Also See The Other Human Sacrifices Page
When the prehistoric site at Fiskerton in Lindisfarne was first excavated in 1981, archaeologists found part of a human skull lying among the swords, spears, tools and other items that had been placed along the causeway. It represented the back of a man's head and was badly damaged.
Fissured Fred, as the skeleton became known by the excavators, had been hit by a sword, which had taken out a chip of his skull. Other than a couple of bones, the rest of Fissured Fred was never found, so there is no further evidence of how he met his death. The sword blow by itself would not have killed him, but it was inflicted around the time of his death 2,500 years ago.
Was Fissured Fred a human sacrifice? We shall probably never know for certain but there is circumstantial evidence to suggest he was. His remains were mixed up with weapons and equipment, which had themselves been sacrificed and thrown into the water.
The evidence for human sacrifice in this period of the Iron Age is most prolific in Denmark, Germany and Holland, where many bodies have been found completely preserved in peat bogs. Some were hanged or strangled, the noose still around their neck, and others were bludgeoned on the head or had their throat slit.
They too, like Fissured Fred, were found in special places, where people had made offerings to an afterworld. It seems clear that these were not murders, but deliberate, socially sanctioned, killings.
Writing much later, in the first century AD, the Roman historian Tacitus tells us that these Germanic peoples executed their social outcasts - cowards, shirkers and those of disrepute - by pressing them down into bogs. So were these bog victims in fact executions and not sacrifices? If such a distinction could be drawn between the two, it does seem most likely that they were sacrifices, because bogs were places where other, inanimate offerings were made.
Julius Caesar and other Romans were appalled by the custom of human sacrifice among the Celts. 'They used to strike a human being, devoted to death, in the back with a sword, and then divine from his death struggle,' wrote Strabo. According to Diodorus Siculus, the Gauls 'kill a man by a knife-stab in the region above the midriff, and after his fall they foretell the future by the convulsions of his limbs and the pouring of his blood'.
Yet the Romans had double standards; although human sacrifice had ended in Rome a century earlier, gladiatorial games and feeding people to lions were regular sport, whilst many thousands of conquered Celts in Gaul were victims of Roman atrocities, such as cutting off their hands and feet and leaving them to die slowly. By accusing the Celts of practicing human sacrifice, the Romans thought they had an excuse for their own unlicensed cruelty.
The Romans reserved their comments about sacrifice to the Celts and Germans, with no reference to such practices in the British Isles. Bog bodies have been found in Britain, however, which indicates that human lives were sacrificed to the gods in these islands too.
Three bog bodies (or parts of them), for example, were found in Lindow Moss in Cheshire, dating from the beginning of the Roman period. The best preserved of the three was a man who had been hit on the head with sufficient force to detach chips of his skull into his brain, and to crack a molar. His throat had been slit and there was also a leather garrotte, tightened with a slip-knot, around his neck. He was almost naked except for a fox-fur armband and, amongst his stomach contents of burnt bread was pollen of mistletoe, a plant sacred to the Celts and Britons.
One member of the investigating team thought that this was an ancient murder rather than a ritual killing, but this seems unlikely in the light of the body's context.
Of the two other bodies, one was very unusual in having a sixth finger. A surprising proportion of bog bodies from northern Europe have physical defects - such as spinal abnormalities or foreshortened limbs - and these people may have been selected for sacrifice because they had been 'touched by the gods'.
Ashanti Tribe Sacrifice
Human sacrifice requires the exchange of a life - willingly or not - in return for supernatural assistance or for a greater cause. Exactly where we draw the line between altruism and coercion is not always clear, as a surviving account of a Viking's funeral in Russia in AD 921-2 makes plain:
'The dead man's slave girls were asked who wished to die with him; one volunteered to be burned in his ship with him... When she went to her death the men began to strike with the sticks on the shields so that her cries could not be heard and the other slave-girls would not be frightened and seek to escape death with their masters... a dagger was plunged between her ribs repeatedly, and the men strangled her with the cord until she was dead... The flames grew and engulfed the pyre and the ship.'
Human sacrifice was practiced at least 5,000 years ago among the early agricultural societies of Europe. Danish farmers sacrificed their stone axes and flint tools, their amber jewellery and their food, by depositing them in pots, together with human offerings, in bogs. Probably the earliest case in the world is that of two girls found at Sigersdal near Copenhagen, killed about 3500 BC. One was about 16 while the other, who was about 18, still had a cord around her neck.
Mass human sacrifices were particularly a feature of ancient states whose dead leaders required their courtiers and followers to accompany them into the afterworld. The tombs of the first dynasty of Egyptian pharaohs (3100-2890 BC) were each surrounded by the graves of their courtiers.
