Animal sacrifice or the ritual killings of animals was done since ancient times to appease the Gods and protect the people against their wrath. SpiritualRay looks at the various reasons why cultures around the world had animal sacrifice as a part of their religious rituals.
The Gadhimai temple in Nepal hosts a festival every five years where thousands of animals including buffaloes, goats, and birds are slaughtered to appease the deity for prosperity and good luck.
From time immemorial, people have offered sacrifices to appease the gods and worship them. From the ancient Romans and Greeks, to the new religious movements like Santeria, sacrifices remain an integral part of any religion.
While certain sacrifices are bloodless sacrifices – offerings to the gods in the form of food and artifacts, blood sacrifices are commonplace in many religions as well. Animal sacrifice is a form of blood sacrifice wherein an animal is ritually killed as a part of religion.
A part of pervasive culture to appease the gods so that they can offer protection, animal sacrifice occurs in many parts of the world. While modern traditions may find it difficult to understand the concept of animal sacrifice, the practice has not dwindled. In fact, in many cultures animal sacrifices are extremely important, and forms an integral part of the social system. But did God really require animal sacrifices? While we may never be able to know, we can try to understand the human reasons for these rituals.
Sacrifice During the Neolithic Age
Although it was extremely popular in the Mediterranean religions, the practice of animal sacrifice dates back to around 8000 BCE, also known as the Neolithic period. As the Ice Age drew to a close and the weather became warmer, people foraged from hunting to farming and domesticating animals and the human population grew. Religion became an important way for people to separate themselves from the natural world and impress invisible beings that would safeguard them against natural forces like blizzards, snow, ice, and food scarcity.
Using only flint tools, they carved massive pillars weighing around fifty tons from a limestone quarry. Shaped like a giant ‘T’, these pillars had relief carvings of commonly found animals and people. They were then carried for miles and placed an arm span apart from each other. They were connected to the next by a stone wall.
Why is this important? Because, according to researchers who have unearthed a number of animal bones in sites like the Gobekli Tepe in Turkey – which is considered to be world’s oldest temple built 7,000 years before Stonehenge, this might be a place for religious worship and animal sacrifice which was done to appease the gods and ask for protection.
Sacrifice in Ancient Greek and Roman Culture
Animal sacrifices formed an important part of Greek and Roman traditions and religious customs. Here are some factors that may have led to the ritual that was a defining feature of a Greco-Roman religious norm becoming widespread.
As society excelled in the production of resources and the wealth grew as a result, practices like animal sacrifice which required a significant consumption of resources, became prominent.
Society was also divided into the elite and the general public. Animal sacrifice became a medium through which the elite were able to show their euergetism in the Hellenistic period, and how their good deeds benefited society as a whole. They, of course, received public recognition for doing this and in turn were able to establish their superior status.
In Rome, animal sacrifice was linked to the religious role of the Roman emperor, who served as the pinnacle of social hierarchy. Sacrifices were done as a part of the worship of the Emperor.
Sacrifice in Ancient Egypt
In ancient Egypt, animal sacrifice was held in very high esteem, as is evident by a number of mummified animals excavated from Egyptian sites. An animal sacrificed was either the symbolic embodiment of God’s enemy or sacred to God.
The sacred ibis and baboons were sacred to Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing, while cats were sacrificed to the Bastet, the protective goddess. A ceremony in honor of Osiris required bulls to be sacrificed. This is because the bulls were equated with Seth who was the enemy of Osiris.
Sacrifice in Ancient India
During the Vedic Age in India (the time when the Vedas, the religious scriptures were – written), animal sacrifice, also known as ”bali” in Sanskrit, was very common. It has been mentioned in the Rig Veda, which is the oldest of all Vedas, 10th mandala, chapter 91 and in the Yajur Veda chapters 22, 23. The priests observed the Gomedha Yagna (Cow body sacrifice), and Ashwa Medhya Yagna (Horse body sacrifice). This was done as a way to provide atonement of everyone’s sins. As the verse 3, in Taittiriya Aranyaka mentions, “Sarvapapa pariharo raktha prokshna mavasyam.” This means that the atonement of the sins is done by shedding of blood only.
