Volume 3: 1771 Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica!


Sacrifice, a solemn act of religious worship, which consisted in dedicating or offering up something animate or inanimate on an altar, by the hands of the priest, either as an expression of their gratitude to the Deity for some signal mercy, or to acknowledge their dependance on him, or to conciliate his favour. The origin of sacrifices is by some ascribed to the Phoenicians: but Porphyry ascribes it to the Egyptians, who first offered the first-fruits of their grounds to the gods, burning them upon an altar of turf: thus in the most ancient sacrifices there were neither living creatures, nor any thing costly or magnificent, and no myrrh or frankincense. At length they began to burn perfumes: and afterwards men leaving their ancient diet of herbs and roots, and beginning to use living creatures for food, they began also to change their sacrifices. The scriptures , however, furnish us with a different account: for Noah, it is said, sacrificed animals at his coming out of the ark; and even Abel himself sacrificed the best and fattest of his flock; but Grotius thinks it more probable that he contented himself with making a mere oblation of his lambs, etc. without slaying them.

The Jews had two sorts of sacrifices, taking the word in its largest signification: The first were offerrings of tythes, first-fruits, cakes, wine, oil, honey, and the like; and the last, offerings of slaughtered animals. When an Israelite offered a loaf or a cake, the priest broke it in two parts; and setting aside that half which he reserved for himself, broke the other into crumbs, poured oil, wine, incense, and salt upon it, and spread the whole upon the fire of the altar. If these offerings were accompanied with the sacrifice of an animal, they were thrown upon the victim to be consumed along with it. If the offerings were of the ears of new corn, they were parched at the fire, rubbed in the hand, and then offered to the priest in a vessel, over which he poured oil, incense, wine and salt, and then burnt it upon the altar, having first taken as much of it as of right belonged to himself.

The principal sacrifices among the Hebrews consisted of bullocks, sheep, and goats; but doves and turtles were accepted from those who were not able to bring the other; these beasts were to be perfect, and without blemish. The rites of sacrificing were various, all of which are very minutely described in the books of Moses.

The manner of sacrificing among the Greeks and Romans was as follows. In the choice of the victim, they took care that it was without blemish or imperfection; its tail was not to be too small at the end; the tongue not black, nor the ears cleft; and that the bull was one that had never been yoked. The victim being pitched upon, they gilt his forehead and horns, especially if a bull, heifer, or cow. The head they also adorned with a garland of flowers, a woollen insula or holy fillet, whence hung two rows of chaplets with twisted ribbands; and on the middle of the body a kind of stole, pretty large, hung down on each side; the lesser victims were only adorned with garlands and bundles of flowers, together with white tufts or wreaths.

The victims thus prepared were brought before the altar; the lesser being driven to the place, and the greater led by an halter; when if they made any struggle, or refused to go, the resistance was taken for an ill omen, and the sacrifice frequently was set aside. The victim thus brought was carefully examined, to see that there was no defect in it: then the priest, clad in his sacerdotal habit, and accompanied with the sacrificers and other attendants, and being washed and purified according to the ceremonies prescribed, turned to the right-hand and went round the altar, sprinkling it with meal and holy-water, and also besprinkling those who were present. Then the crier proclaimed with a loud voice, Who is here? To which the people replied, Many and good. The priest then having exhorted the people to join with him by saying, Let us pray, confessed his own unworthiness, acknowledging that he had been guilty of divers sins; for which he begged pardon of the gods, hoping that they would be pleased to grant his requests, accept the oblations offered them, and send them all health and happiness; and to this general form added petitions for such particular favours as were then desired. Prayers being ended, the priest took a cup of wine; and having tasted it himself, caused his assistants to do the like; and then poured forth the remainder between the horns of the victim. Then the priest or the crier, or sometimes the most honourable person in the company, killed the beast, by knocking it down, or cutting its throat. If the sacrifice was in honour of the celestial gods, the throat was turned up towards heaven; but if they sacrificed to the heroes or infernal gods, the victim was killed with its throat towards the ground. If by accident the beast escaped the stroke, leaped up after it, or expired with pain and difficulty, it was thought to be unacceptable to the gods. The beast being killed, the priest inspected its entrails, and made predictions from them. They then poured wine, together with frankincense, into the fire, to increase the flame, and then laid the sacrifice on the altar; which in the primitive times was burnt whole to the gods, and thence called an holocaust; but in aftertimes, only part of the victim was consumed in the fire, and the remainder reserved for the sacrificers; the thighs, and sometimes the entrails, being burnt to their honour, the company feasted upon the rest. While the sacrifice was burning, the priest, and the person who gave the sacrifice, jointly prayed, laying their hands upon the altar. Sometimes they played upon musical instruments in the time of the sacrifice, and on some occasions they danced round the altar, singing sacred hymns in honour of the gods.

Sacrifice, is also the name of an island in the gulph of Mexico, forty-five miles east of La Vera Cruz; it is subject to the Spaniards.

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