Ritual Human Sacrifice
The use of human sacrifice in different rituals has featured largely in many cultures for thousands of years. To better understand this one must first consider and define what is actually meant by the term ‘ritual’. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, ritual is described as ‘the series of actions used in a religious or other rite’.
Renfrew and Bahn (1991, 408-9) indicate that ritual activity can be identified by the observation of four contributing components, such as the focusing of attention on the location, a sacred place; the presence of a possible liminal boundary between ‘this world and the next’; evidence for the worship of a deity and the participation and offerings made by individuals. The term ‘sacrifice’ as defined by The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Archaeology (Darvill, 2003, p371) as the slaughter of an animal or person or the surrendering of possessions to a deity.
It goes on to say, Although seen as ceremonial in context, sacrifice may have a functional ends institutionalized in the practice itself, for example the regulation of a population and the creation of an instrument of political terror. Ancient Egypt Kings of the first 2 dynasties (3100-2686BC) were not buried alone. Since death was regarded as a mirror image of life in Ancient Egypt their graves needed to contain all that they had needed when alive. This included members of their household, their servants and their slaves. When the tomb of King Wadji (c. 2980BC) (Wilkinson, 1999) was excavated 455 bodies were discovered.
Members of the king’s personal household numbered 338 (Shaw, 2000, p68). Also, the bodies of 77 female and 41 important male employees shared the grave of Wadji’s queen, Mernieth. Many of the servants buried with their employers were deliberately killed for the purpose often by poison. Others, not so lucky, were buried alive as attested to by their contorted bodies when they where excavated (Lewis, 2006, p267). Mesopotamia The Sumerians were one of the first cultures to arise in Mesopotamia, in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates on the Persian Gulf now known as the Middle East.
In 1920 Leonard Woolley led an archaeological excavation to dig in the Royal Cemetery at Ur. Woolley (1954) recorded that he found tombs of local kings that were not recorded in the Sumerian king-lists, these King-lists are written lists of kings who reigned for long periods of time (. Woolley discovered nearly 2500 graves in this cemetery along with 16 royal tombs (Van De Mieroop, 2004, p41) that consisted of underground chambers often with vaulted roofs with a ramp or pit for entry.
Identified by cuneiform inscriptions, these were the tombs of Meskalamdug, Akalamdug, the queen Pu-abi and others, members of the ruling house of Ur around 2500BC (Bahn, 1996, p144). These tombs contained the skeletons of many attendants and soldiers alongside the remains of Oxen and wooden carts. These royal servants and soldiers numbering in their hundreds were willing victims of a religious rite that would take them into the ‘next’ world where they would be able to serve their chosen king or queen.
They had willingly so it appears taken poison and laid down their lives for their rulers. Mesoamerican Aztecs The culture that most people automatically associate with ritual human sacrifice is of course that of the Aztecs of Mesoamerica. These Mesoamerican people believed in a creation story where the gods in order to make humankind used their own blood that in turn created a debt of blood owed by mankind to the gods that had to be repaid.
The Aztecs, according to Meyers & Sherman (1995, p65) were constantly at war with their surrounding tribes purely to capture live prisoners so they could then be sacrificed to appease the God Huitzilopochtli and The Flowery Wars began with a mutual agreement between the Aztecs and the Tlaxcalans to capture live men for future sacrifice. The god Huitzilopochtli was believed to take on the likeness of the sun and it was thought that in order to insure the sun’s arrival each day, a steady supply of human hearts had to be offered in holy sacrifice (Hogg, 1966, p43).
They believed that the sun and earth had already been destroyed four times, and in their time of the 5th sun, final destruction would soon be upon them. In order to delay this happening and appease Huitzilopochtli the practice of human sacrifice became quite a major element in Aztec society (Meyer & Sherman, 1995, p67). The actual ritual would take place outside, on the top of a great pyramid. The victim was spread-eagled on a round stone, with his back arched.
His limbs would be held firmly by four priests whilst the officiating priest (known as the Nacom) used an obsidian knife to cut under the rib cage and remove the victims still beating heart. The heart was then dedicated to the sun before being cremated with incense in a brazier and the victim’s body was subsequently thrown down the steps of the pyramid to be beheaded, flayed and then the head defleshed and placed on a specially built rack. The man who captured the victim would then take parts of the body to be eaten during a ceremonial feast (Smith, 1996, p222-5).
In the 1487 re-consecration of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan some estimate 80,400 prisoners were sacrificed (Harner, 1977, p46-51), Another rather gruesome but very symbolic sacrificial ritual was performed by the Aztecs to a deity called Xipe Totec (translated, Lord of the flayed skin). According to Moctezuma & Olguin (2002, p54-5) and Fernandez (1996, p60-63) Xipe Totec was an important symbol of fertility; war and the coming of age of young warriors a life-death-rebirth deity, god of agriculture, vegetation, the east, disease, spring, goldsmiths, silversmiths and of the seasons.
