Sacrifice has been defined as a religious rite in which an object or atonement is offered to a divinity in order to establish, maintain, or restore a right relationship of a human being to the sacred order. It probably originated as a practice simultaneously with religion. Sacrifices have been given as either a gift to the gods or to atone for a wrongdoing. Offerings have consisted of human life, animals, fruit and crops – and of abstinence. There have been sacrifices as far back as we can trace, in all corners of the Earth.
Human sacrifice was practiced in many ancient cultures, and they were performed for a variety of reasons. Upon the death of a leader, many cultures sacrificed people to accompany him to the afterlife. Some Egyptian Pharaohs, ancient Chinese emperors, Mongols, and Mesoamerican Kings have been found buried with slaves and family members. In other cultures priests would sacrifice prisoners in order to predict the future from their body parts. The Celts were said to stab enemies and read the future from their death spasms. Natural disasters brought frantic attempts to appease the gods. The Cretans tried to save their island in this way. Human sacrifice was also practiced on a regular basis to help preserve the status quo. The Phoenicians and Carthaginians sacrificed infants to their gods, and the Mayan and Aztec religions routinely sacrificed friend and foe on a large scale.
Animal and plant sacrifice was normally done for two reasons – payment to the gods, and as a form of communion between gods and their followers. Plant and animal sacrifices typically were performed to express homage and veneration. The sacrifice of the fruits of man’s labors were ways of giving thanks for good fortune and/or receiving future good fortune.
The five major religions today have a historic record of sacrifice. In ancient Vedic Hinduism ritualistic animal sacrifice was common. Although uncommon today and looked down by many Hindus, it is estimated that tens of thousands of goats, pigs, waterbuffalo, ducks and chickens are still sacrificed to Kali each year. Buddhism has never condoned the sacrifice of life, but self-sacrifice plays an important role in self-discipline and growth. Animal sacrifice was a vital part of Judaism up to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. After this time prayer took its place. Islamic faith promotes self-sacrifice through yearly rituals of fasting, and Christianity is based on the idea that Jesus was sacrificed for the sins of mankind.
Sacrifice to God and religion take on many forms today, from self atonement to terrorist suicide. To many it is an obsolete and meaningless practice, but for those who practice it the goals are the same - establishing, maintaining, or restoring a right relationship with God. Is sacrifice still meaningful in today’s world?