Human Sacrifice Shaped the Ancient World

Image depicting a virgin's sacrifice from Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA)

Dan Carlin once asked the question, when covering Julius Caesar's massacre of the Celts in ancient Gaul, "what would you be willing to sacrifice to survive?"

Obviously, this being a question of self-sacrificed, it is a very different question than the notion of being chosen to be sacrificed. And yet, the perception of human sacrifice in ancient times was never seen as anything different. Whether you chose to sacrifice yourself or you were chosen to be sacrificed, it was considered an incredible honor.

This was a tradition practiced in many different ancient cultures, including ones that you may have heard of, like the Terracotta soldiers commissioned by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. What you might not have known, however, was that Qin Shi Huang wished to have the soldiers part of his retinue entombed with him while they were still alive and after he had died. His advisor put a stop to this wild plan and they decided to have this "army" of statues made to "protect" the emperor after his passing. Sacrifice arrow dodged, despite the honor, right?

Not so fast.

Human sacrifice in a similar vein was practiced in Ancient Egypt during the First Dynasty, which lasted from the late 32nd century BCE to around the early 30th century BCE. Because the ancient Egyptians held the belief that the after-life was simply a continuation of their mortal, earthly lives, they believed they'd still possess their social rank and status, so the especially rich and noble ones spared no expense in preserving that status with their entombment.

This is why the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, considered to be gods on earth (not too dissimilar from the Japanese tradition that lead to such extreme fealty in the 20th century) and why it was considered an honor to be one of the pharaoh's servants entombed with him.

Not content with simple sacrifice to prove loyalty, though, these servants would sometimes allow themselves to be sacrificed thanks to the incentive of being granted a greater social status in the next world.

We can see many different instances of this occurring in ancient Egypt thanks to the evidence Egyptologists have managed to uncover, including the tomb of King Hor-Aha, in which 35 of his retainers were sacrificed to accompany him to the afterlife. His son, Djer Aha decided he wasn't about to let his father go down in history as the most honored by his retainers and managed to have 318 of his retainers sacrificed to be buried with him.

While this certainly seemed like a good idea at the time, it wasn't meant to last. Eventually, the practice was abandoned when the second dynasty began about a century later.

We're right to question the notions of sacrifice, thanks to our modern sensibilities and comforts. But can we honestly say that any of us today can pledge that much devotion to someone dear to us, leader or otherwise? And can we honestly say that this kind of devotion is not the kind of devotion that sustains an empire for over a thousand years?


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