In the royal tombs of ancient Mesopotamia the courtiers - guards, musicians, handmaidens and grooms - died at their posts in the tomb, having taken a lethal draught of poison. Some of the largest mass sacrifices accompanying dead rulers are the royal tombs of the African kingdom of Kerma, around 1500 BC, where 500 people at a time were buried in huge grave pits next to the dead king, and covered by a large mound.
Around the same date, the royal tombs of the Shang Dynasty at Anyang in China were similarly provided with sacrificed bodies. In the second century BC, workers and soldiers were buried in the tomb of the first Chinese emperor and, in addition, he was provided with an other-worldly army of terracotta substitute soldiers.
Sacrifice in the Americas
The ancient civilisations of the Americas are also well known for their human sacrifices. Aztec priests believed that the sacrifices they performed in the temples on top of pyramids - cutting out the still-beating heart of their victims with the blood flowing down the steps of the pyramid - were necessary to keep the sun on its daily path.
More than 100 warriors were sacrificed and buried beneath the foundations of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan in Mexico, around AD 150, possibly as supernatural guardians of this Aztec temple.
Within the Inca empire of South America, children and teenagers were sacrificed to the sun god, bestowing considerable prestige on the child's parents and on their local community. Some of these children's bodies have been found on the summits of sacred mountains, where the freezing conditions have ensured their perfect preservation.
There is evidence that human sacrifice still continues today in isolated parts of the world, and researchers have known cases where it is practiced by shamans on behalf of people - including cocaine traffickers - seeking to avert natural disasters or to improve their wealth.
Earlier this year in London, an archaeologist was brought in as an expert by the Metropolitan Police to help them identify a southern-African style ritual killing thought to be a human sacrifice.
The mosaic floor of the sixth century A.D. synagogue
found at Beth Alpha depicts an artist's concept of
the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham
A Greater Cause
We have to remember that human sacrifice is not just a ritual act designed to appease the gods, divine the future, or bring luck and prosperity to those offering the sacrifice. It covers all situations in which a human life is exchanged for a greater cause. Even religious belief is not a necessary requirement; hunger-strikers are prepared to die for their nationalism, whilst Kamikaze pilots died for their emperor in World War Two.
Some anthropologists interpret the executions of condemned men and women on death row in America as another form of sacrifice, perceived as removing evil and thereby cleansing American society. The suicide bombers of Palestine and the 11 September terrorists are also modern-day human sacrifices. If the idea seems unpalatable, we have to remember that one of the major world religions, Christianity, is constructed in the image of a sacrificed man-god who is said to have died to save humankind.
Whether we like it or not, human sacrifice has been with us for more than 5,000 years and, in the form of altruistic suicide, is one of the many characteristics that distinguish us from other animals.
The Moche Sacrificed With A Mace
Sacrifice to accompany the dedication of a building like new temple or bridge. Chinese legends hold that thousands of people were entombed into the Great Wall of China.
Sacrifice upon the death of a king, high priest or great leader; the sacrifices were to serve or accompany the deceased leader in the next life. Mongols, Scythians and various Mesoamerican chiefs could take most of their household, including servants and concubines, with them to the next world.
Sacrifice for divination; priest would try to divine the future from the body parts of a slain prisoner or slave. According to Strabo, Celts stabbed a victim with a sword and divined the future from his death spasms.
Sacrifice in times of natural disaster. Droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions etc. were seen as a sign of anger or displeasure of gods and sacrifices were made to appease the divine ire. Cretans tried to stop the destruction of their island this way.
Ritual combat: Victim was killed in nominally fair fight against a warrior.
Human sacrifices were made in the Bronze age Celtic religions in Europe, and in rituals related to worship of Norse gods (modern Ásatrú and Druidism do not condone such practices).
However, because most of the information comes from outside sources (Greeks and Romans for Celts and Medieval Christians for Norsemen) who may have had ulterior propaganda motives, some historians consider them suspect.
Bodies from the Bog by James M Deem (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998)
City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization by David Carrasco (Beacon Press, 2000)
Earthly Remains: The History and Science of Preserved Bodies by Andrew Chamberlain and Mike Parker-Pearson (British Museum, 2001)
Dying for the Gods by Miranda Green (Sutton, 2001)
The Archaeology of Death and Burial by Mike Parker Pearson (Sutton, 1999)
Lindow Man: The Body in the Bog (eds.) by Ian Stead, JB Bourke and Don Brothwel (British Museum, 1986)
The Highest Altar: The Story of Human Sacrifice by Patrick Tierney (Viking, 1989)
Bog Bodies: New Discoveries and New Perspectives edited by Rick Turner and Rob Scaife (British Museum, 1995)
Through Nature to Eternity: The Bog Bodies of North-west Europe by Winand van
der Sanden (Batavian Lion, 1996)
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