Ritual Sacrifice

In contrast to days-gone-by, modernity lacks both initiation ceremonies and public ritual.  Even prayer before meals is becoming less and less common.

Ritual sacrifice, as grisly as it is, was a ubiquitous reality common to all religions and cultures of the world.  It is now a thing of the past.  Today we think of it as both silly and barbaric.  The two interpretations of sacrifice are as follows:  on the one hand, the ancients essentially thought that the sacrifice granted them magic powers and good luck from the Gods.  On the other hand, more simply and less superstitiously, it was an expression of thanksgiving to God or nature – a gift to the universe in exchange for the gift of life.  These two interpretations are likely both true, but there is a subtler implication that is being missed

The idea of sacrificing or wasting something for no visible or rational purpose is a symbolic expression of transcending the base and animal instincts for instant gratification.  If, as Brett Stevens points out, moral character can be defined as the ability to defer or avoid gratification in order to do what is correct according to an abstract order larger than the individual, then ritual sacrifice is merely the public, symbolic expression of this very lesson.  It is its visible realization in ceremonial form.  In contrast to the “magical power interpretation” that says because of the sacrifice, we will win in the end, it basically says:  despite the sacrifice, we will still win in the end.  Ever hear the saying, “I’ll beat you with one hand tied behind my back?”

In order to win, or to become good at anything, one must sacrifice.  It’s as simple as that.  In a game of chess, or in warfare, it is essentially impossible not to sacrifice pawns.  The same thing with physical fitness – you have to sweat, you have to bleed.  You can’t get something from nothing.  In order to be ultimately gratified, one must sacrifice and do the necessary work first.

Man is both an animal and not-an-animal.  Man must both acknowledge and tame the wild beast within.  All great and noble cultures of the past reveal traces of barbarism:

At the bottom of all these noble races we cannot fail to recognize the beast of prey splendidly roaming around in its lust for loot and victory. This hidden basis from time to time needs to be discharged: the animal must come out again, must go back into the wilderness, – Roman, Arab, German, Japanese nobility, Homeric heroes, Scandinavian Vikings in this need they are all alike.

It was the noble races which left behind the concept of the “barbarian” in all their tracks, wherever they went. A consciousness of and a pride in this fact reveals itself even in their highest culture (for example, when Pericles says to his Athenians, in that famous Funeral Speech, “our audacity has broken a way through to every land and sea, putting up permanent memorials to itself for good and ill.”). This “audacity” of the noble races, mad, absurd, sudden in the way it expresses itself, its unpredictability, even the improbability of its undertakings – Pericles emphatically praises the rayhumia [mental balance, freedom from anxiety] of the Athenians – its indifference to and contempt for safety, body, life, comfort, its fearsome cheerfulness and the depth of its joy in all destruction, in all the physical pleasures of victory and cruelty – everything summed up for those who suffer from such audacity in the image of the “barbarian,” the “evil enemy,” something like the “Goth” or the “Vandal.” F.W Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, Section 11

A ritual sacrifice, as barbaric as it is, reconciles these polar opposites in one, definitive act.  It is not only the animal act of killing; it is also the non-animal act of depriving oneself of something valuable, namely, sustenance.

The ritual sacrifice is indeed a form of thanksgiving to God, nature, fate.  It is a gift to the Gods in exchange for the gift of life, but it is also a symbolic expression of transcending the animal instincts.  To do something completely unnecessary that is at odds with one’s biological imperative, to waste potential sustenance, is to transcend one’s animal aspect.  To waste, to have contempt for body and comfort is actually an expression of supreme confidence in the will of the universe.  If man only and always followed his biological imperative or if he only and always made perfectly rational decisions, he would, in fact, not be man.  He would either be an animal or an automaton.  Without the irrational, without violence, without contempt for safety, without waste, reality would be a computer program.  The charm of life would be lost, there would be no stakes, and life would be a burden, rather than a gift.  It is as much a form of fatalism as is giving one’s fate completely and utterly to God.

Even Plato, the most rational and well-thought-out of all men purposely refrained from tinkering with religious ceremony:

What is now left for us to deal with under the heading of legislation?

For us nothing, but for the Delphic Apollo it remains to enact the greatest, finest, and first of laws.

What are those?

Those having to do with the establishing of temples, sacrifices, and other forms of service to gods, daimons, and heroes, the burial of the dead, and the services to ensure their favor.  We have no knowledge of these things, and in establishing our city, if we have any understanding, we won’t be persuaded to trust them to anyone other than the ancestral guide.  And this god, sitting upon the rock at the center of the earth, is without a doubt the ancestral guide on these matters for all people. – The Republic, Book IV, 427b

Furthermore, the “magic powers” interpretation is something of a straw man because after the sacrifice, the men still did battle, they still planted the crops, and they still went out and fished.  They didn’t just sacrifice the animal and sit back and wait for God to do all the work.  The irrational will, expressed in the form of sacrifice is the exact same irrational will and spirit necessary to go to battle, to wake up every morning and fish, hunt, and plant crops despite the fact that nothing may come of it.

Think of it this way:  imagine a tribe of fishermen.  They worship the God of the Sea and give thanks by sacrificing several fish.  On lean days of fishing, this would be a terrible decision, but on abundant days, there are fish to spare.  The real work and sacrifice for catching the fish, of course, consists in getting up early, preparing the boat and the gear, staying out all day, and learning the behavior and habits of the fish, the cycle of the tides, the ways of the currents or what have you.  But how do you make this lesson real to the women and children back on land? 

