Human sacrifice

Human sacrifice

Human sacrifice is the act of homicide (the killing of one or several human beings) in the context of a religious ritual (ritual killing). Its typology closely parallels the various practices of ritual slaughter of animals (animal sacrifice) and of religious sacrifice in general. Human sacrifice has been practiced in various cultures throughout history. Victims were typically ritually killed in a manner that is supposed to please or appease gods, spirits or the deceased, for example as a propitiatory offering, or as a retainer sacrifice when the King servants die in order to continue to serve their master in the next life. Closely related practices found in some tribal societies are cannibalism and headhunting. By the Iron Age, with the associated developments in religion (the Axial Age), human sacrifice was becoming less common throughout the Old World, and came to be widely looked down upon as barbaric already in pre-modern times (Classical Antiquity). Blood libel is a false charge of ritual killing against such taboos.

Even if not ostensibly connected with religion, infliction of capital punishment is often highly ritualised and thus difficult to distinguish from human sacrifice. Death by burning historically has aspects of both human sacrifice (Wicker Man, Tophet) and capital punishment (Brazen bull, Tamar, "tunica molesta"). Execution by burning of Christian heretics was introduced by Justinian I in the 6th century. Detractors of the death penalty may consider all forms of capital punishment as secularized variants of human sacrifice. [So Benjamin Rush (1792), see Louis P. Masur "Rites of Execution" Oxford University Press (1989), p. 65] Similarly, lynching, pogroms and genocides are sometimes interpreted as human sacrifice following Theodor W. Adorno. [Horkheimer, M., Adorno T. W. (1947), Dialektik der Aufklärung. Philosophische Fragmente, Amsterdam: Querido; p. 199ff.Hughes (2007) in reference to the Holocaust writes, "the great exterminations of the twentieth century [...] have superseded human sacrifice as the ultimate touchstones of barbarity. When we require place names to denote the horror where culture collapses, we no longer think of Aulis or Taurica."]

In modern times, as even the once ubiquitous practice of animal sacrifice has virtually disappeared (or has been re-cast in terms of ritual slaughter) from all major religions, human sacrifice has become very rare indeed. Most religions condemn the practice and present-day secular laws treat it as murder. In the context of a society which condemns human sacrifice, the term ritual murder is used.

Nonetheless it is still occasionally seen today, with reports from the 2000s from India and Sub-Saharan Africa (muti killings), but also isolated cases in the immigrant African diaspora in Europe. [ [ Boys 'used for human sacrifice'] ] [ [ Kenyan arrests for 'witch' deaths] ]

Evolution and context

The idea of human sacrifice has its roots in deep prehistory, [ [ Early Europeans Practiced Human Sacrifice] ] in the evolutionof human behaviour. Mythologically, it is closely connected, or even fundamentally identical with animal sacrifice. Walter Burkert has argued for such a fundamental identity of animal and human sacrifice in the connection of a hunting hypothesis which traces the emergence of human religious behaviour to the beginning of behavioral modernity in the Upper Paleolithic (roughly 50,000 years ago).

There has been a lot of debate on the primacy of myth vs. ritual, and the presence of a myth of human sacrifice should not be taken as necessarily implying the historical existence of the actual practice: human sacrifice may be taken as the re-enactment of an older myth, or conversely a myth can be taken as a memory of an earlier practice of human sacrifice. Theistic rationalizations of human sacrifice may involve the idea of 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. The various rationales behind human sacrifice are the same that motivate religious sacrifice in general. Human sacrifice is intended to bring good fortune and to pacify the gods, for example in the context of the dedication of a completed building like a temple or bridge. There is a Chinese legend that says there are thousands of people entombed in the Great Wall of China. In ancient Japan legends talk about Hitobashira ("human pillar"), in which maidens were buried alive at the base or near some constructions as a prayer to ensure the buildings against disasters or enemy attacks. [ [ History of Japanese Castles] ] For the re-consecration of Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs reported that they killed about 80,400 prisoners over the course of four days. According to Ross Hassig, author of "Aztec Warfare", "between 10,000 and 80,400 persons" were sacrificed in the ceremony. [Hassig, Ross (2003). "El sacrificio y las guerras floridas". Arqueología mexicana, p. 46-51.]

