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The Meaning of Sacrifice
Signaling, scapegoating, and sovereignty
For inscrutable reasons, the gods called for the death of the innocent.
Not just any animal would do for the ritual of buphonia. The Athenian rite specifically called for the killing of man’s working companion, the yoked ox. The animals that tilled the field. The very title of the ceremony, the murder of the ox, communicated vice, but that did not prevent its occurrence. After the animal was slain, Apollo, speaking through the Pythian oracle, demanded that the community consume the victim's flesh.
Sacrifice was a fact of life in antiquity. The religion of the age required offering and killing other beings for the sake of gods, heroes, or even men. Sometimes the sacrificers destroyed mere materials, but more often they slew animals and sometimes even people.
In the Iliad, religious sacrifice is frequent. After the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, Agamemnon immediately resumes his role as divine king:
The son of Atreus bade the people purify themselves. And they purified themselves, and cast the defilement into the sea, and offered to Apollo perfect hecatombs of bulls and goats by the shore of the barren sea; and the savour thereof went up to heaven, eddying amid the smoke.
After Troy has been sacked, in many versions, the youngest daughter of Priam is sacrificed at Achilles's tomb.
Today, we speak of sacrifice in many ways. Parents work for their children, soldiers die for their nation, and ascetics forgo their pleasure for purity. We must be clear about what they are talking about. In this piece, sacrifice means the act of consecrating an offering by destruction. This act is committed for the sake of a religious entity. The paradigmatic case of sacrifice is the killing of an animal during a ritual.
Sacrifice involves the sacrificer, sacrificed, witnesses, and the spiritual being for which it is performed. The owner of the ox is the sacrificer, the animal is the sacrificed, and the community serves as active witnesses. The ritual is done for the sake of Zeus (or some other god) – he’s the immediate religious object. The act consecrates the offering, that is, it destroys and renders it sacred. In The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, the writer and publisher Roberto Calasso describes the paradoxical way in which sacrificial victims were treated:
They throw leaves over Polyxena, as if she had won an event at the games: for this was the way they congratulated the winners.
Shortly after this scene, Polyxena is killed. Today such a “sacred killing” appears pointless and cruel. Indeed, we should discard moral nihilism and just say that it is pointless and cruel.
Happily, Zeus does not receive the victims he once did in ancient times. These days the roles of the sacrificer, sacrificed, witness, and religious object are left vacant.
But we must ask, what was the nature of such practices? Why did we sacrifice so often and what did it mean then? And finally, what does sacrifice mean today?
Let’s answer these questions using three models as guides.
The Religious Bond
One of the most common explanations for sacrifice is what I’ll call the communal signaling model.
The first part of this model is the signaling aspect. Talk is cheap. People’s motives and beliefs are revealed through their actions.
The hunter who shares his catch shows his loyalty to the community by giving up what he could consume. The official who takes the time to attend every social gathering and ceremony communicates that he cares by their presence. People who pay such costs for the group make much better allies. It is by their works that you know them; words are not enough. Neither neighbors nor gods appreciate cheap signaling. In buphonia, the healthy working ox is offered as tribute to the gods – and by extension the community – because that offering means much more than the killing of a useless animal.
The second piece of this model is the communal aspect. Sacrifice is not a purely individual act. Crucially it involves the entire community. Yes, an individual can communicate their prosocial nature by offering expensive sacrifices, but to only describe such an act as a matter of an individual communicating their traits misses its intrinsic religious and group nature.
Sacrifice is an act performed and witnessed by a community, not only individuals.
Religion ritualized sacrificial behaviors that strengthen group feeling. The rites were performed when individuals entered the group and when they left it. Fustel de Coulanges describes this experience:
A sort of initiation was also required for the son, as we have seen it was for the daughter. This took place a short time after birth—the ninth day at Rome, the tenth in Greece, the tenth or twelfth in India. On that day the father assembled the family, assembled witnesses, and offered a sacrifice to his fire. The child was presented to the domestic gods; a female carried him in her arms, and ran, carrying him, several times round the sacred fire.
Sacrifice, through regular religious events, communicated group membership in life and death. It was an act for the entire family, community, or city. Many were implicated as they watched, sacrificed, or consumed the offerings.
The communal signaling explanation of sacrifice is a functional one. Sacrifice occurs because it binds together communities. Individuals that prove their worth to the group are more likely to survive. Communities that are unified are more likely to persist than those who do not. Sacrifice is therefore the result of cultural evolutionary pressure.
