“When there is a choice in the matter, a great sacrifice will be preferred to a small one: because in the case of the former we can indemnify ourselves through the self-admiration we feel, which we cannot do in the case of the latter” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil).
What if human sacrifice as practiced by Carthage and elsewhere were performed not in the spirit of belief but rather that of disenchantment? In the manner of young people who cut themselves in order to feel their reality or those who have suffered abuse as children who become driven to abuse themselves, what if the Carthaginians sacrificed their children not out of fear at the presence or proximity of cruel and dangerous gods, but out of resentment over their disappearance, out of indignation that these gods had abandoned them? “Look at how I am hurting himself, I dare you to appear in the presence of my pain, you miserable devious bastard!”
This would be a variation on the social game that psychologist Eric Berne calls “Now I’ve Got You You Son of a Bitch.”
An absent parent is able to exert a fascination over the child that a present one, who is compelled by daily life to reveal his faults and defects, cannot — why should the same not hold for deities? But such a fascination is entwined with one’s feelings of helplessness, of feeling oneself tyrannized by forces that because they are absent, one cannot pin down, and because their first move is one of abandonment, one finds oneself at pains to come up with any possible counter-measure to nullify the symbolic deficit they create.
This is not to deny that the practice of human sacrifice would have had its practical uses in terrorizing the poor and humiliating the ambitious, and providing group solidarity. And perhaps the love of money is a critical factor as well (the Carthaginians would rather lose a war than their wealth and once got out of paying the mercenaries in their employ by massacring them). The enjoyment of luxury, like all enjoyment, is sweetened by cruelty.