Human sacrifice can also have the intention of winning the gods' favour in warfare. Iphigeneia was to be sacrificed by her father Agamemnon for success in the Trojan War. According to the Bible, Jephthah sacrificed his daughter after making a vow (Judges 11). [John Huesman, "Judges", New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Nelson 1969] ["Did Jephthah Kill his Daughter?", Solomon Landers, Biblical Archaeology Review, August 1991.] Another motivation for human sacrifice is burial: in some notions of an afterlife, the deceased will benefit from victims killed at his funeral. Mongols, Scythians, early 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, so that they could continue to serve him in the afterlife.

Another purpose is divination from the body parts of the victim. According to Strabo, Celts stabbed a victim with a sword and divined the future from his death spasms. ["StraboGeography", Book IV Chapter 4:5, published in Vol. II of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1923. [*.html] ]

Headhunting is the practice of taking the head of a killed adversary, for ceremonial or magical purposes, or for reasons of prestige. It was found in many pre-modern tribal societies.

Human sacrifice may be a ritual practiced in a stable society, and may even be conductive to enhance societal bonds (see sociology of religion), both by creating a bond unifying the sacrificing community, and in combining human sacrifice and capital punishment, by removing individuals that have a negative effect on societal stability (criminals, religious heretics, foreign slaves or prisoners of war).But outside of civil religion, human sacrifice may also result in outbursts of "blood frenzy" and mass killings that destabilize society. Thus, the Thuggee cult that plagued India was devoted to Kali, the goddess of death and destruction. [ [ Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult by Mike Dash] , The Independent] [ [ Thuggee (Thagi) (13th C. to ca. 1838)] ] According to the "Guinness Book of Records" the Thuggee cult was responsible for approximately 2,000,000 deaths. The bursts of capital punishment during European witch-hunts, or during the French Revolutionary Reign of Terror show similar sociological patterns (see also moral panic).

Many cultures show traces of prehistoric human sacrifice in their mythologies, but have ceased to practice them before the onset of historical records. The story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22) is an example of a myth explaining the abolition of human sacrifice. Similarly, the Vedic Purushamedha, literally "human sacrifice", is already a purely symbolic act in its earliest attestation. According to Pliny the Elder, human sacrifice in Ancient Rome was abolished by a senatorial decree in 97 BC, although by this time the practice had already become so rare that the decree was mostly a symbolic act. Human sacrifice once abolished is typically replaced by either animal sacrifice, or by the "mock-sacrifice" of effigies, such as the "argei" dolls in ancient Rome.

History by region

Ancient Near East

Ancient Egypt

There may be 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 possibly high officials, who would continue to serve him in eternal life. The skeletons found show no obvious signs of trauma, leading to speculation that the giving up of life to serve the King may have been a voluntary act, possibly carried out in a drug induced state. At about 2800 BC any possible evidence of such practices disappears, though echoes are perhaps to be seen in the burial of statues of servants in Old Kingdom tombs. ["Human Sacrifice", retrieved 12 May 2007. [] ] ["Abydos - Life and Death at the Dawning of Egyptian Civilization", National Geographic, April 2005, retrieved 12 May 2007. [] ]


References in the Bible point to an awareness of human sacrifice in the history of ancient near-eastern practice. During a battle with the Israelites the king of Moab gives his firstborn son and heir as a whole burnt offering ("olah", as used of the Temple sacrifice). ["Why King Mesha of Moab Sacrificed His Oldest Son", Baruch Margalit, Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov/Dec 1986. [] ] (2 Kings 3:27).

