Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sacrifice and its Meaning

Sacrifice often conjures up images of loss and bloodshed in the popular imagination. Just think of the images of priests in arcane garb with a young, innocent virgin tied down on an ancient altar about to have her heart ripped out in a ritual to appease a greater power. This is a common image, and misconception, that circulates in the popular imagination among others that is at best a superficial representation of what sacrifice really is. Sacrifice, on the contrary, is not an act of loss or hardship but one of the highest devotion to the Gods. There are also many misconceptions associated with the act itself and what it entails that need to be dispelled to truly understand sacrifice both as it was practiced by our ancestors and in a modern context. Sacrifice is not, as often assumed in the modern sense, an act of primitives attempting to placate forces beyond their comprehension. Sacrifice is an act of the highest devotion, respect, reverence, and love for the Gods not a practice to be condemned, forgotten, or prettied up.

In ancient times the word sacrifice is usually associated by modern people with animal or human sacrifice to appease angry, capricious Gods. This is a very poor understanding of the real meaning of sacrifice as it was done in pre-Christian days and assumes that all sacrifice must involve blood and death. Sacrifice was far more widespread and less wasteful and inhumane than often imagined and in many cases did not involve bloodshed. Archaeological evidence has shown that the ancient practices of sacrifice and offerings were far more varied and involved than simple ritualistic murder. One common find in Germany are hordes of weapons and other spoils of battle piled up in mounds and buried, possibly as offerings to the Gods in thanks for Their Favor that granted the warriors their victory that day. Many such mounds were found in the vicinity of Teutoberg Wald, the site of a major victory by the Chercusci under Hermann over the legions of Rome lending some credibility to this theory. Similar finds have been found on other ancient battlefields in the old Germanic world and further afield wherever Germanic tribesmen fought. Among the Celts we have also found examples of important possessions being buried or tossed into bodies of water in a similar fashion. This is not just a Celtic and Germanic practice. Surviving records from Roman, Greek, and Egyptian temples show sumptuous offerings of food, wine, and in some cases silver and gold left for the Gods as thanks for good fortune or to gain their favor in a coming harvest or other venture. Sacrifice of physical objects was, based on surviving records and archaeology, probably the most common form of sacrifice in pre-Christian Europe but not the only one.

There were, indeed, sacrifices of animals and humans but what we find most often in both cases is a considerable degree of respect for the sacrifice. In the cases of animal sacrifices the most common practice was not a form of bloody death but more a ritualistic slaughter of the animal usually with the blood of the animal as the actual component given up to the Gods. In some cases, like in Greece and Rome, parts of the animal that were considered choice bits or offal would be thrown into a fire as a burnt offering. Even in cases of sacrifice of humans we do not find evidence of mass slaughter on a regular basis. Sacrifices were usually criminals slated for execution, prisoners of war, or willing participants. Far from the common idea of bloody, awful rites the victims were often drugged, as has been found in the famous bog men, and disposed of quickly as opposed to long, drawn out rites. This is not to say such rites should be repeated, but rather they show an overall pattern that exists in the practice and beliefs behind sacrifice.

What is most common is the underlying meaning of the sacrifice. This is the core of the whole point of giving up offerings and sacrifice to the Gods. In essence our ancestors were giving up something that could be used for another purpose as a show of devotion and thanks. It is easy to simply offer up prayer and regular attendance to worship as a show of reverence. It does take time and effort but beyond that all you are giving up is your time. To give up something that has value, use, or meaning shows real devotion. For example we have the practice of buried weapons and armor by the Germanic tribes. Practically speaking those weapons could be used by other warriors for battle or, if broken beyond repair, at least melted down and used to make new ones. By giving up something that, especially in ancient Germany, would have been incredibly valuable is an act of great reverence and devotion. In the Mediterranean world the act of giving up food carries similar connotations. The soil in Greece and Italy is notoriously difficult to gain decent crop yields from in a good year without modern agricultural tools and techniques. To give food to the Gods, especially since that food could be the difference between going hungry and having a full belly, is similarly an act of great love and respect.

Now in the modern age it may not make as much sense to give up particular items as sacrifice or offerings especially if you are living a reasonably comfortable life in the modern Western world where food is as easy to obtain as taking a walk to the nearest grocery store or dialing up for delivery. Here is where one must consider the matter of respect and reverence. Giving specific items, ones that are believed to be particularly loved or desired by a particular deity, is an act of love. While it isn't necessarily cheap to offer up smoked salmon to Odin it would not be the same degree of hardship as it would have been in the Viking period in Norway. What matters here, instead, is the act and thought put into it. Think of making the effort to find a particular favored offering as something similar to making the effort to take a lover out to your favorite restaurant or finding that perfect gift for a parent's birthday. It is the act as well as the thing sacrificed that shows the respect and reverence held is genuine and abiding, not just going through the motions.

In closing I would argue that as Pagans we should embrace the act and ritual of sacrifice. While we shouldn't be going back to bloodshed in the name of the Gods giving up to Them shows our esteem and respect for Them. Sacrifice is not just letting something go on our part, it is a gift. The act of gift-giving is one that is cherished and held dear in modern society as an act of compassion and selflessness. Why not also extend the same act to the Gods Themselves? There is nothing primitive or superstitious in the act. Instead it is the reinforcement and continuation of a tradition of worship and thanks stretching back beyond recorded history. Sacrifice is not an act of loss. It is a deed of great honor for the one who does so by willingly giving to the Gods what we could have taken for ourselves.

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