"I give the knowledge of the spirit Divine, and beyond death, I give peace and reunion with those who have gone before. Nor do I demand aught of sacrifice, for behold, I am the Mother of all things, and my love is poured out upon the earth." (Charge of the Goddess)
Sacrifice. A word that can alternately lift us up and turn us cold at the same time. It resonates with power and the divine at the same time that it makes us want to run and hide. Why is that, do you think? Let's take a look.
sac·ri·fice (sàk´re-fìs´) noun
1. a. The act of offering something to a deity in propitiation or homage, especially the ritual slaughter of an animal or a person. b. A victim offered in this way.
2. a. Forfeiture of something highly valued for the sake of one considered to have a greater value or claim. b. Something so forfeited.
3. a. Relinquishment of something at less than its presumed value. b. Something so relinquished. c. A loss so sustained.
[Middle English, from Old French, from Latin sacrificium : sacer, sacred. See SACRED + facere, to make.] - sac¹ri·fic´er noun
So, at it's most basic, sacrifice means "to make sacred." Let's look at sacred.
sa·cred (sâ´krîd) adjective
1. Dedicated to or set apart for the worship of a deity.
2. Worthy of religious veneration: the sacred teachings of the Buddha.
3. Made or declared holy: sacred bread and wine.
4. Dedicated or devoted exclusively to a single use, purpose, or person: sacred to the memory of her sister; a private office sacred to the President.
5. Worthy of respect; venerable.
6. Of or relating to religious objects, rites, or practices.
[Middle English, past participle of sacren, to consecrate, from Old French sacrer, from Latin sacrâre, from sacer, sacr-, sacred.] - sa´cred·ly adverb - sa´cred·ness noun
Both sound pretty harmless at the surface. But underneath, oh, underneath seethes a maelstrom of things that we, as pagans, do not wish to face. They challenge the way we see ourselves, our very foundation, and so, they must be avoided. They are, however, the foundations of our religions.
Wicca, and less specifically paganism, in the United States spread by way of political activists and feminists. In some ways, it is a reaction to our culture and beliefs by those that are disaffected or victims. The pagan paths are a way for us to grow and learn, to become whole and stand on our own again. The Old Ways teach us that we do not have to grovel before man or god or beg blessings for our lives.
As they are expressed now, the Old Ways are paths to empowerment, paths to heal the wounded of our time. Many people come to them from the Christian paths, trying to escape being different or unusual. They run from the male dominated structure of our society to something that is more healing and feminine, on the surface, at least. Pagans seek a more egalitarian society that focuses on the healing aspects of the world. These communities are often led by women or by men that have strong female counterparts. The Gods are seen as our friends, our father and mother, brother and sister. They are our comfort and our hope for something better. We are taught that we have a piece of them within us, therefore we do not need to bend our knees to them, kneel at their altars, or keep the older ways of offerings and sacrifice.
To heal the wounds of abuse and dysfunction, people are taught to stand before the gods and ask for their help. To confront the pain and move through it is difficult at best. Healing takes strong inner will and a picture of a loving God or Goddess, not someone that would demand from us our hearts, our souls, or our bodies.
The Charge of the Goddess, quoted above, says "Nor do I demand aught of sacrifice..." and she does not. Sacrifice must come from within and be given freely. It is made holy in this manner. Sacrifice may simply be our time and attention to a God. Sacrifice can also be what a priestess gives back to the community with her time and willingness to lead and teach. A sacrifice can be fruit and nuts, bread and wine, and yes, even the blood of our own bodies.
To understand why that idea makes so many of us uncomfortable, we need to look more closely at the definitions of sacrifice and sacred. There are many points within them that cause pagans to be at odds with themselves as they grow on their paths.
1a. The act of offering something to a deity in propitiation or homage
When we think of offering something to the gods, as pagans, what comes to mind are the magickal workings or spells that we take the time to craft and design. Ritually prepared candles are often the center of these spells. We offer them to a god as a symbol of our willingness to work to gain a desired end as we attach our energy and desire to it.
We don't, however, often think of the sacrifice that we make in time and money and attention to details. All of the things that go into a spell in preparation for sending it out are sacrifices to us. We could very well be doing something different. After all, the sun outside is high in the sky and calling to us to come out and play, or maybe there is that show on TV that we would really like to see. These are sacrifices we make to gain a desired end.
