Memorial Day and the Mystery of Sacrifice

Wherein our hero, Pax, muses about the Mysteries of Sacrifice and the Memorial Day Holiday….

Hello Friends,

So my mind is turning towards the Religious Mystery of Sacrifice this year and it being Memorial Day here in the United States it seems like an apt time to write upon it.

Now I have been contemplating various aspects of this particular Mystery for a few months now, since our Church ran it’s annual Stewardship campaign.  That’s where the members of the congregation decide upon their monthly membership pledges to the Church.  I have also been slowly reading through Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion as I explore Hellenic Polytheism and my own increasingly Polytheistic self.

Now when you start talking of sacrifice in a religious sense, a lot of sensationalistic and bloody imagery may come to mind as the influence of both sensationalist (and often wildly inaccurate) portrayals from Hollywood and the (also wildly inaccurate and often venomous) propaganda of some of the more extreme ends of the dominant Monotheistic faiths.  So let me issue this disclaimer… I have never participated in an animal Sacrifice, but not for the reasons you might think.  (more on that last part in a bit…)

Let’s start with the Religious Mystery part of the equation.  A Religious  Mystery is something you must experience, or undergo, in order to truly understand.  Mysteries are, or should be, informative and transformative.  That’s the modern sense of it anyway and why in Contemporary Paganism (and elsewhere) one can hear reference to Women’s Mysteries and Men’s Mysteries, the Mysteries of Childbirth, The Mysteries of Sex, and the Mysteries of Death and the like.  This use of Mystery comes to us from the Mystery religions of the Ancient Mediterranean where initiates to the sacred and secret rites would undergo rituals and swear, upon pain of death, not to reveal the content of the Mysteries.

Now we get into Sacrifice.  A term and act which can be a source of some controversy in Contemporary Pagan society when discussions of Religious Freedom and its  interplay with those modern world regions such as Santeria and Voudoun (among others) who both practice animal sacrifice and share some similarities with Contemporary Paganism come up.  The word sacrifice comes to us, or so my research says, from the Old French and means “to make sacred”.   It is related to, at least thematically, an ancient Greek word that translates as “the working of sacred things.”   The ancient Greek word was used to denote the sacrifice of animals in ancient Greek religion, an examination of which topic can be enlightening and provocative.

I mentioned earlier that I have not participated in an animal sacrifice, although I have made offerings of food and money and poured libations of water and wine ~ which follow some of the same dynamics and rules as a Sacrifice and are a part of why I am writing about and exploring this topic.

I have not participated in animal sacrifice.

First and foremost this is because, like the vast majority of Contemporary Pagans (at least here in the U.S.) I am a child of the cities and suburbs and lack the requisite skills and knowledge to mercifully, quickly, cleanly, and as painlessly as possible slaughter an animal and butcher it into it’s component parts for cooking and sharing with whatever Gods one worships and ones religious community.   Which was the general model in the Ancient world and is also the general model for those religions that still practice animal sacrifice.

Then too there is the fact that having grown up in a world where I get my meat in a nice neat Styrofoam and plastic wrapped package from the market, I don’t know if I would have the stomach to partake of meat I’ve watched slaughtered; despite having eaten fish I have caught and killed and clean in the past.

Setting aside my squeamishness, or potential squeamishness, lets go back to sacrifice.  I have just mentioned the idea of a general model for animal sacrifice in the Ancient and Contemporary world.   The animal is quickly, cleanly, and as mercifully as possible, slaughtered and butchered and cooked and served to the participants and the Gods.  The keys to this Mystery are not about Death, although admittedly in an animal sacrifice observing and honoring the Mystery of Death is a part of the equation, the Mystery of Sacrifice is about Life and about Community.

The core of any true Sacrifice is a Willing giving up of something of Value to be Shared with ones community and with the Holy Powers.

It is worth noting that the same sort of ground rules apply to a votive offering of a piece of poetry shared with others at a festival and burned in the festival fire, or to a Statue created or commissioned and left in sacred precincts, or to money tithed to ones congregation or religious community, as apply to an animal sacrifice.  Lets examine my theoretical core or ground rules…


The sacrifice, or votive offering, must be given willingly.  Not coerced or forced.  In Ancient Greece, at least, this was taken to the rather amusing extreme of the animal in question (often a Sheep or a Bull) being asked some variation of the phrase “Do You Consent?”  The animal, in part because of training, and in part because an attendant would place a dish of water in front of it, would nod it’s head and the rite would proceed.


