Blood Sacrifice for Fame

Blood Sacrifice for Fame

Verb: Offer or kill as a religious sacrifice.
Noun: An act of slaughtering, e.g. an animal, or surrendering a possession as an offering to God.


Sacrifice is a religious rite in which an object is offered to a “divinity” (all so called divinities are false except the God of Christianity) in order to establish, maintain, or restore a right relationship of man to the “sacred” order. It is a complex phenomenon that has been found in the earliest known forms of worship and in all parts of the world. The present article will treat the nature of sacrifice and will survey the theories about its origin. It will then analyze sacrifice in terms of its constituent elements, such as the material of the offering, the time and place of the sacrifice, and the motive or intention of the rite.

Nature and origins

Nature of sacrifice
The term sacrifice derives from the Latin sacrificium, which is a combination of the words sacer, meaning something set apart from the secular or profane for the use of supernatural powers, and facere, meaning "to make." The term has acquired a popular and frequently secular use to describe some sort of renunciation or giving up of something valuable in order that something more valuable might be obtained; e.g., parents make sacrifices for their children, one sacrifices a limb for one's country. But the original use of the term was peculiarly religious, referring to a cultic act in which objects were set apart or consecrated and offered to a “god” or some other supernatural power; thus, sacrifice should be understood within a religious, cultic context.

Often the act of sacrifice involves the destruction of the offering, but this destruction--whether by burning, slaughter, or whatever means--is not in itself the sacrifice. The killing of an animal is the means by which its consecrated life is "liberated" and thus made available to the “deity”, and the destruction of a food offering in an altar's fire is the means by which the “deity” receives the offering. Sacrifice as such, however, is the total act of offering and not merely the method in which it is performed.

Although the fundamental meaning of sacrificial rites is that of effecting a necessary and efficacious relationship with the “sacred power” and of establishing man and his world in the “sacred order”, the rites have assumed a multitude of forms and intentions. The basic forms of sacrifice, however, seem to be some type of either sacrificial gift or sacramental meal. Sacrifice as a gift may refer either to a gift that should be followed by a return gift (because of the intimate relationship that gift giving establishes) or to a gift that is offered in homage to a “god” without expectation of a return. Sacrifice as a sacramental communal meal may involve the idea of the “god” as a participant in the meal or as identical with the food consumed; it may also involve the idea of a ritual meal at which either some primordial event such as creation is repeated or the “sanctification” of the world is symbolically renewed.

Theories of the origin of sacrifice
Since the rise of the comparative or historical study of religions in the latter part of the 19th century, attempts have been made to discover the origins of sacrifice. These attempts, though helpful for a greater understanding of sacrifice, have not been conclusive.

Another study by Mauss helped to broaden the notion of sacrifice as gift. It was an old idea that man makes a gift to the god but expects a gift in return. The Latin formula do ut des ("I give that you may give") was formulated in classical times. In the Vedic religion, the oldest stratum of religion known to have existed in India, one of the Brahmanas (commentaries on the Vedas, or “sacred” hymns, that were used in ritual sacrifices) expressed the same principle: "Here is the butter; where are your gifts?" But, according to Mauss, in giving it is not merely an object that is passed on but a part of the giver, so that a firm bond is forged. The owner's mana is conveyed to the object, and, when the object is given away, the new owner shares in this mana and is in the power of the giver. The gift thus creates a bond. Even more, however, it makes power flow both ways to connect the giver and the receiver; it invites a gift in return.

Gerardus van der Leeuw, a Dutch historian of religion, developed this notion of gift in the context of sacrifice. In sacrifice a gift is given to the “god”, and thus man releases a flow between himself and the “god”. For him sacrifice as gift is "no longer a mere matter of bartering with 'gods' corresponding to that carried on with men, and no longer homage to the 'god' such as is offered to princes: it is an opening of a blessed source of gifts." His interpretation thus melded the gift and communion theories, but it also involved a magical flavour, for he asserted that the central power of the sacrificial act is neither 'god' nor giver but is always the gift itself.

