The subject of sacrifice has occupied the attention of students in fields as distinct as theology, psychology, sociology and social anthropology. These discrete intellectual disciplines employ different investigative techniques, and proceed from different presuppositions about the nature of the enquiry itself. Independent investigations from a variety of disciplined approaches offer different perspectives on a given subject, but the knowledge which accrues is impressionistic in consequence. Workers in one field are often unaware of what has been done in others, and sometimes prefer to remain so.
In the case of a subject such as sacrifice, precision may be gained by concentrating on what is taken to be primitive, or early, religious ritual within a designated community, but only at the expense of limiting the importance of what sacrifice continues to signify in the living language of tradition and daily usage. The semantic shift in the meaning of the word ‘sacrifice’ can be detected in different religious traditions. Meaning shifts from the ritual slaughter of living beings as part of the religious cultus, to the inner disposition of the worshipper which renders unnecessary the taking of life. Thence, by way of attenuation, the meaning shifts in general usage to denote heroic attitudes and costly acts which have no transcendent reference of a specifically religious nature.
The primary meaning of the verb ‘to sacrifice’ is to make sacred to deity the offerings provided, particularly (but not exclusively) those animals ritually slaughtered for such a purpose.