(*This should go without saying, but for any newcomers who found this page via the Google-y Oracle and have even the slightest doubt, MODERN PAGANS DON’T DO HUMAN SACRIFICE. We think it’s a BAD thing. Are we all clear on that? Good. Let’s proceed.*)

Terror Tales October 1934

Last March I promised commentor TK I’d do a post (or two) on sacrifice – the bloody kind – for Halloween. Well, TK, I haven’t forgotten. It starts today: a modern Pagan’s take on religion’s sordid past of death and dismemberment in the name of a god. This post’s not so gruesome (yet!), but I promise to get to the juicy stuff (pun intended) in Part 2.

To start off, however, we need a clear definition of what human sacrifice means.

Human sacrifice is the [lowercase] pagan practice of ritually killing people in a superstitious desire to appease their barbaric and bloodthirsty gods.

Hmm… Something doesn’t sit well with me about this definition, although it sure sounds like the one I’ve heard most of my life. What could be wrong with it??

Oh wait. It defines human sacrifice as something only Pagans do. *sigh* Royal readers, the sordid truth is that that ain’t the case. So let’s get rid of that definition.

Wikipedia (purveyor of all knowledge) offers a different definition:

Human sacrifice is the act of killing one or more human beings as part of a religious ritual (ritual killing).

Hmm… I like this one better; there’s no specific mention of Pagans as the human sacrificers. However, I still disagree – even though this has been provided for us by the mighty wikipedia. I argue that this definition still unfairly makes human sacrifice a “Pagan” thing to the exclusion of other religions – it just does it more subtly. Bear with me for a moment here; it’s funny how a couple words make a big difference in perception. Compare these examples with the definition above:

1) According to ancient sources like Tacitus’s Germania  (a first century Roman account of the Germanic tribes) and Caesar’s Gallic War (Julius Caesar’s first hand account of his war to defeat the Gauls), in Germanic and Celtic culture priests were often in charge of doling out punishment to convicted criminals. When a crime called for capital punishment, they made a religious ritual out of the execution by offering the condemned to the gods before hanging them (or whatever form of execution the crime called for; hanging was one of the more common).

This, according to the Wikipedia definition, counts as human sacrifice. It is a religious ritual in which people are dedicated to a god or gods and then killed. The fact that they were legally condemned criminals who were going to die anyway doesn’t change that it fulfills the definition.

2) There is currently an ongoing investigation in Peru regarding fourteen shamans who have been murdered (“shot, stabbed, or hacked with machetes”) over the past year and a half. Evidence has led the investigation towards two men who belong to a church that believes “the shamans are people possessed by demons, so they have to be killed.”

Should the men be convicted, this would not, according to the wikipedia definition, count as human sacrifice because while the murders were religiously motivated, the shamans were not killed as part of a religious ritual.

For another example of this kind of religiously motivated killing, see GG’s article on the murdering of witches in sub-Saharan Africa. This sickening practice is still happening around the globe.

3) Before battle, Vikings were known to ritually throw a spear over the battlefield, hallowing the ground and dedicating all who died on the field to Odin (and possibly helping them attain a place in Valhalla).

This could be argued as human sacrifice by the wikipedia definition because there was a formal ritual that made the fight a sacred event and dedicated the soon-to-be-dead to a god.

4) On 9/11 Islamists crashed four planes, killing nearly 3,000 people because of a man’s fatwa and the belief that Islam should take over the world. Maybe the terrorists considered flying the planes to be a ritual, but I haven’t read anything that leads me to believe that.

Nearly 3,000 people died in the name of a religion, and yet this is not human sacrifice.

Now, I’m not denying there are examples of gory, macabre, still-beating-heart-ripped-out human sacrifice done in the past by “pagans” (I will get to those next time!). I am saying, however, that the way we define words can help create and sustain prejudice. I have provided examples in which capital punishment and war are considered human sacrifice, but hacking a man to death with a machete or using technology to murder thousands, both in the name of religion, are not. Not that war and capital punishment are happy things (and the crimes for which most ancient societies issued capital punishment are ludicrous by modern standards), but I hope you will agree with me that the accepted definition of “human sacrifice” needs some adjustment.

I propose a better definition:

Human sacrifice is the act of killing one or more human beings in honor of, in propitiation to, or under the (assumed) instruction of a divine power.

I don’t believe formalized ritual is what makes the act a human sacrifice. If a person died because somebody thought a god wanted it to happen, what else would you call that? (Besides tragically misguided.) If a religious organization condoned or aided an adherent in committing murder, does it make a significant difference whether or not the killers cast a circle or shook a rattle? Readers, what say you to this more encompassing definition?

In two weeks,* on El Dia de Los Muertos, I will use my definition as we proceed to the blood and guts.

*Next week is the DC40 campaign’s Texas day, and I’ll be using the opportunity to write about religious freedom (at least of the kind that doesn’t involve human sacrifice). I hope all of you will stop by! I’d love to see comments from as many people as we can get celebrating diversity and freedom!

+ Featured Image: Abraham’s Sacrifice (based on the Biblical story of Abraham (almost) sacrificing his son Isaac to Jehovah)

++ I apologize for the magazine cover. I couldn’t help myself.