Adolf E. Jensen attempted to explain why men have resorted to the incomprehensible act of killing other men or animals and eating them for the glorification of a “god” or many “gods”. Blood sacrifice is linked not with the cultures of the hunter-gatherers but with those of the cultivators; its origin is in the ritual killing of the archaic cultivator cultures, which, in turn, is grounded in myth. For Jensen the early cultivators all knew the idea of a mythic primal past in which not men but Dema lived on the Earth and prominent among them were the “Dema-deities”. The central element of the myth is the slaying of a “Dema-deity”, an event that inaugurated human history and gave shape to the human lot. The Dema became men, subject to birth and death, whose self-preservation depends upon the destruction of life. The “deity” became in some way associated with the realm of the dead; and, from the body of the slain “deity”, crop plants originated, so that the eating of the plants is an eating of the “deity”. Ritual killing, whether of animals or men, is a cultic re-enactment of the mythological event. Strictly speaking, the action is not a sacrifice because there is no offering to a “god”; rather, it is a way to keep alive the memory of primeval events. Blood sacrifice as found in the later higher cultures is a persistence of the ritual killing in a degenerated form. Because the victim is identified with the “deity”, later expiatory sacrifices also become intelligible: sin is an offense against the moral order established at the beginning of human history; the killing of the victim is an intensified act restoring that order.

In 1963 Raymond Firth, a New Zealand-born anthropologist, addressed himself to the question of the influence that a people's ideas about the control of their economic resources have on their ideology of sacrifice. He noted that the time and frequency of sacrifice and the type and quality of victim are affected by economic considerations; that the procedure of collective sacrifice involves not only the symbol of group unity but also a lightening of the economic burden or any one participant; that the use of surrogate victims and the reservation of the sacrificial food for consumption are possibly ways of meeting the problem of resources. Firth concluded that sacrifice is ultimately a personal act in which the self is symbolically given, but it is an act that is often conditioned by economic rationality and prudent calculation.

Most social anthropologists and historians of religion in the mid-20th century, however, concentrated less on worldwide typologies or evolutionary sequences and more on investigations of specific historically related societies. Consequently, since World War II there have been few formulations of general theories about the origin of sacrifice, but there have been important studies of sacrifice within particular cultures. For example, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, a social anthropologist at Oxford University, concluded after his study of the religion of the Nuer, a people in the southern Sudan, that for them sacrifice is a gift intended "to get rid of some danger of misfortune, usually sickness." They establish communication with the “god” not to create a fellowship with him but only to keep him away. Evans-Pritchard acknowledged, however, that the Nuer have many kinds of sacrifice and that no single formula adequately explains all types. Furthermore, he did not maintain that his interpretations of his materials were of universal applicability. Many scholars would agree that, though it is easy to make a long list of many kinds of sacrifice, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find a satisfactory system in which all forms of sacrifice may be assigned a suitable place.

Analysis of the rite of sacrifice

It is possible to analyze the rite of sacrifice in terms of six different elements: the sacrificer, the material of the offering, the time and place of the rite, the method of sacrificing, the recipient of the sacrifice, and the motive or intention of the rite. These categories are not of equal importance and often overlap.

In general, it may be said that the one who makes sacrifices is man, either an individual or a collective group--a family, a clan, a tribe, a nation, a secret society. Frequently, special acts must be performed by the sacrificer before and sometimes also after the sacrifice. In the Vedic cult, the sacrificer and his wife were required to undergo an initiation (diksa) involving ritual bathing, seclusion, fasting, and prayer, the purpose of which was to remove them from the profane world and to purify them for contact with the “sacred” world. At the termination of the sacrifice came a rite of "desacralization" (avabhrta) in which they bathed in order to remove any “sacred” potencies that might have attached themselves during the sacrifice.

There are sacrifices in which there are no participants other than the individual or collective sacrificer. Usually, however, one does not venture to approach sacred things directly and alone; they are too lofty and serious a matter. An intermediary--certain persons or groups who fulfill particular requirements or qualifications--is necessary. In many cases, sacrificing by unauthorized persons is expressly forbidden and may be severely punished; e.g., in the Bible in the book of Leviticus, Korah and his followers, who revolted against Moses and his brother Aaron and arrogated the priestly office of offering incense, were consumed by fire. The qualified person--whether the head of a household, the old man of a tribe, the king, or the priest--acts as the appointed representative on behalf of a community.

The head of the household as sacrificer is a familiar figure in the Old Testament, particularly in the stories of the patriarchs; e.g., Abraham and Jacob. Generally, in cattle-keeping tribes with patriarchal organization, the paterfamilias long remained the person who carried out sacrifices, and it was only at a late date that a separate caste of priests developed among these peoples.

