Human Sacrifice--Variations on a Theme

It may be assumed that during the prehistoric human evolution, men were killing men as they are doing to this day. Human sacrifice, however, is a religious act that is not as common as ordinary killing but has an ideological explanation and purpose. One of these ideas belongs to the worship of an Earth Mother goddess and is connected with the seasons of the year. The myth explaining this idea, which is found in the cultures of Canaan, Egypt, Greece, the Norse and that of the Celts, was that of the goddess' lover dying and being resurrected according to the waxing and waning seasons of the year; the myth was re-enacted at certain turn-points of the year and the lover, a human identified with the seasonal deity, represented sometimes vegetation, corn, or the sun that waxes and wanes according to the seasons.

The death of the leader did not mean an end; from observation of Nature, people realized that after withering and dying, things come back to life: old plants that were swallowed by the earth in the dry summer would be revived and grow again when the rain came; and the sun in the north, having sunk into the earth for the last time in winter, would come back again in spring. The male hero of the myth describing seasonal events, who became a god of a lesser standing, would be ritualistically represented as the goddess' lover by the leader of his ethnic group; his human representative would take the god's name and personality, being variously called Dumuzi (Sumer), Tammuz (Babylon), Baal (Canaan), Osiris (Egypt), Dionysus (Greece), Attis (Asia Minor), Llew-Llaw-Gyffes (Wales), Lugh (Ireland), or Balder (Scandinavia).

As the Sun or vegetation never die permanently, only go down to the Underworld and come back again with the turn of the year, so the leader of his people would never really die but only symbolically go down to the Underworld and resurrect to lead his people again. The idea was to keep him in good health and vigor for that purpose, not to let grow old or sick either him, his people, or the things he represented in Nature.

Part One – Biblical Stories

There are a number of Old Testament stories that for the student of pagan mythology are clearly based on some aspects of such myths and rituals. There are three prominent stories of this kind: the story of Abraham trying to sacrifice his son Yitzhak (Isaac) in the book of Genesis (chap. 22); the story of the judge (= leader) Yiftah (Jephtah) the Gil'adite and his nameless daughter (Judges 11); and the story of Shimshon ha-Gibbor (Samson the Mighty, or the Hero – Judges 13).

Abraham is not only the earliest ancestor of the Jewish/Hebrew people; he was also a leader of that ethnic group in his time. In the Biblical story, God tells Abraham to take his only son, Yitzhak, whom he loved most, go with him to the "land of Moriah" and sacrifice him on one of the mountains. According to tradition, that was the site where in later years the Temple of Jerusalem was built. Abraham does as he is told, takes his son (whose age is not specified), his donkey and two boys and wood for the burnt offering and goes to the place indicated.

On the third day they reach the place. Abraham tells the boys to stay with the donkey and he goes with Yitzhak up the mountain to worship; but as he puts the wood on his son's back to carry it, the boy asks, "Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb to be sacrificed?" and Abraham answers, "God will see to that." When they reach the top of the hill Abraham builds an altar from stones strewn around, puts the wood on it, binds Yitzhak and makes him lie on top of the wood. Then he takes the knife in order to slaughter his son. At that moment, an angel of God calls out to him, telling him not to lay his hand on the boy, saying, "You have passed the test and you showed you feared God," but now he must take the ram caught up in the thicket and sacrifice it instead of his son.

The way the story is told, it is quite obvious that its purpose is to show the people of Israel how wrong it is to sacrifice humans – particularly children – and that they must find a non-human substitute for the purpose. The question is why that story was necessary at all, unless that custom had been practiced by the Israelites at that period of their history. The evidence of children's sacrifice exists in many places of the Old Testament, by way of its condemnation. The Law book of Leviticus refers to it a few times, stating with chapter 18: "Though shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech"; this was the epithet meaning "king" of the Moabite god Kmosh (whose name may mean "withering"). This clear prohibition appears also in the books of Kings and Jeremiah. The Israelites followed the practice of the peoples around them in sacrificing their children. There is no specific Biblical reference to sacrificing daughters, which would be contradictory to any fertility cult; there is also no explanation for the practice itself.

