Sacrifice is a ritual practice that includes the removal of goods (objects, vegetables, animals, human beings) from profane use or their destruction in relation to a supernatural sphere, but not necessarily with an offer or dedication. Sacrifices that involve the killing of a victim and the shedding of blood are called blood sacrifices.

The issue of the definition of sacrifice, a focal point in contemporary debate, went so far as to deny the empirical existence of a ritual identifiable as a sacrifice. Marcel Detienne (Detienne & Vernant 1986) criticized the concept, claiming that it was an arbitrary category built on elements drawn from the Christian tradition and adopted in order to lump different phenomena together. The study of sacrifice should therefore be based on a historical analysis of the rituals within their own contexts. Thus, for instance, Grecian sacrifice turns out to be nothing but a culinary practice; there does not exist any ritual designated as a sacrifice, but simply a meat eating mode of a historically determined human group. In Detienne’s view, the concept of sacrifice should be dropped because it is a ”category of yesterday’s thought” that has no interpretive or descriptive value. Detienne hit the mark when he recognized the Christian inheritance underlying many theories of sacrifice, but many scholars felt that the dissolution of the concept of sacrifice was an interpretive impoverishment. Seeking refuge in historical particularism is not the solution to the problem of definition: the concept of sacrifice still has a heuristic value and is an excellent instrument for interpreting some social facts. The solution consists rather in replacing a rigid, clear cut definition with a more flexible, inclusive family of notions. The concept of sacrifice turns out to be a modern theoretical construction that is useful for analysis but has been devised artificially in order to interpret a category of phenomena interconnected by family resemblances (Valeri 1994). The noun “sacrifice” does not correspond, in the real world, to any unequivocally defined substance: it denotes a group of social facts among which it is possible to trace analogies based on some common criteria. As Ivan Strenski (2003) pointed out, the modern study of sacrifice cannot be founded on theological bases, identifying an ideal central concept that is essential in all types of sacrifice, for instance offer or abnegation: it is necessary to analyze the formal characteristics of the rites that can be interpreted as sacrifices. In this sense, Strenski recognizes the study of sacrifice by Durkheim’s followers Hubert and Mauss (1964 [1899]) as a scientific attempt to achieve emancipation from an ethnocentric and Christian outlook.

Among the phenomena that are subsumed into the category   sacrifice,” three main types can be distinguished: first fruit offer, gift sacrifice, and communion. First fruit offer consists in leaving to the supernatural sphere a part of the goods obtained from hunting or collecting, concentrating sacrality on that part and thus desacralizing the remaining part so it can be eaten by men and women without any danger. Gift sacrifice consecrates and offers to the supernatural world a part of the goods produced by human labor. Communion sacrifice, finally, is the sacrifice rite that stresses the communal consumption of the sacrificial victim. From a formal point of view, a sacrifice rite comprises four main stages: the obtaining and preparation of the sacrificial object, its destruction or removal from the human sphere, renunciation, and consumption. Within the ritual, it is possible to isolate and analyze three types of relationships:   between   human   beings   and the superhuman world, between human beings and the victim, and among human beings. The combination and emphasizing of different stages and relationships, and of the kind of object that is sacrificed, determine the type of sacrifice.

Various theories of sacrifice have been produced within the analysis of religious practices. On the whole, they are aligned with distinct theoretical lines: some are based on utilitarian ideas; some emphasize emotional and religious aspects; some highlight the symbolic and communicative nature of the rite; some neglect the social and cultural aspects and stress the importance of attention to pure violence; and others underscore the ecological function of rituals. Moreover, in the history of theories there is a constant intertwining of themes such as the idea of reciprocality between the human world and the supernatural one; offer and gift; debt and credit between humankind and deity; self sacrifice and abnegation; and, finally, the themes of the scapegoat, the symbolic replacement of the sacrifier with the victim, violence, consecration, and desacralization.

