A Modern Pagan View of Sacrifice

A Modern Pagan View of Sacrifice April 22, 2013

Last week Sam Webster had an excellent column on restoring Pagan sacrifice which drew largely from the ancient Greeks. I’d like to continue that conversation and offer my own thoughts on sacrifice: what it is and why we should do it.

Sacrifice has two separate but related meanings. If we are to understand sacrifice, much less practice it effectively, we need to understand both.

The common meaning of sacrifice is “to give up.” We pour a libation, giving up the opportunity to drink the wine in order to give it to the gods. We give money to worthy causes, giving up the opportunity to spend it on ourselves. We spend time running and lifting weights, giving up the opportunity to read or watch TV in order to improve our physical fitness. No doubt you can think of many more examples in many aspects of life where we give up personal gain for some greater good. Sacrifice in this regard is a tangible expression of unselfishness or of long term thinking or both.

The older meaning of sacrifice is “to make sacred.” By dedicating something to the gods through ritual and ceremony it becomes sacred – it takes on some of the essence of the gods. Some of that divine essence then returns to us.

An ancient Greek sacrifice was intended “to make sacred,” not “to give up.” None of the cow was wasted and the vast majority of it was eaten by the assembly of worshippers. Nobody gave up anything, with the possible exception of the owner of the cow, who gave up meat that would have spoiled before he could eat it. While the cow was supposed to be a willing sacrifice… let’s just say I have my doubts about that.

They were going to kill the cow and eat it anyway. By consecrating it, killing it and cooking it in a ceremony that invoked and honored the gods, they brought the people together for a festive meal and they made the gods a part of their community barbeque.

This is what I think is missing from many of the comments on Sam’s column dealing with animal sacrifice. If you’re killing an animal, you aren’t giving up anything. You’re taking its life… and for what reason? If the gods want its life, they can take it themselves.

Now, if you’re going to take an animal’s life to sustain your life, you can sacrifice it in the same way the Greeks sacrificed – you can kill it, cook it and eat it with invocations and rituals designed to dedicate it to the gods. That has the additional advantage of being a tangible reminder that food does not come from the grocery store. Food comes from farms and ranches, orchards and oceans. Whether you eat animals or plants or both, everything you eat was once alive.

My point is that I see a clear difference between offering a life to the gods and sharing our food with the gods. But I understand that if you don’t see animals as a legitimate source of food, you aren’t likely to see much difference between the two.

Regardless of your intentions, I don’t recommend animal sacrifice. Your neighbors aren’t likely to understand, and if you didn’t grow up on a working farm you aren’t likely to know how to butcher animals cleanly and humanely. Perhaps a local Pagan group could encourage one or two of its members to learn butchering skills. Given the relatively high percentage of vegetarians in the overall Pagan community (from my informal observations, anyway), that may not be a very high priority.

Let’s not let our disagreements over the appropriateness of animal sacrifice distract us from the more important issue: we need to incorporate sacrifice into our regular practices. Sometimes that will mean “to give up,” sometimes that will mean “to make sacred” and sometimes that will mean both.

Sacrifice is important because it reinforces the concept of hospitality. If you invite a human guest into your home, you would greet him or her politely, offer food and drink, and generally try to make your guest feel welcome. The same is true when we invite our gods and goddesses to join our circles. How would you feel if someone called you on the phone and said “come here now and give me stuff”? How would you most likely respond? The gods are not our masters but they are certainly not our servants – we should treat them with courtesy and respect.

Sacrifice is important because it reinforces the concept of reciprocity. The gods give to us so we give to them in return. They then give to us again. This sets up a whole cycle of giving and receiving, a cycle that carries over into our relations with other humans and with the rest of the natural world.

This cycle of giving and receiving raises the issue of what – if anything – the gods receive from us. As Sam Webster pointed out, the Greek Iamblichus believed the gods (at least the immaterial gods) are so far above us they can’t be influenced by anything we do. This idea from late paganism made its way into Christianity, despite the fact that it’s contradicted by both scripture and experience.

More importantly to us, so many Pagans have reported positive feedback about their sacrifices from the gods that the idea should be considered shared personal gnosis (SPG) and not unverified personal gnosis (UPG). We can’t prove our offerings feed the gods but it seems highly likely.

Sacrifice is important because it brings us into closer relations with the gods. If we “give up” we first ask what the deity in question would like. We study their stories and we spend time in meditation with them. Just as sharing a glass of wine with a friend will bring us into closer relations with her, so will sharing a glass of wine with a goddess. In both cases, the more frequent the sharing, the stronger the relationship we can build.

Some sacrifices are obvious: we pour libations, we offer our time and labor, we make contributions, we share our food and drink. But I wonder if there isn’t more we could “make sacred.” The Greeks were going to kill, cook and eat the animals no matter what, but by dedicating them to the gods, they made them sacred. What ordinary things could we make sacred?

Can our ordinary meals be made sacred through invocation and ritual? We have to eat – can we make eating a sacred act? Might making eating a sacred act cause us to be more mindful about what we eat and where it comes from?

Could an ordinary job be made sacred through invocation and ritual? We have to provide for ourselves, our families, and our communities – could dedicating our work to the gods make working an ordinary but necessary job a sacred act? Yeah, that’s a tough one. But the fact that it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

I’m glad modern Pagans are talking about sacrifice. Whether we “give up” or “make sacred” or both, regular sacrifices will strengthen our relationships with our gods and goddesses, with our communities, and with the world at large.

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  • I would like to note that there were several different offerings in Ancient Greece. Holocaust sacrifices were also very common in regards to the Underworld deities, which as you probably know, were offerings that were burnt wholly. Though, as you noted, the most common form was the thusia/thysia or the sacrifice of a live animal and the communal feast. Though, looking at other ancient cultures, we find that method of operation to be quite common. If I’m recalling correctly the Gaels did it, as did many of the Germanic tribes and some of the various faiths that get shoved into the Hindu religious grouping.

    Though, thinking about this, the line between sacrifices and votive offerings gets a bit hazy doesn’t it? A votive offering in the ancient world was generally both making sacred and giving up, so by definition of the word sacrifice a votive offering is one, though we often don’t call them these things because they wind up neither eaten nor destroyed, so it doesn’t register to our modern minds as such.

    And on the final point, I’d be totally down for animal sacrifice if the even was taking place in a rural area, and the person in question knew proper sanitation and execution methods. The sacrifice of an animal was apparently an emotional event for the Classical Athenians, with the moment of execution being marked by a shrill cry from the women attending the festival. Burkert interprets that as something along the lines of life triumphing over the cries of death.

    • You’re right, Conor – that line does get hazy. Sacrifice is so much more complex than our mainstream culture (in which we live, like it or not) recognizes.