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by Sacrifice, Oblation and Libation

by Melusine Draco

The act of propitiating or appeasing the gods is as old as humankind.  And, it is just as much an integral part of pagan worship today as it was when our Mesolithic ancestors first began leaving their mark on the landscape – both to honour the gods in times of plenty and to appease them in times of trouble. For the tribes that were beginning to track their footsteps across the open plains of the vast continents, they left behind evidence of their ‘holy places’ – where they periodically stopped and gathered together in the act of honouring the Ancestors and denizens of Otherworld, according to the lights of their times … and as their customs directed.

Propitiation is the act of appeasing or making well-disposed a deity, thus courting divine favor or avoiding divine retribution.  Some use the term interchangeably with expiation, while others draw a sharp distinction between the two, with expiation being the act of making amends or reparation for an offence committed, or atonement for some real or imagined wrong. However, they looked at it, primitive peoples were walking a precarious line in a world that was under constant threat from earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis; plus astronomical causes imposed severe phenomena on ancient societies, including catastrophic meteor impacts that allied themselves to the birth of numerous cultural myths and legends.

Serious illness, drought, pestilence, epidemic, famine, and other calamities – often brought about in the wake of natural disasters – have universally been regarded as the workings of supernatural forces. Often they have been interpreted as the effects of offenses against the sacred order committed by individuals and/or communities, deliberately or unintentionally. And, such offences broke the relationship with that sacred order or impeded the flow of divine life. It was then considered necessary in such times of crisis, individual or communal, to offer sacrifice to propitiate the sacred powers and to wipe out offences (or at least neutralize their effects) and restore the sacred harmony.  Kindred calls to kindred, blood calls to blood.

For ancient societies, without the means to predict natural disasters, destruction could often come suddenly and completely by surprise. Scientists from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick have studied sedimentary ancient DNA (sedaDNA) from sediment deposits in the southern North Sea, an area which has not previously been linked to a tsunami that occurred 8150 years ago. This work demonstrates that an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists and scientists can bring this landscape back to life and even throw new light on one of prehistory’s great natural disasters, the Storegga tsunami.

Until about 8,000 years ago, the British Isles were part of a peninsula, joined to mainland Europe by a strip of chalk downs, swamps, lakes and wooded hills. We call this submerged world Doggerland and even today, fishermen routinely bring up carved bone and antler tools from the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who lived here. By the end of the 7th millennium BC, a warming world was causing sea levels to rise and the people of Doggerland must have watched with dread as their villages were swallowed up one by one. But one event would turn the slow advance of the sea into an apocalyptic terror.

‘The edge of the Norwegian continental shelf is an underwater cliff that runs for six hundred miles along the Atlantic Basin. And one autumn day around 6225–6170 BC, this cliff collapsed. An estimated 770 cubic miles, or over 50 Mount Everests, of rock broke off and slid into the deep ocean. The rubble flow reached a speed of 90 mph underwater.  Meanwhile, on the surface, the ocean bent into a tsunami of unimaginable force. The waves may have reached initial heights of 260 feet, striking the Norwegian coast with 130 foot breakers, and Scotland with waves 65 feet high.  As for the people who lived in the low-lying fens of Doggerland, scientists believe this tsunami would have been catastrophic. A 16 foot wall of water buried settlements and farms beneath the waves. And there they would wait 8,000 years for the nets of fishermen to dredge up their remains.’ [Discover Magazine]

Similarly, during the mid-second millennium BC, one power dominated the Mediterranean. From their capital on Crete, the Minoan influence reached Cyprus, across the Greek islands and into modern Turkey and the Palestinian coast. They left behind remarkable paintings and pioneered technological advancements like indoor plumbing. They grew and flourished. That is, until one summer day around the year 1,600 BC, when the volcano of Thera, on what is now the Greek island of Santorini, erupted with the force of two-million Hiroshima bombs.  The destruction would have been virtually instant, eradicating all life on the island. Today, we can stand on top of cliffs 1,000 feet high that form the bowl of the Santorini crater, and imagine the vast tsunami that rippled across the sea, the sky blackening overhead.

Settlements on nearby Crete were swept away in a devastating event that destroyed the maritime trade that was their lifeblood, and the Minoan empire all but collapsed overnight. In the centuries that followed, they would disappear entirely, even down to their name (the word ‘Minoan’ is a Victorian invention). The eruption sent 24 cubic miles of rock into the atmosphere, four times more than the 1883 Krakatoa eruption. It blocked out the sun and threw the world into a period of bitter cold. Famine spread in Egypt as crops failed, and evidence of the eruption can even be found in the earliest of Chinese written chronicles.

The Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the second millennium BC was thriving. Languages and cultures mingled as trade routes criss-crossed land and sea, from Egypt and Greece to Turkey and the shores of Palestine. Markets bustled in the great thriving cities of Ugarit, Hattusha, Mycenae and Babylon, and the region saw a golden age of literacy and culture. But by 1,100 BC, virtually every society in this part of the world would collapse, into ash and ruin. And the cause of all this destruction may have been over 2500 miles away, on the snowy slopes of Iceland!

‘Hekla is one of the world’s most active volcanos and its most cataclysmic eruption in human history took place sometime around the year 1,100 BC. It threw nearly two cubic miles of volcanic rock into the atmosphere, and kicked off a period of cooling that would last for years. The rapid climate change that descended over northern Europe seems to have drivn a vsast number of refugees southward, placing unsustainable stresses on the region. The climate unrest caused several groups known as ‘The Sea Peoples’ to begin raiding in the south, causing the destruction and sacking of cities. Under famine, rebellions and outside attacks, the interdependent societies of the Bronze Age collapsed like dominos, and a period known as ‘The Late Bronze Age Collapse’ cast this whole region of the world into chaos.’ [Discover Magazine]

Natural disasters are something that humanity has had to deal with since its inception. They have the capability to wipe out significant amounts of the human and wildlife populations where they strike. In fact, it is highly probable that a natural disaster will be the cause of the end of the world, whenever that inevitably happens.  Even the ‘cradle of civilisation’ has been beset with natural disaster and for earliest man this was both a blessing and a curse.

According to the National Geographic magazine, the system of rift valleys that characterizes the African continent represents a perfect environment in which to understand the evolution of mankind.  Because the association between paleoanthropological discoveries and rift valleys is not accidental, since the volcanic and tectonic activities created the ideal conditions for the proliferation of life. Many extremely well-preserved human and animal fossils have been found in the Ethiopian rift valley, suggesting that this area may have represented a crucial site for human evolution in the last million years.

This most well-known rift valley on Earth, is the so-called ‘Great Rift Valley System’ which stretches from the Middle East in the north to Mozambique in the south. The area remains geologically active, and features volcanoes, hot springs, geysers, and frequent earthquakes; while research published last year by a team from the University of Oxford, suggests that a surge in volcanic activity along the Rift System might have forced early humans out of Africa, altering the course of our evolution forever.  In all of these circumstances we can’t begin to imagine the terror experienced by our ancestors when their world was torn apart by these cataclysmic events. – for them the only answer could have been was that the gods must have been very angry indeed …

Ancient cultures practiced the ritualistic (sacrificial) killing of humans and animals for a number reasons: appeasement; retribution; expiation for guilt, an entreat for military victory over an enemy; a seasonal invocation for spring planting or fall harvesting; a contractual quid pro quo between ruler-kings in exchange for the deities’ delivering up an enemy, or granting some bizarre request.

The ancient Mesopotamians, Israelites, Egyptians, Africans, Germanic tribes, Mayas, Aztec, Celts, and Native Americans practiced a variety of ritualistic sacrifices. The Old Testament cites Jehovah’s commanding Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, an act that was averted at the last minute …although when Jephthah struck a deal with Jehovah; in return for victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah pledged to offer the first person who emerged from his house as a sacrificial offering. Little did he know that his young daughter would be the sacrificial lamb he would offer in return for his military victory.

In the Greek play AgamemnonAeschylus’ protagonist was about to set sail to wage war on Troy but because Agamemnon angered Artemis, she withheld the winds necessary to launch his fleet across the Aegean Sea. To appease her, he offered his daughter Iphigenia as a propitious sacrifice.  To avenge the death of his son Androgeus  (at the hand of the Athenians),  Minos, the king of Crete, demanded that every seven years, seven Athenian youths and seven maidens be offered as sacrifices to appease the fabled Minotaur who dwelt in the labyrinth under his palace. Eventually Theseus, the young Athenian prince, put paid to this tithe by killing the legendary creature.

