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.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.