Yet this theory leaves aspects of the phenomenon unexplained.
What it predicts are ritualized and conspicuous “sacrifices.” It does not predict that the act has the sacred character it does. This isn’t to say that the theory is false, but it may be too general to explain the fundamentally religious nature of the act. Sacrifice is performed for the sake of a religious object.
In buphonia, Athenians killed the ox for the sake of the mythical Apollo. What is the son of Zeus doing here? Sacrifices could have simply involved giving to the community without religious garb.
There are already many real examples of “secular sacrifice.” For example, recall the hunter who slays the largest animal and shares his killing. This is a conspicuous act that undoubtedly proves the hunter’s value as an ally. When all hunters share their successes, the act is transformed into a communal one and the group bond strengthens. Such acts do not require any notion of the sacred. Ordinary norms suffice. Why couldn’t group feeling be regularly proved via nonreligious means?
The Sacred Cleanses
Before the battle of Salamis, Themistocles is called to scapegoat Persian prisoners:
[The seer] clasped Themistocles by the hand and bade him consecrate the youths, and sacrifice them all to Dionysus Carnivorous, with prayers of supplication… the multitude… invoked the god with one voice, dragged the prisoners to the altar, and compelled the fulfillment of the sacrifice, as the seer commanded.
In some sense, it is enough to kill your enemies without bringing religion into it. Yet the ritual “justifies” the killing. But why does religion have a cleansing power at all? Sacrifice is still cruel and the spiritual rationale is blatant rationalization.
A version of René Girard’s theory may be useful here. Let’s call it the scapegoat model.
Human competition is a pressure cooker building up to violence. Girard proposes that this conflict emerges from mimetic behavior. Humans are fundamentally imitative creatures. We copy not only others’ behavior, but their very desires. The nature of desire is not a simple two-part relation between the unsatisfied and the object of desire, it’s a tripartite one, with the unsatisfied, the object of desire, and the model of desire. The model is what is imitated. The unsatisfied desires through the other.
However, this means we desire the very same things. This results in competition and conflict. This is the pressure cooker. Whatever one thinks of Girard’s story, there certainly is a question here: what prevents the communal pressure cooker from exploding? Why isn’t man stuck in the realm of nature?
Here is where the ability for religious rites to justify violence enters. The religious object provides the ideology of the scapegoat, which justified the killing of innocents.
Instead of spiraling out of control, competition is managed by blaming and purging the scapegoat.
In I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard offers the example of the healer Apollonius.
Ephesus was suffering from a plague. Knowing of the healer and his power they asked for his help. Apollonius accepted and led them to the city’s theater where images of the Herculean god had been arranged. In this theater sat a single beggar. He offered a single instruction:
Pick up as many stones as you can and hurl them at this enemy of the gods.
With Apollonius’s urging, the crowd stoned him:
And as soon as some of them began to take shots and hit him with their stones, the beggar who had seemed to blink and be blind, gave them all a sudden glance and showed that his eyes were full of fire. Then the Ephesians recognized that he was a demon, and they stoned him so thoroughly that their stones were heaped into a great cairn around him.
Social order is restored by the killing of the innocent. The communal signaling model explains how sacrifice can serve as a way to bond a community together, yet arguably leaves the sacred unexplained. The scapegoat model proposes that the sacred just is what justifies the killing of innocents. The beggar was “revealed” as a demon. That’s what justified the act.
Jean-Pierre Vernant expands on this aspect of Girard’s theory:
If the act of slaying lies at the heart of the thusia, it resides there like a subversive threat that is repeatedly conjured away. It is a defect against which care is taken to construct and organize the delicate balance of a rite which embeds life in death. It admits that we must slaughter animals in order to eat, yet at the same time it aims to banish acts of murder and savagery from what is human.
Both the communal signaling and scapegoat models explain many real and mythical cases of sacrifice, but not all.
The Master as the Most Willing Sacrificer
Returning to the Trojan war, consider the case of Agamemnon and Iphigenia.
Agamemnon and the rest of the Greeks are stranded in Aulis. The Achaeans are not happy about this state of affairs. The king promised them the riches of Troy but gave them the poverty of a lowly port.
The seer Calcis tells Agamemnon that he has offended Artemis and must sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia.
So, Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia to still Artemis’s fury. Such an act appeased the goddess and Agamemnon’s Achaeans.
