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Ancient Romans bring sacrificial animals to the altar
Preach to the choir
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Crux of the matter
Speak of the devil
An act of faith

Sacrifice is the practice of offering food or the lives of animals or people to the gods, as an act of propitiation or of worship. Offerings may be practical (real) or symbolic. Sacrifice often involves a ritualisticWikipedia ceremony.

The term "sacrifice" is also used metaphorically to describe selfless good deeds for others; or to characterise a self-serving ploy in chess.

Theologies of sacrifice[edit]

The theology of sacrifice remains an issue, not only for religions that continue to practice rituals of sacrifice, but also for those religions that have animal sacrifice in their scriptures, traditions, or histories, even if sacrifice is no longer made. Religions offer a number of reasons for why sacrifices are offered.

  • Gods need sacrifice to sustain themselves and their power, without which they are diminished.
  • Sacrificed goods are used to make a bargain with the god, who has promised some favour in return for the sacrifice. VotiveWikipedia altars and other memorials in Latin often bear the inscription VSLM, which stands for votum solvit libens merito, "he/she fulfilled a vow, willingly, as deserved"; the gods have answered the devotee's prayers and a promised monument has been erected in return.
  • The lives or blood of sacrificial victims contains mana or some other supernatural power whose offering pleases the god.
  • The sacrificial victim is offered as a scapegoat, a target for the wrath of a god, which otherwise would be visited on the followers.
  • Sacrifice deprives the followers of food and other useful commodities, and as such constitutes an ascetic discipline.[1]
  • Sacrificed goods actually become part of a religious organisation's revenue; it is a part of the economic base of support that compensates priests and supports temples.[2]
  • The sacrifice is actually a part of a festival and is ultimately consumed by the followers themselves.
  • The sacrifice is performed as a form of divination; frequently encountered forms are called haruspicy or extispicy, in which the liver and other entrails of the sacrifice are inspected for omens.[3]
  • In the Old Testament, God issues a number of commandments for Israelites to offer animal sacrifices in the portable sanctuary, known as the Tabernacle. Once the Israelites were settled in the land of Canaan, all sacrifices were ordered to be ended except those offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. In the Bible, God asks for sacrifices as a sign of a covenant between himself and the Israelite people.

Sacrifice in Judaism[edit]

In the Bible, two sorts of animal sacrifice are set forth. One is the burnt offering, also historically called the "holocaust",[note 1] which was entirely destroyed by fire. This was offered to expiate for sin or other ritual impurity.[4]

Other animal sacrifices offered by Jews during the Temple period were voluntary, such as the offering of thanksgiving[5] that was offered voluntarily as an act of worship, and consumed as a holy feast by the offeror and his family.[6]

Later interpretations[edit]

In Judaism, a sacrifice is known as a Korban from the Hebrew root karov, meaning to "[come] Close [to God]". Medieval Jewish rationalists like MaimonidesWikipedia reinterpreted the need for sacrifice. In this view, God always held sacrifice inferior to prayer and philosophical meditation. However, God understood that the Israelites were used to the animal sacrifices that the surrounding pagan tribes used as the primary way to commune with their gods. As such, in Maimonides' view, it was only natural that Israelites would believe that sacrifice was a necessary part of the relationship between God and man. Maimonides concluded that God's decision to allow sacrifices was a concession to human psychological limitations. It would have been too much to have expected the Israelites to leap from pagan worship to prayer and meditation in one step. In the Guide to the Perplexed, he writes:

But the custom which was in those days general among men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up consisted in sacrificing animals… It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God...that God did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service. For to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present [the 12th Century] if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to God nor fast, nor seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action.
—Moses Maimonides[7]

The teachings of the Torah and Tanakh reveal Judaism's abhorrence of human sacrifices.

