Category: Human Sacrifice and Martyrdom

Human Sacrifice and Martyrdom: Suicide Bombings in the United States

          Is killing innocent people a good thing? Most of us have a clear-cut answer to that question: No. For suicide bombers in the United States, the answer is not so simple. This is not because most suicide bombers generally think that their actions are justified. Far from it. An analysis of six of the suicide bombings in United States history shows a shocking discontinuity in the bombers’ motivations. Some were motivated by religious reasons and believed they were acting altruistically in service of their god and religion. Some were not religiously motivated, but still found a way to morally justify their actions. Some appeared to have no clear cause; they knew they were committing a despicable act and had come to terms with it. United States suicide bombings are a complex problem that prohibit any clear-cut explanations, making them a multi layered subject to examine.

            The history of suicide bombing in America is an interesting one characterized by trends and hallmarks dictated by society and culture in the time in which they took place. The first suicide bombing to ever occur in America happened in 1927, much earlier than many might have anticipated. This tragic event caused the deaths of 38 elementary school children, several adults, and injured many others at Bath School in Michigan.[i]The man who planned this elaborate scheme was Andrew Kehoe. Kehoe was a 55-year-old father of 13 who was previously the school board treasurer and in 1926 decided to run for township clerk. Ultimately, he lost and this became his motive for planning and carrying out the bombing. As the first suicide bombing event in American history, it’s important to closely look at the perpetrator and time period as they set a precedent for commonalities among other early events like this. Kehoe was a middle aged, Caucasian, male, educated, and facing financial and personal life issues. Before he destroyed the Bath School and lives with it, he completely burned his family farm and murdered his wife along with their two horses.[ii]

Bath School Disaster

            While this can easily be categorized as a tragedy, the motives are not as clear cut. Kehoe is an example of a conventional suicide terrorist; his reasoning for the suicide attack aligns more closely with typically factors and symptoms of people who are suicidal. This type of terrorist may commit this crime for personal reasons, often with a particular trigger. For Kehoe, this trigger may have been his loss in the 1926 election for town clerk, recent tax increases, and a foreclosure on his home. This anger may have been paired with preexisting mental illness or other factors which culminated in the loss of so many lives.[iii]

            But as Dr. Todd Shallat notes, Kehoe’s attack defies any “reductionist simplification.”[iv]By that, Shallat means that while there are particular triggers that are common among suicide bombers, something like the loss of an election or a tax increase would not trigger most people to bomb a schoolhouse. It can be reasonably speculated that a pre-existing mental illness contributed to Kehoe’s violent response to everyday triggers, but it is almost impossible to conclude why those triggers drove Kehoe to respond in the way that he did.

            Because an analysis of Kehoe’s triggers defies a reductionist simplification, so also does an analysis of Kehoe’s ethical motivation. Unlike other suicide bombers, Kehoe was not interested in leaving a note justifying his actions or explaining why he did what he did. Instead, he left a five word note wired to a chicken-coop fence, “Criminals are mad, not born.”[v]Analysts struggled to make sense of what Shallat meant, but one thing is clear. Kehoe had come to terms with the fact that he was a criminal in violation of the law, that his decision was morally wrong, and he did not care. Presumably, the immorality of his actions drove him to commit the bombing since he was angry at his city. The United States’ suicide bomber offers an interesting first ethical case study; it appears that he was driven by a desire to be unethical. This “unethicality” can be seen as a direct manifestation to rebel against the expectations of patriarchs during this time.[vi]Kehoe, a once successful individual, began to fall through the cracks professionally and mentally. He most likely moved to extreme rebelling as a final way to end his cycle of failing to cope with his responsibilities culture so desperately told him he needed to. These main factors that seem to have been crucial players: mental illness and financial issues, are two contributions that will form a trend as we examine other early instances of American suicide bombings.

Following the Bath School bombing, several other suicide bombings can be grouped together to form a period that contrasts with the more recent events. From 1959 to 1962 three other suicide bombings occurred after a 32-year period of absence most likely due to people’s preoccupations with The Great Depression and WWII, however this gap was rudely awakened with these three events taking place so closely together. In 1959, there was another school suicide bombing committed by a father who was angered after the school would not enroll his son due to missing paperwork. This event now known as the Poe School Bombing included the murder of 6 individuals including the bomber and his own son after the perpetrator, Paul Harold Orgeron detonated a bomb in his suitcase in the school yard. Orgeron also had a history of questionable behavior as he assaulted his ex-wife and was a former convict.[vii]The following two bombings both occurred on airplanes:  National Airlines Flight 2511 and Continental Airlines Flight 11, in 1960 and 1962 respectively.  Both of these bombings have almost identical scenarios. Flight 2511 is suspected of being bombed by a man named Julian Frank as his body sustained much more damage compared to the other passengers on the flight. He was also up for suspicions as the day before he took out a $900,000 life insurance policy and his history showed him being under investigation for the misappropriation of almost $600,000. This again conveys the theme of financial pressure being placed on patriarchs predominantly during the 20th century.[viii]

            The ambiguous nature of Flight 2511’s explosion makes the ethical difficult to figure out, but we can make an educated guess. Perhaps he was sacrificing himself for the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, which would allow the twisted but potentially potent ethical explanation that he was sacrificing himself for the good of another. It would just so also be the case that he sacrificed everyone else on the plane, too. We can make guesses at his ethical motivation, but since Frank did not leave a suicide note or give anyone an explanation for his actions that has been reported, the suicide bombing of Flight 2511 might just be an action without a point besides a personal agenda.

            Without knowing the motivation of the perpetrator, it is difficult to determine the type of suicide bombing the attack was. There are four main typologies of suicide attacks: conventional, coerced, escapist, and indirect. As previously mentioned, conventional suicide bombers refer to those who have motives psychologically similar to traditional suicide, like depression, personal crisis, and other similar, often-egoistic, factors. Coerced suicide bombers are compelled to commit suicide by an outside force or power; for instance, an organization threatening an individual that they will face consequences for not fulfilling the suicide bombing mission. Similar to coerced, escapist suicide bombers fear consequences from the enemy and kill themselves in a moment of crisis but would not otherwise commit suicide. Indirect suicide bombers differ from the other typologies in that it is less overt and difficult to detect; indirect suicide bombers engage in dangerous activities that make death look accidental.[ix]

            In the case of Flight 11, two men, Thomas Doty and Geneva Fraley suicide bombed the flight after both bought a combined $325,000 in life insurance policies and named their families the beneficiaries.[x]The ethical nature of this bombing is more clear-cut. While we can only speculate that Frank took out a life insurance policy for the benefit of someone else, Doty and Fraley definitely did that. If it is assumed that Doty and Fraley were in their right minds, then their bombing is the result of an ethical cost/benefit analysis that valued the lives of everyone on that plane less than the $325,000 their families received. This could also be an example of altruistic suicide as the suicide bombers were performing this action for the monetary benefit of their families, regardless of the outcome.[xi]

            All four of these events have all of the same commonalities. The perpetrators were middle aged white males who faced financial motivations and most likely undiagnosed mental illness as well.[xii]This can be speculated through the pasts of the individuals which were often tumultuous. During this time period, mental health was scarcely discussed, and even less frequently among this demographic. The lack of discussion coupled with societal stressors placing the fate of economic wellbeing and legacy on the father of a family may have exacerbated the mental states of these criminals, ultimately leading them to commit these suicide bombings. Psychologists have identified certain characteristics that make one more susceptible to partaking in acts of terrorism or radical actions. These individuals tend to feel upset and marginalized, perceive their government to be ineffective or oppressive, feel victimized, desire to act against perceived injustices, believe violence against the state is moral, sympathetic support system, and psychological rewards for actions as Dr. John Horgan found through interviews conducted with 60 former terrorists.[xiii]

            As we examine the last two of the six bombings of this nature, a shift is evident. Happening some years later from the previous events, these take on new motives and unique features as societal norms and attitudes change. In 2005, the University of Oklahoma Bombing happened. The bomb killed no one except the perpetrator: Joel Henry Hinrichs III a student there. It was never determined if he meant to detonate it when he did or if it was an accident.[xiv]In 2009 another, and the most recent event occurred on Northwest Flight 253. This international flight was en route to Detroit when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate a personal chemical bomb. Fortunately, the device faltered and the passengers and crew were able to detain him and stop the explosion. Shortly after news of the attempt broke Al Qaeda claimed responsibility.[xv]The mind of an individual that perform suicide bombings, acts for the purposes of martyrdom and the human sacrifice of themselves for their cause, is often different than those that commit suicide or self-destruction on a personal level. While about 90% of people who commit suicide have or show symptoms of a diagnosable mental illness, suicide bombers may not show any signs of being suicidal or mentally ill in that regard. Rather, the suicide bombers see acting for their cause as “altruistic,” rather than “egoistic” as suicide is traditionally considered, and right to promote the interests and ideology of the group they identify with.[xvi]This can be more greatly seen in the case of Flight 253; however, parts are still present in the case of the University of Oklahoma.

            These two instances vary a little more when compared to each other in contrast to the other attacks. Both perpetrators were young college aged men who were well educated. Hinrichs was an engineering student but was also a social outcast who couldn’t relate to his peers and did not have a religious motive compared to the other case. Instead, Hinrichs can be categorized into a new cultural outlook into suicide and depression. In the early 2000s, many young adults began to use social platforms to fetishize and almost value depression.[xvii]Hinrichs used his depression as his motive and this plays into this movement through the glorification of action by these individuals. Although both situations vary as far as motive, they illustrate that the psychological wellness of suicide bombers remains a disputed topic. Violence is something that can be taught, as seen in psychological studies like Albert Bandura’s famous Bobo doll experiment which illustrated the process of observational learning. Though many studies have found a lack of abnormal or suicidal symptoms in suicide bombers, there are additional conditions to consider. Most members of a terrorist organization are unwilling to die for the cause, though they would not openly admit that. Suicide bombers, on the other hand, often volunteer for such a role, even if they have little affiliation with the terrorist organization, indicating possible mental illness or compelling external circumstances. There may be instances of recruiters searching specifically for depressed or disadvantaged individuals to perform these suicide bombings. With this information, suicide bombers may have a psychology more similar to personal suicide than previously documented.[xviii]

             His bombing attempt is an example of how groups, specifically religions, can have such a strong influence on someone’s moral compass. In Abdulmutallab’s case, he was influenced by Islamic jihadism. But to say that he was “influenced” by jihadism is too light of a word; he was taken over by jihadism. A factor in whether an individual or organization will use suicide bombing is cultural resonance as the tactic is positively correlated with collectivism. This may be due to the holistic value of collectivism, which Abdulmutallab may have found within jihadism, because individuals are more accustomed to working toward group goals than people in individualistic societies.[xix]Notably, Abdulmutallab was not raised jihadist. His father condemned his son’s actions after the fact and even tried to alert United States’ intelligence to the fact that his son seemed to be part of a terrorist plot.[xx]As a result, Abdulmutallab’s ethical corruption did not come when he was young and could not be expected to know better. Instead, he was radicalized while in college primarily by the online teachings of Anwar al-Awlaki.[xxi]The fact that he was radicalized by an online source is an interesting ethical study in and of itself, but al-Awlaki’s teachings give both an interesting and profoundly troubling ethical justification for the attempted murder of an entire plane of people.