What we don't consciously think about, though, is the underlying reason why we do such things. When a witch creates a spell and performs it, she instinctually understands that she is sending a part of herself, her energy, to a desired goal to bring it about. She instinctually understands that she is drawing the attentions of one or more deities that will examine what she is doing. She instinctually understands that the deity candles on her working space will draw them to her to watch and accept or reject what she is doing. What is not instinctual is that by calling them to us, we are paying homage to them. We are asking them for a boon. It is not just our own energies that go out into a spell. Each spell is a little note asking for something. What do we give back to the gods for all of those little notes and wants and needs?
We give of ourselves. Time, attention, desire, and yes, even money all go into what we give them back. Those little things are all sacrifices. Most people could use more of all of them to use somewhere else. There is never enough time. Some people call it budgeting their resources. It is, however, a type of sacrifice.
...especially the ritual slaughter of an animal or a person.
This part of the definition of sacrifice is part of why we are so uncomfortable with the word. We like to think of sacrifice as a nice neat little thing, a bundle of flowers here, some time spent there, and it is hard to make these things match up with ritual slaughter. Instead, we call them things like offerings, gifts, presents, when a sacrifice is really what they are. It is much easier and cleaner to split the two apart from each other, especially when there is such an outcry against Satanism and Ritual Abuse.
The pagan religions are walking a very fine line of acceptance in the United States, despite becoming a valid and accepted path. There are still many groups that react negatively to the idea that anything that is not Christian is also a valid way to the divine. It becomes, then, our duty to prove to those that try to keep the Old Ways from resurfacing that we are just like they are in many ways. This is not a simple task when we perform our "sacrifices" to our gods. It brings in a very negative connotation to what is really happening.
b. A victim offered in this way.
Without a doubt, there are many people within the Old Paths that have come from a place that was difficult. Abuse survivors, rape survivors, those that feel they have been treated unfairly by the "patriarchal society", they all have found their way to the more egalitarian ways of paganism in one manner or another. This path is a way for them to heal and to feel safe while they do so.
They are victims of circumstances that were not entirely under their control. It is for that reason that many people have such problems with the idea of a sacrifice. The word brings back memories of hurt and pain, of being unable to control their own life. It becomes even more painful when we consider the idea of blood sacrifice, for those very same reasons. Blood is a powerful thing. To give it up, even willingly, calls for great strength. Many pagans have not reached that point of strength and so distance themselves from this idea of sacrifice, preferring to give an offering instead.
2. a. Forfeiture of something highly valued
In our culture, we are taught that it is important to acquire things, be they money, prestige, objects, or respect. Giving something away, particularly when it has value, is an exercise that many neglect. In this, pagans are no different than non-pagans. We are taught that the pretty athame is important or the cut crystal goblet for a cup just has to be used, when a hand thrown goblet will be just as useful, and perhaps even more meaningful.
Sacrifice is giving up these things for possibly no return or gain to us, at least nothing tangible. There is nothing given immediately in return for what we give away. It's much like a long term investment with our Gods, maybe we should call it an Individual Retirement Account for the soul ...
...for the sake of one considered to have a greater value or claim.
Pagans are taught that they stand before their gods as equals. They do not need priests or bishops to communicate for them. Most branches of Wicca, excepting English Style groups or offshoots, are fairly free in form and in status within the group. One person is not higher than another. A priestess is there only for that ritual. After she is done, her "status" reverts to being equal to the others. We have a difficult time accepting that there just might be something out there that is not equal to us, and in fact may be greater. When we think of our gods, our mouths say that they are greater, but our minds and hearts believe that we are equal. This creates a problem if we wish to give a sacrifice. A sacrifice is given to someone or something that is "higher" than we are. Since we believe that we are equal, what do we sacrifice to, then? Offerings are easier. They can be given to equals.
The ideas behind sacrificing, as we can see, along with our attitudes about ourselves as Pagans, makes it hard to come to terms with the idea of performing this type of action. We like to take the road of least resistance, for the most part. Sacrifices are hard to do. They are hard to come to terms with emotionally and spiritually. They are not something that we do on a daily basis. Perhaps, though, they should be. They are sacred to the Gods. While, we're here, let's take a look at what it means to be sacred, shall we?
1. Dedicated to or set apart for the worship of a deity.
Do pagans worship? Before you answer that, take a moment to think about it. We get out there and cast circles and call the gods. We dance and sing and play with them. We ask them to give us things. Do we really worship them, though? I don't think that we do very often. Sometimes, on the greater or lesser sabbats we might take the time to listen to what they have to say and give them things back. Most of the time, though, we go on with our lives with little thought to living as the gods want us to live rather than how we want to live. We take time out, once a month usually, to spend time dancing and singing and playing, and then calling it worship. We rarely take the time, anymore, to spend time learning about who and what we are, or what is being asked of us on the paths that we walk. We buy pretty baubles and trinkets and ask people to cast spells for us. Why don't we take the time to learn them for ourselves?
