Perspectives: Sacrifice and Modern Paganisms

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From the Grecian hecatomb to Roman grain and incense offerings to the ritualized blood-letting of the ancient Maya, sacrifice was a cornerstone of religious practice in the ancient world. But how is sacrifice viewed today by modern Paganisms, Polytheists, Polytheanimists and their practitioners. The Wild Hunt asked five figures within the community for their thoughts on sacrifice: Thracian polytheanimist Anomalous Thracian of the blog Thracian Exodus; Mambo Chita Tann of Sosyete Fos Fe Yo We; priestess, author and Solar Cross Temple board member Crystal Blanton; OBOD Druid and Under the Ancient Oaks blogger John Beckett; and Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) Druid Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh.

How do you define sacrifice?

Anomalous Thracian

Anomalous Thracian

“In common religious parlance I reserve the term “sacrifice” for the ritual slaughter/killing of living animals to a particular deity, spirit, or otherwise divine power. I do not generally refer to other offerings, such as libations, money, or behavioral restrictions, as being sacrifices though I do acknowledge that the Latin etymology (to make sacred) of the term leaves open other interpretations.” — Anomalous Thracian, Thracian Exodus

Mambo Chita Tann

Mambo Chita Tann

“Sacrifice is a special act of offering something of unusual worth to one’s spirits and/or deity(deities). It is not a standard offering, but an offering that is more valuable in some way than the usual — a rare, costly, or important offering that requires effort on the part of the offerer, both to acquire and to offer. In Haitian Vodou, it can also mean an offering that is being made on behalf of the offerer, to signify something of great worth, such as a blood offering given as a stand-in for a person’s life.” — Mambo Chita Tann, Sosyete Fos Fe Yo We, Haitian Vodou

John Beckett

John Beckett

“The original meaning of sacrifice is “to make sacred.” It is what we do when we set something aside and dedicate it to the Gods. Sometimes that involves giving it up: pouring a libation, burning a food offering, throwing an object in a body of water. From that practice comes the second, more commonly held meaning of ‘to give up.’

Sometimes, though, sacrifice is simply the act of offering something to the Gods. We place a plate of food in front of a statue, offer it to the deity with the appropriate prayers, and after a suitable time, we eat what They did not physically consume. The act of offering makes it sacred, and if They are pleased, it will then contain some of Their divine essence, which we take into ourselves.” — John Beckett, Under the Ancient Oaks

Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

“I define sacrifice as something that is set aside for the sole function of offering to the Kindreds (Gods, Nature Spirits, or Ancestors). The origin of the word “sacrifice” itself means “to perform” plus “sacred,” and that is precisely what is done. You perform a sacred act. You take something out of the mundane and make it “sacred”—not to be used for the mundane again. I define sacrifice as a transaction between me and the Kindreds with the expectation that in the contract of hospitality I will get something in return. That return can be in the form of a blessing, or it can be as simple as gratitude.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh, Druid, Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF)

How do you see the word sacrifice used in a modern context? How does this color the viewpoint of our many various Paganisms?

“I see this word being used in ways that I do not agree with, and I see many people reaching and stretching its definitions in ways that bother me. If you need to stretch the definition of sacrifice to use it to describe an action, ritually or otherwise, it is probably not sacrifice. I disagree with the use of the term to describe the “giving up or losing” of something in a religious/sacred context, for example “I sacrificed ten hours to my Gods yesterday sewing blankets for orphan babies.” Obviously sewing blankets for orphan babies is awesome, and more so if it is done in a sacred context, but simply calling something sacred doesn’t make it sacred. And simply doing something in a sacred context doesn’t — by my use of the word — make it sacrifice. I find that as with words like “warriorship” and “sovereignty,” people often try to stretch the term sacrifice to describe things that they might already be doing in their lives in order to dress those things up in the trappings of something suitably sacred/esoteric sounding.” — Anomalous Thracian

“Modern society sees sacrifice pretty much exclusively as “to give up.” Unless there is something substantive and tangible coming back in return, it sees sacrifice as a sentimental waste. That has made modern Pagans reluctant to sacrifice, or to see the need for it.” — John Beckett

“As a priest in a sacrificial religion, I see sacrifice used similar to how our ancestors viewed it. They viewed it as an item that is set aside for the sole act of offering to their gods. We do the same thing when we offer whiskey into the fire, as we are offering a libation to the celestial gods. Many people confuse the modern context of sacrifice to mean “give up,” which is not the context used in pagan sacrifice. This notion of giving up something colors the viewpoint of losing something rather than viewing sacrifice as a transaction.

