Human sacrifice

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Preach to the choir
Icon religion.svg
Crux of the matter
Speak of the devil
An act of faith
Moreover I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not have life, and I defiled them through their very gifts in making them offer by fire all their first-born, that I might horrify them; I did it that they might know that I am the Lord.
—The Holy Bible, Ezekiel 20:25-26

Human sacrifice is the activity of sacrificing people to gods. It has been widely practised in one form or another throughout the history of mankind and still continues, usually in more subtle ways (obsidian knives are rarely used nowadays) and the definition can be broadened somewhat.


Human sacrifice often served as a method of population control,Wikipedia especially during times of economic hardship. "Oh, your crops failed and half your village will starve? Time to bribe appease the gods." The religious aspects were often added after the fact, to sugar-coat the whole issue of killing people. Another function involved the specific population control of subjugated states, demanding a tribute of young boys to be sacrificed each year; a rather effective way to make sure such states lacked enough warriors to protest as well as a manner to get rid of criminals (what better way to appease the gods than killing that thief and showing them we do not tolerate such people among us?).

Human sacrifice in the Bible[edit]

2 Samuel 21 describes how wise King David sacrifices lots of Saul's children in order to lift a famine. The story:

There was a famine that ran for three straight years. King David made his inquiries, and the LORD answered, "It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites."

So the king called the Gibeonites in and asked them what he could do to make them whole again. They didn't want any gold or silver from Saul's estate. Instead they said, "The man that consumed us, and that devised against us that we should be destroyed from remaining in any of the coasts of Israel, let seven men of his sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the LORD in Gibeah of Saul."

So the king took the two sons of Rizpah and the five sons of Michal, which they bore unto Saul, and delivered them to the Gibeonites. They hanged them on the hill before the LORD and were put to death in the beginning of the barley harvest.

And after David took the bones of the hanged men and buried them with the bones of Saul and Jonathan, God was intreated for the land.

God at one point demands that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac, but backs off after he sees that Abraham is actually... faithful enough to actually do it. See Genesis 22:2. It has also been claimedWikipedia that in the original version Isaac was sacrified, but that it was later changed once human sacrifice was frowned upon in Judaism.

In Judges 11:1-39, Jephthah promises to sacrifice the first thing he sees on arriving home as thanks to God. He duly kills his own daughter.

Later Judaism, despite these scriptural examples, is generally considered to frown upon human sacrifice,[1] preferring the sacrifice of animals (in the days of the Temple) or of foreskins.[2] The Bible explicitly condemns sacrificing children to Moloch, one of the easier Biblical laws to follow. (Leviticus 20:2)

The Roman authorities in Judea, though probably not believing Judaists themselves, sacrificed Jesus,[3] as a human (otherwise he would not die) on a cross. By definition, this is human sacrifice - theologically re-construed as self-sacrifice by suicide.[4]

Human sacrifice in Islam[edit]

As with Christianity and Judaism, Islam is officially opposed to human sacrifice. Quran 17:31 and 6:140 seem to prohibit it, particularly of one's own children.[5] Abdul-Muttalib,Wikipedia grandfather of Muhammed, at one point promised he would sacrifice one of his sons to God if he was given 10 sons; however, after drawing lots to choose, he decided he didn't want to give up his favourite son, and managed to get out of it by drawing more lots, selecting the option of sacrificing 100 camels and no sons. Islam also incorporates a version of the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac but sparing him at the last minute and killing a ram or goat instead; there is some debate over whether Abraham was actually asked to sacrifice IsaacWikipedia or his first son Ishmael, though this probably isn't the most important part of the story. Muslims commemorate this at the feast of Eid al-Adha,Wikipedia where a domestic animal is normally sacrificed in imitation of the one Abraham sacrificed (sometimes even a goat).

However, many people are convinced that Muslims frequently practice human sacrifice, e.g. WND.[6]

Human sacrifice in Carthage[edit]

The pre-Christian populace of Carthage is recorded to have practiced child sacrifice, especially in strained times. While some more recent scholars dismissed these Roman accounts as anti-Punic propaganda, analysis of the ages of the deceased in the Carthaginian tophet shows a pattern inconsistent with use as an ordinary cemetery, and appears to confirm theories of sacrifice,[7] though this is still not universally accepted. It should be mentioned that Roman records also speak of human sacrifice by Romans during the Punic Wars against Carthage.

The descriptions of sacrifice in Carthage by Diodorus Siculus and others seems to have influenced the Christian idea and imagery of Moloch as a recipient of child-sacrifice, such as the 18th-century Bible historian Johann Lund.[8] Since the inhabitants of Carthage were originally Semitic, from Phoenicia in the eastern Mediterranean, it is just about possible that the two practices were related, although given the absence of any evidence about child sacrifice in either region, and the lack of detail in the Bible's account of Moloch-worship, it is unlikely a connection could ever be proven.

Human sacrifice in ancient Egypt[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Ancient Egyptian human sacrifice

Contrary to popular belief, Egyptian culture had little taste for human sacrifice, though a few 1st Dynasty tombs at Abydos have subsidiary burials that have been interpreted, based on limited evidence, to be sacrificial in nature.

