Definition from Wikipedia:

Human sacrifice is the act of killing one or more human beings, usually as an offering to a deity, as part of a religious ritual.

The person to be sacrificed can be part of a ritual with or without consent, but it poses less moral problems if the person consent to the sacrifice.

For many societies before the classical age, the ritual of human sacrifice was a common practice. The custom ceased before the middle ages mostly because of religious reasons.

But is it possible, for a society to keep those practices acceptable during the middle ages and beyond (with or without the victim's consent)?

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    $\begingroup$ It's a common idea (although dressed up differently) in science fiction as well. For example "The Running Man" could be thought of as human sacrifice, as could "The Hunger Games" and much more. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 15 '14 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ Some would consider the modern day practice of the death penalty as a form of Human Sacrifice. It's not as a form of worship in a deity, but rather as a way to give into the population which is demanding blood for specific crimes. $\endgroup$ – NotMe Oct 15 '14 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ The Japanese hara-kiri or Seppuku is one non religious sacrifice, but it's a self sacrifice for honor, not to please the gods. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Oct 15 '14 at 23:01
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    $\begingroup$ I see no reason why being a "developed" society should preclude this sort of behavior, unless we specifically constrain our definition of "developed" to rule it out. $\endgroup$ – Jon Kiparsky Oct 16 '14 at 2:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Vincent: What is a trial but a ritual? The vast majority of trials are not conducted according to any valid scientific methodology for determining guilt, much less for reducing the incidence of violent crime. They're a show to appease certain expectations: the public's expectation that somebody "pay" for a crime, the expectation of conviction rate on the prosecutor, etc. etc. $\endgroup$ – R.. Oct 16 '14 at 2:52

18 Answers 18


Why not?

I hate to say it but we are disgusting horrible violent creatures at times. We consider ourselves developed and cutured but there are still murders, we slaughter other living things for delicious meat, we go to wars, and are entertained by violence (fictional and semi-controlled as sports).

If the society demands human sacrifices either due to:

  • religous tradition to a false (but still followed) god
  • religous tradition demanded by a real unloving god (it is a fictional world)
  • a prior religous tradition that has devolved into a bloodlust entertainment source
  • a proclaimed religous tradition that is used to dispose of/get back at objectors by a corrupt governing body

While it is horrible, your fictional society doesn't have to be much more inhumane (for this site) than our current one. You just need to have a minority would cling to it and a majority who are willing to ignore/allow it.

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    $\begingroup$ Why do you assume that unloving gods can only happen in fictional worlds? Many people consider the existence of a malevolent god more plausible than that of a benevolent one. $\endgroup$ – Wrzlprmft Oct 15 '14 at 20:01
  • $\begingroup$ Heh, I don't believe in the existance of a malevolent god. The great torturer above who is growing us for food is gractious for letting me live this long. Thank you, Thank you. No you don't look fat in the dress. (All joking aside, I think most people believe either is a benevolent one who gave us everything we have or no God at all. That and if it is fictional, you can make up any God you want.) $\endgroup$ – kaine Oct 15 '14 at 20:07
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    $\begingroup$ @kaine I find this answer so ironic given your username is ALMOST khaine... the Warhammer elf god of murder! $\endgroup$ – Liath Oct 16 '14 at 8:42
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    $\begingroup$ In addition, the sacrifice may have some possibly hidden utility. It may be ritualized population control, or humans could have some sort of specialized energy release on death. In either case, it could be an official tenet of a religion, or tacked on later. $\endgroup$ – Magus Oct 16 '14 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ It would not even have to be a religious tradition. Any principle, philosophy or ideology that inspires enough fervor would substitute just as well. Any form of nationalism, for example. TBQH I've known dozens of people to be devoted to all sorts of things, with a zeal and intensity quite reminiscent of religion. It is all a matter of perspective. $\endgroup$ – lea Oct 17 '14 at 9:02

Human sacrifice is the act of killing one or more human beings.

Keep in mind, when someone in the 21st century thinks of human sacrifices we think of something different than this. We generally associate the second half of the definition, that being it is part of a ritual. This is our current definition. Not necessarily historical.

What is a ritual is very variable based on what time in history it is. There are plenty of activities in 2014 which are killing one or more human beings. These could be as simple as:

  • War
  • Driving
  • Starvation worldwide
  • Capital punishment
  • Murder
  • Abortion (YMMV...)

These are all "legitimized" instances where humans die either directly as the result of others or indirectly through lack of action. All have varying levels of support societally.

Historically, many contexts happened which we currently deem barbaric or as the result of society being primitive also happened. Including during Earth's middle ages. Public burnings, hangings, and like these or what we now consider absurd happened consistently.

Perhaps in some years or centuries we will look at the above list and be equally appalled and consider them rituals "those savages did in 2014 to kill so many of each other!"