Such an explanation can be found in Sir James Frazer's book The Golden Bough (pub. 1922, appearing as an Online text at the site – ). The answers are presented here in three stages.

1. Killing the King before he gets old or sick

Frazer cites many customs that were practiced around the world, which are connected with the myth mentioned above about the Earth goddess and her lover who represents natural phenomena like the seasonal growth and death of vegetation, or the sun. In order to keep life going on in good condition, it is necessary to keep that lover, incarnated in the body of the leader of his tribe, in good health and function. For this purpose, he must die young, never allowed to grow old, become ill, or die a natural, permanent death.

Frazer shows that the custom of having kings or tribe leaders die an early death through sacrifice was practiced not only in the distant past according to many myths and legends, but was still practiced as late as his own times (the early 20th century). The following cases appear in very detailed accounts in The Golden Bough:

In Cambodia, referring to the "mystic kings of Fire and Water"; in the Congo, in relation to the Chitome custom; in Ethiopia, their kings of Meroe; among the African tribe of Fazoql; among the Shilluk and the Dinka of the White Nile; and among many other kingdoms throughout Africa. Frazer also tells a similar story from Prussia in Europe: the ancient Prussians acknowledged as their ruler in the name of the gods a supreme lord called "God's Mouth". When he felt weak or ill he would have a bonfire made, light it with the sacred fire that burned perpetually in front of an oak tree, climb on it and burn himself to death.

2. Killing the king after a fixed period of time with surrogate victims in between terms

In practice, the king did not always die at the end of his season, but continued to rule a certain, fixed number of years; in this case, a surrogate victim would have to be found for each year of his not being sacrificed until his time came. Frazer mentions such cases that were practiced in the following places: In some parts of Southern India the period fixed was twelve years, when this period was completed, the king would climb on scaffolding and cut himself to death piece by piece in front of the people in a great ceremony.

Similar ceremonies occurred, according to the evidence of travelers, in Malabar, Pennany, Calicut, Bengal, and other places in the Far East. The custom was also practiced in Europe, according to Frazer's interpretation of known pagan myths: "There are some grounds for believing that the reign of many ancient Greek kings was limited to eight years, or that at the end of every period of eight years, a new consecration was regarded necessary in order to enable them to discharge their civil and religious duties."  Such ancient places were Sparta, Crete, Babylon, and various African sites.

In the case of using a surrogate to the king for sacrifice, that person had to be related to the king by blood for his sacrifice to be valid; the king represented the seasonal god, and the surrogate had to be in the same position.

3. King kills his son as surrogate

There is no doubt that the closest person related to the king would be his son – preferably, his eldest son. Some scholars have suggested that the story about killing the Egyptian first-born children during the time of Exodus as told in the Old Testament was based on such traditional custom. Among religious Jews, there is still practiced today the act of redeeming the first born son, but the origin and significance of this act is not quite clear. There is a suggestion that its purpose relates to that same plague; in turn, this commandment (which also appears in the Old Testament) refers again to sacrificing the first born son from being sacrificed.

Frazer cites again a number of cases where the king's sons were sacrificed in place of the king himself in Cambodia and Siam, and there is a story about a certain Scandinavian king: "traditions contain hints that the Swedish kings reigned only for periods of nine years, after which they were put to death ... Aun, king of Sweden, was told by the god Odin that he should live so long as he sacrificed one of his sons every ninth year. He sacrificed nine of them in this manner, and would have sacrificed the tenth and last, but the Swedes would not allow him. So he died and was buried in a mound at Upsala" (p. 324 – the mound is the traditional burial place for "sacred" kings). I suggest there is a mistake here, and the king had to sacrifice one of his sons not every ninth year but every one year, otherwise he would have reigned 81 years before he himself was put to death.