One of the first theories of sacrifice was proposed in 1871 by the evolutionist anthropologist Edward B. Tylor in his work Primitive Culture. Tylor interpreted sacrifice on the basis of the utilitarian principle of do ut des ( I give that you may give”):  primitives,” in his view, offer gifts to the extrahuman powers in order to gain their benevolence, in the same way as gifts are offered to high ranking people.  This practice was included in the general evolutionary scale: a selfinterested gift aiming at a reward was followed, at a more  civilized” evolutionary stage, by a free gift that did not hope for a reward, and, finally, by abnegation, self sacrifice, the highest expression of the moral evolution of human kind. Tylor did not seek an explanation of the mechanism of sacrifice, and failed to recognize the symbolic aspects of the offer, regarding it only as ”material goods.” Moreover, since he concentrated entirely on the ideal content of the rite, he did not account for the widespread custom of partly or totally eating the sacrificial victim. This was attempted by the Scottish scholar William Robertson Smith by supplying, in his Lectures on the Religion of Semites (1894), an early   sociological” explanation of sacrifice, based on the theory of totemism. In Smith’s opinion, the function of the sacrificial rite was to reinforce the bonds within the totemic community through the sharing of a sacrificial meal. The latter was the only occasion in which it was possible to kill and eat the totemic animal, symbol of the community, regarded as the common ancestor. The commensals, by eating this animal, strengthened the social bonds among themselves and the ideal ones between them and the deity. Within the evolutionist area, another contribution was contained in James G. Frazer’s monumental work The Golden Bough (published in the period 1911-15). In sacrifice, Frazer picked out the intertwining of two themes: that of the scapegoat and that of the ritual killing of the ”divine king.” Sacrifice is based on the analogy between the health of the king and that of his community: when the king’s health begins to decline, he must be killed, in order to ensure the stability of the kingdom. All the evil, guilt, and sins of the subjects are conveyed into the sovereign’s body and atoned for by the king’s sacrifice. Moreover, Frazer, focusing on the sphere of agrarian sacrifices and beginning from the idea of the totemic relationship with the victim and of its sacred character, analyzed the ”killing of the Corn spirit.” According to him, the gods are killed because they take on the role of scapegoat, sweeping away disease, death, and sin from the community, and are eaten in order to be assimilated. Frazer’s theory does not add much to Smith’s contribution, except for a Christian sense of atonement and purification of the human world through the sacrifice of the god.

Dissatisfied with these idealistic theories, in 1899, Durkheim’s followers Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss published their fundamental contribution to the study of sacrifice, entitled Essai sur la nature et la fonction du sacrifice (Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function), which decisively broke away from the evolutionist approach of the previous theories. They defined sacrifice as a religious act that – through the consecration of the victim – changes the state of the person who performs it and the sacrality state of certain objects involved in the ritual. This definition immediately reveals the difference between this theory and the previous ones: here sacrifice is no longer a mere oblation performed in the hope of a reward or with the purpose of reinforcing social relationships, but a process of consecration and transformation of the people who take part in the rite. Moreover, the victim takes on the role of a mediator between the sacred sphere and the profane one, and the entire sacrificial process is therefore interpreted as a process of communication between the sacred and the pro fane through an intermediary that is destroyed during the ceremony. The mediation and sub sequent destruction of the mediator are made necessary by the dangerous, ”untouchable” character of the sacred sphere in Durkheim’s view: no human being can come into contact with any sacred entity without undergoing harmful consequences. As Valeri (1985: 64-5) remarks, the mediation does not logically make it necessary for the sacrificed commodity to be interpreted as an offering: the concept of sacrifice as communication is broader than that of sacrifice as a gift to the supernatural world. In addition, referring to Mauss’s celebrated Essai sur le don (The Gift) (1990 [1923-4]), there is a much more complex vision of the meaning of an offer of goods. The gift must be interpreted in its social and symbolic dimension in ”primitive” societies, that is, as a social fact cosisting in the obligation to give, receive, and requite, and as if each gift metonymically implied a self offering of the sacrifier. Within this theory, there appears a new conception of the sacrificial offer: in relation to this idea of gift and as a result of the fact that the victim becomes a mediator between the sacred and the profane, the sacrificial offer becomes a symbolic substitute of the sacrifier. Moreover, Hubert’s and Mauss’s study is the first one that undertakes a formal analysis of the ”pattern of sacrifice,” implements used, and ritual procedures. This attention to the technical and formal procedures leads the two sociologists to include the ritual stages of the sacrificial process in a parabola of sacrality. At the top of this parabola is the killing of the victim, preceded by a period of increasing consecration and followed by relative desacralization, important for enabling the human utilization of the victim’s flesh and the reintroduction of the participants into the profane world. In a similar way, this interest in the material aspects leads to an analysis of the ritual space, outlining a pattern of concentric circles that correspond to different levels of sacrality, with the altar or sacrificial pole at the center. This study, finally, has the merit of stabilizing the terms that define the participants in the rite. According to this classification, the person who benefits from the sacrifice and undergoes its effects, and who usually supplies the victim, is called the sacrifier, while the officiant (sometimes a priest) who guides or materially carries out the sacrifice is called the sacrificer.