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. ["Child Sacrifice: Returning God’s Gift", Susan Ackerman, Biblical Archaeology Review, June 1993. [] ] ["Child Sacrifice at Carthage—Religious Rite or Population Control?", Lawrence E. Stager and Samuel R. Wolff, Biblical Archaeology Review, Jan/Feb 1984. [] ]

Another instance of human sacrifice mentioned in the Bible is the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter in Judges chapter 11. Jephthah vows to sacrifice to God whatsoever comes to greet him at the door when he returns home if he is victorious. 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. However most scholars believe the passage suggests the sacrifice was accepted by God. ["Why the Deuteronomist Told about the Sacrifice of Jephthah's Daughter", Journal for the Study of the Old Testament,Sage Publications, p7, [] ] Others point out the complete lack of censure by God of Jephthah and the sacrifice of his daughter in the biblical account. ["Did Jephthah Kill his Daughter?", Solomon Landers, Biblical Archaeology Review, August 1991. [] ]


According to Roman and Greek 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. [ Carthage tries to live down image as site of infanticide]

Plutarch (ca. 46–120 AD) 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 CarthagiansCite book
publisher = Routledge
pages = 228
last = Salisbury
first = Joyce E.
title = Perpetua's Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman
date = 1997
] :Cquote|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, however claims that the children were already dead at the time, having been killed by their parents, whose consent - as well as those of the children - was required; Tertullian explains the acquiescence of the children as a product of their youthful trustfulness.

The accuracy of such stories is disputed by some modern historians and archaeologists. [Fantar, M’Hamed Hassine. Archaeology Odyssey Nov/Dec 2000, pp. 28-31]


Neolithic Europe

There is archaeological evidence of human sacrifice in Neolithic to Eneolithic Europe. Retainer sacrifices seem to have been common in early Indo-European religion. For example, the Luhansk sacrificial site shows evidence of human sacrifice in the Yamna culture.

Greco-Roman Antiquity

Other than three possible sites in Crete, dated to the pre-Hellenic Minoan civilisation, and allusions to the practice in classical mythology, 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 Isaac'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).Fact|1st May 2007|date=May 2007 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.According to Pliny the Elder, human sacrifice was abolished by a senatorial decree in 97 BC, 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. Dionysius of Halicarnassus [Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, i.19, 38. [*.html#38.2] ] refers to a sacrifice of Argei in the Vestal ritual that might have originally included sacrifice of old men. When the Roman Empire expanded, Romans stopped human sacrifices as barbaric. However, other activities with a ritual origin kept being practiced for many years, and even get more massive, like the gladiatorial games and some kinds of executions.


As written in Roman sources, Celtic Druids engaged extensively in human sacrifice. ["The Religion of the Ancient Celts", J. A. MacCulloch, ch xvi, 1911, retrieved 24 May 2007. [] ] According to Julius Caesar, the slaves and dependants of Gauls of rank would be burnt along with the body of their master as part of his funerary rites."Gaius Julius CaesarCommentaries on the Gallic War", Book VI:19, translated by W.A. McDevitte and W.S. Bohn, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1869. [] ] He also describes how they built wicker figures that were filled with living humans and then burned. ["Gaius Julius CaesarCommentaries on the Gallic War", Book VI:16, translated by W.A. McDevitte and W.S. Bohn, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1869. [] ] It is known that druids at least supervised sacrifices of some kind. According to Cassius Dio, Boudica's forces impaled Roman captives during her rebellion against the Roman occupation, to the accompaniment of revellery and sacrifices in the sacred groves of Andate. ["Roman History", Cassius Dio, p95 ch62:7, Translation by Earnest Cary,Loeb classical Library, retrieved 24 May 2007. [*.html] ] Some modern-day scholars question the accuracy of these accounts, as they invariably come from hostile (Roman or Greek) sources. ["What We Don't Know About the Ancient Celts", Rowan Fairgrove, Pomegrante Magazine, Issue 2 1997, retrieved 24 May 2007. [] ] 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.

