Technique: Digital art
Sacrifice. Religion. Sacrifice, a religious rite in which an object is offered to a divinity in order to establish, maintain, or restore a right relationship of a human being to the sacred order.
It is a complex phenomenon that has been found in the earliest known forms of worship and in all parts of the world. The original use of the term was peculiarly religious, referring to a cultic act in which objects were set apart or consecrated and offered to a god or some other supernatural power; thus, sacrifice should be understood within a religious, cultic context.
Worship is man’s reaction to his experience of the sacred power; it is a response in action, a giving of self, especially by devotion and service, to the transcendent reality upon which man feels himself dependent.
Sacrifice and prayer—man’s personal attempt to communicate with the transcendent reality in word or in thought—are the fundamental acts of worship.
The basic forms of sacrifice, however, seem to be some type of either sacrificial gift or sacramental meal. Sacrifice as a sacramental communal meal may involve the idea of the god as a participant in the meal or as identical with the food consumed; it may also involve the idea of a ritual meal at which either some primordial event such as creation is repeated or the sanctification of the world is symbolically renewed.
Blood offerings. The occurrence of human sacrifice appears to have been widespread and its intentions various, ranging from communion with a god and participation in his divine life to expiation and the promotion of the earth’s fertility. It seems to have been adopted by agricultural rather than by hunting or pastoral peoples. Of all the worldly manifestations of the life-force, the human undoubtedly impressed men as the most valuable and thus the most potent and efficacious as an oblation. Thus, in Mexico the belief that the sun needed human nourishment led to sacrifices in which as many as 20,000 victims perished annually in the Aztec and Nahua calendrical maize ritual in the 14th century ce. Bloodless human sacrifices also developed and assumed greatly different forms: e.g., a Celtic ritual involved the sacrifice of a woman by immersion, and among the Maya in Mexico young maidens were drowned in sacred wells; in Peru women were strangled; in ancient China the king’s retinue was commonly buried with him, and such internments continued intermittently until the 17th century. In many societies human victims gave place to animal substitutes or to effigies made of dough, wood, or other materials. Thus, in India, with the advent of British rule, human sacrifices to the Dravidian village goddesses (gramadevis) were replaced by animal sacrifices. In Tibet, under the influence of Buddhism, which prohibits all blood sacrifice, human sacrifice to the pre-Buddhist Bon deities was replaced by the offering of dough images or reduced to pantomime. Moreover, in some cults both human and animal oblations could be “ransomed”—i.e., replaced by offerings or money or other inanimate valuables.
The ritual slaying of the human victim amounted to a repetition of the primordial act of creation and thus a renewal of vegetational life. In other human sacrifices the victim was regarded as representing a vegetation spirit that annually died at harvest time so that it might be reborn in a new crop. In still other sacrifices at planting time or in time of famine, the blood of the victim—animal or human—was let upon the ground and its flesh buried in the soil to fertilize the earth and recharge its potencies.
Bloodless offerings. Among the many life-giving substances that have been used as libations are milk, honey, vegetable and animal oils, beer, wine, and water. Of these the last two have been especially prominent. Wine is the “blood of the grape” and thus the “blood of the earth,” a spiritual beverage that invigorates gods and men. Water is always the sacred “water of life,” the primordial source of existence and the bearer of the life of plants, animals, human beings, and even the gods. Because of its great potency, water, like blood, has been widely used in purificatory and expiatory rites to wash away defilements and restore spiritual life. It has also, along with wine, been an important offering to the dead as a revivifying force. Vegetable offerings have included not only the edible herbaceous plants but also grains, fruits, and flowers. In both Hinduism and Jainism, flowers, fruits, and grains (cooked and uncooked) are included in the daily temple offerings. In some agricultural societies (e.g., those of West Africa) yams and other tuber plants have been important in planting and harvest sacrifices and in other rites concerned with the fertility and fecundity of the soil. These plants have been regarded as especially embodying the life-force of the deified earth and are frequently buried or plowed into the soil to replenish and reactivate its energies.
In ancient Judaism the regular or periodic sacrifices included the twice-daily burnt offerings, the weekly Sabbath sacrifices, the monthly offering at the new moon, and annual celebrations such as Pesaḥ (Passover), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and Sukkoth (Feast of Tabernacles). Special sacrifices were usually of a personal nature, such as thank and votive offerings and “guilt offerings.” The common place of sacrifice in most cults is an altar. The table type of altar is uncommon; more often it is only a pillar, a mound of earth, a stone, or a pile of stones. Among the Hebrews in early times and other Semitic peoples the altar of the god was frequently an upright stone (matztzeva) established at a place in which the deity had manifested itself. It was bet el, the “house of God.” Frequently, the altar is regarded as the centre or the image of the universe.
For the ancient Greeks, the grave marker (a mound of earth or a stone) was the earth altar upon which sacrifices to the dead were made and, like other earth altars, it was called the omphalos, “the navel” of the earth—i.e., the central point from which terrestrial life originated. In Vedic India the altar was regarded as a microcosm, its parts representing the various parts of the universe and its construction being interpreted as a repetition of the creation of the cosmos.
Sacrifice in the religions of the world. The constituent elements of sacrifice have been incorporated into the particular religions and cultures of the world in various and often complex ways. A few brief observations that may illustrate this variety and complexity are given here.
sacrifice is not a phenomenon that can be reduced to rational terms; it is fundamentally a religious act that has been of profound significance to individuals and social groups throughout history, a symbolic act that establishes a relationship between man and the sacred order. For many peoples of the world, throughout time, sacrifice has been the very heart of their religious life.
(Robert L. Faherty)