But is it possible for a society to keep those practices acceptable during the middle ages and beyond (with or without the victim's consent)?

I think at this point it is clear the answer is, "yes, it is possible."

But the unasked question is then... how best to have a world with human sacrifice?

The key is you need to devalue human life. In all acts we consider human sacrifice, both present and past, there was always something more important than the life. Entertainment, appeasement of god(s), war, safety, freedom, something always took precedence for the society to embrace the loss of life.

In your world you need to make this clear. Perhaps it's a plague which has devastated immune systems and the only way to repair living tissues is through transplants (in fact an entire movie is formed with this premise). Maybe it's war torn and people are sacrificed/killed in the name of security.

Technology and the increase of a society system involving freedom do a lot to create what are now our traditional objections to sacrifices. In an advancing world, it's harder to take away technology. But the governmental, societal, and familial constructs can be shaped in nearly any way you desire in order to create the world needed for human sacrifice to be thrive.

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    $\begingroup$ There is also Repo: The Genetic Opera - where people take loans to have organs upgraded but then the organs get taken back again if you can't keep up the payments... $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 16 '14 at 8:30
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree with devaluing human life as necessary for sacrifice. Holding human life to be very precious makes the sacrifice powerful. If you discard something you do not care much about, it is hardly a sacrifice. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Dec 17 '14 at 13:58
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi I think the point is that in each situation there is something that is valued more than the life in question (regardless of how highly it's valued). Otherwise the sacrifice wouldn't be made as it wouldn't be viewed as worth the cost. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Jan 14 at 12:48

Some would argue that the death penalty is a form of human sacrafice. The life of a person is taken for the perceived benefit of society. Many aspects of the act are ceremonial (last meal, last visit with clergy, victims family observing, standardization of the method). It is a bit of a jump from what we think of when we mean sacrafice but I think all of the criteria are met.

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    $\begingroup$ I cannot think of a single reason NOT to read the death penalty, as utilized in the United States, as a ritual act. If human sacrifice is a ritual execution, as specified by the OP, then @Myles' answer neatly closes the question: "yes, e.g., the United States today." $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Oct 16 '14 at 16:09
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    $\begingroup$ @CAgrippa I can think of one: the death penalty can be viewed as a purely practical way to irreversibly prevent anyone from having to deal with a person's future criminal behavior. A way that does not place the burden of caring for the person on society, as life imprisonment does. Of course one would wonder whether the judgment about the person's future criminal behavior is accurate, but that's a separate issue from how the death penalty is viewed. $\endgroup$ – David Z Oct 16 '14 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidZ Regardless of the reasoning that leads to the event many aspects of the event make it ritualistic. For example if one of these aspects were missing (for example the family of the victim were denied access) there would be a change in how the event would be perceived in spite of the fact that the possibility of future criminal behavior is eliminated. The fact that there are a bunch of specific rules related to the event that have no bearing on whether the goal is achieved point towards the fact that it is ritual. $\endgroup$ – Myles Oct 16 '14 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Myles okay, but none of those rituals that we associate with putting a criminal to death are inherent to the act itself. In other words, the manner in which we carry out the death penalty may be ritualistic, but that doesn't mean the mere act of putting a convicted criminal to death is a ritual. $\endgroup$ – David Z Oct 16 '14 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ A ritual "is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to set sequence." - Wikipedia The act of putting them to death is the central activity of the ritual. It's true that the death penalty in some circumstances would lack most or all of the ritual components (being "fired" from the mob or execution of political dissidents) however I think it is implied from my answer that I was suggesting the death penalty as enforced by the government in America. $\endgroup$ – Myles Oct 16 '14 at 18:28

Yes, for example if a society were so medically advanced that it's members were effectively immortal, it could develop a tradition/legal requirement that to have any children you would have to find someone who would willingly offer themself as a human sacrifice. This tradition/legal requirement could easily develop ritualistic elements over time.

Basically you need a widespread belief that something terrible will happen if the sacrifices halt. E.g. the Aztecs believed that stopping would cause the apocalypse, the vault dwellers in the Fallout example above believed that the vault tech would kill them if they stopped, the hypothetical example society would believe that stopping would lead to unsustainable population growth.

  • $\begingroup$ which leads us to Asimov who in at least one of his novels has a society on earth where people at their 50th birthday report for euthenasia in order that the population of the planet be kept low after much of the surface has become uninhabitable because of growing radioactivity (the reason for that becomes clear in another novel released several decades later, and is itself a physical impossibility). $\endgroup$ – jwenting Oct 16 '14 at 12:05

Ritual sacrifice is nearly universal in religious history, and human sacrifice quite common. Nothing whatever prevents its occurrence, even as a common phenomenon, among "developed" societies, unless one jury-rigs the question by defining "developed" to exclude human sacrifice.

