What is Sacrifice? What is the Meaning of Sacrifice in Secular and Religious Contexts?


The word “sacrifice” has different meanings in secular and religious contexts. This article explores the secular definition of sacrifice as voluntary deprivation and the religious background of sacrifice in Greek, Jewish, and Roman religions, where it was used in reference to cult and worship.

Secular Defînition.

The modern secular use of the word describes voluntary deprivation, and its defînition may be epitomized in “giving up.” What is given up—possessions, happiness, reputation—is always of some value to the sacrificer. It is frequently destroyed, or it may pass into the possession of someone else, who is not, however, regarded as the recipient of a sacrifice. The deprivation is always effected so that the sacrificer may achieve a purpose that to him or to some other person or cause, is of greater value tlıan that of the object sacrificed. Illustrations of this are seen in the expression “He sacrificed his position for his principles” and “The soldier made the supreme sacrifice.” The Oxford Dictionary gives the date 1706 when “sacrifice” was first used as a verb in this sense. As a noun it had been so used much earlier.

The word came into use through the Christian Church, which had taken it from the religions that formed the milieu of its early life, the Greek, Jewish, and Roman, in which it was invariably used with reference to cult, having no secular signiflcance whatever. To understand the meaning of the word we must turn to these three religions.


“Sacrifice” comes from the Latin noun sacrificium and the verb sacrificare, which are blanket terms for any religious act in which a thing is made sacred, that is, given to a deity and made his property. If what was made sacred was an animal or a cereal for the purpose of preservation of the life power of the deity, thus keeping him favorable, it was burned in order that the food, sublimated into smoke, might rise to the upper air where the deities lived. A handful of food thrown into the hearth fire by the father of the family at a meal was a sacrificium. Instruments used in the process of public sacrifices, temples where the process was carried on, and articles of adornment of the temples were likewise made sacred. Rites of lustration or purification with the purpose of warding off demons or evil influences were also called sacrifices.

The rules and ceremonies for these rites were meticulously preserved from early days in the jus divinum, which was the body of regulations for keeping people in the good graces of the gods, as the jus çivile prescribed the regulations for keeping them in the good graces of the city or state.


What is Sacrifice? Definition and Religious Background

Greek Rites.

The Greek language had no such blanket term to deseribe religious rites. Rites in honor of the deities of the upper air (Olympus) were called thusiai. Those offered to chthonic powers were called sphagia.

Thusiai were always offered by daylight, preferably in the morning. Certain parts of the animal vietims, the steaks, were burned on a bomos, a large stone or a pile of stones raised higher than the worshipers. The remainder was eaten by the worshipers as part of the rite. The act of burning the flesh for the deities was thuein or hiereuein. The rites were concluded by music and dancing. Their purpose was to honor the friendly deities.

Sphagia were offered by night. The rite was deseribed by the verbs sphagiazein, meaning to slaughter, enagizeirı, meaning to make taboo, and holokautein, meaning to burn wholly. The vietims were burned on an esehara, a rude stone laid as elose as possible to the ground or in a trench dug for the purpose. None of the animal was eaten, and the whole eerie rite was performed in silence. The purpose was placation or aversion of unloved powers.

Our translations of ali these Greek words have come through the Latin and have lost the sharp distinetion between the rites. Thusiai and sphagia have both become “sacrifices.” Ali the words deseribing the rite have become “to sacrifice.” Bomos and esehara have both become “altars.” The result is that we hear of two kinds of Greek sacrifice, thus confusing rites that should be sharply distinguished.

Jewish Rites.

Jewish rites were likewise deseribed by different vocabularies, with no blanket term to group them together. The best known was the zevach, which was, in most ways, a counterpart of the Greek thusia, by which it is translated in the Septuagint. In Judaism, after the return from the captivity, the holah gained inereasing signiflcance. In this rite an animal was wholly burned on an altar, and none of it was eaten by priest or people. This was not a rite of aversion or placation.

