Sacrifice as the Restoration of Balance
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Article ID: 6418
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 3,946
Times Read: 4,004
Author: Lili Fugit
Posted: July 6th. 2003
Times Viewed: 4,004
The concept of sacrifice is universal, dating back through all of human history, crossing all ethnic and religious boundaries. Some of the first written stories deal with the Sumerian Goddess Inanna making a series of sacrifices, including the sacrifice of herself and then that of her faithless lover Dumuzi, in order to attain the wisdom of the Underworld.
In a general [modern] Pagan context, sacrifice is a valuable tool in making historical and personal connections to rituals and ceremonies of civilizations long gone. Specifically to those who practice Witchcraft and varying forms of folk magick, sacrifice is a means of keeping a balance within the universe. It is nothing if not a great equalizer. It is more than mere quid pro quo, though the argument could be made that there is nothing mere about exchanging one thing for another, particularly on the spiritual plane. Sacrifice is very much about aligning oneself with whatever one wishes to express or attain. In doing this everything is kept level because nothing is taken away without giving back.
Christianity has created an unfortunate amount of confusion when it comes to sacrifice. If one believes that someone can make an offering that binds everyone in the world and through all time to honor that act or else suffer death and damnation, we are at about the same place in which virgins are flung into a volcano to appease a wrathful deity. It is sacrifice in which other humans and their wills are being trampled on. It is not balanced because choice has been interloped upon, consequences are imposed, and emotional and spiritual blackmail ensues. Christianity has always contained chronic problems with balance. [This, incidentally, has virtually nothing to do with Jesus Christ himself.] Much of this can be traced to an inability to admit that, inasmuch as human beings only have a certain length of time upon the Earth and after that we really do not know where we are going, doing good works or denying ourselves pleasure may or may not preserve for us a place in Heaven, but it would be nice, wouldn't it, if we could get a little something for our trouble Right Now?
The previous remark about tossing virgins into volcanoes is worth following up on, for if Christianity has muddied the waters when it comes to the concept of sacrifice, pre-Christian and non-Christian modern religions have certainly not helped. Many people shy away from the idea that sacrifices should be made in order to acquire something, at least in a spiritual sense [though some of those same people have no problem rationalizing, say, sacrificing one's family for work, or one's avowed mate for a one night stand]. Much as many Witches have trouble working spells for material gain, so do many people within the Pagan, Wiccan, and Craft community have a problem with ritual sacrifice.
Case in point: It is more than common among practitioners of Hoodoo, Voodoo, or Santeria to sacrifice a black hen, a black cat, or a goat. And of course many pre-Christian religions used human sacrifice, volunteers or otherwise. Sacrificial victims have been found in bogs in England and Germany. The Bible details at least one actual human sacrifice in the Old Testament, that of Jephthah's daughter [Judges 11:28-40, NIV]. It is known that religions pre- dating the Israelite conquests sacrificed babies -- their remains have been found, sealed in jars, buried inside city walls. On this continent, one or two North American Indian tribes clearly practiced human sacrifice at some point in time, though it is generally believed it was rare and stopped long before Europeans arrived on the continent. Human sacrifice was the norm for all of the major indigenous tribes of South America and Mexico. It was also common among the Polynesians. On rare occasions it is still practiced today in isolated places in Africa.
Animal sacrifice remains common in large parts of the world -- Africa, South America, and the Caribbean, and the southeastern seaboard of North America share common religious traditions stemming from the slave trade, and animal sacrifice is part of it. And interestingly enough there is a minority of fundamentalist Christians and extreme orthodox Jews who are working together to breed the perfect, unblemished, red heifer to sacrifice on the altar in Jerusalem should the Temple be restored. [One hopes there are no fundamentalist Christian scientists among them trying to create the flying scorpion with teeth mentioned in the book of Revelations.]
In any case, all of this sacrificing, this letting of blood, both human and animal, makes many a modern Pagan nervous. This is partly because this community has been vilified for so long as baby-killing Satanists by the dominant Christian majority, and perhaps partly because of the New Age influence that helped form the modern Pagan community, but it goes deeper than that. There are several theories to posit on this subject.
