Sacrifice. The very word conjures up feelings of dread
and images of darkened rooms with blood-stained altars. But what does
it really mean? It is generally considered to be a painful thing, something
you try to endure with good grace if you are unable to avoid it. Something
we only do because it's "good" for us, whether we want to or not. Something
we can give up fairly easily, like giving up chocolate for Lent. Should
sacrifice be sought out as a means of spiritual growth? Or is it just
a holdover from a sin/redemption-based theology; just so much excess
Judeo-Christian baggage? While the concept of sacrifice is central to
Christianity, what role does it play in Paganism and Witchcraft?
The word sacrifice comes to us through Middle English
and Old French from the Latin sacrificium; sacer (which
means sacred) + facere (to make). To sacrifice is to make sacred.
Webster gives us four definitions of the word sacrifice.
We can certainly disregard the last definition (a sale at a price less
than the cost or actual value), but I think the first three are quite
applicable to Paganism and Witchcraft.
"The offering of anything to God, or to a god; consecratory
rite." As Pagans and/or Witches we routinely offer things to both the
Goddess and the God. Every time we celebrate a sabbat or the full moon
we are offering the ritual to deity; for isn't that who we do ritual
for? When we gather for ritual it isn't for our benefit, though we do
benefit from it. We do it for deity; as an offering, as a means of connecting.
"Anything consecrated and offered to God, or to a divinity;
an immolated victim, or an offering of any kind, laid upon an altar,
or otherwise presented in the way of religious thanksgiving, atonement,
or conciliation." As long as we leave out the immolated victim (harm
none, remember?) this definition applies to Pagans and Witches as well.
How many times have we placed flowers on the altar just because they
were beautiful? They are placed there because we are thankful of their
beauty. Just as we place baskets of fruit, sheaves of wheat or loaves
of bread on the altar in thanksgiving at the Harvest festivals. If you
ever visit the fire circle at a Pagan gathering you are witness to myriad
forms of sacrifice: poems of praise to both Goddess and God, songs of
praise or thanks written to deity; songs being sung as an offering or
in thanks. The drumming and the dancing are both acts of sacrifice offered
to the Gods in joyful abandonment!
"Destruction or surrender of anything for the sake of
something else; devotion of some desirable object in behalf of a higher
object, or to a claim deemed more pressing." Sacrifice in this role
can be said to be central to Paganism as well as to Christianity. In
the Christian mythos Christ died for other's sins so that through him,
they might live. So to our God as the Sacred King gives his life, in
willing sacrifice, that the land may prosper. As the Oak King He sacrifices
Himself at Midsummer so that He may be reborn at Midwinter as the Holly
King. As John Barleycorn (the spirit of the Grain) He dies at Lammas
to ensure our survival through the harsh winter months.
We are all familiar with the Charge of the Goddess: "....
I give knowledge of the Spirit Eternal, and beyond death, I give peace
and freedom and reunion with those who have gone before. Nor do I demand
aught of sacrifice, for behold, I am the Mother of all things and my
love is poured out upon the Earth." If the Charge so clearly states
that the Goddess does not demand sacrifice, why then is sacrifice such
an integral part of the God? Perhaps it's because He IS the sacrifice.
The Charge of the God, which is not so well known, contains the following:
".... I give knowledge of life everlasting and beyond death I give the
promise of regeneration and renewal. I am the sacrifice, the father
of all things, and my protection blankets the Earth. ...all acts of
willing sacrifice are my rituals." There are numerous mythologies in
which the God is sacrificed as grain or as vegetation in general to
feed the people. To the Pheonicians He was Adoni, to the Anatolians
He was Attis, to the Sumerians Damuzi. In the Middle East He was known
as Tammuz, in Egypt he was Osirus, and in Canaan Baal. The list goes
on and on. It is a fact of life that so one may live another must sacrifice...
whether animal or plant. We must eat to live. The God ensures our survival
with His sacrifice, whether it is made as the Stag Lord, the Corn King,
John Barleycorn or as the Sacred King.
While searching online for a definition of sacrifice (my
dictionary is still packed), I ran across the following quotation at
Catholic Encyclopedia: "Sacrifice is only a prayer offered with gifts."
I really felt connected to this definition on a personal level. Several
years ago when my daughter was only nine, she was kid-napped by my (now)
ex-husband. Of course I did all the mundane things; I called the police,
the Missing Children's people, etc. I also prayed for her safe and quick
return. I created an altar in my living-room which consisted of my favorite
picture of her and a white seven-day candle. I prayed daily for her
return. My offered gifts were my pleas and my tears and my constant
tending of that altar. I kept it neat and dusted, placed flowers upon
it, and made sure the flame was constantly lit. When I had to return
to work I had a friend come over and tend the altar in my absence. (Yes,
I actually had an altar-sitter; it was that important to me.) That candle
remained lit until she was back home nearly 3 ½ months later.
Charles Dubois once said that "the important thing is
this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we
could become." Isn't this truly what is at the heart of Paganism and
Witchcraft? Sacrificing our old selves on the altar of the Gods to become
their priest or priestess? What is an initiation if not the sacrifice
of our old self and our old way of life so that we may be reborn and
named Priest or Priestess and Witch? Sacrificing our needs for the greater
needs of our coven and our community? Just as a parent willingly makes
sacrifices for the sake of their children, so do we willingly make sacrifices
for the sake of our coven-mates and that of our community.
So while the concept of sacrifice is central to Christianity,
it does play a large role in Pagan mythology as well. Is sacrifice always
bad? Must it always be painful? Of course it's not. Should it be sought
out as a means of spiritual growth? I don't think so. I don't believe
sacrifice is something we should "seek out." Gee, what can I give up
today so I can rack up those karma points? That's not an appropriate
attitude with which to make a sacrifice. To truly be a sacrifice, I
think it is a gift that must be given freely if it is to have any value
at all. As Francesca De Grandis states, "Self-sacrifice is the right-hand
counterpart to self-development." And self-development is what it's
Be A Goddess: A Guide to Celtic Spells and Wisdom for Self-Healing,
Prosperity and Great Sex by Francesca De Grandis
Catholic Encyclopedia at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen
Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary at http://www.dictionary.com
Wisdom Quotes at http://www.wisdomquotes.dom