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