A recent discovery of a tower of hundreds human skulls in Mexico City, in what was once the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, has drawn attention to the idea that, according to the Spanish conquistadores, the Mayas and the Aztecs ritually sacrificed human beings as offerings to the sun. The towers struck fear into the hearts of the Spanish when they saw them, but are they really evidence of human sacrifice?
Elizabeth Graham, a Professor of Mesoamerican archaeology at University College, London, views the skulls as “spoils of war.” In many places in the world – Japan, medieval Europe, and England – people cut off the heads of their enemies. This, she adds, was symbolic of conquest. For Graham the skulls are evidence of property and ownership. The display of skulls served as evidence that people had a right to the property they had accumulated. There was ample reason for the Spanish to label the various Mesoamerican groups as practitioners of human sacrifice.
Because human sacrifice was broadly practiced in all areas of the world at one point or another, there is a certain kind of virtue attached to those cultures that we think never engaged in it. In particular, people tend to think of ancient Jews and the Romans as two groups that deplored human sacrifice and outlawed it in their religious and political codes. To an extent, there’s some truth to this: when, in the book of Genesis, Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son Isaac to God, an angel intervenes and provides a ram in the place of Abraham’s favorite child. Certainly, by the time they returned from exile in Babylon in the sixth century BCE, Jews were sacrificing exclusively animals. The prohibitions on child sacrifice found in the Hebrew Bible set them apart from other groups (like worshippers of Baal) who were known for sacrificing young, usually male, infants in the hope of securing divine favor.
The same can be said to be true of the Romans: they routinely sacrificed bulls, horses, cows, pigs, doves and even (if money was tight) pigeons to the various deities in the pantheon of the gods, but they did not sacrifice people. In fact one of the best known facts about the Romans when it comes to human sacrifice is that they hated it so much they eradicated the Druids who lived in Gaul and Britannia (modern-day France and Britain). Roman writers like the geographer Strabo and the late first-century author Pliny the Elder said that the Druids were practicing human sacrifice in their own day. Tacitus tells us that they even consulted human entrails as a means of predicting the future. For the Romans, the fact that they didn’t practice human sacrifice was one of the things that made them morally superior to their predecessors and competitors. Modern Jews and Christians, as well as those who see themselves as the heirs to the philosophy, democracy, and culture of the Greco-Roman world, also see the lack of human sacrifice as a sign of civility and a testament to the superiority of their intellectual forefathers. Even in the ancient world, it is argued, Jews and Romans were better than anyone else.
But then, there are the exceptions.
One situation in which standards change is war. In the biblical book of Judges, Jephthah vows to make a burnt offering of the first creature to come out of his house to meet him if he wins his battle against the Ammonites. When Jephthah returns home from the battle, the first creature to come out of his home is his daughter. There’s an academic discussion about whether or not Jephthah thought of her death as a sacrifice, but there are some clear parallels in the story to the near-sacrifice of Isaac: for example, she is explicitly described as his only child.
The Romans, similarly, were willing to make an exception when they found themselves militarily vulnerable. In 228 BCE, when they faced a Gallic invasion, and again in 216 BCE, when the Romans were defeated at Cannae by Hannibal, a male-female pair of Greeks and a male-female pair of Gauls were buried under the Cattle Market in a stone chamber. The rationale for the sacrifice was found in the Sibylline Books, a set of prophecies that were closely guarded by the Roman Senate. The historian Livy claims that this ritual was “wholly alien to the Roman spirit,” but it was repeated in 113 BCE, as the Romans were preparing for another Gallic invasion. To these we can add other ritual murders conducted by the Romans that were not considered sacrificial. When a Vestal virgin, one of the young aristocratic women charged with tending the symbolic hearth of Rome in the temple of Vesta, broke her vows of virginity, she met a grizzly end. After being found guilty, the Vestal was carried outside of the city on a bier. There she would descend into a stone chamber furnished with a lamp and provisions for a simple, single meal, and would be interred alive. The significance of the deaths of the Vestals is debated by scholars, many of whom note that their deaths aren’t treated as sacrifices. Regardless, as Celia Schulz has written, there’s a tension between the way that Romans condemn others for human sacrifice and the way that they conduct their own ritual killings.
What is clear, though, is that accusing another group of engaging in human sacrifice was an effective way to justify marginalizing or slaughtering them. This happened to the Druids, the Bacchants, and even Christians. To be sure, the Druids did sometimes sacrifice humans, but they were also the political adversaries of the Romans. They wielded considerable influence over local kings and, as the regional intellectual elite, they were effective at galvanizing intertribal resistance to Roman presence in Britain. A succession of emperors attempted to suppress the Druids in the first century CE, but with little success. It was only when large groups were assembled in one place, as was the case in 60 in Anglesey, an island off the coast of Wales, that the Romans were able to take the moral high ground with a tidy massacre.
Sensationalized gossip and accusations of human sacrifice damaged the reputation of other groups, like the Bacchants and the Christians. In the Roman empire, adherents of Bacchus, or Bacchants, were known for throwing wild parties, for incest, and for their general lack of sexual self-control and social respectability. The historian Livy accuses them not just of sexual impropriety and drunkenness, but also of real violence. According to his source, men who would not submit to sexual congress with other men were sacrificed to the gods. The cult, he tells us, initiated only people under the age of twenty in order to win converts who were still young and impressionable. These rumors led to the outlawing of the cult of Bacchus between 186-181 BCE, the destruction of their places of worship, and the restriction of their gatherings. Christians faced the same problem when pagan gossip accused them not just of incest but of baking infants into their Eucharistic bread. And the notorious blood libel myths of the medieval period, in which Jews were accused of crucifying Christian children and baking the blood of babies into their Passover matzo, often led to violence. Rumors of human sacrifice provided the justification for popular hatred and social marginalization.
The vast majority of references to human sacrifice seem to be propagandistic. A writer labels another group as barbaric for their willingness to sacrifice people to deities, but not for socially sanctioned killing in war or as punishment. Categorizing the actions of the Maya and the Aztecs as sacrifices, on the other hand, provides a good justification for eliminating them. It’s a strategy that worked for the both the Romans and the Spanish. But if we categorize the execution of prisoners as warfare, not sacrifice, we get a very different picture of civility. As Graham notes, “In Maya and Aztec warfare there were far fewer deaths than in Spanish warfare, yet it’s the Maya and Aztecs who get called barbaric!”