As a first approach, one ought to conceive of human sacrifice as a passage-rite, or rite de passage, as Arnold van Gennep indelibly termed them. Passage-rites transition the subject from one recognized social state to another, by way of a mediating third phase in which highly-valued cultural conceptions and norms are manifested to all concerned during a delimited focal event.

For example, girls' pubertal rites transition the subjects from "girl" to "woman" by way of a mediating "liminal" phase in which many of the culture's deepest notions of what women are -- their roles, their bodies, their meanings, their functions -- are proposed to the ritual subjects for consideration. The mode of such presentation varies widely, but (at least Victor Turner's analyses) usually balance freedom -- the freedom to discuss and/or think about the presented norms and ideals without ordinary restrictions (you can't talk about those things in public, it's wrong or dirty or blasphemous; you can't question those things, they're just true because that's the way the world is; etc.) -- and constraint -- the constraint imposed by the structure of the rite such that the neophytes emerge having accepted the near-absolute value and validity of those cultural norms.

In other words, a passage-rite

  1. transitions the subject(s) from State A to State B
  2. by way of a sharply-delimited liminal phase
  3. during which phase certain culturally-important norms and ideals are presented strongly
  4. for free consideration and interpretation by those to whom they are presented
  5. with the constraint that interpretation must ultimately reinforce the social norms and ideals Furthermore,
  6. the symbolism of transition from A to liminal is commonly that of death (one dies to State A)
  7. the symbolism of transition from liminal to B is commonly that of birth (one is reborn into State B)

If human sacrifice is construed as passage-rite, in the same way as funerary ritual is, then a few points immediately become clear:

  • State A includes "live" and State B includes "dead"
  • the liminal phase is defined such that physical death occurs in its purview
  • the norms and ideals almost certainly have to do with the nature of life and death, but also with the status or qualities of those who undergo the rite, as well as possibly those who order, perform, or otherwise engage in the rite
  • the free consideration and interpretation is almost certainly not confined to the initiatory subject (the victim)
  • entrance into State B is likely understood as some sort of rebirth

In Classical Mesoamerican societies, a number of core principles linked these factors. For one thing, human beings and their life-cycles were analogized to maize. Maize, after all, reaches its maximal value when it is harvested and ingested; just so, human life is incomplete and problematic until its has ended and the body/spirit/blood been ingested. On this understanding, "ingested" includes not only cannibalism -- which did occur, in token symbolic instances, across Classical Mesoamerica -- but also being eaten by certain gods, as well as having one's body be absorbed into the earth as fertilizer for new crops/life. It is unclear, but sexual intercourse may in some circumstances have been analogized similarly, with the vagina becoming a mouth that eats male spiritual essence -- this links up, arguably, with the regular appearance of vagina dentata symbolism throughout a wide swathe of American mythology.

The only point that appears to prevent regular human sacrifice, in most modern conceptions, is that one "obviously" should not kill other people on a large or regular scale. Here again Classical Mesoamerican examples demonstrate the incoherence of this claim. Warfare was normally conducted using weapons poorly adapted for killing one's enemies, but beautifully adapted to rendering them unable to fight. Battle was normally a matter of defeating one's enemies and then dragging them home as slaves. In later Aztec society, a very large percentage of such slaves were sacrificed, but the difference between this and earlier formations seems to be a matter of percentages and scale. The point is that if you have defeated your enemy on the battlefield, in most open-warfare situations, he is dead. The fact that, in Classical Mesoamerica, he may not actually be physically dead, does not change the point. If a battle between 500 warriors on each side concludes with one side having 150 escape and the other 350 die, does it matter whether they died in that moment on the field or a few weeks later on the sacrificial stone? They're dead either way. Indeed, one could argue that death on a battlefield renders the warrior anonymous, strips his individuality and significance from him, as he becomes nothing more than a statistic. By contrast, his sacrifice on the stone grants his life and his strength specific worth, and he is given an opportunity to face death in a way he considers proper. Sacrifice, in this view, is essentially battlefield cleanup by other means.

This brings us to the question of "honor." We often encounter a notion that one should honor the dead, and we are continually enjoined to honor brave soldiers who risk their lives and die on the battlefield. In the Classical Mesoamerican conception, such honor should not be done at a distance, nor only by one's own people. One should honor one's opponents for their bravery and warlike qualities, as well: if your enemies are not worth that honor, why fight them? why risk your own warriors' deaths in combat against meaningless enemies? Those whom we defeat in battle we honor in sacrifice. Through sacrifice, several things happen. First, we give great power and strength to our tutelary gods, who support us in our endeavors. Second, we honor our brave warriors who capture their enemies in battle. Third, we return the mighty bodily power of our enemies to the earth, where it fructifies our crops and our polity. And fourth, we grant our brave enemy an opportunity to show his bravery and worth, to demonstrate his power and significance, before a wide and admiring audience of our own people. We know very well that he would do the same for us, for he comes of an honorable and mighty society -- albeit not so mighty as ours. And so we know that, if he is truly a worthy opponent, he will march to the stone demonstrating his power and his lack of fear, thereby ensuring that all our gods will rejoice in his life and his death.

