I have to say that I find the notion of religious sacrifice to be rather interesting. I don’t mean sacrifice in the broadest sense of simply giving up something you care about, but the offering of objects, animals, and sometimes even fellow human beings to the gods. I read a book recently about how, even though Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac (or Ishmael, according to some Islamic sources) was prevented at the last minute, it still became popular for adherents of the Abrahamic religions to see the sacrifice of yourself or your children as the ultimate declaration of faith.
Human and animal sacrifice work on much the same principles, but it’s not too surprising that the former would have gone out of fashion first in much of the world, as it’s rather more difficult to kill another member of your own species. That said, it doesn’t seem to have disappeared as much as some people might have wanted us to think. After all, both the sacrifice of Iphigenia in Greek mythology and that of Jephthah’s daughter in the Bible occurred AFTER the gods in question had expressed their distaste for human sacrifice, but they didn’t seem to mind those two.
There are a lot of laws in the Torah about making burnt offerings to God, usually in commemoration of something or to atone for the sins of the people. From what I’ve heard of ancient history, many cultures independently came up with the idea of animal sacrifice, often by burning the animals. The thing I don’t entirely get is that, if the gods really wanted animals burned up, couldn’t they easily do it themselves? After all, they’re the ones who have powers that would make it a lot easier. For instance, the story of the Minotaur says that Poseidon provided a bull to King Minos of Crete, intending that the king would sacrifice it. When he decides to keep it instead, the gods punish him by making his wife fall in love with it.
They were nothing if not creative, but if Poseidon was hungry, surely he could have just roasted a bull without involving an unreliable Cretan. The gods tended to get the crappy part of the meat anyway, as Prometheus tricked Zeus into letting humans keep the good stuff. And is it really fair that killing an animal that didn’t do anything would be accepted as payment for something humans did wrong?
I’ve seen different takes on the concept, and several times I’ve come across the intriguing idea that it isn’t about pleasing the gods so much as it is honoring that something else gave its life so you might live. It seems to be a trait among humans that, while most of us enjoy eating meat and get a lot of necessary nutrients through it, we also feel a certain sense of guilt. Other carnivorous and omnivorous animals might not have these same qualms, but even so it’s not all that common for them to kill more than they need. Well, sometimes instinct takes over, so a cat will kill a mouse even if it gets plenty of canned food, and I don’t think they feel bad about it. It’s curious that humans have more or less created guilt, but the fact that we as a species are so wasteful means we kind of need it. But anyway, if it’s true that animal sacrifice was a way of honoring the circle of life, it was in some ways much more civilized than our modern world of factory farming. It also provided communal meals. I guess that, when I think about it, my problem with sacrifice is much the same as my difficulty with prayer, in that I’m not sure why beings that are much more powerful than we are would need our constant acknowledgement. I guess they just like to be appreciated. I’m sure all of us can appreciate getting gifts even if we don’t technically need them, right? And if Minos had just gone ahead and sacrificed the bull, how many meals would that have provided?