As a suspense writer, I must explore the dark side of human nature, a journey that is sometimes so disturbing it gives me nightmares. One of the most frightening journeys of all was into the mind of a character known as “The Surgeon”, a man who is fascinated by the history of human sacrifice. Because he is a scholar of this subject, I too, had to know about it. And what I learned shocked me.
Human sacrifice has been practiced on every inhabited continent, by a wide variety of cultures. Distinct from run-of-the-mill homicide, it is a ritual killing, often performed in a sacred place, for spiritual or religious reasons. Its practice is closely tied to a belief in life beyond death. The gruesome methods of killing, and the sheer numbers of hapless victims, remind us that the history of man is a violent one.
Most of us are familiar with the ancient Egyptian sacrifice of royal wives and retainers to accompany the dead Pharaohs into the afterlife. But Egypt was not alone in sacrificing the living to join a dead king or leader. Grave sites around the world bear evidence of this practice. In Mesopotamia, ministers, soldiers, servants, and 64 gaily dressed ladies of a dead king’s court drank a narcotic potion, lay down in his tomb, and were buried alive. In China, Germany, France, and Scandinavia, other royal grave sites with multiple skeletons, many showing evidence of violent ends, tell the same chilling tales of the living slaughtered to accompany the dead. One variation of this ritual was the Hindu practice of suttee, in which widows were burned alive on their dead husbands’ funeral pyres. While it is supposed to be voluntary on the widows’ part, too often, the terrified woman was tied down, and her relatives stood on the sidelines, prepared to push her back into the flames should she escape. Perhaps most disturbing of all, the one usually chosen to light the fire was her first-born son. (Even today, in modern India, there are sporadic reports of widow-burnings.)
Other examples of human sacrifice abound in ancient history. In Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, children or infants were sometimes buried in the foundations of new buildings, in hopes their souls would offer protection. In Mexico, Aztec priests slaughtered thousands of war prisoners, cutting out their still-beating hearts as offerings to the gods. In Norway, captives were bound to the rollers over which ships slid into the sea, reddening the keel with a blessing of blood. Druids burned captives alive in large wicker men. In Greece, a colony of outcasts was kept fed and housed for only one purpose: to be used as human offerings whenever the need arose.
While victims of such rituals were often prisoners of war, slaves, or outcasts, in some cases, it was the very person most cherished who was chosen to be sacrificed. According to Greek myth, such a sacrifice was made by King Agammemnon on the eve of his fleet’s sailing against Troy. In hopes of favorable winds, he ordered his virgin daughter Iphigenia to be stretched across the altar. There, her throat was cut, her life sacrificed to Artemis.
Today, such an act strikes us as incomprehensible. We look back with disbelief at the long history of people being ritually burnt, strangled, stabbed, or buried alive, and cannot understand how such atrocities could have happened. But ancient man inhabited what Carl Sagan once called the “demon-haunted world,” a fearsome universe ruled by occult powers. In such a world, where every plague and famine, every defeat in battle, was due to ill forces from the supernatural, man turned to ritual to protect himself.
And the most powerful ritual of all was the spilling of human blood.