There is a lot more to it than that, of course, but I wanted to present a conception under which human sacrifice depends on positive notions, both metaphysical and socio-political. One could certainly argue, as other answers here have argued, that US-style death penalties, abortion, and a number of other phenomena could be read as human sacrifices. The questions at stake are not at base ethical: it's a matter of the symbolic construction we impose in order to interpret these behaviors. Indeed, I would argue that US-style capital punishment is far less ethical, in every possible sense, than was Aztec sacrifice, because (a) we don't think that the dead body is worth anything, (b) we pretend to think that those who revel in revenge are in the wrong, (c) we deny the utility of the performance to any wider audience, (d) we treat it exclusively as a punishment. Thus nobody gets anything positive out of capital punishment: the only "good" is the removal of a negative. But I don't like double negatives in rhetoric, and I really don't like them when it comes to people.

Short answer: yes, human sacrifice is entirely possible, and indeed is arguably practiced in the United States as a legal process (albeit a very incoherent one). To build human sacrifice in your worldbuilding project, focus on what it does positively. People die all the time; whether they die under a knife or by being cut down on a battlefield, they're dead. So the difference that makes human sacrifice interesting is that it puts a focus of control on the death, thereby granting it higher-order meaning. Once you work out your processes of initiation, the fundamental symbols and mysteries at stake, you may begin to wonder whether your sacrificing society is any less "developed" than is the United States.

  • $\begingroup$ A passing note: one of the (many) inaccuracies in Apocalypto is the forest tribe's utter bewilderment at the Mayan invasion. In the real world, anyone in range of such invasion was participant in a cognate culture-complex and knew perfectly well what was happening.,, and any warriors they captured were equally enslaved and/or sacrificed. Human sacrifice of this type depends on mutual comprehension and exchange. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Oct 16 '14 at 23:49
  • $\begingroup$ Btw, a series of five separate studies from several major universities on death penalty about five years ago showed that every execution in Texas saved 18 lives. The primary utility seems to be in having a higher starter point for plea bargaining. If your highest penalty is life and prison, then you must plea down to an eventual release. If you start at death you can plea down to percent imprisonment. It also cuts down on murders in prison. It's a functional deterrent. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Oct 18 '14 at 3:26

Let's define sacrifice to be the killing of a human for a non-material effects. Although we use the word sacrifice to describe the deaths of soldiers and the like, that's not really what we are after. If we do that, we define sacrifice to mean any death occurring in the pursuit of a common good, this would include work places accidents and dying in labor. If the person is killed as a side effect of another activity, then that is not a sacrifice.

The haunting thing about human sacrifice is the killing of person not as a side effect of some otherwise positive act but instead the killing of the person itself is the point. No culture that practiced human sacrifice justified the practice on materialistic pragmatic grounds.

But that doesn't mean there weren't ones. Cultures evolve under selection forces just like all other animal behaviors. Practices that persist long term must have a payoff for the cost. But there is zero correlation between the explanation for the behavior and its functional purpose.

The pragmatic reason for human sacrifice in meso-America is almost certainly their inability to control, long term, large numbers of prisoners without metal weapons or restraints. Killing warriors was the only way to neutralize them.

The primary weapons of meso-America were the trained bodies of warriors. They technology was secondary. Today one guard with a heavy machine gun can control hundreds of prisoners but with wood and stone weapons, one guard can control may two of three. It's hard to create restraints from cord or wood that prisoners cannot defeat if unobserved for a few hours at most.

The mass slaughter of the soldiers of a defeated army is a disturbingly common practice in history. Soldiers are still dangerous even if their cohesion is broken in battle. In Japan it was common to hunt down and kill all the soldiers of a defeated army to keep them from turning to banditry or seeking revenge.

Their is also the issue that virtually all preindustrial war was wars between dynastic lineages. The only way to destroy the organizational structure of an enemy was to kill the elites root and branch. That is why infanticide played a role in dynastic struggles.

In meso-America, the practice of human sacrifice evolved to kill prisoners, destroy lineages but to do so in some regulated and human way. Most sacrificed were adult males of higher rank. They developed the idea that it wasn't cold blooded murder but paying the human blood debt to the gods. The warrior culture evolved to consider it a warriors highest honor to die under sacrifice instead of battle.

In one Aztec exemplar story, a great hero is captured and stands on the dais of the enemy city state. Barbarians attack threatening the civilized city. The warrior leads a contingent his own warriors and the enemy city's warriors to defend the general civilization. When victorious he returns at the head of his army to the dais to be sacrificed because he owed the gods first and foremost.

