Why We Sacrifice
People are frequently polluted through sins and other daily impurities, and often even show an inclination towards this profanity. This is very blatant with the amount of effort that people will go through as a means of attaining holiness, from ascetic lifestyles, chastity, fasting, dietary restrictions, philanthropy, etc. In the same way that we accumulate physical grit and bodily dirt, we engage in activities which pollute us (miasma) in a ritualistic sense through these knowing and unknowing transgressions. This is where the act of sacrifice comes in.
The rituals of sacrifice are a sacred thing, far from barbaric reveling in blood. Instead, rituals such as blood sacrifice underlines the human need to kill to preserve life, making it an appropriately solemn act. Quite simply, to get tied up in the blood is to miss the point. We can look to Mircea Eliade’s theory of ritual to understand why we sacrifice. Here, the most significant point in the ritual is that of creation, which is an eternal, pure, and uncorrupted point in which the cosmogony was brought into existence. This was the original sacrifice which created the cosmos and when the sacred and profane were established – typically represented in mythology by the dismemberment of the Monster/Giant from which the world was crafted, and is reflected in the First Time (illo tempore) (Eliade 1954, 35). As time progresses the First Time degenerates into Profane Time, which Eliade identified to as “historic time” (Eliade 1954, 35), which is polluted and thus inherently profane to the manifestation of the divine, who exist in Mythic Time. Because Mythic Time exists in a generalized time and is thus in a fundamentally out-of-step existence than our own, it can be used as an agent for the “sanctification of space in order to manifest and experience hierophany” (TheLettuceMan, July 12 2018) via ritual imitation, i.e., sacrifice. Thus, in this system, ritual sacrifice is an imitative act which reenacts that moment of creation, the First Time, and thus creates and returns the space of the ritual “into the same primordial moment as that of creation, bringing about the state of Sacredness required for divine interaction” by conferring “the ontic substance upon the activities of humanity, enabling human ritual participants to engage with and enter that which is the Sacred” (TheLettuceMan, July 12 2018) (Eliade 1954, 35). This allows us to sanctify and make holy what we are doing, which brings us into closer concordance with the sacred in our own place and time by encouraging the manifestation of Mythic Time and the suspension of Profane Time (Eliade 1957, 35). Hence, sacrifice is itself an act of purification, which purifies the space the sacrifice takes place on by lifting us towards the divine in participation through imitation, and thus allowing us to sanctify and make holy of what we are doing by enabling us to act as one within the sacred at the “same primordial moment” (Eliade 1957, 35) as creation, therefore excluding any kind of profanity (Eliade 1954, 35). In a sense, a sacrificial act’s ability to bring us into communion with the divine turns it into something that in a sense is similar to taking a bath, as the act of sacrifice cleanses us and washes away our miasma. Thus, sacrifice plays significance in:
- Being in the right relation with a deity
- Engaging the holiness of the divine
- Gifting the divine in a display of awe and gratitude.
This also plays a significant role in bringing us into henosis, or union with the divine. After all, the happiness of anything consists in its appropriate perfection, and the appropriate perfection of anything is union with its cause, who for us mortals are the Gods. However, the Gods are supramundane, which means they, as well as the One above them, are not only beyond the physical realm, but they also transcend the realm of the mind, and thus we cannot reach them simply through mere acts of contemplation. Since the divine Mind (Nous), also known as the Celestial Demiurge, is beneath the One, how can a mere human mind, even one linked to Nous, hope to connect itself to the One? Since contemplation evidently can only take you so far, the union of mortals with their cause can only happen through imitation or likeness with some intermediary agent bringing the two together: a sacrifice. The answer truly lies in theurgy, which is ritual activity (such as prayer and sacrifice) as a means of uniting us with the divine through imitation as means of achieving henosis and therefore perfecting oneself. Principle to this is the concept of do ut des.
Do ut des
In the Graeco-Roman world, every ritual of communion operated on an often misunderstood principle of do ut des. The reduction of do ut des to merely a “gift for a gift” is ultimately derived from Galilean and Pauline theology. This is a reductive form of the concept which turns it into a mere bribery or business transaction, giving it its sanitized appearance. It is a selfish attempt to manipulate or elicit favours by bribing a God with gifts. This act of bribery will never be looked upon favourably by the eternal Gods; however, this bribery is not do ut des.
