The optimal sacrifice: A study of voluntary death among the Siberian Chukchi

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ABSTRACT

In the Siberian North, “voluntary death,” that is, a person, who—often because of illness and old age—requests to die at the hands of close relatives, has traditionally been explained as a form of suicide resulting from the region's harsh living conditions. In this article, I suggest an alternative interpretation. Drawing on ethnographic data collected among the Chukchi of northern Kamchatka, I argue that voluntary death is effectively a ritual blood sacrifice. In making this argument, I recast long-standing debates about sacrifice by suggesting that behind the triangular relationship of sacrificer, deity, and victim lies a structure of ideal sacrifice, which is the impossible act of self-sacrifice. This structure, in turn, makes it possible to conceive of voluntary death as categorically different from suicide—indeed, as a ritual inversion of suicide.

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