There were two documented types of ritual sacrifice to Xipe Totec, both ending in the same way but the manner of the victims ritual slaying being different. These were the gladiator sacrifice and the arrow sacrifice. The arrow sacrifice consisted of tying a victim to a wooden frame with his arms and legs spread (the frame represented a corn plant) a priest would then fire arrows at the victim to kill them thus making the victims blood then flow onto the ground represented the cool rains of spring (Meyer & Sherman, 1995, p69).
In the gladiator ritual, the captive was tied to a large stone, given a sword with a mock blade made of feathers, and forced to fight a fully equipped opponent. After these ceremonies, the victim’s skin was removed so that it could be worn by the Xipe Totec priests (Smith, 1996, p225) who would then wear it for 20 days before removing it to symbolising rebirth and a new season of fertility for the crops and people like a new skin covering the earth. Aztec human sacrifices were performed firstly because the Aztecs felt they owed a debt of blood to the gods. Common Aztec creation myths state hat the gods sacrificed themselves to ensure the continuity of the solar cycle, and they had to be repaid with regular offerings of blood. Secondly Sacrifice also carried out a political function. Rulers and priests used sacrificial rituals as a way of publicly demonstrating and strengthening their connection to the gods. Additionally, sacrifice was a form of “propaganda by terror” using conscious displays of intimidation aimed at external rulers and common subjects – discouraging any ideas of violence, resistance, or other non-cooperation (Smith, 1996, p226-7). European examples
The various groups of tribes that occupied mainland North-Western and Southern Europe from around 600BC to 1000AD were collectively known as Celts. There is very little documentary evidence to go on. In particular, we have no actual sacred texts of the ancient Celts, as their texts were transmitted orally only to initiates and disappeared forever when the last Druid died (MacCullough, 1911), MacCullough describes Celtic belief in reincarnation and a spectral otherworld, he documents the the large number of now-obscure gods and goddesses, including many local deities, describing totemistic and animistic beliefs.
In addition, MacCulloch also describes the darker side of Celtic practices, including the famous ‘Burning Man’ human sacrifices and cannibalism. Macullough writes about the human sacrifices performed at Lugnasad, Lugnasad was a harvest festival, where the victims were ritually sacrificed to guarantee a fertile crop in the forthcoming season and the festival would also commemorate those who had died for this good cause, while it would also appease their ghosts should they be angry at their violent deaths. Triplism’ is one of the commonest Celtic religious symbols (Magilton, p184-5; Green, 1986) describing the three Celtic gods, Esus, Taranis and Teutates. These three gods relate to the ‘triple death’ usually associated with bog bodies. The triple death consisted of, Esus for hanging, Taranis to burning and Teutates to drowning (Green, 1986, p27). The Tollund man was discovered in Denmark in 1950 (Bahn, 1996, p114). The body of this man was found well preserved having been interred in an acidic peat bog some 2000 years previous to its discovery.
The man had been hanged and the hemp cable tow was still in place around his neck. The very fact that he was laid in the foetal position suggests that he was specifically placed this way rather than just cast into a pit alluding to a ritual killing rather than an out and out case of murder or judicial execution. Many similar examples of bog bodies have been found all across Europe including Emmer-Erfscheidenveen Man, a bog body recovered in Drenthe, Netherlands in 1938 (Deem, J,. 1998) the remains were dating to around 1200BC.
The Gundestrup Cauldron was found in Raeve Bog, Denmark in 1891 Deem (1998) states that the silver cauldron had been deliberately broken then the pieces laid on the surface of the bog where they slowly descended to a depth of almost 2ft with sphagnum moss overgrowing them. When pieced together the solid silver bowl is 2ft in diameter. The scene depicted on the bowl show a scene of human sacrifice with an apparent victim being held upside down over the bowl with their throat cut and bleeding into the bowl. Above this a line of horsemen ride away from the cauldron after their sacrifice to there afterlife.
Deem wonders if this is scenes depicting a sacrifice to thank the gods for a victory or they are attempting to divinate the future. Conclusion Ritual human sacrifice appears to have been used in past societies for a number of reasons, with not all the victims being unwilling pawns at the mercy of unscrupulous priests. We have seen demonstrated here that loyal retainers gave their lives willingly to travel to an ‘after’ life and serve there master or mistresses there as they had done in life. This believe in an after life must have been exceptionally strong in the servants and followers of these kings and queens.
Fertility rites were recognised and performed in the form of sacrifices from what would appear to be since there has been written records, some of these rites committed on such a large scale that like in the case of the Aztecs they would have had a noticeable effect upon the population numbers and were done in full view of the people with the blessing of the ruling authorities. Some of the human sacrifices were to thank the gods for strength in battle and a victory over an enemy (usually ending with the loser being sacrificed to the winner’s god or gods).
Finally, and even though not always intentionally ritual human sacrifice committed by an all powerful priesthood or state would have instilled fear into the general population of a society making it people much more malleable and easier to control.