Human Sacrifice: An Overview

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Human sacrifice, defined as the killing of humans or the use of the flesh, blood, or bones of the human body for ritual purposes, has been a widespread and complex phenomenon throughout history. Most contemporary scholars try to explain human sacrifice in terms of earlier theories of sacrifice in general. Though the explanations given for the purposes of sacrifice have been almost as varied as the phenomena themselves, they may be reduced to nine common themes drawn from four of the classic works on sacrifice. These themes may be illustrated with descriptions of human sacrificial practices in differing cultural contexts.

E. B. Tylor (18321917) theorized that the origin of religion lay in the primitive tendency to "animate" the entire world with "soul-ghosts." Human sacrifice released these soul-ghosts so that they might join their ancestors and function as a gift to gain particular ends, as homage to a deity, or as a form of renunciation.

Theoretical Perspectives

According to W. Robertson Smith (18461894), sacrifice originated in totemism. Sacrifice was a communal meal shared between the people and their god, who was simultaneously their totemic animal and their kinsman. Smith postulated two types of sacrifice. The first, the honorific, was a gift either on a friendly basis of exchange or as a part of homage to a powerful deity. The communion meal became a cannibal feast when a tribe, such as the wolf tribe, offered to the god the appropriate foodthe members of the sheep tribe, for example. The second, the piacular or expiatory sacrifice, took on a mystical, sacramental flavor when a tribe's own totemic animal was offered as a redemption for a misdeed. The animal, who as a kinsman was also a representative of the people themselves, was killed and then shared in a communion in which people achieved atonement by physically assimilating into their own bodies the totemic form of themselves. The sacrificed animal was reborn by being assimilated into the living bodies of the people who ate it, and since those people were identified with the totemic animal, they too were reborn through this ritual.

James G. Frazer (18541941) developed a theory of regeneration of fertility according to which the sacrificial offering possessed tremendous potency. Sacred kings and human vegetative gods were killed to pass on their power to a younger successor, to incorporate their potency into the living who consumed their bodies, and to prevent their decay in old age since decay would endanger the fertility of earthly existence. Frazer also suggested that animals and plants were eventually substituted for the original human sacrificial offering because of the fear inherent in killing humans.

In their essay on Vedic and Hebrew sacrifice (1898), Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss considered sacrifice to be a religious act which, through the consecration of an offering, modified or transformed the condition of the person who accomplished that act by joining the divine and mortal via the sacrifice. Moreover, the self-sacrifice of a god in human form was the ideal abnegation, for it was an offering of one's own life.

Nine basic purposes of human sacrifice have been commonly cited from these early theorists: (1) humans are sacrificed in order to release souls for the service of the dead ancestors; (2) human sacrifice is a gift that binds deities to people in an exchange or that serves to propitiate the gods either as homage or as renunciation; (3) human sacrifice is a communion meal in which the power of life is assimilated and thus regenerated; (4) the offering of human sacrifice serves as an expiation of past transgressions and has a redemptive character; (5) it brings about atonement, (6) the regeneration of earthly fertility, or (7) immortality; (8) it transforms human conditions; and (9) it unifies the divine and mortal. Although some new approaches have been added taking into consideration factors such as the role that cosmology plays or the ordering capacities of human sacrifice, contemporary interpreters of human sacrifice still find these themes fruitful in a variety of cultural settings.

Historical Corroboration

The burials at Chan Chan (fourteenthfifteenth centuries) in Peru are illustrative of the theme of soul-release and kinship with the dead. In this capital of the Chimu empire, many adolescent females were sacrificed and buried with their king. It is known that later, during Inca domination (fifteenthsixteenth centuries), the king was considered alive after death and was treated as a participant in the affairs of his surviving kin. A kinship was established between the dead and the living in the Shang period (c. 15001050 bce) in China as well. According to David N. Keightley (1978), in the Shang political system the dead and the living formed a bureaucracy together. The dead received "salaries" in the form of human sacrifices for their jobs as intercessors between the king and the high god Di. Without this, earthly prosperity could not continue. At Anyang (c. 15001400 bce), the entombment of an entire company of soldiers, four charioteers, their companions, the horses, and the chariots has been unearthed.

