What is sacrifice?

Making my annual blood sacrifice to the blackberries, I’ve been pondering the nature of sacrifice. I’ll come right out and say that the more I think about it, the more I think that the very idea of sacrifice is a nonsense. The idea, as I understand it, is about giving up something, enduring, suffering, going against your own interests for the sake of the gods, the land, ancestors etc etc. The nature of sacrifice demands that there be nothing in it for us other than the act of submission and relinquishing.

There is nothing a human being can consciously choose to do that they cannot also consciously choose to gain from, or perceive as an advantage. If you want to wear a hair shirt and sit on top of a pole in a desert, eating only dry bread, that might look like sacrifice. Doing so allows the person that ‘more holy than thou’ feeling. There is a self righteousness to be had, a sense of spiritual worth and significance. We feed ego at the expense of the body. If we eschew wordly goods, it’s because we think we are spiritually better for so doing. If we give our time, money, energy to some good cause, we get something out of that – it may be the joy of giving, the sense of self worth from feeling like a good person or the feeling that our gods, like watchful parents, will be pleased with us.

Our pagan ancestors offered sacrifices to the gods. As best I understand it, this was undertaken for pragmatic reasons – a safe journey, a good harvest, protection, promotion, success. When we ‘sacrifice’ we are, really speaking, doing something for ourselves. We are trying to make a bargain. I give you this goat, you give me an uneventful voyage. I build you this temple, you make sure my children prosper.

The second conclusion I am coming to is that sitting on top of a pole wearing a hair shirt (to revert to my previous example) doesn’t necessarily achieve much. You might, I suppose, hallucinate, and learn something useful from your vision. Meaningful sacrifice should, allegedly, hurt. It should cost us in a significant way. It’s very easy to give yourself opportunities to experience pain. Any door jamb will do. You could shut your hand repeatedly in a door as an offering to the gods. You could fast for a week, or put stones in your shoes. I believe the mediaeval Christian mystics went in for all kinds of strange and masochistic activities in the name of faith. What does it do, aside from giving you the warm glow of being all noble and self sacrificing? ****all.

If you want to give of yourself, do so in a way that makes a positive difference to something, or someone else. There are plenty of jobs out there that will hurt your body, stretch your mind, dismantle your comfort zone and otherwise give you a hard time, but which result in change. They aren’t sacrifice, they are opportunities to be and do more. At the end of which you can still feel like you’ve done a spiritual thing, but have some wordly impact too.

Sacrifice is only possible if we do things to ourselves and then steadfastly refuse to learn, grow, change or feel anything as a consequence. Everything else, we stand to benefit from, because all experience takes us forwards in some direction or another. I think service is a far more useful idea, consciously recognising that in service, we may also serve ourselves, and looking for ways to take our individual spiritual journeys forward in ways that share the benefits and bring greater good. That has to be a better way to go.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

One response to “What is sacrifice?

  • jaylancaster

    I’ve been thinking about a similar topic this week as it’s Ramadhan and many of my students are fasting. For some of them there’s also an element of competition; but for others it marks a very clear month where the focus is on spirituality and for them to reflect on their place in the world as according to their holy book. I’m not Muslim so there’s a lot I don’t quite “get” but I do chime in with the idea of a sacrifice in the sense of giving something up to make you more aware of what you don’t need. But of course, you’ll get out what you put in. And it does lead to me to think about a peculiarly western middle class conceit of “giving something up” to “reconnect with my true essence” you know, rich kids sitting on a hill, safe in the knowledge that Daddy can come and collect them if it gets a bit too cold.
    And being *forced* into exactly the same position doesn’t have the element of choice…so it’s not sacrifice, it’s circumstance, to which we respond my sinking or swimming.
    I’m not going anywhere with this comment….just a few trains of thought that your post led me down. I’m now standing halfway down those train tracks, scratching my head and wondering where I was heading…

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