Instead, do ut des proper, or “I give, so that you may give,” is far more charitable and nuanced, and very much in the spirit of hospitality (xenía/ξενία). It is not about bribing a God, but rather, it is about establishing a personal relation with a God through a fundamental cycle of gift exchanging which is “not of strict indebtedness but rather where the God remembers the gift and is well disposed in the future” (Pulleyn 1999, 12), and thus brings us closer to their benevolent light. After all, since we receive everything from the divine, it is only right to pay back the givers some tithe of their gifts. Integral to the concept of do ut des is kharis (xάρις), which is best translated as grace. Kharis is reciprocity and the religious relation one has with the divine (Burkert 1985, 189), which is established by practicing eusebia (meaning piety, the actual practice of worship the divine and building kharis). The concept of kharis partakes in the cycle of do ut des as one’s reputation with the deity an individual is engaged in a personal relation with, which is built through the variety of worship we provide to the Gods every day.
The theory is that we give the Gods something of worth, and in exchange, we receive from them something of value, which results in us giving more worth to the Gods, which results in receiving something else of value, and so forth. Instead of being a mere business transaction, it is the establishment of a fundamental cycle of gift exchanging. It is a concept that is, in actuality, wholly in harmony and inseparable from the concept of xenia. Do ut des proper seeks to establish a personal relation with the God, and has the ultimate goal of achieving henosis.
We must foremost understand that the divine are beyond us, being limitless and beyond all, and therefore whatever offerings we provide them ultimately has no value to them. However, it is a universal cultural assumption that when one is given a gift that an obligation is created. This gives rise to gift customs as a means of negotiating these obligations in the form of an answering gift being given back. The offering is a pretext for the God to offer us what the divine already offer: a pathway to henosis. We are brought closer to the divine with this cycle; not because the Gods are changing or we’re giving them they don’t already have, but rather, we work together with the Gods to raise our souls upwards towards union, and for this, we are able to see their light more clearly. Through sacrifice and offerings, we bring benefit to ourselves by getting closer to the Gods who cares for us all, for it is us who gains communion with them, which allows us to be brought closer to their cleansing light. And this is the overall purpose of sacrifice: to engage with the divine in an act of purity as a means of getting closer to them, and eventually, achieving henosis.
We can see a good analogy made by Patrick Dunn in his book The Practical Art of Divine Magic (Dunn 2015, 138-139): the act of offering is two polite people standing at an open door. “After you.”, “Oh no, after you.”, “No, I insist.” It is a back and forth exchange that, while useless for actually entering a building, is how our soul climbs back to its origin, the One, as far as possible. With that, do ut des deeply ties into theurgy. It is not bribing a God, nor is it merely for personal gain. Instead, it is getting closer to a God and working with them to achieve a common goal, henosis, by establishing a personal relation with them which allows the individual to vertically align themselves with the One.
Sacrifice assists in bringing about union with the divine because the material realm is the realm of change, which justifies destructive sacrifice as reaching its ultimate logical conclusion by negating materiality. Matter is not a substance but rather a “passive dimension for any regime of formation” (Butler 2014, 12). By negating materiality, we release tokens (synthemata) from matter back to the Gods from which they came, which allows an authentic sacrifice to extend and enter into a so-called “cosmic economy” where it is categorized by its unique individuality. Once these tokens are gone the dross matter remains, but without its essence. The necessity of the sacrifice is transposed from the sacrifice to the sacrificer as they are the individual who is operating and connecting the junction of the two manifolds. This is because role the sacrificer plays brings them into communion with the divine as operator of the sacrifice, which ultimately allows the sacrifice and sacrificer to become identical by activating and elevating the same tokens within us (Butler 2014, 13). This also justifies the sacrifice of animals, for if mortal life wishes to gain communion with the first life (i.e., the divine) something like those could act as the intermediate, i.e., an animal life (Sallustius, XVI).
It is here where we can see why prayer divorced of sacrifice is merely empty words, and sacrifice deprived of prayer is merely empty expenditure. When they are joined, sacrifice will animate words, allowing them to become live words, which will cause the words to give power to the life and the life-giving animation to the words. One cannot be without the other. This also relates to vows. Vows which are promised to the Gods in the gift cycle should be positive, e.g., “I will burn you a bundle of frankincense” or “I will offer you the sacrifice of a goat.” It is positive because you promise a gift, which is obviously something necessary for the gifting cycle. Negative vows, such as ones uttered when one finds themselves in trouble (e.g., “O Asklepios, I swear if I recover from this ailment, I shall never eat seafood again!”), are seen as improper since they are something that you do for yourself, not for the God. There is no exchange of gifts with a negative.
