Killing people in a ritualistic manner, to get some form of supernatural benefit. In fiction, this is usually reserved for particularly evil and/or exotic cultures or religions. Historically, some form has been practiced in most regions of the world at some point in time.
Despite this, historians and archaeologists have found a few patterns. Human sacrifices seem to mostly take place in early agricultural societies: chiefdoms and early civilizations (this helps explain the lack of written evidence: chiefdoms often don't have writing, more complex societies may not have enough record keeping to record too much, and records get lost or destroyed).
Most commonly, human sacrifices are used to appease or offer something valuable to gods (ancestors, spirits, etc.) in a similar role as animal sacrifices, offerings of objects, and such. It is thought that killing people is a particularly valuable sacrifice when such an offering is made. Sometimes, these killings are thought to take place only when extreme situations are faced, in other places they are regular rituals.
Human sacrifices are also made to dedicate buildings: possibly to keep them standing, or simply to bless them in some other way. This could be a special sacrifice to a god, combined with the above reason.
Retainer burials are also common: where on the death of an important person, others (officials, wives/concubines, servants, soldiers) are killed as well to join them. This idea can be extended to widow killings, where a widow is killed on the death of a husband.
Human sacrifices first would have demonstrated power and hierarchy. Killing someone in a religious ritual as an offering to a god or ancestors would have served the same role as a Public Execution. The killing would demonstrate the power of the chief, government, priesthood, etc. over life and death, in front of a large crowd, often as part of a ceremony. Burying people with a king or chief is often compared with conspicuous consumption, used in a similar way as grave goods to display the wealth and power of the dead person. The choice of victims would also reinforce power and hierarchy: Killing war captives shows power over enemies, servants or officials of a ruler show that the ruler is most important (that other people's role is to serve, even die for the ruler). Killing slaves or criminals shows their low position, killing wives shows that husbands are more important, etc.
Based on this, chiefdoms and early civilizations are expected to do human sacrifice because the power of rulers is not as solid: the ruling system exists but is not well established, so rulers use human sacrifice as one of many ways to show power and establish compliance. Hunter gatherers do not have the hierarchy for someone to be able to perform human sacrifice; in more established societies the rulers are more secure, and don't need to perform such sacrifices. Some historical examples bear this out: Tlacaelel's changes that increased human sacrifice also strengthened nobility and militarized society, these included burning records to erase history. Shang mass sacrifices only started after they moved a capital, which may have been caused by or created political instability. Retainer burials in Egypt and Mesopotamia were performed by the first rulers, those still establishing power: once established, there was less reason for the practice. In Korea, the ending of retainer burials may itself have been a power centralizing move: nobles performed these rituals as well, and they were outlawed by the king during a time of power centralization.
Human sacrifice can also be combined with other reasons for killing. Killing criminals for sacrifice is, well, a Public Execution. War prisoners killed in human sacrifices were often treated similarly to war prisoners killed for other reasons. Aztecs, for example, would invite enemy ambassador equivalents to see sacrifices, would display the skulls of victims, and sometimes send them to enemies: not too different from, say, a stereotypical killing of prisoners and showing heads on pikes.
Victims were more likely to be marginal/"disposable"/less important members of society. Lower-ranking victims display hierarchy as shown above, but even other types of victims were often separated, probably to make it easier for most people to accept the killing.
Of course, human sacrifice would also have served the roles that any other religious ritual does, to bind a community together, provide something to do as a community, get a sense of control, etc.
In many places, human sacrifices ended by conquest or under the influence of other cultures. Romans, Spanish and British outlawed it in places they conquered, for example. Vikings ended it, if they performed it, when they converted to Christianity, and Hawaiians outlawed it when contact with the outside world became more common. In regions where it ended internally, a number of reasons play into the change. The practices were often considered horrible/inhumane even when practiced, but considered traditional or important enough to continue being done. Newer philosophies and ideas encouraged their abandonment, Chinese philosophical writing and the Old Testament, written within a few centuries of the same time period, have prophets, philosophers, and others arguing against the practice, part of a larger change in religion in the Mediterranean and Asia during that time. Some archaeologists and historians suggest that improved economies made human lives more valuable as well. Retainers would be more valuable alive and using their skills instead of buried with a ruler, war captives or other slaves and prisoners more valuable kept alive and working than killed.
