The Significance of Sacrifice

Sacrificial practices all have a familiar nature, whether celebrated among Australian Aborigines or the Haida peoples of the American Northwest, in Iran or Cameroon, in Aztec Mexico or in Imperial Rome.

Examining archaeological evidence, it’s impossible to deny that we know — in an admittedly complex way — what this nature consists of; sacrifice is one language, made up of different words, phrases, and dialects. The perspective of a “sacrificial vision” can be recognized across space and time, even if some scholars treat sacrifice itself as an invention of anthropologists. This ancient sacrificial vision often touched everything in its world; it was an all-encompassing view of the world as “a forum of, and for, action”: sacrificial action.

Oddly enough, this vision, though persistent across historical time and pervasive across historical space, can also dissolve away. People can think and act in ways that ignore the sacrificial vision, and can decline to interpret the world in sacrificial terms. Many modern secular people would probably be comfortable describing acts of ritual sacrifice as the actions of disordered minds.

Yet the language of sacrifice can’t be gotten rid of; it returns and remains. Sacrificial practices have disappeared, or been psychologically transformed, but the words relating to them are still used — and everyone seems to understand them immediately, even if they aren’t anthropologists. Beyond being part of our adaptive history, sacrifice itself seems to be an archetypal phenomenon that continues to exist and function as an implicit condition of our lives, in whatever space and time we inhabit.

The ancient sacrificial vision contains an implication that is seemingly unable to be exhausted in meaning and significance. This implication is that it’s quite possible to ignore the thought of sacrifice, but the world seems to continue just the same — without needing your approval — to be one giant sacrificial drama.

What’s the basis of this vision of the whole world as a sacrificial drama? In every physiological process — every one of them — energy and information are valued, substituted, and exchanged across and between different domains; from an outside to an inside and from an inside to an outside; from the visible to the invisible and back, so to speak; from an earth to a heaven and back, so to speak. Valuation, substitution, and exchange are the essential elements of sacrificial practices; biological metabolism is a tale told by these themes as well.

For the truly dedicated every breath can be experienced as a sacrifice in this vision of the world, every act of ingestion and excretion too; every heartbeat, every spoken word, every thought and dream. Sacrifice is always happening; the whole cosmos is an arena of ardor, woven of the time and space in which sacrifices are offered and celebrated.

This interpretation of physiological processes as sacrifices is the critical perception on which a vision of the world as a sacrificial forum depends. Reduced to its most fundamental insight, this perception implies that between everything internal and external, in any explored or unexplored territory, there’s a human relationship, a communication that has human meaning — a potentially wide diversity of meanings — up to the archetypal sacrifices of cosmic significance present in different religious traditions.

The ancient sacrificial vision implies that what the post-enlightenment experimental mind is used to seeing as “material nature” is actually intrinsically meaningful; this vision sidesteps nihilism from the very beginning. You can say this is arbitrary, but isn’t it just as arbitrary to try to start with a “pure” description of nature, then attempt to introduce meaning into what’s been described?

Sacrifice is a broad and deep phenomenon. What more can be said about how it reveals the meaning inherent in metabolism?

Consider this: in every instance of sacrifice across ancient time and space, a rite or ritual was generated that practiced the destruction of something in connection with an invisible counterpart. Any particular procedure might have different, even conflicting, explicitly-stated meanings compared to other manifestations of the phenomenon of sacrifice; yet every manifestation shared the qualities of detachment and separation, of yielding or abandoning something to an invisible counterpart.

Sacrifices also had to have to a destructive aspect. There was no sacrifice unless something was burned up, consumed, dispersed, discharged, poured out, etc.

Every sacrifice was a formalized series of actions addressed to an invisible counterpart, including a destruction — something had to be separated from what or who it previously belonged to and then dispersed.

This “something” might’ve been the life of an animal, or money, or a liquid libation of water or perfume, or anything else. There were many variations across different historical contexts, and many explicitly-stated motivations, ranging from the everyday to the sublime.

How are we to understand the meaningful felt need, over and across all of human history, to turn to an invisible counterpart, and perform a series of actions that included a destruction — the detachment of something from who or what it previously belonged to?

Why did a living being have to be killed in the name of establishing contact and a relationship between humans and an invisible counterpart (usually assumed to be divine, holy, alien, “set apart”)? Why did a given quantity of a particular material have to be destroyed, poured away, or burned? What was the violence of sacrifice pointing to? Why did people find so much meaning in it?

Meditating on sacrifices from the perspective of Analytical Psychology, they can be seen as dramatizations of the inherently threatening and consuming nature of the relationship between the ego and the Self. Sacrifices are portrayals of the process of the ego submitting to the higher intelligence of the Self; they’re depictions of the processes of submission, dissolution, and transformation by which a personality is differentiated over time.

The healthy and adapting ego is one that consciously and voluntarily sacrifices itself to this intrinsically meaningful process, offering its energy to the Self’s guidance moment by moment, no matter how seemingly trivial, simple, or straightforward the actions it’s engaged in are. This is the meaning of metabolism — to truly dedicate yourself to the sacrificial process that transforms you into the most wholly realized immanent incarnation of your transcendental potential as possible.