Underwear with explosive packet worn by Abdulmutallab that he planned to detonate on Flight 253

            President Obama noted in a speech in 2013 that al-Awlaki was an evil because his life goal was to “continuously try to kill people.”[xxii]Al-Awaki did not see it that way. He was a self-described man who aimed at “truth,” which is another way of saying that he aimed to do what was right. He believed that the Quran taught that Muslims should establish the Caliphate now.[xxiii]The Caliphate is a society ruled by Sharia law; a theocracy in which the teachings of the Quran govern are the political and moral framework for the whole society.[xxiv]Since Allah created all things, Allah should also rule all things. Therefore, a key tenet of the Caliphate is that it should be global.[xxv]While most Muslims believe in an establishment of the Caliphate through non-violent means, al-Awlaki’s teachings argued for the establishment of the Caliphate now, through “action.[xxvi]Specifically, violent action. It was a call to establish a global Caliphate regardless of the costs. Therefore, if an action pushes back against the infidels who ruled a certain part of a society and help to establish the Caliphate, it is a good action, even if it is a violent action. In sum, al-Awaki’s ethical justification for violence works syllogistically: it is ethical to establish the Caliphate; violence establishes the Caliphate; therefore, violence is ethical. Abdulmutallab was corrupted by al-Awaki’s teachings to the extent that he told a classmate that it was his “greatest wish for sharia and Islam to be rule of law across the world.”[xxvii]In other words, it was his greatest wish to establish the Caliphate. He was content to sacrifice himself to kill a plane of infidels and bring a physical Caliphate just a little closer to reality. Interestingly, Abdulmutallab’s suicide bombing would be considered an altruistic suicide through sociologist Emile Durkheim’s taxonomy of suicide. He committed this act through the psychological and sociological belief that his death would benefit his cause, jihadism, and society as a whole. Durkheim identified three main types of suicide: egoistic, altruistic, and anomic. Egoistic refers to suicides concerning issues of the individual, anomic refers to suicides following the deconstruction of social order, and altruistic refers to the suicides performed as a duty or necessity to further a collective goal as Abdulmutallab did.[xxviii]

            In both cases above, no one was harmed except the perpetrators themselves but only the latter case was declared an act of terrorism. Since Hinrichs was acting out personally the culture of his suicide was much more an act of anger and resentment that reflected his feelings of being an outsider. act conveys the much more common archetype for what we have seen in recent years manifested in shootings- another type of terrorism that Americans are not as readily willing to categorize as such. Since 9/11 though, Americans’ have defined terrorism in a much narrower scope with the mainstream idea of an extremist coming into view. Political scientists have found that the American civilian struggles to define what terrorism is or what it should be considered to be.[xxix]Flight 253 was considered an attempted terror attack as it had a political statement and was carried out by Al Qaeda, a self-proclaimed terrorist organization. The culture in which these two events take place is muddied. Would Americans have been more upset if the Flight 253 occurred compared to if Hinrichs was successful? It can be argued that the feelings of 9/11 still sting our nation now, and would certainly have much more in 2009, just 8 years after the towers went down. At this time we were more heavily involved in a war in Afghanistan and a suicide bombing of this nature was not only something that felt expected but it was also something almost glorified by media and popular culture in the USA.[xxx]

            Suicide bombers perform this act of human sacrifice and martyrdom for countless reasons. They may tend to be loners, tend to be angry, tend to be motivated by a higher cause, whether that be religious or a personal vendetta. The Bath and Poe school suicide bombings, the University of Oklahoma suicide bombing, and multiple flight suicides bombings or attempts thereof are examples of these influences on an individual which eventually drive them to commit murderous acts. Their attacks are not purely rational decisions because they are motivated, in one way or another, by factors in one’s biological or learned psychology, code of ethics, or cultural upbringing or conditioning. They may be mentally ill or fighting for a cause they believe in. Suicide bombings tend toward particular motives and actions, but it is futile to try to fit every suicide bombing into one category. Doing so would require a huge oversimplification of an issue with complex cultural, psychological, and ethical dimension.


[i]Kim, D., J. Kepros, B. Mosher, C. Morrison, C. Parker Lee, R. Opreanu, P. Stevens, S. Moore, and K. Piper. “A Modern Analysis of a Historical Pediatric Disaster: The 1927 Bath School Bombing.” Journal of Surgical Research158, no. 2 (February 31, 2010): 420-21. doi:10.1016/j.jss.2009.11.690.

[ii]Boissoneault, Lorraine. “The 1927 Bombing That Remains America’s Deadliest School Massacre.” May 18, 2017. Accessed April 08, 2019.

