Posted by: aediculaantinoi | January 10, 2014

Child Sacrifice Reconsidered

As I’ve been building up to for days, here’s the third and final post in this series that began with funerals and continued with food offerings.

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.


Responses

  1. This reminds me of one part of the day of the dead celebration in mexico, in which food and mementos to children are left at graves or the house altar. From what i have gathered, the children you give your offerings to do not have to be your own. could be your community or just any. It was a neat custom, and one that I thought was kind of sweet.

    • Interesting! I don’t know much about Day of the Dead, so I wasn’t sure how all of that worked. Thanks for the info!

  2. Yes indeed, this stirs up big feelings. Being a polytheist parent of a very young child, I do struggle with questions around how to raise him religiously. I want hI’m to have the richness and blessings of being raised in these traditions that have been so good to me, but don’t want to take away his ability to find the best path of his own choosing.

    Actually, having him was a “sacrifice” to my Powers though – in the Afro-Diasporic trads, certain sacrifices, called ebbos, may be proscribed via divination, and having a baby was such an ebbo for me. Luckily I also really wanted a baby, so this ebbo was a wonderful thing for me to be prescribed. But technically, my baby is a “sacrifice”.

    • Interesting…I did not know that this particular matter was connected to an ebbo with you, but that makes a huge amount of sense, given many other matters in your life. ;)

      I think one of the things that our generation is going to find out is how it is to raise polytheist children seriously as polytheists, and if that makes them want to rebel and abandon it all when they get old enough to make their own decisions on these matters. As I’ve said in other things I’ve written, this notion that children shouldn’t be raised in a religion that the parents follow, I think, is a total over-reaction to many peoples’ situations growing up as Christians; but, what if the religion one grew up with didn’t have all of those “my-way-or-the-highway,” “ONE TRUE FAITH,” and so forth characteristics? What if kids were taught early on that some deities have helped them from the start of their lives (like their parents have), while others will come into and be important in their lives at other times and places and for other purposes (like friends, etc.)? I think it’s obvious that such is a better manner of approach, so why some pagan parents seem to think that any “proselytizing” of their children (and that term isn’t even appropriate here, because if it’s your own children, it’s called “raising them in a religion”!) cannot be tolerated is beyond me…

  3. I think this a rather important thing to think about. One issue I’ve seen is that when I discuss sacrifice to others, people get antsy, uncomfortable, and unhappy about the prospect. In conversation the other day, when I mentioned “sacrifice,” I got the extremely common round of “But the Incans/Mayans/Aztecs murdered people by ripping out the hearts of nubile young virgin women while alive, and kicked them down the steps and ate their still beating hearts!” [Most people can't tell the difference between the three nations/tribes.] For some reason, the concept of sacrifice being painful and also traumatizing really haunts us. I don’t know why, exactly, and maybe one day I’ll explore that issue, but it does remain that we forget that sacrifice isn’t villainous and actually extremely variable.

    • Not to mention that Aztecs usually sacrificed prisoners, as did the Incas (and specifically warrior prisoners), who tended not to be either female or young…

      • That’s true. For some reason the “young nubile female virgin” thing really… Sticks with people. *shrugs* Sensationalistic, perhaps?

      • Or, maybe the wishful thinking of a still very sexist culture…if one is going to sacrifice people, why not young and ostensibly beautiful women (who “deserve it” for some idiotic reason in that sort of mindset), and so those who are imagining it can take a voyeuristic pleasure in the thought?

        Not that I’m biased or anything, but anyway…

  4. Aediculaantinoi, I totally admire you for coming right out and facing tough topics head on. You are so courageous for asking much needed questions!
    And you did asked for it, so here is my opinion. ;-)

    I do not believe children are possessions. So, no, I do not think I have any right to offer my children, if I had any, to any Gods.

    I do believe that having children primarily means taking on the responsibility to raise them so they can take care of themselves when they grow up. That includes giving them an education in whatever religious ideals and practices we think are useful for survival and for giving life greater meaning. If the child wants to offer emself to any deity, then e can do that when e reaches the appropriate age of responsibility.

    I believe this for several reasons.

    Firstly, I grew up in poverty where a child was lucky to get something to eat every day. Many children were used by selfish, sick, and abusive parents as slaves, human punching bags, and/or narcissistic supply. For example, one of my classmates, at age fourteen, was forced by eir mother to become a prostitute to buy eir mother’s regular heroine supply.

    Now that I am an adult and in a better economic class, I still see unbelievably selfish parents, though perhaps those more careful to stay under the radar of Child Protection Services. I have seem some fanatically religious parents ruin their children leaving their offspring with only empty and anxious lives. I had always hoped that we Pagans and Polytheists did not become fanatics ourselves, but I already see some extremely zealous and abusive tendencies within our own community, sad to say. I would not want to encourage fanaticism by suggesting anyone sacrifice eir child in any way. I have seen how quickly such ideas can get out of hand when an innocent, such as a child, is involved.

    I do not believe that reviving such misguided ancient concepts would be worth the price, myself. And any God who expected me to do such a thing, I would stop following immediately.

    (I have never admired Abraham for being willing to sacrifice eir son to eir God. I wish Abraham had told eir God to “take a hike,” which might have ultimately spared all of us us all the misery of the last two thousand years of bloodshed for the One True God.)

    Secondly, a child is a unique individual, not a reflection of the parents. As Andrew Solomon points out in his book _Far From the Tree_ a parent does not reproduce, e produces:

    “There is no such thing as reproduction. When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production, and the widespread use of the word reproduction for this activity, with its implication that two people are but braiding themselves together, is at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads. In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own.”
    — Solomon, Andrew (2012-11-13). Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (Kindle Locations 69-73). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

    So, no, I do not believe it is up to me to make such a life changing decision for an individual that I may only fantasize is an extension of myself.

