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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, 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.
Human sacrifice in the Bible
(All examples presented here are from 2 Samuel, Chapter 21 unless otherwise noted.)
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.
Jesus, as a human (otherwise he would not die) is sacrificed on a cross. By definition this is human sacrifice.
Human sacrifice in Carthage
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, 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.
Human sacrifice in ancient Egypt
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
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
In Mesoamerican cosmology, it is 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.
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.
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.
- Actions which demand the death penalty in the Old Testament
- Abydos human sacrifice
- Capital punishment
- Collateral damage
- Muti—a southern African practice
- 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.