In the case of animal sacrifice, the animals in question were in the Ancient World, and often in the Contemporary world, quite valuable as livestock in a society where meat did not/does not make up a regular part of the every day diet.  Thus offering up a Sheep or a Goat or an Ox was a financial big deal.  The same idea holds true with votive offerings where one might put a great deal of effort, thought, care, and sometimes expense in creating something precious to the owner/creator to be given to the Gods or left for the temple.


In the case of an animal sacrifice this sharing was a meal where in the participants ate of the meat, sometimes the only meat they might see in their diet, and offering (depending on the times and specific tradition) either the finest cuts or the bones and offal to the Gods.  In a votive offering this sharing also holds true as humble necklaces and inscriptions would lay side by side in the ancient temples with glorious works of art and jewelry and the arms and armor of defeated enemies from war.  The humbler gifts were periodically taken away and buried in the sacred precincts (to the delight of modern archaeologists) and the arms and armor and more precious works were kept and displayed within the temple… or occasionally melted down by subsequent governments to finance various projects.

Thus it is not just the giving up, in the case of a votive offering, that makes an offering an offering; or a food offering a sacrifice.  It is the conscious knowledge of the offerings value, it’s meaning and preciousness to the giver that is a part of the Mystery.  It is the true willingness to not only give, but to share with the Holy Powers or that which is greater than yourself AND with your community that opens the doors onto this Mystery.

So by now you may be wondering what any of this has to do with Memorial Day?

Well, this civic holiday is one where we in the U.S. honor our fallen soldiers, the Honored Dead, who have given their lives in service to the protection and defense of our Constitution.  The word sacrifice is often bandied about in discussing this.  I would put forth that theirs is a true Sacrifice in the religious/magical sense.

They willingly give the most precious thing they possess, their lives, in service to their nation in defense and protection of it’s highest ideals.  They willingly offer up their Lives to their community & country in service to something greater than themselves.  They sacrifice themselves that others may live and enjoy Freedom. In serving those ideals, as embodied in the U.S. Constitution, and in offering the greatest of sacrifices it is my contention that they thereby sanctify those ideals.  The Constitution thus becomes a sacred text and a set of sacred ideals.

Now, I recognize the complexities of politics and wars past and present, and of military service and government agendas.  I also choose to recognize those who have given their lives that I might live mine.

That which is remembered, lives.



2 thoughts on “Memorial Day and the Mystery of Sacrifice

  1. Pax, thanks for your reflections on sacrifice. I have been musing on the nature of Memorial Day myself, and reading your thoughts helped me to clarify some of my own. I suddenly realized why it is that I feel so at odds with people who think that, regardless of one’s personal political views, it’s absolutely obligatory to honor those soldiers who have died in our wars. As you say, “They gave up the most precious thing they possess, their lives…” And it struck me that, say what you will, I have simply never believed that mere life is “our most precious thing.” Love, gratitude, our capacity to create beauty, to make connection… true, none of these things could occur without life. Sometimes we must die for the sake of these things, but more importantly, sometimes (I’d say much more often) we must learn to live for them.

    I do not see the U.S. military supporting this kind of work. We have become a country obsessed with life instead of what it can bring us: we want to stay thin and young as long as we can, we want to be rich and free to do whatever we want, for as long as possible, we want to live longer without suffering illness or decrepitude, and what we are most afraid of is that someone will try to kill us… we would do almost anything, and allow almost anything, rather than give up our physical lives, even though most of us are wasting them working jobs we don’t like and sitting in front of the television in our free time. So we see these soldiers dying for us, and I do not think most of us actually consider about what it is they really give us or offer with their sacrifice. They died, and that seems to us so essentially horrific in itself that we feel compelled to honor and even admire them.