The first is an ethnic one. The fact is most Pagans and Wiccans are white, and most white people in North America are descended from extremely varied European races. White Americans are very much divorced from their roots, for the most part, and the old religions of Europe were interrupted and in most cases eradicated by Christianity. Many of these older religions actively practiced sacrifice of some form at the time of Christianity's arrival, but we have been separated from this to a degree other cultures have not been.
The second is an effect of the modern world. In the 1800s there were white women who practiced Voodoo in New Orleans, but one should keep in mind that at that time most people killed their own livestock routinely, for food. Most people nowadays do not wring chickens' necks, pluck them, and cook them for dinner, or butcher their own pigs, or gut their own fish. Most people have never taken a rifle to the woods, killed a rabbit or deer, dressed it, hauled it home, and gone through the process of making it edible, much less ever taken part in a ritual sacrifice in which a goat is held upside down, its throat cut, and blood poured all over the altar. We live in a society separated from the natural process of both hunting and gathering. Meat in and of itself is controversial for many in the Neo-Pagan community -- many Pagans, Wiccans, and Witches are vegetarians or vegans. This takes us even further away from the idea that animal sacrifice is acceptable or ever was, and of necessity this colors our view of sacrifice in general.
One could also posit that evolution has taken its toll -- evolution in the sense that many no longer believe it is necessary to perform, say, a blood sacrifice, because we have evolved beyond that. This may be a form of cultural superiority, or it may be mere distaste for the idea that an innocent animal should be murdered for spiritual gain. It is interesting that many a writer about Ireland at the time of the arrival of Christianity has remarked that the Irish were pleased that the ultimate sacrifice of the Son of God eliminated the need for any more blood sacrifices. One could argue this was an evolutionary step, but it is possible there is no absolute truth here.
[Incidentally, I do not believe blood sacrifice is a necessity for everyone. I simply wish to point out that the squeamishness with which the subject is often approached is slightly immature. People have very good reasons for not performing animal sacrifice, but the reasons mentioned above are not particularly good ones. I think the question should at least be raised as to why, really, blood sacrifice is regarded with such horror. But, having done so, I would like to stress that I am not saying it is appropriate for everyone. I am raising the possibility that it is appropriate for some, in some circumstances.]
Then there is truly selfless sacrifice -- the honorable, amazing, heroic deeds people do for others. The soldier who throws himself on top of a grenade to save his fellow soldiers, the firefighter who runs into a burning building, the IWW union organizers who traveled across the nation, risking prison and death, to help their fellow workers. The civil rights activists and anti-war protesters who were beaten and sometimes murdered in eventually successful attempts to halt a great evil. These are the people who make right a mighty cosmic wrong. There is a thing called the Holocaust, and there is a thing called a good neighbor who hides Jews in her attic. It is not a drop in the bucket either -- it may seem a little thing to save two or three lives when seven million are going to die, but those who are living will have children, and their children will have children, and so on.
In this way a balance is restored. It is not necessarily restored for personal gain, and it is not necessarily motivated by religion or ritual. This is a good model on which to rebuild a solid concept of sacrifice.
Some Pagan and Wiccan writers have claimed, either directly or through their creations of ritual, that sacrifice is not necessary. It seems that it is enough to bless the Goddess or the God, or to bring wine and cakes to the Sabbat, or to give up some of one's time. Sometimes this is true. But it also creates an atmosphere for an imbalanced attitude to start forming. Since we are not Christians and therefore are not required to abstain from sex until marriage or to give up certain "things of the world," where are our sacrifices? Since the Neo-Pagan community does not want to perform blood sacrifice, how do we return to the universe that which we are taking out? When is it appropriate to ritually make an offering of some kind?
I do not like to write essays in the first person, but I have two suggestions and some examples that require me to do so. First, I would argue that, on a daily basis, it is important for everyone in the Pagan, Wiccan, and Craft community to make sacrifices to the Earth. The balance is deeply disturbed at this point in human history.
