top of page

The Development of the Symbolism of Sacrifice from Cave Art to Chinese Characters

In this article, I trace the development of the symbolism of sacrifice in Chinese characters from their origin in cave art. This introduces the question of what role sacrifice plays in the construction and maintenance of individual identity that I most prominently pursue in my books An Always Within a Never and 21 Days of Giving.

To recap, the earliest images we see on the walls of caves in the late Palaeolithic Period and which date back to around 60,000 years ago are images of two crossed-over lines (Fig. 1). I have hypothesised that these images depict the attempt to structure the world into the horizontal and vertical planes. Since we see this often in connection with the pursuit of animals and images of celestial bodies (especially the half moon) it is justified to suggest a connection to the attempt at conceptualising cosmological phenomena, especially the appearance and disappearance of the celestial bodies in the course of day and night. This is connected to the appearance and disappearance of life in the process of the hunt. The development of this imagery connected to life and death and especially its involvement in sacrificial rituals is the topic of this article. Its connection to rituals and mythology is further developed in my book An Always Within a Never and its theoretical conception in Psychoanalysis, Neuroscience and Daoist Philosophy is discussed in my book 21 Days of Giving. This article can only serve as an introduction to these problems.


The Symbolism of Sacrifice After the Line Cross

Two ideograms have developed from the symbol of the line cross. The first has its origin in the connection of the four cardinal points which are formed by the four ends of the lines. If they are connected by lines parallel to each other, the image of a rectangle is created. This can now appear in various ways and does so by being depicted as a classic square in some representations, while in others it appears as a parallelogram or rhombus. All these symbols represent the idea of the perfection of the earthly world.

The centre of the cross of lines, from which the square originated, is often depicted as a circle. In the images we analysed earlier, this circle in the centre seems to be the goal of the movement of many protagonists of the narratives that underly these depictions. This, on the one hand, represents the earthly sphere in its perfect union by connecting the four cardinal points and creating a plane that can be inhabited by humans. On the other hand, the dot in the centre of the symbol expresses the existence of a second world. That world seems to be round and in a certain way stands above or below the quadrangular earthly world. If the two-dimensional, regional structure were to be represented as a three-dimensional abstraction in space, one would obtain a kind of tent or house construction.

This construction is similar to the initiation hut, which in numerous rituals represents the chamber in which the novice lives during initiation. As discussed above, the images and stories symbolise the uterus of the great mother, her body and womb, into which the novice returns to be reborn. The quadrangular base area from the corners of which a strut leads upwards and into the centre holds a circular cover area in the centre. This image symbolises the separation of the earthly sphere from a second and a third instance, the heavenly, eternal, cosmic on one side and the underworld, darkness, the unknown into which the stars disappear, on the other side, thus creating the image of a world divided into three. At the centre of the three planes lies a line that runs from the highest to the lowest point and represents the axis of the world - the axis mundi. It is this ‘world tree’ that runs through the hut in the centre of a village. In numerous primitive huts, it is therefore traditional to place a tree trunk in the middle of the shamanic yurt, the trunk of a birch tree, which reaches from the bottom of the yurt through the hole in its ceiling.

The hole in the ceilings of yurts, tipis and huts has, apart from their practical function, a religious component of uncanny importance. Through this hole, the shaman could vanish in trance through the nature of the fire and draw as smoke to his ancestors. In all these cultures there is a firm belief in the tripartite division of the world. In its further development, this symbol became a sign of the necessity of suffering for transformation. When the novice rises to the top of the tree in the course of his initiation, he returns from it as a newborn - he has been reborn as a new (sacralised) human being. As we have seen, it is, therefore, necessary for the novice to behave like a newborn after his descent in some rituals. He is in a state of ecstasy, dancing, moving on all fours and screaming like a baby. This tree is the Axis Mundi - the moral centre of every culture that we have discussed in detail throughout the book. It also finds expression in the symbol of the centre of the Christian cross and depicts the highest value of any culture. The idea of the necessity of death and suffering for the resurrection is far older than Western Christianity.

It is important to note the central position of the movement of ascending and descending in many philosophical and cultural traditions. I do not have the space to discuss this in detail but one must only remember the poem of Parmenides or think of the first and central sentence of Plato’s republic (“Down I went to the Peiraeus”). This interplay between katabasis and anabasis, descend and ascend is anticipated in these earliest rituals and, as I suggest in this book, plays a central role in trying to understand the nature of human identity. In the following paragraphs, I will trace this symbolism and the gesture of sacrifice connected to the descent along the axis mundi in the development of Chinese characters.

Sacrifice Symbolism in Chinese Characters

The paleological signs in the pictures above show human hands. As such, the symbol of the hand was used in earlier times in Chinese writing. Later, the character 手 (shou = Hand) developed from this drawing. In another form, the character appears in the characters 父 fu or 汉 = han, for example, and is also used in the construction of the word 汉语 hanyu = Chinese language. In this version and in connection with the water radical, it paints the picture of the scooping right hand in the 汉江 Han Jiang = the Han River, on which the foundations of Chinese culture were formed. 没有 mei you = to not have, in this context, continues to represent a right hand that has been severed by a knife, so that the former wearer of the hand can no longer scoop water in the river and has therefore been punished rightfully. The sign develops from the tradition of cutting off the right hand of prisoners of war before releasing them after a territorial conflict between two rivalling tribes. Now, the sign that denotes the hand can be transformed into the following representation: 拱 kong = gesture of two folded hands as the depiction of the traditional greeting during a funeral service (Hentze, 1955, pp. 12-15). In another phonetic context, however, this sign designates 供 kung = sacrifice (verb). The rhomb held by the hand is the vessel in which the sacrifice is made. This detail is important when we refer to later signs in which a schematic representation of this sign appears because the question arises as to why this sign was used in the images above. This is especially interesting because these depictions have been found in several places including specific masks that were used during occasions such as funerals or other rituals.

