Sacrifice Research Paper

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There is no scholarly consensus regarding the meaning of the term ‘sacrifice.’ In its widest usage the term, which derives from the Latin sacrificium, is applied to virtually any form of gift-giving to a deity. A more restricted application limits its use to situations in which the gift is mutilated or destroyed. An even more restrictive usage is suggested by the Oxford English Dictionary (Simpson and Weiner 1989/1933), whose primary definition is ‘the slaughter of an animal (often including the subsequent consumption of it by fire) as an offering to God or a deity.’

The term sacrifice is, therefore, best regarded as a polythetic category which includes heterogeneous modes of behavior motivated by intentions of variable kinds. These include commemoration, initiation, expiation, propitiation, establishing a covenant, or affecting a transition in social status. Regarding sacrifice not as constituting a class of phenomena having a fixed set of features in common but as a multivocal term applying to phenomena that merely have ‘family resemblances’ in common has the advantage of mitigating somewhat the Euro-centric bias inherent in the work of many of the most influential thinkers on the subject, among them Robertson Smith (1894 1927), Hubert and Mauss (1898), and Durkheim (1912). ‘The Sacrifice’ for this generation of scholars was the central feature of religion, a Judaic– Christian bias still evident as late as 1956, the year in which E. E. Evans-Pritchard published his classic, Nuer Religion. Tellingly, Evans-Pritchard did not identify any word in the Nuer language that unambiguously corresponded to the English ‘sacrifice.’ This lack of correspondence appears widespread. Benveniste (1969, p. 223), for example, could discover no common word for sacrifice in the Indo-European languages.

1. The Terminology Of Sacrifice

In more elaborate forms than straightforward ritualized gift-giving, sacrifice typically involves a set of four terms. First, there is the sacrificer, the executor of the ritual. Second, there is the sacrifier, the beneficiary of the sacrifice. This may be the executor of the ritual, individual members of the community, or the community in toto. Third, there is the object sacrificed. Although this gift may be anything, ethnographic descriptions usually emphasize the bloody sacrifice of a living being, in which case blood typically is described as connoting such ideas as fertility, renewal, replenishment, vitality, life force, and empowerment.

Access by the sacrifier to these desirables is acquired when this substance is shed in ritual by the act of forcing life out of the victim. Substitution, or the use of a surrogate in cases when the offering is that of a human being, is a common occurrence, so frequently resorted to that some writers, including two who have made important contributions to the topic— de Heusch (1986) and Bloch (1992, p. 32)—consider substitution to be a key feature of sacrificial rituals. Fourth, there is the deity to whom the sacrifice is made.

2. Approaches To The Sacrifice

A number of distinguished thinkers have advanced what might be termed ‘approaches’ to the study of sacrifice, which afford insightful, though overlapping, perspectives. Among the most useful are the following five.

2.1 Sacrifice As Gift

For Tylor (1871 1913), following Plato, the sacrifice was a gift made to an anthropomorphic divinity, much as a gift might be given to a chief, whose acceptance made the deity indebted to humanity. This approach was popular with nineteenth century scholars, who attributed to the act of sacrificing such motives as expiating sins, obtaining benefits, nourishing the deity, and establishing good relations between human beings and spirits. This theory lays stress on the beliefs of the givers rather than on the ritual performance itself, which in this interpretation is relegated to logically subservient status. This approach is at the same time too broad and too narrow. It is overly broad in that these motives undoubtedly are widespread in many rituals of sacrifice all over the world, yet excessively narrow since sacrificial rituals are employed to do much more than simply offer gifts.

2.2 Sacrifice As Communion

Robertson Smith (1894 1927), in contrast to Tylor, granted priority to ritual, a ranking modern ethno-graphic fieldwork tends to validate. Robertson Smith’s main point was that early Semitic sacrifice, and by implication sacrifice among nonliterate peoples, was a feast human beings communally shared with their deity. He understood the immolated victim to be the clan totem, an animal that shared in the blood of its human kin. It was also the clan ancestor, which was the clan deity, so in consuming their animal victim members of the community were eating their deity. This act of consumption conferred spiritual power.

Later research in the field undermined much of Robertson Smith’s argument, but unquestionably the sacrifice does offer a means by which human beings may conjoin with their deity and establish a relationship, and here Robertson Smith did have insight. He strongly influenced Hubert and Mauss, whose Essai sur la nature et la fonction du sacrifice, which appeared in 1898, remains the basic work on the topic. Like all the studies of the time, it depended entirely upon secondary and tertiary sources rather than original ethnography, and the authors further restricted their sources to Sanskrit and Hebrew texts. To them the most significant feature about the sacrificial feast was that it provided the mechanism by which communion, in the sense of communication between human beings and deity, could be brought about. It was made possible by the fact that the victim represented both sacrifier and divinity, thus breaking down the barrier between the sacred and the profane (a moral contrast that played a major role in their approach). Yet, although the sacrifical act conjoined the sacred and profane, it could also disjoin them since while there were sacrifices that brought the spirit into the human world and made the profane sacred, there were also sacrifices that removed the spirit from the human world and made what had become sacred, profane. The former Hubert and Mauss called rituals of ‘sacralization;’ the latter, rituals of ‘desacralization.’ Even though Evans-Pritchard—who was very much influenced by their ideas—found this distinction among the Nuer (1956, pp. 197–230), it is by no means as universal as they supposed.

