Ritual murder

ritual murder – intentional killing, in most cases taking the form of a sacrificial offering, a part of a magical ritual or an act intended to absorb the powers of the murdered victim. First traces of ritual murder practices can be seen in certain rock paintings in Southern Africa. When embarking upon a path of war, the Scythians would kill their first victim and then drink its blood.

In the Benin Empire, at the end of the rain season, various decorative items would be placed upon an altar in celebration of one of the annual holidays; after that, the king would personally decapitate a slave earmarked for sacrifice. This act was intended to bestow upon him great wisdom and to protect him against evil forces. In some cases ritual murder would be committed in order to restore the ruler’s vitality. In the Inca Empire, young girls would be sacrificed during the enthronement ceremony; it was believed that this sacrifice would allow the monarch to stay in good health. Another common custom was human sacrifice made during the construction of the foundations of a newly erected temple.

The Papuan Tribes of Kiwai would first erect the central pillar of the temple and smear it with the blood of the tribe’s enemies; after that, a prisoner would be sacrificed. The Dravidians of the Bengal would treat a child earmarked as an offering for Tari, the goddess of earth, as if it was a god in itself. Before sacrificing the child, they cut off its hair and engaged in orgies. The child would then be anointed with butter and decorated with flowers; prayers would be said so that the earth would give the people a good harvest. In the end, the child, intoxicated with cannabis, would then be suffocated and dismembered, burned alive or bound with ropes so that its bones would break. Once the sacrifice was complete, parts of the victim’s body would be buried on every field.

During the Green Corn Ceremony, the Pawnee people would conduct the so-called Morning Star Ritual during which a virgin would be stretched on a scaffold so that it embodied the earth itself, her arms and legs representing the four cardinal directions. After that, she would be placed above an open flame and then her heart would be ripped from her chest, her body dismembered and scattered across corn fields. In Polynesia, the lightning was considered to be the messenger of the celestial Sun itself. When it struck the temple, the Polynesian people saw that as a sign of divine anger that could only be abated through a burnt offering of young children, whose mothers would personally cast them into the pyre.

In Aztec religion, man’s sole duty on this earth was to feed the Sun with human blood. A time when the old cycle was coming to an end and the new one was about to begin was considered to be crucial, for it was at this time that the world could easily plunge into chaos. In order to avert this threat, a fire would be lit on a prisoner’s chest; the high priest would then cut the victim’s chest open and rip out its beating heart. The Aztec people also performed numerous acts of mass ritual slaughter of prisoners, who would be killed at the top of their temples, their hearts torn out of their chests. These brutal acts of sacrifice marked the most significant moments in the life of the state. Those intended as an offering to celebrate the glory of the God of Fire would be bound tightly and then cast into the pyre; after that, they would be pulled out of the flames while still alive and killed by tearing their hearts out. During the first months of the ritual calendar, little children would be offered to Tlaloc, the god of rain; the victims of these sacrifices were referred to as “bleeding corn flowers”. They would be brought in inside palanquins, wearing festive, lavish clothes, and then sacrificed by having their throats cut. It was believed that their tears would bring rain upon the land. During the ritual of young corn, the priest beheaded a young girl as a sign that the harvest was about to begin; 60 days later, when the harvest came to an end, a girl, representing the goddess of harvested corncobs, would be flayed alive, after which the priest would wear her skin as a sign of rebirth of vegetation.

In Greece, the rituals of the White Goddess were conducted by groups of priestess who lived on sacred isles of Ortygia, Leuke and Ogygia. The rituals themselves included ritual murder or the castration of the old king and the enthronement of a new one for the duration of the next lunar year. The ritual murder of the king was a practice that remained in use in Zimbabwe until 1810. On the night after the new moon, his first wife would strangle him with a rope made of the tendons of a bull.  The body would then be interred inside the dead bull’s body; one year later, when the moon was full, the king’s favourite would take of all of her clothes and then, once completely naked, would be strangled to death.

The alleged ritual murder of Christians by Jews is an issue all of its own. During the 1st century A.D., Apion, a historian from Alexandria, accused Jews or ritual murder; during the Middle Ages, the first such accusation pertained to the death of William of Norwich, murdered in 1144. The first mention of ritual murder in Poland dates back to 1264, to the Statute of Kalisz, in which Duke Boleslaus the Pious set out to protect the Jews against accusations of ritual murder. The first confirmed case of accusation of ritual murder dates back to 1547 and pertains to the town of Rawa Mazowiecka. According to a common stereotype, Jews would perform ritual murder of a Christian child, which would be tied to a table and incised with sharp objects. The blood would then be collected in vessels, after which it would allegedly be used for both medical and ritual purposes. In Poland, accusations of ritual murder continued to appear well into the early 20th century. A painting depicting a scene of ritual murder can still be seen in the Sandomierz cathedral. In a number of cases, Satan worshippers were also accused of ritual killings.