The king has played an important role as the person active in sacrificing, particularly in those cultures in which he not only has temporal authority but also fulfills a religious function. The fact that the king is the primary sacrificer may stem from two roots. It may be that the most important “gods” of the state were originally “family gods” of the rulers, and, thus, the king is simply continuing the task of paterfamilias, only now on behalf of the whole community. The second root lies in the notion of “sacred” kingship, according to which the royal office is “sacred” and the king set apart from ordinary people is the intercessor with the supernatural world. These two concepts often go together. Thus, in ancient Egypt the pharaoh was “divine” because he descended from the “sun god Re”. The concepts of the “god” as family ancestor and of “sacred” kingship were combined. Although worship in ancient Egypt was controlled by a powerful priesthood, officially all sacrifices were regarded as made by the pharaoh.

Most frequently, the intermediary between the community and the “god”, between the profane and the “sacred” realms, is the priest. As a rule, not everyone can become a priest; there are requirements of different kinds to be satisfied. Usually, the priest must follow some training, which may be long and severe, There is always some form of consecration he has to undergo. For communities in which a priest functions, he is the obvious person to make sacrifices.

Material of the oblation
Any form under which life manifests itself in the world or in which life can be symbolized may be a sacrificial oblation. In fact, there are few things that have not, at some time or in some place, served as an offering. Any attempt to categorize the material of sacrifice will group together heterogeneous phenomena; thus, the category human sacrifice includes several fundamentally different sacrificial rites. Nevertheless, for convenience sake, the variety of sacrificial offerings will be treated as (1) blood offerings (animal and human), (2) bloodless offerings (libations and vegetation), and (3) a special category, “divine offerings”.

Blood offerings
Basic to both animal and human sacrifice is the recognition of blood as the life-force in man and beast. Through the sacrifice--through the return of the sacred life revealed in the victim--the “god” lives, and, therefore, man and nature live. The great potency of blood has been utilized through sacrifice for a number of purposes; e.g., earth fertility, purification, and expiation. The letting of blood, however, was neither the only end nor the only mode of human and animal sacrifice.

In ancient Judaism the kind and number of animals for the various sacrifices was carefully stipulated so that the offering might be acceptable and thus fully effective. This sort of regulation is generally found in sacrificial cults; the offering must be appropriate either to the “deity” to whom or to the intention for which it is to be presented. Very often the sacrificial species (animal or vegetable) was closely associated with the “deity” to whom it was offered as the “deity's” symbolic representation or even its “incarnation”. Thus, in the Vedic ritual the “goddesses” of night and morning received the milk of a black cow having a white calf; the "bull of heaven". Similarly, the ancient Greeks sacrificed black animals to the “deities” of the dark underworld; swift horses to the “sun god Helios”; pregnant sows to the “earth mother Demeter”; and the dog, guardian of the dead, to Hecate, “goddess” of darkness. The Syrians sacrificed fish, regarded as the “lord” of the sea and “guardian” of the realm of the dead, to the “goddess” Atargatis and ate the consecrated offering in a communion meal with the “deity”, sharing in the “divine” power.

The occurrence of human sacrifice appears to have been widespread and its intentions various, ranging from communion with a “god” and participation in his “divine” life to expiation and the promotion of the earth's fertility. It seems to have been adopted by agricultural rather than by hunting or pastoral peoples. Of all the worldly manifestations of the life-force, the human undoubtedly impressed men as the most valuable and thus the most potent and efficacious as an oblation. Thus, in Mexico the belief that the sun needed human nourishment led to sacrifices in which as many as 20,000 victims perished annually in the Aztec and Nahua calendrical maize ritual in the 14th century AD. Bloodless human sacrifices also developed and assumed greatly different forms: e.g., a Celtic ritual involved the sacrifice of a woman by immersion, and among the Maya in Mexico young maidens were drowned in “sacred” wells; in Peru women were strangled; in ancient China the king's retinue was commonly buried with him, and such internments continued intermittently until the 17th century.

In many societies human victims gave place to animal substitutes or to effigies made of dough, wood, or other materials. Thus, in India, with the advent of British rule, human sacrifices to the Dravidian village “goddesses” (grama-devis) were replaced by animal sacrifices. Moreover, in some cults both human and animal oblations could be "ransomed"--i.e., replaced by offerings or money or other inanimate valuables.

Bloodless offerings
Among the many life-giving substances that have been used as libations are milk, honey, vegetable and animal oils, beer, wine, and water. Of these, the last two have been especially prominent. Wine is the "blood of the grape" and thus the "blood of the earth," a spiritual beverage that invigorates “gods” and men. Water is always the “sacred” "water of life," the primordial source of existence and the bearer of the life of plants, animals, human beings, and even the “gods”.