Hubert and Mauss were intrigued by those sacrifices in which it is the deity that offers his life for the benefit of his worshippers. As they saw it, the exemplary sacrifice was that of a god, who, through unqualified self-abnegation, offers himself to humankind, in this way bestowing life on lesser beings. The most celebrated example of this is the central ritual of the Catholic religion, the Mass, where Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is re-enacted. In a sacrifice of this nature the relationship between the deity and worshippers raises the question of relative status. From Hubert and Mauss’ perspective the relationship is one of grave imbalance since the deity gives more than it gets. This may appear so, but Valeri (1985, pp. 66–7) has advanced a sophisticated argument designed to prove that sacrifice actually creates a bond of ‘mutual’ indebtedness between the human and the divine, which makes each party dependent upon the other. This proposition may not be true universally, but support for Valeri’s argument comes from the bear sacrifices carried out by the Ainu of Japan. In these, the immolation of bears brings fertility to the community and nurture to the spirits (Irimoto 1996).

Durkheim’s (1912) distinctive contribution, which otherwise relied heavily upon Hubert and Mauss, and Robertson Smith, was to promote the importance of sacrificial activities in bringing about social cohesion and the values that contribute to this cohesion. In Timor, a South Pacific island, a ritual is performed in which a local king is figuratively slain by members of two ethnically different communities (Hicks 1996). The king, who comes from one of these groups, symbolizes their unity as a single social entity at the same time that he symbolizes their local god. In addition, by periodically immolating their king the two groups regenerate their notions of ‘society’ and ‘god’ as epistemological categories.

2.3 Sacrifice As Causality

For Hocart (1970, p. 217) the most compelling reason for performing collective rituals was the ‘communal pursuit of fertility.’ A sacrifice is offered to the gods in order that life and the fertility that engenders and sustains it are acquired by the community, a view that focuses upon sacrifice as a practical device to affect empirical transformation. Catholic rituals before the Reformation were thought of in this way; afterwards they were reinterpreted as a symbolic process (Muir 1997). For Catholics the Mass materially transformed the bread into Christ’s body; for Protestants the bread merely represented Christ’s sacrifice.

2.4 Sacrifice As Symbol System

More contemporary scholars, such as Valeri (1985), have emphasized the symbolic character of sacrificial behavior, analyzing its structure and isolating its motifs within the wider context of a society’s ideology. In this approach, the array of symbols isolated is then apprehended as a semantic system whose meaning requires decoding. Valeri’s interpretation of Hawaiian sacrifice, for example, requires that sacrificial rituals be understood as a symbolic action ‘that effects transformations of the relationships of sacrifier, god, and group by representing them in public’ (1985, pp. 70–1). Although vulnerable to the criticism that it relies too heavily on the subjective bias of the analyst, this approach has the advantage of enabling sacrificial practices to be understood within a wider social context, at the same time as it allows an analysis of sacrifice to open up a distinctive perspective on society.

2.5 Sacrifice As Catharsis

Another approach to sacrifice is to focus on violence. Girard (1972), most notably, has suggested that sacrifice offers a socially controlled, and therefore, socially acceptable, outlet for the aggressive urges of human beings. The typical manner by which this is accomplished is to use a sacrificial victim as a scapegoat. A more recent scholar who has stressed the importance of violence in sacrifice is Bloch (1992), but his approach differs from that of Girard in that for Bloch sacrifice requires violence because human beings need ‘to create the transcendental in religion and politics,’ and that this is attainable through violence done to the victim (Bloch 1992, p. 7). One difficulty with this approach is that behavior that one might arguably class as sacrificial may involve no violence at all.

3. Origins Of Sacrifice

Sacrificial rituals have an extensive pedigree. One of the earliest for which a reasonably detailed record is available dates from about 3,000 years ago. The Vedic Aryans held sacrifice to be their central religious activity (Flood 1996, pp. 40–1), and it consisted of putting milk, grains of rice and barley, and domesticated animals into a sacred fire that would transport the offerings to supernatural entities. As the Agnicayana, this ritual is still carried out in Kerala, southwest India.

Evidence for sacrificial behavior extends further back than Vedic times, to the civilizations of Sumer 5,000 years ago and China 4,000 years ago, and its presence seems accounted for even further in the past. This long history, taken with the widespread practice of sacrifice all over the world, suggests that a case could be made that sacrificial behavior is one of the natural dispositions common to the species Homo sapiens. As Needham (1985, p. 177) has averred for ritual in general, it may be that sacrifice, ‘Considered in its most characteristic features … is a kind of activity—like speech or dancing—that man as a ceremonial animal happens naturally to perform.’


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