Guest Essay: The Story Behind the Making of Sanctified Violence: Holy War in World History by Alfred J. Andrea

The following essay is by Alfred J. Andrea, the former president of the World History Association, a mentor, and a noted medieval historian. In it, he provides background on how our forthcoming book Sanctified Violence: Holy War in World History, was envisioned and came together.


Religion is a shield against life’s assaults. But it is also a “terrible swift sword” unsheathed against the perceived enemies of divine righteousness. As a student of religious history, I have long been fascinated with the dual faces of devotion, especially religion’s sanctification of violence, but for many years did not expand my investigation of holy war beyond the boundaries of Christianity and Islam. That changed abruptly in 2003, while offering a seminar on the crusades at the Global History Center in Beijing. Discussion of Portuguese and Spanish crusades in the Indian Ocean and the Americas prompted a student, who was pursuing a PhD in global history, to ask if there are forms of holy war other than crusades and jihads that a world historian should be aware of. I was momentarily stumped, but promised a reply the next day.

The Dread List of Seven

After class, I returned to my apartment. In welcome solitude and with a comforting cup of jasmine tea in hand, I listed the types of holy wars that came immediately to mind, arriving at seven categories: (1) mythical battles by warrior deities; (2) metaphorical holy combat; (3) ) ritualistic holy warfare; (4) sanctified combat engaged in because of caste or class duty; (5) human actions in response to the demands of a warrior deity; (6) defense of sacred space, objects, culture, or faith; and (7) struggles waged on earth against a cosmic evil. Drawing upon the digital photos on my laptop, I quickly made a PPT for the class, and then joined several Chinese colleagues and graduate students (including the one who had asked that provocative question) at an outdoor Uyghur restaurant. There we enjoyed chuar (spicy lamb kebobs), shaobing (flat bread), bottles of pijiu (lager beer), and an evening of merriment.

The list was flawed on several levels, and fearing that, I warned the seminar the next day that it was a prologue to deeper investigation and would probably be revised in due time. The revisions came slowly over the following years amid the demands of more pressing research and writing projects. Regardless of these commitments, I gave lectures on the topic in venues near and far as a means of refining my thoughts on this complex topic. Along the way of this intellectual pilgrimage, that early list of seven forms of holy war underwent quite a bit of review and revision.

Mythical and Rhetorical Battles

Mythical battles waged by warrior deities refers to stories common to so many cultures around the world that tell of how a particular god or goddess defeats an evil being or force, thereby benefiting a particular people, all of humanity, or the entire universe. Such is the myth of the slaying of the demon Vritra by Indra, the “thunder-wielder.” Through his victory, this warrior god of ancient India liberates the universe, which Vritra has swallowed, and releases life-giving rains on parched lands. Originally I thought these religious myths had no relationship whatsoever to holy wars. How wrong I was.

Indra in the pose of regal ease, with the right hand performing the meditative shuni mudra. An antique  gilt-copper sculpture, probably from Nepal and of unknown age. From the collection of A. J. Andrea

The same was true for my initial approach to metaphorical holy wars.  It is no secret that many religions use the metaphor of combat as a symbol for religious or spiritual struggle. India’s Jains, who preach ahimsa, or radical non-violence, refer to anyone who has conquered the evil within him- or herself as a Jina, or conqueror. Such a conquest, as was the case with the victory of their great sixth-century-B.C.E. teacher, the Mahavira, or Great Hero, is purely a spiritual triumph. On their part, Christians hear in church the words of Saint Paul as recorded in the New Testament: You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier.” (2 Timothy 2:3-4). Christians hearing these words understand that Paul used the metaphor of military service to explain the privations imposed upon Christians and the single-mindedness demanded of them as they fight evil on a spiritual plane. Paul did not encourage early Christians to join the Roman legions.

Christ Triumphant, Palace Chapel of the Archbishop, Ravenna, Italy. Discussed on page 11 of Sanctified Violence.

But then there is this mosaic in Ravenna, Italy. Created around the year 500, it shows Christ, dressed as a Roman emperor on campaign, stamping out evil, as symbolized by the snake and the lion. Most would say that it is pure metaphor, an iconographic allegory of spiritual combat and nothing more. Yet is it only an allegory? Ravenna in the fifth century served as the western outpost of Roman imperial authority, which was centered in Constantinople. Indeed, that term “western outpost” fails to do justice to Ravenna, which was a brilliant seat of empire, as its eight extant buildings from the fifth and sixth centuries bear witness. Moreover, its archbishops were imperial appointees who wielded considerable civil and ecclesiastical power. Could not this mosaic be a celebration of the empire’s embrace of Christianity and a proclamation of the emperor’s Christ-sanctioned mandate to suppress evil in all of its earthly forms?

