Human Sacrifice
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Basic Information

Much like animal sacrifice turned up to eleven, a human sacrifice is the destruction of a human life as a gift or payment to some supernatural power. Where non-human sapients exist, the same basic concept may apply to them as well … or not, depending on the power to which the sacrifice is dedicated. Likewise, not all humans may be created equal - those with specific characteristics may be more acceptable - nor all sacrifices … some powers may utterly consume the offering, others may merely consume their "life energy" and allow their soul to pass on to whatever afterlife it would normally go to. Extremely benevolent powers might even accept a "living sacrifice" where the "victim" remains alive but renounces their normal life in favour of becoming a monk, anchorite or similar thing or gives up their body to serve as a vessel for an avatar or servant of the receiving power. Partial sacrifices such as self mutilation may also be acceptable1.

Probably the most potent offering is likely to be a knowing and willing victim2, although some powers may not care or actively prefer unwilling prey and the offering is likely to be attended by some significant ceremony. The ceremony in question is likely to reflect the point of the sacrifice - those given to appease a genius loci will be destroyed in a manner relevant to the genius (drowned in a river, burned in a volcano), those killed as a fertility offering may be buried or have their ashes or blood scattered on the fields. A human scapegoat may be stoned or driven into the wilderness to die. Someone sacrificed for an oracle will be killed as part of the divination process and "food for the gods" may be burned, fed to sacred animals or otherwise disposed of. The Roman gladiatorial traditions seems to have its roots in sacrificial combat. Thyesthai style sacrifices - where the victim is eaten by the congregation - would seem to be a special kind of unwholesome … but may not be. Some cultures also appear to have used human sacrifice to ensure the durability of significant buildings, often by burying the victim, sometimes alive, inside the structure3.

Where a victim becomes more potent as an offering through being of high status, the sacrificing culture might well be able to enhance their offering by loading down the victim with privileges for a time before their death. These would, of course, need to be real privileges, but this would fit very well with a lot of historical sacrificial monarchies.

Besides the theurgy already implied, secular magic may also be driven by human sacrifice and even shamanistic traditions may allow for a sacrifice to create an ambassador to the spirit realm. Magical workings which steal aspects of the victim for the practitioner probably don't make it into scope.

At the bottom end of the scale would seem to be sacrifices of renewables (such as blood or mana) or intangibles (such as the concept of sacrificing "attribute points" in some RPG systems) that begin to shade into the "time as money" end of material sacrifice. Blood Magic arguably belongs in and about this sort of terrain.

The Aztecs, being connoisseurs of human sacrifice, had a variety of rites in which it was employed, not least of which was Ixiptla, in which the condemned served as an avatar of the deity that was being worshipped (or at least propitiated) and was subject to ceremonial veneration followed by a brutal ritual death.

A concrete example of the "live as a sacrifice" tradition could be applied to children born during a Roman Ver sacer - whilst the animals born in such a consecrated season were killed, the humans were allowed to grow to adulthood and then exiled - banishment being the price of redeeming their lives from the gods. This should be distinguished from the concept of a homo sacer, which although also apparently including the concepts of consecration and exile, is far closer to outlaw status.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Traditionally human sacrificing cultures perceive PCs either as high status individuals ideal for sacrificing, or as people who won't be missed and ideal for sacrificing.
  • Equally traditional is the person who is made really welcome by some remote tribe … only to find out he has been appointed sacrificial king and is going to die in a year's time.
    • Introduce values dissonance by allowing the PCs to meet a fugitive year king … and then later seeing the people who were expecting to sacrifice him suffering from a string of disasters brought on by their failure to sacrifice him.
  • "Special characteristics" often include royal blood and virginity - some of these are easily compromised which may in turn sabotage the sacrifice.
  • The willing victim is a potent force, allowing for canned evil held in place by the sacrifice of some ancient hero.
    • Where this is the case, the plan to resurrect some ancient hero may turn out to be sponsored by some surprising people…
    • Also really annoying for players who automatically sabotage human sacrifices - someone whose entire life has revolved around the honour of being "the bride of the volcano god" will likely resist having their destiny stolen and possibly become massively depressed if "rescued".
  • Again, use values dissonance if PCs home culture happens to use human sacrifice in some way - such as divinatory sacrifice of enemy prisoners.
  • Generally, feel free to use the player's instincts to meddle in human sacrifice against them.
  • Even into the modern era, large construction projects tend to claim a certain number of lives … perhaps the spirits take their sacrifice one way or another regardless.
  • Aztec civilization ran on human sacrifice - whatever Neil Young may believe - largely on the basis that the believed that their gods needed to be fed constantly to prevent the world from ending. Very few fantasy expies really do justice to the scale of the slaughter that took place.
    • Being sacrificed was also quite a high status thing and, in turn, high status victims were preferred, especially high status enemy prisoners and successful athletes.
    • The Aztecs also had a ball-game that they used to pick out suitable individuals for sacrifice … modern day revivalists seeking the blessing of the ancient gods might be found abducting celebrities (especially professional footballers - and who knows, maybe luchadors as well) for sacrifice.
  • Legend has it that the Samar-Leyte bridge in the Philippines was built using the sacrifice of a number of children who mysteriously vanished during the construction.
  • See also the Robert Westall story The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral for a building held up by sacrificed children.
  • Where resurrection magic exists, it may4 invalidate the sacrifice… or require that another qualifying person be sacrificed to power the resurrection. A blessing powered by a sacrifice might lose its ontological-inertia or be reversed.
  • In some magic systems, routine acts of worship actually consist of sacrificing "magic points" or other mana like things to the object of worship.
  • As per the etymological footnote to animal sacrifice, the word holocaust derives from the Greek for a burned offering … now some of the Nazis (notably Heinrich Himmler … who ran the SS … who ran the Death Camps) had some very peculiar religious ideas. Who (or what) might they make a burned offering to … and what could be accomplished by expending millions of lives?
    • The Laundryverse novel The Atrocity Archive has one idea … and other Cthulhu Mythos contributors have their own suggestions.
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