Historical examples by world regionsThese are listed roughly earlier to later, moving around the world.
- In Mesopotamia, a few tombs with retainer burials have been found: some presumed soldiers or guards with military equipment, often women dressed and placed as if at a party in a more obvious example. How common this was and how long it lasted are not known.
- First dynasty Egyptian tombs (apart from the first king, Narmer) have retainer burial in separate chambers nearby. Unlike later tombs in Egypt, the tomb chambers for the extra bodies were clearly sealed at the same time as the main tomb, showing that the extra people were buried at the same time, instead of being buried later after they died on their own. The number and type of people buried seems to have changed from king to king. These burials ended after the first dynasty.
- Kerma, to the south of Egypt, had even more retainer burials than Egypt did, and for much longer, with a few tombs having several hundred extra people buried with them. Later Nubian cultures revived the practice a few times.
- Romans and The Bible describe Phoenicians, Caananites, and nearby cultures burning babies as offerings to gods. A few Bible stories point to Israelites doing this sometimes as well. Archaeology and history is mixed on whether and how often it happened: both sets of writers had reasons to exaggerate to demonize surrounding cultures, but archaeology in Carthage has actually found remains of burned babies in urns, with prayers or blessing to gods written on them. Some think these are natural deaths that were cremated, with writing to the gods being simple prayers, while others think that the types of babies aren't likely natural deaths, and were likely sacrifices as a result. Roman writings claim the Carthaginians had practiced this in the past, but given it up until losing in their war with Rome made them sacrifice some children again in a last-ditch effort to gain victory from their gods.
- The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac may represent the end of human sacrifices in Israel. The Bible may describe Israelites sometimes sacrificing their children, possibly in the same ritual as the Phoenicians described above. Of course, they were never portrayed as sympathetic.
- A few stories tell of a "Substitute King" ritual among Assyrians and some nearby kingdoms. During an eclipse, or when some other sign occurred, it was assumed that the King was in danger from the gods. To protect their real king, the story says the Assyrians would pick a different person to play the role of king, and another the role of queen, taking whatever bad thing was intended for the real one. If the real or fake King weren't killed during this time, the substitutes would be killed at the end of this time period to fulfill any possible curse.
- Several west African kingdoms (Dahomey, Asante, and others in the region, now Nigeria and areas to the west) are described as practicing retainer burials. The Kingdom of Dahomey is also described as killing hundreds or criminals and war prisoners in an annual ceremony, killing even more at the funeral of a king (in addition to killing servants, wives, and such). Reports may be exaggerated, though: these came at the same time as the slave trade and when Europeans were conquering Africa, when European visitors would want to describe them as savage.
- Human sacrifice seems to have existed in China for a long time, but really took off in the late Shang dynasty. Religious records from this time on Oracle bones describe thousands of people sacrificed to the Shang ancestors in various ways (beheading the most common, also bleeding out, beating, cutting in half, dismembering, chopping to death in some other way, burning, burying, boiling, drowning). Archaeology confirms this; burial pits in the Shang capital contain tens of thousands of mostly headless, sometimes cut in half, sometimes intact skeletons, usually killed in the same way for each pit. Many pits are associated with tombs, some skeletons seem to be associated with buildings, used to dedicate or protect them. The most common victims were a group called Qiang, thought to be a tribe who warred with the Shang, possibly a generic name for "enemy" (either way, the victims would be war captives), but any type of person could be killed. These sacrifices decreased towards the end of the Shang, and seem to have stopped when they were conquered, or some time after.
- Even earlier, a recently discovered city called Shimao contained what looks like human sacrifices within its pyramid.
