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)” , 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” “.
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.