Archaeological evidence from the British Isles seems to indicate that human sacrifice may have been 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.

Germanic peoples

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, it is most likely that these killings were of an executional nature leaving the bodies on show as a warning to enemies, or criminals.

One account by Ahmad ibn Fadlan as part of his account of an embassy to the Volga Bulgars in 921 claims that Norse warriors were sometimes buried with enslaved women with the belief that these women would become their wives in Valhalla. 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.


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. [ [ Ximen Bao ] ] In Chinese lore, Ximen Bao is regarded as a folk hero who pointed out the absurdity of human sacrifice.

The sacrifice of a high-ranking male's slaves, concubines or servants upon his death (called Xun Zang 殉葬 or more specifically Sheng Xun 生殉) was a more common form. The stated purpose is to provide companionship for the dead in afterlife. In earlier times the victims were either killed or buried alive, while later they were usually forced to commit suicide.

Funeral human sacrifice was abolished by the Qin Dynasty in 384 BC. Afterwards it became relatively rare throughout the central parts of China.. 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 in his will forbade the practice for Ming emperors and princes.

Human sacrifice was also practiced by the Manchus. Following Emperor Nurhaci's death, his wife, Lady Abahai, and his two lesser consorts committed suicide. During the Qing Dynasty, sacrifice of slaves was banned by Emperor Kangxi in 1673.


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 till around the same time, both actual and "symbolic"; it was a "highly ritualised" act, and on occasion took many months to completecite book
author=Lipner, Julius
title=Hindus: their religious beliefs and practices
location=New York
pages=185, 236
] .

The question of whether human sacrifice is permitted in the Vedas and, if so, was actually practiced is a matter of dispute by scholars. The prevailing nineteenth century view, associated above all with Henry Colebrooke, was that human sacrifice had little scriptural warrant, and did not actually take place. Those verses which referred to "purusamedha" were meant to be read symbolicallycite book
author=Kooij, K. R. van; Houben, Jan E. M.
title=Violence denied: violence, non-violence and the rationalization of violence in South Asian cultural history
pages=123, 129, 164, 212
] or as a 'priestly fantasy'. However, barely a generation later Albrecht Weber collected textplaces referring to human sacrifice with greater specificity; and Rajendralal Mitra published a defence of the thesis that human sacrifice, as had been practiced in Bengal, was a continuation of traditions dating back to Vedic periodscite book
author=Bremmer, J.N.
title=The Strange World of Human Sacrifice
publisher=Peeters Akademik
] . Hermann Oldenberg held to Colebrooke's view; but Jan Gonda underlined its disputed status.

It was agreed even by Colebrooke, however, that by the Puranic period - at least at the time of the writing of the Kalika-Purana, human sacrifice was accepted. These two periods, however were separated by a period of increasing "embarrassment" in the use of violence in worship, contemporaneous with the Upanishads.

In the post-Puranic medieval period, however, it 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 Orissacite book
author=Hastings, James (ed.)
authorlink=James Hastings
title=Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, vol 9.
publisher=Kessenger Publishing
pages=15, 119
] . It was "more common" in the Southern parts of India, where it took on a scapegoating rather than purifying role.

The Khonds, an aboriginal tribe of India, inhabiting the tributary states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, became notorious, on the British occupation of their district about 1835, from the prevalence and cruelty of the human sacrifices they practised. [ [ Khonds, or Kandhs] , Encyclopedia Britannica]

The practice of Suttee (सती} in some Hindu communities, whereby a widow would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, continued well into the 19th century. 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) [ [ Text] ] was designed to finally suppress it, as isolated incidents still occurred.


