Blog Post #5: “To Make Sacred”: Human Sacrifice in the Ancient World

By Megan J. Daniels

Figure 1: Scene from the 2006 film Apocalypto (https://filmtrope.wordpress.com/2013/04/04/apocalypto/).

Human sacrifice in the ancient world seems to have occurred for a number of different reasons. Victims may have been sacrificed in order to accompany elites to the afterlife, to dishonour defeated enemies, or to accomplish a societal need via a costly sacrifice to transcendent powers. The very word “sacrifice” comes from the Latin words sacer (“sacred”) and facere (“to do”)—literally “to make sacred”. Human sacrifice was practiced all over the world and in many different periods. Perhaps the most well-known example (at least the one made most famous in modern film) is the human sacrifice that took place with the Aztecs at the Great Pyramid at Tenochtitlan in the fifteenth century CE (Figure 1).

The practice of human sacrifice dates back much earlier. At the Mesopotamian city-state of Ur, a large cemetery was found that dates back to the third millennium BCE and was used for thousands of burials, including a few extravagant tombs for the elite (maybe royal) inhabitants (Figure 2).

These so-called “royal tombs” were stone-built chambers set at the bottom of deep pits, and included elaborate burial goods. These goods included objects made with precious materials imported from around the ancient world, such as the famous wooden lyres (Figure 3), inlaid with precious metals and stones, as well as the “ram-in-thicket” (Figure 4), many on display at the British Museum.

Figure 2: Royal Cemetery of Ur Excavations black and white photograph, Public Domain
Figure 3 (left): Detail, the “Queen’s Lyre from the Royal Cemetery at Ur (Early Dynastic period, ca. 2600 BCE) (British Museum 121198,a; ©Trustees of the British Museum).
Figure 4 (right): Statuette of a ram in a tree from the Royal Cemetery at Ur (Early Dynastic period, ca. 2600 BCE) (British Museum 122200; ©Trustees of the British Museum).

In addition to these wealthy burial objects, the “royal” tombs of Ur also included other buried people within the main chambers or adjacent pits. The largest pit contained the remains of 74 individuals (Figure 5). These deceased have been identified as the retainers of the deceased individual, sacrificed in order to accompany them to the afterlife. Woolley labelled these burials “death pits”, and assumed that these attendants were killed as part of “brutal” massacres, either within the “death pits” or elsewhere. When he could find no clear evidence of violence, Woolley later changed his theory, and suggested that the entire retinue took a “deadly or soporific drug” within these pits, and quietly lay down to die. This led Woolley to wonder about the meaning of human sacrifice at Ur:

If it be true that the members of the king’s court who went down with music into his grave did so more or less voluntarily, that it was a privilege rather than a doom pronounced on them, then it is a fact most important for our view of early Sumerian religion and culture.

(Woolley 1934, 4)

Figure 5: PG/1237: line drawing of death pit PG1237 with human remains and lyres, Public Domain, no known copyright restrictions.

As it turns out, recent reanalyses of two of the skulls of the deceased show that they were, in fact, killed with blunt force, and possibly subjected to intentional preservation with mercury (Baadsgaard et al. 2011). Whatever the specific cause of death, the notion of human sacrifice was fascinating for the broader public, who became engrossed by these mysterious death rituals after the publication of Amédée Forestier in The Illustrated London News, which included artistic reconstructions before and after the act of sacrifice (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Artist’s reconstruction of the funeral procession at Ur. Produced in 1938 by A. Forestier (Paris 1854 – 18 November 1930 London), Public Domain.

Ur’s “death pits” are not our only known case of human sacrifice in history. Egypt’s First Dynasty kings, who reigned around 3100-2900 BCE, were buried at the site of Abydos (Figure 7). The largest of these stone-built tombs, belonging to King Djer (“Tomb O” on the plan), contained enough subsidiary tombs to house somewhere between 317 and 338 individuals, while several other kings from this Dynasty also had subsidiary burials surrounding their tomb. Although not all Egyptologists agree, the large number of subsidiary burials suggests that some were likely sacrificed. Indeed the tomb of Hor Aha, which included three adjacent rows of 36 subsidiary graves containing males of around 20-25 years, seems to provide evidence of human sacrifice: examination of dental remains by Nancy Lovell suggests that some males died by strangulation (see Bard 2003 for discussion).

Anyang, the last capital of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) along the banks of the Huan River in Henan Province, China, also contains evidence of human sacrifice. Like Ur, Anyang’s cemetery contained a large number of small graves, but a few graves stand out because of their size – burial pits with ramps sloping down into the tombs. One of these tombs had 11 rows of headless corpses (59 in total) laid out along the ramp. Evidence of human sacrifice was also found elsewhere within the tomb (Scarre and Fagan 2016, 165–167).

Figure 7: Map overlay of necropolis at Umm el-Qa’ab near Abydos in Egypt. The tombs of kings are marked with letters. Subsidiary burials surround these tombs. From AbydosSatMap.jpg. CC0 1.0 Universal.
Figure 8: Archaeological remains of Anemospilia on Crete from the front vestibule. Credit: Olaf Tausch, CC BY 3.0.

Human sacrifice did not always involve royal servants (“retainer sacrifice”), however. At the ancient city at Tell Umm el-Marra in northern Syria, east of Aleppo, excavators uncovered a grave dating to the early second millennium BCE. This burial contained 13 individuals—men, women, and children—interred at the very bottom with no grave goods. Analysis of the well preserved skulls from these remains suggests death by blunt force trauma. Above these individuals were deposited 10 layers of sacrificed animals, specifically horses, donkeys, dogs, and vultures. Whether these were interred all at once or over a period of months or years is difficult to say. This pit has been interpreted as perhaps a “high-intensity” ritual performed to win the gods’ favour in a time of crisis. Another theory is that the dead may represent defeated enemies and their relatives, as vultures symbolized dishonour in the afterlife (Schwartz 2013). From this same time period comes further evidence of a ritual human sacrifice from a temple on the slopes of Mount Juktas in Crete, captured in dramatic fashion in a 1981 National Geographic Article, “The Drama of Death in a Minoan Temple” (Figure 8).