Queen Cassiopeia was known as the beautiful wife of King Cepheus. One day, she boasted that her daughter, Andromeda, was far more beautiful than the fifty Nereids, the sea-nymph daughters of Nereus (the old man of the sea). This boast angered Poseidon, who was married to Amphrite, the eldest of the Nereids. Poseidon had the sea monster, Cetus, destroy the city where Andromeda lived and the only way to stop Cetus was to sacrifice Andromeda to him. King Cepheus obeyed Poseidon and chained his daughter to a rock to save the land …

Greek mythology is replete with such acts of propitiation and expiation and, by ascribing human foibles to their pantheon of mighty gods – patricide, matricide, fratricide, and infanticide became the stuff that was celebrated in Greek mythology, poetry, and the visual arts.

Propitiation on a grand scale was also a shared religious practice among ancient Mesoamericans and Peruvians. According to their cosmological beliefs, the gods provided for mankind only if they themselves were placated. One method of this placation was human sacrifice and its purpose was to maintain a balance of the cosmos and appease the gods who presided over it. Instead of sacrificing members of their own community, however, pre-Columbians conducted ritual wars to gain sacrificial victims, which were captive male warriors. They perfected battle tactics that only wounded their enemies to ensure the prisoners could be killed later in a ritual sacrifice.

What is the meaning of sacrifice?

Sacrifice is the offering of food, objects or the lives of animals or humans to a higher purpose – in particular divine beings – as an act of propitiation or worship. Needless to say, putting others ahead of ourselves requires sacrifice and in more modern parlance it is the act of offering or the giving up of something we would prefer to keep.

What does it mean to make a sacrifice?

This is the act or ceremony of making an offering to a god especially on an altar, of something that is offered as a religious act; an act of giving up something especially for the sake of someone or something else.

What is the purpose of sacrifice?

Sacrifice is 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 within 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.

What are the elements of sacrifice?

It is possible to analyze the rite of sacrifice in terms of six different elements: the sacrificer, the material of the offering, the time and place of the rite, the method of sacrificing, the recipient of the sacrifice, and the motive or intention of the rite. These categories are not of equal importance and often overlap.

Where is the place of sacrifice?

The common place of sacrifice in most cults is an altar; more often it was only a pillar, a mound of earth, a stone, or a pile of stones.

What is the difference between an offering and a sacrifice?

Offering is an act of gifting or donation, while sacrifice is the offering of anything to a god as part of consecratory rite.

To the detractors of pagan beliefs the term ‘sacrifice’ always refers to killing animals or harming humans – because they fail to understand that in a pagan sense, what is always offered in sacrifice is, in one form or another, life itself. Sacrifice is a celebration of life, an acceptance of its divine and imperishable nature. In the act of sacrifice the consecrated ‘life’ of an offering is released as a sacred link that establishes a bond between the sacrificer and the divine power. Through sacrifice, energy is returned to its divine source, regenerating the power or strength of that source; life is fed by life. Hence the words of the ancient Roman sacrificer to his god: ‘Be thou increased (macte) by this offering’.  Needless to say, it is an increase in this divine power that is ultimately beneficial to the sacrificer because sacrifice is the merging and guarantee of the reciprocal flow of the divine life-force between its source and its embodiment. Kindred calls to kindred, blood calls to blood

Often the act of sacrifice involves the destruction of the offering, but this destruction is not in itself the sacrifice. The destruction (or consumption) of a food-drink offering at an altar’s fire is the means by which the deity receives the offering.  Thereby a sacrifice is the total act of offering and not merely the method in which the rite is performed.  So, sacrifice as a sacramental communal meal may involve the idea of the god as a participant in the feast, or being identified with the food consumed; it may also involve the idea of a ritual meal at which, either some agrarian event such as the springtime (Beltaine) and the harvest (Lughnasad) is repeated, or the sacred rites of the seasons are symbolically renewed – the Summer and Winter Solstices. Although the fundamental meaning of these sacrificial rites is that of affirming a bounteous and fruitful relationship with the sacred power and of establishing humankind in the sacred order, the rites have in recent years assumed a multitude of different forms and intentions.

The organization of propitiatory rites in different cultures and religions has undoubtedly been influenced by a number of factors, and the importance of such factors is an aspect of sacrifice that deserves increased examination. Nevertheless, sacrifice is not a phenomenon that can be reduced to rational terms; it is fundamentally an act of faith that has been of profound significance to individuals and social groups throughout history; a symbolic act that establishes a relationship between mankind and the sacred order of things. For many peoples of the world, throughout the ages, sacrifice has been the very heart of their religious life.

Offerings for the Gods by sacrifice, oblation and libation by Melusine Draco is currently a work in progress and will be published as the first title in the ‘Arcanum series’ for Ignotus Books.   Arcanum books will be titles of under 100-pages of practical and/or instructional text on a specific esoteric subject or theme.

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