For pagans we need to rid ourselves of this notion that sacrifice is “giving up” something, and think of it as a transaction and notion of hospitality between the sacrifice and the gods.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

Let’s talk about the origins of the word sacrifice. It’s recorded as originally being Latin and meant “to make holy.” This is a broad definition to a modern person with a modern point of reference. What various historical and cultural contexts are we missing, if any?

“I think that the word’s origins in Latin are important to understand, and also, they need to be moved beyond. Scholars long ago took this Latin-derived word and applied it globally to describe all number of bloody religious deeds, from the ritual slaughter of humans in Mesoamerican cultures to the ritual slaughter of goats in West Africa. I do not argue that either of those examples are indeed holy, but I believe it is misguided hubris to assign a Latin Mediterranean scholarly paradigm upon indigenous technologies and traditions removed by geographically and linguistically from those spheres.” — Anomalous Thracian

“Again, the emphasis on sacrifice as being an extraordinary event – especially when considering the idea of a blood sacrifice – is often glossed over. In the sense of blood sacrifices, these are individual beings, and their lives are taken as part of the ritual. There is nothing more holy, nothing more serious, and nothing more valuable than life. This cannot be equated to other kinds of “sacrifices.” While other offerings can certainly be holy and become holy, no amount of chocolate bonbons, piles of money, or promises to do things for the gods will ever hold the same amount of irreplaceable worth as life itself. This is also why that ultimate act must always be approached with the deepest respect and humility, with the proper context and training, and why I am not entirely convinced that it is necessary for most Pagans to engage in any longer, but that’s a slightly different topic.” — Mambo Chita Tann

Crystal Blanton

Crystal Blanton

“I think that in societal context today people look at sacrifice as something that is taken away, almost as if it is a punishment or consequence. Many cultures make sacred those who have died for a cause, and then consider that a sacrifice of sorts. Examples of this could range from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Oscar Grant. Within Pagan specific context, the social aspects of looking at this can be slightly different based on tradition or practice yet I think there are still some correlations there. The fine line between how people sometimes view offerings and sacrifice continue to perpetuate the idea that it is something given for in honor of a relationship with the Gods, something that is sacred. The context of the relationship and the potential outcome is what often varies.” — Crystal Blanton

“Go back to the best reconstruction of ancient Greek sacrifice we have, Homo Necans by Walter Burkert. The people were going to kill the cow and eat it anyway. But by killing and eating it within a rite of sacrifice, they invoked the blessings of the Gods and they brought their community closer together.” — John Beckett

“According to Douglas Harper’s Online Etymology Dictionary, sacrifice actually means “to perform something sacred.” Sacred and holy are commonly confused, as holy usually designate something or some place as “exalted” or set apart specifically for the use of humans to connect with the gods. For example, wells can be considered holy, but they are not necessarily sacred because they are still used by humans.

We can look to the Irish Celts for references to sacrifice. The Gaels commonly would offer gold, weapons, and other precious objects into the bodies of water for the purpose of gaining favor with the gods. You can see this today when we offer coins into wells for luck, as this is a throwback to that age old ritual. We can also look to Vedic India for the ancient practice of offering libations and oil into the fire. This practice continues today in many Neopagan circles including ADF. So, even the ancients show us examples of sacrifice that do not necessarily point to animal or blood sacrifice.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

Do humans have an innate need for sacrifice, or have we all been encultured to this idea?

