Human sacrifice

The sacrifice of Polyxena by the triumphant Greeks, Trojan War, c. 570-550 BCE

Human sacrifice is the act of killing one or more humans, usually as an offering to a deity, as part of a ritual. Human sacrifice has been practiced in various cultures throughout history. Victims were typically ritually killed in a manner that was supposed to please or appease gods, spirits or the deceased. For example, as a propitiatory offering or as a retainer sacrifice when a king's servants are killed in order for them to continue to serve their master in the next life. Closely related practices found in some tribal societies are cannibalism and headhunting.[1]

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 looked down upon as barbaric in classical antiquity. In the New World, however, human sacrifice continued to be widespread to varying degrees until the European colonization of the Americas.

In modern times, even the practice of animal sacrifice has disappeared from many religions, and human sacrifice has become extremely rare. Most religions condemn the practice, and modern secular laws treat it as murder. In a society which condemns human sacrifice, the term ritual murder is used.[2][3]

Evolution and context

The idea of human sacrifice has its roots in deep prehistory,[4] in the evolution of human behaviour. From its historical occurrences it seems mostly associated with neolithic or nomadic cultures, on the emergent edge of civilization.

The Ashanti yam festival, early 19th century

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.

In ancient Japan, legends talk about hitobashira ("human pillar"), in which maidens were buried alive at the base or near some constructions to protect the buildings against disasters or enemy attacks,[5] and almost identical myths appear in the Balkans (The Building of Skadar and Bridge of Arta).

For the re-consecration of the 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.[6]

Human sacrifice can also have the intention of winning the gods' favour in warfare. In Homeric legend, Iphigeneia was to be sacrificed by her father Agamemnon to appease Artemis so she would allow the Greeks to wage the Trojan War.

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.

Hawaiian sacrifice, from Jacques Arago's account of Freycinet's travels around the world from 1817 to 1820

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.[7]

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). However, outside of civil religion, human sacrifice may also result in outbursts of "blood frenzy" and mass killings that destabilize society. The bursts of human sacrifice during European witch-hunts,[8] or during the French Revolutionary Reign of Terror, show similar sociological patterns[citation needed] (see also Moral panic).

Many cultures show traces of prehistoric human sacrifice in their mythologies and religious texts, but ceased the practice before the onset of historical records. Some see the story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22) as an example of an etiological myth explaining the abolition of human sacrifice. 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 BCE, 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 in ancient Rome.

Other Languages
العربية: تضحية بشرية
বাংলা: নরবলি
čeština: Lidská oběť
Cymraeg: Aberth dynol
Deutsch: Menschenopfer
Ελληνικά: Ανθρωποθυσία
Esperanto: Homa ofero
français: Sacrifice humain
한국어: 인신공희
हिन्दी: मानव बलि
hrvatski: Ljudska žrtva
Bahasa Indonesia: Pengorbanan manusia
עברית: קורבן אדם
മലയാളം: നരബലി
Nederlands: Mensenoffer
日本語: 人身御供
ਪੰਜਾਬੀ: ਮਨੁੱਖੀ ਬਲੀ
português: Sacrifício humano
română: Sacrificiu uman
Runa Simi: Runa wilancha
Simple English: Human sacrifice
slovenčina: Ľudská obeť
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Žrtvovanje ljudi
suomi: Ihmisuhri
தமிழ்: நரபலி
中文: 人祭