Most human sacrifices have some practical function, if only psychological. I think one of the functions was to demonstrate that the upper classes would sacrifice their own children for the common good at times when the commoners where suffering from famine, plague or invasion. The rare Roman sacrifices seem to have always occurred under times of stress that threatened social cohesion between classes.

The Celts seem to have used human sacrifice to kill prisoners but in times of peace to kill off elites judge to powerful or disruptive. The Druids appear to have functioned as a balance of power mechanism killing elites who caused to much trouble or who acquired to much power.

None of these examples should be taken to mean that every single sacrifice had a pragmatic purpose. The people involved likely believed their stated justifications so they might sacrifice people in line with the fictional justification instead of just when needed practically.

So, what practical could an advanced technical society have to sacrifice human beings? I don't think there are any.

A key facet of advanced technology is complex systems managed by specialist. This makes the systems easy to sabotage, disrupt or hold hostage. That in turn means that industrial societies must have historically high levels of internal trust and cohesion. The Soviet Union under Stalin might not look like a cohesive cooperative society but compared to 18th century Russian, it was.

Human sacrifice of members of the population would erode social cohesion and if even a small percentage of the population resisted the practice, they could cripple the industrial base. If you think you will end up on the alter anyway, what not take some of the bastards with you?

Also, exactly what practical function would such sacrifices accomplish that could not be accomplished by some other means? If you wanted to kill people to terrorize a population into submission, why dress it up in a ritual of the common good?

About the only scenario I can think of would be a civilization stuck in some kind of lifeboat scenario like a generation spacecraft. With technology fixed and unchanging, resources limited to those on board, some kind of crisis might temporarily reduce the number of individuals the life support system could support. At those times, the community might create rituals to sacrifice some members to save the rest.

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    $\begingroup$ I think your tighter definition is important, "the killing of a human for a non-material effects", otherwise "sacrifice" can be expanded into the many economic and societal trade-offs we make about safety vs freedom vs convenience: guns and cars come to mind. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Oct 17 '14 at 21:10

Human sacrifices were practiced during the Middle Ages in some cultures, famously Aztecs.

Historians are still debating the reasons. Proposed explanations include:

  • Cannibalism — but it is not even known whether this was practiced.
  • As tributes, the form being chosen to instill fear in vassals.
  • For religious reasons, sacrifice being considered something the gods will.
  • Population control — human sacrifice is only prevalent in relatively high-density habitats.

The Mayas also practiced human sacrifice, though by the time of the Spanish conquest, it isn't clear to me whether that was still the case (as opposed to political killings, e.g. of a deposed king or a defeated enemy, possibly under a religious veneer).

Population pressure combined with a low demand for manpower make a strong argument to evolve towards human sacrifice rather than slavery. This has to be in a society that puts a low price on human life.

Sacrifice can also be a way to justify the killing of someone that's embarrassing to keep around, such as a defeated military or political enemy. It's more convenient for the victor if religion pushes towards killing rather than mercy.

ObSF: John Barnes, Earth Made of Glass — an explicit revivial of Maya culture, complete with human sacrifice. This isn't necessarily sociologically realistic though.


Given that things are otherwise the same on earth (including humans), I can think of only one alternative scenario where this is possible.

Gods actually exist and impact the world...and want human sacrifices. This is pretty straight forward. Appease the angry gods or they will kill the crops and your first born etc etc etc.

I am assuming you are referring only to medieval Europe here as during the medieval era the Mayans were around and human sacrifice was part of their culture.

Another thought just occurred to me. If you expand your concept of human sacrifice beyond the traditional knife, fire, stone slab thing. You could consider the Salem witch hunts, the Inquisition, heck even holy wars as a form of human sacrifice. To "Honor the gods", the sky is the limit (so to speak), if you consider violence and killing in the name of god to be human sacrifice.

  • $\begingroup$ While I agree that is a possibility, why is that the only one? I cannot come up with a good reason why it would necessarily prevent a developed country compared to everything else we have done since the middle ages. $\endgroup$ – kaine Oct 15 '14 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ Its the only one I see if things were otherwise the same as earth. What humans have learned about the seasons and weather and space etc etc etc have eliminated the perceived need for human sacrifice. There is nothing to appease by killing other humans on an altar. Unless of course you expand your definition as I mentioned. That isn't to say you couldn't find small remote pockets of humanity that are completely uneducated still doing this today but that doesn't qualify as a "Modern" society. $\endgroup$ – James Oct 15 '14 at 20:01
  • $\begingroup$ Only because our culture from the non-scientific side agrees with it. If a significant adult non-mentally deranged religous minority were willing to sacrifice themselves near the end of their lives to a Beelziborb (who i just made up), and had been doing so since before the founding of this country, when in history would we have stopped them? They value the belief more than their lifes. He is also giving alot more freedom to the world than you are allowing for. What if it is the developed world where soylent green is needed to keep the young population nourished and remove the weak/elderly? $\endgroup$ – kaine Oct 15 '14 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not saying that's not possible but again that strikes me as a fringe element and not modern society. Also we would stop them because killing people is considered murder in most places...even Mormons were forced to change their views on marriage to become part of the US (at least legally and publicly). And compared to killing people seems a little more extreme a religious/cultural practice than killing people. For societies to evolve and grow, they develop rules that protect members from other members. $\endgroup$ – James Oct 15 '14 at 20:24