Figure 9: The sacrifice of Polyxena by the triumphant Greeks (Attic black-figure Tyrrhenian amphora, ca. 570–550 BCE) Tyrrhenian Group, Timiades Painter. Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC 2.5 Generic.

The later Greeks and Romans also saw rare examples of human sacrifice, though the practice was common in historical and mythical accounts. For example, the fifth-century plays of the Greek playwright Euripides tell of human sacrifices, including Iphigenia’s sacrifice at the hands of her father, Agamemnon, to appease Artemis and allow the Greeks to sail to Troy. Euripides also describes the sacrifice of one of Priam’s daughters, Polyxena, over the grave of Achilles, a scene captured in brutal fashion in Greek vase painting (Figure 9) (Bremmer 2007). The Roman historian Livy (22.55-57) tells us that after the Roman defeat at Cannae in 216 BCE, two Gauls and two Greeks were buried alive under the Forum Boarium. According to Pliny the Elder (Natural History 30.3.12), Rome abolished human sacrifice in 97 BCE.

In most cases, the practice of human sacrifice appears to be short-lived: the rituals in Ur’s Royal Cemetery were confined to a period of about a century and a half, while retainer sacrifice was already declining by the end of Egypt’s First Dynasty. So why did these rituals occur at scattered times and places throughout history? Some have suggested that human sacrifice helped legitimize and solidify political power and social hierarchies in smaller-scale societies (Watts et al. 2016; Hassett and Sağlamtimu 2018). Yet once societies reach a certain level of size and complexity, human sacrifice may be harder to maintain as a form of legitimization and enforcement, which might help explain its short-lived appearances (you can read more about this theory here). Some see sacrifices like those at Ur as state-sponsored “theatres of cruelty”, used by a weak and vulnerable elite to terrorize the citizenry (Dickson 2006).

Whatever the original purpose, our modern accounts tend to sensationalize these practices as horrific rituals performed by civilizations shrouded in mystique (check out my discussion of the discussion of the Phoenicians including the fascination with infant sacrifice here). Societies who practice human sacrifice have been forced onto a stage to shock and intrigue us (Figure 10). Yet it is our job to try to understand these cultures and practices in their own contexts (though this doesn’t mean that we have to condone sacrificing other humans). In many cases, these were not acts of terror, but part of a very complex set of beliefs about the afterlife and one’s responsibility on this earth. Japanese vassals, for instance, for centuries practiced junshi (“following the lord in death”), committing voluntary suicide upon the death of one’s superior, including the emperor.** In many cases, sacrificed humans were indeed made sacred and honoured in death. Perhaps the intentional mercury preservation of the corpses at Ur hints at the need to preserve those honoured through their ultimate sacrifices.

Although human sacrifice is often sensationalized, it was only one form of violence in the ancient world. It is important to remember that many other acts that we don’t necessarily call “human sacrifice” served similar functions. For example, the Roman gladiatorial games involved brutal killing, and were used to reinforce societal power structures. Just like the gladiatorial games, violence has been tied to ritual and entertainment throughout human history, as it continues to be today. It makes you wonder what how historians five thousand years from now might interpret violence in our sports or media – just some Halloween candy for thought as you sit down to watch your annual horror movie. . . Stay tuned for more Halloween-related content in the coming weeks!!

Figure 10: 1914 Poster of the movie Cabiria, directed by Giovannia Pastrone, Public Domain.

** I thank my student for alerting me to this practice; in fact, I thank all of my students for our rich conversations on this difficult but fascinating subject.

Works Cited:

Baadsgaard, A. et al. 2011. “Human sacrifice and intentional corpse preservation in the Royal Cemetery of Ur.” Antiquity 85:27-42.

Bard, K. A. 2003. “The Emergence of the Egyptian State (c.3200-2686 BC).” In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by I. Shaw, 57-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bremmer, J. 2007. “ Myth and Ritual in Greek Human Sacrifice: Lykaon, Polyxena and the Case of the Rhodian Criminal.” In The Strange World of Human Sacrifice, edited by J. Bremmer, 55-79. Lueven: Peeters.

Dickson, D. B. 2006. “Public Transcripts Expressed in Theatres of Cruelty: the Royal Graves at Ur in Mesopotamia.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 16.2: 123-144.

Hassett, B. and H. Sağlamtimu. 2018. “Radical ‘royals’? Burial practices at Başur Höyük and the emergence of early states in Mesopotamia.” Antiquity 92: 640-654.

Scarre, C. and B. Fagan. 2016. Ancient Civilizations. London: Routledge.

Schwartz, G. M. 2013. “Memory and its Demolition: Ancestors, Animals and Sacrifice at Umm el-Marra, Syria.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 23.3: 495-522.

van Dijk, J. 2007. “Retainer Sacrifice in Egypt and Nubia.” In The Strange World of Human Sacrifice, edited by J. N. Bremmer. Studies in the History and Anthropology of Religion 1, 135-155. Leuven: Peeters.

Watts, J. et al. 2016. “Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies.” Nature 532: 228-231.

Woolley, L. 1934. Ur Excavations – The Royal Cemetery (2 vols). Publication of the Joint Expedition of the British Museum and the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. London: Oxford University Press.

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