Ritual Human Sacrifice

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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).


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...
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