Sure. If a society wants to severely discourage crime, but doesn't want to give judges and juries the opportunity to choose capital punishment, a society might instead randomly choose one convicted criminal per time period (year, month, etc) and sacrifice them. Then you know that whatever crime you commit, be it jaywalking or murder, you have a slight chance of being put to death.

Psychologically random punishments are significantly more stressful than logical, consequential punishments.

This could apply not only to capital punishment, but for jail time (spin the wheel to see how long you stay in jail), fines, and other punishments.

Once society accepts the "random punishments reduce crime more effectively than consequential punishments" then it makes sense to enact a random justice system. Further, it might appeal to readers in our time who already feel that the justice system isn't deterministic.


The defining characteristic of sacrifices is that people would rather not make them. They make sacrifices -human or otherwise- because they believe that they have to. As you point out, religion has traditionally provided this impetus: "if I don't do this, the gods will be angry". But other reasons can exist. Politics and sociology arguably provide reasons, depending on one's particular ideologies in these areas: you can see examples of this in the other answers to this question.

For a secular society to practice believable sacrifice, you need a reason for them to believe that it's necessary. This belief doesn't necessarily have to be correct: there are interesting story possibilities either way. But as a belief, it does need to be sincerely held by those in power, or by such a commanding majority of the people at large that those in power don't dare go against it. If the belief isn't sincerely held, people just won't do it. But as long as you have a reason, you can make it work.


Suicide terrorism is a kind of ritual that's supposed to bring the person who commits suicide directly into heaven.

The Jonestown mass suicide was religious motivated ritualised suicide.

Some people consider "honor" killing of women who get rapped to be a religiously motivated. Most "honor" killing isn't strongly ritualised. "Honor" killing also existed in medieval Europe. Lessing wrote a book about it with Emilia Galotti. In the book it happens despite Christianity disapproving of the practice.

When Japan lost World War II some of the military generals did commit Seppuku. Seppuku consists of a fixed ritual but it's also for "honor" instead of being for religion.

Nation states generally don't want that their citizens commit suicide. The Japanese government did a lot to ban Seppuku. The Christian church did discourage suicide. Suicide terrorism or Japanese kamikaze where encouraged because it was useful for the goals of powerful people.

If you want to design a world with a modern society which still practices suicide you have to explain what the powerful people in that society gain from the practice. A priest that can call for the sacrifice of a person has political power. If there are a bunch of clans the priest can decide which clan has to provide the sacrifice.

If a specific clan has a lot of unbelievers, who don't believe in the authority of the priest, the clan can be called to make a sacrifice.

The custom gives you interesting conflicts that you can explore. Religion is mostly just a justification that people use to defend practices they do for other reasons.

  • $\begingroup$ Good list of cases, but these aren't really sacrifices. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Oct 18 '14 at 1:30
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    $\begingroup$ Your causality for kamikaze is backyards. It was the young pilots in the field that advocated for it, partially because they expected to be killed any in normal missions. The upper echelon, forbid the idea until the pilots started doing it anyway. Finally they formalized the system and it was effective but just to late. All of the most senior commanders of the Special Attack force themselves flew in Kamikaze missions when the end of the war was clear. None survived. They were ruthless but not careless of their men's lives and in the end gave as they had ask other to give. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Oct 18 '14 at 3:43

Here's one way how human sacrifice could enter a developed world: through social Darwinism. Social Darwinism is the idea that advantageous traits must be explicitly selected for among humans, and has often been coupled with the idea that this selection has to come with the physical elimination (that is, killing) of those not having the traits perceived as advantageous.

Now as long as those killings are only against groups that get stigmatized (like in the Third Reich), of course it will not get ritualized in a way that you could speak of sacrifice. However, based on the assumption that evolution works best if there are many children and only the best survive, there could be an ideology that people have to have as many children as possible, more than are sustainable in the long run, and then at some point, say the beginning of adulthood, the best are selected and the others get killed. Let's say that a government holding that ideology comes into power and starts to implement it.

But then you have the problem that you don't have to kill just stigmatized people (like being disabled, or being from a claimed inferior group), but perfectly good and healthy ones that just don't rank as high according to the chosen "fitness" criteria as those chosen to live. So just separating them and killing them somewhere aside will not work. But if there is to be a public killing, it has to be ritualized.

