If you want to freak out about the above subject line and not read on to see what exactly I mean by this, feel free to do so now and demonstrate how lacking in contextual awareness you are. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
Okay: so, those of you who actually are going to read on and understand what I mean by the above term, I’m glad you’re still here.
There’s almost no topic that scares people, but also reminds them of what they’ve been told (erroneously) about paganism or ancient polytheism, more than “human sacrifice.” I’ve certainly written about it before (including here and at Patheos.com), so it’s not new that I might be discussing it.
And, the topic has also recently come up in some reflections by Damh the Bard in relation to the druids, “wicker men,” and Julius Caesar. I’d comment further, though, that his comparison of Caesar to the Nazis is more than a bit excessive–the Nazis were determined to enact genocide on the Jews, whereas the Romans were consistently afraid of the Gauls (after all, they did successfully sack Rome several centuries before–but of course, most modern Celtic-influenced pagans aren’t willing to admit that, and many don’t even know about it, since they think that all Celts [and they rarely distinguish them more specifically or finely than that] were peaceful, vegetarian, goddess-worshipping pacifists who didn’t even have alcohol, or so they think…and, alas, I wish I was joking, but I’ve heard this firsthand from some major modern pagan figures, unfortunately!), and were especially fearful of the druids during Caesar’s time, but didn’t have any designs to utterly destroy them and kill every last one of them.
But that’s a whole other set of issues…and I’m not here to talk about Nazis and the inappropriate use of that term for other things in history, I’m here to talk about child sacrifice.
When the recent discussion of whether or not consumption of food offerings was permissible in modern polytheism occurred over the last few months, there were a variety of things said about the term “sacrifice.” Modern usages of the term, which were employed during parts of that discussion, suggest that it means “to give up,” and that “giving up” has to “hurt” or at least be somewhat inconvenient. That particular set of usages ultimately derives from a Christian context, and one that is even a bit debased within that religious framework. Note, I’m not saying that meaning isn’t valid, it’s simply that that’s not all that it can mean, and in my opinion it’s not the best or most readily appropriate meaning for it to take in a polytheist context. The word in English ultimately derives from Latin roots which mean “to make holy,” and things are often made holy by being “set aside.” So, what is sacrificed to the gods is something that is reserved for their usage, that is specifically singled out and placed apart from other things. It’s important to keep that thought in mind as we go forward in this present discussion.
As a result of having visited the Peru exhibit last week, I was reminded of something else that is an ethic followed with all forms of sacrifice in the ancient world: one gave the very best of what one had–the healthiest and most beautiful cow, the most expensive bottle of wine, and so forth. As a result, what greater “good thing” is there in human communities than other humans? And thus, human sacrifice becomes a thing that is sensible within such systems.
And that brings us to children.
Now, again, no, I’m not going to suggest that anyone should take their children and kill them, nor take anyone else’s children and kill them, on behalf of the gods…or, anything at all, ever.
But, “killing” is not the only way to sacrifice something. Things can be dedicated long-term to the usage of the gods, whether these are gifts of altars, statues, clothes, and other items, or special animals connected to a deity or oracular practices with them, or any number of other things.
Indeed, this form of sacrifice–or, perhaps more appropriately, oblation–was followed well into the Christian period with the practice of child oblation, especially in Egypt.
What is “child oblation”? It is the offering and dedication of one’s children to religious purposes. In Christian Egypt, this basically meant turning one’s child over to a monastic life. This was done very often in fulfillment of vows on behalf of grateful parents who had received some favor from the Christian gods or saints, including in saving the life of the child from death by illness and such.
It was–and always is–better to have a child alive than dead, certainly; and for a child to owe its life to the gods or other divine beings would thus be a factor in the situation where such miraculous (or even not-so-miraculous) healings and recoveries occurred…thus, what better way to demonstrate that debt and to attempt to repay it than lifelong service to the gods?
Indeed, I think many of us who are devotional polytheists have some sort of debt to the gods we worship that comes about for similar reasons; even though I was devoted to Antinous long before certain problems I had in the last few years came about, my debt to him increased even more when he intervened very directly in my life on several occasions to allow it to continue. To say I owe him what life and health I have is a colossal understatement, in my opinion, and thus there is no question that I’ll continue to be devoted to him for as long as I have a say in such.
But, what about children? Not very many polytheists that I know have children, and there are good reasons for not doing so; but, the continuity of our traditions will depend upon children being raised in the traditions during the next few generations. But, even with polytheist parents who are raising their children in the tradition, and who hope to carry our polytheist traditions on through their children: would the idea of “child oblation” be something that would even enter into their minds in the most remote of circumstances?
I suspect not, for a variety of reasons, including that such vowing of the lives of one’s children to the service of the gods might be seen by many people as a violation of the consent or free will of a child–and, I do largely agree with that. But, vows to certain gods from dominant monotheist religions get made on behalf of children (usually infants) on a daily basis, and have been done for around eighteen centuries now, and those vows get broken (technically) all the time…which is not to say that it is “okay” to break such vows, but it kind of begs a number of questions, I think…
I certainly don’t have any answers on this matter, and I am asking these questions mostly as a thought experiment rather than as any sort of modest (or not-so-modest!) proposal for everyone to consider. Do even those polytheists who aren’t afraid to spend large amounts of money on offerings and getting “the very best” for the gods have limits on what would be thought of as “the best” but which they’d never entertain as potential offerings (e.g. children)? Does dedicated service to the gods for one’s children sound like a horrendous prospect (and one that seems to be the province of fantasy-fiction, where that poor child raised in the Temple of XYZ Goddess wants nothing more than to live her own life free of those responsibilities, and falls in with a dashing rogue who takes her off for grand adventures, only to have his skin saved by her when she realizes some thing that the senior priestesses taught her is applicable to their situation…crikey, that’s an awful book, isn’t it?) and one that no one would ever consider? Is such a situation, where one might consider child oblation a possibility one that would signify that modern polytheists do take their religion that seriously and would have its continuation and preservation foremost in mind, a kind of requirement or acid-test to see if we really have arrived at a critical mass of maturity, fervor, and dedication in our lives and religious communities?
I don’t know…but I think it’s an interesting question, and one that is bound to stir up certain issues with many of you who might be reading this.
For many reasons, I’m not likely to ever have children–biological or adopted–in the future; my best hope is to have “spiritual children,” so to speak, that I can mentor in these Antinous-related traditions with the hopes that they might carry on whatever legacies are established in what remains of my life and my work as a devotee. Thus, the possibility of continuity of spiritual tradition through one’s children–though they are somewhat metaphorical children in the situation I’ve outlined here–is virtually assured (pending, of course, that such “spiritual children” do materialize in the future!) in this sort of situation. But if I did have biological or adopted children of the more conventional sort, raising them well in the best traditions of my spiritual practices would be foremost in my mind, and I would hope beyond hope that they would continue in those traditions after me, because I think they are valuable and useful and could likewise be valuable and useful for others.
So, you see? “Child sacrifice” and its reconsideration doesn’t have to hurt, or involve loss of life at all. And yet, for even asking these questions, I suspect some might not appreciate my voicing of these thoughts at all. Hmm…
I’ll be intrigued to hear your (respectful-even-in-disagreement!) responses on the matter, however.