[iii]Lankford, Adam. “A Suicide-Based Typology of Suicide Terrorists: Conventional, Coerced, Escapist and Indirect.” Security Journal27, no. 1 (February 2014): 80-96. doi:

[iv]Shallat, Todd. “Criminals are Made, Not Born.” The Blue Review, 2012. Accessed March 31, 2019.


[vi]Ruggles, Steven. “Patriarchy, Power, and Pay: The Transformation of American Families,
1800 “2015.” Demography52, no. 6 (2015): 1797-823. doi:10.1007/s13524-015-0440-z.

[vii]“Suffer the Children.” Houstonia. March 15, 2013. Accessed April 08, 2019.

[viii]“Bombs Indicated in Two Air Disasters. New Age, January 18, 1960. Accessed March 31, 2019.”

[ix]Lankford, “A Suicide-Based Typology of Suicide Terrorists.” 2014.

[x]Bender, Jonathan. “Fifty years ago this week, Continental Flight 11 fell out of the sky
over Unionville.The Pitch, Kansas City. May 2012. Accessed March 31, 2019.

[xi]Lankford, “A Suicide-Based Typology of Suicide Terrorists.” 2014.

[xii]Ruggles, “Patriarchy, Power, and Pay.” 2015.

[xiii]DeAngelis, Tori,“Expanding Terrorism.” American Psychological Association 40, no. 10(November 2009): 60,

[xiv]Cross, Phil. “FOX 25 Investigates: Declassified FBI Records Provide New Insight into
2005 OU Bombing.” KOKH. July 13, 2016. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[xv]Schmitt, Anahad O’Connor and Eric. “Terror Attempt Seen as Man Tries to Ignite Device
on Jet.” The New York Times. December 25, 2009. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[xvi]Gambetta, Diego,“Making Sense of Suicide Missions,” Oxford University Press (2005) DOI 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199276998.001.0001

[xvii] Cavazos-Rehg, Patricia A., Melissa J. Krauss, and Shaina J. Sowles. “Figure 2f From: Irimia R, Gottschling M (2016) Taxonomic Revision of Rochefortia Sw. (Ehretiaceae, Boraginales). Biodiversity Data Journal 4: E7720. Https://” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, July 22, 2016. doi:10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f.

[xviii]Lankford, Adam. 2014. “Precis of the Myth of Martyrdom: What really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences37 (4) (08): 351-62. doi:

[xix]Braun, Robert, and Michael Genkin. “Cultural Resonance and the Diffusion of Suicide Bombings: The Role of Collectivism.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 58, no. 7 (October 2014): 1258–84. doi:10.1177/0022002713498707.

[xx]McDougall, Dan. “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab: one boy’s journey to jihad.” The Sunday
Times, January 3, 2010.


[xxii]Shane, Scott. “The Enduring Influence of Anwar al-Awlaki in the Age of the Islamic State.” Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, vol. 9, no. 7, July 2016. Accessed April 5th, 2019.


[xxiv]Arnold, Thomas W. The Caliphate. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. 1965.


[xxvi]Shane, “The Enduring Influence.” 2016.

[xxvii]McDougall, “Abdulmutallab.” 2010.

[xxviii]Robertson, Michael. “Books Reconsidered: Emile Durkheim, Le Suicide.” Australasian
Psychiatry14, no. 4 (December 2006): 365–68. doi:10.1080/j.1440-1665.2006.02305.x.

[xxix]Huff, Connor, and Joshua D. Kertzer. “How the Public Defines Terrorism.” American Journal of Political Science62, no. 1 (2017): 55-71. doi:10.1111/ajps.12329.

[xxx]Muzzatti, Stephen. “Terrorism and Counter-terrorism in Popular Culture in the Post-9/11
Context.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology. April 18, 2018. Accessed April 09, 2019.

Juliet Alegria

Emily Ettrich

Matthew Williams

Human Sacrifices-Shang Dynasty (China)

Human Sacrifice and Martyrdom: Shang Dynasty, China – IDST 190 WordPress Project

Janvi Patel, Mariana Price, Nikki Salazar

The ancient art of human sacrifice consisted of purposefully killing a human as an offering to ancestors and or to a deity through ritual. Although inhumane, the sacrifices played an important role in many historical cultures. Human sacrifice has plagued the history of many East Asian, South Pacific, Native American, and African cultures (Perry, 2018). In this post, we will be focusing on the scientific, cultural, and ethical perspectives on one of such cultures, the Shang Dynasty, that reigned in China from the 16th through the 11th century.

The Shang state was a highly controlled state, where the Emperor was both a military general and a priest (“Introduction,” 2019). Yinxu, the current day Anyang in Henan Province of China, the capital of the Shang state claimed 13,000 human sacrifices over a period of 200 years (Choi, 2018). The period of the Shang Dynasty is widely believed to be the period in which Chinese culture originated. After overthrowing the previous Dynasty, the Xia Dynasty, King Tang of Shang made many positive changes in favor of the citizens of Shang. Whereas the previous ruler, King Jie, was considered to be a self-serving and pleasure-obsessed Tyrant, “Tang abolished Jie’s tyrannical policies and excessive taxes and instituted a new government which worked for the people instead of against them” (Mark, 2019). Not only were people granted better treatment under King Tang, but the Shang Dynasty was considered to be very prosperous. With so much positivity surrounding the rule of King Tang, it’s difficult to believe that human sacrifice played a role in Shang’s culture. In fact, the fact that humans were sacrificed so brutally contradicts King Tang’s so-called inclination to “work for the people”.  So how could a leader who supposedly cares for the people allow and initiate such brutality, and how was this idea so widely accepted by the people? Bob Yirka makes the point that the victims of the sacrifices carried out during the Shang Dynasty were not members of the Shang civilization (Yirka, 2017). Often, the victims were war captives, which could have been an ethical justification for the King because he wasn’t doing as much harm to his own people, but instead focusing the majority of human sacrifices on enemies of Shang, and therefore eliminating those who posed a threat of harm to his own people.


