The act of sacrifice occupies an important position in every religion, but our present day conception of it appears to be a modification of its original meaning which has gradually altered over the centuries.
For the word sacrifice actually derives from sacrum facere which means “to make sacred” and was used to describe any act of self-transcending through which the individual sought to attain the divine. It has now come to denote very little more than the killing of an animal or a man as an offering to the divinity either by way of supplication or thanksgiving; and Christianity has further devalued the word by associating it with notions of austerity and self-denial.
To regard sacrifice as a synonym for mortification is a serious error, since it totally alters the nature of that spiritual process by which the Ancients sought to fulfil their destiny. Ritual sacrifice was never intended to deprive creation for the sake of the creator. The Gallic chief Brennus gave a lucid and accurate account of its real meaning during the Celtic expedition to Delphi when he uttered the supposedly impious comment that “The gods had no need of treasures since they showered them upon men.”
Sacrifice was first and foremost a psychic procedure in which the sacrificial “victim” threw off the burden of earthly dross and rose through a series of stages in his attempt to reach the divinity. This divinity might be the Perfect Being, the Great Mother, an objective god or some concept of the ideal which was inherent in the individual….
The original act of sacrifice…was a process of self-identification with the divinity. It is this act which the Catholic priest performs during the mass. As Plutarch points out in his treatise on the E of Delphi, however, wise men seek to hide the truths from the masses and resort to fable as a means of preserving a tradition accessible only to the initiate. For the truths are not always to be lavished upon the common herd, and the means used can be both positive and negative in their effect. They may lead those who use them thoughtlessly and clumsily to unforseeable disasters. The way to hell is paved with good intentions….