Prayer is a form of communication with a deity or other spiritual being. Words addressed to a deity usually offer praise or seek guidance, blessing, forgiveness, fertility, victory, or protection. Like prayer, sacrifice is a form of communication with a deity for similar purposes. The word itself means "to make holy." As distinct from prayer, sacrificial offerings include objects of value and symbolic significance that are given to the gods to earn their favor. The gifts can take many forms, becoming sacred themselves through ritual consecration. The gods might be offered the most desirable foods or provided with the finest vessels, carvings, tools, and weapons. Historians, however, have often regarded blood sacrifice as the most powerful way to appease the gods. It was not unusual for societies to engage in both animal and human sacrifice, although the historical trend has been toward a sharp reduction in the latter.
Participants in blood sacrifice rituals experience a sense of awe, danger, or exaltation because they are daring to approach the gods who create, sustain, and destroy life. The buildup of tension prior to the blood sacrifice gives way to a festive sense of triumph and relief. Morale is strengthened by the ritual killing because the group has itself performed the godlike act of destruction and is now capable of renewing its own existence. The underlying philosophical assumption is that life must pass through death.
According to ancient rites of sacrifice, the sacrificial animal or human should be of high value. The gods would be offended by a sickly or inferior offering. In Old Testament tradition, Abel was obeying what was already an ancient tradition when he sacrificed the firstborn of his herds to God. Bulls were sacred to Egyptians more than 5,000 years ago, being associated with Taurus, a god with both animal and human features. For the Egyptians, then, the sacrifice of a bull was the gift of a demigod to the gods. In the years immediately preceding the emergence of Christianity some mystery cults switched from bull to human sacrifices, using the same ceremonies in which the victim was first honored as a god, then put to bloody death. Osiris, the legendary Egyptian ruler who, murdered, became the god of fertility, cast a long shadow over these proceedings. Biblical scholars have often commented that the death of Jesus had been prefigured by other events in which a person was raised to the status of a god and then sacrificed for the good of the people. The significance of blood as a link between Jesus and his followers is consistent with that tradition.
Sacrifice and Society
Human sacrifice is sometimes regarded as a bizarre practice carried out by a few scattered societies who either were uncivilized or exceptionally cruel and violent. However, there is persuasive evidence that the sacrificial impulse has been common throughout history and has played an important role in society.
The origins of blood sacrifice are lost in the mist of prehistory. Nevertheless, inferences can be drawn from archaeological research and from the practices and beliefs of people whose rituals continued into the historical period. The same societies usually performed other types of sacrifices as well, but these examples demonstrate the widespread use of ritual murder as an approved component of social policy.
Foundation and passage sacrifices. There is abundant archaeological evidence that many societies practiced both animal and human sacrifice to persuade the gods to protect their buildings and ensure safe passage through dangerous areas where their own gods might lack jurisdiction. Burials suggestive of sacrifice have been found in the sites of ancient bridges and buildings throughout Asia, Europe, and North Africa. It was widely believed that territories were under the control of local gods who might be angered by intrusions. Blood sacrifice at border crossings (often marked by rivers) and within buildings were thought to be prudent offerings. Sacrificial victims were also interred beneath city gates.
Children were often selected as the sacrificial offerings. Excavation of the Bridge Gate in Bremen, Germany, and several ancient fortresses in Wales are among the many examples of this practice. According to the Book of Kings, when Joshua destroyed Jericho he prophesized that the man who rebuilds Jericho "shall lay the foundation stones thereof upon the body of his first born and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates thereof." In rebuilding the city, Hiel later sacrificed his oldest and youngest sons in precisely this manner. The historian Nigel Davies observes that biblical accounts of foundation sacrifices have been supported by archaeological investigations:
In the sanctuary in Gezer were found two burnt skeletons of six-year-old children and the skulls of two adolescents that had been sawn in two. At Meggido a girl of fifteen had been killed and buried in the foundations of a large structure. Excavations show that the practice of interring children under new buildings was widespread and some were evidently buried alive. (Davies 1981, p. 61)
Foundation sacrifices dedicated to fertility (as, for example, in storage buildings) often involved infant and child victims. Captives, slaves, and criminals have also been selected as sacrificial victims on many occasions. That foundation sacrifices belong only to the remote past could be an erroneous assumption. In early twentieth-century Borneo an eyewitness testified that a criminal was buried alive in every posthole for a new building so that he might become a guardian spirit.
