Blood for the Gods: Ritual Sacrifice in the Ancient World

1499 depiction of Aztec ritual sacrifice. Source: Public domain
By Ancient Origins - March, 23 2024

Since the dawn of humanity, countless civilizations have engaged in ritual sacrifice. Often, these sacrifices involved other humans, and were so common they were considered a normal aspect of life. In some cultures, it was even an honor to be the one chosen for sacrifice!

Why Did Ancient Cultures Practice Sacrifice?

Ritual sacrifice is a practice in which a living thing is killed as an offering to a higher power. This higher power is often seen as a god or gods, although in some cases it could be society as a whole. In communities where sacrifices are common, it is generally believed that they are a necessary part of life and help to restore a sacred order in the universe. This practice has existed for thousands of years in cultures across the world, and is actually one of the earliest known forms of worship in history. Many societies engaged in this gory ritual, but the ones discussed here stand out as the most gruesome and brutal.

Each culture had its own form of ritual sacrifice. In some, animals have been killed and offered up as smaller sacrifices, while human sacrifice is reserved for grander events such as religious ceremonies. In others, humans were seen as the only living being worth offering to a higher power.

There were many reasons to engage in ritual sacrifice, although most were for religious purposes. It was believed that a willingness to sacrifice a being to the gods was a display of honor and devotion, which would in turn result in heavenly blessings. Another theory, called the Social Control Hypothesis, suggests that human sacrifice was used by social elites to frighten lower classes, punish disobedience, and display authority. This built and maintained class systems within societies.

Find out how ritual sacrifice was practiced by ancient cultures in the article ‘Blood for the Gods: Cultures that Engaged in Ritual Sacrifice’ available in the March – April 2024 issue of Ancient Origins Magazine. Get it here!

Feature image: 1499 depiction of Aztec ritual sacrifice. Source: Public domain

By Lex Leigh