Human sacrifice in Mesopotamia[edit]

Human sacrifice was practised in Mesopotamia by the Sumerians, where courtiers and guards, but particularly women, were interred in large grave pits surrounding the burial of the ruler. No obvious cause of death was found on the bodies, suggesting they took poison. The sacrificed generally were provided with grave goods appropriate to their service (weapons, jewels etc.)

Human sacrifice in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica[edit]

In Mesoamerican cosmology, it is a common theme for the gods to have sacrificed their blood or their lives in order to bring order to the universe. Thus, their worshippers felt the need to repay them with blood sacrifices. This took shape in many ways, from blood-letting by running barbed rope through one's tongue to the brutal executions most people are familiar with. The Maya, for example, used beheadings as their sacrificial method of choice, as evidenced by depictions of their ball games, which were even older than them, going back to the time of the Olmecs.

Other Mexican civilizations adopted the Mayan religion, and carried on performing such sacrifices, though over time the number of sacrifices increased. Sacrifice reached its peak under Aztec domination, during which due to a shortage of willing bodies (and the need to keep their conquered territories subjugated and intimidated), the Aztec rulers instigated rebellions in their vassal states so as to have a ready supply of victims as well as demanding sacrificial captives as part of their tributary demands. The Aztecs also introduced several new sacrificial techniques, such as burning newly-married couples on funeral pyres, flaying women alive so that the priest could wear her skin and the most well known method: ripping out the victim's still-beating heart from their chest. [9]

Most disturbing of all, however, were the sacrifices to Tlaloc, the god of rain. Children were marched to the top of sacred mountains and had their hearts ripped out or their skulls broken. The more they cried, the better for it was believed their tears brought the rain. Children who did not cry had their fingernails ripped out to achieve the desired effect.[9]

It was of no surprise, then, that a lot of native towns and cities would team up with the Spanish invaders in order to tear down the Aztec hegemony on central Mexico. And while substantial evidence, in the form of consistently injured human remains, exists, many still argue that the sacrifices were exaggerated by the conquistadors in order to justify their own slaughters. These arguments range from the clearly farcical (i.e. that no sacrifices happened and all historical evidence is falsified or misconstrued) to the entirely reasonable, like Hernán Cortés frequently citing the sacrifices in his letters to the King to justify more military support.

Human sacrifice elsewhere[edit]

There's growing evidence of human sacrifice having been performed by the MinoansWikipedia, a Bronze Age Mediterranean civilization, which include skeletons of a large man, a woman -thought to have been a priestess-, and a young man (the victim) together with a large knife and restraints in front of a large slab of rock thought to have been an altar[10], and of children and young people among their successors the MycenaeansWikipedia[11], even if both cases are considered to have been a last resort attempting to placate the gods due to the catastrophes as powerful earthquakes that were taking place by then. Among Minoans, however, cannibalism of young children seems to have been practiced too[12]

Likewise, human sacrifice especially of politicians kings in hard times and often with quite a lot of cruelty was practiced among the Celts[13]. Druids according to Julius Caesar practiced human sacrifices, up to and including cannibalism, in large scales which modern archeology seems to confirm[14].


Human sacrifice is still practiced in Africa for folk religious or superstitious reasons, despite being illegal. People are allegedly sacrificed by witch doctors to bring wealth to their customers and even to help politicians win elections.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. Witherington, Ben (2016). "The Symbolic Universe of Jesus and the New Testament Writers". New Testament Theology and Ethics. 2. Downers Grove, illinois: InterVarsity Press. p. 72. ISBN 9780830899845. Retrieved 8 November 2021. "The idea of human sacrifice was basically abhorrent to early Jews, unless one meant by that the notion of an honorable martyrological death, such as the Maccabees experienced on the battlefield (see 2 Macc 7)." 
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Human sacrifice.
  3. Gorringe, Timothy (2012). "Terrorism: Some Theological Reflections". The Twenty-first Century Confronts Its Gods: Globalization, Technology, and War. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. p. 122. ISBN 9780791484616. Retrieved 8 November 2021. "This form of execution [crucifixion], more than any other, had associations with the idea of human sacrifice [...]" 
  4. "For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, (Hebrews 9:24) [...] but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself." (Hebrews 9:26)
  5. Human Sacrifice in Islam, Jeremy Spencer, Ask a Muslim, Quora
  6. Muslims conduct human sacrifice on video, WND, 2014
  7. Patricia Smith, Lawrence E. Stager, Joseph A. Greene and Gal Avishai (2013). Cemetery or sacrifice? Infant burials at the Carthage Tophet. Antiquity, 87, pp 1191-1199. [1]
  8. "MOLECH; MOLOCH". International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 1915
  9. 9.0 9.1 "Aztec Sacrifice"
  10. Minoan Human Sacrifice?
  11. Ritual human sacrifice in the Mycenaean palace of Kydonia
  12. The Minoans: How They Lived, and How They Died
  13. Human Sacrifice in Ancient Ireland
  14. Druids Committed Human Sacrifice, Cannibalism?
  15. The Practice of Ritual Killings and Human Sacrifice in Africa, Human Rights Brief, American University Washington College of Law