The image seems to display the courses of action taken by Shang leaders towards their victims soon to become human sacrifices.


These foreign victims were just one type of human sacrifice, burials, during the Shang Dynasty, the other type being worship rituals. Both are well documented through archeological evidence. Oracle bones from the Shang Dynasty have documented the methods used for human sacrifices in worship rituals. Oracle Bones, usually turtle bone or cattle scapulae, were used to depict divinatory activities (Recht, 2019). Divination activities included questions such as when would be a good time to hunt, to plant, wage war, and when to offer human sacrifices. We will be focusing on burials for the interest of this post. As for burials, when a royal, namely an emperor died, human sacrifices were made to accompany the Emperor in the afterlife to serve the royalty (Recht, 2019).


The image displays a common layout of a burial site during the ruling of the Shang Dynasty in China.


Whether it was to please the gods or to affirm the Emperor has servants in the afterlife, could there have also been a political aspect behind human sacrifice? Psychologist Joseph Watts proposed that the Social Control Hypothesis may be able to explain these phenomena.Watts argues that “human sacrifice legitimizes political authority and social class systems, functioning to stabilize such social stratification” (Watts et al., 2016). In other words, human sacrifices were a way for leaders to practice their power while instilling fear into their subjects; human sacrifices helped to keep the social stratification in order in high functioning societies, such as China. Many studies looking at large-scale human sacrificial rituals from other archaeological cultures have suggested that in early state societies, sacrificial rituals involving human victims often intensified during times of political instability political shifts. Their control over the lives and death dates of the victims caused fear that turned into fearful submission. In Yinxu, epigraphic evidence implied that most sacrificial activities occurred during the earlier phases of a ruler’s establishment when the ruling group was trying to establish its authority at the then new capital. (Cheung, Jing, Tang, Weston, & Richards, 2017) As wars waged, prisoners of war and residents of captured land were at hand a compromise was made to productively use the prisoners. Sacrificing them was one way in which the Shang rulers used these bodies. According to Oracle inscriptions, many of the young men killed in the Yinxu sacrifices were war captives from the “Qiang,” a name given to groups of barbaric pastoralists living to the west of Yinxu. (Cheung, 2018)


The image displays skeletal positions of human sacrifice victims, many died with their hands tied behind their backs and with broken skulls, both signs of torture.


Another form of ethical justification can be built upon the grounds of religion. People in ancient Chinese civilizations often believed that human sacrifices would suffice the Gods and that in return they would be granted answered prayers, blessings, and avoid the wrath of the Gods (Bulling, n.d.). Since it was widely accepted that human sacrifice would bring rain, prosperity, and protection from disastrous events such as war, flooding, and famine, it was believed that human sacrifice was essential to the well-being of entire Kingdoms (Yirka, 2017). Therefore, it is likely that although human sacrifice was brutal, it was viewed by King Tang as a necessary measure in order to assure the overall well-being of his people.

Other than human sacrifices a more popular and accessible option were animals. Animals sacrificed during the period included horses, dogs, pigs, and other types of farm animals. (Baker, 2011). It was believed animals, especially dogs, that their presence would continue to be of service after death by guiding and protecting the souls and by guarding the site against evil spirits (Bulling, n.d.).  The Shang state religion called for sacrifices to the Shang person’s ancestors, and oracle bones were used for divination to decide upon the best days to offer such sacrifices (“The Ancestor”).

Ironically, while the Shang state used religion to justify their control and show of power, researcher Kevin Rounding at Queen’s University argues that “the primary purpose of religious belief is to enhance the basic cognitive process of self-control, which in turn promotes any number of valuable social behaviors,” and that it encourages more self-monitoring (Herbert, 2011). So perhaps, human sacrifices hold more to it than religious and political connotations, societal norms of favoring tradition was a big factor. The strength of tradition in regards to human sacrifice was particularly strong for the settlers living under the rule of the Shang Dynasty. Ancient Chinese history played a major role in the way of life and social norms of the time, great importance was set on the spiritual realm.

In search of the origin of human sacrifice, an old tale of oral and written tradition was found. The ancient tale centers around the founder of the royal house of Shang, Tang offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of his people to the gods, for there was a long-concurring drought seen as punishment. According to legend he hardly finished his prayer when it started to rain. This story introduced the understanding that the gods would answer prayers when offered human sacrifice. Not only were sacrifices made to the Gods but to the ancestors of the honored deceased.  This also added to the notion that there was greater importance in the value of royalty and nobility versus commoners and peasants and much less value on the lives of prisoners of war. (Bulling, n.d.).


The image seems to display and emphasize the class difference between the Shang Dynasty elite versus peasants/commoners through clothing and power stances.


