Since the dawn of humanity, countless civilizations have engaged in ritual sacrifice. Often, these sacrifices involved other humans, and were so common they were considered a normal aspect of life. Being in these civilizations meant being at risk of dying via sacrifice, whether religious or cultural. In some cultures, it was even an honor to be the one sacrificed!
Who engaged in ritual sacrifice and why?
A ritual sacrifice is a practice in which a living thing is killed as an offering to a higher power. This higher power is often seen as a god or gods, although in some cases it could be society as a whole. In communities where sacrifices are common, it is often believed that they are a necessary part of life and help to restore a sacred order in the universe.
Ritual sacrifice has existed for thousands of years in cultures across the world, and is actually one of the earliest known forms of worship in history. Each culture has its own form of ritual sacrifice. In some cultures, animals are slaughtered and offered up as smaller sacrifices, while human sacrifice is reserved for grander events such as religious ceremonies. In others, humans are seen as the only living being worth offering to a higher power.
There were many reasons to engage in ritual sacrifice, although most were for religious purposes. It was believed that a willingness to sacrifice others to the gods was a display of honor and devotion, which would in turn result in heavenly blessings. Many societies engaged in this gory ritual, but ten stand out as the most gruesome and brutal.
1. The Etruscans
The first group on our list, the Etruscans, lived in modern-day Tuscany. The majority of the population were farmers who would trade with nearby regions, like Carthage and Greece. Although early historians were not confident that Etruscans engaged in human sacrifice, recent excavations revealed multiple sites of human sacrifice.
In particular, the bodies of multiple individuals including adults, children, and infants were found surrounded by religious items including an altar, ritualistic weapons, and other religious objects. In one discovery, the body of a young child was found decapitated, with his feet being used as a foundation deposit under a wall. In addition to these discoveries, ancient texts describing the practice of human sacrifice, as well as artwork depicting human sacrifice, have been found in this region.
Pyramid of Bomarzo, also called the Etruscan Pyramid or Preacher’s stone, dated 7th century BC. A sacrificial altar and primitive astronomical observatory Lazio Italy. ( Mark Hu / Adobe Stock)
2. The Egyptians
Although it is not often discussed, there is evidence indicating that the ancient Egyptians engaged in some level of ritual sacrifice . In some regions, the discovery of sacrificial tombs has pointed to the ancient Egyptians performing various types of religious sacrifices, some of which included humans.
Some tombs, including those belonging to King Djer and King Aha, have contained the bodies of their servants alongside them. In some cases, evidence points to these servants being buried alive next to the body of their masters. Other records, however, suggest that these servants were sacrificially killed once their master died so they could continue to serve them in the afterlife. This was particularly common for the servants of pharaohs. Due to cultural changes, the sacrifice of living servants eventually stopped, and was replaced with symbolic figures.
Human decapitation to appease the gods. ( Public Domain )
3. The Chinese
Human sacrifice was practiced in ancient China for centuries. It was particularly common during the Shang dynasty, between 1600 – 1046 BC. While some cultures engaged in human sacrifice only for religious purposes, in China it was also used for political purposes. Ritual human sacrifice knew no bounds in China, and they would frequently sacrifice men, women, children, and even infants in unspeakably violent and painful ways.
Many of these religious sacrifices served as a way to please their ancestors. Some rituals involved beheading several males within a tribe to honor their male ancestors, with more significant ancestors requiring more heads. These types of sacrifices were referred to as pit sacrifices , and the men’s dismembered bodies would be buried without their worldly possessions.
There were also two other forms of human sacrifice practiced by the Chinese: foundation and internment. Foundation sacrifices were reserved for children and infants, who would be brutally killed and then buried without any belongings. Internment sacrifices instead sacrificed young women, though they were not dismembered and were allowed to be buried with possessions, unlike the other two sacrifice types.
4. The Inca
The Inca civilization often used ritual sacrifice as a way to appease the gods. At the time, the Incas faced many natural disasters, including earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions. Eventually, the Inca decided that human sacrifices would appease the gods and end their suffering when it came to these natural disasters.
Gory ritual human sacrifice in Peru. ( Archivist / Adobe Stock)
At first, the victims of these human sacrifices were prisoners of war. When using these individuals as human sacrifices did not stop natural disasters from occurring, they began to use children. The belief was that children were more innocent and pure than prisoners, and would be more pleasing to the gods.
Eventually, children started being raised for the sole purpose of being sacrificed to the gods. These children had to remain physically healthy and would be fed and treated well up until their death, just as animals are often prepared for slaughter. Before their final sacrifice, they would be given a giant feast and a meeting with the emperor before execution.
5. The Aztecs
The Aztecs are renowned for their brutality like few others. No strangers to violence, the Aztecs engaged in a significant amount of human sacrifice for religious purposes . The primary reason for these sacrifices was the belief that the sun would die if they did not offer enough to the gods.
Left: The Aztecs may have killed a hundred thousand people a year in ritual sacrifices. ( Public Domain ) Right: Skulls were frequently displayed publicly on tzompantlis. ( Public Domain ) Depictions from 16th century Codex Duran.