As the smoke of the zevach carried the choice parts of the vietims to the sky, where Yahweh (a Hebrew name for God) lived, and was thus an offering of the best part of the food to the deity, the holah was considered as offering the whole animal to the deity, thus becoming the greatest possible gift that could be offered. Long after Yahweh was considered to have no physical form, both these rites were continued with increasingly analogical interpretation.


When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, zevach was easily rendered by thusia. Translation of holah gave difficulty. Ali Greek rites in which an animal was wholly burned were rites of placation and aversion but holah was honorific and could not be rendered by holocauton. The translators ingeniously coined other words from the same Greek roots, but differently spelled and with slightly different endings. When the Greek Bible passed into Latin the distinetion was lost. Roman religion had no rites equivalent to Greek holocauton, and the Greek was Latinized into holocauston (wholly burned). This came into the Douay version as “holocaust.” The King James version tried to remedy this by coining the compound word “wholeburnt offering.”

The oldest sacrificial rite continuing to the present day is the Jewish annual Pesach (translated “phase” and “pasch” in the Douay version and as “passover” in the King James version). It preserves the primitive communal meal, with no urning of any part on an altar by priests. The blood of the animal was smeared upon the doorposts of the house where the rite was performed, as a prophylactic against dangerous misfortune.

In addition to these sacrifices, Judaism had many rites of purification, which probably arose from taboo rites. One could not worship if he were taboo, and the taboo had to be solemnly removed before one could participate in worship. Judaism early extended its taboos to inelude moral disqualifications. Underlying ali those rites was the fundamental principle that sacrificial worship was an act of the group and not of an individual. Therefore every individual in the group, as well as the group as a whole, must be free from physical and moral taboo, whether conscious of it or not. The place of worship, the altar, must likewise be free from deliberate or accidental contact that it might have had with a taboo person.

The common method of purification was smearing or sprinkling with blood, the principle of life. This might be performed as a special act, but it was always a necessary preparation for offering a sacrifice. The natural source of the blood was the animal to be sacrifîced.

The name, Day of Atonement, uses a 16th century word to translate Greek and Hebrew words that described purification but had no suggestion of reconciliation. On that day alone the sins of priest and people were solemnly transferred to the scapegoat, which was then not sacrifîced but driven “into the wilderness” by acolytes, who had to be purified from their contacts with the sinladen beast.

Here was the only instance in which the “laying on of hands” was specifically interpreted. This was probably because the meaning was different from the customary use of the term. In every Jewish sacrifice the worshiper had first to lay his hand upon tlıe beast before he killed it. This is never explained as transfer of sins. It was probably a means of some sort of identification of the worshiper with the victim, which was to be offered, at least in part, to Yahweh.

Sacrifice as worship.

These rites would be better understood if the word “sacrifice” were confined to the rites of worship as the solemn acts for which purification was a necessary preparation and in which some solemn act was performed with an animal that had been killed for the purpose.

The deatlı of the animal was an incidental, necessary fact in order that the sacrifice might be performed. It was not a factor of the sacrifice. The death of ali individual animals or cereals that we eat is stili a necessary fact or event occurring either before or during the process of eating the food. It cannot be regarded as a factor of the meal. Thus the death of the animal was never on the altar. For obvious physical reasons the beast was slain as near the akar as was in keeping with whatever reverence accompanied the sacrifice. After the victim was killed there were three possibilities for disposal of the carcass: (1) The worshipers might eat ali of it. (2) They might eat part and sublimate part into smoke for the gods. (3) They might bum ali of it.

The first method was that of the Jewish Pesach, the Greek bouphorıia, the strange rite or the ‘Aisâwa, a Müslim fratemity in Algeria, and in many other primitive rites, ali of which had their origin in days before men had any concept of deities. The common meal of the early family or elan or tribe was the method by which the life power and the qualities of the animal were appropriated by those who participated in the feast. Totemistic concepts of “eating the god” may well have contributed to the development of the rite.