    But I just can’t. I admire and honor those who have been killed attempting to carry out peaceful actions (like Gandhi, like King, like the 19 people killed yesterday for attempting to peacefully bring aid and supplies to the open-air concentration camp that the Gaza Strip has become). But the idea of honoring the soldiers who have died in our wars seems strange to me, like the murderer holding an annual party in honor of his victims. It’s comforting to believe that these soldiers signed up to die… but most of them didn’t. Most of them signed up because they were told all their lives that it was honorable, that it would make them “real men,” or that it was a way to earn respect and create a future for someone without the money or opportunity to pursue a college education. All you need to do is go over to and watch the commercials – every single one is about how the army can help you get ahead, make your life better, open up possibilities, and how our technology is making warfare increasingly safe for our soldiers, even kind of fun. These soldiers didn’t join the army because they wanted to die. Like the rest of us, they joined up because they wanted to live, and not simply to live but to live better. I think by ignoring this, we deeply dishonor them, and we lie to ourselves.

    The world would be a better place, I believe, if we all faced death a little more fearlessly, rather than imagining that another can somehow take our place.

    1. Pax


      Thanks for the comments! It was your own musings about Memorial Day that helped spur me to write out the piece as I had been contemplating this for a while.

      A few of your points stand out immediately in my mind…

      “And it struck me that, say what you will, I have simply never believed that mere life is “our most precious thing.” Love, gratitude, our capacity to create beauty, to make connection… true, none of these things could occur without life. Sometimes we must die for the sake of these things, but more importantly, sometimes (I’d say much more often) we must learn to live for them.”

      YES! Yes, we must learn to live for them and to stand up for them and to strive for them. That’s part of why I am such a booster of discussions and writing about Pagan Values. It is by contemplating and discussing these Virtues and Values and Ethics and Ideals that we can truly begin to learn what we as individual Pagans and as members of our Faiths and Communities can truly begin to live in ways that honor our myriad understandings of Divinity/ies and begin enacting them.

      I agree with your observations in the 2nd paragraph, our Military hasn’t really served Life or Peace that much lately, although I’d put forth that the changes in strategy and policy towards working with the civilian populations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the building projects and community development work, these are a step in the right direction.

      You are also right in that our nations soldiers did not sign up to die.

      “These soldiers didn’t join the army because they wanted to die. Like the rest of us, they joined up because they wanted to live, and not simply to live but to live better. I think by ignoring this, we deeply dishonor them, and we lie to ourselves.”

      I would agree. At the same time I cannot believe that one could sign up for military service without having to face the fact that death is a very real and potential outcome of such service. They joined to live and to live better, but a part of the alchemy of military service, along with the paradoxical empowerment that can come from complete surrender of ones authority and autonomy, is the simple fact that you could die in that service. I would abhor the idea of Memorial Day if I thought for one moment that it ignored the desire of those soldiers for life and for a better life for themselves and their loved ones and even their fellow citizens.

      In addition to self betterment, I would put forth to you that there are plenty of soldiers who have signed up for military service precisely because they believe in creating a safer world and in standing against the forces of violence and intolerance.

      Memorial Day is about honoring those soldiers who have died in service to our country. Viewed through a Pagan lens they are Honored Dead. No less, nor no more, Honored Dead than those who have died for Peace or for Justice or for Liberty or for Equality or any of the other Values we hold dear; but this day is set aside to honor fallen soldiers.

      As a Witch I can religiously honor the Beloved Dead, the Honored Dead, and the Mighty Dead as Samhain. As a Witch and Pagan I can honor the Beloved Dead in other ways at Beltaine, when the tides of spirit ebb once more and the walls between all the worlds wear thin, as is done on Walpurgisnacht. I can honor the Mighty and Honored Dead on Martin Luther King Day, on World Prayer for Peace Day, or on many other occasions Civic and Serendipitous. On Mother’s Day I can find ways to remember that holiday’s origins as a call for the women of the world to rise up and stand boldly up for Peace, and honor the Beloved and the Mighty and the Honored amongst both the Living and the Dead.

      But on this day, set aside for the purpose, I honor the fallen soldiers. Because their lives and Loves and potential is so very precious.


So what do you think?! Opinions? Ideas? Beuller... Bueller?!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s