In Ancient Hawaii, a luakini temple, or luakini heiau, was a Native Hawaiian sacred place where human and animal blood sacrifices were offered. "Kauwa", the outcast or slave class, were often used as human sacrifices at the "luakini heiau". They are believed to have been war captives, or the descendents of war captives. They were not the only sacrifices; law-breakers of all castes or defeated political opponents were also acceptable as victims. [ [ luakini heiau (ancient Hawaiian religious site)] ] [ ['ukohala.htm Pu'ukohala Heiau & Kamehameha I] ]

Pre-Columbian Americas

Some of the most famous forms of ancient human sacrifice were performed by various Pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas. [ [ Mexican tomb reveals gruesome human sacrifice] ] that included the sacrifice of prisoners as well as voluntary sacrifice. Friar Marcus de Nica (1539) writing of the "Chichimecas": that from time to time "they of this valley 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. [Grace E. Murray, "Ancient Rites and Ceremonies", p19, ISBN 1-85958-158-7]

Central America

The Mixtec players of the Mesoamerican ballgame 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. The Maya 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.cite journal |author=aut|Arnold, Dean E. |coauthors=and aut|Bruce F. Bohor |year=1975 |title=Attapulgite and Maya Blue: an Ancient Mine Comes to Light |journal=Archaeology |volume=28 |issue=1 |pages=pp.23–29 as cited in cite journal |author=aut|Haude, Mary Elizabeth |year=1997 |title=Identification and Classification of Colorants Used During Mexico's Early Colonial Period |url= |journal=The Book and Paper Group Annual |volume=16 |issn=0887-8978 |accessdate=] 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 some estimate that 80,400 prisoners were sacrificed. [ [ The Enigma of Aztec Sacrifice] ] [ [ Science and Anthropology ] ] though numbers are difficult to quantify as all obtainable Aztec texts were destroyed by Christian missionaries during the period 1528-1548.George Holtker, "Studies in Comparative Religion", The Religions of Mexico and Peru, Vol 1, CTS]

According to Ross Hassig, author of "Aztec Warfare", "between 10,000 and 80,400 persons" were sacrificed in the ceremony. The old reports of numbers sacrificed for special feasts have been described as "unbelievably high" by some authors and that on cautious reckoning, based on reliable evidence, the numbers would have been in the hundreds for yearly feasts in Tenochtitlan. The real number of sacrificed victims during the 1487 consecration is unknown.

Michael Harner, in his 1997 article "The Enigma of Aztec Sacrifice", estimates the number of persons sacrificed in central Mexico in the 15th century as high as 250,000 per year. Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxochitl, a Mexica descendant and the author of Codex Ixtlilxochitl, claimed that one in five children of the Mexica subjects was killed annually. Victor Davis Hanson argues that an estimate by Carlos Zumárraga of 20,000 per annum is more plausible. Other scholars believe that, since the Aztecs always tried to intimidate their enemies, it is more likely that they could have inflated the number as a propaganda tool. [ Duverger (op. cit), 174-77] [ [ New chamber confirms culture entrenched in human sacrifice] ]

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

outh America

The Moche of Northern Peru sacrificed teenagers en masse, as archaeologist Steve Bourget found when he uncovered the bones of 42 male adolescents in 1995. [] – Discovery Channel article]
The study of the images seen in 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. cite book
author=Bourget, Steve
title=Sex, Death, and Sacrifice in Moche Religion and Visual Culture
publisher=University of Texas Press
] .

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

North America

The Pawnee practiced an annual Morning Star Ceremony, which included the sacrifice of a young girl. Though the ritual continued, the sacrifice was discontinued in the 19th Century. [ [ Pawnee ritual] ] The Iroquois are said to have occasionally sent a maiden to the Great Spirit. [ [ Religion and Conflict: before Columbus] ]

The Southern Cult or Mound Builders, of the Southeastern United States may have also practiced human sacrifice, as some artifacts have been interpreted as depicting such acts. [ [ Mississippian Civilization] ] Early European explorers reported witnessing mass human sacrifices. [ [ Article on Cahokia Mounds] ]

West Africa

Human sacrifice was common in west African states up to and during the nineteenth century. The Annual customs of Dahomey was the most notorious example, but sacrifices were carried out all along the west African coast and further inland. Sacrifices were particularly common 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. Sacrifices were particularly common in Dahomey, in the Benin Empire, in what is now Ghana, and in the small independent states in what is now southern Nigeria.

