Human sacrifice was an indirect result of cannibalism as well as its cure. Providing spirit escorts to the spirit world also led to the lessening of man-eating as it was never the custom to eat these death sacrifices. No race has been entirely free from the practice of human sacrifice in some form and at some time, even though the Andonites, Nodites, and Adamites were the least addicted to cannibalism.
Human sacrifice has been virtually universal; it persisted in the religious customs of the Chinese, Hindus, Egyptians, Hebrews, Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, and many other peoples, even on to recent times among the backward African and Australian tribes. The later American Indians had a civilization emerging from cannibalism and, therefore, steeped in human sacrifice, especially in Central and South America. The Chaldeans were among the first to abandon the sacrificing of humans for ordinary occasions, substituting therefor animals. About two thousand years ago a tenderhearted Japanese emperor introduced clay images to take the place of human sacrifices, but it was less than a thousand years ago that these sacrifices died out in northern Europe. Among certain backward tribes, human sacrifice is still carried on by volunteers, a sort of religious or ritual suicide. A shaman once ordered the sacrifice of a much respected old man of a certain tribe. The people revolted; they refused to obey. Whereupon the old man had his own son dispatch him; the ancients really believed in this custom.
There is no more tragic and pathetic experience on record, illustrative of the heart-tearing contentions between ancient and time-honored religious customs and the contrary demands of advancing civilization, than the Hebrew narrative of Jephthah and his only daughter. As was common custom, this well-meaning man had made a foolish vow, had bargained with the “god of battles,” agreeing to pay a certain price for victory over his enemies. And this price was to make a sacrifice of that which first came out of his house to meet him when he returned to his home. Jephthah thought that one of his trusty slaves would thus be on hand to greet him, but it turned out that his daughter and only child came out to welcome him home. And so, even at that late date and among a supposedly civilized people, this beautiful maiden, after two months to mourn her fate, was actually offered as a human sacrifice by her father, and with the approval of his fellow tribesmen. And all this was done in the face of Moses’ stringent rulings against the offering of human sacrifice. But men and women are addicted to making foolish and needless vows, and the men of old held all such pledges to be highly sacred.
In olden times, when a new building of any importance was started, it was customary to slay a human being as a “foundation sacrifice.” This provided a ghost spirit to watch over and protect the structure. When the Chinese made ready to cast a bell, custom decreed the sacrifice of at least one maiden for the purpose of improving the tone of the bell; the girl chosen was thrown alive into the molten metal.
It was long the practice of many groups to build slaves alive into important walls. In later times the northern European tribes substituted the walling in of the shadow of a passerby for this custom of entombing living persons in the walls of new buildings. The Chinese buried in a wall those workmen who died while constructing it.
A petty king in Palestine, in building the walls of Jericho, “laid the foundation thereof in Abiram, his first-born, and set up the gates thereof in his youngest son, Segub.” At that late date, not only did this father put two of his sons alive in the foundation holes of the city’s gates, but his action is also recorded as being “according to the word of the Lord.” Moses had forbidden these foundation sacrifices, but the Israelites reverted to them soon after his death. The twentieth-century ceremony of depositing trinkets and keepsakes in the cornerstone of a new building is reminiscent of the primitive foundation sacrifices.
It was long the custom of many peoples to dedicate the first fruits to the spirits. And these observances, now more or less symbolic, are all survivals of the early ceremonies involving human sacrifice. The idea of offering the first-born as a sacrifice was widespread among the ancients, especially among the Phoenicians, who were the last to give it up. It used to be said upon sacrificing, “life for life.” Now you say at death, “dust to dust.”
The spectacle of Abraham constrained to sacrifice his son Isaac, while shocking to civilized susceptibilities, was not a new or strange idea to the men of those days. It was long a prevalent practice for fathers, at times of great emotional stress, to sacrifice their first-born sons. Many peoples have a tradition analogous to this story, for there once existed a world-wide and profound belief that it was necessary to offer a human sacrifice when anything extraordinary or unusual happened.