Sacrifices may be performed on a regular basis, according to established patterns of daily, monthly, or seasonal acts, or on special occasions, notably at important times in an individual's life (birth, puberty, marriage, death), and in the face of extraordinary conditions. The purpose of the act is either to establish or sustain a proper relationship with the god or gods. Sacrifices may simply express homage and veneration, or they may give thanks for good fortune. Sacrifices of supplication are intended to provoke good fortune, and sacrifices of expiation are offered to appease the divine wrath kindled by humanity's transgression of other arrangements. Humans have been known to sacrifice anything that they have ever used or produced; the oblation may be left exposed; poured, if liquid, into the ground; or burned.
The Paleolithic evidence for sacrifice is unclear, and it has not been observed in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. It has been observed, however, in pastoral and agricultural societies. In simpler societies, anyone is usually permitted to offer a sacrifice, but in more complex societies, this right is generally reserved for either a religious specialist or a person of high political rank. Often, the sacrificial cult is linked to the legitimacy of a king or emperor, as in classical Japan, China, Sumeria, Egypt, and Rome; sometimes, struggles for control over this cult lead to conflict between priests and kings.
Biblical accounts of sacrifice begin with Cain's sacrifice of the fruit of the ground, not acceptable to God, and Abel's rightful sacrifice of the firstlings of his flock. The release of Abraham from the vow to sacrifice Isaac has been read as an argument against human sacrifice in Hebrew tradition, evidenced elsewhere in the story of Jephthah's daughter. After their Temple was destroyed by Romans in A.D. 70, the Jewish sacrificial cult was replaced by other activities; among present-day Samaritans, however, the paschal lamb is still sacrificed at the time of the Passover. In the New Testament, the symbolization of Jesus by the sacrificial lamb is frequent. In the ancient liturgies, the Eucharist is regarded as a real continuation of this sacrifice of Calvary; hence Roman Catholics call the Mass "the holy sacrifice."
Other ancient cultures of the Middle East, Asia, and Europe also had religions with sacrificial rituals. Perhaps the most fully developed was that of the Vedic religion in India, as worked out in great detail in the Brahmanic texts (see Hinduism). The Maya and the Aztec developed a particularly bloody and elaborate ritual of human sacrifice. Human sacrifice in simpler forms (e.g., cannibalism, head-hunting, killing of prisoners) has also been widespread. The practice of human sacrifice is rare in recent years, although survivals do exist in some parts of the world, and even animal sacrifice has become widely reviled. In the United States, practitioners of Afro-Caribbean religions such as voodoo and Santería have been subject to law enforcement restrictions on animal sacrifice, but in 1993 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was a constitutionally protected practice as a religious rite.
See R. J. Daly, Christian Sacrifice (1978); H. Hubert and M. Mauss, Sacrifice (tr. 1964, repr. 1981); M. I. Siddiqui, Animal Sacrifice in Islam (1981); W. Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth (1983); U. M. Vesci, Heat and Sacrifice in the Vedas (1986); N. Davies, Human Sacrifice in History and Today (1988); P. Tierney, The Highest Altar: The Story of Human Sacrifice (1989).
Sacrifice (from a Middle English verb meaning "to make sacred", from Old French, from Latin sacrificium: sacr, "sacred" + facere, "to make") is commonly known as the practice of offering food, objects (typically valuables), or the lives of animals or people to the gods as an act of propitiation or worship. The term is also used metaphorically to describe selfless good deeds for others or a short term loss in return for a greater gain, such as in a game of chess.
The practice of sacrifice is found in the oldest human records. The archaeological record contains human and animal corpses with sacrificial marks long before any written records of the practice. Sacrifices are a common theme in most religions, though the frequency of animal, and especially human, sacrifices are rare today.