- China and Early Korean kingdoms had retainer burials. China's burials lasted from the Shang period to well into the warring states. Korea's burials lasted until around 200 AD when they were banned, performed by kings and nobles. Retainer burials in the Zhou period are unusual in being discussed by philosophers at the time: numerous stories, poems and discussions about them survive. In China, retainer burials were replaced with statues of the appropriate people (the Terracotta warriors are the biggest and most well known example, built a couple hundred years after retainer burials were ended in the Qin state).
- Widow killing has existed in India and China for a long time. In India, sati (burning the widow in her husband's cremation) is known, though probably not that common over its hundreds year history (it was opposed by Muslim and British conquerors, and by other Hindu groups in India). In China, some philosophers argued against it, and laws either supported or opposed it at various times, though how commonly it happened is not known.
- Several legends say that "human pillars" were buried under buildings in Japan to help hold them up.
- A group called Konds in India had a ritual where a person was bought, killed, and had pieces of their flesh buried as an offering to their earth god. The victim would often be drugged, and/or have arms and legs broken to make it "voluntary" (meaning the person did not try to escape).
- Possible victims have been found on Minoan Crete; the victims appear to have been killed in a temple area at the time of an earthquake. It is also suggested that these could be people involved in some other ritual, accidentally positioned to look like a human sacrifice.
- Roman history described Romans burying a pair of Greek and Gauls during the Punic wars out of desperation. Other Roman practices are thought to be human sacrifice rituals modified in some way, either switching the human victim for something else, or changing the meaning of the ritual and modifying it slightly. At the time of their expansion, human sacrifice was considered horrific by the Romans, so their descriptions of other cultures practicing it are questioned as a result, but at the same time, the fact that they practiced it themselves hint it might contain some truth after all. Plutarch himself was quick to call out their hypocrisy when the Romans banned human sacrifice between the Spanish Bletonesii, recalling the sacrifice of Greeks and Gauls described above as a sign that they had no authority to forbid the act in others.
- They also had a variant in the Devotio, which they likely viewed as a Heroic Sacrifice in which a general offer their life to the gods in the middle of the battle. Technically this did not offer his life in exchange for victory (the Romans didn't offer prayer deals outside of making a promise to do something if they become able to, and normally just made the sacrifice and made an associated request), but the specific prayer also included the offer of the lives of the enemy army. Downplayed in that they didn't get directly sacrificed, but the ritual called for charging straight into the enemy line and there's no recorded instance of a general surviving long enough to question whether they had to commit suicide or being still alive meant the gods decided it was okay for them to live. While the loss of a general was obviously bad, the morale boost caused by it rallied at least one army and turned it from a route to a victory.
- Different groups of Northern Europeans, Celts and Germans are described by Romans to hold a number of sacrificial ceremonies. Many of them are hard to either prove or disprove through archaeology, given that the cultures in question did not have writing, and also because the kind of ceremony described, often amounting to hanging someone in midst of a grove or sticking him inside a wicker statue before setting it ablaze, would not always leave durable evidence behind.
- Some Roman sources about Gaul human sacrifice sometimes explain that the chosen victims were preferred to be thieves, criminals or war prisoners, making it more like a death penalty for social crimes than a true religious sacrifice. However, some other sources add that sacrificers would still grab someone innocent if they didn't find any of the above.
- Celtic legends written in later times also suggest human sacrifice. Stories of people trapped in buildings than burned resemble the Wicker Man story, while others suggest a cauldron used to kill people.
- Celtic Spanish peoples, most famously Lusitanians, were said to sacrifice prisoners to both practice divination and to prepare for war. The Roman chronicles about the Lusitanian Wars seem to confirm this by Comically Missing the Point: to justify his preventive attack on some Lusitanians, the Roman governor in charge complained they had sacrificed a prisoner and a horse, which was a sign that they were about to attack the Romans, but neither he nor the other commentators seemed to find the sacrifice itself that noteworthy.