In the northern parts of West Africa, human sacrifice had become rare early as Islam became more established in these areas such as the Hausa States. Human sacrifice was officially banned in the remainder of West African states only by coercion, or in some cases annexation, by either the British or French. An important step was the British coercing the powerful Egbo secret society to oppose human sacrifice in 1850. This society was powerful in a large number of states in what is now south-eastern Nigeria. Nonetheless, human sacrifice continued, normally in secret, until west Africa came under firm colonial control.

The "Leopard men" were a West African secret society active into mid-1900s that practiced cannibalism. In theory, the ritual cannibalism would strengthen both members of the society as well as their entire tribe. [citeweb|url=|title=The Leopard Society — Africa in the mid 1900s|accessdate=April 3|accessyear=2008] In Tanganyika, the "Lion men" committed an estimated 200 murders in a single three-month period. [ [,9171,867859,00.html Murder by Lion] , TIME]

The last major center of human sacrifice was the Benin Empire in modern Nigeria. The Benin Empire agreed with the British to prohibit human sacrifice in the 1890s. However, for five years the rulers continued human sacrifice on a large scale. After an incident in which British observers were killed in order to prevent them witnessing human sacrifice, the British authorities assembled forces to conquer the Benin Empire. This caused an escalation of human sacrifice as Benin's rulers sought to protect themselves from Britain by appeasing the Gods with sacrifice. After a brief campaign the Benin Empire was conquered and human sacrifice suppressed.

Prohibition in major religions


Current religious thinking views the "Akedah" as central to the replacement of human sacrifice; while some Talmudic scholars assert the replacement was the sacrifice of animals at the Temple - using Exodus 13,2.12f; 22,28f; 34,19f; Numeri 3,1ff; 18,15; Deuteronomy 15,19 - others view that as superseded by the symbolic "pars-pro-toto" sacrifice of circumcision. Leviticus 20,2 and Deuteronomy 18,10 specifically outlaw the giving of children to Moloch, making it punishable by stoning; the Tanakh subsequently denounces human sacrifice as barbaric customs of Baal worshippers (e.g. Psalms 106,37ff).

Judges chapter 11 contains a story in which a Judge named Jephthah makes a vow to God to kill the first thing that comes out of the door of his house as a burnt offering in exchange for God's help with a military battle. Much to his dismay his daughter greeted him, and eventually she was sacrificed to fulfill his vow to God.


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 not least because Jepthah's vow in the biblical account was made whilst under the influence of the Holy Spirit (Judges 11:29). In the Christian religion the belief developed that the story of Isaac's binding was a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus, whom Christians believe was God's only begotten son and simultaneously God Himself, and whose resurrection allowed sins to be washed away. There is a tradition that the site of the binding of Isaac, Moriah, was also the city of Jesus's future crucifixion, i.e. Jerusalem. [http://"Voices From the Children of Abraham", [] ] However no archaeological or historical evidence supports this assertion.

The beliefs of most denominations of Christianity hinge upon a single, specific human sacrifice: that of the Christ. Most Christians believe, at least nominally, that in order to gain access to paradise in the afterlife each individual person must somehow become a partaker in that all-important human sacrifice for the atonement of their personal sins. Some Christians, including Orthodox and Roman Catholics, believe they participate in the sacrifice of Calvary through the Eucharist which they believe is really the body and blood of Jesus Christ. ["The Sacrifice of the Mass", Catholic Encyclopedia. [] ] ["Sacrifice of the Mass", Orthodox Church of America. [] ] Many Protestants, however, reject this, and rather believe that the bread and wine of communion are merely symbolic, trusting that it is their faith in Christ's finished work on the cross that atones for their sins.


