The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Sacrifice is the practice of offering food, or the lives of animals or people to the gods, as an act of propitiation or worship. The term is also used metaphorically to describe selfless good deeds for others.


Theologies of sacrifice

The theology of sacrifice remains an issue, not only for religions that continue to practice rituals of sacrifice, but also for those religions that have animal sacrifice in their scriptures, traditions, or histories, even if sacrifice is no longer made. Religions offer a number of reasons for why sacrifices are offered.

  • Gods need sacrifice to sustain themselves and their power, without which they are diminished.
  • Sacrificed goods are used to make a bargain with the god, who has promised some favour in return for the sacrifice.
  • The lives or blood of sacrificial victims contains mana or some other supernatural power whose offering pleases the god.
  • The sacrificial victim is offered as a scapegoat, a target for the wrath of a god, which otherwise would be visited on the followers.
  • Sacrifice deprives the followers of food and other useful commodities, and as such constitutes an ascetic discipline.
  • Sacrificed goods actually become part of a religious organisation's revenue; it is a part of the economic base of support that compensates priests and supports temples.
  • The sacrifice is actually a part of a festival and is ultimately consumed by the followers themselves.
  • In the Hebrew Bible, God issues a number of commandments for Israelites to offer animal sacrifices in the portable sanctuary, known as the Tabernacle. Once the Israelites were settled in the land of Canaan, all sacrifices were ordered to be ended except those offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. In the Bible God asks for sacrifices as a sign of a covenant between himself and the Israelite people.

Sacrifice in Judaism

See related article on Korban.

In Judaism, a sacrifice is known as a Korban from the Hebrew root karov meaning to "[come] Close [to God]". Medieval Jewish rationalists like Maimonides reinterpreted the need for sacrifice. In this view, God always held sacrifice inferior to prayer and philosophical meditation. However, God understood that the Israelites were used to the animal sacrifices that the surrounding pagan tribes used as the primary way to commune with their gods. As such, in Maimonides' view, it was only natural that Israelites would believe that sacrifice were be a necessary part of the relationship between God and man. Maimonides concludes that God's decision to allow sacrifices was a concession to human psychological limitations. It would have been too much to have expected the Israelites to leap from pagan worship to prayer and meditation in one step. In the Guide to the Perplexed he writes:

"But the custom which was in those days general among men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up consisted in sacrificing animals... It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God...that God did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service. For to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present [the 12th Century ] if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to God nor fast, nor seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action." (Book III, Chapter 32. Translated by M. Friedlander, 1904, The Guide for the Perplexed, Dover Publications, 1956 edition.)

The teachings of the Torah and Tanakh reveal Judaism's abhorrence of human sacrifices.

Animal sacrifice

is the ritual killing of an animal as part of a religion. It is practiced by many religions as a means of appeasing a god or gods or changing the course of nature. Animal sacrifice has turned up in almost all cultures, from the Hebrews to the Greeks and Romans and from the Aztecs to the Yoruba. Animal sacrifice is still practiced today by the followers of Santería as a means of curing the sick and giving thanks to the gods. It is appropriately termed animal offerings and account for extremely small portions of "ebbos", ritual activities that include offerings, prayer and deeds, in Santeria.

Human sacrifice

Human sacrifice was practiced by many ancient cultures. People would be ritually killed in a manner that was supposed to please or appease some god or spirit. While not widely known, human sacrifices for religious reasons still exist today in a number of nations, including India.

Some occasions for human sacrifice found in multiple cultures on multiple continents include:

  • Human sacrifice to accompany the dedication of a new temple or bridge.
  • Sacrifice of people upon the death of a king, high priest or great leader; the sacrificed were supposed to serve or accompany the deceased leader in the next life.
  • Human sacrifice in times of natural disaster. Droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions etc were seen as a sign of anger or displeasure by deities, and sacrifices were supposed to lessen the divine ire.

