The bloodletting of animals at an altar and the Latin word sacrificium, meaning "to make holy," establish the link between blood and an opening to the sacred. Animal sacrifice is a recent development in the long history of human culture, since it evolved from agrarian or pastoralist societies. Sacrificial offerings of animals defused from the Egyptians into Western Asia. This Afro-Asiatic development later made an impact on Greco-Roman culture. The ritual activity of spilling animal blood at altars continues from antiquity into the modern era.
Sacrifices were probably conducted as cannibalistic feasts that evolved into rituals. Humans sacrificed one another, as a means of atonement, and to secure a continued association with the departed person. Some examples are the community scape goats at the Beltrane fires of Scotland, Ireland and Brittany, where historical evidence of human sacrifice is often contradictory. Another example, where the historical record is more firmly established, is among New World Meso-american civilizations, most notably among the Mayas and Aztecs, who engaged in cannibalistic sacrifices. The Spanish conquistadores, after coming into contact with the inhabitants of the New World, ended these practices by the middle of the 1600s and brought about an increase in animal sacrifices, which are still practiced today. Yet there are other clear examples of human sacrifice that can be found from sources as diverse as ancient Japan to the Teutonic (Icelandic) people.
Substitution of animals for humans in sacrifices can be said to have occurred in some form in the history of most ancient societies. It is conceivable that escalation of animal sacrifices simultaneously diminished the number of human victims. Animal sacrifices began with firstlings, young animals offered to the sacred in gratitude. It was a form of thanksgiving where domesticated farm animals were sacrificed and placed on an altar along with other uncooked foods. In time, these sacrifices became more ritualized as they evolved into communal religious affairs and sacrificial offerings that included doves, fowl, and larger farm animals. Although the pig has not been used as a sacrificial animal by those who can trace their religious roots to Afro-Asiatic civilizations, the wild boar is used for communal rituals by some South Pacific people.
An offering is nothing other than a synonym for a gift. This action evokes a sacred relationship. Animal sacrifice has been described as a means to bribe or propitiate either cosmic entities or a supreme being. In other words, some have interpreted this ritual practice as a bribe, a business transaction, without moral significance, intended to influence nondiscernible entities. These animal sacrifices are categorized into four types of offerings: praise, thanksgiving, supplication, and expiation. A sacrifice of praise expresses homage and involves the veneration of a religious relationship with the sacred. Thanksgiving rituals of sacrifice are conducted because a favor has been granted, such as the birth of a child. The more complicated form of sacrifice is that of supplication because it requires pleading for a specific request through a direct link established with the sacred. This link is intended to help establish protection over a community or individual. Just as important for supplicants are sacrifices to forestall the anger of the god(s). Other animal sacrifices are intended as expiation, where there is a moral fault on the part of the person performing the sacrifice, who intends to placate animist entities that will help the person re-establish a connection with the sacred.
The topic of animal bloodletting has contributed to many interesting anthropological and sociological interpretations. Animal sacrifice has been correctly viewed as a gift to the deities, as a communal meal, as a homage, as a link between the sacred and profane, as a recognition of society, as affirming the present world order, as the result of anxiety due to success, as a substitute for intra-human violence, as a rite of purification, and as a dramatic encounter with the "other."
All major religions have had periods of animal sacrifice. Among Israelites in the Temple of Jerusalem and at the Temple of Onias in Egypt there were animal sacrifices of young bulls (Leviticus 4:3), male goats (Leviticus 4:23), and lambs (Leviticus 4:32). During Passover, the blood of the lamb was caught in basins and passed to the priest who tossed the blood at the base of the altar (Pes. 5: 5–7). Afterward, the lamb was roasted and eaten as part of the Passover Seder. Significantly, non-Israelites also contributed to sacrifices at the Temple, but during the Roman siege the lamb sacrifices had to be discontinued. The Roman destruction of the Temple brought an end to the sacrificial system. Jesus of Nazareth's corporal sacrifice is reenacted at the altar as the Eucharist, where bread and wine represent his body and blood. Some Orthodox Jews would like to re-institute animal sacrifices while others secretly engage in the sacrificial use of fowl on the day of atonement. The dead animals are given away to the poor, as is the custom at Mecca by the Muslims.
Arab Muslim people, Semites themselves, also engage in animal sacrifice, but it is unlike that of the Israelites, since they do not maintain an altar and have no tradition of atoning through sacrifice. The closest thing to sacrifices is found in the slaughter of animals in the valley of Mina, at the annual pilgrimage and the rituals at Mount Arafat near Mecca. The animal's flesh is given away as charity. Bloodletting rituals exist in the popular religiosity of believers in Islam that is unsanctioned by the orthodox.
Many sub-Saharan African areas had similar customs of human sacrifice. Religious animal bloodletting is especially prevalent among believers in Ifá, from the area of Yorubaland, in present-day Nigeria. Fowl and firstlings are the preferred animals for sacrifice. Blood is seen as having a sacred quality and is poured near the altar. This religion has made great strides in the New World and can be categorized as worshipers of ancestor deities, orisàs. Some of those religions that share animal sacrifices are the Cuban Regla de Ocha, popularly known as Santería, Brazilian Cantomblé, and Haitian Vodun, all increasing in presence in the United States.
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Andrés Perez y Mena