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 Muhammad, written after his death), the father of the prophet Muhammad, 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.

Eastern religions

Many traditions of Eastern religions (Buddhism and especially Jainism) embrace the doctrine of "ahimsa" (non-violence) which imposes vegetarianism and outlaws animal as well as human sacrifice.

In Hinduism, the principle of "ahimsa" was prescribed as early as in the Maurya period "Manu Smrti". It was, however, not taken to extend to religious violence, based on the argument that sacrificial killing is in fact a benevolent act, not violence, because the victim will attain a high rebirth in the cycle of reincarnation. [Manu Smriti 5.39 and 5.44; Mahabharata 3.199 (3.207).] Human sacrifice remained common in medieval Hinduism in the context of Shaktism until the Late Middle Ages, when it generally declined with the rise of the Bhakti movement. The status of the Hindu practice of widow-burning remains disputed. As a burial rite, it qualifies as a "retainer sacrifice" of the sort also found in Near Eastern and European antiquity. The killing of a large number of wives and concubines was practiced in particular in Rajput royal burials. In Sikhism, widow-burning remained common until its suppression under the British Raj.

In Chinese imperial religion, human sacrifice was abolished by the Kangxi Emperor in 1673.

Blood libel

Because of the strong taboo against human sacrifice in Abrahamic tradition, false allegation of the practice has repeatedly been employed, usually in the form of cannibalistic infanticide, in order to stigmatize a group.Notably, such blood libel was directed against the Jews in Medieval Europe, and in the Early Modern period figured as a charge in the European witch-trials.

In 2006, Chinese nationalist Li Ao in his TV talk show, in an attempt to portray the 1950 People's Liberation Army invasion of Tibet as a humanitarian intervention, claimed that the Dalai Lama had commanded human sacrifices, asking his followers to "tear out human skin" for "some religious ceremony". [ [ video, with English subtitles] ]

Contemporary human sacrifice


Some people in India are adherents of a set of theistic philosophies called Tantrism (not to be confused with Tantric Buddhism) or Shaktism (worship of Kali). Most either use animal sacrifice or symbolic effigies, but a minority continues to practice human sacrifice in spite of legal persecution.

According to the "Hindustan Times", there has been an incident of human sacrifice in western Uttar Pradesh in 2003. [Cquote|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."In India, case links mysticism, murder" - John Lancaster, Washington Post, 11/29/2003)] Similarly, police in Khurja reported "dozens of sacrifices" in the period of half a year in 2006. [Cquote|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, 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. “Indian cult kills children for goddess: Holy men blamed for inciting dozens of deaths”, "The Observer" , Dan McDougall in Khurja, India, Sunday March 5, 2006 [,,1723910,00.html] ]

The Supreme Court of India habitually issues the death penalty to those found guilty of practicing human sacricfice. [ [ Death to those guilty of human sacrifice] , PTI, India Dec. 21, 2003]

ub-Saharan 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.

On January, 2008, 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." He fought versus Charles Taylor's militia. [ [, I ate children's hearts, ex-rebel says] ]

In August 2004, a muti killing took place in Ireland; the headless corpse of a Malawi woman was found near Piltown, County Kilkenny. [ [ Daughter of minister beheaded - Times Online ] ]

atanic ritual abuse

Allegations of crimes of violence with a Satanist background have appeared in industrialized countries appeared in the 1980s, mostly focusing on sexual abuse, but also involving claims of ritual killings. There was a claim of a Satanist human sacrifice committed in the context of the early Norwegian black metal scene. Satan rides the Media. A 1998 Norwegian documentary]

Lust murders may involve ritualistic aspects reminiscent of human sacrifice, but are by definition crimes with sexual, not religious motivation. Thus, Ed Gein fabricated trophies from the skulls of his victims, much like headhunting practices in tribal societies.