- Many bog bodies (human bodies preserved by acidity, lack of oxygen, and other conditions, some of which are hundreds or even thousands of years old) are suggestive of human sacrifice. Bogs themselves are unusual places to go, let alone to bury people; it is thought these Europeans saw them as magical or haunted. Some bodies were pinned down, suggesting some sort of ritual. Others suggest care of the body that might not be expected of, say, an executed criminal. Some seem to have been attacked in several ways, more than would be necessary to kill someone: it is thought that these may be parts of a ritual. However, other explanations are plausible for the killings of many bodies (muggings and executions are common guesses) so while human sacrifice was thought to occur, whether a particular body was one up still open to question.
- Scythians on the steppes of what is now Ukraine and Russia were said by Greeks to bury numerous people when a chieftain died. Indeed, archaeology has found burial mounds with hundreds of people buried in them along with the usual grave goods.
- A story of a Viking Funeral has a female slave being killed and burned along with the chief. Other myths and stories of human sacrifices also exist, including sacrifices of humans along with animals at the temple in Uppsala, and of something called a Blood Eagle, where a war captive's back was cut open and lungs pulled out. Archaeology supports some of these stories: some bigger tombs have bodies killed by violence buried with what looks like the main occupant. Finds also suggests human sacrifice of other kinds: an example has children found in a well, in a way that looks improbable as an accident. The Blood Eagle, however, may not even be real, let alone a human sacrifice: the stories come from much later, and the first known sources are easily interpreted as metaphorical.
- In Cahokia, a mound contains numerous bodies in various pits, likely sacrifices of some kind. Some were buried alive. These appear to be a mix of retainer burial for the main tomb occupants in one pit, and others buried for some other purpose in other pits. Many of the victims seem to be women from outlying, poorer areas of the city.
- At a funeral for a Mississipian chief in the 1700s, several family members and servants volunteered to be buried with him.
- A village of Pawnee had a ritual where a young woman/girl was captured from an enemy, and shot with arrows in a ceremony. This ritual symbolized the mating of the morning and evening stars in the Pawnee creation story.
- Almost every culture in Mesoamerica seems to have had human sacrifices, starting with Olmecs. Apart from those conquered by the Spanish, and Mayan archaeology and records, the exact details have to be guessed.
- In many Mesoamerican societies, human blood was considered the most valuable gift for the gods. Human sacrifice was a way to offer blood, but nonlethal bloodletting was a much more common and important practice.
- Mayans over their history had a variety of rituals:
- Higher-ranking war prisoners (nobles, kings) would be sacrificed in a a number of ways: often tortured and beheaded. They might take part in a Maya ballgame; either the loser (possibly winner) would get killed, and/or they would be killed as a reenactment of a Maya creation legend (the Popol Vuh includes ballgames as an important story element). Some killings would have been in the succession of a new king.
- A poem describes a sacrifice involving shooting the victim with arrows from dancing archers.
- Later Mayans in Chichen Itza threw victims into a cenote (along with offerings of items), a very large sinkhole with groundwater inside.
- The Mesoamerican ballgame throughout its history was associated with human sacrifices. Exactly how varied from place to place. Several Mayan areas have so called "decapitated ballplayer" images, which show headless people with snakes coming out with their neck (thought to represent blood) associated with the ballgame.
- The Popol Vuh has several ballgames that are important to the story: one suggestion is that Mayans reenacted a similar myth, with the victim being beheaded as part of the story.
- Some ballgames may have acted as Combat by Champion: the loser might be sacrificed similar to how a war prisoner might be killed.
- Sometimes, it is speculated that winners were sacrificed. In this speculation, being sacrificed would have been an honor, possibly leading to a better afterlife, and the gods would went the best offered to them.
- In Teotihuacan, human remains were found buried in and around a temple. Some may have been regular burials, but others were decapitated, or cut up in other ways, and at least one appears to be buried alive. Several types of animals are buried in a similar way.
- Tarascans, an empire west of the Aztecs that fought them often, had retainer burials.
