Human sacrifice

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Human sacrifice was practiced in many ancient cultures. Victims were ritually killed in a manner that was supposed to please or appease gods or spirits. Because information on certain cultures' sacrificial tendencies often comes from outside sources (Greeks and Romans for Celts and medieval Christians for Norsemen, for example) who may have had ulterior propaganda motives, some contemporary historians consider certain allegations of human sacrifice suspect.


[edit] Reasons for human sacrifice

The reason for human sacrifice is suggested in its definition: ritual sacrifice involves offering human lives to deities as payment for favorable interventions in an event of special importance, to forestall unfavorable events, or to purchase disclosures about the physical world. Human sacrifice has been practiced on a number of different occasions and in many different cultures. These include:

  • Sacrifice by Indian adherents of Tantrism who believe that human sacrifices to the gods can change their fortune.
  • Sacrifice to accompany the dedication of a new building like a temple or bridge. Chinese legends hold that thousands of people were entombed in the Great Wall of China, though they were not.
  • Sacrifice in Aztec and Mayan cultures to the god of fertility to assure good corn harvest.
  • Sacrifice of his daughter by a victorious Biblical general Jephthah who considered it a quid pro quo for a monumental victory.
  • Sacrifice upon the death of a king, high priest or great leader; the sacrifices were to serve or accompany the deceased leader in the next life. Mongols, Scythians and various Mesoamerican chiefs could take most of their household, including servants and concubines, with them to the next world. This is sometimes called a "retainer sacrifice," as the leader's retainers would be sacrificed along with their master.
  • Sacrifice by ritual combat. Aztecs killed prisoners in ritual combats.
  • Sacrifice for divination; a priest would try to predict the future from the body parts of a slain prisoner or slave. According to Strabo, Celts stabbed a victim with a sword and divined the future from his death spasms.
  • Sacrifice in times of natural disaster. Droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc. were seen as a sign of anger or displeasure of gods and sacrifices were made to appease the divine ire. Cretans tried to stop the destruction of their island this way.

[edit] Sacrifice in the classical world

Image:Polyxena Neoptolemus.jpg
Polyxena dies by the hand of Neoptolemus on the tomb of Achilles.

Despite classical mythological references to human sacrifice, archaeologists have been unable to find any evidence that Ancient Greeks practiced human sacrifice. The deus ex machina salvation of Iphigeneia (who was about to be sacrificed by her father Agamemnon) and her replacement with a deer by the goddess Artemis may be a vestigial memory of the abandonment and discrediting of the practice of human sacrifice among the Greeks in favor of animal sacrifice. Many scholars have suggested a possible analogy with the story of Isaac's attempted sacrifice by his father Abraham in the Bible, which was also stopped at the last minute by divine intervention.

According to Roman sources, Phoenicians and Carthaginians sacrificed infants to their gods; since Carthaginians were rivals to Roman power in the Mediterranean, this information is also sometimes considered suspect. However, the bones of numerous infants have been found in Carthaginian archaeological sites in modern times.

Early Romans practiced various forms of human sacrifice in their first centuries; from Etruscans (or, according to other sources, Sabellians), they adopted the original form of gladiatorial combat where the victim was slain in a ritual battle. During the early republic, criminals who had broken their oaths or defrauded others were sometimes "given to the gods" (that is, executed as a human sacrifice). The Rex Nemorensis was an escaped slave who became priest of the goddess Diana at Nemi by killing his predecessor. Prisoners of war and Vestal virgins were buried alive as offerings to Manes and Di Inferi (gods of the underworld). Archaeologists have found sacrificial victims buried in building foundations. Ordinarily, deceased Romans were cremated rather than buried. Captured enemy leaders, after the victorious general's triumph, would be ritually strangled in front of a statue of Mars, the war god.

Religious practices changed over the centuries. According to Pliny the Elder, human sacrifice was abolished by a senatorial decree in 97 BCE. Most of the rituals turned to animal sacrifice like taurobolium or became merely symbolic. A Roman general might bury a statue of his likeness to thank the gods for victory. Cicero refers to a sacrifice of rush puppets in the Vestal ritual that might have originally included sacrifice of old men. When the Roman Empire expanded, Romans stopped human sacrifices as barbaric.