Animal sacrifice[edit]

Hermes leads a goat to the sacrifice

This type of sacrifice is the ritual killing of an animal as part of a religion. It is practiced by many religions as a means of appeasing a god or gods or changing the course of nature. Animal sacrifice has turned up in almost all cultures, from the Aztecs to the Hebrews to the Greeks and Romans to the Yoruba. A common motif is that the animal is a substitute sacrifice, that is, offered as a replacement for a human sacrifice, to the point the animal may be dressed in human clothes or otherwise treated like a human. For example, the ancient Mesopotamian text "Substitution of a Man for Ereshkigal" claims in order to heal a sick person, a goat must spend a night with the afflicted. At dawn, a priest must prod the sick person with a wooden knife, kill the goat with a real knife, and then hold a funeral for the goat while the sick person leaves the house.[8]:73-75

Animal sacrifice is still practiced today by the followers of Santería as a means of curing the sick and giving thanks to the gods.

Islam continues to offer an animal sacrifice at the feast that commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham, although in practice the sacrifice is consumed by the Muslims themselves as a part of a feast.[9]

Many varieties of Hinduism continue to offer animal sacrifices. The Vedas prescribe an elaborate ritual for sacrificing a horse; this is a very ancient practice that can be traced back to the Indo-European roots of the Hindus.[10] Other Hindus have substituted purely vegetable sacrifices for the animal sacrifices prescribed by the ancient texts.[11]

Human sacrifice[edit]

Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac
See the main article on this topic: Human sacrifice

Human sacrifice was practiced by many ancient cultures. People would be ritually killed in a manner that was supposed to please or appease some god or spirit. While not widely known, human sacrifices for religious reasons still exist today in a number of nations, including India. In France and Britain, Druids were said to preside over human sacrifices, in the account of their activities handed down by Julius Caesar.

Some occasions for human sacrifice found in multiple cultures on multiple continents include:

  • Human sacrifice to accompany the dedication of a new temple or bridge.
  • Sacrifice of people upon the death of a king, high priest, or great leader; the sacrificed were supposed to serve or accompany the deceased leader in the next life.
  • Human sacrifice in times of natural disaster. Droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc. were seen as a sign of anger or displeasure by deities, and sacrifices were supposed to lessen the divine ire.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Human Sacrifice: In History and Today Nigel Davies; Dorset Press, 1981 ISBN 0-88029-211-3
  • In India, case links mysticism, murder John Lancaster, Washington Post, 11/29/2003
  • Bataille, Georges (1992). Theory of Religion. Zone Books. ISBN 0-942299-09-4.
  • Carter, Jeffrey (2003). Understanding Religious Sacrifice. Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-4880-1.
  • Hubert, Henri; Marcel Mauss (1981). Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function. U of Chicago Press(reprint, orig 1898). ISBN 0-226-35679-5.
  • Adolf E. Jensen, Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples, University of Chicago Press, 1963
  • Bubbio, Paolo Diego (2014). Sacrifice in the Post-Kantian Tradition: Perspectivism, Intersubjectivity, and Recognition. SUNY Press. ISBN 978-1-4384-5251-7.

External links[edit]


  1. After the Greek for "wholly burnt"; Hebrew קָרְבַּן עוֹלָה‬, korban olah.


  1. See generally, Hubert, Henri; Marcel Mauss (1981). Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function. U of Chicago Press(reprint, orig 1898). ISBN 0-226-35679-5.
  2. See, e.g. Numbers 18:21-25.
  3. See the Wikipedia article on haruspex.
  4. Leviticus 6.
  5. Hebrew זֶבַח הַתֹּודָה zevak hatodah.
  6. Leviticus 7.
  7. The Guide for the Perplexed (Book III, Chapter 32) by Moses Maimonides, translated by M. Friedlander (1904) Dover Publications, 1956 edition.
  8. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age by Walter Burket (1992) Harvard University Press ISBN 0-674-64363-I
  9. See the Wikipedia article on Eid al-Adha.
  10. See the Wikipedia article on Ashvamedha. See the Wikipedia article on October horse.
  11. See the Wikipedia article on Animal sacrifice in Hinduism.