Attempts to Explain Blood Sacrifice
No one attempt to explain blood sacrifice seems adequate for the variety of forms and purposes associated with this practice in many societies over many years. Nevertheless, it is useful to consider the following accounts as informed attempts to explain the relationship between blood sacrifice and society.
Male bonding and collective killing. Hunters learned to cooperate with each other to improve their chances of success. This common purpose led to a sense of brotherhood, what is often called "male bonding" in the twenty-first century. Their mutual allegiances and rituals set them apart from others as they swore their oaths on blood and became the specialists in killing. Some theorists suggest that the basic forms of society were derived from the distribution of roles within the hunting group and their codes of loyalty. The structure of society in general has been modeled on male-bonded groups who relied on blood sacrifices to achieve their own survival and success—or so upholds this theory that seems to seriously underestimate the contribution of women to the shaping of society.
Sacrifice reduces violence. It may seem peculiar to suggest that sacrifice reduces violence, but some anthropologists and historians have drawn this inference. Aggressive tensions within a society can lead toward violence against fellow members. Ritual sacrifices provide a relatively safe framework to keep violence within bounds while at the same time offering emotional release through killing substitute victims. This theory suggests that, at least in some circumstances, ritual killing of a designated victim can restrain the larger group from tearing itself apart.
Sacrificial companions to the next life. Many societies have considered their leaders as representative of their people both in this life and the next. It was important, then, to make sure that the ruler of the land (be it a king or otherwise) was accompanied to the afterlife with a retinue of loyal attendants. Rulers often had their concubines and servants (as well as household animals) entombed with them. Even distinguished ministers might be among the companions who were either entombed or immolated in order to serve their ruler after death. Examples include major archaeological finds in Egypt and China where the bodies of numerous attendants were discovered in chambers adjoining the royal coffin. There is evidence that elaborate ceremonies were conducted to honor the chosen companions prior to their deaths. It appears that the sacrificial victims often were given libations that provided a drug-induced insensitivity prior to their deaths.
The practice of burying the living with the dead encountered increasing criticism through the centuries. Eventually many societies shifted to symbolic sacrifices; for example, the later Egyptian practice of placing figurines ( Shabti ) in the royal tombs. China, Japan, the Greek states, and other ancient civilizations also moved toward symbolic rather than actual sacrifice of companions upon the death of their rulers. Furthermore, with the development of Christianity and Islam, a life after death appeared more likely to be within reach of individuals other than royalty, therefore making voluntary sacrifice a less attractive proposition.
Sacrifice keeps the world going. The most sweeping theory is based on an interpretation of history that pictures the human condition as fearful and perilous, beset with threats to survival from starvation, attack, and events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and floods that were taken to be the work of angry gods. Possessing limited knowledge and technology, societies tried to find a way of negotiating with rival, demanding, and frequently unpredictable gods if the world and their own lives were to continue. Sacrifice soon became a significant form of exchange with the gods, a sort of currency in an age before the establishment of a monetary system. In modern parlance, sacrifice was a way of doing business.
Human sacrifice was considered so crucial a measure that it persisted for some time even in societies that had become more complex and sophisticated. For example, the practice of sacrificing the eldest son was a salient feature of Mediterranean cults 5,000 years ago and still a powerful theme in Judaism and early Christianity. Sacrifice would be tamed slowly as societies developed more effective ways to manage their needs and cope with their environments. The gradual and still
Controversies and Unsettled Questions
Many questions and differences of opinion continue to exist around the issue of human sacrifice. This situation is not surprising, considering the limits and ambiguity of some of the evidence and the strong emotions aroused by the subject.