The themes of expiation, redemption, and communion were central in the sacrificial tradition of the early Christian church. The early martyrs believed that their sufferings were evidence that the millennium was close at hand. By recapitulating Christ's death, they shared in his resurrection and were instantly transported into his presence. Ignatius of Antioch (Antakya, Turkey) echoed the themes of redemptive communion when he joyously declared that he looked forward to being crushed by the teeth of beasts so that he might become wheat for God's bread.

Themes of redemption and abnegation can also be found in the self-sacrifices of the samurai in Japan. Drawing on a warrior tradition dating back to the eleventh century that stressed kinship and extreme loyalty in the face of failure, the Bushidō cult arose in the peaceful Tokugawa period (16001868). Since there were few wars for the samurai to fight, Confucian ideals were joined with the earlier warrior ethic to create a martial cult in which the warrior was to give complete loyalty to his lord by rendering service in office rather than in war. If seppuku (ritual suicide) was demanded, the samurai were to comply without question. The reasons for seppuku might include atonement for transgressions, the avoidance of capture in war, the death of one's lord, or a final protest to a lord who failed to follow the samurai's good advicean act of selflessness intended to bring the foolish lord back to his senses. Seppuku became a refined art in which the samurai, with tremendous self-control, slashed his own belly. Often an assistant then decapitated him in such a way that the head was left hanging by a bit of flesh. In one incident forty-seven samurai chose this ritual to avenge the disgraceful death of their lord. The kamikaze pilots of World War II also followed this ancient warrior tradition.

In the Hawaiian Islands, sacrifice stands for transformation, communion, and the capacity to reorder what has been disordered. In Hawaiian theology, gods, humans, and nature are one human species. Gods are no more than differentiated manifestations of the undifferentiated cosmic Pō (of which people and nature are extensions) so that the entire world is related by kinship. The sacrificial ritual begins with some perceived lack, which is understood as a kind of disorder. The offering is consecrated to the god, who eats a part of the sacrifice, thus assimilating into himself its mana (effective potency). The sacrifice then passes back to the participants, who assimilate it. In this communal sharing, life is reordered and thus regenerated via the mutual assimilation of the sacrificean assimilation made possible by the shared kinship of gods and humans. A transformative reordering is made.

The evidence for human sacrifice in Vedic India (c. 1500600 bce) is still largely contested. However, by drawing on both textual and archaeological sources, Asko Parpola has suggested that rituals that were precursors of the Agnicayana (Vedic fire sacrifice) included the killing of humans. These earlier rites were part of a yearly cycle of two seasons devoted to war and agriculture, the two divisions marked by sacrifices in which the Aśvamedha (horse sacrifice) was equated with the puruamedha (human sacrifice). Death and regeneration were central concepts in these two sacrifices as they were in the Agnicayana. Even in the early twenty-first century, the Agnicayana symbolically involves human sacrifice: The mythic sacrificial dismemberment of Purua (Cosmic Man) is recalled as the fire altar is constructed brick by brick, an act that reorders both Purua and the cosmos. Five heads originally were buried under the altarthose of a man, a horse, an ox, a sheep, and a goat. Today a live tortoise is buried because of its cosmic and regenerative symbolism. The first layer of bricks represents Purua's thousand eyes, and the finished altar is shaped like the firebird who will carry the sacrifice to heaven. J. C. Heesterman has suggested that human sacrifice was eliminated in the Brāhmaas (c. 900700 bce), which substituted animals and rice cakes, in an attempt to control the fear of disorder inherent in the ritual killing of humans.

The themes of order and disorder also play a role in Aztec sacrifice as does the theme of sacrificial exchange. A central myth of the Aztec tells of the birth and destruction of four ages prior to the Fifth Sun, the age of the Aztec. Each previous age is named for the way in which the sun was totally destroyed. The Fifth Sun, called the "age of movement," was also doomed to destruction by earthquakes and famine. The sun of this age was born by the willing self-sacrifice of the gods, and so shall people sacrifice themselves for the gods in return. In a cosmic exchange, gods are the maize of people's existence while people are tortillas for the gods to eat. But just as all people are born, eat food, grow old, and die, so too will the Fifth Sun meet its demise, no matter how much it is fed. The Aztec universe was thus unstablewobbling between periods of order and disorder. Only human sacrifice could stay the end, and that only temporarily. In this eschatological setting, massive sacrificial rites were performed that may have offered people a chance to take some control of their inevitable destruction, a chance to control the uncontrollable.

