The Importance of Human Sacrifice
Examples of Human Sacrifice
For nearly as long as mankind has created methods of worshipping, sacrifice of animals and humans has been used in religious rituals. According to Patrick Tierney, author of The Highest Altar: The story of human sacrifice:
Throughout the globe, sacrifice has been used as a way of appeasing and pleasing the gods, repaying them for human sins, and even for becoming one with them. Rene Girard, author of Violence and the Sacred, defines sacrifice as, “an act of mediation between a sacrificer and a deity.” I shall examine some examples of this now.
Human bodies have been found preserved in bogs in Europe , the most famous being the Lindow Man. He was found to have died by being strangled, bludgeoned in the head, and having his throat slit, in consecutive order. Having been dated to have died around the first or second centuries C.E., archeologists believe with near certainty that he was a human sacrifice of Celtic origin. More evidence of Celtic sacrifice can be found in the records of the Romans. According to Julius Caesar,
It seems that most Celtic sacrifices were ritualized executions of criminals and war prisoners which took on religious meaning. There is also, however, some evidence that occasionally the leader of a tribe would be sacrificed during hard times in hopes of placating the gods in favor of the tribe. Whether this leader was a voluntary sacrifice or not is up to speculation.
In Hindu culture, human sacrifice is most blatantly associated with the worship of Kali. There is evidence that males were sacrificed to Kali at the temple of Devi Kamakya in Assam. In verse 19 of The Karpuradistotra, we see this statement made in reference to Kali:
Since Kali both forbade the harming of women, but also was considered a powerful and terrifying goddess, it stands to reason that men would be sacrificed to her as the ultimate “greatly satisfying flesh.”
Another part of Hindu culture that may be considered by some to be a form of human sacrifice is the tradition of a widow throwing herself upon her husband’s funeral pyre. This practice is referred to as “sati,” which literally means “virtuous woman.” Preferably, the woman should throw herself upon the funeral pyre, but if not, she would be “helped” along in this. Although such practices were outlawed by the British, even today, many “accidental” fires just happen to break out in the homes of widows.
The Aztecs could probably be considered the poster-people for human sacrifice; however, few people really understand the hows and whys of their sacrificial rituals. The stereotype is of the young virgins being sacrificed to savage idols, but what was the reality? The Aztecs had a complex spiritual view of human sacrifice. In truth, captive warriors were by far the most common sacrifices. The Aztecs actually held wars specifically for the capture of sacrificial warriors. Aside from captives, most sacrifices were either volunteers or slaves. In the Aztec worldview, a “flowery death”, death on the sacrificial altar, was the highest honor one could give to the gods and be given. They believed that those who died in sacrifice ascended to the paradise of the sun, as opposed to the relatively gloomy underworld. The purpose of Aztec sacrifice was to nourish and repay the gods with teyolia, the life force and soul of a person. In particular, they believed that this was necessary to keep the world from coming to an end. The repayment comes into play in that it was believed that, as the gods sacrificed themselves to create the world and humanity, they needed to be repaid by sacrifices as well.
The Aztecs in particular had two very interesting concepts connected with human sacrifice. One was the idea of god impersonation. For certain festivals, a person was chosen to represent a deity. For most such festivals, the individual was picked twenty days before the actual sacrifice was to take place, though in some circumstances they were chosen as much as a year in advance. For the amount of time left to their life, the chosen person would dress and act as the god they were representing, be referred to by the name of the god, and be treated as a god by everyone. The person was called an ixiptla, or god-image, and the entire point of the remainder of their existence was to be the earthly vessel of their god. It was believed that at the point of sacrifice, the god actually entered the human representing them.
Another interesting concept connected with Aztec sacrifices was cannibalism. Aztec cannibalism was actually a highly ritualized event in which certain high-ranking individuals were allowed to eat choice parts of a sacrificial victim. The belief behind it was that in eating the sacrificial flesh, they were actually partaking of flesh imbued with the powers of their gods. The concept was rather similar to the Christian concept of taking communion, though the obvious difference is that it was real flesh rather than bread!
The rite of human sacrifice was so important to the cultures of Mesoamerica that it actually constituted a building block of the society. In The Devil in the New World, Fernando Cervantes states that human sacrifice was so important to the community that, after the Spanish conquest, “…the ban on sacrifices did not merely threaten the community’s corporate relationship with the supernatural; more fundamentally, it challenged those very principles upon which its social harmony and equilibrium depended.”
The examples I have given may be excused in the American cultural mind set as being the behaviors of ancient, primitive, or otherwise “unenlightened” cultures who’s ways are merely based on ignorance and superstition. However, the concepts of human sacrifice come closer to home when it is pointed out that it’s themes exist even in the religions most currently professed by Western culture- Judaism and Christianity.