5. Worthy of respect; venerable.
This is one of the hardest things for pagans, from my point of view. In trying to garner power and accomplishment and praise, we forget what it is to respect and hold dear our friends, our families, and our Gods. We have started to set goals for ourselves, and while having goals is a laudable thing, we have forgotten that the path to those goals is just as important as the goal itself. We will trample things underfoot, looking at the stars, rather than paying attention to where we place our feet.
With nothing to respect, we cannot find the sacred. If we cannot find the sacred, we cannot give of ourselves. If we cannot give of ourselves, we cannot sacrifice. We then become selfish, and being selfish leads only to finding fewer things to respect.
Sit for a moment and think about this: If we, as pagans, expect other paths to respect ours, we need to respect it as well. The Gods that we follow are not amorphous beings that sit back and wait for us all of the time. They have other things to do than to grant wishes to those that give nothing back. Wouldn't it be better to take a little time, every day, and give some little thing back to them? When we talk about sacrifice, what generally comes to mind are the little things that we give from time to time, like flowers and candles and stones. There are other ways, though, of making an offering to the Gods. From time before time, people have offered parts of their crops, hunts, and even parts of their own families in some cultures. Children were sometimes given to the temples to train and raise as their own. Cattle and animals from the hunt were slaughtered across altars in thanks to the Gods. Crops were handed over to the temples, both for storage in case of disaster and to give thanks for a bountiful harvest.
Where, then, did it become commonplace to only offer things that do not create some difficulty in the giving? We, as pagans, run from the idea that something may be difficult. We look for the light, the sweet, the gentle, and forget about the harshness that surrounds us. Our gods are gentle and caring and loving. Or are they?
Let's take the Wild Hunt, for example. A group of slobbering, half- rabid hounds and hunters run through the woods after a buck that is frightened to within an inch of its life. It runs and runs and runs, and what does it get for its trouble? Brought down by the pack and slaughtered so that its blood feeds the ground to make it fertile for the next growing season.
Too much? How about Lammas, then. Lugh, a grain god, is cut down and sacrificed so that his blood may feed the fields in thanks for the harvest that will bring the people through the coming winter. Midsummer? The Wicker Man. Beltaine? OK. Well, Beltaine seems pretty harmless…until you come to the realization that the Goddess will give birth later. Hard, painful birth with blood, sweat, and tears. Ostara? Mithras and Christ. Imbolc? This is probably the least likely to have blood associated with it . Yule? Nope….The God dies here, too, and is reborn. Gosh. We have a lot of dying gods. And a lot of blood and sacrifice, when it comes right down to it. So why, then, do we avoid doing these harsher things we call sacrifices? Modern pagans are fearful to offer their blood to the gods, not even so much as a pinprick on their coven or power cords, when our ancestors slaughtered whole animals for sacrifice.
Many argue that we have moved beyond that, that we are better able to understand such things than our less enlightened ancestors, and that such things just aren't needed or necessary any more. Why? Have the Gods changed? Have the requirements that they have passed on to their followers? Or is it that we are afraid of the power and effects that such rituals create?
Blood is the source of our lives. It keeps us alive and well, works to help prevent harm from our bodies, carries food and oxygen to our cells, and without it, we would die. We hoard it inside, seeking to avoid the power that it carries, spiritually and magickally.
Like sex, it is intensely personal and we seek to keep it away from scrutiny. To guard it jealously prevents the joy and power it can bring to help others, as well as ourselves, however. Blood carries with it ties to the past and ties to the future. It is one way, of many, to speak to our gods and to return to them some of the things that they have given to us.
The most personal representation of ourselves is our blood. It binds our words and deeds far tighter than any other thing. There is no way out of a blood binding, unless the gods will it. This is the power that blood holds. And it is part of the reason that we have an aversion to using it. When we use our blood, we are held tightly to what we have done with no chance of ever disavowing it. The certainty it takes to use it prevents most pagans from considering it. All sacrifice has a cost to it. Blood sacrifice is no different, in that respect. A wise man knows that closing his eyes to possibilities limits his abilities to live. Why, then, should we close our eyes to the uses of blood sacrifice that our ancestors knew so well?
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