[edit] Sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible condemns human sacrifice. In Genesis 22 there is a story about the binding of Isaac. In this story, God tests Abraham by asking him to present his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. No reason is given within the text. Abraham agrees to this command without arguing. According to the text, God does not want Abraham to actually sacrifice his son; it states from the beginning that this is only a test of obedience. The story ends with an angel stopping Abraham at the last minute and making Isaac's sacrifice unnecessary by providing a ram, caught in some nearby bushes, to be sacrificed instead. Many Bible scholars have suggested this story's origin was a remembrance of an era when human sacrifice was abolished in favor of animal sacrifice.

Other evidence also points to an awareness of human sacrifice in the history of ancient near-eastern practice. The king of Moab gives his firstborn son and heir as a whole burnt offering ('olam, as used of the Temple sacrifice). It is apparently effective, as his enemy is promptly repelled by a 'great wrath'(2 Kings 3.27). Also, in the time of the prophet Micah, he is able to say, 'Shall I give my firstborn for my sin?'(Micah 6.7). So it is possible that the offering of a firstborn son or other human victim developed into the whole burnt offering of the Temple service. It was perhaps the very knowledge of this history that prompted later writers to polemic against human sacrifice.

In the Christian religion the belief developed that the story of Isaac's binding was a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus, whom Christians believe was God's only son and simultaneously God Himself. It has been suggested by some that the site of the binding of Isaac was also the site of Jesus's future crucifixion. However no archeological or historical evidence supports this assertion.

Another instance of human sacrifice mentioned in the Hebrew Bible is the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter in Judges chapter 11. Jephthah is victorious in battle against the children of Ammon and vows to sacrifice to God whatsoever comes to greet him at the door when he returns home. The vow is stated in Judges 11:31 as "Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering." When he returns from battle, his virgin daughter runs out to greet him. That he actually does sacrifice her is shown in verse 11:39 "And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed". This example seems to be the exception rather than the rule, however, as the verse continues "And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite custom that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.". The lamentations that were offered annually in remembrance of this act frame it as the atrocity it was, and accentuate the grievousness of such a rash action. According to commentators in the rabbinic Jewish tradition this was a gross violation of God's law, and this part of the Bible illustrates the terrible tragedy of human sacrifice. The majority of the early Christian Church Fathers saw the sacrifice of Jepthah's virgin daughter as forshadowing, like Isaac, the death of Jesus Christ. They may have been influenced in this interpretation by the biblical account describing Jepthah's vow being made whilst under the influence of the Holy Spirit [Judges 11:29].

Many passages in the Hebrew Bible state that human sacrifice was a great abomination; these practices were associated with the worship of foreign gods, and were forbidden.

The practice of "banning" an enemy town in war by killing all its inhabitants - or, variously, only the people but not the animals; only the males; or only the adults - was commanded in several places. Where commanded, the act was subsequently considered an act admissible by God, as the banning was given as a judgement on a populance. It has been argued that this was in itself a form of religious human sacrifice which was condoned by the very God who ultimately condemned the act. This would indeed pose a serious dichotomy if it was indeed to have been the case. Historically however, the use of religious sacrifice by early Hebrews was for the purpose of atoning for grievances and sins that had been committed by an individual or a populace. As the payment of sin had to be death, an animal (having met a strenuous criteria of perfection) was given up as a literal payment for this debt. It was of the utmost importance that this animal was ritualistically clean and perfect, as only a perfect sacrifice of innocent blood could counteract the curse of death that came with sin. As this is the only acceptable sacrificial practice accepted by Judaism, it is highly unlikely that the indiscriminate slaughter of an entire city would be seen as anything resembling a sacrifice. Rather it is usually put forward in biblical scripture as mentioned above, as a death sentence given for a people by God and carried out by the Hebrews.

For example, King Saul was removed from the kingship for not rigorously carrying out this procedure when ordered by Samuel the prophet. 1 Samuel 15 (NIV): "Samuel said to Saul, "I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.'"

Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and modern historians' views on this subject can be found in the article on the binding of Isaac.