This ritualized killing could be coupled with a ritual for the beginning to adulthood. For example, the data collected on the individuals might not be open, so those entering the ritual don't know for sure whether they are among those who are allowed to survive, or among those who will get killed. The beginning of the ritual might be the same for everyone, but then at one point, there comes the point where either the ritual killing takes place for those who are not allowed to live on, or a fake killing for those who are allowed to live, acting as test of courage to them (where failing that test by showing fear might itself be a reason to be considered non-fit).

Now initially that ritual could probably only be established by a totalitarian regime. However, imagine that regime is in power for long enough that at one time, everyone alive has gone through this procedure. Then for everyone alive, that procedure was part of their life, and they have been indoctrinated throughout their life that this ritual is important to keep a healthy people, and moreover, being a survivor of the ritual gives them a certain self-esteem (after all, they survived the ritual because they were among the "best" people!). I could imagine that over time, this would be accepted even by people who don't otherwise accept the totalitarian regime, just as result of the aforementioned factors. So it might get happen that the totalitarian regime one day gets overthrown, but the ritual is kept intact; just that now the institution that decides who survives is controlled (more or less) democratically, and the criteria are open to public discourse.

Sure, there will be those who argue against the ritual completely, but as long as the majority supports the ritual (just because they were told during their whole life that it is beneficial, and thus believe it), it will persist. It probably won't persist forever, but a lot of things we take for granted these days also took a long time to get even in democracies (for example, for a long time slavery was considered acceptable in the USA, despite having a democratic system, and even longer legal discrimination of races was considered acceptable; also Switzerland was democratic from the beginning, but was one of the last democratic countries where women were allowed to vote). So it is not unlikely that it would persist for the lifetime of a person.

  • $\begingroup$ BTW, that wasn't what Herbert Spencer said. The modern interpretations comes from a Stalinist smearing his work. He just took it for granted that some people we better equipped to sucked than others and that society shouldn't bar that based on criteria like class or background. But he also advocated strong charity on the part of the successful. Spencer was using Darwinism to fight English class barriers. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Oct 18 '14 at 23:22

This could be of interest, from Fallout New Vegas: http://fallout.wikia.com/wiki/Vault_11

In the fallout vault described the by the link, the following social experiment played out. Convinced it would keep them safe from nuclear attacks residents were locked into an underground settlement and not given the ability to leave. These vault dwellers were instructed that they must sacrifice one individual each year or the vault would kill them all. If they refused to do so, it would praise them and give them control over the doors so they can leave as they pleased.

They continued to sacrifice each other until only 5 remained. 4 of those kill themselves when they find out the truth.

This seems to be an example of humans sacrificing humans to some construct originally made by humans but now with power reminisent of a god (complete destruction).

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    $\begingroup$ If you are willing to flush it out, this could be a real answer. $\endgroup$ – kaine Oct 15 '14 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah not being able to post comments can be a pain at first. For this kind of thing you have to either make a real answer out of the link, or just skip it for now. Be active on the site and ask good question/answer with good answers and you'll be able to comment soon. Glad to see you're interested! $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Oct 16 '14 at 11:10
  • $\begingroup$ I was just passing through and wanted to make a comment, I couldn't so this is how I attempted to contribute, I did not want to attempt to answer the question. I understand how SE sites work but disagree with not being able to comment on other sites when I have enough rep on several to do so within their borders. $\endgroup$ – wjdp Oct 16 '14 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ You can get 100+ rep for linking the accounts. This lets you comment on this site. I think you may be below the threshold for this site as it looks like the max you have elsewhere is under 200. $\endgroup$ – kaine Oct 16 '14 at 18:37
  • $\begingroup$ Please let me know if this is acceptable. It is a dramatic change but is all information from you link. If not, you can edit it or I can revert it. $\endgroup$ – kaine Oct 16 '14 at 18:51

In Brent Weeks' Lightbringer Series, there is a group of magic users who manipulate light. Everyone only gets a set amount of magic they can use in their lifetime; once this limit is exceeded, it is common become a threat to the community. To combat this eventuality, a religious ceremony is held every year for those magic users who are at the end of their allotment to offer their lives in service of the greater good.

The long and short of it is that after prolonged exposure to a certain experience (in this case magic), people were very likely to become a very real danger to themselves and others. This same scenario could happen after exposure to a disease like rabies, intense radiation or a significantly traumatic experience that leaves one prone to homicidal/suicidal tendencies. The people in this series preemptively committed a form of ritualistic suicide at the hands of their religious leaders to protect the community from imminent feral impulses.

