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A sacrificial lamb is a metaphorical reference to a person or animal sacrificed (killed or discounted in some way) for the common good. The term is derived from the traditions of Abrahamic religion where a lamb is a highly valued possession.
In politics, a sacrificial lamb candidate is a candidate chosen to contest an election despite the fact that he or she has little chance of victory. The political party thus appoints the person as a sort of "sacrifice" to the stronger opponent.
In some cases, fielding a sacrificial lamb candidate can serve as an opportunity for the party to be more creative in choosing a candidate than would normally be considered acceptable in a closely contested race. For instance, Alan Keyes or Geraldine A. Ferraro. In 2004, Howard Mills was considered a sacrificial lamb candidate for the U.S. Senate from New York against Chuck Schumer.
In the arts
In cinema and literature, the term sacrificial lamb refers to a supporting character whose sole dramatic purpose is to die, thus galvanizing the protagonist to action and simultaneously demonstrating how evil the villain is. Very often, the sacrificial lamb is a family member, partner, or "old buddy" of the protagonist, with whom he or she has an assumed intimacy, thus requiring no real character development. The term is almost always used critically, with the implication that the character was used transparently as a plot device.
An example of this in early literature is Macaria in Heracleidae by Euripides. More modern examples include Anthony Edwards' character, "Goose", in Top Gun, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in David Fincher’s serial killer film Se7en.
When escorting cattle across a river suspected of having piranhas, farmers will sometimes sacrifice a sick or injured cow downstream before letting the herd enter the water.
- Cadmean victory, in which a sacrificial lamb either loses a battle or dies but whose actions lead to a greater victory
- Cannon fodder, an expression used to denote the treatment of armed forces as a worthless commodity to be expended
- Forlorn hope, the initial wave of troops attacking a fortress or other strongpoint, who usually took horrendous casualties
- Lamb of God, a direct reference to Jesus Christ who, in death, is traditionally considered to have played the role of a sacrificial lamb
- Redshirt (character), a stock character in science fiction whose sole purpose is to die violently soon after being introduced
- Korban Pesach, also known as the "Paschal Lamb"
- Identified patient