For antisemitic claims of jewish sacrifice, see Blood libel

Numbers 31:28-29,38-40 suggests that 32 persons were sacrificed along with sheep, cattle and donkeys, although the exact meaning of the phase: "The tax to the Lord" was 32 people" is unclear.

[edit] Celtic sacrifice

As written in Roman sources, Celtic Druids engaged extensively in human sacrifice. According to Julius Caesar, Gauls built wicker figures that were filled with living humans and then burned. It is known that druids at least supervised sacrifices of some kind. During her rebellion against Roman occupation, Boudica impaled any Romans she came across (such as in London) as offerings to gods. Some modern-day scholars question the accuracy of these accounts, as they invariably come from hostile (Roman or Greek) sources. There is no corroborating evidence for Caesar's wicker man.

Different gods reportedly required different kind of sacrifices. Victims meant for Esus were hanged, those meant for Taranis immolated and those for Teutates drowned. Some, like the Lindow Man, may have gone to their deaths willingly.

Archeological evidence from the British Isles seems to indicate that human sacrifice was indeed practiced, over times long pre-dating any contact with Rome. Human remains have been found at the foundations of structures from the Neolithic time to the Roman era, with injuries and in positions that argue for their being foundation sacrifices. Similarly, additional human remains in the tombs of aged men show signs of having been killed to be buried in the grave.

[edit] Viking Age sacrifice

According to Norse mythology, Odin hanged himself from the world-tree Yggdrasil for nine nights to attain divine wisdom. Medieval Christian sources refer to Norsemen sacrificing prisoners by hanging them from trees, but the true extent of this behavior is unclear.

Norse warriors were sometimes buried with slave girls with the belief that the women would become their wives in Valhalla. A detailed eyewitness account of such a burial was given by Ahmad ibn Fadlan as part of his account of an embassy to the Volga Bulgars in 921. In his description of the funeral of a Scandinavian chieftain, a slave girl volunteers to die with her master. After ten days of festivities, she is stabbed to death by an old woman (a sort of priestess who is referred to as 'Angel of Death', see Völva) and burnt together with the deceased in his boat (see ship burial, Oseberg).

Adam von Bremen recorded human sacrifices to Odin in 11th century Sweden, at the Temple at Uppsala, a tradition which is confirmed by Gesta Danorum and the Norse sagas. According to the Ynglinga saga, king Domalde was sacrificed there in the hope to bring greater future harvests and the total domination of all future wars till the end of it all to his people. The same saga also relates that Domalde's descendant king Aun sacrificed nine of his own sons to Odin in exchange for longer life, until the Swedes stopped him from sacrificing his last son, Egil. See also Blót.

Heidrek in the Hervarar saga agrees to the sacrifice of his son in exchange for the command over a fourth of the men of Reidgotaland. With these, he seizes the entire kingdom and prevents the sacrifice of his son, dedicating those fallen in his rebellion to Odin instead.

[edit] Chinese sacrifice

The ancient Chinese are known to have made sacrifices of young men and women to river deities, and to have buried slaves alive with their owners upon death as part of a funeral service. This was especially prevalent during the Shang and Zhou Dynasties.

[edit] Mesoamerican sacrifice

Altar for human sacrifice at Monte Alban

Some of the most famous forms of ancient human sacrifice were performed by various Pre-Columbian civilizations of Mesoamerica.


See Human sacrifice in Aztec culture
  • The Aztecs were particularly noted for practicing human sacrifice on a large scale; an offering to Huitzilopochtli would be made to restore the blood he lost, as the sun was engaged in a daily battle. This would prevent the end of the world that could happen on each cycle of 52 years. The dedication of the great temple at Tenochtitlán was reported by the Aztecs as marked with the sacrifice of more than 84,000 prisoners, but this number may have been war propaganda by the Aztecs themselves (see the article on the Aztecs.)
  • Sacrifices to Xipe Totec were bound to a post and shot full of arrows. The dead victim would be skinned and a priest would use the skin. Earth mother Teteoinnan required flayed female victims. Tlaloc would require weeping male children.
  • Aztecs engaged in warfare - the so-called Flowery Wars - with the intent of capturing prisoners for sacrifice. There are multiple accounts of captured conquistadores being sacrificed during the wars of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, although only Bernal Diaz actually claimed to be a witness.
  • Tezcatlipoca required a voluntary sacrifice. Each year a youth was offered to him as a victim. For a year he would be honored as a god on earth, and then he would be sacrified.


