Sacrifice, I (Human)

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The term is employed to designate all cultic killing of human beings, including self-inflicted death, even if the strictest sense of offering or sacrificethe full surrender of one's own life in view of a debt to be paid or an atonement to be madeis not adverted to, but magical considerations prevail. The magical is a significant factor much in evidence in human sacrifice, and it was certainly present from the outset; human sacrifice was introduced only after killing as such became a cultic act, as it did in the early stage of the food-producing cultures. In the myth of the primitive being who was put to death, and from whose members cultivated plants sprang forth, the ideological foundation for human sacrifice is clearly established. Hence bloody sacrifice, with the division and distribution of the parts of the victim, including those of a human victim, and their consumption in a cultic meal, is pushed back nearly to the very beginning of this kind of bloody offerings.

To a later date are to be assigned the origins of two other forms of offering in which human sacrifice dominated, namely, the foundation sacrifice and the joint-burial of wife and followers with the dead husband. The first practice presupposed permanent domiciles, and the second the development of governmental structures or lordship. Primitive hunters and food-gatherers were not familiar with ritual killing. It was certainly an innovation far removed from the age of human origins.

Headhunting stands in rather close relation with the earliest bloody human sacrifices. This practice developed under the influence of the concept of lunar mythology. The skull was thought to have a connection with the moon, and the moon, some connection with the mystery of life and death. There is question here of a phenomenon exhibiting several strata in its development, for bloodless forms of killing, such as strangling women (in Peru), sacrifice by drowning or submersion, especially in deep wells (zenote ) among the Maya, and burial alive, cannot be included in a single category. This is even more true of the rich and magnificent grave offerings noted first in ancient Mesopotamia and often at the end of the Neolithic Age, in the Bronze Age in Europe, and in the Shang period in China.

Man, as the superior living thing, became the object of cultic sacrifice. Even where, as in Peru, chiefly thieves and robbers were formerly used as victims, the death penalty is still evaluated as a sacrificial action, and the sacrifice of prisoners, as that of gladiators, receives its dignity from the high value placed on the warrior's profession. In Mexico war was prosecuted solely to secure victims for the numerous and gruesome human sacrifices demanded by Aztec religion. The victim selected especially for sacrifice to the god Tezcatlipoca was given the same honors as the god himself. He served as his representative; in him the god died and was restored to life. Great importance was attached to the fact that the prisoner accepted his fate willingly; or at least the fiction was adopted that this was the case. Clear examples are known of voluntary sacrifice on the part of individuals themselves, and these not only the leaders; but it would be going too far to imagine, in a romantic vein, that this was the rule. In the great majority of cases men were slaughtered as victims, and on rare occasions women were also.

In addition to its occurrence among the Celts, the sacrifice of women is found also among the Maya; but with the latter, it took the form of drowning. The Pawnee sacrificed a maiden as an arrow-offering to the morning star. The Phoenicians in an early phase of their history sacrificed children; the practice was followed also among the Canari in northern Ecuador. On a mountain in this area 100 children were once killed in a solemn feast in honor of the Maize-God.

The practices of prophesying from the blood of sacrificed prisoners (among the Cimbri and Celts), and the tearing out of the heart (among the Aztecs in Mexico), as well as the twirling of new fire in its place, are frequently attested. They are to be explained on the basis of the magic value attached to blood.

Bibliography: j. haekel, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 7:294296. f. hampl et al., f. kÖnig, ed., Religionswissenschaftliches Wörterbuch (Freiburg 1956) 533535. a. closs, ibid. 915916; "Opfer in Ost und West," Kairos 3 (1961) 153161. f. schwenn, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (Stuttgart 1893) 15.1 (1931) 948956. m. eliade, Patterns of Comparative Religion, tr. r. sheed (New York 1958) 341346. g. hogg, Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice (London 1958). a. e. jensen, "Über das Töten als kulturgeschichtliche Erscheinung," Paedeuma 4 (1950) 2338. j. maringer, "Menschenopfer im Bestattungsbrauch Alteuropas," Anthropos 3740 (194245) 1112.

[a. closs]