The Role Of Human Sacrifice In The Ancient World & Medieval World Essay

Introduction

It is known that in almost all nations, at different periods of history, the practice of offering human sacrifice has been identified by historians and anthropologists. There is much evidence that human sacrifice is associated with cannibalism and violence, although the major goal of this practice was to carry out a religious ritual. According to Jan N. Bremmer (2007), “this was the case among the ancient Celts, the ancient Chinese and the ancient Greeks”(p.2). Moreover, other nations of the Ancient World and Medieval World practiced human sacrifice, including the populations of Mexico, Germany, Tibet, India and others. In general, human sacrifice practiced by agrarian societies and by societies of large and strong empires (Bremmer, 2007). The term human sacrifice can be defined as some action, in which someone sacrifices something to somebody. In the Ancient World and Medieval World, human sacrifice was associated with religious actions, myths, legends, and event with political power. The actual time frames considered for “Ancient” and “Medieval” coincide with the established time frames for the Ancient history (c. 3500 BC-800 BC) and Medieval history (c. 800 BC – 1450 AD). The victims of human sacrifice were the prisoners of war, criminals, foreigners, slaves or strangers to the community members. As a rule, human sacrifice practices occurred in the times of wars or crises. According to Jan N. Bremmer (2007), “human sacrifice was often resorted to when the life of the community was in great danger: extreme situations clearly required extreme measures” (p. 6). The history of human sacrifice tells much about the effects of this practice of human society. Human sacrifice was a widespread practice in the Ancient World and Medieval World.

In this paper, the research question will be “What was the role of human sacrifice in the Ancient World and Medieval World?” It is necessary to place emphasis on the significance of the meaning of human sacrifice. The practice of human sacrifice became a significant feature of human society of the Ancient World and the Medieval World. Public displays of practicing human sacrifice rituals served as an effective method of state terror that influenced political and economic conditions.  Moreover, the act of sacrifice was assessed as a significant representation of religion and its power (Bremmer, 2007). Thesis statement: Human sacrifice played an important role in the Ancient World and Medieval World because this practice had a strong impact on the spread of religion, while the stories about human sacrifice influenced human behavior, actions, decisions and beliefs, making human sacrifice a cultural marker.

The Role of Human Sacrifice in the Ancient World and Medieval World

Some facts from the history of human sacrifice

The connection of human sacrifice with more developed cultures points out to the fact that the history of human sacrifice is part of the history of the development of human society. According to anthropologists and philosophers, “human sacrifice stamps relatively advanced and especially decadent people”(Bremmer, 2007, p. 3). The history of human sacrifice is long. People created legends and myths of human sacrifice. They performed killings of humans as religious rituals based on the ancient testimony of this practice. Researchers have found much important information on human sacrifice history, using historical materials and literature. Many reports on religious practices are reliable because they are supported by historical evidence, archeological remains and other sources (Bremmer, 2007). For example, in the Ancient World, the practice of human sacrifice was characterized as bloody and violent act. Many nations offered sacrifices to worship gods. In the Medieval World, human sacrifice continued its tragic practicing, but eventually, it was changed to animal sacrifice.

The nature of human sacrifice among Pagans and Christians. The nature of human sacrifice among Pagans and Christians varied because paganism differed from Christianity. According to researchers, paganism required “regular public divination and blood-sacrifice (sometimes including human sacrifice” (Bartlett, 2010, p. 60). However, Christianity rejected these forms of sacrifice. There is much evidence on the differences between the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice and that of the bloody sacrifice of Pagans. Christians used the practice of human sacrifice to produce a new form of “cultural map”, in which cosmic realities, such as gods and goddesses, influenced the development of human societies (Rives, 1995, p. 85). Pagans used human sacrifice practices in order to determine the nature of their gods, who were represented as demons, “inhuman, man-hating demons…, who enjoy human slaughter” (Rives, 1995, p. 81).

The practice of human sacrifice among the ancient Germans and other ancient nations. The practice of human sacrifice among the ancient Germans and other ancient nations provides an opportunity to assess the role of this practice in maintaining certain beliefs. From historical data it appears that the practice of human sacrifice cannot be used to characterize ancient nations as savage races. Ancient legends were used to highlight the power of gods (Bartlett, 2010). The practice of human sacrifice among the tribes of the ancient Germans was the custom because people were dependent on the brutal laws, according to which killings were made in honor of gods. For example, the tribes of the ancient Germans sacrificed human beings to the goddess Nerthus, known as the Mother of Earth (Bartlett, 2010).

Overview of the meaning and effects of human sacrifice

The meaning and effects of human sacrifice have been widely discussed in academic literature. Humans were offered in sacrifice by all nations of the Ancient World. According to researchers, “like any cultural sign, the meaning of human sacrifice was determined by the contexts in which it was used” (Rives, 1995, p. 85). The blood that was an essential feature of human sacrifice symbolized redemption of human beings from their sins. In this context, the meaning of human sacrifice related to its effects on society. Human sacrifice was interpreted as a ritual act of spiritual union or communion. The stories about human sacrifice had a strong impact on human behavior, actions, decisions and beliefs (Bremmer, 2007). There were many reasons of offering human sacrifices, including sin offerings, guilt offerings, thank offerings and peace offerings. People believed in the power of gods and offered human sacrifice to improve their lives or get rid of problems.