The centrality of sacrifices in Judaism is clear, with much of the Bible, particularly the opening chapters of the book Leviticus, detailing the exact method of bringing sacrifices. Sacrifices were either bloody (animals) or unbloody (grain and wine). Bloody sacrifices were divided into holocausts (burnt offerings, in which the whole animal was burnt), guilt offerings (in which part was burnt and part left for the priest) and peace offerings (in which similarly only part of the animal was burnt). Yet the prophets point out that sacrifices are only a part of serving God and need to be accompanied by inner morality and goodness.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, ritual sacrifice ceased except among the Samaritans (see ). Maimonides, a medieval Jewish rationalist, argued that 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 concludes 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 for the Perplexed, he writes:
In contrast, many others such as Nachmanides (in his Torah commentary on Leviticus 1:9) disagreed, contending that sacrifices are an ideal in Judaism, completely central.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, as well as among some High Church Anglicans, the Eucharist or Mass, and the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Catholic Churches and Eastern Orthodox Church, is seen as a sacrifice. It is however, not a separate or additional sacrifice to that Christ on the cross; it is rather the exact same sacrifice, which transcends time and space ("the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world") (Rev. 13:8), renewed and made present, the only distinction being that it is offered in an unbloody manner. The sacrifice is made present without Christ dying or being crucified again; it is a re-presentation to God, of the "once and for all" sacrifice of Calvary by the now risen Christ, who continues to offer himself and what he has done on the cross as an oblation to the Father. The complete identification of the Mass with the sacrifice of the cross is found in Christ's words at the last supper over the bread and wine: "This is my body, which is given up for you," and "This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed...unto the forgiveness of sins." The bread and wine, offered by Melchizedek in sacrifice in the old covenant (Genesis 14:18; Psalm 110:4), are transformed through the Mass into the body and blood of Christ (see transubstantiation; note: the Orthodox Church does not hold as dogma, as do Catholics, the doctrine of transubstantiation, preferring rather to not make an assertion regarding the "how" of the sacraments), and the offering becomes one with that of Christ on the cross. In the Mass as on the cross, Christ is both priest (offering the sacrifice) and victim (the sacrifice he offers is himself), though in the Mass in the former capacity he works through a solely human priest who is joined to him through the sacrament of Holy Orders and thus shares in Christ's priesthood. Through the Mass, the merits of the one sacrifice of the cross can be applied to the redemption of those present, to their specific intentions and prayers, and to the redemption of the souls in purgatory. A prophecy of the sacrifice of the Mass, offered in every corner of the world, is found in the Book of Malachi in the Old Testament: "from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, my name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering, for my name is great among the Gentiles" (Mal. 1:10-11).
The concept of self-sacrifice and martyrs are central to Christianity. Often found in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity is the idea of joining one's own sufferings to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Thus one can offer up involuntary suffering, such as illness, or purposefully embrace suffering in acts of penance, such as fasting. Some Protestants criticize this as a denial of the all-sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice, but it finds support in St. Paul: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Col 1:24). Pope John Paul II explained in his encyclical Salvifici Doloris:
"In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed...Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished...In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ...The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world's redemption. This good in itself is inexhaustible and infinite. No man can add anything to it. But at the same time, in the mystery of the Church as his Body, Christ has in a sense opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering."Some Protestants reject the idea of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, inclining to see it as merely a holy meal (even if they believe in a form of the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine, as Lutherans do). The more recent the origin of a particular tradition, the less emphasis is placed on the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist. The Catholic/Orthodox response is that the sacrifice of the Mass in the New Covenant is that one sacrifice for sins on the cross which transcends time offered in an unbloody manner, as discussed above, and that Christ is the real priest at every Mass working through mere human beings to whom he has granted the grace of a share in his priesthood. Since the word priest carries heavy connotations of "one who offers sacrifice", Protestants usually do not use it for their clergy. Evangelical Protestantism emphasizes the importance of a decision to accept Christ's sacrifice on the Cross consciously and personally as atonement for one's individual sins if one is to be saved—this is known as "accepting Christ as one's personal Lord and Savior".
