human sacrifice

human sacrifice

Offering of the life of a human being to a god. In some ancient cultures, the killing of a human being, or the substitution of an animal for a person, was an attempt to commune with the god and to participate in the divine life. It also sometimes served as an attempt to placate the god and expiate the sins of the people. It was especially common among agricultural people (e.g., in the ancient Near East), who sought to guarantee the fertility of the soil. The Aztecs sacrificed thousands of victims (often slaves or prisoners of war) annually to the sun, and the Incas made human sacrifices on the accession of a ruler. In ancient Egypt and elsewhere in Africa, human sacrifice was connected with ancestor worship, and slaves and servants were killed or buried alive along with dead kings in order to provide service in the afterlife. A similar tradition existed in China. The Celts and Germanic peoples are among the European peoples who practiced human sacrifice.

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The Celts practised human sacrifice on a limited scale as part of their religious rituals. Animal sacrifice was more commonplace along with ritual deposition of tools, weapons and jewellery. The evidence for human sacrifices comes from:

  • Archaeological data
  • Irish medieval texts
  • Writings by Romans and Greeks, though these are often at second hand.

Greco-Roman texts

Julius Caesar wrote in his Gallic Wars:

[The Gauls] believe that unless a man's life is paid for by another man's, the majesty of the immortal gods cannot be appeased [...]. Some [tribes] have figures of immense size, whose limbs, woven out of twigs, they fill them with living men. After these figures have been set on fire, men perish in a sheet of flame. They believe that the execution of those who have been caught in the act of theft or robbery is more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supply of victims fails they resort to the execution even of the innocent.

Archeological finding

In sites associated with Celtic settlements throughout Europe, human remains have been found bearing marks of being sacrificed. They have dated from the Neolithic era to far into the Roman times.

In Havránok, Slovakia, seven people were beaten to death and quartered. Parts of their bodies were subsequently thrown into a pit in the middle of a shrine, either to ensure a good harvest or as an offering to the deities of the Underworld (1st century BCE).

Ritualised decapitation survives in the archaeological record such as the example of 12 headless corpses at the French late Iron Age sanctuary of Gournay-sur-Aronde.

Lindow man may be an example of a human sacrifice from the 1st or 2nd century, preserved in a peat bog in near perfect condition. The case for his sacrifice hinges on the three separate injuries he suffered. He was throttled, clubbed around the head and had his throat slit. This dovetails with the threefold death detailed in medieval texts. Tollund Man has also been suggested as a bog sacrifice although both men may also have been executed criminals.

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References

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