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sacrifice [Lat. sacrificare=to make holy], a type of religious offering, or gift to a superior or supreme being, in which the offering is consecrated through its destruction.

The Nature of Sacrifice

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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The first "religious" act was probably ritual burial (see Burial Customs). The second might well have been sacrifice. No one knows why. All we can do is guess.

It could be that the human religious response to the unknown is to bargain. "If you do that, I will give you this." As in, "If you spare my crop, I will give you the first grain." But it could also be that human response to the unknown is to bribe. "How big an offering will it take to get you to spare my fields? My first fruits? My best lamb? My firstborn?"

All we know for sure is that sacrifice is found very early in the historical record. The disturbing fact is that human sacrifice is also found very early. And the practice seems to be universal. From Europe to China and all over the Americas, rising to the heights of gruesome ritual in Central America, animal as well as human sacrifice is well documented.

Even the biblical heroes, including David and Solomon, had the idea that the bigger the sacrifice, the deeper the sincerity. At the dedication of the Great Temple, Solomon offered a sacrifice consisting of "22,000 cattle and 120,000 sheep and goats" (1 Kings 8:63). With this kind of sentiment building, it is no wonder that the Hebrew psalmist laments, "You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart" (Psalm 51:15-17).

We find the concept of sacrifice in every major religion. Practitioners of Buddhism and Hinduism tend to offer grain or vegetable sacrifices to specific deities. Those of Shinto and Confucianism tend to honor ancestors with sacrifices or offerings of fruit.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam began with a human sacrifice—or at least an attempted one. The sacrifice of Isaac, or, according to Islamic tradition, Ishmael (see Abraham), marks the beginning of a long, involved theological journey to the present-day ritual of the Catholic Mass and the Protestant Communion service. Although Jewish sacrifices ceased with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE (see Judaism, Development of), the practice is still symbolically remembered in Christianity. Jesus said, "This is my body... This is my blood... Take this in remembrance of me." The bread and wine used in these services point directly to what is understood as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. God offered, in the closely reasoned logic of the author of the book of Hebrews, a final sacrifice that summed up all the animal sacrifices of the past (Hebrews 9 and 10). Modern Christians have "spruced up" the ritual so much that an observer might miss the meaning behind what is, in fact, the celebration of a very bloody, very painful sacrifice.

What tends to boggle the mind of most moderns, however, is that sacrifice was often seen as an honor. In Central American Indian traditions, those who were sacrificed were often willing victims. The winner of the ritual ball game (we don't really know what the rules were, but the stadiums have been excavated) joyfully accepted his death. Having proved his worthiness and received the adulation of his peers, the victim died at the very height of the greatest moment of his life. The modern equivalent would be to kill the quarterback who wins the Super Bowl. In other Central and South American villages, an innocent virgin, trained for her task, willingly gave up her life so that her grateful neighbors could have a bountiful harvest. She was honored, not pitied. At least, that's what the archaeological evidence and oral legends seem to indicate.

Even our language reveals the long history of sacrifice for the good of the tribe. In "America's game" of baseball, when a batter taps a ball down the first-base line, knowing he will be tagged out but at the same time advancing a teammate to a better scoring position, the strategy is called a "sacrifice bunt." And every Sunday afternoon during football season, a player praises a teammate who is "not afraid to sacrifice his body" for the good of the team.

Perhaps the altruistic idea of giving something up to gain something better for the community is behind the idea of ritual sacrifice. We simply don't know. What seems logical to us in this century might not even approach the reality of previous civilizations.

We will probably never know. Whatever the reasons, the practice of ritual sacrifice is one of the few universal religious rituals.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

A sacrifice is the giving of something or someone to a deity or deities as a gift, in supplication, to atone, or to appease. It establishes a connection between the profane and the sacred. Common sacrifices are food and drink, tokens from the harvest, animals, and—historically—even humans.

In the Witchcraft ceremony of Cakes and Wine, or Cakes and Ale, Wiccans give the first of the wine and the first piece of cake as an offering to the gods. Flowers may also be offered, along with nuts, fruit, and harvest gatherings. There is no blood sacrifice in Wicca.

