Twilight, on an unmade road that runs through a forest in Kenya; a farm truck goes bumping and swaying along that road, and in the front sits a young English teacher between two Kenyans: on the left, one of his keenest sixth formers, and on the right, the boy’s father, who has invited him for a weekend at the family farm.
As they drive on along the road, and night begins to fall, animals stray across the road in the headlights: and it becomes clear that the farmer is not swerving to avoid them, but trying to hit them, which he does on two occasions, killing a small beast of unknown species, and then a larger one that looks like an antelope. In the latter case he reverses to run over the animal several times.
Later, after a generous dinner, when the youngsters have gone to bed, the conversation turns to all kinds of things; and now that both father and teacher are warmed with several glasses of mnazi, the younger man asks—is this a custom, to kill animals on the road? In Europe we try to avoid them.
The host explains. He kills the animals in order to sacrifice them to the god of the road—a god who demands blood. If the god gets animal blood, it may satisfy him enough not to claim human lives.
So by killing the animals, he was preventing road accidents.
Pagan belief, in action—as was the custom of making human sacrifices at people’s funerals: not just Achilles in the Iliad, but those Romans who in the third century BC started the fashion of putting on a gladiatorial fight at the funeral of a loved spouse or parent; and that same ritual, gaining in popularity over decades and centuries, became the murderous shows—the public atrocities—for which amphitheatres were built, and by which modern writers are so bewildered that whether one consults books or the internet, there is much detail about the mechanics of these shows, but misinformation and confusion about their significance. Sometimes even the names are confused.
The gladiatorial shows were not ludi but munera. MUNUS means a gift that it is one’s duty to give, or an obligation one has a duty to perform. The fights, the beast hunts and the mass executions that took place before the huge audience in the amphitheatre were supposedly a gift of blood to the gods and shades of the underworld.
The details of the introductory ritual, and the prayers that were offered by the priests, are not known.
Of interest: Rodolfo Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1892. (There are modern reprints.)
Next post: River gods.