When one thinks of human sacrifice and the Bible, the most often-cited example is the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is asked by god to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to him. To prove his faith, Abraham attempts to. God only stops him at the last moment, impressed by Abraham’s show of devotion. Most people would use this as a sign that Yahweh does not approve of human sacrifice, as he stopped Abraham from doing it. However, this is not the only example of sacrifice from the Old Testament. Not only are there various examples of sacrifices of food and animals being given to god, there are also other examples of human sacrifice in the Bible. One in particular stands out to show that perhaps Yahweh is not so against the idea after all.
In Judges 11, Jephthah the Gileadite promises that if god helps him to defeat his enemies, he will make a sacrifice of whatever he first sees leave his house upon his return:
The first thing that comes from the doors of his house to greet him is his one and only child, his daughter. Just what else Jephthah was expecting to come from his house to greet him is beyond me, but despite his woe that it was his own daughter, he keeps his vow. He gives his daughter two months time during which she “bewailed her virginity upon the mountains,” then he does indeed make a burnt offering of her, as he promised Yahweh he would do. It seems to me that only a human would come out from the doors of a person’s house to greet him (unless Jephthah had a dog!), so it seems to me that if he had thought about his vow for more than a few seconds, he knew the sacrifice would most likely be human. Even if Jephthah did not have enough screws in his head to realize this, I’m sure Yahweh, being a god, was well aware of what was going to come out of the house, and I speculate that he perhaps even influenced the outcome. In any case, it seems clear that the Old Testament is very familiar with many kinds of sacrifice, including human ones.
But what of the New Testament? It seems to me that the New Testament holds one of the most well known examples of human sacrifice- Jesus Christ. Yahweh sends his own son down to earth so that he may die for other people’s sins. According to Christianity, he must die to save humanity, to fill the cosmic debt of human sin. Although any Christian would tell you that just this one death was necessary, in and of itself it is still a prime example of sacrifice. Somehow, Jesus’ death fulfills some kind of need of god’s that had to be sated. Jesus is called the “Pascal lamb”, the title of a sacrificial animal from Jewish tradition. The theme of sacrifice is blatant in his story.
Now that I have given a background of human sacrifice from various cultures, I shall move on to the morality of the concept.
of Human Sacrifice
Although this statement is meant to defend the actions of the Judeo-Christian god, I argue that it may be used in reference to the gods of any religion. While I am certain that Dave Armstrong wouldn’t agree with me here, I actually agree with him, though equally in reference to all religions and cultures. To properly discuss the morality of human sacrifice is it necessary to do so without bias towards any particular god or religion. Since I’m not here to argue why it’s okay for Yahweh but no one else, but rather to argue about the concept of human sacrifice in general, my statements will refer to all religions which have practiced sacrifice.
Clearly, something like human sacrifice could very easily be interpreted as immoral. After all, we live in a society where death is avoided as if it were a dirty secret, and nearly everyone tries to shield it from their sight. With such an outlook, one could very easily say, “It’s wrong because it’s killing.” I argue that killing in and of itself is not wrong, but rather the reasons and methods behind it.
So, let’s talk about immorality and human sacrifice first, since that’s the easiest view for most to grasp. The idea of human sacrifice is that it is a spiritual action, a ritual that somehow brings humans closer to their gods. There is no question that this could be perverted by corrupt individuals. The more intolerant the religion, the more dangerous the idea could be- sacrifice could be used as an excuse to attempt extermination of other religions, or even as a political tool. You may take the Inquisition and witch-burnings as an example of this, though the church does not call it ‘human sacrifice,’ they were people being killed in the name of religion. Burning people alive was a very ritualistic thing, especially considering that the reasoning behind the burning was that the church was forbade from ‘shedding blood.’ However, this killing was based on over zealousness, and politics as well. Several people were killed for no reason but that a personal enemy took advantage of the church’s methods to dispose of their enemies, accusing them falsely. As for over zealousness, the Inquisition killed people merely because they were Jews, or members of some other non-Christian religion. Although the church does not think of these as human sacrifices, the point actually is that they are not, but that the concept of human sacrifice could be perverted into similar activities if not kept under control.
So, when and why could sacrifice be considered moral at all? To consider the actual concept of it and what it means, it is not an inherently immoral idea. Pleasing and paying homage to your gods through giving up something precious is a noble idea, and what is more precious than life itself? To give up something that means nothing to you does not do your god an honor, it is only an honor if it means something, something important. Although I am not a Christian, I can understand the devotion that Abraham and Jephthah were showing to Yahweh in their willingness to give him something precious.
However, it is the modern day, and you can’t merely say to your son or daughter, “Oh, by the way, I have to kill you because I promised my god I would.” Nor can you walk up to someone on the street, take them captive, and sacrifice them to your god. These methods worked in other cultures, I would argue not out of the primitivity of those cultures, but rather merely a difference in worldview. So, under what circumstances would I argue that human sacrifice could be moral here and now?
First, I would suggest that human sacrifice is not a universal concept found in all religions. Certainly, not all people of all religions would want to partake. But, to others, it might replace something missing in their religion; it might be very spiritually beneficial. Of course, the idea wouldn’t be, “Now, you all MUST perform human sacrifice!” but merely, “If it is/was a part of your religion, you can under these circumstances.”