Although human sacrifices themselves could be justified in a number of ways, there is still a question of why the sacrifices were so brutal. Common methods of human sacrifice were burning alive, stoning, and slow removal of limbs and other body parts (Bulling, n.d.).  If one must be killed, why not kill in the most humane way possible, instead of making it brutal and painful? One big implication of human sacrifice during the Shang Dynasty is that it served as a way to promote social stratification. By carefully choosing victims who are prisoners of war and/or from the lower rungs of society, human sacrificing for religious reasons also took on a sociopolitical agenda. Societal elites, the more wealthy, and those in close proximity to the King were rarely subjected to the horrors of human sacrifice, whereas those who were poor or prisoners of war were the most commonly sacrificed. These people were considered unimportant to society, and those higher up on the social ladder strived to maintain that sense of  importance and privilege by keeping others down, The fact that social elites have the privilege of being spared from sacrifice, highlights the inclination towards of preservation of social hierarchy among societal elites and oppression of the lower class (Benson et al, 2016).  So how does the idea of social stratification play into the brutality of the killings? Since people who were sacrificed were so low in society, and elites aimed to reinforce this separation of classes, the killings were likely unnecessarily brutal so that a higher sense of superiority, control, and power could be established. Treating sacrifices with as little respect as possible further enforces their lack of importance and power than giving them a more humane death.





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Human Sacrifice: Mayans vs Aztecs

Human Sacrifice: Mayans vs Aztecs

by Jade Adkins, Madison Perry, Ann Marie Stieglitz

The term “human sacrifice” often has modern cultural connotations associated with it as an ancient practice performed by “uncivilized societies”. However, in order to understand these societies, it’s important to look past the modern viewpoint and more at the specifics of the ritual itself. By examining the remains of the sacrificial victims, one can better understand how the Aztec and Mayan empires understood the human body and what they deemed important about the body itself. Within the Aztec empire, those sacrificed were often done so while they were still alive; the priest performing the ritual would slice open their chest and remove their heart, oftentimes showing the still alive sacrifice their own heart before they died [1]. The body was then moved to another ritual space where it would be placed on a table face-up. The priest would take an extremely sharp obsidian blade and make an incision in the back of the neck that would decapitate the victim. The Aztecs had studied the human body, so the incision was made precisely between two vertebrae, which made the decapitation fairly quick. The priests would then remove the skin and muscle of the face, then take the leftover skull and carve two holes in the sides before placing it on a wooden stick. Typically, the body was disposed of by being thrown down the temple stairs and dismembered; in general, the body was of little importance. These skulls were places in Tenochtitlan’s tzompantli, which was a rack of skulls that was placed in front of the Templo Mayor [2].

Skulls removed from the tower near the tzompantli [2]

In a bone analysis of over 200 skulls from the tzompantli tower, it was found that over 75% were men between 20-35, which at that time was “prime warrior age”. The remaining 25% belonged to women and children, with women making up 20% of the skulls and children 5% [2]. The diversity in ages and gender falls in line with the Spanish claim that people were sold in markets for the purpose of a later sacrifice [2]. The technicality behind this ritual is important for understanding how it fits into society as a whole. The priests had studied the human body enough to identify the necessary locations that cuts had to be made in order to have the process go as smoothly as possible. Furthermore, to be picked as a sacrifice was a great honor in Aztec society, as they believed that those who died via sacrifice went to a greater paradise after death. Not all victims of the sacrifice were willing, but a large number of Aztecs volunteered to be part of the process [3]. This makes the ethics of their sacrifice, which will be discussed in greater detail further down, more complicated.

In addition to human sacrifices, evidence of cannibalism has been found in the Aztec empire. However, the overall extent and frequency of the practice have been debated among researchers. In one study conducted in Tenochtitlan, 140 burials were found, as well as those skulls that were placed on the wood stick. In studying 100 skulls, scientists found that those sacrificed were between 18 and 40 years old, with 43 female and 57 male. There does not seem to be an age discrimination or gender preference; victims appear to be random. When analyzing the remains, they were found to have been placed over a constructed patio with a fire on top, typically “mixed with animal bones, potsherds, and red pigment” [4]. However, the precise dates and overall food availability is unknown in reference to the area where the study was conducted. Therefore, the function of the cannibalism–either out of necessity, or due to starvation or another ritualistic purpose–is unknown. One study claims that human sacrifice and cannibalism can be explained not as “population pressure and famine” but rather as a way to commune with gods. Aztecs received large quantities of food tributes and that, coupled with the extensive farming that the Aztecs engaged in, should have provided enough food so that no one was starving [5]. Additionally, they had protein sources available in the form of animals and insects that were regularly consumed, and so did not need to revert to cannibalism to stay alive. Therefore, the function was interpreted to be ritualistic in nature [6]. However, another study directly contradicts this claim, and instead claims that cannibalism was part of the diet of those upper-class wealthy Aztec citizens because their diet was lacking in necessary proteins for survival [6]. In conclusion, the exact function and purpose of cannibalism in Aztec societies are not agreed upon in the scientific community, and further studies would need to be conducted to determine its exact purpose.

Mayan human sacrifice rituals were actually influenced by the Aztecs, particularly the removal of the heart. However, they also used methods like decapitation and arrow sacrifice as well [7]. Additionally, in contrast to Aztecs, Mayans thought of blood as the ultimate offering, rather than the heart. Their choice of the victim also differed as they tended to be prisoners of war; however, not just any prisoner could be chosen, only ones that had the highest status [1]. However, the greatest contrast between the sacrifices of Mayan and Aztecs was that Mayans would torture the sacrificial victim before the act itself took place. The victim would be tied down, and once the heart was removed, it would be handed to a secondary priest called the “Chilan”. The body was then thrown down the temple steps. It would then be skinned and then worn by the “Chilan” while a sacrificial dance was performed [1].