Vegetable offerings have included not only the edible herbaceous plants but also grains, fruits, and flowers. In both Hinduism and Jainism, flowers, fruits, and grains (cooked and uncooked) are included in the daily temple offerings. In some agricultural societies (e.g., those of West Africa) yams and other tuber plants have been important in planting and harvest sacrifices and in other rites concerned with the fertility and fecundity of the soil. These plants have been regarded as especially embodying the life-force of the “deified” earth and are frequently buried or plowed into the soil to replenish and reactivate its energies.

“Divine” offerings
One further conception must be briefly mentioned: a “god” himself may be sacrificed. This notion was elaborated in many mythologies; it is fundamental in some sacrificial rituals. In early sacrifice the victim has something of the “god” in itself, but in the sacrifice of a “god” the victim is identified with the “god”. At the festival of the ancient Mexican “sun god” Huitzilopochtli, the statue of the “god”, which was made from beetroot paste and kneaded in human blood and which was identified with the “god”, was divided into pieces, shared out among the devotees, and eaten. In the Hindu soma ritual (related to the haoma ritual of ancient Persia), the soma plant, which is identified with the “god” Soma, is pressed for its intoxicating juice, which is then ritually consumed.

Time and place of sacrifice
In many cults, sacrifices are distinguished by frequency of performance into two types, regular and special. Regular sacrifices may be daily, weekly, monthly, or seasonal (as at planting, harvest, and New Year). Also often included are sacrifices made at specific times in each man's life--birth, puberty, marriage, and death. Offerings made on special occasions and for special intentions have included, for example, sacrifices in times of danger, sickness, or crop failure and those performed at the construction of a building, for success in battle, or in thanksgiving for a “divine” favour.

The common place of sacrifice in most cults is an altar. The table type of altar is uncommon; more often it is only a pillar, a mound of earth, a stone, or a pile of stones. Frequently, the altar is regarded as the centre or the image of the universe.

Method of sacrifice
Along with libation and the sacrificial effusion of blood, one of the commonest means of making an oblation available to “sacred” beings is to burn it. In ancient Judaism the major offering was the burnt or fire offering. Through the medium of the fire, the oblation was conveyed to the divine recipient. In ancient Greece the generic term for sacrifice (thysia) was derived from a root meaning to burn or to smoke. In Judaism the important sacrifices ('ola and zevah) involved the ritual burning, either entirely or in part, of the oblation, be it animal or vegetation. For the Babylonians, also, fire was essential to sacrifice, and all oblations were conveyed to the “gods” by the “fire god” Girru-Nusku, whose presence as intermediary between the “gods” and men was indispensable. In the Vedic cult the “god of fire”, Agni, received the offerings of men and brought them into the presence of the “gods”.

As burning is often the appropriate mode for sacrifice to celestial “deities”, so burial is often the appropriate mode for sacrifice of earth “deities”. In Greece, for example, sacrifices to the chthonic or underworld powers were frequently buried rather than burned or, if burned, burned near the ground or even in a trench. In Vedic India the blood and entrails of animals sacrificed on the fire altar to the sky “gods” were put upon the ground for the earth “deities”, including the ghosts and malevolent spirits. In West Africa yams and fowls sacrificed to promote the fertility of the earth are planted in the soil.

In sacrifice by burning and by burial, as also in the effusion of blood, the prior death of the human or animal victim, even if ritually performed, is in a sense incidental to the sacrificial action. There are, however, sacrifices (including live burial and burning) in which the ritual killing is itself the means by which the offering is effected. Illustrative of this method was the practice in ancient Greek and Indian cults of making sacrifices to water “gods” by drowning the oblations in “sacred” lakes or rivers. Similarly, the Norse cast human and animal victims over cliffs and into wells and waterfalls as offerings to the “divinities” dwelling therein. In the Aztec sacrifice of human beings to the “creator god” Xipe Totec, the victim was lashed to a scaffold and shot to death with bow and arrow.

There are also sacrifices that do not involve the death or destruction of the oblation. Such were the sacrifices in ancient Greece of fruits and vegetables at the "pure" (katharos) altar of Apollo at Delos, at the shrine of Athena at Lindus, and at the altar of Zeus in Athens. These "fireless oblations" (apura hiera) were especially appropriate for the “deities” of vegetation and fertility; e.g., Demeter and Dionysus. In Egypt bloodless offerings of food and drink were simply laid before the “god” on mats or a table in a daily ceremony called "performing the presentation of the 'divine' oblations." In both Greek and Egyptian cults such offerings were never to be eaten by the worshippers, but they were probably surreptitiously consumed by the priests or temple attendants. In ancient Israel, on the other hand, the food offerings of the "table of the shewbread" (the "bread of the presence" of God) were regarded as available to the priests and could be given by them to the laity.

