Monday, 16 January 2017

Sacrifice

Sacrifice is not a pleasant word to many. It implies we need to give up some things we love for the sake of hopefully gaining something else we need or want. The everyday reality for most people contains a mixture of pleasure and pain. Nobody can do everything, and where we need to make choices there is often a sacrifice involved.

In modern spirituality I find a prevailing notion that we can have and be everything we want if we apply the spiritual “laws” of the universe. I don’t agree with this, because it denies so many aspects of the human experience. In this context sacrifice is shunned as something negative. Since sacrifice is a prominent theme in religion and mythology, I want to look at the deeper meaning of the concept and what it can teach us.

I grew up in the Christian religion, and one of the main tenets was the sacrifice of Christ, the son of God, for the sake of humanity. In the Old Testament we read about God demanding Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. The son and father are saved in the last minute due to the love of God and the faith of Abraham. The New and Old Testament examples of sacrifice both involve divine love and the threat of death. In both cases human death is not the final outcome as Christ is resurrected and Isaac is saved with a ram sacrificed in his place. In the New Testament story God sacrifices his son for the love of humanity, while in the Old Testament example human sacrifice is needed to please God. As a child I found the idea of sacrifice vindictive and I never understood why Christ had to suffer for the sins of others. A symbolic interpretation however may shed light on what the sacrifice means.

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia by Fran├žois Perrier.
From Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.
In Greek mythology there is Iphigenia, daughter of the Greek king Agamemnon in the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. Her sacrifice to the goddess Artemis was required for the king’s war pursuits to be successful. An animal was also involved as according to some sources the king offended Artemis by killing a deer, which was sacred to her as a goddess of hunting and wild animals. In some versions Iphigenia was saved and replaced by a deer. Iphigenia also appears as a priestess of Artemis. It is worth noting that Artemis is a virgin goddess, and the sacrifice was planned to take place on Iphigenia’s supposed wedding day. (Source: Wikipedia)

In The Undying Stars by David Mathisen, the theme of sacrifice in religion and mythology is discussed in detail. One of the theories presented in the book is that ancient myths, including those found in religious texts, point to the heavens and are an allegory for the movements of the stars and planets. The movement of the sun is used as a metaphor for the (recurring) journey of the human soul in corporeal existence. It is suggested that the theme of sacrifice is connected to the equinoxes and the animal symbolism is associated with the signs of the zodiac. In the case of Isaac, the ram is clearly Aries, the sign of the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere or autumn in the southern hemisphere. It is suggested that the deer in Iphigenia’s case represents the constellation Centaurus, which is near Virgo and the crossing of the celestial equator at the September equinox.

Because the equinoxes signify a turning point from longer days into longer nights or vice versa, they are a metaphor for the process of birth and death, or the journey into or out of the human body. The book provides a far more comprehensive explanation, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the topic. For the purpose of this article the idea is meaningful as it demonstrates the cosmic significance of myths. In the case of sacrifice in particular it tells us something about the balance between the spiritual and material sides of our existence, as signified by the balance between day and night on the equinoxes.

Going deeper into the notion of traversing the boundary between spiritual and physical, I think sacrifice has to do with how we create ourselves. I have written before on the gift of limitation. To know the individual self it is necessary to leave behind the realm of infinite possibilities. We retain some creative potential which we can work with in a world constrained by matter. To return to infinite love, the body and ego must be left behind. Of course nobody really knows what happens after death, but some research, such as the work of Michael Newton, suggests our souls contain memories of lives on earth even after leaving our bodies. Connecting this with the movement of the sun as a metaphor for the journey of the soul, it is worth noting that there is day and night at all times of the year in most places on earth. Sometimes there is more of the day and sometimes more of the night, but the two polarities exist side by side.

In the story of Iphigenia the sacrifice to a virgin goddess is meaningful if we consider that her (possible) death happened on her wedding day. To me this says something about the sacrifice required in partnership. To be committed to someone else, a person inevitably gives up some of their freedom and independence, perhaps symbolised by virginity. If we go with the version of events where Iphigenia was saved and became a priestess of the goddess, this could indicate a different kind of devotion to an ideal. The benefits of partnership are forfeited by those who choose the path of chastity. If chastity signifies inner development, it could perhaps point to the solitude involved in embarking on a spiritual journey.

The word sacrifice comes from the Latin sacrificium, which is a contraction of sacer, which means sacred, and facere, which means make. To make the experience of giving something up sacred, we could perhaps adjust our understanding of sacrifice. Between the polarities of humanity and divinity where sacrifice usually takes place, there is a tension that cannot be resolved. I believe this points to the yin and yang in the universe, the sacred dance of opposites where new things are created. This is also illustrated through the sexual unity between man and woman resulting in the birth of an offspring.

Love is a theme in all these examples of sacrifice, although in the example of Iphigenia there is also conflict and self-interest that could lead to death. In each case the victim is saved through love, devotion and mercy. The wisdom of sacrifice could be that when we adopt the perspective of the soul in our human endeavours, suffering can be transcended. The need to choose what we dedicate ourselves to is highlighted. The journey in the human body with all its trials can be understood as a gift when considering the bigger picture of our spiritual origins.