Some of the best known ancient human sacrifice was that practiced by various Pre-Columbian civilizations of Mesoamerica. The Aztec were particularly noted for practicing this on an unusually large scale; a human sacrifice would be made every day to aid the Sun in rising, the dedication of the great temple at Tenochtitlán was reportedly marked with the sacrificing of thousands, and there are multiple accounts of captured Conquistadores being sacrificed during the wars of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico.

In Scandinavia, the old Scandinavian religion contained human sacrifice and both the Norse sagas and German historians relate of this, see e.g. Temple at Uppsala and Blót.

There is evidence to suggest Pre-Hellenistic Minoan cultures practised human sacrifice. Sacrificed corpses were found at a number of sites in the citadel of Knossos in Crete, one such find at the North house in Knossos numbered 337 bones of children who appear to have been butchered. It is possible they may have been for human consumption as was the tradition with sacrificical offerings made in Hellenistic Civilization.The evidence that this practice was widespread throughout Minoan culture is not strong. It is also possible that the human sacrifices at Crete were one off occurances as Knossos did befall an epic tectonic natural disaster around the time at which these sites would have been preserved. Hence these human sacrifices could be explained in terms of the Minoans desperation in the situation and being far from routine procedures. The temple of Anemospilia at Knossos exemplifies this view. Here they found a the sacrifice of a teenager which was interupted by the temple collapsing on the participants due to the tectonic activitity at the time. The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur (set in the labyrinth at Knossos) provides evidence that Human sacrifice was commonplace. In the myth we are told that Athens sent seven young men and seven young women to Crete as human sacrifices to the Minotaur. This ties up well with the archeological evidence that most sacrifices were of young adults or children. This view contrasts with the utopian view of the minoans propagated by the archeologist Arthur Evans.

Human sacrifice still happens today as an underground practice in some traditional religions, for example in muti killings. Human sacrifice is no longer officially condoned in any country, and these cases are regarded as murder.

Many people in India are adherents of a religion called Tantrism; a small percent of unscrupulous Tantric practitioners engage in human sacrifice, often with the promise of inducing childbirth in a sterile couple (see Further Reading).

In the Aeneid by Virgil the character Sinon claims that he was going to be a human sacrifice to Poseidon to calm the seas (of course Sinon was lying).

Human sacrifice is a common theme in the religions and mythology of many cultures.

Christians believe that the death of Jesus was a self-sacrifice for mankind's sins.

Sacrifices in games

Sacrifice is also used metaphorically to describe a number of plays in games. Sacrifices, in this sense, are plays that deliberately lose pieces or opportunities in order to obtain some other advantage.

In chess, a number of plays are described as sacrifices: these typically involve losing a piece or a pawn to disrupt the opponent's formation and open up an attack. Chess openings that involve sacrifices are usually called gambits by chess players; in these gambits, usually a pawn is deliberately lost; gambits that lose a piece are rare and risky. In baseball, a sacrifice fly is a play in which a batter deliberately allows himself to be called out so as to enable another player on base to score. Likewise, a sacrifice bunt in baseball is one in which a batter allows himself to be put out while advancing a team mate, usually to second, but sometimes to third base, from where he has a greater chance to score. Players who commit either a sacrifice fly or bunt are not charged with a "time at bat," thus the out that they sacrificed is not charged against their batting average.

Sacrifice is also the name of a computer game released by Shiny entertainment in the year of 2000. For more information about the computer game, see Sacrifice (PC game) .

See also

Further Reading

  • Human Sacrifice: In History and Today Nigel Davies; Dorset Press, 1981 ISBN 0-88029-211-3
  • In India, case links mysticism, murder John Lancaster, Washington Post, 11/29/2003

External links

  • BBC news story about muti killings
  • Indian human sacrifice bid in Kamakhya temple foiled
  • Police have arrested a village priest in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh for allegedly carrying out a human sacrifice
  • Hindu monks in India pledge to fight human sacrifice
  • Killing for 'Mother' Kali: A spate of ritual killings in India shows that human sacrifice lives on - TIME Asia magazine,13673,501020729-322673,00.html

Last updated: 02-06-2005 20:21:31
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55