Recipient of the sacrifice
Sacrifices may be offered to “beings” who can be the object of religious veneration or worship. They will not be made to human beings unless they have first been “deified” in some way. In some cases sacrifice is made only to the “god” or “gods”; in others it is made to the “deity”, the spirits, and the departed; in others it is made only to the spirits and the departed, who are considered intermediaries between the “deity” and men. Worship of spirits and of ancestors, often including the offering of sacrifices, occurs in widely distributed cultures; in fact, according to some scholars, probably the major recipients of sacrifice in non-Western traditions are the ancestors.

Propitiation and expiation
Serious illness, drought, pestilence, epidemic, famine, and other misfortune and calamity have universally been regarded as the workings of supernatural forces. Often they have been understood as the effects of offenses against the “sacred” order committed by individuals or communities, deliberately or unintentionally. Such offenses break the relationship with the “sacred” order or impede the flow of divine life. Thus, it has been considered necessary in times of crisis, individual or communal, to offer sacrifices to propitiate “sacred” powers and to wipe out offenses (or at least neutralize their effects) and restore the relationship.

In ancient Judaism the hatta`t, or "sin offering," was an important ritual for the expiation of certain, especially unwittingly committed, defilements. The guilty laid their hands upon the head of the sacrificial animal (an unblemished bullock or goat), thereby identifying themselves with the victim, making it their representative (but not their substitute, for their sins were not transferred to the victim). After the priest killed the beast, blood was sprinkled upon the altar and elsewhere in the sacred precincts. The point of the ritual was to purify the guilty and to re-establish the holy bond with God through the blood of the consecrated victim. It was as such an expiatory sacrifice that early Christianity regarded the life and death of Christ. By the shedding of his blood, the sin of mankind was wiped out and a new relationship of life--eternal life--was effected between God and man. Like the innocent and "spotless" victim of the hatta`t, Christ died for men. The major differences between the sacrifice of Christ and that of the hatta`t animal are that (1) Christ's was regarded as a voluntary and effective sacrifice for all men and (2) his was considered the perfect sacrifice, made once in time and space but perpetuated in eternity by the risen Lord.

Gift sacrifices
Although all sacrifice involves the giving of something, there are some sacrificial rites in which the oblation is regarded as a gift made to a “deity” either in expectation of a return gift or as the result of a promise upon the fulfillment of a requested “divine” favour. Gift sacrifices have been treated above. Here, it can be briefly noted that numerous instances of the votive offering are recorded. In ancient Greece sacrifices were vowed to Athena, Zeus, Artemis, and other “gods” in return for victory in battle. The solemnity and irrevocability of the votive offering is seen in the Old Testament account of the judge Jephthah's sacrifice of his only child in fulfillment of a vow to Yahweh.

Building sacrifices
Numerous instances are known of animal and human sacrifices made in the course of the construction of houses, “shrines”, and other buildings, and in the laying out of villages and towns. Their purpose has been to consecrate the ground by establishing the beneficent presence of the “sacred” order and by repelling or rendering harmless the demonical powers of the place. In some West African cults, for example, before the central pole of a “shrine” or a house is installed, an animal is ritually slain, its blood being poured around the foundations and its body being put into the posthole. On the one hand, this sacrifice is made to the earth “deities” and the supernatural powers of the place--the real owners--so that the human owner may take possession and be ensured against malevolent interferences with the construction of the building and its later occupation and use. On the other hand, the sacrifice is offered to the cult “deity” to establish its benevolent presence in the building.

Mortuary sacrifice
Throughout the history of man's religions, the dead have been the recipients of offerings from the living. In ancient Greece an entire group of offerings (enagismata) was consecrated to the dead; these were libations of milk, honey, water, wine, and oil poured onto the grave. In India water and balls of cooked rice were sacrificed to the spirits of the departed. In West Africa, offerings of cooked grain, yams, and animals are made to the ancestors residing in the Earth. The point of such offerings is not that the dead get hungry and thirsty, nor are they merely propitiatory offerings. Their fundamental intention seems to be that of increasing the power of life of the departed. The dead partake of the life of the “gods” (usually the chthonic “deities”), and sacrifices to the dead are in effect sacrifices to the “gods” who bestow never-ending life. In Hittite funeral rites, for example, sacrifices were made to the sun “god” and other celestial “deities”--transcendent sources of life--as well as to the “divinities” of Earth.

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