When Gods Sacrifice to Themselves

Almost all traditional Pagan cultures have one religious practice in common that contemporary Pagans for the most part avoid: Sacrifice, which means literally “to make sacred.”

Earlier this month, in fact, at a Pagan camp-out one of the elders was discoursing on the uselessness of sacrifice. If g/God were a carpenter working in his shop, sacrifice would be like bringing a hammer with the handle cut off and saying, “Here, I offer this to you.” Everyone thought that was profound.

In the entry on sacrifice in the HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion (edited by Jonathan Z. Smith, but individual entries are not signed), we read that “Naive and academic explanations of sacrifice abound. Sacrifice has been characterized as a gift (an offering)” [1], a means of communication between the profane and the sacred, an attempt to establish reciprocity between the human and the divine realms (most often expressed by the formula, “I give in order to get”), an expiation, a substitution, and a reenactment of primordial events.”

Theophrastus, a philosospher and student of Aristotle, wrote, “there are three reasons one ought to sacrifice to the gods: either on account of honor or on account of gratitude or an account of a want of things. . . . . We honor the gods either because we seek to deflect evils or to acquire goods for ourselves, or because we first have been treated well or simply to do great honor to their good character” [2]“.

Libation of Artemis and Apollo at the omphalos. Master of Shuvalov (?), ca. 440 BC. Pushkin Museum. ? Wikipedia user Shakko 2009

This is an “insider” perspective, what Smith’s dictionary would characterize as a “naive” explanation.  So we think that we know what sacrifice means both in religion and in other areas of life: a killing (to Christians, Jesus’ bloody death was  the one big, final,  expiating sacrifice of human history), a giving up of pleasures (“She sacrificed her childhood to become a ballerina.”) or of life itself  in service to society (“Military members who gave ultimate sacrifice remembered at WWII Museum”).

Then I see this headline at the Tropaion blog: “Gods Sacrificing: Iconography and Divine Ritual Praxis.” It’s a  review of  Religion of the Gods; Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity :

The book examines the numerous iconographic depictions of Gods and Goddesses performing a libation or acting towards performing a sacrifice. One example is the attached picture: a libation of both Artemis and Apollo at the omphalos. In this red-figure lekythos, the poured liquid is visible from the Apollo’s phiale. It is logical that looking closely at those pictorial evidences makes you wonder and immediately questions arise. One of the questions is the following: what these depictions mean?

The review is worth reading, for it addresses the question, if sacrifice is addressed to a “higher” Other, than who is higher than the gods?

There are always surprises in the old Paganism.


1. If “sacrifice” and “offering” can be used simultaneously, what about “libation,” as illustrated on the vase painting? Some would say so; others want life in their sacrifice.

2. Quoted in Jan N. Brenner, “Greek Normative Animal Sacrifice,” in A Companion to Greek Religion, ed. Daniel Ogden (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2007), 139.


4 thoughts on “When Gods Sacrifice to Themselves

  1. Medeine Ragana

    Since the omphalos is considered to be the center of the world, maybe the picture is not depicting a “sacrifice” at all, but a pouring out of blessings onto the universe.

  2. david mcgrath

    My Roman Catholic upbringing deeply instilled in me the idea of “offering up” which means to me to transform a loss of material goods or comfort, or even physical pleasure, into an expression of gratitude to God. When I began my path of negation, sacrifice seemed to me to have been appropriated by religious organizations into a virtual welfare program for the support of the clergy. I remember imagining the priesthood of ancient pagan gods getting fat backstage from consuming the “burnt” offerings. It occurred to me then that the new Ford Fairlane the pastor was driving was purchased, in part, from the collections that included the portion of my paper route money that I put in the basket every Sunday.

    I think the antipathy toward sacrifice among many neo pagans comes from that negation of profanation. It poses a barrier toward experiencing the sacred, and must be acknowledged and released.

    1. True, although in ancient Pagan cultures, such as Athens, everyone enjoyed the sacrificial meat, although the temple might have gotten some perks, such as the hide to be resold.

      James Davidson in Courtesans and Fishcakes suggests that the average citizen ate beef only at times of sacrifice, which made it sort of special and uncanny, as opposed to fish, which was more “secular.”

  3. Rombald

    Well, of course, in Christianity God sacrifices himself to himself on the cross, and, for a Catholic, at every mass. I once read an article by a Catcholic convert who referred to the very things mentioned here, Greek gods sacrificing, as grounds for her conversion. It didn’t seem convincing, but that’s just me!

    Also, in one of the Eddas there’s the account of Odin sacrificing himself to himself, hanging on the tree for 9 days. I’ve seen it argued that that was borrowed from Christianity, but I’ve no idea whether that’s the case.

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