Frazer adds a comment about a custom in ancient Greece: "there seems to have been at least one kingly house of great antiquity of which the eldest sons were always liable to be sacrificed instead of their royal sires." He refers to Thessaly, which was famous for its witches – as later male-controlled society viewed ancient goddesses. Frazer brings many stories from that area, with the conclusion that "we may fairly infer that in Thessaly there reigned a dynasty of which the kings were liable to be sacrificed for the good of the country to the god called Lyphystian Zeus, but that they contrived to shift the fatal responsibility to their offspring, of whom the eldest son was regularly destined to the altar."

The starting point of this idea in The Golden Bough is as follows: "Among the Semites of Western Asia, the king sometimes gave his own son to die as a sacrifice for the people." Such practice is mentioned to have occurred in Byblos, and further, "When the king of Moab was besieged by the Israelites he took his eldest son and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall". This case is actually mentioned in the Old Testament in the book of II Kings. Thus, an event which may have begun as a seasonal practice out of feeling of necessity by ancient peoples worshiping the Earth goddess, turned in time into a general practice of son's sacrifice in a state of personal or national distress, as happened in the case of Yiftah.

B. Yiftah (Jephtah) and his daughter

Yiftah the Gil'adite, an Israelite man of the tribe of Manasseh, was "a man of valor", but he was the son of a "harlot". At that time (somewhere between 1200 BCE and 1000 BCE) this word referred to a woman who served at a temple of the Love Goddess Asherah, or Ashtoret (= Ashtarte); by sleeping with her, men brought the gift of love to the goddess. Thus, in pagan speech, being the son of the goddess' priestess made Yiftah the son of the goddess herself; as such he was destined from birth to be sacrificed in her honor and for the purpose of beseeching her favors for the good of the country – especially if and when he becomes the leader of his people. When he grew up, the sons of his father's wife drove Yiftah away from their home in the land of Gil'ad (a range of mountains across River Jordan south of the Sea of Galilee), which was also the name of his father. Yiftah became the leader of all kinds of homeless people; but when the Ammonites, whose country was south of Gil'ad, set out to take over that country from the Israelites, the elders of Gil'ad called to Yiftah to come and save them. When he declined, they promised to make him their regular leader (i.e. "judge") if he did what they asked.

When Yiftah was preparing to fight the Ammonites, he made a vow that if God delivered him safe and sound, he would sacrifice to him the first creature that came out of his house to welcome him back. It is quite clear that he almost expected to die in this war, but the creature who welcomed him would become his surrogate sacrifice. (It must be remembered that being sacrificed to a deity bestows a great honor on the victim and in many cases, even deifies him). Unfortunately (but not unexpectedly), the first person that came out to greet Yiftah was his only daughter, and he was bound to sacrifice her to God. When he told her that, she asked his permission to go over the hills with her girls "to mourn her virginity", her lost youth and life. As a result, "it was a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Giladite four days in a year." (Judges 11). This is what is called by scholars "an aetiological story", which is invented for the purpose of explaining an old but unexplained custom, whose origin is unclear for later generations.

The fact that the Bible does not mention the name of Yiftah's daughter makes the whole story more than a myth than description of a real event: sacrifice was a well known practice that did not necessitate specific details; sacrificing a daughter, though, does need an explanation, which perhaps may be found in an ancient Greek myth. It is the story of the sacrifice, or attempted sacrifice, of Iphigenia daughter of King Agamemnon of Mycene, leader of the Greek army. The Greeks were going to attack Troy and bring back Helen, wife of Agamemnon's brother, King Menelaus of Sparta. The Greek ships were unable to sail because the winds did not blow, and Agamemnon's companions persuaded him to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in order to atone Aeolos, god of the winds – or else to kill her as a witch who caused the winds to stop blowing. In one version of the story the goddess Artemis saves the girl who becomes the goddess' priestess.