This ritual has a religious object, Artemis. But Agamemnon does not kill for the sake of Artemis alone. He also kills to satisfy his men.
The scapegoat model is of use here. The impiety of the house of Atreus explains why the men are stuck on a hot, boring island with nothing to show for themselves. Hence, they must be sacrificed.
After the sacrifice, the victim is deified. Iphigenia is given a more glorious death than her father, who later bleeds out in a bath.
The communal signaling model is of less use. The sacrifice is not primarily a communal act.
Agamemnon does not only kill for his men but to conquer Troy. Behind that goal, is a deep desire to be recognized by others. Recall how he risks victory over Troy to avoid losing any kind of face when facing off against Achilles.
The sacrifice of Iphigenia is tragic, but necessary to retain power. Artemis tests how far Agamemnon will go and is given the answer: far.
We admire those that are willing to risk much for the sake of achievement. It would be nice if that attitude evaporated when ambitious types began destroying innocent victims in their quest for glory, but it does not. It often remains as long as we are not the innocent victims.
Hence those who are willing to risk their own lives and the lives of others often win.
This suggests another aspect of sacrifice not yet made explicit: through it, one may gain and retain power.
An interpretation of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is useful here. Individuals deeply desire recognition – to be seen as equals or betters.
If recognition is the most desired object, then earning it demands playing at the highest stakes. Hence, history is driven by a life-or-death struggle for prestige. Fukuyama summarizes in his often-cited, but not often-read book, The End of History and the Last Man:
The outcome of this battle was a division of human society into a class of masters, who were willing to risk their lives, and a class of slaves, who gave in to their natural fear of death.
Agamemnon is a master. As is the rest of the central cast of the Iliad.
They earn that title because of what they are willing to risk and pay. Some die for glory, and all sacrifice in some way or another. In this fashion, later elites would host games and sacrifices to proclaim their greatness.
Contrast this master model with the communal signaling model. Both involve signaling, but the primary locus of the master model is the individual. High status derives from domination or prestige. A strong bully may derive their status from physical prowess that allows them to dominate. An emancipated seer however derives their status from prestigious celestial and spiritual knowledge. The master combines both. Agamemnon dominated others, but he also led the sacrifices.
Nestor tried to calm Achilles by reminding him of that fact:
And you, Son of Peleus, never hope to fight it out with your king, pitting force against his force: no one can match the honors dealt a king, you know, a sceptered king to whom Zeus gives glory.
One can extend the difference in Hegelian terms by noting that the master model involves striving to be seen as greater than others, while communal sacrifice is a more egalitarian affair. Amplifying this difference, the connection between divinity and Agamemnon is made explicit by Nestor.
These are two key aspects of sacrifice. It binds together the community. Yet it also provides a route for the individual to rise. We’ve found a thesis and antithesis.
What is the synthesis?
Sacrificing to Society
Fewer of us sacrifice to gods today. There are other means to prove our loyalty than the altar.
Sacrificers and the sacrificed still exist, but take on different forms. As mentioned earlier, we sacrifice for our family, friends, tribe, and nation. But the religious object no longer has the place it once does.
The communal signaling model predicts some of this. Religious rituals provided a regular way to signal loyalty. Today legal, cultural, and social institutions have substituted for the religious scheme. We can assess others in a multitude of ways, knowing they were present at a sacred ceremony is no longer necessary.
So does the scapegoat model. With new institutions come new stories and ideologies to justify purging the scapegoat. Judges declare sentences where seers and divinely appointed kings used to.
With a decline in religious sacrifice comes the loss of the sacred. That, at least, is what the argument above would suggest.
And what is sacred today? For many, perhaps relatively little. For others, religious objects are now political or cultural ones. It is for entities like the world, humanity, and society that one can sacrifice for now.
The writer and publisher, Roberto Calasso once wrote:
Society takes a step toward becoming the last horizon for society itself. Society is now the invisible entity to which the sacrifice is offered. No other invisible entity is permitted: there is one single god, or many gods, or nature, or even the unknown. But the point is that it is still necessary to talk about “sacrifices.”
Religious sacrifice was used to bind local communities together. It was also a way to build and maintain dominance. In both cases, the individual and clan are sublimated to the religious object. With the loss of an explicitly religious object, sacrifice threatens to crush the individual for the sake of the universal.
Yet one still wonders why the innocent are and will continue to be punished for the gods, secular or religious, at all.
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