Centuries of Death: 5 Ancient Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice

Centuries of Death: 5 Ancient Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice

Stephanie Schoppert - June 28, 2017

It has been found that many prominent ancient societies practiced ritual human sacrifice. The ancient Greeks, Vikings, Mayans, Egyptians and the ancient Chinese have all been known to have partaken in some form of human sacrifice. The methods of the human sacrifices were often as varied as the cultures themselves. Steeped in religion and ancient rituals many of these sacrifices were believed necessary and in some cases, there would be volunteers willing to be a part of the ritual. Even the most prominent and civilized of the ancient cultures practiced some form of human sacrifice from the burying of virgins to the burning of babies, there was little that people were not willing to do in order to appease the gods.

Centuries of Death: 5 Ancient Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice
Shang Dynasty Oracle Bone circa 1600 to 1050 BCE. blogs.bl.uk

Shang Dynasty

In ancient Chinese culture, human sacrifice was often present. What makes the human sacrifices of the Chinese so well understood is their use of oracle bones. During the Shang dynasty oracles would be used in order to find out the expected outcome of a plight upon the people and what type of sacrifice was required. Sometimes there was no answer and other times there would be a solution written upon oracle bones and the sacrifice would then be performed. There were also some sacrifices that would occur regularly as part of ritual, such as sacrifices to certain Gods or sacrifices when a ruler passed on.

Oracle bones were the earliest form of writing for the people of the Shang dynasty and they were only interpreted by rulers or religious leaders. The Shang practiced a form of human sacrifice in which the servants or personal slaves of the King would be expected to commit ritual suicide or volunteer to be buried alongside their master. This form of sacrifice would include both male and female servants of the king. It was a form of human sacrifice that continued throughout Chinese history.

The second form of sacrifice that was commonly practiced by the Shang and was only practiced during the Shang dynasty was the renji ceremony. Renji sacrifice victims were typically male and did not include personal slaves. Renji sacrifices would be chosen from prisoners of war or field slaves. Field slaves would be chosen because they would often be slaves that were captured from distant lands that were far outside the Shang domain. It was rare that the Shang would sacrifice their own people for renji unless they were criminals.

Renji sacrifices were performed in order to appease Shang-Di. Whenever food was short (due to war or famine) a renji ceremony would be performed. Hundreds of slaves would be sacrificed via decapitation. After which they would be buried in a large pit or incinerated. Excavations of Shang cities have uncovered large burial pits and ashes with oracle bones revealing the fate of the victims and reason for the renji ceremony.

Centuries of Death: 5 Ancient Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice
Depiction of Child Sacrifices in Carthage. toptenz.net


The ancient Carthaginians were known to perform a number of different types of ritual sacrifice. Many types of sacrifice involved animals that were then placed in ritual urns. However, there has been a great deal of debate about whether or not the Carthaginians sacrificed their own children. Archaeological evidence and historical accounts suggest that there were some brutal ceremonies in which members of the elite would sacrifice their infant children. The elite were often the ones to sacrifice their children in exchange for favors from the gods. It is thought only the elite sacrificed children due to the expense involved in the burial of sacrificed children that have been uncovered.

One account suggested that it was tradition that only the noblest sons of Carthage would be sacrificed. Eventually the nobles grew tired of having to sacrifice their own children that they would instead use the children of their servants or buy children that they could nurture until it was time to sacrifice them. The practice would eventually turn out of favor completely and any priest who performed the infant sacrifice would be crucified, but still the practice would persist.

The method of sacrifice was also particularly cruel and brutal to the child. The babies would be placed on a heated bronze statue of Cronus. The statue was made with the palms upward but sloped toward the ground. The baby would be placed on the palms and then they would roll down into a gaping pit that was filled with fire. The child would be alive and conscious when they were burned and the ritual stipulated that the sacrificed child be “best-loved.”

The reasons for the sacrifices varied and would often be a sort of bargain between the parents and the gods. They would make a vow to sacrifice their next child in exchange for some sort of favor. One account suggested that a bargain could be struck over a shipment of goods making it safely to port. There is also some archaeological evidence to suggest that if a child died of stillbirth the parents would then sacrifice their youngest child. Some historians debate the merits of all the accounts over child sacrifice as the Roman engaged in postwar propaganda to make their enemies appear to be cruel and uncivilized.

Centuries of Death: 5 Ancient Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice
What the city of Ur looked like at its height. antiquitynow.org


People thrived in ancient Mesopotamia from 5000 BCE onward with many different civilizations and states taking control of the region over the years. It has been the recent archaeological studies of the city of Ur, a thriving city in Mesopotamia in 2100 BCE, have led to new information on how human sacrifices were performed in the ancient city. While it has long been understood that the Mesopotamians practiced retainer sacrifice, it was the method that was not quite clear.

