Human sacrifice is the act of killing human beings as part of a religious ritual. It has been practiced in many cultures throughout much of history but has been banned everywhere in the world since the twentieth century.
Paralleling the various practices of animal sacrifice and of religious sacrifice in general, human victims were typically killed in a manner supposed to please or appease gods or, in the case of "retainer sacrifice" to accompany their master in the next life. Criminals convicted of capital crimes and prisoners of war were also sometimes executed as human sacrifices.
By the Iron Age, human sacrifice was becoming less common throughout the Old World, and came to be widely looked down upon as barbaric. However, it continued in parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa for centuries and was practiced on a massive scale in the societies of the Americas until at least the sixteenth century. Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam have consistently opposed human sacrifice, although early Israelite religion seems to have practiced it to some degree.
Human sacrifice has become extremely rare in recent times as all major religions condemn the practice and secular laws treat it as murder. Nonetheless it is still occasionally seen today, with reports from the 2000s from India, Sub-Saharan Africa, and isolated cases in the immigrant African diaspora in Europe.
Evolution and context
Human sacrifice has its roots in deep prehistory, intended to bring good fortune, pacify the gods, or provide service and companionship for person of rank in the afterlife. Human sacrifices were often offered in the context of the dedication of a major building project like a temple, defensive wall, or bridge. Thousands of people are said to be entombed in the Great Wall of China, while Japanese maidens are said to have been buried alive at the base of major constructions to protect the buildings against disasters or enemy attacks. For the re-consecration of Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487 C.E., the Aztecs boasted of sacrificing more than 80,000 prisoners over the course of four days, although this may be an exaggeration.
Human sacrifice can also have the intention of winning the gods' favor in warfare. In Greek mythology, Iphigeneia was to be sacrificed by her father Agamemnon for success in the Trojan War. In the Bible, the judge Jephthah sacrificed his daughter to God for a military victory against the Ammonites (Judges 11).
Another from of human sacrifice is "retainer sacrifice" in which victims are killed in association with the funeral or their lord or husband. Kings and chiefs often brought their their household, including servants and concubines, with them to the next world. The Indian tradition of suttee, in which a woman wold throw herself onto the funeral pyre of her husband, is a form of retainer sacrifice.
Once abolished, human sacrifice is typically replaced by either animal sacrifice, or by the "mock-sacrifice" of effigies, such as the argei dolls in ancient Rome. Many cultures show traces of prehistoric human sacrifice in their mythologies, but ceased to practice them before the onset of historical records. The story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22) is thought by historians of religion to be an example of a myth explaining the abolition of human sacrifice in Jewish tradition. Similarly, the Vedic Purushamedha, literally "human sacrifice," was a purely symbolic act in its earliest attestation, but seems to hint at an earlier tradition of actual human sacrifice. According to Pliny the Elder, human sacrifice in Ancient Rome was abolished by a senatorial decree in 97 B.C.E., although by this time the practice had already become so rare that the decree was mostly a symbolic act.
Ancient Near East
Retainer sacrifice was practiced within the royal tombs of ancient Mesopotamia. Courtiers, guards, musicians, handmaidens, and grooms were buried with their kings. They were initially presumed to have taken poison. However, a 2009 examination of skulls from the royal cemetery at Ur, discovered in Iraq in the 1920s by a team led by C. Leonard Woolley, appears to support a more grisly interpretation of human sacrifices associated with these elite burials. Palace attendants, as part of royal mortuary ritual, were not dosed with poison to meet death serenely. Instead, they were put to death by having a sharp instrument, such as a pike, driven into their heads.
There is evidence of retainer sacrifice in the early dynastic period at Abydos, when on the death of a king he would be accompanied with servants and high officials, who would continue to serve him in eternal life. Again, the skeletons found show no obvious signs of trauma, leading to speculation that their deaths may have been voluntary. At about 2800 B.C.E. evidence of such practices disappears, and is replaced by the burial of statues of servants in Old Kingdom tombs.