  • According to Spanish sources, as well as frescoes and sculptures from the city of Tajin, the original form of the Mesoamerican game ulama included sacrifice of the entire losing team. Tlachti, the Aztec version of the game, did not involve sacrifice.
  • Mayans also held the belief that cenotes or limestone sinkholes were portals to the underworld and sacrificed human beings to please the water god Chaac. The most notable example of this is the "Sacred Cenote" at Chichen Itza where extensive excavations have recovered the remains of 42 individuals, half of them under twenty years old.


  • Sometimes the players of the Ulama game were sacrificed when the game was used to resolve a dispute between cities, the rulers would play a game instead of going to battle. The losing ruler would be sacrificed. The ruler "Eight Deer" was considered a great ball player and won several cities this way, until he lost a ball game and was sacrificed.


  • A number of presumably sacrificial victims have been discovered in the Inca regions of South America. [1], the victims seem to have been left to die by cold, in the top of the mountains. See capacocha.

[edit] Ancient Hindu practice of Sati

Main article: Sati (practice)

The practice of sati (or suttee[2]) is a Hindu funeral custom, now very rare, in which the dead man's widow immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.

The term is derived from the original name of a goddess (see article on Dakshayani), who immolated herself, unable to bear the humiliation of her (living) husband. The term may also be used to refer to the widow herself. The term sati is now sometimes interpreted as 'chaste woman'.

The practice

The act of sati was supposed to take place voluntarily, and from the existing accounts, most of them were indeed voluntary. The act may have been expected of widows in some communities. The extent to which any social pressures or expectations should be considered as compulsion has been the matter of much debate in modern times. It is frequently stated that a widow could expect little of life after her husband's death, especially if she was childless. However, there were also instances where the wish of the widow to commit sati was not welcomed by others, and where efforts were made to prevent the death[3].

There are accounts of many different approaches of the widow to her death. The majority have the widow seated or lying down on the funeral pyre beside her dead husband. There are also many descriptions of widows who walked or jumped into the flames after the fire had been lit, and there are descriptions of widows who lit their own funeral pyres after seating themselves on it[4].

Recent incidence

Sati still occurs occasionally, mostly in rural areas. About 40 cases have occurred in India since independence in 1947, the majority in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan. The last clearly documented case was that of Roop Kanwar. However there are claims that other more recent deaths have also been cases of Sati.

Roop Kanwar, a childless 18-year old widow, committed sati on 4 September 1987, some allege forcibly, dressed in her red wedding dress, in Rajasthan's Deorala village. Several thousand people were said to have been at the event. After her death, she was hailed as a 'sati mata', meaning pure mother. The event quickly produced a public outcry in urban centres, pitting a modern Indian ideology against a traditional one. A much-publicised investigation led to the arrest of a large number of people from Deorala, said to have been present in the ceremony, or participants in it. Eventually, 11 people were charged. On January 31, 2004, a special court in Jaipur acquitted all of the 11 accused in the case, observing that the prosecution had failed to prove charges that they glorified Sati.

On 18th May 2006, Vidyawati, a 35-year-old woman allegedly committed sati by jumping into the blazing funeral pyre of her husband in Rari-Bujurg Village, Fatehpur district in the State of Uttar Pradesh[5].

On 21 August 2006, Janakrani, a 40-year-old woman, burnt to death on the funeral pyre of her husband Prem Narayan in Sagar district [6].

[edit] Modern human sacrifice

Human sacrifice, in the context of religious ritual, still occurs in some traditional religions, for example in muti killings in eastern Africa. Human sacrifice is no longer officially condoned in any country, and such cases are regarded as murder.

