Let’s face it, all traditional (that word again) polytheisms involved sacrifice, usually of animals. You give to the gods, they give to you, right? There was even carryover into the Middle Eastern monotheisms — Kapparot for some Jews,sacrifices of sheep or cattle at Eid al-Adha, and of course Jesus as the “lamb of God” who is the supreme sacrifice. Some people sacrifice their sanity—less blood that way.
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”).
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.
The Los Angeles Times reports that more than 40,000 people, many of whom were inebriated, took their sacrificial goats to the Tildiha village temple in Bihar state to pray to the goddess Durga on the last day of the Navratri festival.
“People were vying with each other to get their goats sacrificed first, and they had a verbal duel with the butcher,” Banka district spokesman Gupdeshwar Kumar told the paper.
What is important is that the omission of fish [from the Iliad] helped to construct an opposition between the meat of pigs, sheep and cattle, all of which had to be sacrificed before it could be eaten, and fish, which was quite free of such structures, an item for private, secular consumption, as and when desired. In an important sense, fish-consumption was simply not taken as seriously as other kinds of carnivorousness.
Wikipedia’s entry on hecatomb (sacrifice of one hundred animals) quotes the Homeric passage about what sounds like one big cookout.
The present-day Sanhedrin Court decided Tuesday to purchase a herd of sheep for ritual sacrifice at the site of the Temple on the eve of Passover, conditions on the Temple Mount permitting.
The comments on the article pretty well represent a spectrum of Jewish religious squabbling, from the ultra-orthodox who think that the state of Israel is an affront to their god, to those who think that sacrifice is “cruelty to animals” and those who think that it is not, to those who just want to kick the Muslims off the Temple Mount. Oy vey!