Human sacrifice

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 4.37.01 PMSacrificial backpacker-maiden, Vat Phu, from

The earliest evidence of human sacrifice among the Khmers might be this stone crocodile at Vat Phu Champasak. Today it’s in Laos, but it’s a Khmer temple dating from the 5th century, the very dawn of the Khmer kingdom.  (The current temple is from the 11th/13th centuries – more on Wikipedia).

image-4Crocodiles keep turning up. Every time a funeral is held a white flag is flown nearby. According to legend the custom commemorates a magical crocodile who ate a princess. The king killed the croc and hung his hide up at the place where his daughter’s ashes were enshrined, which was the start of the custom. After a while crocs became too difficult to find, and so the flag is now used instead. This relates to human sacrifice because the princess’s hundred handmaidens were supposedly buried under the hundred columns of the temple  (this post has slightly different details, and mentions sacrifices for bridges).

There’s a pretty well documented report of a royally-sponsored human sacrifice at Ba Phnom, a sacred mountain near Phnom Penh, in 1877 (a prisoner taken at the end of a brief insurrection, but not simply executed, as there were strong religious overtones). A neak ta (local spirit) called Neak Ta Krol was receiving sacrifices as recently as 1904 – I got the little I have on that from an encyclopedia called Asian Mythologies, entry on Cambodian earth deities by Solange Thierry, who’s a highly reliable source, but no idea where it ultimately comes from – shocked French administrators putting a stop to it, perhaps? Someone should ask them about the symbolism of the Eucharist – at least the Cambodians weren’t eating the victims.

bchruoychangvabridgeJapanese Bridge destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, 1973. From Getty images, entirely without permission.

Much more recently, there were rumours in the early 1970s that the government authorities were kidnapping children and burying them under the Japanese Friendship Bridge, which connects Phnom Penh to the north. The idea was that the spirits of the sacrificed children would protect the bridge from the Khmer Rouge.  The story is in the Phnom Penh Post. The person telling the story says he didn’t believe it at the time – but interesting that such a rumour should even be circulating.

6214-773181Seima stone showing the earth-goddess Torani (pronounced torr-nee). This stone is flat-faced, but the stone buried in the pits around the shrine hall is spherical. From Andy’s Cambodia.

And then of course there’s human sacrifice and monastic boundaries. When a monastery is being established or re-established, the shrine hall has to be marked off from the secular world. Eight sacred stones, called seima, are buried in pits at the eight compass points and half-points (north, south, etc). A ninth stone is buried at the centre of this space, directly in front of the main Buddha image – this one represents the god Indra, king of Meru and the gods (because good Buddhists do believe in Hindu gods). Nowadays these stones are just stones, albeit holy ones, but they are the size and shape of a human head.


If you’d like to learn more about human sacrifice around the world, with a focus on Europe and the British Isles, I recommend the blog which calls itself Bizarre History. In fact I recommend that blog for everything.

Neak ta: the White Mother and human sacrifice

Main shrine at Ba Phnom - photo by "doonstra", Trekearth (

Main shrine at Ba Phnom – photo by “doonstra”, Trekearth (

The last human sacrifice in Cambodia took place at Ba Phnom, in Prey Veng province, 80 kilometres east of Phnom Penh and 45 kilometres south of the provincial capital, in 1877. An inscription from 629 AD describes the mountain as sacred to the god Shiva, but today the mountain is a centre for neak ta, the protective spirits of places, from villages to provinces and entire regions.

The neak ta of Ba Phnom is Me Sar, the White Mother. (Not only of Ba Phnom: she’s found throughout Cambodia). Me Sar’s origins are mysterious, but she’s probably the modern incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga, who as Parvati is the consort of Shiva.

The story of the 1877 sacrifice was told to scholars from the Buddhist Institute in 1944 by an old man who had witnessed it as a boy. The victim was a man already sentenced to death for a serious crime, possibly for being a soldier of a rebel army.  Locked in a neck-stock and followed by a large crowd, he was led around the various shrines at Ba Phnom and allowed to take part in rituals at each before being beheaded at the shrine of Me Sar. “The people looked to see what direction the victim’s blood fell,” wrote the Buddhist Institute scholars. “If it fell evenly, or spurted up, then rain would fall evenly over the entire district, but if the blood fell to one side, rain would fall only on that side of the district.”

Human sacrifice has, of course, a long association with fertility – a Chinese traveller in the middle ages reported about a king in what is now southern Laos who sacrificed a human victim once a year to ensure the rains and crops.

At Ba Phnom the victim’s head was impaled and offered up to Me Sar, while his body was cut into pieces and offered to Me Sar and to the neak ta called Sap Than (“spirit of everyplace”) and Tuol Chhnean (“spirit of fishing basket mound”).

Festival at Ba Phnom, 2011 - photo by Jonas Kroyer (

Festival at Ba Phnom, 2011 – photo by Jonas Kroyer (

The sacrifice took place during a festival called Loeng Neak Ta, “raising the ancestor-spirit”, which is still held. In 2006 the Phnom Penh Posty visited the festival, and an old man told the journalists that as a boy he had witnessed a sacrifice, but the victim was a buffalo rather than a condemned criminal or rebel. He also told the Post a legend about Ba Phnom involving a king who had been beheaded by the magical trick of an enemy. His quick-thinking wife was Me Sar, who ordered replaced the missing part with an elephant’s head – a story with faint overtones of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh.