Happy Dia de los Muertos!
Before I get started, I do want to clarify that DdlM has NOTHING to do with human sacrifice. It’s a day to celebrate your ancestors and other people who have passed on.There is nothing violent about it. And once again I will state for any new to the realm that MODERN PAGANS DON’T PERFORM HUMAN SACRIFICE. We all clear on that? Good. On to the ghoulish entertainment for Halloween!
Two weeks ago I created a more inclusive definition for human sacrifice, so if you haven’t read that please take a moment to do so (and the comments! There was some really cool discussion on the meaning of the word sacrifice; thanks to all who have commented!) I also provided a couple examples of a more “practical” human sacrifice. These deaths have nothing to do with religion – like hanging convicted criminals or soldiers dying in battle – but were made into human sacrifices by dedicating the deaths to a god. I’m going to leave those out for today and focus on tales of people who died solely because of a violently misguided religious belief.*
Those with queasy stomachs may want to look away now. For those more intrepid, I’ve designed a system of skulls to rate the ick factor from 1-3. Read the high skull count at your own risk!
The Classics – Death by (Ancient) Pagan Sacrifice
Still-Beating Hearts ☠☠☠
Picture this: Cheers roar as the honored one is led over a carpet of flowers, up the steps of the temple, and onto the stage above. Music swells as the crowd pierces their own flesh with needles, absolving their sins as the blood flows. On the stage, the honored one blesses them before lying down on the carving of a jaguar. His stomach is slashed with a flint knife. A priest reaches in past the ribs and removes his still beating heart. The body is tossed down the stairs to a warrior waiting below who has earned the right to cannibalize the flesh. First, though, the warrior removes the head to display it on a rack with the dozens of others who have been so honored today.
Welcome to world of the Aztecs.
According to Aztec mythology, the gods sacrificed themselves so that mankind could survive, and so they called human sacrifice “debt-payment.” And boy did they settle their accounts. Their style of warfare was designed not to kill their opponents, but to capture them for sacrificing. They set children on fire (and sometimes pulled them out of the fire before they died so they could cut their hearts out), drowned women, flayed corpses (and wore the skin around to promote fertility.. uh, yeah, you read that right…), and had a big festival with gladiator fights in which one guy was chained to a rock with a weapon made of feathers fighting four armed warriors.
Apparently, horrific as this sounds to us, the Aztecs viewed being sacrificed as an honor. When the Spanish conquistadors tried to free future victims, they were shocked to find that many of the men got angry and went right back to the temple to get sacrificed. The Aztecs believed the eternal fate of a sacrificial victim was:
…the sun called them inward so they can live with him there in the sky to rejoice and sing in his presence… they never know sadness nor melancholy nor disgust, for they live in the house of the sun where there are riches and delights.
- Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España Bk 6, ch. 21 [translation is my own]
Sounds nice, but I think I’ll keep my heart all the same.
The Well of the Witch Water ☠
On my first trip to the Yucatan I was told by a native Mayan that Chichen Itza, the name of the great Mayan city, translates to “The Mouth of the Well of the Witch Water.” The city was built within easy walking distance of a gorgeous cenote, a natural sinkhole, that is 200 feet wide and nearly a 90 foot drop from the cliff to the murky water below. When the Mayans needed rain, the village went to the cenote and prayed to Chaac, the god of thunder and rain. Men and children came bedecked with heavy jewelery as gifts to the god. At some point in the ceremony, the jewels – and the people wearing them – were tossed over the cliffs to fall ten stories into the water below. The jewelry weighed sacrificial victims down, ensuring they would sink to the bottom and drown.
The Original Thugs ☠
Kali Ma protects us! We are her children! We pledge our devotion to her with an offering of flesh… and blood!
-Indiana Jones after drinking the Kool-Aid in Temple of Doom
The English word thug comes from “Thuggee,” an Indian cult of serial killers that would infiltrate caravans and rob and garrote the party in the name of the goddess Kali. It was a pretty sophisticated operation. A party of Thugs would join the caravan one at a time (sometimes with children they were apprenticing). Then when they’d earned the trust of the other travelers (and got to a location where they could hide the bodies), the cultists would pair up and use their turbans or belts to strangle people. They did this for the material wealth, but they also believed that if regular sacrifices weren’t made to Kali, she would come down and destroy humanity in her wrath. The British eradicated the Thuggee during their occupation.
A completely inaccurate version of a Thuggee cult was used as the villains in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Convert or Die (Horribly)
The most infamous type of human sacrifice performed by the Christian church was Auto-da-fé – literally “Act of Faith.” This is a catchall phrase for the public torture and execution of heretics done at the behest of the Inquisition; the most famous, of course, is burning at the stake. According to The Talmud, the original “burn the witch” of the Bible was done by pouring melted lead down a person’s throat. Icky, but pretty instant death. By the medieval era, however, this was not enough of a penance.
Since a mass burning allowed people to die by carbon monoxide poison, the Inquisition would set people on fire individually. (Hence the familiar image of one person per stake as opposed to a much simpler mass immolation.) Done “right” it can take a couple of hours to die as the fire slowly consumes the victim’s feet, calves, hands, arms, hips, etc. Some stories tell of victims surviving up until their skull caught fire.