A superstition that Jews murdered Christian children for ritual and medical purposes. The reason of alleged killings was a willingness of repeating the Passion of Christ and obtaining the blood necessary for the production of Passover bread eaten during Pesach. Victims of the alleged killings were supposedly subject to torture, and later crucified (accusations of “profanation of the communion host” were also associated with the Passion motive). It was acknowledged in accusations that the blood of Christian children was used for wounds healing - resulting from circumcision, and other afflictions, such as getting rid of the unpleasant smell Jews were to emit. It also was believed that for the healing purposes Jews consume particular parts of murdered children’s bodies (such as a heart and genitals).

Similar accusations were as well directed against Jews by the ancients Greeks. Also the first Christians were charged with ritual murder of children, the cause of which could be wrong interpretation of the symbolic act of eating the body and blood of Christ during communion. Anti-Jewish accusations of murdering Christian children spread in the Middle Ages in western European countries (the first of which took place in Norwich in England in 1144).

Often, they resulted in litigation, which caused massive waves of bloody pogroms. The whole communities became their victims. The information of alleged "ritual murders" was likely to reach Poland as early as in the thirteenth century, as evidenced by the contents of the Kalisz privilege of 1264. Jan Dlugosz wrote of the abduction and murder of a Christian child by Jews in Krakow in 1407; however, the first accusation of "ritual murder", attested to in the archival sources, was made in Rawa Mazowiecka in 1547. Shortly after, several more were noted, mostly in Mazowsze and Podlasie, and then throughout Poland. Litigation in the second half of the sixteenth century usually ended in the release of alleged perpetrators.

The first accusations of "ritual murder" were accompanied by anti-Jewish printed materials. Mainly the Hagiography by Piotr Skarga (10 editions from 1575 to 1650), which described the history of St. Simon of Trento, allegedly murdered by Jews in 1475, contributed to spreading of this type of imputations. Until the middle part of the seventeenth century several dozens of accusations of "ritual murder” were expressed. The archival sources confirm more than 30 imputations, and the then and later literary texts list their number at over 60 (one cannot rule out that the authors of anti-Jewish prints, wishing to document the threat posed by Jews for the Church, multiplied the examples of accusations).
In the middle of the 17th century Cossack’s uprisings became the turning point; the overwhelming majority of accusations were made in the south-east provinces of Poland. Until 1795 there were 30 prosecutions, which contrary to the previous period, in most cases resulted in processes and death sentences for defendants. The oldest privileges given to Jews by the Polish rulers had to protect them against the unjustified accusations; however, failed to prevent the spread of superstition. The first accusations resulted in a further issuance of documents protecting the Jewish population. Jews received them from Zygmunt I the Old (1531), Zygmunt II August (1557), Stefan Batory (1576), Wladyslaw IV (1633), Stanislaw August Poniatowski (1766).

A few papal edicts protecting the Polish Jews against the unjustified accusations were given by popes, the oldest of them dates back to 1540. Mission of Eljakim ben Aszer Zelig in the middle of the eighteenth century in Rome led to the intervention of the Cardinal G. Ganganelli, later Pope Clement XIV, with the Polish clergy. Jews relatively rare were accused of having committed a "ritual killing" in the first half of the nineteenth century. Seven trials are known from that period; in all cases Jews were acquitted. The situation has changed in the eighties of the nineteenth century.

Assassination of Tsar Alexander II, in which the members, also of Jewish descent, of Narodnoj Wola were involved, as well as the difficult political and economic situation in Russia caused a wave of pogroms. Pretext for many of them were accusations of "ritual murder." As a result of the pogrom in Kishinev in 1903, caused by an accusation of the murder of a Christian boy, 400 local Jews were killed. In 1911-13 a wave of public unrest triggered the case of a Jew from Kiev, M.M. Bejlis, accused of "ritual murder." The situation in Russia shaped an atmosphere in the Kingdom of Poland.

In the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries a few lawsuits took place due to a charge of "ritual murder." Harassments have contributed to political radicalization of the Jewish population, and had an impact on the emergence of organized Zionist movement. In the interwar period the belief in a superstition of "ritual murder" and the mood among the population was fueled by the anti-Semitic literature. The last accusations of "ritual murder" took place in Poland just after World War II, inter alia in Krakow (Aug 11, 1945) and Kielce (July 4, 1946). They became the impetus for the bloody pogroms, in a result of which many surviving Jews left Poland.



  • J.P. Roux Krew. Mity, symbole, rzeczywistość [Blood. Myths, Symbols and Reality], Cracow 1994
  • H. Węgrzynek „Czarna legenda” Żydów. Procesy o rzekome mordy rytualne w dawnej Polsce [The “Black Legend” of Jews. Ritual Murder Trials in Poland], Warsaw 1995
  • I. Clendinnen Aztekowie [The Aztecs], Warsaw 1996
  • A. Szyjewski Etnologia religii [Ethnology of Religion], Cracow 2001



 Sławomir Żyłka.

The text comes from Diapozytyw, Portal, formerly owned by the Instytutu Adama Mickiewicza.
The following text comes from the book entitled "Historia i kultura Żydów polskich. Słownik", by Alina Cała, Hanna Węgrzynek and Gabriela Zalewska, published by WSiP
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