“If you’re sacrificing something for humans, you’re doing it wrong. The sacrifice is for the gods or spirits. Not the humans.” — Anomalous Thracian

“I don’t think anybody, human or deity, “needs” sacrifice. That being said, there are times when it is the last possible option for certain events. For example, in Vodou, every once in a while, a sacrifice must be made to save another life — a way of trading one life for the possibility of sparing another. Again, this is incredibly serious business, and we do not engage in it unless and until all other possible avenues of remedy have been exhausted. In those cases, then yes, sacrifice is needed; but if one was to decide that one would just let a person die because one wasn’t willing to make sacrifice, that might imply it’s not necessarily needed, but chosen.” — Mambo Chita Tann

“Social cultural in the United States very much socializes us to believe that we “sacrifice” for what we want and need. Old Protestant work ethics equate hard work and sacrifice with value, worth and gain. There are a lot of conditioned messages in the fabric of our society about what we have to give in order to receive, and who is important as a result. These messages have led to a backdrop of “need” for the concept of sacrifice in modern society, although those translations continue to vary.” — Crystal Blanton

“We have an innate need to eat. Along with every other animal on this planet, we sustain our lives only by consuming things that were once alive, whether those things are plants or other animals. Do we accept these sacrifices reverently and mindfully, or do we treat them as insignificant things whose only purpose is to feed us? Do we honor the sacrifices we receive by offering our own sacrifices? Or do we selfishly hoard all we receive? Sacrifice reminds us we are a part of Nature, not its center.” — John Beckett

“Yes, humans have an innate need for sacrifice. Sacrifice in the ancient and Neopagan context is the act of complete hospitality. We offer so that we receive. It is the same concept as we see in the guest/host relationship. For example, we invite guests into our home, we prepare a good meal, and give our guest the best wine or drinks in the house. It is expected that these guests show gratitude and their thanks. This is no different than our relationship with the gods. We set up our altars, build a fire, invite the gods into our space, and then we offer them our best. It is expected that they will be grateful and appreciative as guests. Humans live by hospitality and throughout history we can see examples of how important the virtue is. We need that human to human interaction as much as food, and thus our relationship to deity reflects this importance.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

Does sacrifice feed us or the Gods? Or does it feed the connection between the Gods and us? Or is it something else?

“I do not believe that sacrifice (that is, the ritual slaughter of a being to a specific god or divinity) “feeds” humans; if it does, there is a certain potentially problematic thing going on. Similarly, one does not doctor the sick or protect wildlife or serve their commanding officers “because it feeds them.” If they gain benefit from these, great, but the seeking of some gain in the undertaking of these should NEVER be the motive.

It certainly “nourishes” the relationship or connection, if done properly, between the deities being sacrificed to and the humans doing the sacrificing. I don’t know that “feeding” is the right word for that, though, as it implies that the relationship itself is getting a “portion” of the sacred slaughter.” — Anomalous Thracian

“Yes. Sacrifice feeds the gods/spirits, and then it is reverted to us. The act also feeds the connection between the worlds and the beings in both worlds. And thirdly, it also represents an understanding of the cycle of the world, of what it is to live in the world, and to confront our nature as predators who eat meat (of course, vegetarians and vegans don’t live in that world, so their experience may vary). I expect that if more people were required to kill their own meat, they would never waste it, nor would they take it for granted. Does this mean more people should? Of course not. But it does mean that all people could stand to get a better connection and understanding of their relation to animals, and to the world we all share.” — Mambo Chita Tann

“The Neo-Platonists thought nothing we could do influenced the Gods – They needed nothing. Perhaps; but it’s clear that Gods who are worshipped — with sacrifice, with praise, by telling their stories, with meditation and prayer — tend to be more active in our world. Is that feeding Them? Is it strengthening the connections between us? Is it just that They prefer being around people who are friendly and courteous? I don’t know. I just know that when I honor the Gods, they’re more active in my life, and I like that.” — John Beckett

“Sacrifice can feed both us and the gods. In the notion of the shared meal, both the sacrifice and the god are both joining together to enjoy the food. In my practice, the first portion is set aside and offered to the fire. This portion is no longer in the physical realm for use, but now in the hands of the gods. The remaining portions are then eaten by the humans. This is a common ancient Indo-European practice. It also feeds our connection to the gods by the act of sharing in the meal being consumed. They are joining us in our space, enjoying the food and drink provided, thus a connection of family and friendship is established.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

Is there a difference between giving a gift to the gods versus giving a sacrifice? If so, what is that difference?