Israel and Canaan
Biblical evidence points to human sacrifice both among the Israelites and their Canaanite neighbors. Genesis 22 relates that the patriarch Abraham was about to sacrifice his Isaac to the Hebrew God Yahweh, but was prevented from doing so at the last minute by the intervention of an angel. A ram caught in the nearby bushes became an acceptable replacement. Human sacrifice was thenceforth banned in Jewish law, and a price of five shekels was levied for the redemption of first-born sons (Numbers 18:15), while first-born oxen, sheep, and goats were to be offered as sacrifices. However, the Israelite judge Jephthah actually did sacrifice his daughter to God after he has been granted victory in war (Judges 11).
Biblical tradition portrays the Canaanites as still practicing human sacrifice, in contrast to the Israelite opposition to this practice. During a battle against the Israelites, the king of Moab sacrificed his firstborn son and heir as a burnt offering, resulting in great fear coming upon the Israelites (2 Kings 3:27). However, this Canaanite practice was not unknown among the Israelite king. Ahaz of Judah gave his son as a burnt offering to an unspecified deity (2 Kings 16). As late as the time of the prophet Jeremiah in the late sixth or early sixth century B.C.E., both Israelites and Canaanites are still reported as offering their children to various gods.
Phoenicia and Carthage
According to Roman and Greek sources, Phoenicians and Carthaginians sacrificed infants to their gods. Plutarch (ca. 46–120 C.E.) mentions the practice, as do Tertullian, Orosius, Diodorus Siculus, and Philo. Livy and Polybius do not. The Bible asserts that children were at a place called the Tophet ("roasting place") to the god Moloch. According to Diodorus Siculus' account of the Carthagians: "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." Plutarch states that the children were already dead at the time of their being offered, having been killed by their parents, whose consent—as well as that of the children—was required.
Greece and Rome
In Greco-Roman civilization, possible sites of human sacrifice has been discovered in Crete, dated to the pre-Hellenic Minoan civilization. An expedition to Knossos excavated a mass grave of sacrifices that included children. Additionally, Rodney Castleden uncovered a sanctuary near Knossos where the remains of a 17-year-old were found sacrificed.
Despite allusions to the practice in classical mythology, archaeologists have been unable to find tangible evidence that the Ancient Greeks practiced human sacrifice. In terms of literature, Agamemnon, the commander of the Achaeans in the Trojan War, is said to have sacrificed—or to have intended to sacrifice—his daughter Iphigeneia to assuage the wrath of the goddess Artemis. As with the story of Isaac and Abraham, in some versions of the legend the deity substitutes a sacrificial animal, in this case a deer, for her instead. Andromeda was a woman from Greek mythology who, as divine punishment for her mother's bragging, was chained to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster sent by Poseidon. She was saved from death by Perseus, her future husband. Several other examples of myths involving human sacrifice lead to the belief that it was once practiced among the Greeks despite the lack of physical evidence.
Among the Romans, the original form of gladiatorial combat may have involved sacrificial victims being slain in a ritual battle. During the early republic, the execution of certain criminals was referred to as their being "given to the gods." Prisoners of war and Vestal virgins were buried alive as offerings to deceased spirits and the gods of the underworld. Captured enemy leaders were be ritually strangled in front of a statue of Mars, the war god. According to Pliny the Elder, human sacrifice was abolished by a senatorial decree in 97 B.C.E. Nevertheless, the public execution of Christians and other religiously undesirable groups may be seen as a form human sacrifice to rid society of groups who refused to honor the state gods.
Christianity followed Jewish tradition and strongly opposed human sacrifice. However, it also viewed Jesus as a willing human sacrifice, offered to God for the redemption of sinners who believe in him.
There is evidence that ancient Celtic peoples practiced human sacrifice. In Britain, the medieval legends of Dinas Emrys and of Saint Oran of Iona mention foundation sacrifices, whereby people were ritually killed and buried under foundations to ensure the building's safety. Roman sources indicate that slaves and dependents of Gauls of high rank were burned along with the body of their master as part of his funerary rites, and that Druids (Celtic priests) built huge wicker figures that were filled with living humans and then burned.
Different gods reportedly required different kind of sacrifices. Victims meant for Esus were hanged, those meant for Taranis were immolated, and those for Teutates were drowned. Some, like the Lindow Man whose preserved body was discovered in a peat bog at Lindow Moss near Wilmslow in Cheshire in North West England, died a violent death by being strangled, hit on the head, and having his throat cut.