- Aztecs: the ones most of you are thinking of. In a region where most cultures practiced it, Aztecs took human sacrifice to a much greater extreme. According to histories that survived, the number of human sacrifices first increased as part of changes instituted by an adviser named Tlacaelel in the 1420s; increasing the power of Aztec nobility, increased focus on the military, and making other changes that organized the Aztecs to be a powerful empire. Some decades later, a famine struck, and human sacrifices were further increased. Aztec rituals were recorded after the Spanish conquest by both Spanish on friendly enough terms to be told of the rituals and by Aztecs who learned the Spanish system. There are too many rituals to list here; these are the most well known ones.
- Pulling out the heart: the one most of you have heard of, and the most common sacrifice method. Priests would cut the victim below the rib cage, reach in, and pull the heart out. Most commonly used to kill war captives as sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli, the sun and war god; this method would also kill other types of victims to other gods, or was combined with some other killing method into a ritual. As mentioned above, blood was considered the most valuable food for the gods: cutting out the heart was a way to offer as much blood as possible.
- Another method gave the victim fake weapons, with feathers substituted for real cutting surfaces, tied them to a platform, and had them fight Aztec soldiers with real weapons.
- Some victims had their skin cut off. This skin would be worn by other Aztecs and used in further rituals.
- Other methods of killing included beheading, drowning, being thrown from a high place, burning, among many possibilities.
- Several gods were worshiped through god impersonators. Someone with the correct appearance would be chosen to impersonate a particular god, for a particular period of time such as a month or a year. That person would hear prayers, participate in rituals, play music, and act out the part of the god during the allotted time. At the end of this time, the impersonator would be sacrificed in the appropriate manner.
- Many Mesoamerican cultures fought wars to capture prisoners, often for sacrifice; the Aztec version was "flower wars" where the two sides would send equal numbers of combatants, fight specifically to capture prisoners, and do so in more ritualized, differently organized ways than for normal warfare.
- War prisoners were thought to be the most common victims: other more common victims could be slaves or criminals, or others down on their luck. However, almost anyone in the society could be used as a sacrifice; some archaeological evidence shows priests and other high-ranking members being used. Aztec rituals also required victims of almost all types; both women and men, children to adults, depending on the ritual. Being sacrificed, depending on the description, was often a great honor; victims often expected a better afterlife than where most people ended up.
- After being killed, Aztecs often displayed the skulls on racks called tzompantli.
- Numerous Andean cultures also show a lot of evidence for human sacrifice. Andean cultures often viewed human remains, especially of ancestors, as powerful objects, which provides an extra motive for human sacrifices.
- At a major Moche temple, captured soldiers were killed and mutilated in various ways. Moche art shows captured soldiers' throats being cut, and the blood being drunk, in view of, or with the participation of, supernatural beings of some sort. Skeletons at the site of young adult males in good physical condition (suggesting soldiers) show cut throats also. In addition, bodies were mutilated in various other ways, with beheading or defleshing being examples. Archaeologists and historians aren't sure why this was done since the Moche left no writing: guesses include to control rains (the area is very very dry, too dry and nothing grows, too much rain and the area is overwhelmed with water), or as a ritual method of desecrating an enemy, or stealing or draining the power of an enemy (not a human sacrifice in the usual sense, but another type of supernatural, ritualistic killing).
- Incas would sacrifice girls on mountains. The girls would be brought to the capital from all over the Inca empire, and would fill various roles (servants, beer makers, sacrificial victims, and others) the sacrificial victims would be sent to other parts of the empire, drugged, and placed on high mountain peaks where they would freeze to death, presumably to join or contact the gods. A few of these victims have been found in modern times, preserved by the cold.
- Several Andes cultures (including the Moche) appear to have had retainer burials. Determining this is trickier than other places: Andean cultures would often remove remains from a tomb and place them back, meaning archeologists can't easily determine if a body was added at the funeral or at a later point.
- In Fiji, widowed women would be strangled by family members.
- Hawaiian chiefdoms has a complex system of laws and taboos called Kapu, violators might be used as sacrifices. In addition, war prisoners or slaves might be used as sacrifices. These would be offered to dedicate a certain type of temple, or for major events. The practice was outlawed around when the islands were unified in the early 1800's.