With the growing conviction that the mysterious life powers, which men wanted to appropriate, were sentient beings, it was simple to picture the smoke of their roasts ascending to those beings. It was but a step to the conviction that a portion of the meat should be sent up to the gods. Thus may well have arisen the regular, official sacrifices we see most highly developed among the Greeks and Hebrews, the thusia and the zevach. In both these sacrifices the idea of thanksgiving was highly developed, expressed in Greek by the word euenaristia, which passed into Christianity.

We are able to reconstruct the ritual acts of both Greek and Hebrew sacrifices, which were remarkably similar. In both were three distinet parts, the preparation, the sacrifice proper, and, except in the holah, the meal, accompanied and followed by music.


What is Sacrifice? Definition and Religious Background

In both religions the preparation consisted of purification from normal and accidental uncleanness from daily living and from acts and crimes that constituted barriers to worship. In Greek rites this was accomplished by lustration. In Jewish rites it was accomplished by manipulation of the blood of the victim and included the altar as well as the worshipers. At the end of these rites the animal was killed and disseeted. In Jewish rites this killing was preseribed to be done by the worshiper.

The priests then performed the sacrifice itself by burning on the altar the choice parts of the flesh of the victim. Homer gives elaborate deseriptions of this in two places in the lliad and two in the Odyssey, witlı almost identical words in ali four passages. The sacrifice, except the holah, was followed by the meal, for which meticulous rules are preseribed in Greek inseriptions. For large, official sacrifices the music was as elaborate as possible. The aim was always to make the sacrifice as large as possible, burning as many vietims as could be provided.

From biblical Judaism comes the sacrifice in which none of the victim was eaten. The animal was flayed because his hide was the perquisite of the priests in both Greek and Jewish sacrifices. The burning of ali the remainder upon the altar lent itself easily to lofty spiritual interpretation.

Decline of Sacrifices.

There was no possible connection between this wholeburnt offering and the Greek aversion and placation rites to which reference has been made. With the destruction of the Temple in 586 b. c., Hebrew sacrifices came to an abrupt conclusion. The priests and the better part of the people were banished to Babylonia. They were convinced that no Jewish sacrifices could be offered outside the Temple in Jerusalem. Judaism became a sacrificeless religion until the return from the captivity and the building of a second Temple more than a century later. During this time the tradition of the sacrifices and their ritual were reduced to writing in the Pentateucfı (Torah), which forms the sole early source for study.

All Jewish sacrifices had to be accompanied by an offering of cakes of fine flour called the minehah, translated in the Douay version as “oblation of sacrifice,” in the King James version as “meat offering,” and in the Jewish version as “meal offering.” In certain instances, this could even be substituted for an animal sacrifice.

With the establishment of synagogues in Palestine after the return from the captivity and the dispersion of the people into distant lands, it became increasingly difficult for a Jew to go to Jerusalem, where alone sacrifices could be offered. Pious folk who could afford them might make occasional pilgrimages, but for the greater part of Judaism sacrifices were impossible. They learned to content themselves witlı prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and reading of the Torah as adequate surrogates for sacrifice. Thus by the time of Jesus, Judaism had been largely weaned from this worship. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 a. d., Jewish sacrifices were brought to an end. Greek sacrifices took another two centuries to peter out.

Sacrifıce for Omens.

In Babylonia the study of the configurations of the liver seems to have been the principal reason for religious slaughtering of animals. The will of the gods could be ascertained by careful study of the contour and markings of a sheep’s liver. Babylonian tablets abound in meticulous directions for this study. For removal of the liver the animal had to be killed. Once more the death of the victim was a fact but not a factor of the rite. After examination of the liver, some disposition of the carcass had to be made, and this disposition developed into elaborate rites. Ali of this is reflected in Latin rites.

In Greek sacrifices the killing of the animal afforded a good opportunity to examine the organs for omens. This examination was usually an incidental accompaniment of the rite and not the primary purpose of it. The Jewish law positively forbade liver omens of any kind.

Roman Sacrifices.