Several ancient Irish bog bodies have been interpreted as kings who were ritually killed, presumably after serious crop failures or other disasters. Some were deposited in bogs on territorial boundaries (which were seen as liminal places) or near royal inauguration sites, and some were found to have eaten a ceremonial last meal.
Human sacrifice was not particularly common among the Germanic peoples, being resorted to in exceptional situations arising from environmental crises (crop failure, drought, famine) or social crises (war). It also appears to have derived at least in part from the failure of the king to establish and/or maintain prosperity and peace in the lands entrusted to him. In later Scandinavian practice, human sacrifice appears to have become more institutionalized and was repeated periodically as part of a larger sacrifice. For example, in the eleventh century, Adam of Bremen wrote that human and animal sacrifices were made at the Temple at Gamla Uppsala in Sweden. He wrote that every ninth year, nine men and nine of every animal were sacrificed and their bodies hung in a sacred grove.
An account by the Muslim diplomat Ahmad ibn Fadlan in 921 claims that Norse warriors were sometimes buried with female slaves, in the belief that these women would become their wives in Valhalla. In his description of the funeral of a Scandinavian chieftain, a slave volunteers for the honor. After ten days of festivities, she is stabbed to death by the priestess and burned together with the deceased in his boat in a ship burial.
The Historia Norwegiæ and Ynglinga saga refer to the willing sacrifice of King Dómaldi after bad harvests. According to the Ynglinga saga, King Aun, Dómaldi's descendant, sacrificed nine of his own sons to Odin in exchange for longer life, until the Swedes stopped him from sacrificing his last son, Egil. In the Hervarar saga, Heidrek agrees to the sacrifice of his son in exchange for a military command, which he then uses to seize the kingdom and prevent the sacrifice of his son, dedicating to Odin those dead already fallen in his rebellion instead.
Asia and Oceania
The ancient Chinese are known to have made sacrifices of young men and women to river deities such as Hebo ("Lord of the River"), the god of the Yellow River. They also 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 outlawed human sacrificial practices to the river god.
The sacrifice of a high-ranking male's slaves, concubines, or servants upon his death was a more common form of human sacrifice, offered to provide companionship or service for the dead in the afterlife. Funeral human sacrifice was widely practiced in the ancient Chinese state of Qin. According to the Records of the Grand Historian by Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian, the practice was started by Duke Wu, the tenth ruler of Qin, who had 66 people buried with him in 678 B.C.E. The 14th ruler Duke Mu had 177 people buried with him in 621 B.C.E., including three senior government officials. Afterwards, the people of Qin wrote the famous poem Yellow Bird to condemn this barbaric practice; the poem was later compiled in the Confucian Classic of Poetry. The practice continued until Duke Xian of Qin (424–362 B.C.E.) abolished it in 384 B.C.E. Funeral human sacrifice was abolished by the Qin Dynasty in 384 B.C.E. However, the Hongwu Emperor of the Ming Dynasty revived it in 1395 when his second son died and two of the prince's concubines were sacrificed. In 1464, the Zhengtong Emperor forbade the practice for future Ming emperors and princes.
In India, human sacrifice is mainly known as Narabali, where nara means human and bali means sacrifice.
Human sacrifices were carried out in connection with the worship of Shakti till approximately the early modern period, and in Bengal perhaps as late as the early nineteenth century. Certain tantric cults performed human sacrifice until around the same time; it was a highly ritualized act, and on occasion took many months to complete.
The question of whether human sacrifice is permitted in the Vedas is a matter of dispute by scholars. It is generally accepted, however, that by the Puranic period - at least at the time of the writing of the Kalika-Purana, human sacrifice was accepted. In the post-Puranic medieval period, human sacrifice became increasingly common. In the seventh century, Banabhatta, in a description of the dedication of a temple of Chandika, describes a series of human sacrifices. Similarly, in the ninth century, Haribhadra describes the sacrifices to Chandika in Orissa.
