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On the Origin of Sacrifice
The eternal return
The experience of the sacred makes possible the ‘founding of the world’: where the sacred manifests, the real unveils itself, and the world comes into existence
Sacrifice regenerates the world and allows creation to begin anew. This is the central mystery that is attested to throughout all mythology and religion. Honoring this mystery allows appreciation of the unity that underlies reality, and participation in this unity is so profound it is capable of binding cultures together. Falling away from this mystery however leads to separation, and is associated with the breaking apart of society.
I’ve had an intense interest over the past couple months in exploring sacrifice and attempting to put into words my understanding of it. This essay explores how the ancients understood sacrifice, and how it evolved through Christianity up to the present day. Attempting to summarize such a broad topic is of course difficult, and I acknowledge there is significant overlap between the ancient and Christian sacrificial practices. We know for example that the sacrifice ideal from the Greek mystery schools, as seen in the cults devoted to Mithras and Persephone, shared more in common with the Christian ideal than their contemporaries. This essay will concern the popular understanding of sacrifice across both cultures only, the purpose being to highlight how developments in such understanding informed cultural development.
Finally I’ve finished with some thoughts on how and why sacrifice is still important today.
Sacrifice for the ancients involved the ritual re-enactment of myth. In Babylonian myth for example, Marduk slays the sacrificed monster Tiamat who then integrates her body into heaven and earth. In Greek myth, Prometheus advocates on the part of humanity, who extracts an agreement from Zeus that the gods only need honoring through the bones and fat of the animal, rather than the meat.
The Babylonians sacrificed animals or sometimes even humans as a stand-in for Tiamat. Always it was essential that the whole carcass must be sacrificed. The Greek sacrifice required less of the animal, representing a more balanced relation between god and man. The ritual was practiced throughout the Greek and Roman world, enabling communion with the gods at the dinner table, or at more significant affairs such as festivals and feasts.
Ancient conception of time
Ancient myths abound with the idea that death begets life. The paradise represented in Babylonian myth for example is disrupted by Tiamat’s slaying. Tiamat represents the primordial chaos that contains all potential being within her, meaning her death allows creation to commence. Another view on sacrifice is that it represents a means by which man transfers their darkness and sins onto an innocent victim. This view represents the same process, the transference of sin being the death that allows humanity to start over with a clean slate and begin their lives anew.
For the ancients, the sacrificial myth takes place in a ‘First Time’ that precedes our world. By ritual enactment, the ancients participate in the very same sacrifice from their myths, and are thereby projected into this epoch where the event first takes place. This act of continual sacrifice, ritualistically conducted at regular intervals was labeled by Mircea Eliade as the ‘Eternal Return’. The origin was seen as the seat of power for our world, and nothing could endure if it was not animated by honoring its mythical elements through sacrifice.
This pagan worldview dominated for thousands of years in the pre-Christian era, and reached its ascendancy in the West through the Roman Empire. The act of honoring the Gods through sacrifice bound communities together through shared traditions. Sacrifice also played a key part in maintaining societal order. The transference of sin to the sacrificial victim relieves guilt for one’s sins, and relieves anxiety and aggression that results from the often cruel and uncertain conditions of the ancient world.
However all worldviews are ultimately incomplete and the pagan story would prove to be unsatisfying. As already noted, by Roman times the old traditions no longer possessed the gravitas they once had. Their practice of animal sacrifice had degenerated, and this among other practices betrayed a lack of belief and seriousness.
The ancient worldview had started to become obsolete, which necessitated viewing oneself as having little to no agency in the world, whose fate was largely dependent on the whims of the gods. The negative consequence of this worldview is demonstrated in the commonly observed trait of the ancients that they lacked compassion for their fellow man. When tragedy struck, a common reaction was to shun the individual involved rather than provide meaningful medical care, often forcing the unfortunate to die in the streets. This behavior stemmed from the fact that the sanctity of the human individual had not yet taken root in the ancient mind.
As the ancient story ceased to be compelling, what originally bound the culture together started to unwind, and a revolt of the masses against the established order was the result. This process itself can be seen as a form of sacrifice played out on a cultural level. The former worldview must first die out, so the Christian worldview which would soon become ascendant could take its place.
Christianity would provide the compassion missing from the ancient worldview, and lionize the individual, which lead directly to the modern traditions of individualism we’re familiar with today. As the story goes, the Christian God ‘so loved the world that he .. gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16). These developments would complete what had already been set in motion by the Greeks, wherein God would participate more directly in history and thereby become humanized, and man would become divinized.
For Christians, Christ’s sacrifice was so perfect that it signaled the ancient forms of sacrifice would never be necessary again. Christ now stood in for the animal, offering himself as the innocent sacrificial victim, emptying himself and taking on our sin so Christians could be redeemed and become full.
