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Child Sacrifice in Ancient American Civilizations

Unlike other ancient civilizations, the Inca of Peru rarely practiced infanticide. Newborns were gifted land from the estates of those who had died, and twins were considered a gift from god as babies were considered a means to food and a livelihood. The Inca mostly sacrificed food, coca, animals, or figurines of people. When children were used, they were usually at least ten to twelve years old. One such child was found preserved in ice in the Andes, presumably as a gift to the mountain gods in order to bring various types of suitable weather. The frozen body of an approximately eight year old boy, who was found dressed in a camel wool poncho with several metal ornaments and figures, was also identified to have been from the Inca period. Another mummy of child, dated to about 5,000 years ago in Peru, was found elaborately prepared with a coat of clay and paint, and wrapped in a bird skin with a wig of human hair over the face. Some of the limbs were supported by sticks inserted under the skin. It is believed that perhaps the process of mummification indicates that the body was put on display for a time before interred.43 Many other such mummies have been found in accessibly high funeral cairns. A sacrificed child of Incas would be strangled, bludgeoned or have his or her throat slit. It is hypothesized that the children were made to drink alcohol and were sacrificed by strangulation, or left in the mountains to die.44 In addition to making an offer for good farming conditions, sacrifices were made to honor royalty. For example, for the coronation of a king two hundred children would be sacrificed. If an important person was ill, his son was sacrificed in hopes of appeasing the gods.45

Among the Olmecs of Mexico sacrifice of a fetus was performed to ensure rainfall. The human life cycle correlated to the life cycle of maize and the calendar. Similarly, the Guayaquil of Ecuador sacrificed one hundred children annually to appease the gods and to assure a good harvest. The Aztecs were particularly notorious for their tales of sacrifice. Human sacrifice was practiced for every Aztec festival where priests wore the victims’ skins.46 Children were drowned or decapitated to honor the rain god Tlaloc. At Temple Mayor a pit was unearthed which held the remains of children and infants. When a child was selected for sacrifice, he or she was indulged for a year; his or her only obligation was to play the flute. One the day of sacrifice the child’s flute was smashed to signal the beginning of the ceremony.47 While the Aztecs were criticized by the royal court for rampant child sacrifice, some religious intellectuals defended the practice by pointing to the Bible, in which infanticide had been acceptable in some cases.48 Ironically, while most indigenous cultures in late civilizations killed or sacrificed deformed children, the Aztecs created institutions to care for them.49 This is likely because the Aztecs deemed it a greater gift to use favored children. The Mayans also practiced sacrifice, but rather than using well-loved children, they purchased orphans or slaves, at a cost of five to ten stone beads. The child was either killed by cardiectomy or drowning. The ceremony took place on the top of a pyramid, and the child was painted blue and had his heart ripped out while it was still pulsating.


The Vikings, too, practiced ritual sacrifice for the purpose of facilitating success in battle. One Viking chief killed his own seven year old son before heading off to war. Another reason for sacrifice would be to ensure a king’s longevity. A Viking myth tells of King Aun, who at the age of sixty sacrificed his son to Odin, a major god of Norse mythology, who told the king that he would live forever if he gave him a son every ten years. After years of sacrificing nine of his sons he became bedridden and had to be carried around.50

Much like other ancient societies a Viking father would determine whether a newly born infant were to be kept or exposed. An exposure was called utburd (carrying out). When children were exposed, it was done non-violently. The infant would be securely placed in a covered grave, in a hallowed tree, or a between a hill of stones, so that no wild animal could get to it. A healthy baby who was abandoned, often for reasons of overwhelming poverty, discord between husband and wife, or superstition, was left with a piece of salt pork for it to suck on in case it was rescued by someone taking pity on it. Badly deformed infants were abandoned and buried out of fear, not malice, as it was believed these babies were born from evil. Once an accepted baby was baptized, exposure of an infant was considered murder if witnessed; however, a man could perform child sacrifice if done secretly.51

Bog bodies are considered a European phenomenon which represented sacrifice or punishment. Unlike the culturally created process of Egyptian mummification, bog bodies are preserved through the physical and chemical composition of bogs. One such “burial”, which preserves the body because of microorganisms in the water, was of a mother and her newborn baby. Buried with the bodies was a pre-Roman clay vessel that was dated to the birth of Christ. Other children (and adults) have been found in these bogs without grave goods and with signs of extreme violence indicating not only evidence of sacrifice but punishment as well.52

Burial rituals among the ancients, while varied, tended to reflect the view that children were beloved, yet ephemeral. Eleanor Scott notes that at times, there was a tendency to interpret burials from the perspective of medieval, or later, views of parent-child relationships. Therefore, it is important to carefully consider the conclusions drawn by researchers within the multi-layered context in which they are deduced. The practice of burying newborns in the home, for example, is indicative of beliefs about the power of the dead over the living- the protection of siblings and the facilitation of fertility. It is also reflective of the fact neonates were not seen as full people, and therefore, did not require burial in consecrated ground. It is clear from the evidence left behind by the ancients that children were loved affectionately, but they were also often disposed of unceremoniously when deemed inconvenient, expensive, or excessive. While during this period, actions were taken to reduce infanticide and abandonment, many families chose whether or not to keep children based on the needs of their own families, and not the rules of the state.

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