The practice of human sacrifice has been associated with religious beliefs, famine, and national pride. The term is generally approached with reference to the Aztecs and other Meso-American cultures. Yet human sacrifice has been in practice since the Stone Age and refers to ceremonial slaughter that is performed to achieve a benefit for society, albeit through grisly means.
Evidence of human sacrifice has been found in Denmark, Holland, and Germany. During the Iron Age in these areas, people would be ritually killed by hanging, bludgeoning, strangling, or by having their throats slit. The bodies would then be submerged in a peat bog, where their remains were preserved for centuries. Examples have been found that date back to 3500 bce. “Bog bodies” have also been found in England. Anthropologists have noted that an overwhelming characteristic of the bodies found was physical deformity, such as extra or missing digits or shortened legs, and it has been postulated that these individuals were thought to have been “touched by the gods,” making them fitting sacrifices.
Between 3100 bce and 2890 bce, there was mass human sacrifice in Egypt, for the pharaohs required servants to follow them to the grave. This was also prevalent in Mesopotamia, where servants, guards, and even musicians and grooms consumed poison to follow their kings into death. In the kingdom of Kerma, in Africa, huge pits have been discovered in which some 500 or more people were buried just outside their ruler’s mausoleum. The same rituals occurred in China around the first to second centuries bce.
Human sacrifice was also practiced in Ancient Greece. Archaeological evidence leading to this assumption has been found on the Isle of Crete. Skeletal remains of several individuals found near Knossos appear to have been put to death in ceremonial ways. One male approximately eighteen years old at the time of death, was trussed tightly, and a decorated dagger was found among his bones. He lay near a trough, which is thought to have been used to collect sacrificial blood, and the body of a woman lay spread-eagled in the southwest corner of the room. Further, what appears to be an altar was festooned with crop-filled vases, alluding to religious ritual.
The Celts also practiced human sacrifice for religious reasons, and their rites were documented in the work of Julius Caesar. According to Caesar, though this point might be contested, the Druids sacrificed murderers, as they believed that only a life offered in atonement for a life taken could appease the gods. Murderers were sometimes sentenced to enclosure in an immense human effigy, which was burned with the criminals inside. Thieves were also sentenced to this fiery death, and when not enough criminals were present to fill the container, innocent people were added to its contents. The Celts also allegedly applied decapitation, throttling, clubbing, or throat slitting, also accompanied by burial in a peat bog. They also killed men by striking them in the back with a sword, and they divined meaning from the ensuing death struggle. In her war against Roman occupation, the warrior queen Boudica impaled vanquished Roman soldiers to honor the gods.
Though the Romans thought these Celtic practices were barbaric, they had in fact carried out their own versions of human sacrifice, though they had ended the practice a century sooner. Yet they still practiced mass execution in the Coliseum during the gladiatorial games, and at a later time Christians would be fed to the lions. Vikings were sometimes buried with slave girls, who were thought to become their wives in Valhalla. Some scholars believe that the women were willing participants who asked for the honor of being ritually stabbed and then burned in the ship with their masters.
The practice of human sacrifice in Meso-America did not begin with the Aztec culture. In fact, evidence has been found that human sacrifice was part of religion as far back as the first known Meso-American civilization, the Olmecs. The Aztecs are certainly the most well known for their propensity for ritual killings, however. Many of their gods would only be appeased by the flow of human blood. Their most important god was Huitzilopochtli, the Sun God. Aztecs believed that if they did not ritually sacrifice to him regularly, the sun would not rise. In his honor, the high priest would lay a man over the sacrificial stone and cut the beating heart out of his chest, which would then be held up before the attending crowd.
Though this was the most prevalent type of sacrifice, the Aztecs had many gods to satisfy, and they each had prescribed rites. For Xipe Totec, or “Our Lord the Flayed One,” victims were first tied to a tree, then shot with arrows. The ritual required that the victim be flayed so that the skin remained intact. The high priest would then don the skin to symbolize the “new skin” of springtime. For Tezcatlipoca, a young man would be selected and treated royally for one year. At the end of that time, he would be sacrificed. Though these practices seem horrific in modern times, Aztec sacrificial victims were honored to be chosen.
This was also true among the Mayas, who might sacrifice entire losing teams in a ritual ballgame. Criminals were weakened by hunger and then forced to play the game with healthy athletes. The criminal team was soundly routed, with decapitation as the end result. Mayans also sacrificed people to the water god, Chaak, over limestone sinkholes, which were believed to be doors to the underworld.
The Incas also practiced human sacrifice. Yet, unlike early European incidents, Incan sacrifices had to be pure and free of blemishes. Often, a child of the king’s would be sacrificed to strengthen the bond between king and deity. Earthquakes, droughts, epidemics, or the death of kings were reasons for performing the sacrificial ritual, which entailed taking the child to the top of a mountain, where a stone mausoleum would be built. The boy or girl was given a drug to ease the pain, wrapped tightly in ceremonial garments, and buried with many honorific items surrounding the body. Evidence now points to the children receiving a blow to the head, but it is not certain whether it was simply to knock them unconscious or to kill them because the skull fractures found in all the Incan “mummies” are mild.
Though all of these civilizations found reason in what modern man would find a barbaric practice, each civilization had rules for which human sacrifice was required, as well as rules about who the victims would be. This relates to the work of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who defines the role of homo sacer or “the citizen,” which is an individual who exists in law as an exile without legal rights or identity. Though such persons can be killed, they may not be ritually sacrificed. Only “bare life,” or individuals without inalienable rights (which relates to political prisoners stripped of citizenship), could be sacrificed by Roman Law. This was not always true in Meso-American civilization. In most cases, it was an honor to be chosen.
Some modern films, such as Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006), which is based on the Mayan civilization, can bring the horror and reality of human sacrifice to life. Though the process of the sacrifice is portrayed accurately in Gibson’s film, other aspects of the practice are not. As stated above, most sacrificial victims went to their doom willingly, in repayment to their gods for life and abundance. To turn down such an offer, or to escape (as Gibson’s character Jaguar Paw does in the film), would have been considered an effrontery to the gods and evoked their wrath upon their entire civilization.
Though the practice of human sacrifice died out after the Conquistadors conquered the New World, it continues in Asia in modern times. In India, a small percentage of followers of the religion Tantrism practice human sacrifice, though this is thoroughly illegal. In one tantric rite, a woman hacked a three-year-old to death to achieve the promise of limitless wealth. In another, a couple who could not have children were directed to murder a child and wash in its blood to assure conception. Though the police have apprehended some of those involved in such cases, it is uncertain whether the practice of human sacrifice will ever end.
SEE ALSO Archaeology; Civilization; Death and Dying; Incas; Olmecs; Religion; Rituals
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Patricia Cronin Marcello