Animal Sacrifice
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Basic Information

Animal sacrifice is the practice of killing an animal as part of a religion or theurgy.

Sacrifices could take many forms depending on the cause in which they were offered - most commonly the animal would be ritually killed and the meat dedicated to the deity being worshipped before being burnt and/or consumed as part of a ritual meal - the Ancient Greeks distinguished between thyesthai (where the meat was eaten) and holokautein1 where the sacrifice was entirely consumed by fire. This distinction was also known to the Hebrews (who called them shechita and olah respectively) and many other sacrificing cultures. In some, some or all of the community would eat the meat of a sacrifice, in others the meat was reserved for priests whilst in a few the meat was taboo and had to be disposed of in some other way - such as by burial (for cthonic deities) or feeding to a sacred animal (such as the crocodiles of Sebek). Alternatively the blood alone might be intended for the deity and the animal's body might be irrelevant.

In some cases the sacrifice would also be used for divination by some form of Extispicy - examining the entrails of the animal for significant signs - indeed this may be the entire point of the sacrifice. The Romans were particularly fond of hepatoscopy. The Etruscans learned the art of the Haruspex from child-god Tarchies, and then taught it to Ancient Rome.

In general, the point of a sacrifice is that it should be a significant gift to the deity in exchange for favour and many religions had a sliding scale of what it was appropriate to sacrifice depending on your social status and requirements (the book of Leviticus is an excellent example but Qorban codes appear throughout the Torah), and strictures of what animals should and should not be offered. Where your religion doesn't deal (exclusively) with deities (as, for example, in shamanism) then the value of the sacrifice may be openly negotiable - or it may just serve as a social lubricant (for example a libation of blood made to attract spirits).

Various cultures have come up with new and exciting ways of sacrificing animals over the millenia - burning alive, drowning and driving out into the wilderness (as in the tradition of the Scapegoat) have been tried from time to time, as have the sacred hunt and gladiatorial combat. Sometimes what you did after the sacrifice, or how you prepared the body, was the important part, such as was the case with all animal mummies from Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians went to the trouble of mummifying millions of ibises, and filled mass-graves with cats. It is unlikely that any writer of fiction could come up with a form of sacrifice any weirder than one that has already been tried in real life.

There is also the possibility of secular animal sacrifice, in which a wizard kills the animal either to extract its 'life energy' to power his magic or seeks to transfer some quality of the animal to himself or to a third party (e.g. sacrificing a bull and bathing in its blood for strength or eating the heart of a sacrificed lion for courage). Another application might be to entomb a sacrifice alive inside a structure to serve it as a protector - the Church Grimm being a medieval European example: a dog buried alive to create a spiritual guardian for a graveyard.

See Also


Explaining the original meaning of the word "holocaust"
Wikipedia on Levitical Sacrifice or "Qorban"
Leviticus 1: NIV


Game and Story Use

  • Animals might be bred specifically for sacrifice, in which case they might be a valuable target for theft. The PCs might be hired to steal such animals - or retrieve them.
  • In some settings, there might be a measurable benefit to sacrificing various types of animals - such as a bonus to "magic points" or spell success chances for various types of magic. Trying to find the best animal sacrifice for a specific spell might be an adventure of its own!
  • In case of dangerous animals, it might be part of the sacrifice to actually ritually fight the creature. Which, of course, is a perfect task for combat-oriented PCs, and let's hope they don't accidentally anger the deity involved by trying to get an unfair advantage by cheating…
    • In context, a hunt could turn into a religious ritual - especially in a shamanic tradition where finding and conquering a totem animal might be an important rite - but a deity with the right portfolio might well accept a properly conducted hunt as an act of worship in any case.
    • This would seem particularly appropriate for those seeking initiation as a berserker or ulfhednar (or similar totem warrior like an Aztec Jaguar Knight).
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