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Did the Ancient Egyptians Practice Human Sacrifice?

By Sandra Alvarez

Thanks to Hollywood, superstition and folklore, many people have long held the belief that Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs regularly buried alive their retainers and household when they died. It’s a long standing fallacy perpetuated by blockbuster films and pseudo Egyptologists that the Pharaoh took his wives, servants and officials with him to the Afterlife. It’s a myth that needs to be debunked but where did this erroneous belief arise? What appears to have happened is that a grain of truth has been turned into the Gospel truth and the most likely explanation is the following: Ancient Egyptians DID practice retainer sacrifice but not throughout their entire nearly four thousand year history.

First, the obvious question…why?

There were two main forms of human sacrifice in Ancient Egypt:

1.) The offering of a human being to a cult. These victims were often criminals or prisoners of war and were used to re-establish ‘cosmic order and emphasise the role of the King as its main guarantor.’ In some cases, sacrifice was a ritualised form of the death penalty.

2.) The killing of the retainers (servants) after the death of the King so that they could accompany him to the Afterlife. This article focuses on the second of these two instances since its the myth most commonly peddled to the general public. Why did the early Pharaohs do this? One idea put forward was that this was a way to flaunt their power. Pharaohs were revered as Gods in human form so it would be impossible to persuade people to willingly give up their lives if they did not believe in life after death. The belief was that what belonged to the Pharaoh on Earth, also belonged to him in the afterlife. This didn’t just include material possessions but people, like servants. This belief enabled the Pharaoh to enjoy the same lifestyle in the Underworld as he did in the living world. There has been some suggestion that retainers agreed to be sacrificed to obtain eternal life and elevate their status, in much the same way that we see celebrities whose value increases once they’re dead. This idea, however, hasn’t been taken up as readily as the belief that they were selected against their will and murdered simultaneously.

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