However, there are historians who claim that the meanings of these words may be modified and actual “yagna” or sacrifice has nothing to do with animals. For example, while some claim that Ashwa Medhya Yagna means horse body sacrifice, there are others who quote the Yajur Veda 13/42, which says ashvam naa himseeh which translates into ‘the horse is not to be harmed.’
Despite differences in opinion and official banning, animal sacrifices remain a part of Hindu culture, especially cultures that worship the female deity Kali.
Animal Sacrifice in Major Religions
There are many instances of animal sacrifice mentioned in the Old Testament. These sacrifices were often seen as the precursor of Jesus Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. It taught people about redemption and were considered a way to take away the sins of man. In a way, it was also considered to be a prophecy of a Savior who would come to this Earth and give His life to save the human race Here are some instances where this particular topic has been dealt with.
Genesis 4:3-5 (NIV)
In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Leviticus 23:12 (NIV)
On the day you wave the sheaf, you must sacrifice as a burnt offering to the Lord a lamb a year old without defect, …
Genesis 15:9-10 (NIV)
So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.
Exodus 29:10-15 (NIV)
Bring the bull to the front of the tent of meeting, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on its head. Slaughter it in the Lord’s presence at the entrance to the tent of meeting. Take some of the bull’s blood and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger, and pour out the rest of it at the base of the altar. Then take all the fat on the internal organs, the long lobe of the liver, and both kidneys with the fat on them, and burn them on the altar. But burn the bull’s flesh and its hide and its intestines outside the camp. It is a sin offering.
However, Jesus himself condemns the act of animal sacrifice in many instances.
Isaiah 1:11 (NIV)
“The multitude of your sacrifices- what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure In the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
Micah 6:6-7 (NIV)
With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
Psalm 50:13 (NIV)
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
Or drink the blood of goats?
However, Jesus was referred to as the Lamb of God by his apostles. For example, John the Baptist says “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NIV). When Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross, it was considered to be the ultimate sacrifice. According to Hebrews 7:27, Jesus Christ was the ultimate sacrificial substitute once for all time. This is the reason that animal sacrifices hold no meaning in Christianity now.
Since the ancient times, qorbanot, which involved sacrifices or offerings to the Gods, formed a major part of Jewish rituals. The word qorban means renunciation of something to atone for sins, praise the God, to express gratitude, and bring a person closer to God. This was done by offering sacrifices of domestic animals. In ancient times, this was done in a Jewish temple in Jerusalem but when it was destroyed in 70 CE by the Roman army, the sacrifices by the Jews ceased. This is because the rituals could be performed only by kohanim (priests) and in that specific place. Although some communities continue doing it, the practice no longer exists for most Jews.
In Islam, during Eid al-Adha, multitudes of goat and sheep are sacrificed to mark the end of the Hajj. Unlike traditions and practices where animal sacrifices were meant to appease an angry God, the Islamic view towards animal sacrifice is a way to thank the Almighty for all that is provided by him, and a person’s inner submission to him.
The history of the tradition is rooted in the Qur’an’s mention of Abraham who saw a dream in which he was being directed to sacrifice his son to the Almighty. When he told his son about this, he complied with it without any hesitation. When Abraham proceeded to slit his son’s throat on the hill of Al-Marwah, the Almighty called to him saying ‘Abraham, you have fulfilled your dream’. Thus do We reward the righteous. This was indeed an open trial. [Abraham succeeded in it] and [as a result], We ransomed his son with a noble sacrifice.‘ (37:97-107, Qur’an). To mark this sacrifice by Abraham, animal sacrifices are performed on Id of Al-Adha, Umrah, and Hajj.
There are many other cultures around the world where animal sacrifices are prevalent, like the tribal cultures of Africa and the Far East. Although there are religions, like Jainism and Buddhism, that abhor animal sacrifices, the ritual killings to appease the Gods, atone for sins, and to prevent misfortunes continue unabated.