In Voodoo it is common to sacrifice an animal, such as a chicken, goat, or a young bull. This is most frequently done when asking for help from the loa, or gods. In Haiti, for example, this is a very real sacrifice, since to give up that food deprives the person or family making the offering of that much sustenance.

On the mainland of ancient Greece and in the Greek colonies, human sacrifice was not uncommon, usually as a means of expelling evil. In Sparta, all state sacrifices were offered by the kings, as descendants of the gods. In the Athenian sacrifice known as the bouphonia ("murder of the ox"), which took place at the end of June, oxen were driven around the altar, and the one that approached and ate the offering was the one sacrificed. This was done to bring an end to the drought of that season. The sacrifice eaten by the ox was in the form of cakes made from barley mixed with wheat.

Demeter is described by Homer as "Yellow Demeter" because of her association with the corn. She is also known as "Green Demeter" when associated with unripe corn. In that aspect she had sanctuaries at Athens and other places, where sacrifices were made to her when the crops were young. Pregnant sows were sacrificed, intended not only to symbolize the abundance of the crops but also to promote that abundance.

In Rome, human sacrifice occurred at the Saturnalia, and animal sacrifice was found extensively. Teutonic kings acted alongside their priests in the matter of sacrifice, while in China the emperor's duties included the offering of public sacrifice as part of the traditional ritual lore. The Aztecs were probably the best-known practitioners of human sacrifice, although they did not begin the practice until about two hundred years before the conquest. In India it was common to sacrifice a widow on her dead husband's funeral pyre. According to Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough), the Semitic custom of sacrificing children, especially the first born, was also found in some Aboriginal tribes of New South Wales, where the first-born child of every woman was eaten by the tribe as part of a religious ceremony. Some Native Americans of Florida also sacrificed their first-born children, according to Frazer.

In a Druidical custom, a huge figure made of wicker-work was burned at mid- summer. The figure would often contain animals as a sacrifice. This was a practice continued across France for generations. According to the Athenaeum of July 24,

1869, at Luchon in the Pyrenees, "a hollow column, composed of strong wickerwork, is raised to the height of about sixty feet in the centre of the principal suburb, and interlaced with green foliage up to the very top; while the most beautiful flowers and shrubs procurable are artistically arranged in groups below, so as to form a sort of background to the scene. The column is then filled with combustible materials. . . bonfires are lit, with beautiful effect, in the surrounding hills. As many living serpents as can be collected are then thrown into the column, which is set on fire at the base by means of torches."

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



an essential part of religious ritual, the offering of gifts to various spirits, deified objects, gods, and saints. There are several theories concerning its origins. Some scholars, including the Australian ethnologist W. B. Spencer, link sacrifices with the custom of feeding the dead. Others, such as the English ethnologist E. Tylor, view sacrifice as a traditional means of placating and propitiating the spirits. The Scottish scholar W. R. Smith suggests that its origins lie in the custom of group tribal feasts. Theories linking the ritual of sacrifice with a belief in the magical powers of sacrificed animals have also been advanced. The phenomenon of sacrifice is clearly complex, having a number of origins.

The most ancient forms of sacrifice include feeding the deceased and fetishes, propitiatory and redemptive sacrifices, the offering of firstfruits (the ritual removal of taboos that had been temporarily placed upon products of gathering or agriculture and the offspring of the livestock). With the growth of social inequality in slaveholding, feudal, and capitalistic societies, professional clergymen demanded from believers greater sacrifices to the spirits and gods. Out of this grew the custom of offering donations, sacrifices, and grants to temples and later to churches and monasteries. This led to the acquisition of vast holdings, which served as the church’s principal economic power, for example, in medieval Europe and Rus’.