“Yes. Honestly, though, I am still hashing out in my own colloquial use of these terms what the difference is. As above indicated, I reserve the word “sacrifice” for ritual slaughter; I can’t imagine a time that I would be giving the “gift” of an animal’s life to a god without it being sacrifice. But, to zoom away from my specific use of the language (and acknowledging that many people’s use of the word might include such actions as throwing a golden statue into the sea, or burning a valuable textile to a deity, or giving a beautiful strand of pearls to a god, and so forth) I think that it is important to differentiate between times when a gift is given out of adoration, fondness, respect or praise, and when a formal sacrifice is made (for any number of reasons). For example, I may be shopping at a yard-sale and come across a beautiful old maritime trident in a pile of old ship paraphernalia, and purchase it for a god of the sea or seamanship; this would be an example of a gift. If a divination were to come by an indicate that a certain god or spirit will perform a task, grant a blessing in exchange for — or otherwise would appreciate receiving — a specific item, such as the aforementioned trident, I could imagine this as what others would refer to as a sacrifice. Though, in that context, I personally would refer to it as a “prescribed offering” in that example.” — Anomalous Thracian

“The difference is effort and degree. Sacrifice for my definition requires the idea that this is not a simple task. It requires some serious effort, whether to get together the funds to do it or the actual work to complete it. Additionally, it is a unique or unusual/rare thing of particular worth (and ultimate worth in the sense of the blood sacrifice). Sacrifices can be gifts and offerings, to be certain; not all gifts and offerings, however, are sacrifices.” — Mambo Chita Tann

“In my own practice, an offering is something that is given in honor of the continuous relationship that I have. Sacrifice tends to be more specific within the relationship, and within the context. I give offerings all of the time in honor of the divine and the deity that I am working with. That is not the same for sacrifice, which is far and in between. Since I do not do animal sacrifice, it is often within an agreed upon context of something I am doing, or will give for a specific reason. Both of these are a part of the reciprocal relationship with the God(s), just on varying different degrees. Culturally they are very similar though, and this can become more challenging to separate.” — Crystal Blanton

“For me, hospitality offerings are less about making something sacred and more about being polite, just as I’d offer you something to drink if you came to my house. But this may be more of a semantic difference than a substantive difference.” — John Beckett

“There is no difference.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

People seem to recoil in response to the idea of transactional relationships, especially in relation to offerings and sacrifice. What are your thoughts on offerings and sacrifice as transactions? And what, in your opinion, would cause people to recoil from them?

“Many people don’t like economics in general, or the idea of systems and structures that somehow “demand” things of them; like somehow a god is less shiny if they are able to be “transacted” with. I think that sometimes exchanges are transactional, and that’s just fine. If my best friend is also a woodcarver and I want some woodcarving done, it doesn’t “stain” or “cheapen” our relationship if that work requires that I pay him a transactional exchange for that which I desire. In other words, people are fucking entitled little shits.” — Anomalous Thracian

“Western culture has a fear of interdependence. We have for so long been trained to believe that it is weak to ask for help, that one is only truly successful if one is able to “stand on one’s own” and “be an adult” and “do it my way.” All of the indigenous religions that have informed Paganism, however, exist on community models, with families, towns, tribes, nations, and the like, functioning together and helping each other. The gods and spirits just form the invisible sides of these communities; they are not separate from them. Where the Western-culture person says “I think, therefore I am,” the community person will say “I am, because we are.” To deny one’s place in the larger community, to run away from those cultural bonds that make us each stronger, in relation to each other and to the gods, is considered harmful in the indigenous mind. I can speak to this, both as a Vodouisant, where we never lost the indigenous model; and as someone who was brought up in a native/indigenous cultured family of the Onondaga Nation.

For indigenous-minded people, which includes all the Pagan ancestors, there is no benefit to “doing it yourself.” Who will you be able to share your successes with? Who will teach you? How will you grow as a person? (More importantly, how will you know you have grown?)  How can a person who has no relationship with and to others expect to have one with the gods, who are also part of the same community concept? 