In Aztec civilization, human blood was seen as a sacred life force. Huitzilopochtli was their primary god, representing the sun. They believed Huitzilopochtli required some of this life force in order to continue blessing them and allowing them to live on Earth. This belief was so strong that some individuals would even volunteer to be sacrificed to keep the sun going. They would also sacrifice prisoners of war when they no longer needed them.
These ritual sacrifices were brutal and publicly executed. The victims would have to climb to the top of the temple, which was often numerous flights of stairs, to reach the priest. The priest would then slice open their torsos from throat to pelvis. Their bodies would then be thrown down the stairs to be dismembered, while the hearts were reserved for another religious sacrifice to the gods.
In some ancient texts, it is reported that the Aztecs once sacrificed 80,400 prisoners over only four days. If this number is accurate, it can be assumed that the Aztecs sacrificed hundreds of thousands of individuals each year for the sake of the sun.
Wall of skulls (tzompantli) from human sacrifice at Templo Mayor, Mexico City. (Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata / CC BY SA 4.0 )
6. The Israelites
Several texts discuss ritual sacrifice being a regular part of ancient Israelite culture. Some scholars claim that a specific cult of ancient Israelites would sacrifice children as a form of worship to the Canaanite god Moloch. These sacrifices were often called “burnt offerings,” and are even described in the Hebrew Bible.
The most notable mention of burnt offerings in the Hebrew Bible occurs in the story of Abraham in the book of Genesis. In the story, God commands Abraham to offer up his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Right before the slaughter, God stops Abraham and tells him it was only a test to prove his faith. Abraham and Isaac then offer up a ram as a burnt offering instead.
While this story is quite popular, it does not confirm how often Israelites conducted ritual sacrifices, or if the general public truly engaged with human sacrifice at all outside of the cult of Moloch.
Human sacrifices buried in the foundation stones of a wall in ancient Megiddo, Palestine. ( Public Domain )
7. The Hawaiians
Believe it or not, ancient Hawaiians engaged in ritual sacrifice pretty frequently. This civilization believed that they could earn the favor of Ku, the god of war, by sacrificing other humans. They believed that by earning his favor, they would win any upcoming battles they faced. These sacrifices would take place in sacred temples dedicated to Ku called Heiau.
The victims, who were often the chiefs of other tribes, would be hung upside down on wooden racks and tortured for several hours. Once enough torture was inflicted, the priest would be anointed with the sweat of the victims, carefully collected throughout the torture process. The victim would then be beaten with clubs until his body was tender, and his flesh would be consumed (either cooked or raw) by the priest and any other tribe leaders present.
8. The Carthaginians
One of the wealthiest and most powerful civilizations in ancient times, the Carthaginians were no strangers to ritual sacrifice. In particular, they were known for their brutal sacrifice of children to earn the gods’ favor. Most of the victims were infants, as they were seen as the purest form of life that could be offered to the gods.
Some historians argue that there were additional reasons for these infant sacrifices beyond religious reasons. Because of their wealth and power, it is believed that the Carthaginians feared overpopulation, which would stretch their resources thin. Sacrificing infants would have been a seemingly simple way to keep the population at bay, since abortion was not yet practiced.
Another reason for these sacrifices may have been family wealth. The more children a family had, the thinner their money would be spread amongst the offspring. Keeping families small would keep their wealth intact, which may have led some families to offer their infants as a sacrifice.
9. The Celts
Before their conversion to Christianity in the 1st century AD, it is believed that the Celts engaged in a significant amount of human ritual sacrifice. One text written by Strabo, a Greek philosopher, described human sacrifice as a central part of many Celtic rituals . He claimed that they would gather with the Druids, ancient Celtic priests, to sacrifice a person by hitting them on the back of the head with a sword. The Druids would then prophesize based on the “death-spasms” of the victim before burning the body.
The Celtic Wicker Man, filled with human sacrifices and set afire, drawing from 1676. ( Public Domain )
Other scholars argue this record, claiming that there has been little additional evidence suggesting that the Celts conducted human sacrifice. However, there has been the discovery of at least one body in the region that is believed to have been sacrificed by being strangled, hit on the head, and having their throat cut.
10. The Mesopotamians
The last group on this list, the Mesopotamians, were located in modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, and Syria between 8000-2000 BC. Within this large timeframe, the Mesopotamians often engaged in ritual sacrifice as a central part of burial rituals for the elite. Similar to the Egyptians, servants, warriors, and other palace attendants would be sacrificed to continue working for their masters in the afterlife.
Based on the discovered remains, it is believed that these individuals were killed by a pike driven through the head. After being sacrificed, their bodies would be placed decoratively around their master. They would often be buried with any of the tools they would need to continue serving their masters, such as weapons or headdresses.
Nothing to Fear
Fortunately, ritual human sacrifice is not as common as it once was. According to modern scholars, few places still practice this type of sacrifice, and it is often done in secret. Between modern laws and religious shifts over time, human sacrifice is now globally seen for what it truly is – murder.
Top image: Representation of a ritual human sacrifice on an altar. Source: archangelworks / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh
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