In fiction

Human sacrifice has a history as a "topos" in literature, opera, video games, and cinema.A recurrent theme in the Classics, it returns to prominence in European imagination with the Spanish accounts of the Aztec rituals. Derek Hughes in "Culture and Sacrifice" traces the topic's iterations through the works of Shakespeare, Dryden and Voltaire, and its central position in the operatic tradition from Mozart to Wagner and into 20th century works such as those of D. H. Lawrence. [Hughes (2007). See also [ Bookshelf (] ]

"The Lottery" is a 1948 short story that caused controversy in the United States. "The Wicker Man" is a 1973 film on the topic.



*David Carrasco, "City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization", Moughton Mifflin, 2000, ISBN 0-807-04643-4
*Clemency Coggins and Orrin C. Shane III "Cenote of Sacrifices", ; 1984 The university of Texas Press; ISBN 0-292-71097-6
*René Girard, "Violence and the Sacred", translated by P. Gregory; Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, ISBN-10: 0826477186
*René Girard, "I See Satan Fall Like Lightning", translated by James G. Williams; Orbis Books; 2001, ISBN 1-57075-319-9
* Miranda Aldhouse Green, "Dying for the Gods",; Trafalgar Square; 2001, ISBN 0-7524-1940-4
*Dennis D. Hughes, "Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece" 1991 Routledge ISBN 0-415-03483-3
*Derek Hughes, "Culture and Sacrifice: Ritual Death in Literature and Opera", 2007, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0521867337
*Ronald Hutton, "The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy" , 1991, ISBN 0-631-18946-7
*Larry Kahaner, "Cults That Kill", ; Warner Books; 1994, ISBN 978-0446356374

Journal articles

*Michael Winkelman, "Aztec Human Sacrifice: Cross-Cultural Assessments of the Ecological Hypothesis", Ethnology, Vol. 37, No. 3. (Summer, 1998), pp. 285-298.
*R. H. Sales, "Human Sacrifice in Biblical Thought", Journal of Bible and Religion, Vol. 25, No. 2. (Apr., 1957), pp. 112-117.
*Brian K. Smith; Wendy Doniger, "Sacrifice and Substitution: Ritual Mystification and Mythical Demystification", Numen, Vol. 36, Fasc. 2. (Dec., 1989), pp. 189-224.
*Brian K. Smith, "Capital Punishment and Human Sacrifice", Journal of the American Academy of Religion 2000 68(1):3-26.
*Robin Law, "Human Sacrifice in Pre-Colonial West Africa", African Affairs, Vol. 84, No. 334. (Jan., 1985), pp. 53-87.
*Th. P. van Baaren, "Theoretical Speculations on Sacrifice", Numen, Vol. 11, Fasc. 1. (Jan., 1964), pp. 1-12.
* Heinsohn, Gunnar: “The Rise of Blood Sacrifice and Priest Kingship in Mesopotamia: A Cosmic Decree?” [] (also published in "Religion", Vol. 22, 1992)
*J. Rives, "Human Sacrifice among Pagans and Christians", The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 85. (1995), pp. 65-85.
*Clifford Williams , "Asante: Human Sacrifice or Capital Punishment? An Assessment of the Period 1807-1874", The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3. (1988), pp. 433-441.
* Sheehan, Jonathan, "The Altars of the Idols: Religion, Sacrifice, and the Early Modern Polity", Journal of the History of Ideas 67.4 (2006) 649-674 []
* Harco Willems, "Crime, Cult and Capital Punishment (Mo'alla Inscription 8)", The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 76, (1990), 27-54.


See also

*Child sacrifice
*Animal sacrifice
*Religion and violence
*Sati (practice) (widow-burning)
*Capital punishment

External links

;contemporary human sacrifice
* [ collection of news reports]
* [,13673,501020729-322673,00.html TIME Asia Magazine: Killing for “Mother” Kali]
* [ Indian temple revives “human sacrifice”]
* [ Witch Burning and Human Sacrifice in India, PDF]
* [ “Priest makes human sacrifice”]

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