Roman sacrifices were of an entirely different kind. The personalities of Roman deities were not so clearly developed as those of the Greek gods and the Hebrew Yahweh. The Roman rites were also strongly influenced by the Etruscans, who may originally have come from Babylonia. The Babylonian influence can be seen particularly on the emphases in Roman rites upon the study of omens. Indeed among the Romans the primary purpose of the rite was the study of omens shown by the exta, the name given to the organs below the diaphragm.

The animal. adorned with fillets and ribbons to mark it as holy, was led to the altar, where it had to go willingly. It was further sanctified by sprinkling pieces of cake and pouring wine upon it. After the animal was killed, the exta were dissected, carefully examined, cooked, and laid upon the altar fire with selected pieces of flesh. The remainder of the flesh lost its sanctity and became the property of the priests. The whole sacrifice was performed in silence, save for weirdly playing pipes to drown other noises.


The burning of the exta was a necessary sequel to the examination for omens. These organs had been used for a solemn purpose and could therefore be used for no other. With the rise of the concept of deities, the examination for omens could well be interpreted as learning the will of the god. The burning of the exta would be sending them up to the god. The addition of pieces of flesh marked a definite offering of some kind.

The normal Roman sacrifice had no common meal. A very few minor rites are found in which such a meal was eaten, but these rites were not encouraged by the jus divinum and were in no way official. The gladness, joy, and thanksgiving that marked Greek and Hebrew sacrifices were no part of Latin rites. When Latin became the chief language of the Mediterranean world the same sacrificia was employed to describe ali other rites, even though they were totally diflerent in purpose and technique.


Much that has been said of the origin of sacrifice has been marked by the confusion of thinking that came from Roman use. It is impossible to group together honorific rites with glad thanksgiving, aversion rites with weirdness and horror, omen rites and purification rites, and try to find a single origin for the whole conglomeration.


Fear of misfortune, taboo, and demons may well explain most of the aversion rites and may have given rise to many of the purification rites, while omen rites, desire to learn the will of the gods, may have descended from methods of gratifying the natural desire to probe the future. Omens were derived from those phenomena unexplainable by known causes. The deities as the life powers were naturally regarded as the ultimate cause of these phenomena and miğht well reveal their plans by the markings of the liver, which, as its name in English indicates, was supposed to be the seat of the lifesoul because it is the bloodiest organ of the body.

The “gifttheory,” suggested by Edward B. Tylor in Primitive Culture . . . (1871; 5th ed., 1929), may well explain the continuance of sacrifices and their development. It does not explain their origin, which antedates any concept of deities. Men were led by worship to know their deities. They did not invent worship because they believed in deities.

Totemism, studied in detail by James George Frazer in Totemism and Exogamy (1910), and The Golden Bough, a Study in Magic and Religion (19111926), may well have marked the first clear step toward the idea of a worshiper’s appropriating the power of the deity w itli iri himself, as seen in the rites in which the victim was wholly eaten. However, we have not solved the problem of how totemism arose. We realize also that totemism makes no contribution to the origin of the betterknown and more regularly observed sacrifices.

The only common origin of sacrifice, omen rites, and rites of purification and aversion seems to have been primitive man’s conviction that, in addition to the physical objects that formed his environment, there were invisible and unpredictable powers that made themselves known through those physical environments. Some of these seemed friendly and some inimical. One kind of rite tried to establish union with the former. A totally different kind tried to banish the latter.

Christian Concepts of Sacrifice.

The Greek WOrd thusia was used by early Christians to describe the work of Jesus, the ideal of Christian living, and the Eucharist, which was always the great act of worship of Christians until the 16th century and has continued so in the Roman, Orthodox, and Anglican communions. When this word was translated into Latin as sacrificium, the confusion of thinking that has marked many Christian writers began. The confusion was complicated by the assumption that the death of the victim was a factor, as well as a fact, in the sacrifice. This was climaxed by identifying the sacrifice solely with the death of Jesus. This was possibly the unlucky first step toward the modern concept of sacrifice as the very reverse of what it was in days when its significance was solely cultic.

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