The practice of Suttee in some Hindu communities, whereby a widow would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, continued throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. Believed to guarantee the couple's salvation and reunion in the afterlife, it may be seen as a form of retainer sacrifice. India's Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act (1987) was designed to abolish the tradition, as isolated incidents still occurred.
The Aztecs were noted for practicing human sacrifice on a large scale, with a common estimate being 20,000 per year, but possibly as high as 250,000. Believing that the sun god Huitzilopochtli lost a daily battle each night, human sacrifices were offered to restore him to life and to 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, the number of human sacrifices is estimated at between 10,000 and 80,000 prisoners.
Friar Marcus de Nica (1539) writing of the "Chichimecas" stated that from time to time they "cast lots whose luck (honor) it shall be to be sacrificed, and they make him great cheer, on whom the lot falls, and with great joy they crown him with flowers upon a bed prepared in the said ditch all full of flowers and sweet herbs, on which they lay him along, and lay great store of dry wood on both sides of him, and set it on fire on either part, and so he dies" and "that the victim took great pleasure" in being sacrificed.
The players of the Mixtec Mesoamerican ballgame were sacrificed when the game was used to resolve a dispute between cities. The Maya sacrificed human beings to please the water god Chaac. At Chichen Itza extensive excavations have recovered the remains of 42 individuals, half of them under 20 years old.
The Zapotec civilization was an indigenous pre-Columbian civilization that flourished in the Valley of Oaxaca in Mesoamerica that originated at least 2,500 years ago. The Zapotec religion was polytheistic and it is believed that they used human sacrifice in some of their rituals. The Zapotec archaeological site at the ancient city of Monte Albán has a large number of carved stone monuments throughout it main plaza. These monuments, dating to the earliest period of occupation at the site, are now interpreted as representing tortured, sacrificed war prisoners, some identified by name, possibly leaders of competing centers and villages.
Like many bronze age civilizations, the Incas also practiced human sacrifice, especially at great festivals or royal funerals. As many as 4,000 servants, court officials, favorites, and concubines were killed upon the death of the Inca Huayna Capac in 1527, for example. The ancient practice of child sacrifice, known as qhapaq hucha (or Capacocha), was performed at important shrines distributed across the empire, known as huacas. Children of both genders were selected from across the Inca empire for sacrifice in these ceremonies, which the Incas performed during or after important events, such as the death of the Sapa Inca (emperor) or during a famine.
The Incan high priests took the children to high mountaintops for sacrifice. One particularly noteworthy site was found near the summit of Mount Llullaillaco, a volcano in Argentina that lies near the Chilean border. In 1999, the mummies of three relatively young individuals were found at the top of the mountain alongside a diverse assemblage of artifacts. The perfectly preserved bodies, sacrificed approximately 500 years earlier, included a 15-year-old girl, nicknamed "La doncella" (the maiden), a seven-year-old boy, and a six-year-old girl, nicknamed "La niña del rayo" (the lightning girl). The latter's nickname reflects the fact that sometime during the 500 years on the summit, the preserved body was struck by lightning, partially burning it and some of the ceremonial artifacts. The three mummies are exhibited in rotating fashion at the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, specially built for them in Salta, Argentina.
The Moche of Northern Peru performed child sacrifice, including sacrificing teenagers en masse, as archaeologist Steve Bourget found when he uncovered the bones of 42 male adolescents in 1995. Study of Moche art has enabled researchers to reconstruct the culture's most important ceremonial sequence, which began with ritual combat and culminated in the sacrifice of those defeated in battle. Dressed in fine clothes and adornments, armed warriors faced each other in ritual combat. In this hand-to-hand encounter the aim was to remove the opponent's headdress rather than kill him. The object of the combat was the provision of victims for sacrifice. The vanquished were stripped and bound, after which they were led in procession to the place of sacrifice. The captives are portrayed as strong and sexually potent. In the temple, the priests and priestesses would prepare the victims for sacrifice. The sacrificial methods employed varied, but at least one of the victims would be bled to death. His blood was offered to the principal deities in order to please and placate them..