    The biggest reason I do not believe in any form of child sacrifice, however, is that it simply doesn’t work. The most obvious, extreme, and poignant examples were the infamous child sacrifices at Carthage. Although some scholars have disputed that child sacrifice actually occurred among the Phoenicians and that the rumors were only Roman propaganda, others say the evidence is there (most recently: http://gu.com/p/3m42m ). Some scholars say that these sacrifices were only made in extremely desperate circumstances, for reasons of survival.

    However, I submit to you that the the Phoenician civilization centered in Carthage was destroyed by the Romans. In fact, the Romans even used the excuse that Carthaginians were sacrificing their children as part of their reason to destroy Carthage! (The Pagan Romans had long since outlawed human sacrifice, considering such practices abominations).

    In any case, if the Carthaginians did sacrifice their own children in an effort to save their own city and culture, it didn’t work. The Phoenicians were utterly destroyed as a society; and, today, we are lucky we have any information on them at all. There could be one or more explanations: 1) the Gods of Carthage were not strong enough to fight off the Romans; 2) the Phoenician Gods did not exist and the sacrifice was no more than sick, twisted folly and delusion of Carthage’s citizens; 3) the Gods thought the Romans were righteous to destroy those who murdered their own children. I can’t think of any more possibilities right now. Can you?

    • It’s fair enough; thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

      The difficulty for some people who are attempting to restore an indigenous and ancestral-based practice, though, with what Solomon has written is that on several different levels, one is one’s ancestors: we carry their DNA, of course, and that’s what gives us our physical form and function (even though it is always unique and different from its parents and other relatives), so there is a continuity there, but likewise many indigenous cultures believe that the “blood soul” that each of us possesses is not only from our ancestors and returns to them after death, but it is actually a reincarnated ancestor from our own line from a few generations back.

      So, while Solomon’s ideas on these matters might be sound as far as psychological development is understood, and should be understood (in order to allow for the individuality of each person and a freedom from being overly-influenced or directed out of one’s individuality by one’s parents, which I understand and affirm–but it’s easy for me to say that, given how very different I am from both of my parents and everyone else in my family, while yet looking similar to my dad’s relatives and having the exact same voice as my mom under many circumstances), at the same time, that doesn’t lend itself to responsible lineage-creation or continuity of tradition from an indigenous religious perspective. And, as others have written recently (and as I have written about a while back as well), psychology cannot be taken as “the same as” religion, or a replacement for it.

      Now, of course, the above is not to say, “Therefore, SACRIFICE CHILDREN!” by any means, nor even “Dedicate your first-born children to Hermes’ service for three years service between the ages of thirteen and sixteen!” However, if one has a situation like Bearfairie expressed here, where having her child was itself a sacrifice to her holy powers, then there’s more at stake than the secular ideas of human development, identity, and responsibility.

  5. […] the past weeks I have been deeply troubled by this post and Lupus’ response to me as well as by general posts all over the internet from some who are calling themselves the […]

  6. Lupus,

    Before I respond, I just want to say that I have very much enjoyed your blog and your wonderful posts. You strike me as someone who truly thinks about what you believe. You post much fascinating and useful information and beautiful devotional work. So, please, PLEASE do not take my response as any sort of personal attack or hostility, but rather as presenting some food for thought. :-)

    For the past weeks I have been very confused and deeply troubled by your response, not just in this post and your response to me here, but by general posts all over the internet from some people who are calling themselves the “Polytheist Leadership” and in the language some of you are using.
    Like you, I am a Devotional Polytheist. I believe the Gods are real actual beings not part of one great supreme being. I love, worship, and honor my Gods. I deeply respect them. I also worship our beneficent ancestors who I believe continue to look after us. I also worship and honor the land spirits and other beneficent guardian spirits.

    The reason I am telling you all this is to explain to you that I am not at all approaching this discussion from either a psychological or secular view point. That is not what I meant at all, though I am sure it must have sounded that way to you.

    Perhaps I have misunderstood what you meant by “child sacrifice.” If you are talking about dedicating your child to the Gods to raise him and bring him up as a Polytheist, I am all for that. Not only am I for that, but I think it is absolutely essential to raise one’s child within ones own religion. I will not go into my reasoning here since this response is already going to be very long; but hope I will be able to touch upon those reasons on my own blog some day in the future.

    That said, I also know from cold hard experience that if a child is raised by adults who make it very clear that their religion always comes first over the child’s needs, that child will never ever want to continue following the parent’s religion. And if that child does follow anyway, it likely will be a practice of angry, lonely, empty, rote rituals.

    I would also like to say that your post combined with others from those of you who are calling yourself our leaders contains language which deeply troubles me. I have blogged more about it here http://practicalpolytheist.com/2014/02/11/a-challenge-to-the-polytheist-leadership/ and have issued a challenge to those who are calling themselves the “Polytheist Leadership.” I expect that some, maybe all, will be angry at my words. For that I am deeply sorry. But I am not sorry for saying what I feel strongly needs to be said if our religion is to thrive and grow.

  7. […] this is the Lupus who wrote the piece  that inspired me to write A Challenge to the Polytheist Leadership. I not only met Lupus but even […]

  8. […] example, Lupus told me that e meant to write the Child Sacrifice Reconsidered piece along the same lines as the great Satirist Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal. And I reminded […]


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