Almost all of us would cringe at thought of sacrificing a person’s life for the purpose of appeasing the gods. Modern society associates the phrase “human sacrifice” with brutal, demonic, or satanic rituals. However, cultures that are considered by scholars to be highly civilized, affluent, and advanced considered human sacrifice a normal part of life.
Some ancient cultures engaged in human ritual killings to gain the favor of the gods, while others practiced it to show respect and devotion to their leaders. The ritual could be as serene as simply drinking poison or as cruel as getting buried or burned alive. But above all, is was considered perfectly normal.
10. The Carthaginians
Carthaginian society is paradoxical in that it was one of the wealthiest and most powerful civilizations in the ancient world, and yet it engaged in some rituals that even its “barbaric” contemporaries considered horrifying. This included infant sacrificial killings — many experts believe that the offering of babies to gain the favor of the gods helped the Carthaginians control their increasing population. They also believe that infant sacrifice was deliberately done by wealthy Carthaginian parents to keep their wealth intact.
It’s estimated that from 800 B.C. until 146 B.C., when the Romans conquered Carthage, about 20,000 babies were sacrificed. However, not all experts believe that the Carthaginians did in fact engage in infant sacrifice. They contend that discovered infant remains had instead died of natural causes.
9. The Israelites
Many scholars firmly believe that the ancient Israelites performed a “burnt offering of children” in the name of an ancient Canaanite god named Moloch. Not all of ancient Israel practiced this ritual — experts believe it was only practiced by an Israelite cult that dedicated their lives to worshiping Moloch, and that the ritual had a Canaanite origin.
Some scholars don’t agree with this, contending that Moloch never existed in ancient Israelite society. For these scholars, the word mlk from which the word Moloch was derived doesn’t mean “god,” but rather “sacrifice.” As such, sacrifices may have been made in a more general sense, or perhaps not at all. Scholars can’t agree on the matter, and the debate continues to this day.
8. The Etruscans
The Etruscans were an ancient people who lived in what is now known as Tuscany. They were farmers and traders who made business transactions with both Greece and Carthage. Aside from farming and trading, the Etruscans relied on minerals to fuel their economy.
For many years, scholars were unwilling to accept the fact that the Etruscans did engage in the practice of human sacrifice. But when archaeologists at the University of Milan unearthed important evidence in Tarquinia, Italy, it was proven conclusively that the Etruscans did indeed practice human sacrificial killings. The archaeologists discovered several remains of sacrificed adults, infants, and children who were either foreign, ill, or of low social ranking. Aside from human remains, the archaeologists also discovered a sacred building, a stone altar, and “a ritual deposit of secular power” that included a trumpet, an axe, and a shield.
7. The Chinese
The practice of human sacrifice was very common in ancient China, particularly during the Shang Dynasty—the first Chinese dynasty with written records. In fact, archaeological evidence suggests that human sacrifice was practiced on a grand scale during the Shang dynasty. The purpose was twofold: political control and religious communication.
Experts believe that there were three types of human sacrifice practiced by the Shang. In pit sacrifices, young men were sacrificed. Their bodies were dismembered and they were buried without their personal possessions. In foundation sacrifices, children and babies were used. Archaeological evidences show that these human sacrifices experienced violent deaths, and they too were buried without possessions. Finally, in internment sacrifices, young girls were sacrificed. Unlike the first two, they were buried in the standard burial position and their bodies were kept intact.
6. The Celts
The Celts practiced human sacrificial killings as part of their religious rituals, and there’s extensive evidence to prove it. There are the written works of Roman and Greek historians, Irish texts written during medieval times, and recent archaeological evidence. Strabo, a Greek geographer and philosopher, discussed the Celtic ritual of human sacrifice in his book, Geography. He said,
“they [the Celts] would strike a man who had been consecrated for sacrifice in the back with a sword, and make prophecies based on his death-spasms; and they would not sacrifice without the presence of the Druids.”
Furthermore, he mentioned the wicker man, and how the Celts used it for sacrifice.
“They would construct a huge figure of straw and wood, and having thrown cattle and all manner of wild animals and humans into it, they would make a burnt offering of the whole thing.”
Many scholars doubt the veracity of Strabo’s accounts, as well as other Greek and Roman historians, primarily because their works were filled with political propaganda. However, the discovery of a male body in Lindow bog proved once and for all that the Celts did engage in human sacrifice to some degree. The Lindow man is said to have been “strangled, hit on the head, and had his throat cut, in quick order, then surrendered to the bog.”
5. The Hawaiians
The ancient Hawaiians believed that by sacrificing humans they could gain the favor of Ku, the god of war and defense, and achieve victory in their battles. Sacrifices were held in temples called Heiau. The people used were captives, particularly chiefs from other tribes, who would be “hung upside down on wooden racks.” The priest would be anointed with sweat collected from the sacrifice. Then the sacrifice would be beaten repeatedly until their flesh became smooth. Finally, they would be eviscerated. The ritual didn’t end there, though. Once disemboweled, the flesh would be either “cooked or eaten raw” by the priest and the chief of the tribe.
4. The Mesopotamians
The Mesopotamians practiced human sacrifice as part of the burial rituals of their royal and elite families. Palace attendants, warriors, and handmaidens were sacrificed for the purpose of accompanying their masters into the afterlife. After they had been killed their bodies were put in a systematic, decorative order. The warriors would have their weapons at their sides, while the handmaidens would be adorned with headdresses.
For many years, experts believed that these sacrifices were killed with poison. However, new examinations show that their deaths were much more brutal — they were stabbed through the head with a pike, a painful but quick death.
3. The Aztecs
Aztec society would offer human lives in order to keep the sun from dying. The Aztecs strongly believed that human blood was “sacred life force” and that the god of the sun, Huitzilopochtli, needed it for nourishment and appeasement.
The Aztecs performed brutal and gruesome human sacrificial killings of both volunteers and members of other tribes who were captured during war. In one type of ritual, the sacrifices would be required to walk up the stairs of the temple. When they reached the top a priest would open their stomachs, cutting from their throats down to their bellies. The priest would then offer the heart to the gods, while the bodies would be dismembered at the bottom of the temple. Estimates of the scope of these sacrifices are fiercely debated, a problem compounded by the fact that few neutral sources are available.
2. The Egyptians
Many Egyptologists believe that the ancient Egyptians practiced both human sacrifice. Though there are some experts who disagree with this, sacrificial tombs found in Abydos prove that the ancient Egyptians did engage in at least some ritual retainer sacrifice, where the servants of pharaohs or other key figures would be killed so they could continue to serve in the afterlife. Renowned Egyptologist George Reisener suggested that the tombs of King Djer and King Aha were filled with servants who were sacrificed by being buried alive with their tools. Reisener also hypothesized that the wife of King Djer was buried alive with his body. However, these retainer sacrifices were eventually phased out and replaced with symbolic human figures.
1. The Incas
The Incas resorted to the practice of human sacrifice to the gods, particularly the offering of their children, as a way to prevent natural calamities. The Inca Empire was plagued by numerous natural disasters, including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and floods. The Inca believed that these natural catastrophes were controlled by the gods, and that favor needed to be gained through sacrifice.
While many sacrifices were prisoners, some children were raised solely for the purpose of being ritually killed under the belief that physically healthy children were the purest sacrifices the Inca could offer. The Inca firmly believe that there was an afterlife where the children who were sacrificed would live in a better, happier place. In addition, the sacrifices were often treated very well before they were killed — they were given an excellent diet, a feast in their honor, and even a meeting with the Emperor.
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