In his book The Greek Myths Robert Graves calls the girl Iphygeneia, meaning "Mother of a Strong Race", which makes it impossible for her to die a victim. Graves' interpretation of the story goes thus: originally, it must be a man who was sacrificed to the goddess, not a female sacrificed to a male god. In his opinion, the changeover corresponds to a social change from the rule of the goddess to the rule of god. This situation may be parallel in the Biblical story: having become a leader of his people by overcoming their enemy, the Ammonites, it was Yiftah who would be sacrificed to the goddess (who may have been called Ashera), at the end of some specified period.

C. Shimshon ha-Gibbor ("Mighty Samson") –

This is the story of Shimshon as it is told in the Old Testament (Judges 13-16): The Israelites again did wrong in the eyes of God and they were given to the hand of their neighbors the Philistines. These belonged to a group of Indo-European sea peoples who had invaded the southern Canaanite Mediterranean shore around 13th century BCE; there was a non-stop friction between them and the Israelite tribe of Dan who had been settled in that area, to whom Shimshon's family belonged.

Although the name Dan has a Semitic meaning, some scholars claim that it was derived from an Indo-European origin, associated with deities like Don or Danu who had given their name to the rivers Danube, Dneiper, Dneister, etc., and other derivations that existed throughout Europe in ancient times. This may explain some mythological ideas that appear in the present story. The whole story is presented as a contest between the Danites and the Philistines as rivals for supremacy in the tradition of pagan mythology (e.g. Baal v. Mot, Balder v. Hodder, Osiris v. Seth, etc).

The birth of Shimshon is reminiscent of that of Jesus; his mother is being told by an angel about her having a special son: "Lo, thou shalt conceive, and bear a son; and no razor shall come on his head: for the child shall be a Nazarite unto God from the womb" (Judges 13). This means that he should lead a pure life, avoid drinking and let his hair grow. The idea fits the rule of a sacrificial victim which must be a clean, pure beast. The child is called Shinshon, a name taken from the Hebrew word Shemesh, meaning Sun, parallel to a wide-spread Semitic Sun god or goddess named Shamash (another parallel to Jesus, whose character shows him in many ways to be a Sun god). Two European Sun gods were connected with seasonal myths: the Scandinavian Balder, and the Welsh Llew-Llaw-Gyffes; Llew's name had been translated in two ways: The Lion with the Strong Hand, and Light has a Long Arm; the latter appellation equates him with the Sun, identifying Llew with the Irish Sun god Lugh; but the former shows another parallel characteristic to the Biblical story, as will be shown below.

Early in his life Shimshon dissociates himself from the Israelites by preferring a Philistine wife rather than an Israelite one. On his way to her town of Timnah to ask for her hand in marriage, he performs his first heroic act the manner of Heracles, the original "hero" whose life was dedicated to the great goddess Hera: encountering a lion, Shimshon kills it with his bare hands. Doing that, he justifies his Hebrew appellation ha-Gibbor, which means both "Mighty" and "Hero" – the latter word is used in modern Hebrew in a literary sense.

Shomshon's chosen woman is also nameless (as was the case of Yiftah's daughter), making her a general female character, perhaps representing the Goddess. When he presents the Philistines a riddle to demonstrate his viability as her mate, she manages to pry it out of him and make them win the day. The season these events take place is springtime, which is symbolized by the lion and also fits this stage in Llew-Llaw-Gyffes story.

In Llew's story, after his marriage his wife betrays him in his absence; in Shimshon's case, his wife is given to another man in his absence by her father. The season is the wheat harvest time, which is Midsummer in the Eastern Mediterranean, the time when the sun is at its peak after which its power begins to wane. The idea is reflected by the symbolic weakening of the hero and his relationship with the Goddess. Rather than submit to his fate, Shimshon captures thirty foxes, ties them by their tails and lights them up, sending them to burn down the Philistines' fields. That fire is also an indication of Midsummer as the fiery time of year.