You can explain it to them all you want, but by publicly wasting several fish, in front of everyone, this lesson is driven home on a deeper level.  Surely everyone would love to fill their bellies just a little more on those extra fish, but what about the motivation to get up the next morning to do it again?  What about the next generation of fishermen?  Too much satisfaction kills the motivation to be even better. 

Again, morality is the delay and putting off of gratification until the necessary work is done.  Sacrifice realizes morality in a symbolic act.  Without the ritual or ceremony, morality remains “invisible,” and can’t be demonstrated or proven to the next generation.  A person or society unwilling to sacrifice is not an indication of supreme rationality, but an indication of a lack of vitality and confidence.  The Iroquois knew this:

In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine. Great Law of the Iroquois

Viewed in this way, sacrifice and/or morality could be described as making, what appears to be, an irrational decision in the short term, for a long-term, rational gain.  Life is a mystery and there is something more to life than mere survival – a destiny.  That the free and enlightened man should only and always make the rational choice is a paradox, as his free will and choice is then negated.  Sacrifice is not delusional so much as it is irrationally confident. 

Sacrifice does not grant power, but it is symbolic of what must be done to gain power.  Perhaps we project onto the ancients what we secretly wish for ourselves:  that we will receive fortune from on high in exchange for hardly doing anything.  Paradoxically, sacrifice is the highest expression of vitality and life overflowing.

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12 Responses to “Ritual Sacrifice”

  1. Avery says:

    I was thinking about this right before I saw this post, looking at images of Greek gods.

    For millennia humanity lived in unfathomable chaos. Nature was all around us, taking our children with inexplicable disease, wrecking our primitive attempts at technology, destroying our harvests.

    Try to imagine the triumph involved in reimagining that chaos in your head as the wrath of a great and powerful person, whom you can draw, sculpt, and make offerings to. The world might not be quite under your control yet. But being able to make those visualizations decreases the chaos by that much.

    Today, we demand complete control, and any gods which we imagine must answer to us (the Wall Street protests going on right now seem to be performing that sort of ritual task). Back then, it was good enough to say, “Gods, we know you are out there, so we will do our best not to disrupt what is yours.”

  2. 1349 says:

    These guys still make sacrifices, and they’re Europeans:

  3. bestial invasion says:

    this song came to my mind


  4. Kirill Nenartovich says:

    “It is a gift to the Gods in exchange for the gift of life, but it is also a symbolic expression of transcending the animal instincts.”
    This is exactly what my cat does; ones in a while I find a birdie in my slipper. The question is: is it my cat transcending its instincts, or men are not so different from animals in the nature of sacrifice? I’m fond of my cat.

    “On lean days of fishing, this would be a terrible decision, but on abundant days, there are fish to spare.” Perhaps fishermen wouldn’t sacrifice fish on lean days, would they? We can continue from here and come to a simple explanation consistent with the natural selection theory: a tribe that did not waste surplus of food simply did not survive for multiple reasons. If they used to produce the exact amount of food, a lean day would be their last day. If they didn’t burn surplus food, they would get sick from overeating, spreading infectious diseases from nausea and rotten fish.

    “Without the irrational, without violence, without contempt for safety, without waste, reality would be a computer program.” Firstly, one should be absolutely sure this is not the case: the conceivable for men part of reality is not a computer program with “The charm of life” pre-programmed. Secondly, as it was mentioned, “an irrational decision in the short term” may be rational and ensuring survival of species, if we look at it in wider perspective. This means, all these sacrifices, violence, etc. can be considered rational but perceived as irrational due to our limitations in understanding of the reality.

    “That the free and enlightened man should only and always make the rational choice is a paradox, as his free will and choice is then negated.”
    Free will is an incoherent concept, some people even question it: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/04/is-free-will-an/

    • Ted Swanson says:

      My cat does the same thing! He will slaughter a mouse and carry it around in his mouth, but won’t eat it. I’m sure it’s a territorial thing.

      I didn’t think about the spreading of disease from rotten food – good point.

      • Erik Nordman says:

        More than on friend who’s a cat owner has told me of how their cat has proudly dumped a dead mouse by their feet or on the doorstep, and then patiently waited for the owner to recieve the sacrifice.

        PS: just one more reason why I’m a dog owner. :)

  5. Mareechka says:

    I’ve done some reading on initiation rites. Always they were for males only. It was understood that females did not need this. You became a woman just by virture of reaching maturity. Males, however, could never do so on their own steam. They needed the rite of passage.

    I would slightly disagree: I think that a female becomes a woman by enduring the rigors of childbirth and then nursing and caring for that baby. In traditional cultures, most women had babies but this was never a deliberate attempt to “grow up” and become a “woman”. It just went with the territory and becoming truly grown up was just the side effect taken for granted.

    Perhaps the deliberate avoidance of normal labour and childbirth on the part of so many women now, i.e., planned caesarean sections, is an example of neoteny (the subject of the article by Dr. Charlton you linked to). Not to mention widespread bottle-feeding (“I don’t want my tits ruined!”) and then the farming out of small babies and children to strangers.

    Biology is everything. There is no psychology separate and apart.

  6. Ted Swanson says:

    Thank you for the comments, everyone. As usual, the comments are as good as the articles here at Amerika.

  7. OM says:

    Ritual sacrifice is still performed in Hinduism, called “yagna”. In most animals are not sacrificed but there are still some pockets that are sacrificing animals.

    There are large public yagnas as well as small ones performed by individuals in their homes.

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