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.

6 replies
  1. sleepy_crack
    sleepy_crack says:

    😮 The surgeon was an incredible book I LOVED the detail (in all of your books) and the ending was brilliant.

  2. J.W.
    J.W. says:

    I gotta say….THE SURGEON and THE APPRENTICE really kept me wondering. I couldn’t put them down…and read both of them in a week.
    Now I’m on BODYDOUBLE……..and I can only imagine what is gonna happen in that one.

    great job!

  3. Ali M
    Ali M says:

    I must say the surgeon was a marvellous book and the Apprentice the perfect sequel. My imagination left me squirming at the thoughts of what happened to his victims though, and I’m not squeamish. It amazes me to think of what historic cultures did to one another in the name of God, what worries me more is that things of this nature may still go on in some societies.

  4. maatlockk
    maatlockk says:

    human sacrifice just seems so wrong. unless its voluntary.

    does voluntary self sacrifice also count as suicide? o_O

  5. annalisa2
    annalisa2 says:

    There is actually not much evidence of human sacrifice in ancient Egypt, and what evidence there is seems to come largely from the predynastic/early dynastic periods. Here’s an online article about it: Ancient Egypt was a fairly stable civilization and although they sacrificed and mummified animals as messengers to the gods, apparently during much of Egyptian civilization human sacrifice was not viewed as necessary.

    However, if you want to see some displays of human sacrifice, read about Nubia, esp. during the Ballana period. There is an good video called “Ancient Voices: Riddle of Nubia’s Tombs” (floridly narrated by Mark Hamill) that draws parallels between the human sacrifice in ancient Nubia and modern behaviors like Jonestown. Also investigate Moche culture, in South America. The Mayan autosacrifice ritual is interesting as well; kings and queens had to sacrifice some of their own blood for the good of the people. Kings had to draw blood from their genitals and queens from their lips. Wonder how many we’d have running for political positions nowadays if such were a requirement of office.

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