Some people in India are adherents of a religion called Tantrism (not to be confused with Tantric Buddhism); most either use animal sacrifice or symbolic effigies, but a small percent of them still engage in human sacrifice:

After a rash of similar killings in the area -- according to an unofficial tally in the English-language Hindustan Times, there have been 25 human sacrifices in western Uttar Pradesh in the last six months alone -- police have cracked down against tantriks, jailing four and forcing scores of others to close their businesses and pull their ads from newspapers and television stations. The killings and the stern official response have focused renewed attention on tantrism, an amalgam of mystical practices that grew out of Hinduism. (In India, case links mysticism, murder - John Lancaster, Washington Post, 11/29/2003)

A newspaper report from 2006 states:

Police in Khurja say dozens of sacrifices have been made over the past six months. Last month, in a village near Barha, a woman hacked her neighbour's three-year-old to death after a tantrik promised unlimited riches. In another case, a couple desperate for a son had a six-year-old kidnapped and then, as the tantrik chanted mantras, mutilated the child. The woman completed the ritual by washing in the child's blood. 'It's because of blind superstitions and rampant illiteracy that this woman sacrificed this boy,' said Khurja police officer AK Singh. 'It's happened before and will happen again but there is little we can do to stop it. In most situations it's an open and shut case. It isn't difficult to elicit confessions - normally the villagers or the families of the victims do that for us.'....According to an unofficial tally by the local newspaper, there have been 28 human sacrifices in western Uttar Pradesh in the last four months. Four tantrik priests have been jailed and scores of others forced to flee.

A group of the rich and powerful people gather for an annual mock human sacrifice of an effigy at the Bohemian Club in California.

In Western cultures no human sacrifice occurs beyond murders committed by serial killers or the largely unsubstantiated Satanic ritual abuse. One such ritual murder occurred in 1999 in Hyvinkää, Finland, as a young man was slowly tortured to death and his body parts eaten in a sacrificial rite; the three cultists were sentenced to prison. [7] It is also claimed that Varg Vikernes (AKA "Greven" of Burzum) murdered 1993 a rival black metal musician Øystein Aarseth (Euronymous of Mayhem) in Norway as a sacrificial murder to Odin (though the evidence as presented in sources like Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind seem to indicate that it was actually a combination of one-upmanship and a crime of passion, revisionistically presented as human sacrifice by Vikernes himself.) However, if one were to actually read Vikernes' account of what happened, it would appear he was acting in self defense. Modern occultists consider such sacrifices unnecessary, or use them only in the symbolic form where the volunteer "sacrifice" is not actually killed.

Some people have tried to extend the use of sacrifice-related terminology. A few writers have written that war--so often charged with religious and nationalistic symbols--is a form of human sacrifice. [8] Russell Means has referred to capital punishment as a sacrifice to the god of vengeance.

[edit] Ending of human sacrifice

The ending of human sacrifice has usually occurred as a result of the questioning of traditional systems of belief which arises through culture contact, or rapid social change.

  • In the ancient Near East, human sacrifice was suppressed throughout the Persian Empire, partly as a consequence of the spread of Zoroastrianism, which taught that human sacrifice was a sign of Ahriman, not of the Wise Lord Ahura Mazda.
  • Carthaginian human sacrifice came to an end with the Punic Wars with Rome, whilst Roman Gladatorial Games came to an end in the Roman Empire in the year 404, after a long campaign by Christian authorities to outlaw the practice, and following the death of a monk who had tried to break up a gladitorial bout.
  • Human sacrifice amongst the Aztecs and other American peoples came to an end with the invasion of the Spanish Conquistadores and the imposition of Christianity.

[edit] References

[edit] Articles:

  • Indian cult kills children for goddess: Holy men blamed for inciting dozens of deaths, The Observer (United Kingdom newspaper) Dan McDougall in Khurja, India, Sunday March 5, 2006

[edit] Books:

  • Cenote of Sacrifices, Clemency Coggins and Orrin C. Shane III ; 1984 The university of Texas Press; ISBN 0-292-71097-6
  • I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, René Girard, Translated by James G. Williams; Orbis Books; 2001, ISBN 1570753199

[edit] See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:

[edit] External links

es:Sacrificio humano fr:Sacrifice humain ja:人身御供 nl:Mensenoffer sv:Människooffer

Human sacrifice

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