Sacrificial redemption and temple prostitution were in reality modifications of human sacrifice. Next came the mock sacrifice of daughters. This ceremony consisted in bloodletting, with dedication to lifelong virginity, and was a moral reaction to the older temple harlotry. In more recent times virgins dedicated themselves to the service of tending the sacred temple fires.
Men eventually conceived the idea that the offering of some part of the body could take the place of the older and complete human sacrifice. Physical mutilation was also considered to be an acceptable substitute. Hair, nails, blood, and even fingers and toes were sacrificed. The later and well-nigh universal ancient rite of circumcision was an outgrowth of the cult of partial sacrifice; it was purely sacrificial, no thought of hygiene being attached thereto. Men were circumcised; women had their ears pierced.
Subsequently it became the custom to bind fingers together instead of cutting them off. Shaving the head and cutting the hair were likewise forms of religious devotion. The making of eunuchs was at first a modification of the idea of human sacrifice. Nose and lip piercing is still practiced in Africa, and tattooing is an artistic evolution of the earlier crude scarring of the body.
The custom of sacrifice eventually became associated, as a result of advancing teachings, with the idea of the covenant. At last, the gods were conceived of as entering into real agreements with man; and this was a major step in the stabilization of religion. Law, a covenant, takes the place of luck, fear, and superstition.
Man could never even dream of entering into a contract with Deity until his concept of God had advanced to the level whereon the universe controllers were envisioned as dependable. And man’s early idea of God was so anthropomorphic that he was unable to conceive of a dependable Deity until he himself became relatively dependable, moral, and ethical.
But the idea of making a covenant with the gods did finally arrive. Evolutionary man eventually acquired such moral dignity that he dared to bargain with his gods. And so the business of offering sacrifices gradually developed into the game of man’s philosophic bargaining with God. And all this represented a new device for insuring against bad luck or, rather, an enhanced technique for the more definite purchase of prosperity. Do not entertain the mistaken idea that these early sacrifices were a free gift to the gods, a spontaneous offering of gratitude or thanksgiving; they were not expressions of true worship.
Primitive forms of prayer were nothing more nor less than bargaining with the spirits, an argument with the gods. It was a kind of bartering in which pleading and persuasion were substituted for something more tangible and costly. The developing commerce of the races had inculcated the spirit of trade and had developed the shrewdness of barter; and now these traits began to appear in man’s worship methods. And as some men were better traders than others, so some were regarded as better prayers than others. The prayer of a just man was held in high esteem. A just man was one who had paid all accounts to the spirits, had fully discharged every ritual obligation to the gods.
Early prayer was hardly worship; it was a bargaining petition for health, wealth, and life. And in many respects prayers have not much changed with the passing of the ages. They are still read out of books, recited formally, and written out for emplacement on wheels and for hanging on trees, where the blowing of the winds will save man the trouble of expending his own breath.