What Sacrifice Will Not Do
Worship and sacrifice aren’t provided to the Gods to “appease” them. The Gods are not angry with sinners, for to be angry would be to passion. The Gods do not rejoice- for what rejoices also grieves; nor are they appeased by gifts – for if they were, they would also be conquered by pleasure. The Gods are always good, always do good and never do harm, instead always being in the same state and like themselves. Instead, when we are good, we are joined and cling to the Gods when we show likeness to them by living according to virtue, and when we become evil we make the Gods our enemies – not because they are angered against us, but because our sins prevent the light of the Gods from shining upon us, instead putting us in communion with spirits of punishment. If by prayers and sacrifices we find forgiveness of sins, we do not appease or change the Gods, but instead, by turning toward the divine, we heal our own badness and so again enjoy the eternal and infinite goodness of the Gods. To say that the Gods turn away from evil is like saying that the sun hides Himself from the blind.
Additionally, it shouldn’t be thought that the Gods need the sacrifice. The Gods need nothing because they lack nothing. We worship the Gods because the Gods are worthy of sacrifice and inspire us to worship them. We worship the Gods for our own benefit, not theirs.
Finally, it shouldn’t be thought that sacrifice is katagogic (descending), where we bring the Gods downwards. Rather we must properly understand that sacrifice is anagogic (ascending), where we are raised towards the Gods through participation, as we are incapable of bringing the Gods downwards.
Importance of Piety & Approach
Since we can say since the Gods are infinite and beyond us, and thus need nothing, the most crucial part in the act of authentic sacrifice is eusebia (piety) and approach, since the Gods do not need anything and it is us who benefit. Things like the sincerity of approach when trying to initiate the relation are part of it, but there is also the ritual itself. Making sure a sacrifice is done correctly and received successfully by the Gods is paramount. Not only do petitions hold a higher chance of being granted when a sacrifice accompanies the prayer— but it’s imperative that the sacrifice is done correctly and to the right deity. An improper sacrifice can cause ritual pollution, which can blind you from the light of the Gods and cause ill-fortune to fall upon you.
Since all is infinite and the rituals are holy, it can be said the sacred rites were established and given to human souls by the Gods, or alternatively, the rituals mimic the cycles of the cosmos. These practices exemplified divine principles that provided for the deification of the human soul. Given the transformative nature of sacrifice, it is essential that the order in which sacrifices are to be performed aren’t altered. This even applies for an individual who dedicates their life to philosophical pursuits and theological speculation: if they wished to be healed of the suffering associated with embodiment and generation, they must perform the proper sacrifices in the correct order and manner.
It should lastly be said that proper sacrifice should be given to proper Gods. There is said to be three types of Gods we sacrifice to in theourgia:
- The Hypercosmic Gods, associated with Immaterial Theurgy, who are wholly exempt from matter and rise above it.
- The Hyper-Encosmic Gods, associated with Median Theurgy, who serve as a mean between the Hyercosmic and Encosmic Gods.
- The Encosmic Gods (I.e., The planets and stars, who are practically the leader Gods. Athene who rules fiery aether/fixed stars, and the Celestial Demiurge Zeus-Helios), associated with Material Theurgy, who embrace matter within themselves and impose order on it.
It is necessary to provide worship in accordance of their nature, and thus the worship to the Encosmic Gods must be corporeal/material, the worship to the Hypercosmic Gods must be immaterial and relate to the mind, and the worship of the Hyper-Encosmic Gods must be a medium. All these forms of worship, however, are important to do to be whole, as they are representative of a type of divine that aid in operating the cosmos and help communicate the will of the Celestial Demiurge, and thus they all are required for a “completeness” in the pursuit for henosis.
“Prayers without sacrifices are only words, with sacrifices they are live words; the word gives meaning to the life, while the life animates the word.”
-Sallustius (On the Gods and the Cosmos, XVI)
“Are you not aware that all offerings whether great or small that are brought to the Gods with piety have equal value, whereas without piety, I will not say hecatombs, but, by the Gods, even the Olympian sacrifice of a thousand oxen is merely empty expenditure and nothing else?”
-Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus / Julian the Philosopher
“Even as the Gods cut through matter by the fire of the thunderbolt, and separate off from it those elements which are immaterial in their essence, but are overcome by it and imprisoned in it, and render them impassible instead of passible, even so the fire of our realm, imitating the activity of the divine fire, destroys all that is material in the sacrifices, purifies the offerings with fire and frees them from the bonds of matter, and renders them suitable, through the purification of their nature, for consorting with the Gods, and by the same procedures liberates us from the bonds of generation and makes us like to the Gods, and renders us worthy to enjoy their friendship, and turns round our material nature towards the immaterial.”
-Iamblichus (De Mysteriis 5, 12/215.11-216.6)
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