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Human Sacrifice & Value: the limits of sacred violence

Project: Research

  • Oslo Universitet og Kulturhistorisk Museum, Oslo
  • Cambridge University
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This project seeks answers to the question: why human sacrifice? It explores
the slippery boundaries between so-called sacred acts of ritual human
violence and more common forms of profane violence such as in homicide,
suicide, warfare, and genocide. While sacrifice is understood as a sacred
exchange of one thing for another, the substitution of an offering as a
surrogate in place of a sacrificer, it cannot be understood in purely religious
terms. Rather, human sacrifice must be studied in its relationship to the
profane acts of violence into which it is inevitably transformed: the actually
taking of a human life. Such violence is often explained by situating it within
an overly-simplistic sacred vs. profane dichotomy, ignoring the historical
co-dependence between the two.

Through three transdisciplinary work packages the project examines
human sacrifice from the point of view of values, examining what values
are associated with human sacrifice and how those values change,
circumstantially. The project uses cultural phylogenetics modeling as a
heuristic to identify possible value shifts within genealogies of sacrificial
traditions across time and place. This will provide a lens from which to
observe when and how value shifts have occurred, in the short and long
term. Further cross-cultural comparisons and text-based analyses will identify
common denominator historical conditions that structure sacrificial violence.
The project not only challenges conventional theories of human sacrifice
with renewed analyses of why and how it has occurred throughout human
history, but it also engages directly with the pervasive ramifications of human
sacrificial practices today, often ultimately manifested in purely secular
forms of violence. The project takes research findings into the domains
of policy-making and law enforcement to offer deeper understandings of
sacrificial tropes with a view toward positive solutions to real-world problems
of sacrificial violence.

The primary objective is: 1) To generate a greater working knowledge of
the nature of human sacrificial violence, not only amongst scholars, but
also for policy-makers at the international level, and for the public at large,
all of whom are regularly confronted with the very real consequences
of human sacrificial violence. Using both qualitative humanities and
quantitative scientific methodologies, an analysis of the historical record will
be synthesized to provide valuable insights into contemporary social and
political challenges;
2) To forge a deeper understanding of the social mechanisms underpinning
the slippery relationship between sacred acts of sacrifice and profane forms
of violence such as murder;
3) To uncover what values are at play in various human sacrificial traditions:
how they emerge, are subverted and substituted over time in different
4) Advance development of innovative cross-cultural comparative
methodologies with applications for other research project.

The project is funded by the Norwegian Research Council (NFR), FRIHUMSAM.
Effective start/end date23/03/201824/03/2021



Research outputs

ID: 129077872