The paleological signs above open a deeper insight by sketching the image of the sacrificial ritual - two people kneeling next to the tomb. It now seems that the bowl presented between the hands and the position of the folded hands have a congruent meaning, which is that of the process of offering sacrifices. One picture depicts the posture of the person, while the other depicts the carrying of the bowl itself. Both are equal in their depiction and semantic meaning as kung. The other pictograms known from bone writing can be seen in this context. This also shows two hands, but in this case, they hold a diamond with a midline. The diamond is thus divided into two halves. From the shape of the diamond, the sign 玉 (yu = preciousness, jade, gemstone) was derived. In ancient China, the jade stone represented the most precious known object and was of such importance for the country that even the sign 国 (guo = country) bears the character for jade in its centre.

However, about the pictogram, a new horizon of meaning opens up for the sign 玉: The three-step ladder that connects the underworld, earth and heaven, we have been discussing earlier, is a diamond (with a midline). In earlier analyses, we have discussed that the world is divided into three planes, whereby in the earliest ideas this division into three planes was also limited to two planes, namely the human and the cosmological (which is divided into the underworld and the sky). On the one hand, this implies that the sacrifice offered by the two hands is the highest treasure of Chinese culture, but on the other hand, it is also an indication of the knowledge of the existence of the underworld and its relationship to the sacrificial rituals, and especially to the necessity of commuting between these worlds.

One must now consider another sign to fully grasp why this reflection is of such relevance to our discussions. The old character for the word hiang = performance for humans denotes that ritual which is performed for the living, while the character hiang = performance for the spirits denotes that which is offered for the deceased. Now, the offering for the spirits is derived from the sign 高 (gao = big, high). The sign gao represents a house with a second floor and a large roof. Since the sign for ‘sacrifice for the dead’ includes the sign large/high, it is obvious that,

“The form is that of the sign for meaning house while actually depicting sacrifice” (Hentze, 1955, p. 24).

This connection can be seen in the second but last pictogram in the image above, in which a kneeling man is shown under the roof of a house, holding a three-part vessel in his hand in preparation for sacrifice. The idea of the sacrifice thus refers to the image of the mirror-image house or the circle doubled downwards, which has already been discussed in the context of cave paintings earlier. At this point, the derivations on the theme of sacrifice must be set aside for a moment to return to an aspect that has been skipped above: The contemplation of the symbolic nature of the rhombus. This first appears in numerous cave drawings, in which it is depicted as an image of the multiple line-crosses appearing above each other. There, it forms a symbol for darkness and the Unknown, often appearing together with the sign of the crescent moon or other symbolism for the Unknown. Numerous other findings also show how Hentze (1955) was able to prove that this symbol of the diamond not only depicts darkness but also underlines the possibility of light that can arise from this space of darkness.

The Role of Sacrifice in Everyday Life

As has been sufficiently demonstrated elsewhere, the notion of the necessity of darkness for the process of the emergence of light runs through numerous mythological narratives. However, this idea also has a sufficiently central role in the context of the current reflections, in that it seems to play a relevant role in the narrative of society as a whole through its wider dissemination. If, then, at this point, the bow is struck back to the observations of the sign 供 - the sign for sacrifice mentioned at the beginning - the meaning of the diamond can now be completely clarified.

The belief in fertility, in darkness and in death can be traced back to numerous cultures and myths of the dead, but can also be found in the mythology of femininity and recognised in the corresponding illustrations. Thus the rhombus represents the possibility of obtaining light from darkness under the necessity and using sacrifice. If this thought continues to be connected with the motif of the house mirrored downwards, the result is the image of a sacrificial ritual, which is of utmost importance due to the sign 玉.

This means that the individual must always draw from the darkness when it is in search of light - it must descend in search of knowledge. It also means, however, that light alone does not suffice for a stable and fruitful life and secondly, that sacrifice is necessary to move between the three levels of the world. This thought is reflected in numerous stories when one considers that this darkness represents the space of the Unknown. Identity always lives at its deathbed for only its renewal brings it into being. At the moment in which it examines itself, it becomes conscious of itself through the gesture of sacrifice needed for this examination.

I am reminded of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Squarings xli’ (1991), where he writes: “The places I go back to have not failed / But will not last. Waist deep in cow-parsley, / I re-enter the swim, riding or quelling / The very currents memory is composed of, / Everything accumulated ever / As I took squarings from the tops of bridges / Or the banks of self at evening”.

Identity is located at this peculiar intersection of ignorance and sacrifice - always caught in its own twilight yet holding on to the life that it has constructed. No wonder then why humanity is haunted by the question of what it means to be alive, or better - if we are alive in the first place or simply caught in the illusion of a life we have created.


Anati, E. (2002). Höhlenmalerei. Albatros.

Hentze, C. (1955). Tod, Auferstehung, Weltordnung: Das mythische Bild im ältesten China, in

den grossasiatischen und zirkuspazifischen Kulturen. Origo Verlag Zürich.

Jung, C. G. (1995). Psychologie und Alchemie (Sonderausg., 1. Aufl). Walter-Verl.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page