I think the first step to understanding human sacrifice is understanding the nature of sacrifice itself. I’m somewhat limited in understanding based on modern materialism, but I like to think I have a good imagination. Sacrifice to me seems comparable to the idea of “paying it forward.” You give up something now to make things better.

I’ve read of a concept called “loss aversion,” and it’s a phenomenon I believe I’ve witnessed in gaming groups. Players would rather gain nothing than lose something they have. Even if giving up one thing may result in getting something better, there is a clear aversion to giving up anything they’ve worked for, or even simply claimed.

So, should giving up something you don’t want or need be difficult, giving up something you do want or need must be more individually significant. The giving up of things, material things, has its place in lots of ascetic practices. Ritual detachment, and even actual detachment, concerns itself with connections.

Sympathy is a concept found in many kinds of magic. The connections that exist between people, between paces, and between things. More connections tend to make a person more powerful. There is a downside of course, as those connections may be severed to weaken the individual. Summons often correspond to such connections.

So, let’s say you have a people who are strongly connected to their deities. Every relationship has its ups and downs, and maintenance is required to keeps things going well between them. The gods provide their people with sustenance, and vice versa. And what do the gods need? Really, what do gods need?

It’s been suggested, at least as far back as the Classical Period, that gods need prayer badly. Why they need it is up for debate, but the basic idea is that without prayer, the gods grow angry and/or weak. And they do command forces of the natural world. Cults would spring up to appease particularly destructive deities.

You can see worship as a sort of tribute to be paid, with sacrifice being the method of payment. You give in tribute now, kind of like making payments on a house or car, or it could even be seen as a form of rent. So long as you’re on the gods’ turf, you have to make sure you pay them for its use. But why do the gods own the world?

Well, perhaps because they made the world. It belongs to them, and your people are just leasing the land from them. But why are there so many gods, and why do you have to appease all of them? Maybe the gods didn’t just make the land, they made everything you use, up to and including abstract concepts like love and justice.

You’d end up rather indebted to the gods after a while, if you had to pay them for everything you used. And forgetting to pay your rent can mean revocation of certain things – having your power turned off, or worse, getting evicted.

There’s a lot to think about.