Secondly, sacrifices should remain within individual religions, and not cross barriers. If a particular religion wanted to practice it, they would have to take sacrifices from their own members (on one exception which I will discuss in the benefits section). This would prevent sacrifice from becoming an excuse for religious persecution.
Third, sacrifices must be voluntary. Religious leaders could not demand it from their followers. Most people in this culture would instantly question who would want to be sacrificed, but that question is merely the result of the American mindset, which all too often is spiritually lethargic and terrified of death. To give a relatively easy to understand example here (more will be discussed in the next section), perhaps a person dying from a disease would rather die in honor of their god than in a hospital, or through suicide.
Now, to discuss the possible benefits of human sacrifice in a culture, through which one may see more examples of how it may be considered moral under the appropriate circumstances.
of Human Sacrifice
A more socially oriented benefit would be the disposal of criminals. It would save the nation time and money to donate criminals to religious organizations to be sacrificed. Each year, American prisons spend more and more money supporting criminals on death row- feeding and providing living conditions for people who have been sentenced to die anyway! The deaths of these criminals would be far more meaningful than dying on the electric chair or in the gas chamber. Perhaps criminals could even be given the opportunity to choose which religion they would be given to, giving them the opportunity to die for their own god. Many people today oppose the death penalty in general, and would be horrified at this suggestion, but would it truly be any worse? The death penalty still exists despite people’s objections, and it doesn’t look like it’s about to cease existing any time soon. In the end, isn’t it better that they are sacrificed to the gods rather than to the state?
Not only may human sacrifice be used in disposing of criminals, but its very presence could actually lead to lower incidents of violence in our society. While speaking of Cain’s murder of Abel in the Old Testament, Rene Girard states:
In the society around us, outlets for violence are strongly discouraged. Even things such as violent video games are demonized for allegedly creating murderers. But what if Rene Girard’s statement is correct? It seems more likely that the rise in crime rate is due to the constant suppression and disapproval of violent themes in this society rather than their prevalence. If we allowed ourselves violent outlets, including sacrifice, then people would have less violence pent up inside them, suppressed and waiting to escape by any means that it can. Society would benefit from having these outlets for violence.
In the end, despite these logical benefits, I believe that the strongest benefits are of a spiritual nature. Cultures that practice sacrifice of any kind seem to also be the ones that display the strongest and most genuine devotion to their spirituality, and why not? The practice of sacrifice makes it difficult for people to relegate religion to, “Well, I am religious because my daddy was, and I belong to this religion because my daddy did, but I never really have anything to do with religion or spirituality.” Sacrifice is a very real thing that cannot be ignored if it is present in religion. Sacrifice can be a very spiritually powerful and moving thing. Giving up something precious brings you closer to your god, and your god closer to you. That’s something very difficult to ignore.
If sacrifice were once again present in people’s lives, it would also make life more real. Modern Americans are members of a society that fears and loathes death, almost as if it were an unnatural thing, when it is in fact the most natural of all. When children are raised, they are hidden from it at all costs. When their parents are finally forced to educate them about it, usually because death has made a first-hand entrance into their life through death of a pet or loved one, it is done in extreme discomfort and grief, teaching children that death is a thing to be terrified of and rarely acknowledged. People close to death are forced by society to live unnaturally and in misery because the people around them can’t accept the idea of dying. Anything involving death is automatically considered wrong. Until recently, death was a very real and unavoidable part of all cultures, because it could not be avoided. Children grew up knowing what death was from a young age.
If you observe, it often seems that the less “privileged” cultures, the ones where death is more of a reality, also are the more immersed in life. Maybe it could make this culture truly alive, beyond going to McDonalds and making money. If you ask a person what they would do if they found out they only had a month or so to live, most of them will go through a description of all the things they would do to experience life in it’s fullest. If death is seen in a culture, if people truly understand that they can die, then they will be compelled to truly live.
So, in conclusion, I hold that human sacrifice in and of itself is not immoral, and that it can actually be beneficial to a culture, including this one. Rene Girard called sacrifice “the most crucial and fundamental of rites… it is also one of the most commonplace.” Why then deny its place in our culture? I hold that we should no longer do so.
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David. Disease, Pain, & Sacrifice: Toward a Psychology
of Suffering. 1968,
David. City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of
Donald. The Well of Sacrifice. 1971, Doubleday &
Company, Inc. Garden City,
Ellis, Peter Berresford. The Druids. 1994, Constable and Company Limited. London.
Rene. Violence and the Sacred. 1986, Johns Hopkins University
Patrick. The Highest Altar: The Story of Human Sacrifice.
on the Ethical Implications of the Story of Abraham and Isaac.
in Religion, Marshall University Religious Studies
the Celts and Druids Practice Human Sacrifice? Lisa L. Spangenberg,
Hindu Annihilation of Women. Sita Agarwal
Today in the Andes- and Closer. Wendy Davis
All materials ©2002-2007 J. Quipoloa. Do not reproduce without permission.