Like the ancients, Christians sacrificed through the re-enactment of myth, however the myth now involved emulating Christ’s sacrifice through the sacraments. One key example is the Eucharist, which re-enacts the Last Supper before Christ’s death. Christ asks the faithful to eat the bread of his body, and the wine of his blood in remembrance of him. The sacrifice then is ingested internally rather than offered externally. This indicates a sacrifice that is now a personal and internal affair, translating the purpose of sacrifice from the periodic regeneration of the world, to the regeneration of the individual.
Sacrifice then was no longer a generalized tool to appease the gods, but a personal affair characterized by faith. Where the ancients hoped to live in harmony with nature, Christ promised the faithful eternal life. The ancients had some evidence their sacrifice led to regeneration of nature, by observing the world around them. Christians instead had to rely on faith, to ‘have assurance that what was hoped for would come about, and what we cannot see exists’ (Hebrews 11). All this was possible for man was made ‘in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27)’. This idea meant all human beings deserve dignity and are sanctified, an idea that is enshrined in modern ideals such as universal human rights.
Christian concept of time
Crucial to understanding Christianity is that in contrast to the ancient myths that took place in the ‘first time’, Christ incarnated in this world and sacrificed himself in historic time. This incarnation allows for the personal and internal relationship to God that made Christianity so compelling. However this idea belies a conflict at the heart of Christianity, which concerns the question of whether the relationship to Christ is realized in human history, or - similar to the ancient understanding - in eternity.
On the one hand, his resurrection signifies victory over death, and his promise to the faithful was that they would also achieve eternal life when Christ returns again. This indicates a relationship realized in history. It indicates history is progressive, that it has one pre-determined end, the salvation of humanity, and once achieved it would come to a close. In contrast to many other world religions that taught that good and evil are necessary to our world, Christianity promises evil will eventually be destroyed forever.
However early Christianity, primarily through the teachings of Augustine, taught that humanity should not concern themselves with the End Times. The City of Man, as Augustine terms our world, is fallen and cannot be redeemed by human effort. Christians should instead concern themselves with the City of God, teaching that salvation is already available to the faithful. By honoring the teachings and sacrifice of Christ, we achieve communion with him, and regenerate ourselves and the world in a similar way to how the ancients achieved the same by return to the ‘first time’.
But as humanity gained ever more agency in the world, they would start to fall away from the early Christian ideals that promised salvation lay in the City of God. The idea that humanity could instead drive their own salvation inevitably started to take hold.
And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. (Revelation 20)
Christian theology hinges on how to interpret the above passage from the Book of Revelation. Post-millennialists believe this glorious thousand year period will precede the Second Coming of Christ. A prophet from the 12th century named Joachim of Fiore would spearhead this view, that the time would come when the faithful would no longer depend on the Church, but instead receive the truth in their own hearts through the Holy Spirit, that together they would bound Satan and birth a golden millennium.
Joachim’s ideas had an immediate impact, and through indirect means would come to birth the myth of progress in the West. Europe would soon be assaulted by rebellious movements who believed the golden age was near. These movements ultimately all share a similar structure, that there can be a sudden break in history after which the flaws of society will be abolished and a grand utopia will form.
These beliefs initially drove the Reformation and splintered Christianity into the many sects we know today. And as Christianity declined, no longer bound by religious restraint, the progressive myths only grew stronger in secular forms and colonized the world in a new form of Christian Empire. Manifest destiny, the French and American revolutions, communism and fascism are just some of the forms we know from history. Transhumanism and the AI singularity are two of the more dominant forms that persist today.
The parallels to the ancient world should be clear. The Christian story is no longer compelling for our world, and neither are its secular progressive variants. Similarly, the traditions that honored Christ’s sacrifice that bound our culture together are unwinding. The Christian church has been replaced by the atomistic, rational individual. Christ has been replaced with Mammon.
In short, the fruit of these developments is that Western society is at each other’s throats, we are beholden to the Machine, and our world is dying. If history repeats itself, the death of our culture may be what is necessary before a new story is revealed that unites us, and a new form of sacrifice reveals itself. I believe that collectively, beyond and within the chaos around us, we as a culture are in the midst of discovering what that means right now. This idea forms the heart of this newsletter, initial signs of which I’ve found through interactions I’ve had with the Goddess, as discussed already on this blog. It’s my dearest hope to expand and deepen this relationship, hopefully revealing mysteries of devotion and sacrifice that are appropriate to our current times.
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Texts referenced in this article
Mircea Eliade (1949), The Myth of the Eternal Return. Princeton Press
John Gray (2007), Black Mass. Farrar Straus Giroux
Matthias Riedl (2017), A Companion to Joachim of Fiore. Brill