Historically, an extremely wide variety of sacrifices have been known in all religions. They range from simple and harmless sprinklings or libations before eating and drinking in honor of the spirits and gods to bloody and cruel human sacrifices and hecatombs (the slaughter of 100 bulls) in antiquity. Particularly savage were the sacrifices of children in ancient Phoenicia and Carthage, religious suicides in India and Japan, and ritual castrations by the cult of Cybele in Asia Minor and by the Skoptsy in tsarist Russia. Consecration of the spirits of living animals, which is practiced in Siberia, as well as monasticism, religious asceticism, and fasting can also be considered as forms of sacrifice. Sacrificial ritual has appeared in modified forms—for example, symbolic sacrifices made of paper (in China) or the offering of votive objects. Vestiges of sacrifice continue to exist in modern religions; examples include the burning of votive candles and lamps, as well as the consecration of food.


Tokarev, S. A. Rannie for my religii i ikh razvitie. Moscow, 1964.
Tokarev, S. A. Religiia v istorii narodov mira. Moscow, 1964.
Kazhdan, A. P. Religiia i ateizm v drevnem mire. Moscow, 1957.
Frazer, J. Zolotaia vetv’, issues 1–4. Moscow, 1928. (Translated from English.)
Shternberg, L. la. Pervobytnaia religiia v svete etnografii. Leningrad, 1936.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

What does it mean when you dream about a sacrifice?

A dream of sacrifice may indicate that the dreamer feels “martyred” because of the time and energy they have sacrificed for others. The dreamer may need to eliminate certain conditions to allow for more productive and rewarding experiences.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


Adrammelech and Anammelech
Sepharvaite gods to whom children were immolated. [O.T.: II Kings 17:31]
biblical account of God commanding Abraham’s offerings. [Jewish Hist.: Wigoder, 17]
Burghers of Calais
they sacrificed themselves to save city from British siege after Battle of Crécy (1346). [Fr. Hist.: EB, II: 447]
Cretan king sacrifices his son to fulfill a vow. [Gk. Myth.: Benét, 492]
slain to appease Artemis’ wrath. [Gk. Myth.: Walsh Classical, 156]
god to whom idolatrous Israelites immolated children. [O.T.: II Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 7:31–32, 32:35]
site intended for Abraham’s offering up of Isaac. [O.T.: Genesis 22:2]
priestess betrays her vows and sacrifices herself in atonement. [Ital. Opera: Bellini Norma in Benét, 720]
site of propitiatory immolations to god, Moloch. [O.T.: II Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 7:31–32]
former practice of self-immolation by widow on husband’s pyre. [Hinduism: Brewer Dictionary, 1049]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Chess the act or an instance of sacrificing a piece
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


Before we can nourish others, we first need to nourish ourselves. Making sacrifices is human, but when we do too much for the world and not enough for ourselves, we are left feeling neglected and weak. Martyrdom is not fun and martyrs are at times annoying. This dream may be suggesting to you that you need to prioritize. Eliminate things in your life that are not necessary and continuously drag you down. Also, consider the fact that whatever is constantly requiring you to make personal sacrifices may not be in your best interest or conducive to your health or happiness. Superstitionbased dream interpretations say that dreaming about sacrifice is a dream of the contrary and that you will be enriched in the near future.
Bedside Dream Dictionary by Silvana Amar Copyright © 2007 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
"I always encourage our friends and family to purchase a cow for sacrifice during the Hajj celebration.
In everyday lives, sacrifice means giving up what our nafs is egging us on to do - something that we are aware is not right, yet we are attracted towards it because it will give us momentary pleasure.
On the Cross, we have the true Lamb of sacrifice that is offered to the Father in heaven.
Find out what is it that stops you from obeying your creator, bring it to the altar (think of it consciously) and sacrifice it once and for all.
'My mom's greatest sacrifice would be those times she was pregnant with me and my siblings.
The site was first discovered by Gabriel Prieto of the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo in 2011, when he was excavating a 3,500-year-old temple down the road from the sacrifice site.
It is a day to celebrate the glory of the nation with the most glorious images of sacrifice, he said.
Beyond Qatar, the campaign targets 36 countries and seeks to provide 23,040 sacrifices at more than QR11mn.
Millions of Muslims around the world will offer a sacrifice to God on the first full day of the holiday.
Given the popularity of Rene Girard's theory of ritual sacrifice as a scapegoat mechanism, it is not surprising that three of the essays treat or draw upon Girard's ideas at some length.
"No person will sacrifice any animal in any place of worship.