Besides Hubert’s and Mauss’s sociological reaction, there were other theories of sacrifice that aimed at removing from this concept the utilitarian ideas introduced by Tylor. Among them, the most significant were those of the philosopher Georges Gusdorf, the Protestant theologian Jan van Baal, and the scholar in phenomenology of religions Gerardus van der Leeuw. Gusdorf, in his book L’Expérience humaine du sacrifice (The Human Experience of Sacrifice), published in 1948, reversed the traditional perspective of do ut des, contending that the sacrificial offer was the recognition of an unrepayable preexisting debt toward the divine sphere: human beings, perpetually indebted to the gods who sustained their existence, were forced to give, without ever completely discharging their life debt. Van Baal, on the contrary, argued that the sacrificial gift was a disinterested expression of submission to the divine sphere, without any expectation of a reward: thus he included all sacrifices in the third stage outlined by Tylor, that of abnegation. The development of the Tylorian theme of do ut des by van der Leeuw, in his book of 1933 entitled Phanomeno logie der Religion (Religion in Essence and Mani festations), advanced the idea that in sacrifice the gift always consisted in the offer of oneself, thus bringing something of the sacrifier in the sphere of the sacred. This took place in relation to the law of participation – detected in pre logic thought by Lucien Levy Bruhl – whereby a person’s possessions were an integral part of his or her personality, so any sacrificial offer was always an offer of oneself.

Referring to Hubert’s and Mauss’s idea of sacrifice as a rite that is significant in all its parts and not only in a special aspect such as the offer, gift, or communion, Alfred Loisy, in his Essai historique sur le sacrifice (Historical Essay on Sacrifice) of 1920, regarded sacrifice as an efficacious representation, a symbolic action that produced some effects on social reality. The rite is allegedly a representation of the result that the sacrifier wishes to achieve, performed by means of the manipulation of icons and symbols. The meaning of the sacrificial victim, therefore, does not consist in its value as a commodity for exchange or communion, but in the symbolic semantics it exhibits. In other words, it is not so much a gift as an icon that represents the extrahuman powers, the human beings, the sacrifier, and their interrelationships. This theoretical line was followed also by the British anthropologist Godfrey Lienhardt (1961), who argued that sacrifice controls and solves situations of conflict or uncertainty by manipulating the symbols involved in the ritual. In his opinion, these symbols, like the gods, are representations or reified images that reflect the experience of social life.

The social anthropologist Edward E. Evans Pritchard (1956) proposed a criticism of the social and communal visions of sacrifice like those of Smith and of Hubert and Mauss, starting from a perspective of communication between the individual and the superhuman powers. Evans Pritchard focused on personal and expiatory sacrifices. The need for expiation, in his view, depends on the danger resulting from the intervention of the spirits in the human world: this is a criticism of the totemic origin theories that regard sacrifice as a union between the supernatural world and the human one. The function of the gift is to separate these two worlds through the symbolic replacement of the sacrifier with the victim, which is accepted by the extrahuman powers in the sacrifier’s stead. In Evans Pritchard’s view, sacrifice always has an apotropaic (that wards off evil) and prophylactic function (that defends and protects), expressed through the polysemanti city of the sacrificial victim, which acts as a substitute of the sacrifier, a scapegoat and a mediator between the gods and humankind. Thus the sacrificial rite is celebrated in case of diseases or other negative events caused by an intervention of the gods due to a misdeed. Evans Pritchard’s vision, which emphasizes the concepts of guilt, sin, remorse, and purification, seems to be strongly influenced by Christian theology.

In the opinion of the Belgian anthropologist Luc de Heusch (1986), on the contrary, even the sacrifice of the Nuer, to which Evans Pritchard refers, should not be understood in terms of individual guilt or expiation, but in terms of the restoration of cosmological order. De Heusch, as a matter of fact, maintains that a structured thought (similar to that outlined by Claude Levi Strauss about myths) underlies the various sacrificial systems. For this reason, any sacrifice must be deciphered on the basis of the symbolic and mythological structure it postulates, produces, and reproduces. As regards the African sacrificial systems, de Heusch attempts a structural reunification of them by making use of the notion of sacrificial debt and of reproduction of the cosmogonal myths from which humankind’s life debt began.

