Sacrifice as a part of religious devotions, like many other worshipful rituals, did not have a simple and single origin. The tendency to bow down before power and to prostrate oneself in worshipful adoration in the presence of mystery is foreshadowed in the fawning of the dog before its master. It is but one step from the impulse of worship to the act of sacrifice. Primitive man gauged the value of his sacrifice by the pain which he suffered. When the idea of sacrifice first attached itself to religious ceremonial, no offering was contemplated which was not productive of pain. The first sacrifices were such acts as plucking hair, cutting the flesh, mutilations, knocking out teeth, and cutting off fingers. As civilization advanced, these crude concepts of sacrifice were elevated to the level of the rituals of self-abnegation, asceticism, fasting, deprivation, and the later Christian doctrine of sanctification through sorrow, suffering, and the mortification of the flesh.
Early in the evolution of religion there existed two conceptions of the sacrifice: the idea of the gift sacrifice, which connoted the attitude of thanksgiving, and the debt sacrifice, which embraced the idea of redemption. Later there developed the notion of substitution.
Man still later conceived that his sacrifice of whatever nature might function as a message bearer to the gods; it might be as a sweet savor in the nostrils of deity. This brought incense and other aesthetic features of sacrificial rituals which developed into sacrificial feasting, in time becoming increasingly elaborate and ornate.
As religion evolved, the sacrificial rites of conciliation and propitiation replaced the older methods of avoidance, placation, and exorcism.
The earliest idea of the sacrifice was that of a neutrality assessment levied by ancestral spirits; only later did the idea of atonement develop. As man got away from the notion of the evolutionary origin of the race, as the traditions of the days of the Planetary Prince and the sojourn of Adam filtered down through time, the concept of sin and of original sin became widespread, so that sacrifice for accidental and personal sin evolved into the doctrine of sacrifice for the atonement of racial sin. The atonement of the sacrifice was a blanket insurance device which covered even the resentment and jealousy of an unknown god.
Surrounded by so many sensitive spirits and grasping gods, primitive man was face to face with such a host of creditor deities that it required all the priests, ritual, and sacrifices throughout an entire lifetime to get him out of spiritual debt. The doctrine of original sin, or racial guilt, started every person out in serious debt to the spirit powers.
Gifts and bribes are given to men; but when tendered to the gods, they are described as being dedicated, made sacred, or are called sacrifices. Renunciation was the negative form of propitiation; sacrifice became the positive form. The act of propitiation included praise, glorification, flattery, and even entertainment. And it is the remnants of these positive practices of the olden propitiation cult that constitute the modern forms of divine worship. Present-day forms of worship are simply the ritualization of these ancient sacrificial techniques of positive propitiation.
Animal sacrifice meant much more to primitive man than it could ever mean to modern races. These barbarians regarded the animals as their actual and near kin. As time passed, man became shrewd in his sacrificing, ceasing to offer up his work animals. At first he sacrificed the best of everything, including his domesticated animals.
It was no empty boast that a certain Egyptian ruler made when he stated that he had sacrificed: 113,433 slaves, 493,386 head of cattle, 88 boats, 2,756 golden images, 331,702 jars of honey and oil, 228,380 jars of wine, 680,714 geese, 6,744,428 loaves of bread, and 5,740,352 sacks of corn. And in order to do this he must needs have sorely taxed his toiling subjects.
Sheer necessity eventually drove these semisavages to eat the material part of their sacrifices, the gods having enjoyed the soul thereof. And this custom found justification under the pretense of the ancient sacred meal, a communion service according to modern usage.