“Sacrifice is in the first place a caesura in the original sense of the word, which comes from caedo, to cut, a verb used in sacrificial killing. But, if sacrifice introduces a caesura into life (into any life), then we must ask what happens if the caesura does not occur. There would inevitably be another caesura, but this time in the sense of an unplanned interruption.” — Roberto Calasso

The ego can be its own most daunting obstacle; in its pride and refusal to give way and transform it can shortsightedly attempt to deny itself access to the Self. What happens if the ego refuses to be cut, refuses to submit to the pattern of wholeness that the Self purposefully seeks to incarnate in the individual personality? Unplanned interruptions to the ego’s plans might mysteriously manifest and leave the ego adrift, or worse.

Has secular society really learned how to value the discoveries it has made, and can make, by deconstructing the sacrificial vision of the world embodied in religious and symbolic traditions?

It seems just as accurate to me to say that secular society can no longer see any perspective beyond itself, and believes that it’s the answer for everything.

Calasso writes:

“Nature, for Urban Man, is a barometric variation and a few leafy islands scattered across the urban fabric. Apart from this, it is raw material for manufacture and a scenario for leisure. For Sacrificial Man, nature was the place where the powers were manifest and where exchanges between the powers took place. Society was a cautious attempt at collectively becoming part of those exchanges, without disturbing them too much and without being annihilated by them.

Substitution, exchange, value: pivotal elements around which the world we call modern revolves. Their origin lies in sacrificial practices — and in the metaphysics of sacrifice. There is no sacrifice that does not involve exchange; there is no sacrifice that does not acknowledge substitution; there is no sacrifice that does not have a value at its core. But what happens when sacrifice is no longer allowed, as the modern world is proud to declare? Where has it ended up? As a superstition? How can we understand that substitution, exchange, and value, which no one would dare suggest are superstitions, were created and formed as part of one and the same superstition, sacrifice itself?

The word sacrifice has now assumed a psychological and economic meaning; this is clear to anyone. Someone makes sacrifices for the family. A government asks for sacrifices from its citizens. But if the same government were to ask citizens to celebrate sacrifices, whether or not they involved killing, the suggestion would sound very odd to many people. It would seem like a fit of madness.

Yet humanity, for most of its history, has celebrated sacrifices everywhere. Why then have such acts and their celebration become unthinkable? Something so essential might change somewhat over time, but it is very hard to believe that it could disappear, become unimaginable. And yet this is exactly what has happened with the celebration of sacrifices.”

A quick image search on google, deviantart, or artstation can bring this aspect of the secular imagination into focus. It was difficult for me to find modern art depicting “sacrifice” and “ritual” as things worthy of celebration or cosmic reverence, or even as “neutral”. Many pieces portray sacrifices as something nightmarishly dark, conducted by malevolent personalities. This is an admittedly narrow anecdotal observation, but one I find interesting.

If sacrifice as a historical human phenomenon is in fact primarily the dramatization of psychological adaptation, what happens when a society stops taking the ideas of psychological adaptation and maturation as seriously as the people who dramatized those ideas took them?

The process of individuation is harsh to the ego, and can always be truthfully depicted in harsh ways, but is an aversion to sacrifice reflective of a new collective tendency in secular society to withdraw from the threatening nature of the process by which the ego sacrifices itself to the Self in order to grow? Is the fear of individuation manifesting itself in the secular imagination and in its art? When processes of psychological maturation and differentiation are viewed as intrinsically evil, what happens to a society?

What happens when individuation is inverted?

Calasso continues:

“Sacrifice is now a word capable of creating immediate embarrassment. Many use it casually when they talk about money or war, even when they talk about psychological considerations. But if we refer to the ritual ways of what in the past was called sacrifice, there is a sudden repulsion. This kind of sacrifice is something that secular society will not accept, it belongs to an age that is dead and gone forever. Sacrifice in the ancient sense is regarded as something barbarous and primitive. Why then, is the word continually used, why are there key issues where nothing else can take its place?

The reasons for the ancient sacrifices remain the same if we have a perception of the numinous or divine powers [the invisible counterparts] to whom the rites were addressed. But that perception has become confused over time, so the ceremonies seem no more than a sequence of foolish gestures, generally culminating in the killing of an animal.

And this is the only point on which there is no possible blurring, since it is patently obvious to anyone today that the world depends upon the daily killing of millions of animals. Killings take place in many different ways, but all in obedience to one single rule: they should not take place in public. This rule is enforced by the state as inviolable and inalienable in widely different cultures, without any real voice of oppositionit’s generally accepted that the killing of animals during sacrifices ought to stir a universal feeling of repulsion. And so it does — yet at the same time sacrifice is associated with a series of fine and noble images. Indeed, the word itself is still used, metaphorically, in situations where it inevitably denotes something dutiful and commendable.

This tangle of very strong and contradictory feelings becomes evident as soon as we begin to look at the world today, which pretends to ignore sacrifice. And perhaps in this particular tangle around sacrifice, more than anywhere else, we notice how this world of today is detached from, and at the same time dependent on, all that has preceded it. The inevitable embarrassment of anyone who approaches the question of sacrifice is only a symptom of the persistence of that tangle, which seems to become even more tightly knotted whenever we try to unravel it. Above all, for most people, it remains invisible. The simple act of becoming consciously aware of it could itself bring a radical change.

A caesura separates the last few centuries of the secular world from all that happened before. And this “cutting” is what should be studied and contemplated, because its immensity is a sign that history has entered a phase where muddle and misconstruction between the ancient and modern worlds is being pushed further than ever before.”