Human sacrifice

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Human sacrifice is the act of killing a human being for the purposes of making an offering to a deity or other, normally supernatural, power. It was practiced in many ancient cultures. The practice has varied between different cultures, with some like the Mayans and Aztecs being notorious for their ritual killings, while others have looked down on the practice as primitive. Victims were ritually killed in a manner that was supposed to please or appease gods or spirits. Victims ranged from prisoners to infants to Vestal Virgins, who suffered such fates as burning, beheading and being buried alive.

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.

Over time human sacrifice has become less common around the world, and sacrifices are now very rare. Most religions condemn the practice and present-day laws generally treat it as a criminal matter. Nonetheless it is still occasionally seen today, especially in the least developed areas of the world where traditional beliefs persist.


[edit] Magical thinking rationale for the sacrifices

Ritual sacrifice may involve offering 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, which may be a factual historical event (or a metaphorical one, considering the labor and investment of the construction).
  • Sacrifice in Aztec and Mayan cultures to diverse gods.
  • Sacrifice of his daughter by a victorious Biblical general Jephthah, and Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son to prove his loyalty to God.
  • 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 sometimes Egyptians 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 such as gladiatorial or bloody games.
  • 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 happenings. Droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and comets 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 Bible

All three Abrahamic religions hold that the Bible condemns human sacrifice. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and modern historians' views on this subject can be found in the article on the binding of Isaac.

References in the Bible point 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 (olah, 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.

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.

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 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 of 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 foreshadowing, like Isaac, the death of Jesus Christ.

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, the use of religious sacrifice by early Hebrews was for the purpose of atoning for grievances and sins. 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.

[edit] Phoenicia and Carthage

According to Roman sources, Phoenicians and Carthaginians sacrificed infants to their gods. The bones of numerous infants have been found in Carthaginian archaeological sites in modern times but the subject of child sacrifice is controversial.[1]

Plutarch (ca. 46–120 AD) mentions the practice, as do Tertullian, Orosius, Diodorus Siculus and Philo. Livy and Polybius do not. The Hebrew Bible also mentions what appears to be child sacrifice practiced at a place called the Tophet ("roasting place") by the Caananites, ancestors of the Carthaginians, and by some Israelites. Some of these sources suggest that babies were roasted to death on a heated bronze statue. According to Diodorus Siculus:

There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.

The accuracy of such stories is disputed by some modern historians and archaeologists. [2] Nevertheless, several apparent "Tophets" have been identified, including a large one in Carthage.

[edit] Sacrifice in the classical world

Polyxena dies by the hand of Neoptolemus on the tomb of Achilles.
Polyxena dies by the hand of Neoptolemus on the tomb of Achilles.

With the exception of Knossos, 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 in some versions 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 Ismael's attempted sacrifice by his father Abraham in the Bible, which was also stopped at the last minute (though it had first been encouraged) by divine intervention.

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, although by this time it was so rare that the decree was wholly symbolic. 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] 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. During the Warring States period, Ximen Bao of Wei demonstrated to the villagers that sacrifice to river deities was actually a ploy by crooked priests to pocket money. In Chinese lore, Ximen Bao is regarded as a folk hero who pointed out the absurdity of human sacrifice.

[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.

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

The sacrifice of king Domalde (detail of "Midvinter sacrifice" by Carl Larsson, 1915)
The sacrifice of king Domalde (detail of "Midvinter sacrifice" by Carl Larsson, 1915)

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 enslaved women with the belief that these 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 volunteers to die with a Norseman. After ten days of festivities, she is stabbed to death by an old woman, a sort of priestess who is referred to as Völva or "Angel of Death", and burnt together with the deceased in his boat.

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. 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.

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] Sacrifice in the Quran

The Quran strongly condemns human sacrifice, as a grave error and sinful act (surah 17 ayah 31) and an ignorant, foolish act of those that have gone astray (surah 6 ayah 140), and speaks of how the pagans were deluded by their deities to kill their own children (surah 6 ayah 140). The Quran instructs the believers not to kill their children for fear of poverty (surah 17 ayah 31) or because they are poor (surah 6 ayah 151). Some Arabs before Islam used to bury their daughters alive; Islam abolished this practice (surah 81 verse 8-9).

In the sirah (Biography of the prophet), the father of the prophet Mohammed, Abdullah, was about to be sacrificed by his own father Abd-Almutalib to fulfill an oath he had taken. He was saved from death and 100 camels were slaughtered instead. This confirms that this was a common practice in Arabia till the Quran put an end to it.

[edit] Pre-Columbian sacrifice

Altar for human sacrifice at Monte Alban
Altar for human sacrifice at Monte Alban

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

[edit] Mixtec

The Mixtec 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.

[edit] Maya

The Mayans 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.

In the Post-Classic period, the victims and the altar are represented as daubed in a hue now known as Maya Blue, obtained from the añil plant and the clay mineral palygorskite.[3]

[edit] Aztec

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. Human sacrifices would prevent the end of the world that could happen on each cycle of 52 years. In the 1487 re-consecration of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan many prisoners were sacrificed.

Aztec sacrifices, Codex Mendoza.
Aztec sacrifices, Codex Mendoza.

[edit] Tlaloc

Tlaloc would require weeping boys in the first months of the Aztec calendar to be ritually murdered.

[edit] Xipe Totec

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.

[edit] Inca empire

A number of mummies of sacrificed children have been recovered in the Inca regions of South America, an ancient practice known as capacocha.[4]

[edit] Ancient Hindu practice of Sati

Main article: Sati (practice)

The practice of sati (or suttee) 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 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 act of sati was supposed to take place voluntarily, and from the existing accounts, most of them were 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.[5]

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.[6]

[edit] Contemporary human sacrifice

[edit] Recent Sati 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 18 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.[7]

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. [8]

Some people in India are adherents of a set of theistic philosophies called Tantrism (not to be confused with Tantric Buddhism). Most either use animal sacrifice or symbolic effigies, but a small percent of them engage in human sacrifice:

After a rash of similar killings in the area — according to an unofficial tally in the English language-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 mysticism practices that grew out of Hinduism.[9]

A 2006 newspaper report 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 [were uttered], 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.[10]

[edit] In Africa

Human sacrifice, in the context of religious ritual, still occurs in other 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.

[edit] In the West

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. So-called Satanic ritual abuse is largely unsubstantiated. 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. 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.[11] 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 Conquistadors 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
  • Heinsohn, Gunnar: “The Rise of Blood Sacrifice and Priest Kingship in Mesopotamia: A Cosmic Decree?”[12] (also published in Religion, Vol. 22, 1992)

[edit] Books

  • Cenote of Sacrifices, Clemency Coggins and Orrin C. Shane III ; 1984 The university of Texas Press; ISBN 0-292-71097-6
  • Violence and the Sacred, Rene Girard, translated by P. Gregory; Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, ISBN-10: 0826477186
  • I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, René Girard, Translated by James G. Williams; Orbis Books; 2001, ISBN 1-57075-319-9
  • City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization, David Carrasco, Moughton Mifflin, 2000, ISBN: 0-807-04643-4

[edit] Interline

[edit] See also

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