Mayan depiction of a sacrifice [8]

It is interesting that these two cultures had different belief systems but that their methods of sacrificial dismemberment, as well as what parts of the body they deemed most important, overlapped. This is most reflective of the scientific understanding of the body during this time period, which viewed the heart as the source of life and the key to most sacrifices. Additionally, the heart remains the cornerstone of human life and suggests a great understanding of the human anatomy during a time period that had very little in the way of scientific tools or equipment [1]. This idea is further supported by a case study attempting to replicate sacrificial methods used by Mayans on human cadavers. The method typically used involved vivisection across the abdomen before the heart was pulled out from under the rib cage instead of going through it. This was also typically done while the victim was still alive and struggling. The process would most likely have taken 8 to 10 minutes [9]. Rudimentary human anatomical knowledge could not have done the ritual as efficiently, and so priests performing the rituals would have needed to undergo some kind of training. The time and effort put into these rituals displays their importance in these societies.

In contrast to the rack of skulls that the Aztecs created to display their sacrifices, Mayans would dispose of the bodies in graves with no indication of their ritualistic death. In a study of one such grave, 5 bodies were found, one infant around the age of 3, one young adult around the age of 15 and 3 other adults, one female, another most likely male, with the third unidentified. Analysis of the skeletal remains indicates the bodies were butchered, stabbed, dismembered, flayed and exposed to heat. This further corroborated their death in a ritual as they were most likely tortured before their death. However, by the overall lack of regard to the victim, it seems that their purpose in the ritual is the act itself and whatever obtained, blood or the heart, was of the most importance and the body just served as a vessel for the act [10].

While it seems that cannibalism served some role in the Aztec empire, there is no such mention of evidence that it occurred in the Mayan empire. Instead, it seems that bloodletting became somewhat analogous to cannibalism in the Aztec empire. Mayan nobles would pierce their “genitals, lips, ears, or tongue” and collect the blood on bark paper and then burn it [6].  Additionally, Mayans used stingray spines in these bloodletting rituals, which typically would release toxins into the body, causing paralysis as well as tissue death. By losing quantities of blood, paired with an injection of the stingray venom, the resulting psychoanalytical effect would be what they considered opening a door between themselves and the gods they worshiped. Symptoms of stingray venom also include intense pain in the limb where the sting occured [11]. This, too, falls in line with their rituals as victims of sacrifice were typically tortured before their death. This suggests that pain was key in their understanding of communication between themselves and their gods but also that it was a necessary experience. By using a venomous agent, it suggests a degree of forethought into their discovery of something that would induce necessary symptoms without killing them.

It may be concluded that through extensive practice and medical knowledge the act of human sacrifice was practiced with a great degree of scientific knowledge. These cultures did not act with wild passion, randomly stabbing until the heart was removed, but instead studied the human body and were able to remove the heart with efficiency as well as with accuracy. Their goals overlapped in using parts of the human body and the human experience to communicate with what they believed to be a higher being.

It is hard to imagine that the practice of human sacrifice could be condoned by any of the major religions that are represented heavily in the populations of the world today. However, just as Muslims practice a call to prayer and Christians tithe, the Mayans and the Aztecs sacrificed life as an offering to their gods. These two Mesoamerican cultures made the ultimate sacrifice in order to repay the gods for their creation as well as the creation of the world around them.

There are two common origin stories within Aztec mythology that detail the root of human sacrifice and the the reason why they practiced it in order to appease their gods. The gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca took apart a great reptilian monster named Cipactli, and with its body parts they were able to create the Earth and the sky, with the rest of the world created by their own body parts. In order to keep the spirit of Cipactli at bay, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca promised the sacrifice of human hearts and blood. Another common tale to explain human sacrifice also stems from mythological roots as the story of the god Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, who used stolen bones from the Underworld to create the human race. Consequently, human sacrifices ensued as an apology of their creation to the Gods. Both of these stories explain a cosmology for human sacrifice.

Similarly, the Mayans believed that human sacrifice would appease the gods and that if this practice was not carried out, the world would cease to exist. In their ritual practice of human sacrifice, they often sacrificed humans at their capital in Tenochtitlan, at the the top of the Templo Mayor, to create a dramatic display. While these practices were for religious purposes, they also played a role in Mayan rule and the conquering of surrounding areas. This symbiotic relationship of religion and rule was created in order to keep the Mayan people attentive to the needs of the ruling class of citizens who controlled their knowledge of these human sacrificial practices. For the Mayans, momentous events such as a dedication to a new ruler or even a new building required the task of human sacrifice, through which the aid of the gods would bestow luck upon the new ruler and any buildings constructed would be beneficial for their society.

Though human sacrifice seems to largely benefit the religious side of both the Mayan and Aztec cultures, this practice was also used for political intimidation in order to induce fear within their enemies. For instance, the Aztecs were engaged in the Xochiyaoyotl, or Flowery Wars, from 1450-1519. These wars were not the traditional wars we think of today. In times of peace between warring kingdoms, the Aztecs would often make a theatrical display of human sacrifice on the great altar of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs would sacrifice their enemies in order to “bewilder them, fill them with fear,” and instill the idea of dominance as the invited leaders of other kingdoms bore witness [13]. Similarly, within the culture of the Mayans, human sacrifice became a double-edged sword, through its power to cause intimidation and subjugation which kept the Mayan society’s political elite above the rest of the ordinary citizens. Not only was human sacrifice incorporated into religious and political life, but it reached further into the daily llife of Mayan society at the hands of the “ballgame.”