After these events, Shimshon finds another (Philistine) woman to make love to. On the whole, he consorts with three women, who fit the idea of the Triple Goddess in her three aspects. His wife represented the young virgin aspect; the second woman is called "a harlot", which makes her – as was explained in the Yiftah' story – a representative of the Love goddess. Later he meets the third woman, Delilah – also a Philistine – who eventually causes his death; like the Greek Death goddess Hecate, she sits on a crossroad. In this also Shimshon' story parallels that of Llew's, who also had three women in his life: his mother Arianrhod, his wife Blodeuwedd as a flower goddess, and the Death goddess who has two appearances in the story – the same Blodeuwedd turned into an Owl, and the White Sow who eats his flesh.

Shimshon, much like the Sun itself, is indestructible; as much as the Philistines want his blood, they are unable to find his weak point, or – as in the case of both Llew Llaw Gyffse and the Russians Death god Koschei – they can't find where his death lies. In the end, again, it is the woman Delila, whose cunning is that of the Underworld, who does it for them. She nags him so much about it "so that his soul was vexed unto death" (Judges 16) – by which she has attained her goal. She finds out that his strength lies in his uncut hair, cuts it herself, ties him up and invites the Philistines to take him away.

They blind him, then, as the Scandinavian Sun god Balder was blinded by his brother and rival Hodder, king of the Underworld, when the Northern Sun sinks for three months of the year in winter and the god of Darkness rules. Shimshon is put to work at turning the flour mill, which is another pagan term: the mill is composed of two round grinding stones one on top of the other; the top one revolves and grinds the precious grains that was put between the stones, and the flour flows down through a hole in the middle. Ancient farmers used flour for offering as a symbol of fertility; but the revolving stone symbolized the revolving of the year sacred to the Fertility goddess. By working the mill, Shimshon again shows himself as connected with the seasonal god, subject to the great goddess of the year.

On their festival day (probably the New Year at the autumnal equinox, when the new agricultural year begins in that geographical area), the leaders of the Philistines get together to sacrifice to their god Dagon (or Dagan = Corn) and to celebrate the fall of Shimshon and their victory over the Israelites. They take him out of jail and bring him to their great hall to add to their joy. But they do not notice that his hair has started to grow again. They put him between the two great columns that support the roof – perhaps at the place of the altar – in front of thousands of people that crowd the hall. Feeling his strength returning, Shimshon leans on the columns and, crying to the Israelite god, he utters his most famous words to this day: "Let me die with the Philistines!" Then he pushes the columns and they crumble, making the roof fall with those on it on top of all the people inside the hall. "So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life" (Judges 16).

The Old Testament tells the story of the Hebrew people and their monotheistic God overcoming the Philistines and their pagan Goddess, which is the initial purpose for writing and publicizing the text of the Old Testament. Perhaps it is intended that the obvious representative of the Sun goddess would win the day in the name of the monotheistic God.

Part Two – Modern Fantasy

The following books of modern fantasy that are presented here contain the idea of sacrifice as it was used in the ancient seasonal mythology.

The following is a very concise form of the Sumerian story of Dumuzi, whom scholars understand to represent vegetation. He was the lover of the great Sky goddess Inanna; died and was taken by the Underworld goddess Ereshkigal. Inanna went down to the Underworld to fetch him back, and after some negotiation, they agreed to share him; he was to spend part of the year on the surface of the earth and part of it under it.