Human sacrifice may seem remote to civilized sensibilities. Nevertheless, as a human act it must be at least partly intelligible to other humans. On November 18, 1978, in Jonestown, Guyana, 914 members of the People's Temple took their own lives by means of a cyanide-laced fruit drink. Most of them did so willingly. The complex reasons for this massive sacrifice of human lives are both disturbing and challenging to one's capacity to understand. Yet some familiar themes may be recognized. The people of Jonestown, like the Christian martyrs, believed in a utopian world on "the other side." Like the samurai, they chose death as a "revolutionary act" to protest against the racism that they had failed to overcome, and like the Aztecs, they preferred to choose the time and place of their own deaths. As Jim Jones said during that "white night": "I haven't seen anybody yet didn't die. And I like to choose my own kind of death for a change."

See Also

Afterlife, article on Chinese Concepts; Bushidō; Purua; Suicide; Vedism and Brahmanism.


E. B. Tylor's theories of animism and sacrifice as a release of souls is discussed in his Religion in Primitive Culture (1871; Gloucester, Mass., 1970), vol. 2, pp. 187. The section on sacrifice (pp. 461496) describes this phenomenon in terms of Tylor's views on its traits, mechanisms, permutations, and survivals. The short article "Sacrifice" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th ed. (Boston, 1886), is W. Robertson Smith's initial and concise explication of his theories of sacrifice in general, including those of human sacrifice. For James G. Frazer's theories of sacrifice, see his twelve-volume work The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 3d ed., rev. & enl. (London, 19111915). Henri Hubert's and Marcel Mauss's Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function (Chicago, 1964) is a short study of the structure and function of Vedic and Hebrew sacrificial rituals and is a classic work that has had widespread influence.

Origins of Chinese Religion by David N. Keightley (Berkeley, Calif., 1983) offers one of the best overviews of early Chinese culture. Keightley offers a more concise discussion of the religious perspective that may have provided a basis for, among other things, human sacrifice in the Shang period in "The Religious Commitment: Shang Theology and the Genesis of Chinese Political Culture," History of Religions 17 (FebruaryMay 1978): 211225. A comprehensive discussion of martyrdom and its sacrificial theology in the early Christian church can be found in the classic work by W. H. C. Frend's Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1965). A more recent treatment can be found in A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom among Christian and Jews in Antiquity (San Francisco, 1992) by Arthur J. Droge and James D. Tabor. H. Paul Varley's Warriors of Japan (Honolulu, 1995) explores the evolving Samurai culture from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries as reflected in tales of war. Valerio Valeri's Kingship and Sacrifice: Ritual and Society in Ancient Hawaii (Chicago, 1985) is an extensive study of the structure and function of Hawaiian sacrificial rituals, with particular attention to the role of the king. Valeri includes a fine discussion of Hawaiian theology as well.

A lengthy treatment of a contemporary performance of the ancient Vedic fire ritual can be found in Frits Staal's two-volume Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar (Berkeley, Calif., 1983). This book also includes source material for the historical background of the possibility of human sacrifice in early India. It also includes an article by Asko Parpola, "The Pre-Vedic Indian Background of the Srauta Rituals" (vol. 2, pp. 4175), which discusses the relationship between the horse sacrifice and human sacrifice.

An extraordinarily rich source of information on the Aztecs was compiled by a sixteenth-century Franciscan father, Bernardino de Sahagun, in his Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España, translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble as Florentine Codex: A General History of the Things of New Spain, 13 vols. (Santa Fe, N.Mex., 19501982). Volumes 2, 3, and 7 are particularly good for ritualistic and mythic sources on human sacrifice. A general discussion of Aztec sacrifice can be found in Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos by Kay Read (Bloomington, Ind., 1998), and an excellent synthesis and application of a number of classic and contemporary theories on Aztec sacrifice appears in Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Crisis by Eric Wolf (Berkeley, Calif., 1999, pp. 134195).

Kay A. Read (1987 and 2005)

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Human Sacrifice: An Overview

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