The ballgame, which was played by only Mayan men, was “an expression for Maya ideology and group solidarity” that influenced human sacrifice, often presenting the severed heads of decapitated human sacrifice victims on the ball courts they were played in [14]. Often times the ball players were sacrificed, which “ensured the continuation of Mayan cosmology” by continually perpetuating the idea of plentiful agricultural yields [14]. The ballgame also has ties to Mayan mythology, as the “mythic Hero Twins” would engage in this ballgame with the lords of the underworld. Through this development, the ballgame forever created a connection with ritualistic practices of Mayan culture, such as human sacrifice.

Both cultures had similarities between their religious and political motivations that kept human sacrifice a viable practice within their own societies. Subsequently, through their mythological cosmologies of being and political motivations of expansion and power, the Mayans and Aztecs continued their practices for the benefit of their society and the continuation of power of their social and political elite.

The Aztecs were particularly ruthless in their ritual sacrifice of men, women, and children, though reports of the specifics were most likely exaggerated by their authors, namely the Spaniards during the Spanish Conquest [18]. Non-human sacrifice also took place, in the form of burning tobacco or incense, offering other animals, or giving of food or precious items. Still, the large presence of human sacrifice cannot be understated. Many sacrificed people were the “god impersonators”, who “were dressed as a particular god before the sacrifice” and sometimes were even “treated like royalty … prior to the sacrificial ceremony” before their brutal execution [18].

Could any of this be considered ethical? To the Aztecs, it absolutely was: the god of the sun and war, Huitzilopochtli, “had to be well-nourished, vigorous, and healthy … in order for life to continue” [19]. As Huitzilopochtli’s “major source of sustenance was human blood, human sacrifice was a necessary part of religious rites and the securing of victims through warfare an important function of the Empire” [19]. From the standpoint of least harm or utilitarianism, protecting the entire civilization, or even the entire world, by returning a few people to the gods seems like a fair trade. In addition, in some cases suffering was minimized in the time leading up to the sacrifice. However, waging war on neighboring empires to steal people for sacrifice blatantly violates the victims’ autonomy and is incredibly unjust. By modern standards of ethics, there is no way to justify the actions of the ancient Aztecs.

What about the Mayans, then? According to Christopher Morehart and Noah Butler, “in ancient Maya society … the notion of the sacred invokes enduring obligations to spiritual entities” [20]. Sacrifice was expected of the Mayans as repayment of “an original debt established by their forebears, one they are compelled to maintain across generations … commonly in the form of the sacrifice of the products of social reproduction” [20]. The Mayans had perpetual obligations to their deities, with the two groups connected in a “sacred covenant” not unlike ones found in other Mesoamerican settlements. Due to this covenant, “the sacred appears, then, not simply as an attribute or category, but also as a structured relationship, described as a reciprocal transaction, a quid pro quo relationship, or a debt” [20]. Morehart and Butler add, though, that “unlike debts among humans … this obligation … never can be repaid in full”, hence the continual sacrifice of humans to the deities. As stated in discussion of the Aztecs, from the point of view of several principles of ethics, there is nothing wrong with this ritual of thanksgiving, but from another this may be perceived as a monstrous display of evil.

Ultimately, the ethics of a civilization and what they consider ‘ethical’ are based on their religious beliefs. To the Mayans and Aztecs, it was perfectly ethical to sacrifice people to the gods. Giving a few members of their civilization back to the gods was a small price to pay in thanksgiving for the lives of the entire civilization. To modern-day scholars and casual observers, this may be considered shocking, horrid, and even inhuman, but this should not color the discussion of their respective religious and ethical practices. How ethical or unethical the practices of the ancient Aztecs and Mayans were cannot be judged according to our modern standards, because those standards are completely irrelevant. They were not present in these ancient societies, and so no decisions were made with them taken into consideration. We tend to judge their actions from our position far in the future and, while this is hard to avoid, it is not conducive to good scholarship. In today’s world, where suffering is viewed as something to be avoided and eliminated, there is present “the assumption that we know suffering well enough in these cases that we don’t need to know anything else about it before either making appropriate judgements about whether it can or should be tolerated, or forming appropriate politics as a response” [21]. We as outsiders pass judgement on the suffering of others, which ignores the larger reality of those suffering. Our perspective as those who “know better” should be minimized, and we should try and place ourselves in the ancient culture which we are studying in order to better understand and, if we must, judge.

Do we have the right to pass judgement on these civilizations past when human sacrifice is still alive in this day and age? It may look different, but “the practice is alive and well in modern society” and we are simply “trying hard not to notice it” [22]. Sacrifice is “characterized … as involving the acceptance of a regrettable loss, a loss that ought to be regretted” [22]. Human sacrifice, therefore, is an instance of “regrettable loss of human life”, and where does that occur in today’s world? War, for example. Both those serving in the Armed Forces and civilians caught in the crossfire are deemed acceptable casualties of war in order to achieve the desired outcome, whatever it may be. The Aztecs waging war in order to capture people for sacrifice was deemed vile and monstrous, but this is tolerated as just a part of modern warfare. The double standard in our judgement of human sacrifice highlights the tricky, liminal nature of the study of ethics. Whether the practice is ethical is up to context.




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