And is the myth of Indra’s victory over evil only a story told to explain the origin of monsoon rains? Further investigation of mythical holy warfare led me to conclude otherwise. As noted in Sanctified Violence, “religious myths have at times served as stimuli or paradigms for holy wars waged on Earth….The same is true for war used as a metaphor for spiritual struggle. Calls for taking up arms against a spiritual threat have, at times, been taken all too literally and have become rallying cries for physical combat against what is perceived to be an existential threat.”(p. 2) Put another way, myth and metaphor have the power to driven human action.

Two examples from pre-Conquest Mesoamerica must suffice as illustrations of the connection between combat in mythic time and sanctified warfare in the here and now. The Mayan equivalent of Indra, “the thunder-wielder,” was Chaac, the god of rain, fertility, and a fearsome deity who carried and used a lightning axe. Because of the warlike fury of thunderstorms, the Maya associated Chaac with war, sacrifice, and blood-letting, and many Mayan kings who went to war did so while assuming the persona of Chaac. In like manner, Tlaloc, the central Mexican god of life-giving rain and destructive storms, was also a deity of child-sacrifice and warfare, and the image of this fanged god often adorned the shields that Aztec warriors carried into battle.  

Tlaloc. Codex Ixlilxochitl, fol. 110v (ca. 1580-1600), Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Source: Wikimedia,

Struck by Lightning While Writing

As I often told students (in my inimitable style of pontificating) and anyone else who would tolerate my pronouncements from the mountain, writing is a creative process that involves exploration and discovery. Often our best ideas come to us during the act of composition, and these ideas might send us off into new directions or force us to question old assumptions and matters that, minutes earlier, we were prepared to set down as our final, even definitive thoughts on a subject. Well, that was certainly the case once I began to work on what became the book.

In the midst of composing Chapter 1, “Holy Wars in Mythic Time, Holy Wars as Metaphor, Holy Wars as Ritual,” it hit me like a lightning bolt hurled by Tlaloc that many, certainly not all but many, deities of rain and storms, fertility and agriculture, have simultaneously been gods and goddesses of war. To name a few, there was the ancient Mesopotamian god Ningirsu/Ninurta and his goddess counterpart Inana/Ishtar (both of whom figure prominently in Chapter 2). Half a world away and many millennia later, the Polynesian god Rongo played the same dual roles. Realization of this phenomenon led me to explore the proposition that one of the salient characteristics of holy war is that it produces life from death.  Once I was satisfied of its basic soundness, life from death became a recurrent theme throughout the book.

Ritual Holy Warfare: it’s more than Flower Wars

Another insight I gained while composing Chapter 1 is that ritual warfare is an attempt by humans to participate in the cosmic actions of their deities, especially their deities of war. When I sketched that seven-part model for my global history students, the only ritual holy war that I could think of was the Flower War of pre-Conquest central Mexico, a form of sanctified combat that makes an almost mandatory appearance in world history textbooks, and for years thereafter I could think of no other examples. But again, this past year, I was forced to think more deeply on the subject and suddenly realized one day that the rituals that followed the capture of sacrificial captives in Flower War battles, as well as the rites that followed their sacrifice, such as cannibalism, the wearing of victims’ flayed skins, and the displaying of body parts (kids, don’t try this at home), were pointing me in a direction that I had overlooked. Could the taking of human trophies, such as scalps and heads, and the eating of flesh taken from fallen opponents be indicators of other types of ritual holy warfare in regions and among cultures far removed from Mesoamerica? Well, my answer to that question is in Chapter 1, but I also admit that this is an aspect of sanctified violence that I must pursue and study further. For example, I want to study the Jesuit Relations, a massive collection of reports to their superiors in Montreal and Quebec by highly educated Jesuit missionaries in seventeenth-century New France. Included among the reports are first-class ethnographic accounts of the various native peoples among whom the Jesuit fathers labored.