The Mississippian culture or Mound Builders of the Southeastern United States may have also practiced human sacrifice, as some artifacts have been interpreted as depicting such acts. Mound 72 at Cahokia (the largest Mississippian site), located near modern St. Louis, Missouri, was found to have numerous pits filled with mass burials thought to have been retainer sacrifices. One of several similar pit burials had the remains of 53 young women who had been strangled and neatly arranged in two layers. Another pit held 39 men, women, and children who showed signs of dying a violent death before being unceremoniously dumped into the pit. Several bodies showed signs of not having been fully dead when buried and of having tried to claw their way to the surface. On top of these people another group had been neatly arranged on litters made of cedar poles and cane matting. Another group of four individuals found in the mound were interred on a low platform, with their arms interlocked. They had had their heads and hands removed. 
The Skidi band of the Pawnee practiced an annual Morning Star Ceremony which included the sacrifice of a young girl. This was connected to the Pawnee creation narrative, in which the mating of the male Morning Star with the female Evening Star created the first human being, a girl. For the ceremony, a young girl was captured, typically from another tribe, based on a dream by a Skidi elder. The girl was well treated for several days, while an elaborate scaffold was being built. When the morning star was due to rise, the girl was placed on the scaffold, and at the moment the star appeared above the horizon, the girl's chest was cut open, after which her body was shot with arrows by the men of the village, symbolically mating with her. Although the ceremony continued, the sacrifice was discontinued in the nineteenth century.
Human sacrifice was common in West African states up to and during the nineteenth century. The annual customs of Dahomey—in which prisoners were sacrificed with messages for the dead and as a means of divination—were the most notorious example. However, human sacrifice was common throughout Dahomey, in the Benin Empire, in today's Ghana, and in the small independent states that now form southern Nigeria. Sacrifices were often conducted after the death of a king or queen, and there are many recorded cases of hundreds or even thousands of slaves being sacrificed at such events.
Human sacrifice became rare relatively early as Islam became established in these areas. The practice was officially banned in the remainder of West African states by the British and the French. The last major center of human sacrifice was the Benin Empire in today's Nigeria, where the practice was not suppressed until around the turn of the twentieth century.
Contemporary human sacrifice
Human sacrifice is no longer legal in any country in the world. However, there have been instances, even in the twenty-first century.
In Africa, there is still black market demand for child abduction for purposes which include human sacrifice. For example, in muti murders where traditional healers or witch doctors often grind up body parts and combine them with roots, herbs, seawater, animal parts, and other ingredients to prepare potions and spells for their clients. In 2008, rebel leader Milton Blahyi of Liberia confessed being part of human sacrifices which "included the killing of an innocent child and plucking out the heart, which was divided into pieces for us to eat."
In June 2005, a report by the BBC claimed that boys from Africa were being trafficked to the UK for human sacrifice. It noted that children were beaten and murdered after being labelled as witches by pastors in an Angolan community in London.
In India, there was an incident of human sacrifice in western Uttar Pradesh in 2003:
Madan and Murti Simaru were desperate for a son. So when nature failed to provide them one, the impoverished field hand and his wife did what many Indians do in times of need: They went to see a tantrik, practitioner of an ancient spiritual art — tantrism — that aims to harness supernatural powers for the resolution of worldly ills. The outcome could hardly have been more shocking. Acting on the tantrik's instructions, the couple arranged for last month's kidnapping of a 6-year-old neighbor and then — as the tantrik led them in chanting mantras — mutilated and killed the boy, Monu Kumar, on the bank of an irrigation canal, according to a police report. Murti Simaru allegedly completed the fertility ritual by washing in the child's blood.
In 2015, during the Granite scam investigations of Tamil Nadu, there were reports of possible human sacrifices in the Madurai area to pacify goddess Shakthi for getting power to develop the illegal granite business. Bones and skulls were retrieved from the alleged sites in presence of the special judicial officer appointed by the high court of Madras.
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ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
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- Human sacrifice today by Diane Vera, 2006.
- Indian temple revives “human sacrifice” By Rahul Karmakar, BBC, April 3, 2002.
- Priest makes human sacrifice By Mahesh Pandey, BBC, March 27, 2003.
- 25 cultures that practiced human sacrifice By Owen Jarus, Live Science, June 16, 2017.
- Did Human Sacrifice Help People Form Complex Societies? By Laura Spinney, The Atlantic, February 27, 2018.
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