How do you find a gift for the deity who has everything? Sure, it’s the thought that counts, but there’s still something mildly embarrassing about offering up a glitter-and-macaroni thank-you card to a being that magicked up the entire world from formless chaos.
It’s a good thing, then, that our deities had the foresight to populate the earth with nature’s foremost spiritual currency. I speak, of course, of the humble goat.
Sacrifice takes many, many forms. Its most common face is a ritual of thanksgiving; of offering up to the spiritual world the gifts it’s bestowed upon us, to show our appreciation and – more importantly – to keep those gifts flowing. A sacrifice can burn or bleed or be spilled. It might be a goat, a prisoner of war, a sheaf of wheat, or a plate of cookies for Santa. Whatever the case, it must be valuable – it’s not a sacrifice, after all, if we’re not giving something up.
Animal sacrifice was the most common, and the oldest, take on this practice. It certainly predates people writing about it, but they have done, at length. There practically isn’t a holy book out there that doesn’t, at some point, discuss best practices: a hecatomb for the harvest, a goat for good health, conscious or unconscious, bled or burned.
Such rituals were not always wasteful. After all, once you’ve knifed a goat, something needs to be done with the body (sacrifice via immolation was somewhat cleaner, but more commonly practiced with wheat and other such bloodless rituals). While it was frequently the case that priests would, by complete coincidence, dine on goat for a week or two following a festival, it was also common to share sacrificial meat with the laity or distribute it to the poor.
Animal sacrifice, and the related sacrifice of other foodstuffs – most commonly grain or wine – are a sort of sympathetic magic, like for like. Give food that we may get food.
Human sacrifice was somewhat more wasteful. In a fantasy context, it conjures up images of demonic magic, or of princesses tied to posts that the dragon may eat them instead.
Mesoamerica is human sacrifice’s poster child. Aztecs were offered up en masse to this god or the other, and for the strongest reason of all: to stave off the inevitable end of the world. When prisoners of war weren’t available, they sacrificed their own people, and they were serious about it: the wiser or more beautiful, the better. As a symbolic measure, that’s pretty powerful stuff, but one imagines that killing off your smartest and strongest creates some governance issues.
Usually, though, human sacrifice was far more boring than that (except, one presumes, for the sacrifice). It was frequently just a two-birds-one-stone scenario: a way to rid oneself of pesky out-groups and please the gods with one thrust of the dagger. Prisoners of war and criminals were the most common targets in this context.
But there’s another face to human sacrifice, and one that’s more pleasing for pharaoh than Osiris. Burial sacrifice was not an offering up to deities, but rather a rite to ensure that the dearly departed had every possible advantage in the afterlife. And since our nobility has historically faced challenges such as inbreeding of such magnitude as to make even the most minor tasks impossible without help, that meant slaves (and even government functionaries, on the off chance that one might need help preparing one’s spiritual taxes) in addition to horses, boats, food and coin.
Echoes of this practice can be seen in many different cultures. Coins for the boatman were at once a sacrifice and an anti-inflationary measure (no, not really). Sati was retainer sacrifice for the masses, and makes for catchy slogans like ‘Bring your wife to the afterlife!’ A burial with weapons was not merely symbolic: Torstang the Mighty’s gonna need those swords when he gets to Valhalla.
Of course, human sacrifice eventually ran afoul of goddamn activist lawyers, and the prevalence of animal sacrifice began to decline as well. They were replaced by wishy-washy post-modern symbolic sacrifice. Now, instead of offering up a goat, you give up eating chocolate for a month. Odin wept.