I also want to explore the tinku (encounter), a festival native to the Andean regions of present-day Bolivia that involves ritualized fighting with whips and fists (and sometimes rocks, even though they are now outlawed as weapons). As long as anyone can remember, the combat involves four separate regional communities, each dressed in its distinctive ponchos. According to a myth that goes back at least as far as the Inca Empire and probably quite a bit farther into the past, the four communities are the result of a primal quartering of the world, with each clan having its exclusive spiritual ancestors. The tinku takes place annually on the third of May, which in Bolivia is the Catholic festival of the Holy Cross, a symbol, of course, of life from death. Significantly, the combatants refer to themselves as warriors of Christ. Early May, the time of spring harvest, is also a period sacred to Pachamama, the ancient Andean mother of earth and life, the mother (and wife!) of Inti, the sun god, from whom all Incan royalty claimed descent. It is believed that the blood spilled in a tinku ensures continued fertility, and in the olden days, and apparently still in some remote, unpoliced areas, it was (and is) believed that without at least one death the next harvest will fail. It certainly appears that this festival,  which has become a popular tourist attraction in less remote areas and is accompanied by dancing, singing, and feasting, is the vestige of ritual holy warfare that probably long predated the rise of the Inca Empire.  

Holy Warrior Classes and Castes

As I further investigated those seven categories, it seemed to me that number 4, sanctified combat engaged in because of caste or class duty, is not a mode of holy warfare unto itself. First, class and caste are not synonymous. Class is a useful construct for distinguishing groups of individuals who share the same social or economic status. Social scientists perceive classes as fluid, permeable, and worldwide. Caste is unique to Hindu society and is believed to be the unalterable division of Hindu humanity into four absolutely separate, static, and impermeable entities, a separation that began with the creation of the universe. Once this essential difference is clear, it becomes apparent that they fall into separate categories.

Class duty, whether that of a king or of a simple warrior, is a subset of what became Chapter 2 of the book, “Holy Wars of Conquest in the Name of a Deity.” Among other forms of god-commanded-and-directed holy war, we see in Sanctified Violence the ancient Mesopotamian monarchs Eanatum of Lagash and Tukulti-Ninurta of Assyria performing their royal duties by waging war on behalf of their respective gods. Unfortunately, space did not allow further investigation of consecrated class duty. We could not give even a nod to certain provocative passages in the twelfth-century versions of Pope Urban II’s speech at Clermont in November 1095 composed by Baldric of Dol, Robert the Monk, and Fulcher of Chartres. Each of these  chroniclers strongly suggests that the pope envisioned the expedition to Jerusalem, what later became known as the First Crusade, as an enterprise that should be undertaken chiefly by Europe’s professional warriors, its so-called feudal class. By assuming this class obligation, they would be transformed, in Baldric’s words, from soldiers who have debased their obligation to aid others into “knights of Christ.” Perhaps the 2nd edition of the book might contain an excerpt from Baldric’s interesting version of the pope’s sermon.

Caste duty, so far as sanctified violence is concerned, involves the obligation of the kshatriya, or princely, caste to rule, defend, and fight, and it is duty mandated by Dharma, which is best defined as the “cosmic law of right conduct and proper social order” (pp. xi and 18).  For that reason, an excerpt from the Bhagavad Gita, which sets out the reasons why a kshatriya must fight, appears as the first source of Chapter 1 (more about the sources below).

The Demands of a Warrior Deity

The original 5th  and 7th categories could be boiled down to holy wars of conquest in the name of a deity, and that ultimately became the book’s second chapter. As noted at the beginning of the chapter, “they include wars driven by a sense of mission to spread a divine being’s cult; wars undertaken because a god or goddess wills one’s possession of a particular land; wars engaged in because a deity demands the submission or eradication of a particular people; wars embarked on to prove the superiority of one’s divine protector; and wars to rectify or avenge wrongs done one’s god” (p. 28). The first four are aspects of “human actions in response to the demands of a warrior deity,” and the fifth is pretty much “struggles waged on earth against cosmic evil.”

Defense of the Sacred

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An Ethiopian triptych (three-paneled icon) dating to ca. 1700 that portrays warrior saints in the bottom register. The saint on a white horse defeating a satanic dragon on the right panel (our left) is Saint George, patron saint of Christian Ethiopia. The maiden whom he is rescuing is in the upper right corner of the scene. George, who always rides a white horse, appears also in the left panel. In the middle panel are Saint Theodore, on his distinctive reddish-brown horse, and Saint Mercurius, distinguished by his black horse. Both appear to be slaying enemies of the empire and its Church. Museum Rietberg, Zürich, Switzerland. The cult of warrior saints and Ethiopia’s involvement in holy war are treated in Chapter 3 of Sanctified Violence. Accessed at: (December 11, 2020).

