Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The ritual slaying of a living creature (human or nonhuman) and the dedication of the corpse to the realm of the sacred or divine. Alternatively, bloodless sacrifices may substitute vegetables or cultural products.

Every sacrificial act includes at least four essential elements: the individual who offers the sacrifice (the sacrificer), the object sacrificed (the material of oblation), a rite or method of sacrifice, and a specific time and place in which sacrifice should take place. Sacrifice has been variously interpreted as a gift, as an attempt to establish reciprocity between humans and nonhumans, as an offering, as a means of establishing a link between humans and the realm of the sacred, or as some combination of these (Hubert and Mauss 1899). It has also been interpreted as a form of expiation or as a reenactment of an earlier, primordial event (Girard 1977).

Sacrifice is a dominant ritual in many tribal religions, early Judaism, Aztec religion, Chinese religion, and the Vedic (pre-Hindu) tradition of India. Although rites of sacrifice have no place in orthodox Islam, they continue to play a part in popular piety. Christianity has its formative character established through a sacrificial interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus along Judaic lines; Jesus's death on the cross is believed to be the perfect and ultimate sacrifice (atonement) that rendered all previous sacrifices and all alternative sacrificial systems superfluous. However, there are sharp disagreements within Christianity concerning the present character of the crucifixion. While Roman Catholic doctrine stresses the celebration of the Eucharist as a real and present sacrifice, Protestant theology downplays the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist and stresses its commemorative functions. For Catholics, the Mass constitutes a continual representation of Jesus's sacrifice until the end of time, while Protestants stress the "once and for all" character of the atonement.

See also W. Robertson Smith

Stephen D. Glazier


R. Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977)

H. Hubert and M. Mauss, Sacrifice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964 [1899]).

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