An example: When I was a child my family would go on vacations to the redwood forests of Northern California. At the time [the late sixties, early seventies] the Forest Service had a program in which they would give out embroidered patches to kids who collected trash left behind by careless and disrespectful campers. In all honesty I never cared at all about the patches, but I loved picking up trash. All of us kids looked forward to doing it. We did not litter ourselves, we frowned upon those who did, and we all had a sense of righteousness about the activity. But speaking strictly for myself, I always felt the woods were magical, and that signs of other people and their lack of concern for nature disrupted my sense of place. Even now, twenty or so years later, I keep empty trash bags in my car and if I am somewhere in nature and spot trash, I will pick it up.
This is not an act of heroism. This is nothing extraordinary. I know for a fact other people do this, and I am sure some of them do it for the same reasons. In a very real sense, however, this is an act of ritual sacrifice for me. I give up some time and energy that could be spent enjoying the beauty or meditating or soaking up the strength or commiserating with the sorrow of these old growth forests. But unless I pick up the trash first, I cannot attain anything from my surroundings. It is my choice as well as my obligation. It is the quid pro quo, and there is nothing wrong with it. It is important to know that giving something to get something is okay.
Refusing to use disposable diapers and feminine products in favor of things that can be used over and over is a sacrifice. It is not as easy, it is not as convenient, and it is hard to convince oneself that doing this puts even a dent in the millions and billions of pounds of waste that goes into our landfills every year. But it does. These are the one or two Jews in the attic who do not get killed. It seems small, but it is not. This is giving a kind word and a few dollars to the homeless person -- it will not solve their problems, it will not find them permanent shelter or kindness from others, but it may get them through the night, and this is a form of sacrifice as well. Getting past the idea that one's actions are futile and that nothing can restore the balance is important. If it doesn't save the planet it may yet save you, and this is a good start.
The second suggestion about sacrifice is a more specific and ritualized one-- every act on the spiritual plane demands a compensation of some kind, whether we know it or not. Reading tarot cards can leave one feeling drained, for instance -- this is because one has been acting on the spiritual plane, and now one's physical self feels the impact. By way of example, without specifics as to why I undertook this working, when a ritual I performed succeeded I gave the credit to the deity with whom I had chosen to work, in this case a spirit from the Voodoo tradition, Papa Legba. He has specific sacrifices he really likes, among them tobacco, red chili oil, and coins. Some people might find this type of quid pro quo a little harder to get used to than the type mentioned above. Many might think this is too primitive, or that it simply doesn't work. This was one of the first out-and-out sacrifices I performed, because prior to this I did not think it was necessary to my workings. But I did it -- I got the items, made an offering at a cemetery gate, and that was it. Now the important thing to mention here is that even if the ritual does not "succeed," you cannot skimp on the sacrifice. No one knows exactly how things will come to fruition, and far be it from me to question the process of a spirit. Sometimes if you do not make the offering the spirit will take the offering from you in some other way. This is particularly true of an entity like Erzulie, who likes jewelry -- if you don't willingly give her something she will take something of yours.
In a book on solitary Witchcraft I came across the advice that if one is in nature and needs an herb or rock for a ritual, it should be replaced -- the author of the book suggested something as simple as a penny. I read this many years ago and thought it was silly -- the Earth has no need of a penny. But now I believe I was wrong. The sacrifice is sometimes necessary not for the Earth itself but for the Witch.
There are many ways of working sacrifice into one's lifestyle and into one's spiritual path. Without it, all one is doing is taking away. This will eventually work against the energies being raised or the desires being sought after. It makes one less of a person, and therefore less of a practitioner or Pagan or Wiccan. If it is balance and prosperity that we seek, we have to put something out into the universe to get it.
Location: Unknown, Iowa
Bio: Lili Fugit is the nom de guerre of a writer who lives in Southern California with her small white dog. She suggests, as a supplement to her theories on environmentally conscious sacrifice, that people read "Smokey the Bear Sutra," by Gary Snyder. She has been a Witch for ten years and practices a combination of Chaos Magick and Hoodoo. To anyone who would suggest Bob Dylan is a thief, she would, among other things, quote Pablo Picasso: "Immature artists imitate; mature artists steal."
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