The Orthodox Church sees the celebration of the Eucharist as a continuation, rather than a reenactment, of the Last Supper, as Fr. John Matusiak (of the OCA) says: "The Liturgy is not so much a reenactment of the Mystical Supper or these events as it is a continuation of these events, which are beyond time and space. Unlike many of the Protestant bodies, the Orthodox also see the Eucharistic Liturgy as a bloodless sacrifice, during which the bread and wine we offer to God become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ through the descent and operation of the Holy Spirit, Who effects the change." This view is witnessed to by the prayers of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, when the priest says: "Accept, O God, our supplications, make us to be worthy to offer unto thee supplications and prayers and bloodless sacrifices for all thy people," and "Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which came to pass for us: the cross, the grave, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting down at the right hand, the second and glorious coming again, Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee on behalf of all and for all," and "… Thou didst become man and didst take the name of our High Priest, and deliver unto us the priestly rite of this liturgical and bloodless sacrifice…"
The Islamic system of slaughter is called Ḏabīḥah.
Commonly, the most valuable sacrifices have been that of lives, animal or human.
Animal 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 Hebrews to the Greeks and Romans (particularly the purifying ceremony Lustratio) and from the Aztecs to the Yoruba. However, the practice was a taboo among the Ancient Egyptians, and they tended to look down on cultures that practiced this custom. Animal sacrifice is still practiced today by the followers of Santería and other lineages of Orisa as a means of curing the sick and giving thanks to the Orisa (gods). However in Santeria, such animal offerings constitute an extremely small portion of what are termed ebos—ritual activities that include offerings, prayer and deeds. Some villages in Greece also sacrifice animals to Orthodox saints in a practise known as kourbània. The practise, while publicly condemned, is often tolerated for the benefits it provides to the church and the sense of community it engenders.
Human sacrifice was practiced by many ancient cultures. People would be ritually killed in a manner that was supposed to please or appease a god or spirit. While not widely known, human sacrifices for religious reasons still exist today in a number of nations.
Some occasions for human sacrifice found in multiple cultures on multiple continents include:
Some of the best known ancient human sacrifices were those practiced by various Pre-Columbian civilizations of Mesoamerica. The Aztec were particularly noted for practicing this on an unusually large scale; a human sacrifice would be made every day to aid the sun in rising, the dedication of the great temple at Tenochtitlán was reportedly marked with the sacrificing of thousands, and there are multiple accounts of captured Conquistadores being sacrificed during the wars of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
There is evidence to suggest Pre-Hellenic Minoan cultures practised human sacrifice. Sacrificed corpses were found at a number of sites in the citadel of Knossos in Crete. The north house at Knossos contained the bones of children who appeared to have been butchered. It is possible they may have been for human consumption as was the tradition with sacrificial offerings made in Pre-Hellenic Civilization. The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur (set in the labyrinth at Knossos) provides evidence that human sacrifice was commonplace. In the myth, we are told that Athens sent seven young men and seven young women to Crete as human sacrifices to the Minotaur. This ties up well with the archaeological evidence that most sacrifices were of young adults or children.
Human sacrifice still happens today as an underground practice in some traditional religions, for example in muti killings. Human sacrifice is no longer officially condoned in any country, and these cases are regarded as murder.
In Hindu narratives, practising human sacrifice and eating human meat was a work of the demons (see Demon).
In chess, a number of exchanges are described as sacrifices: these typically involve losing a piece or a pawn to disrupt the opponent's formation and open up an attack. Chess openings that involve sacrifices are usually called "gambits" by chess players; in these gambits, usually a pawn is deliberately lost; gambits that lose a piece are rare and risky.
In contract bridge, a sacrifice is a deliberate higher level bid of a contract which is likely to fail, in the hope that the adverse cost of the failure will still be less than the opponents' likely successful scores would have been.
In baseball, a sacrifice fly is a play in which a batter hits a fly ball deep into the outfield for an out so as to enable a runner on any base, depending on the runner's speed, to score. Likewise, a sacrifice bunt in baseball is one in which a batter deliberately allows himself to be put out while advancing a teammate to second and/or third base, from where he has a greater chance to score. Players who commit either a sacrifice fly or bunt are not charged with a "time at bat," thus the out that they sacrificed is not charged against their batting average.
In a some role-playing games certain characters have the ability to give up their hit points for the benefit of their allies. In the game World of Warcraft a player of the Paladin class may sacrifice the life of their character in order to provide temporary invulnerability to another player.