Human sacrifice as a religious ritual

One of the most important roles of human sacrifice is the role of this practice as a religious ritual. In many religions, human sacrifice reflected the significance of human suffering as a sacrificial act of love and obedience (Bartlett, 2010).

Human sacrifice as a religious ritual in Tibet. In Tibet, human sacrifice was an accepted practice that involved the use of different ritual objects, such as human skulls and bones (Grunfeld, 2006). Later, this practice evolved into animal sacrifice and the self-infliction of wounds for religious purposes, such as burning fingers and breaking stones of human body. Tibetan Buddhism promoted the practices of human sacrifice in the worship of gods and goddesses. In this manner, ancient and medieval people followed the established rituals and traditions, reflecting their attitude toward their religion. However, today this practice has got symbolic form of sacramentalism, which involves sacramental drinking of blood (Grunfeld, 2006).

Human sacrifice as a religious ritual in India and Mexico. In India and Mexico, the practice of burying live children was associated with human sacrifice ritual. According to the archeological evidence, “the distribution of human bones and the indications of violence left on them” point out to the fact that cannibalism and human sacrifice were “long prevalent” in ancient populations of Mexico (Ma et al., 2007, p. 237). In India and Mexico, human sacrifice was presented as an important religious act, which involved special rituals. According to researchers, in Mexico, human sacrifice was associated with cannibalism. There is much archeological evidence on bone modification. This fact means human bones were used by the populations of Mexico in their religious purposes (Ma et al., 2007).  In India, human sacrifice was part of the Veda teachings, although it was not authorized by the religion. As a rule, the victims of sacrifice were liberated unhurt after the ceremony (Bremmer, 2007).

Human sacrifice in Genesis 22. In Genesis 22, human sacrifice is described as a religious ritual. God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (Genesis 22:2, New International Version (NIV)). The story of Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s instruction and sacrifice a ram instead of his son can be regarded as the end to human sacrifice. As a result, many cultures changed their rituals, which involved human sacrifice.

How did the stories influence human behavior, actions, decisions and beliefs?

The stories of human sacrifice influenced human behavior, actions, decisions and beliefs in different ways. As a rule, people were scared of the stories that portrayed human deaths. For example, in Greece and Egypt, the stories of human sacrifice taught the lesson that people should be obedient to religion and scared of God. As a result, people directed their actions and decisions toward the established canons (Bartlett, 2010).

In addition, there were some psychological effects on human beings that prevented human sacrifice from disappearing. For example, in African tribes, the effects of voodoo that involved the practice of human sacrifice and cannibalism were strong enough to control local tribes. People ate sacrificial victims because they wanted to sustain the gods. According to researchers, “there may have been additional political and tributary motivations for human sacrifice, but cosmology, not hunger remains the primary explanation for the many cultures that practiced it”(Miller, 2010, p. 39). If the victims in India survived to be released unhurt, they were still the victims of human sacrifice because of psychological effect of this practice on human minds. The meaning of cannibalism can be explained by its effects on the beliefs of people. The practice of ritual cannibalism was associated with the absorption of the soul of the victim by the cannibalizer in order to strengthen the latter.

Conclusion

            Thus, it is necessary to conclude that human sacrifice had a strong impact on the growing importance of religion in the Ancient World and Medieval World. In addition, the stories about human sacrifice influenced human behavior, actions, decisions and beliefs, making people obedient and scared of gods. Finally, human sacrifice functioned as a cultural sign or a cultural marker. Although human sacrifice has become part of the history of civilization, it could not disappear because of its psychological effects on human beings. The myths and rituals about human sacrifice had an enormous impact on the societies of the Ancient World and Medieval World, especially on the spread of religious ideas and beliefs.

 

References

Bartlett, R. (2010). “From Paganism to Christianity in Medieval Europe,” in Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy: Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus’ c.900–1200, ed. by Nora Berend. Cambridge University Press.

Bremmer, J. N. (2007). “Human Sacrifice: A Brief Introduction,” in The Strange World of Human Sacrifice, ed. by Jan N. Bremmer. Peeters Publishers.

Genesis 22. New International Version (NIV). Retrieved from:https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis%2022

Grunfeld, A. T. (2006).The Making of Modern Tibet. M.E. Sharpe

Ma, C., Aguade, P. & Lory J. M. (2007). “Evidence for Human Sacrifice, Bone Modification and Cannibalism in Ancient Mexico,” in Troubled Times: Violence and Warfare in the Past, ed. by Debra L. Martin and David W. Frayer. Psychology Press.

Miller, S. W. (2010). An Environmental History of Latin America. Cambridge University Press.

Rives, J. (1995). “Human Sacrifice among Pagans and Christians,” Journal of Roman Studies, 85(11): 65-85. Retrieved from:http://www.academicroom.com/article/human-sacrifice-among-pagans-and-christians

 

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[Accessed: June 1, 2020]

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