The sixth category mentioned above became Chapter 3, “Holy War in Defense of the Sacred,” and in defining the sacred I added coreligionists, something grossly and inexcusably overlooked that day in Beijing and for several years thereafter. Go figure.

Getting from Me to Us, or “There is No I in Team” (but there is a double me in meme)

Up to this point (and for a few paragraphs more) the story has been about my discovery of holy wars beyond the usual suspects of crusades and jihads and some early notions that I had about this fascinating topic. Yet Sanctified Violence has co-authors, Andrea and Holt. How did we get there? Bear with me for a bit more as I discuss, the second stage of my academic journey along this Damascus Road.

Native American Crusaders, A Trip to Germany, and a Moment of Mad Inspiration

An evolving fascination with holy war in all its manifestations led me to study the manner in which some Amerindians in the Spanish New World became latter-day crusaders, or conquistadors—strange as that might sound. I became particularly interested in the Tlaxcalans of central Mexico, who were a critical ally of Cortés (and who appear in Chapter 2, pages 54-56). Word of my work made its way to Professor Adam Knobler at the University of the Ruhr in Bochum, Germany, who invited me to participate in the workshop “Holy War Comparative Perspectives” at his university in November 2017. For two days, eleven scholars from a variety of disciplines discussed their individual work and exchanged ideas about this strange phenomenon to which we have given a name that seems, on the face of it, to be self-contradictory. The program for the workshop can be accessed at:

            Participation in that workshop convinced me that a book on holy war in world history needed to be written and it should be aimed at a student readership. Moreover, because the book would be, to my knowledge, the first printed effort to place holy war into the setting of world history, it should be a book that largely raises questions and offers tentative answers that might serve as starting points for further and deeper exploration. In my hubris, I thought that I was ready to take on the` task, and I knew just the right format for it.

Critical Themes in World History

Arguably it is an act of self-nepotism (is there such a term?) for someone to place his book in a series he created and over which he presides as editorial grand poobah. I did so, and it does not disturb my normally hyper-sensitive sense of Catholic guilt. Hackett Publishing Company’s Critical Themes in World History seeks to allow readers to explore phenomena that have had a profound impact on the course of world history.

To achieve this goal economically, each book in the series adheres to a strict (and, I admit, rigid) format. A general introduction places the phenomenon under consideration, such as slavery, into a world history context. Four case-study chapters that focus on key aspects of that core topic follow. Appended to each chapter are four primary sources—documents or images—that challenge the reader to analyze important components of the case study. An epilogue, which raises additional questions and further points to ponder, completes the book—all wrapped up in under 200 pages. As this format suggests, the philosophy driving the series is that each book should stimulate discovery and critical thinking but in a fashion that offers a good deal of assistance along the way.  

Getting Started

As I began to outline the book, I realized that there were lacunae (a fancy word for gaps) in my knowledge and interests. Crusades and jihads? No problem. I have been working on these since I was a graduate student. The ancient Near East and Greco-Roman antiquity? No problem. The religious traditions of South and East Asia? Field work in China, Central Asia, and India gave me a grounding there. Judaism and Eastern Christianity? Again, no problem. But this hardly encompassed the totality of what needed to be covered. Far from it. What about today’s holy warriors and especially their use of social media? To quote from satirist Tom Lehrer’s immortal song “Lobachevsky,” “Bozhe moi! This I know from nothing.” Then light dawned.  Andrew Holt, who initiated our work on Seven Myths of the Crusades, had for quite a while been lecturing on crusades, jihads, and today’s holy warriors to multiple and diverse audiences. Well, there you are. A welcome partner in this endeavor. And it did not take any arm twisting to get him to sign on to this endeavor.

