Human Sacrifice

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Human Sacrifice: A Brief Introduction


After the dramatic attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11, reports admiringly related how firemen ‘sacrificed’ their lives in order to save people, and how many people had become ‘victims’ of this atrocious crime. Both English terms, ‘sacrifice’ and ‘victim’, eventually derive, via the French, from Latin sacrificial language.1 Even though most of us no longer condone or practice animal sacrifice, let alone human sacrifice, these metaphors are a powerful reminder of the practice of offering animals or humans as gifts to gods and goddesses, a practice that once was near universal, but nowadays becomes increasingly abandoned. Undoubtedly, the most fascinating and horrifying variety of sacrifice remains human sacrifice, and a new collection of studies hardly needs an apology.2 Serious studies are rare in this area where sensation often rules supreme. New approaches to the sources (below), new anthropological insights and new archaeological discoveries, for instance those in ancient India to which Hans Bakker draws to our attention in Ch. IX, all 1

For Roman sacrifice see most recently Bremmer, ‘Opfer 3: Römische Religion’, in Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, fourth edition, vol. 6 (Tübingen, 2003) 578-80; J. Scheid, Quand faire, c’est croire - Les rites sacrificiels des Romains (Paris, 2005). 2 The more so as the most recent overview by K. Read, ‘Human sacrifice’, in the authoritative Encyclopedia of Religion, second edition, vol. 6 (New York, 2005) 4182-85 is wholly unsatisfactory. Much better, I Talo, ‘Menschenopfer’, in Enzyklopädie des Märchens, vol. 9 (Berlin and New York, 1999) 578-82.



enable us to take a fresh look at old problems, but also to start thinking about areas that have long been neglected in this connection, such as ancient China, as Tim Barrett reminds us (Ch. XII). Human sacrifice was sometimes combined with cannibalism. This was the case among the ancient Celts,3 the ancient Chinese (Ch. XII) and the ancient Greeks, as Jan Bremmer (Ch. III.3) argues in his discussion of the secret initiatory rites of the Arcadians, where a novice had to taste the entrails of a slaughtered boy. Although recent decades have recognised that cannibalism is far more often the subject of myths and stories than of real practices,4 the one-time existence of human sacrifice is beyond any doubt, even though here too we regularly find the practice ascribed to innocent peoples, tribes or groups, as we will see presently. The ideal analysis should always pay attention to the question of who sacrifices what to whom, where, when, why and with what kind of rhetoric. To begin with the sacrificers, it is clear that human sacrifice was already practised in the Stone Age,5 and it is therefore not surprising that it occurs in one of our oldest surviving religious texts, the Indian Vedas, as Asko K. Strobel, ‘Menschenopfer und Kannibalismus. Neue Erkenntnisse zur Kultpraxis und Kultur der Keltenvölker in Kleinasien’, Antike Welt 33 (2002) 487-91. 4 For the most recent reviews of the debates around the reality of cannibalism see P. Hulme, ‘Introduction: The Cannibal Scene’, and W. Arens, ‘Rethinking Anthropophagy’, in F. Barker et al. (eds), Cannibalism and the Colonial World (Cambridge, 1998) 1-38, 39-62, respectively. 5 R. Thurnwald, ‘Menschenopfer (C. Allgemein)’, in M. Ebert (ed.), Reallexikon der Vorgeschichte VIII (Berlin, 1927) 145-154; J. Maringer, ‘Menschenopfer im Bestattungsbrauch Alteuropas. Eine Untersuchung über die Doppel- und Mehrbestattungen im vor- und frühgeschichtlichen Europa, insbesondere Mitteleuropa’, Anthropos 37-40 (1942-1945) 1-112. 3



Parpola demonstrates (Ch. VIII). This volume can only present a selection of important cases, but the literature shows that human sacrifice was once widespread. It was practised not only among the ancient Germans, whose practices are the subject of one...
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