Apostasy in Modern Islam ☠
According to recent Pew Forum polls (it’s about 2/3rd down the page. Here’s a direct link to the chart), a surprising number of Muslims in the Middle East still favor the death penalty for the “crime” of apostasy. “Apostate,” for those unfamiliar, is a pejorative term for somebody who left a faith. Though the Qu’ran has no verse specifying death for apostates (although, like any holy text you can find passages to interpret that way), it is still allowed by law in several theocratic Muslim countries. A couple years ago in Egypt there was a big case involving Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, a convert from Islam to Christianity, for whom the death penalty was sought by prosecuting lawyers. (They were prosecuting him for converting.) According to El-Gohary:
Our rights in Egypt, as Christians or converts, are less than the rights of animals. We are deprived of social and civil rights, deprived of our inheritance and left to the fundamentalists to be killed. Nobody bothers to investigate or care about us.
He claims to be regularly attacked on the street and that he and his daughter receive regular death threats via text messaging and phone calls. Apparently in Egypt your ID card (like our driver’s licenses) has your religion written on it, and after 36 years of being a Christian, El-Gohary asked to have his license changed from Muslim to Christian so that when his daughter came of age, she could be Christian without being considered an apostate. While (fortunately) El-Gohary’s story is not a human sacrifice, it shows that the “convert-or-die” version of human sacrifice is (unfortunately) not as dead as we’d like to think.
Olaf Tryggvason (King Olaf I of Norway) and Raud the Strong ☠☠
In the 10th Century, Olaf made his fame by converting Norway to Christianity… and became infamous for inventing new and tortuous ways to kill people who refused. The story of Raud the Strong is, in my opinion, the creepiest. Raud was a landowner and possibly a priest who followed the Old Ways long after King Olaf had declared it illegal. He was also known for his longship, the prow of which was decorated with an exquisite carving of a serpent. And apparently it was bigger than Olaf’s longship. (You know what they say about men and the size of their, ahem, longships). Olaf paid a visit to Raud in the middle of the night, kidnapped him out of his bed, and told him that if he got baptized, they’d be good buddies and Olaf would let him keep his ship. Raud refused with some choice words. Olaf, inspired by the ship’s carving, stuck a horn between Raud’s teeth and chased a snake down it with a hot poker. The snake was forced into Raud’s stomach where it ate its way out Raud’s side and he died.
Legendary (but Unproven) Sacrifices
The Wicker Man ☠☠
This legend was started by Julius Caesar in his De Bello Gallico (The Gallic War). He claimed (though he never saw it done) that druid priests would build a giant man of, well, wicker, put criminals inside of it (or innocent people if they didn’t have enough criminals to fill it) and set the whole thing on fire, burning alive everyone trapped within. No other sources attest this practice, but it is certainly ingrained in popular imagination. There’s even a cult classic horror film from 1973 about a modern cult that gives it a go (and yes, there was a remake with Nic Cage, but from everything I’ve heard it’s spectacularly awful). **
Dedication of the Aztec Temple ☠☠
I know I already talked about the Aztecs, but they are the gold standard in human sacrifice and deserve another mention. At the reconsecration of their main temple at Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs claimed they sacrificed 80,400 people over an extended weekend (four days). That’s 20,100 people a day, or 14 people every minute with no breaks (not even for sleep). That’s a faster kill rate than Auschwitz at its worst, and the Aztecs didn’t have gas chambers. Apparently four tables were set up at the top of the pyramid. People were executed (via heart removal) and immediately jettisoned down the side of the temple and replaced by the next victim. Though most historians think the Aztecs were exaggerating (the Aztecs kept meticulous records and didn’t tend to lie about these things, but that number doesn’t seem possible), there is no doubt that a mass sacrifice, likely of thousands, did occur at the dedication.
Blood Eagle☠☠☠☠ (Yes, on a scale of 1-3, this is a 4)
Of course I saved a viking legend for last. The Blood Eagle is the ultimate revenge kill in viking mythology, and it possibly dedicates the kill to Odin. (Or it just hurts a lot. Whether or not this ever actually happened is up for debate, as is whether it was a type of sacrifice or just really freaking violent.) In a Blood Eagle the victim is forced onto their stomach. Their ribs are broken along the spine and snapped outward to make “wings”. The lungs are then pulled through the cavity. The victim will pass out from blood loss and then die of asphyxiation as the diaphragm can no longer pump oxygen into the lungs. (I’m still trying to figure out how to work this into a book without passing out at the keyboard as I try to describe it in sensory detail.) Ah, Vikings. I love you. Even when you scare me.
And there you go! Human sacrifice around the world. Gory enough for you? And I didn’t even mention self-immolation, Sati, Bachanals, or a host of other death-by-faith stories! Ah well. I’ll have something to talk about next year.
I hope everyone had a marvelous Halloween!
* Disclaimer: I am not an expert on the subject of human sacrifice. I have tried hard to present accurate information here, and if there are any mistakes I apologize (and would love a referenced correction!). However, my purpose here is more edutainment than scholarship (hence the lack of source links), so take the stories with a grain of salt!
** This movie is, for reasons I cannot fathom, wildly popular in the Pagan community. I hate it. It paints us in a horrible light. But up until the end it is interesting, and they clearly did a lot of research on Celtic Pagan culture. At least until the part where Reconstructionist Pagans are depicted as sociopathically crazy. *eye roll* Seriously, my Pagan peeps, why do Pagans like this movie??