glass makers. Many of these jobs were tough and dangerous, and child labourers died like flies.
And then someone pointed out that this wasn’t very nice. Laws were passed. Child labour was stopped in most countries where this blog is read. Just don’t think about where your luxury goods are coming from. It will make you sad.
But not all child labour was outlawed in the West. Remember this guy?
He started working at the age of four. These girls?
They started work at the age of zero.
On paper, it all sounds quite reasonable. Yes, these kids are being put to work in proper, adult jobs, but the worlds we create on film need to have kids in them, or they’d just be creepy. Besides, there are some very strict rules around the conditions under which these kids are working. Rules about the hours they should be keeping. Rules about their education. Rules about their money. Rules to keep them safe. It’s all very responsible, and anyone who puts their kids to work in film or music is, on paper, giving them a fantastic opportunity. But.
Remember this guy?
That’s Brad Renfro. He played that kid in “The Client”. He’s dead.
That’s Jonathan Brandis. He was in “SeaQuest”. He’s dead.
That’s Bridgette Andersen. She was in “Savannah Smiles”. She’s dead.
There’s a list of them. It reads like a liturgy.
Corey Haim. Dead.
Dana Plato. Dead.
River Phoenix. Dead.
Anissa Jones. Dead
Chris Kelly. Dead.
Gary Coleman. Dead.
Michael Jackson. Dead.
The list goes on. And on. And these kids really are sacrifices. You don’t choose your future at the age of four. Someone pushes you. They dress you up in your Sunday best, spit on a tissue to wipe the dirt from your face, and trot you out to the next audition. To be the next Brad Renfro.
Surviving isn’t always the greatest thing in the world, either. You only need to look at the current crop of bright young things to see how fame and fortune at a young age can steer your life. Britney Spears. Lindsay Lohan. Amanda Bynes. And they’re just the cream of the crop. Pick a child star out of your memory and chase them down on Google. It’s not a sure thing, but there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find a train wreck.
These outcomes are not inevitable. There are those who come out unscathed. Victorious even. Those kids from the Harry potter movies look like a happy, well adjusted, grounded lot. Someone did a good job. Some child stars have gone on to adult stardom. Others have gone on to cheerful obscurity. But the risk these kids have been exposed to is astronomical.
Imagine yourself, at the age of ten, or twelve, or sixteen, with the world at your feet, literally. A ludicrous salary. An adoring fan-base. The adults in your life at your beck and call. Power. Power beyond anything that should be placed in the hands of a ten-year-old, or a twelve-year-old, or a sixteen-year-old.
And then imagine that one day you woke up and it was all gone. That the world had turned its back on you. Imagine the only question left being the one at the heart of any broken relationship. “Why don’t you love me anymore?”
Offering your child up to the great god Fame must be like standing at the side of a pool full of sharks with your arm around your child’s shoulder, while a hundred other parents do the same thing. You give them a final hug, tell them that you love them so, and then you push them in. And you say, in a quiet, reflective voice, more to yourself than your child “Don’t worry, precious one. Only half of you are going to die.”
It is hard to imagine what would motivate a parent to offer up their child this way. Or maybe it isn’t. These children are adored by their people. They are the favourites of the new god. The special ones. They were showered with gifts. Raised up on high. They must feel like gods themselves. Until the knives come out, and their empty husks are cast aside. And those parents?
I’m sure it’s not so bad to be the parent of one of your god’s favoured children. Their honour must be your honour. The respect, the admiration, the adulation must all rub off on you, and if your economic prospects are somewhat boosted by the whole affair, who would hold that against you? Most of all, some of that godliness must rub off on you, too. And when the knives came out? Well, it must suck. But the knives aren’t out, in the end, for you.
I have no idea how this situation could be resolved. These kids are worth billions, and besides, we all worship this new god in one way or another. We know what Kanye and Kim are calling their child. We know when the Duchess of Cambridge’s baby was born. We know about Angelina Jolie’s latest surgery. We read the magazines and the websites, and watch the shows on TV. We provide the fame these kids are sacrificed to.
I don’t know how you would change the laws to protect these kids. How do you prevent damage that only becomes evident decades later, when no-one is watching? Maybe we should take a leaf from the book of the Victorians.
When they decided that child labour was wrong, they took immediate steps to remedy the situation. Children from the age of nine to sixteen were only allowed to work for sixteen hours a day. It seems crazy. What the hell was happening before this? But it was a start. And look where they ended up. Killing a blood god is no easy matter. But that’s no excuse for us not to try.