The anthropologist Valerio Valeri (1985) advanced a theory of sacrifice that referred directly to the tradition that interpreted sacrifice as an efficacious symbolic action. In Valeri’s view, sacrifice is a cognitive and communicative instrument that makes it possible – within the framework provided by the ritual context – for the sacrifier and the overall society to obtain information about their position in the social world. This position is defined by the contact with the supernatural sphere, regarded as a paradigmatic model of the ideal social order. Sacrifice, therefore, is allegedly a symbolic process having a dialectic nature: the subjective self of the sacrifier, through the sacrificial substitution, takes on the value of its antithesis, that is, of the extrahuman powers; thus, at the end of the rite, a synthesis is achieved that amounts to a process of objectification of the subject in the social world. Sacrifice as dialectics of the subject makes it possible to ”tune in” the social properties of the subject to the ideal properties of the transcendent subject. The result of the sacrifice is thus the recovery of the sacrifier’s awareness of his/ her position in the social world. Moreover, Valeri (1994) maintains that in the sacrificial exchange, what must be highlighted is not the renunciation but the benefits and the symbolic or material enjoyment that issue from it.

Other theories regard the violence of the sacrificial killing as the central element of sacrifice. According to Rene Girard (1977), every sacrifice is a mechanism of expulsion of the violence inherent in social life. Mutual, widespread violence, introduced by a primeval ”society founding lynching” committed on an innocent victim, is allegedly concentrated on a single object, the victim of the sacrifice, which always appears as a scapegoat. In Girard’s theory, the sacrificial violence does not mean anything more than itself: he inverts the theory of consecration by arguing that the victim is not killed because it is sacred, but is sacred precisely because it must be killed. The violence of the sacrifice must be kept distant from the level of consciousness, and, for this reason, the expelled violence is, at the same time, an unacknowledged violence. This theory assumes that the psychological datum can be attained transcending any cultural form; the latter is thus treated like a false motivation or hypocritical rationalization. The Hellenist Walter Burkert (1987), too, places violence at the center of his interpretation of sacrifice. He maintains that humankind’s phylogenetic heritage, formed during the Paleolithic hunting and collecting period, involved the development of a violence between individuals that was expelled and transcended through hunting. When sedentary agriculture set in, the inherited violence was transferred to the killing of farmed animals in specific ritual settings that ensured the peaceable perpetuation of human society: this was the origin of sacrifices.

Besides these theories, there are others that emphasize the material aspect and ecological function of sacrifice. According to Marvin Harris (1977), the sacrifice of human beings or animals followed by the sharing of the victim’s flesh is correlated with the availability of noble protein in the diet and with the examined population’s technical and environmental possibility of breeding animals. In Roy Rappaport’s (2000 [1968]) view, on the contrary, the sacrifice of a great number of pigs by a population of New Guinea took on a homeostatic function in the ecological balance between the population and the resources. Rappaport endeavored to evaluate the capability of that particular ecosystem to sustain the human population and a growing pig population, with reference to a periodic sacrificial feast during which the number of pigs was drastically cut down, bringing the ecological system back to a state of equilibrium.

Besides the interpretation of sacrifice as a ritual, it is possible to regard sacrifice as a special case within a broader system of practices pertaining to symbolic classification, manipulation, and consumption of living creatures (Douglas 1966; Levi Strauss 1968). In sacrifice, the symbolic correlations by which the natural and social world is regulated become evident: for instance, the relation between dietary prohibitions, the animal offered in the sacrifice, and the division of the victim’s flesh, understood also as a practice that reproduces the social hierarchy. It is important, moreover, to highlight the relation between sacrifice and divination, not only as an examination of the body of the victim or of some of its parts, but also as a divinatory practice based on the observation of the progress of the rite (interpreting, for instance, the victim’s movements). Finally, it is useful to draw attention to the question of the discontinuation or survival of the sacrificial themes. Blood sacrifice does not survive only in “exotic” religions, and the sacrificial themes – though subjected to transformation and abstraction – are still present in the great monotheistic religions, for instance in the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist, which reintroduces the salvific death of a divine victim with an expiatory function.


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