This is something that has troubled me, to the extent that for many years, I have been reluctant to consider myself a Pagan. The idea that anyone would think that it was bad, wrong, or embarrassing to be in a two-way, equal, affirming relationship with anyone, let alone the deities, confuses me and makes me sad. It says to me that these people are a lot closer to being monotheists (where an omnipotent, omniscient God either needs nothing from you, or is constantly demanding and never gives anything back) than they realize, and it may be an opportunity to reassess, if the idea of sharing with the gods (and getting things back) is causing fear.” — Mambo Chita Tann

“I think it can be very challenging to see any kind of offering or sacrifice that is done with the intention of personal gain; “do this and you will get that” kind of thing. In reality, there are some transactional relationships with specific Gods, in specific arenas, and for specific reasons. I think it is not accurate for us to act like there isn’t. Different practices, magical systems, and deities respond to different things and needs for individual people. We cannot always dictate how that should be, and it is not fair to strip it to one acceptable norm. To assume that no exchanges between us and the Gods are transactional is not being completely honest with ourselves. There are many times we are in negotiation with our deities for a specific outcome, or for something to be done.” — Crystal Blanton

“There is a place for transactional sacrifices: “if You will do this for me then I will give that to You” or “You did this for me so in thanks I offer that to You.” The problem comes when someone coming out of a consumerist society reduces a sacred act to a commercial transaction: “the solution to problem X is to offer sacrifice Y to deity Z.” Whatever the Gods may be, They are not vending machines. The vending machine approach denies the agency of the Gods. It assumes They respond like a computer program, or worse, that They can be bribed with token gifts.” — John Beckett

“Aren’t all relationships transactional? If you have someone who takes and never gives, we call that a dysfunctional relationship and we end it in short while. Our relationship with the gods is no different. We can’t just give and give and get nothing back in return. It’s just not healthy. We give to receive, and it really is that simple. I think people recoil from this thought because they view sacrifice as an act of giving up, rather than an act of reciprocity.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh

Do you think that the value of a sacrifice increases if it is harder for the giver to acquire, or does that not matter to the spirit or God in question? Or would these things depend entirely on the tradition or path in question, and if so, how much?

“I think that this is an important question for learning, debating, and exploring sacrifice; and I think that it should never be attempted to be answered in a definitive way, as it is too big of a thing and too mercurial of a thing to ever put a period on. That said, some exchanges — transactional exchanges, for example, where a spirit will perform a certain blessing or boon in exchange for a specified sacrifice — have absolutely no value adjustment for “hardship” in acquiring or offering a thing. In my opinion this doesn’t generally adjust the “transactional value” of the sacrifice rendered, although it may well gain further appreciation (meant both emotionally and economically, here!) with the spirit in question Meanwhile other sacrifices, which maybe are less transactional, may well in terms of their esteem or disposition toward the person; $5 effortlessly produced from a stack of bills versus $5 worked for two weeks to earn on a slave wage does not change the objective value of the bills, though it does change the way that an agent receiving said bills MIGHT interpret the gesture, labor, or sacrifice.

If it is non-transactional (e.g. a celebration!) than the hardship may well have a better chance of “upping” the positive reception of the thing; then again, maybe not. Gods and spirits are, of course, free to behave as They like around this.” — Anomalous Thracian

“It depends on the context of the sacrifice, the nature of the sacrifice, and the gods/spirits and people involved. I am not certain that this can be generalized. There is a sort of thought that “more is better,” but this is not necessarily true. Additionally, the idea that one gains more spiritual benefits through suffering owes far more to Protestant Christianity than it does to any ancient Paganism (and I would like to think, modern Paganisms are aware of the presence or absence of “Protestant guilt” in their thinking).” — Mambo Chita Tann

“They want what They want, and what we value may not be what They value. But these are mighty beings who are older, wiser, and more powerful than we are – don’t be cheap.” — John Beckett

“Sacrifice is based on the notion that we give the best that we can. If we are able or have the means to give more, than we should. It goes right back to offering your guest the best you have, and in return they will give you their appreciation. It matters not to the god in question if the item was “harder” to obtain. What matters to the god is that someone is actually paying attention them and interacting with them on a healthy level.” — Rev. Sean W. Harbaugh