Retainer sacrifices refer to sacrifices made when a member of royalty or the social elite dies. Members of their staff including servants, soldiers, courtiers, musicians and grooms were all expected to journey into the afterlife with their master or mistress. In the past, it was believed that those people who were subjected to retainer sacrifice were simply poisoned and left to die in the royal cemetery. The belief was that these sacrifices were not only done to the honor of the deceased but also in order that the deceased might have people to serve them in the afterlife.

Archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania examined two skulls that were found in 4,500-year-old royal cemetery at Ur. The royal cemetery features 16 grand tombs and hundreds of bodies that show evidence of human sacrifice. The bodies were decorated in elaborate garb of the period with women adorned with glittering golden headdresses and soldiers laid with their weapons at their sides. The belief in poisoning came largely from the way the bodies were lain. With many of the skulls and bones crushed from the hundreds of years of earth piling upon the bodies there was no way to examine the remains.

However, they were able to perform CT scans on skull fragments from two of the bodies. One male and one female were examined and it was upon close inspection of the bones that the true means of sacrifice were discovered. A sharp pike was driven into the skulls of both victims. The death was far from painless and if not done correctly it would not be quick either. There was also evidence that the bodies were put through a primitive mummification process of being baked and treated with mercury in order to keep the bodies preserved during long funeral rituals.

Centuries of Death: 5 Ancient Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice
The Wicker Man Sacrifice. wikimedia.org

The Celts

There is a substantial amount of debate over whether or not the Celts practiced human sacrifice. Most of the historical sources about whether or not the Celts practiced human sacrifice came from Greek and Roman historians. These historians had every reason to misrepresent the practices of the Celts in order to turn people against them and portray them as a barbaric culture. One of the most intriguing accounts given about the Celts came from the Greek geographer and philosopher Strabo.

Strabo related that the Celts would strike a man who was picked for sacrifice in the back with a sword. The druids would then watch the death-spasms of the man and make predictions. The Druids were required to be present for any sacrifice as it was supposed to be a spiritual event. This type of account was collaborated with Roman and Irish histories.

Another more spectacular account given about the type of sacrifices performed by the Celts included a story about the Wicker Man. In the account, the Celts would create a huge figure that was made out of straw and wood. They would then throw any number of animals and men onto the structure and set it on fire. It was claimed that the men would be trapped within the structure and be unable to escape as they were burned alive. The Greek is account is the only one that accounts this use of the Wicker Man.

Historians did not put much credence to these accounts, at least not until the discovery of a male body in Lindow bog. The man was found to have been strangled, hit on the head and had his throat cut in “very quick order.” The man was then surrendered to the bog. The discovery of the body has been among the first evidence suggesting the accounts by the Greeks may have had some truth to them.

Centuries of Death: 5 Ancient Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice
Cornelia an unchaste vestal virgin left to starve to death in a sealed tomb ancient-origins.net


The Romans had strict beliefs against the practice of human sacrifice. It was seen as the practice of uncivilized people and that many of their rituals derived from past rituals that may have once involved human sacrifices. This included the ritual of the Argei in which straw figures were thrown into the Tiber river, it was suggested this may have once involved living people. The Romans would then use propaganda of human sacrifice to justify barbaric practices against their enemies. This included their propaganda against the Celts which led to them brutally killing captured Celts.

Despite their feelings against human sacrifice, the Romans were guilty of human sacrifice as well. However, the Romans did not view their human sacrifices as being the same because it was only part of very specific rituals. If a Vestal Virgin was found to be unchaste she would be buried alive. A special chamber was built to seal away any unchaste Vestal Virgin until she starved. The sacrifice was seen as a necessary means to please the Gods for the infraction of the Vestal Virgin.

The chosen method of sacrifice for the Vestal Virgin was in order to preserve the body even in punishment. It was believed that the chasteness of the Vestal Virgins was necessary in order to protect the city. But it was not just the Vestal Virgins that could be subjected to human sacrifice. Hermaphroditic children were also sacrificed by drowning. The sacrifice of children largely came from the belief that they were evil or damaged.

There were also some accounts of sacrifice of enemies or captured peoples. The Celts for example were reported to have died brutally with their hands and feet severed and then left to bleed to death. Captured enemy leaders would be kept until a Roman victory at which point they would be killed. The Romans did not see this as a form of human sacrifice nor were gladiatorial fights considered to be sacrifices. By refusing to acknowledge these as human sacrifices the Romans were able to keep distancing themselves from their “uncivilized” enemies.