As I write this in early July the weather has been so bad that there is already talk of a poor harvest and a need to import grain. In days gone by, when imports were somewhat harder to organise and the community relied on it’s harvest for survival, this would be a considerably more troubling situation than it is today, and the person it would trouble most was the king. This was not just because the headache of working out the rationing would fall to him but because, as the divinely appointed ruler, such exceptionally prolonged rainfall was obviously his fault.
From a recent outburst by a high up member of the clergy right back in to antiquity long patches of dodgy meteorology have been blamed on poor governance. Interestingly it is not just shambolic or misguided leadership that brings out this particular superstition. It is only when the leaders have become morally or ethically negligent, when protectors have turned oppressors, when providers have become hoarders, that dissatisfaction is perceived to have entered the spirit realm and hence manifest in excessive precipitation.
Why then, you may ask, would a cold hearted tyrant, who is happy to see his people suffer deprivation for the benefit of himself and his cronies, care if they start blaming him for a bit of flooding too? Well, let me begin my answer with a story.
Once upon a time in Phrygia there lived a man called Lityerses, who was the illegitimate son of King Midas (yes, he of the golden touch). Every year, when Lityerses was harvesting his fields he would keep an eye open for any strangers passing by. On spotting one he would invite them to dine with him, laying on a sumptuous feast, then he would force them to help with his harvest. When the last sheaf was cut, Lityerses would wrap his unfortunate assistant in it, slice off his head with a sickle and dump his stalk swathed corpse in the river. One year, however, Hercules happened to be the stranger who passed by so, after making light work of his host’s feast and reaping across the field in record time, he put an end to the Phrygian’s murderous practice by wrapping Lityerses in the final sheaf and cutting his head off.
This story and many others like it, including folk customs from the UK, carry an echo of the old belief that human sacrifice was a sure fire way to secure a good crop; life was taken from the field so a life would be given to the fields. That Hercules doesn’t just escape with his life but stops Lityerses from inflicting his ritual on any further hapless victims shows that the late bronze age’s more civilised and literate society would no longer support human sacrifice as a regular procedure. The folk customs also indicate that a symbolic sacrifice of the Corn King can take the place of the real thing.
The reason this might have been a cause for concern to the self-serving ruler of yore is that, once the food supply is in danger, a peasant, no matter how down-trodden, has little to lose. If the peasants believe the unhappy spirits of the land have, in the past, been propitiated with a little blood then what better way to rescue the situation than to kill two birds with one stone and turn your corrupt leader in to fertiliser?