More Light Breaks Through

Shortly after joining up with Andrew, I had a moment of academic satori: millenarian expectations, the hope in and desire for an apocalyptic Age to Come, have driven numerous holy wars. Moreover, millenarian holy wars, such as China’s mid-nineteenth-century Taiping Civil War,  have been among the world’s bloodiest and most destructive. How could I have missed this for so long, especially since I had spent several summers in China’s western and northern provinces studying the iconography of the Maitreya Buddha, a messianic Buddha of the Future? “I once was lost/But now I’m found/Was blind, but now I see.”[1]

Well, further research, and it did not take much, revealed that over the past 1500 years, China has experienced numerous rebellions and wars motivated, at least in part, by a belief in the imminent or already materialized arrival of the Maitreya. If this was true for Chinese Buddhism, what about other religious cultures? The answer became the book’s Chapter 4, “Holy Wars in Anticipation of the Millennium.” I must admit that it was the chapter I most enjoyed writing.

The Maitreya Buddha, a sculpture from Gandhara (present-day northwestern Pakistan/ northeastern Afghanistan), dating to around 300 C.E. From the collection of A. J. Andrea.

And Along the Way

With our case-studies now set, we sat down to compose the Introduction and four chapters. Along the way we had to overlook, abandon, or at least put into files for future use some pretty juicy stuff. One abandonment that broke my heart was our excising material on Joan of Arc due to those damnable space constraints and also because of the ambiguity of the movement that she set in motion. The pain was particularly acute because the sources available to us contained so little on female holy warriors. Happily, Andrew took the material on Joan and presented it as a stand-alone essay in this blog.

            Another painful excision was the following, which I must share with you, if only for the deliciously wicked illustration that accompanies it.

Spelly’s War[2]

A second example [of a cleric who promoted as holy an essentially secular war] is Francis Cardinal Spellman, archbishop of New York (r. 1939-67), who was named Apostolic Vicar for the U.S. Armed Forces in 1939. An outspoken anti-communist, Spellman advocated armed intervention in Vietnam as early as 1954, and became a strong supporter of President Johnson’s widening of the war in 1965. He is quoted as having declared that the conflict was “Christ’s war against the Vietcong and the people of North Vietnam,” and that U.S. military personnel serving in the war were “holy crusaders” who were fighting as “soldiers of Christ.” His stand on the war, however,  placed him in opposition to Pope Paul VI and the majority of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the United States.

In 1967, the political cartoonist Edward Sorel created this caricature of Spellman, a parody of a widely circulated World War I poster. The wording is a play on the title of the popular World War II song “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” No magazine would publish it, so he decided to make it into a poster. Because Spellman died on the day the poster was printed, it failed to sell. In 1972, Sorel used it as the cover illustration for his book Making the World Safe for Hypocrisy. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

That is a form of celebrity that I would not wish on anyone—well, on almost no one.

And Finally the Epilogue

Once the body of the book was pretty much set, we turned to the Epilogue. Inasmuch as it focuses on “Holy Wars Today and Tomorrow,” it was only natural that Andrew take the lead on it. And thank goodness that he did. My knowledge of social media is nil.

So What is Next?

An essay titled “Medieval Holy Wars” is scheduled to appear in the March 2021 issue of Medieval Warfare, thanks to Andrew Holt’s convincing the editor to take a leap of faith by commissioning the work sight unseen. The essay allows me to expand upon three phenomena that appear in Sanctified Violence: the Aztec Festival of the Flaying of Men; China’s Red Turban Revolution of 1351-68; and Ethiopia’s series of holy wars that raged from 1316 to 1543. Of these, the sacrificial combat associated with the March festival in honor of Xipe Totec, the life-death-rebirth deity of agriculture, was especially gruesome. It should make for interesting, albeit morbid, reading. 

Beyond this immediate publication, I am playing with the idea of writing a “more scholarly” and expanded book on holy war in world history, but maybe not. Who knows what lies down the road in this most uncertain world? Moreover, many other aspects of premodern world history beg attention. That said, we are planning to organize a panel on the book for the 2022 American Historical Association meeting in New Orleans (laissez le bon temps rouler), and we are likewise planning, should the current pandemic allow, a 2021 symposium on the topic in northern Florida. Moreover, we are ever ready, as a tag-team or individually, to offer talks and workshops on holy war wherever and whenever invited. Maybe we should have business cards printed that read, “Have Holy War—Will Travel.”[3]

A. J. Andrea

Somewhere in the People’s Republic of Vermont


[1] Lyrics to “Amazing Grace.”

[2] A characterization ascribed to the standup comic Lenny Bruce by Peter Byrne, “When the Devil Lost His Manhood,” (accessed October 7, 2019).  

[3] For the uninitiated, google “Have Gun—Will Travel,” an iconic TV Western starring Richard Boone.