Dumuzi figures by name in Robert Silverberg's Gilgamesh the King, which is based on an ancient Sumerian poetic story known from its Babylonian cuneiform text. (The Semitic Babylonians used the same cuneiform transcript used by the non-Semitic Sumerians – in the same way the Japanese use Chinese ideograms for their own language which is very different). In the book, a king calls himself by the name Dumuzi, who is known to the people from the old seasonal myth; this king dies an untimely death, seemingly because he uses that name, thus identifying himself with the dying god. Gilgamesh, both the hero and the narrator of the story, is chosen by a priestess of Inanna to be her lover; she wants to make their relationship permanent, which may mean that she wants him to be her perpetual consort in acting out the myth. Gilgamesh, however, is king of Erekh; he feels he does not need the help of the goddess in his rule and clearly intends to free himself from her supreme power as the goddess of the year. Gilgamesh may have been the first male who managed to free himself from female power (although it is possible that such power returned for a time after his death, as human sacrifices continued for a long time; it is possible, though, that they were done in the name of a god rather than a goddess).

The idea that the goddess' consort went down to the Underworld, acting thus a symbolic death, appears in the final book of the Amber series, Prince of Chaos by Roger Zelazny. The place called Chaos in that series may represent the Underworld – or Otherworld, as the Celts call it, as it forms an opposite to Amber itself as the true world of the living; Amber is considered a rational place, while Chaos is the site of magical wisdom. A princess of Chaos, Dara, mother to the hero Merlin, has imprisoned his father and her former lover in a dark pit significantly similar to a grave, where he is "dead to the world", and unable to use his own magic; his name is Corwin, hinting at the Raven god in ancient European myths who ruled over the Underworld. Dara intends her son to be the King of Chaos, but under Dara's power. Again, it is the power of the male of the species who wins the day. In some King Arthur legends the magician Merlin also fought against the representative of the goddess' myth in the figure of Morgan le-Fee.

The Stonehenge Legacy by Sam Christer is a book of a very different kind. The story occurs in the present, but is based on the ancient idea of seasonal sacrifice. However, it digresses from the original seasonal significance for ancient peoples, who were close to Nature, and emphasizes the idea of atoning people's sins and crimes, and intends to bring salvation to soul and body. What is important here is the myth of Christ, which is an enlargement on the seasonal sacrifice: Jesus is the son of God – Mary functions as a mother, but not as a Mother Goddess, and the cyclical idea of birth, love, death and resurrection has been cut short, eliminating the idea of Love in its center.

In the book, a group of people – significantly, only male – gather once a year to sacrifice a man of their choice, in the hope that it would make life in the world better. The choice of place for this act it Stonehenge, to memorialize ancient mythological times, but the ancient myth has been distorted to fit the leader's own idea of salvation rather than a revival of Nature. The book could have been considered realistic fiction were it not for the appearance of a miracle in the shape of magical qualities ascribed to the stones of Stonehenge.


When I set out to write this article about the pagan origin to some Biblical stories, I had no idea how widespread is the practice of human sacrifice all over the world and how significant in its various ideas and purposes – perhaps in some places to this day. The subject is vast and uncontainable, so by force I had to limit the article to a workable size.


Witches Lore,  nonfiction, Issue 3, June 1, 2008

Mythological Giants and Their Wars,  nonfiction, Issue 12, September 1, 2010

King David in the Cave, nonfiction, Issue 19, June 1, 2012

Human Sacrifice, nonfiction, Issue 26, March 1, 2014

The Loss and Search for a Loved One, Issue 28, September 1, 2014

The Mythology of Water, Issue 32, September 1, 2015

Mazes and Spirals, Issue 33, December 1, 2015

Tala Bar, I am a writer and an artist and I live in Israel. I studied Hebrew and English languages and literature and I hold a Master of Philosophy degree in literature from London University; before my retirement, I was a teacher of Hebrew and English languages and literature. I am interested in anthropology in general and in mythology in particular and I write with these subjects in mind. In literature, I am particularly interested in fantasy and science fiction and I have written and had published stories, novellas, novels and essays both in Hebrew and English. A list of my published works in English can be found in this address:!/editnote.php?draft&note_id=668947876498985&id=100001513373155    

Samples of my art works and some family photos can be found in the following address:                                                

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