Aarhus University Seal

Rane Willerslev


Current position: Director, The National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen

During his AIAS JCS Senior Fellowship, Professor Rane Willerslev worked on the project “Human sacrifice and Value - A Comparative Approach”.

AIAS project

Why is it that some cultures across time and place engage in the ritual killing of a close family member? For we may ask: What is the logic behind such human sacrifices and what kinds of religious values are at stake? 

In this talk, two apparently different sacrificial traditions are compared: the well-known story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac and the sacrificial practice of the Siberian Chukchi, who kill their elderly on the latter’s own request. At first glance, it appears as though these two traditions differ quite sharply in what they posit as the value of sacrifice. The binding of Isaac is often interpreted as a story about the ultimate act of faith. The Chukchi, by contrast, emphasize utility as the major goal of sacrifice and even use trickery to this end. Drawing on the Dumontian idea that a dominant value contains its contrary within, Willerslev shows that what counts as the dominant value in each of the two sacrificial traditions is so deeply co-implicated that trickery (Chukchi) becomes the shadow of faith (Abraham), and vice versa. At certain moments, one dominant value or the other is captured by its own shadow and flips into its contrary. This reversibility takes place against a “paramount value” shared by both traditions: the necessary hierarchical distance between humanity and divinity.

All of this allows us to reinterpret Abraham’s trial in a manner that is precisely contrary to most prevailing interpretations—namely, as an act in which God is put on trial by Abraham. The radical comparative exercise also allows us to explain the basic logic behind human sacrifice. 

Short bio

Rane Willerslev was a Jens Christian Skou Senior Fellow at AIAS. He has his PhD from the University of Cambridge (2003) and is a Professor of Anthropology at Aarhus University. He is the author of Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs (University of California Press, 2007) and On the Run in Siberia (University of Minnesota Press, 2012). He is the editor of Taming Time, Timing Death: Social Technologies and Ritual (with Dorthe Refslund Christensen, Ashgate, 2013) and of Value as Theory (with Ton Otto, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory special issue, 2013), and of Transcultural Montage (with Christian Suhr, Berghahn, 2013).