Death does not always signify sacrifice. Bodies dating from the first and second centuries B.C.E. have been recovered from bogs in England, Denmark, Wales, and other Northern European sites. These have often been considered sacrificial victims because the bodies showed many signs of having been subjected to ritualistic treatment. More sophisticated examination of the remains, however, indicates that at least some of the bodies had been accorded high honors, not put to death by sacrifice or punishment. It is probable that other errors have been made in identifying sacrifice victims, although enough clear and substantial data are available to demonstrate that sacrifice has been a common practice throughout much of the world.
Why child sacrifice? One of the most dramatic episodes in Judeo-Christian Scripture begins with God's command that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, his son. Abraham sorrowfully prepares to obey, but God intervenes and provides a ram as a sacrificial substitute. The meaning of this episode has been the subject of intense discussion through the centuries, although it is most often interpreted as a celebration of faith on Abraham's part and mercy on the part of God. Another human sacrifice reported in the Bible has remained more difficult to interpret in a favorable light and, therefore, has received less attention. Jepthah pledged he would sacrifice the first living creature that he saw when returning home if God would grant him victory in an upcoming battle. The victorious Jepthah was greeted by his daughter upon returning home. True to his pledge, Jepthah made a burnt offering of his daughter (who is not given a name in the biblical account). Why would God intervene for Isaac but not for Jepthah's daughter? Was Jepthah pious or callous in carrying through with the execution? These questions continue to haunt scholars and ethicists.
How many people were sacrificed by the Incas and Aztecs? This question can now be answered with confidence. Yes, the Incas of Peru and the Aztec of Mexico put a great many people to ritualistic death. This proposition was doubted for some years, in part because this kind of mass slaughter was difficult to imagine. Evidence has become increasingly clear, however, that human sacrifice was a core feature of the Inca and Aztec cultures.
Remains of Inca sacrifices have been dated from as long ago as 5000 B.C.E., sometimes on the towering peaks of the Andes, sometimes in the coastal desert. Archaeological investigations have found evidence of human sacrifice into the sixteenth century, and this practice is thought to have continued for some time afterward. Tenochtitlan (predecessor to Mexico City) is known to have been the active site of human sacrifices long before Spanish forces arrived to witness these events firsthand: There were already huge collections of skulls on display.
Twenty-first-century historians tend to agree that human sacrifice was both a unifying event and an intense demonstration of religious beliefs for these powerful empires. The Aztecs believed that the "vital energies" of one person could be transferred to another person through drinking the blood and eating the flesh. The gods also craved flesh and blood, so human sacrifice benefited both Aztecs and their ever-hungry deities. Sacrifice was an integral part of their worldview in which the threat of death was ever present, a threat that had to be countered by extreme and relentless measures that would magically transform death into life. Discoveries since the mid-twentieth century confirm that many women were sacrificed in special rituals intended to renew the fertility cycle.
Peruvian sacrifices were also concerned with encouraging the gods to bless their fertility. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the priests appear to have sacrificed an extraordinary number of children. Also somewhat obscure are the reasons for their practice of decapitating their victims. Having left no written records, the Incas and other Peruvian cultures have also taken with them their secrets and mysteries.
Do human sacrifices still exist? A few scattered reports of ritualistic murders believed to be sacrificial appear in print occasionally, usually in American and European newspapers. The reports are brief and inconclusive; for example, one October 1999 Irish Times article read, "Police in the eastern Indian state of Bihar yesterday dug up the remains of two teenage girls allegedly killed by their father in a ritual human sacrifice this week." It is probable that at least some such killings are the work of deranged individuals rather than religious celebrants. It is also possible, however, that credible evidence of contemporary human sacrifice may come to light.
A controversial theory suggests that patriotism, war, and adherence to the flag are incitements to a disguised form of sacrifice. Generally, the homicide rate decreases when a nation is involved in a popular war. Although there are other ways to interpret this fact, it is a challenging thought that patriotism might be regarded as "a civil religion of blood sacrifice, which periodically kills its children to keep the group together" (Marvin and Ingle 1999, p. 315).
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