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    $\begingroup$ This is an interesting slant on the concept but I don't know that it answers the question itself as it identifies a significantly alternate reality. May be better as a comment than an answer. Welcome to World Building. $\endgroup$ – James Oct 16 '14 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ Updated answer to bring it in scope. $\endgroup$ – AnthonyW Oct 17 '14 at 14:40

Definitely. Hugh Howey's Silo Series shows one way a developed society does this ("cleaning").

People who have transgressed are sent to perform a suicide mission for the (ostensible) benefit of the community, thus being sacrified in the process.

The "cleaning" process is a definite ritual.

  • $\begingroup$ The communist did that. They had prisoner construction teams that did very dangerous work without safety precautions. In WWII prisoner battalions were used to clear mine fields by running over them. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Oct 16 '14 at 21:07
  • $\begingroup$ True. I guess the OP might draw a line between "giving disposable people dangerous jobs" and actual "ritual sacrifice". In the books I mentioned, "cleaning" is a ritual sacrifice of one person, who is guaranteed to die. $\endgroup$ – GreenAsJade Oct 16 '14 at 21:52
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    $\begingroup$ This answer is a comment on the question rather than a full answer. Consider adding more content to it so it can stand alone as a well-researched answer, or delete the answer and add it as a comment. $\endgroup$ – overactor Oct 28 '14 at 8:59
  • $\begingroup$ The example given is fictional, and as such does not answer the question. The fictional example could form an interesting part of a larger explanation, but it would require explaining how this could realistically happen. For example, since not all readers will be familiar with the story, you could explain that this only applies to a population in a small restricted environment. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Oct 28 '14 at 11:20

The short answer is: Not in any world a "developed" human being would consider "developed".

The long answer is: It depends.

It depends because your question is opinion based since any answer heavily relies on the definition of the word "developed".

As an example of what I'm trying to convey here, for a member of an isolated Amazon tribe any society with electricity, in-house plumbing and a transportation system allowing fast travel between any two points within the boundaries of that civilization, would very likely appear to be highly "developed", but for a member of a society which is an inter-stellar civilization that same society would very likely appear to be "undeveloped" if it was also destroying the planet which supported its very existence by polluting its atmosphere and waterways, decimating the ecosystem it depends on for survival, and yes, practicing human sacrifice which is not impossible to imagine at that level of development.

As you can see, your question is not answerable unless we can agree on the universal definition of the term "developed" which is highly unlikely.

One possible definition of "developed" that we might be able to agree on is that a "developed" civilization is any Type II civilization on the Kardashev scale. If we agree on that, it is highly unlikely that any civilization reaching that level of development could ever consider human sacrifice an acceptable practice simply because to attain Type II status it would require such scientific and engineering capabilities which in turn require such amount of time that the primitive impulses would inevitably be abandoned even by the least "developed" individual members of such civilization over those time scales.

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    $\begingroup$ I like your point on no definition of developed. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Oct 17 '14 at 3:32
  • $\begingroup$ I agree on the lack of definition of developed, I disagree that it's inevitable that technological and societal progress are always going to progress at the same speed... $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 17 '14 at 6:58

Down the Volcano

Recently, there was an episode in American Gods which rather creatively answered this topic.

In the show, the god Vulcan owns a lead smelting bullet manufacturing plant. The plant has faulty rails so once in awhile someone falls into a vat of molten lead and counts as a human sacrifice. Though this scenario is a bit farfetched the reasoning was rather artful.

They argued that because no one wanted the plant to shut down for fear of harming the economy and that insurance was willing to compensate the sacrifice's family, that the people who fell in were effectively acceptable sacrifices. And because the factory was owned by Vulcan they counted as sacrifices to him.

With that in mind, one could then ask have we really moved beyond ritualistic human sacrifice? In our 'modern' 'scientific' society we 'believe' in this concept of progress with almost religious devotion. Human Progress is basically an abstract concept much like a god in the sense we cant predict its accrual yet we have almost blind faith in its achievement. All to often we lose human life in its acquirement. Is the loss of this life acceptable? Couldn't the loss of this life be considered human sacrifice in the name of progress?


The easiest way would probably be to have the New World stay isolated longer or develop technology faster (they had plenty of time). Human sacrifice was acceptable in many, primarily Mesoamerican, cultures.

Europe used to have that sort of thing, but first the Romans [1] and then Christianity came out strongly against that sort of thing, and so it did not remain popular. And when the Spaniards ran into the Aztecs, the human sacrifice gave them the screaming heebie-jeebies. (Side note: many local non-Aztec tribes were kind of on the fence about it too)

So, TL;DR -- Keep the Aztec cultural tradition going until they're too strong to suppress

[1] Turns out the Romans were usually tolerant of local religions, and often tried to "map" other religions' gods onto their own, but they hated and outlawed druidism. Largely because of the human sacrifice deal.


protected by HDE 226868 Dec 16 '14 at 2:36

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