by NORMAN SIMMS August 4, 2016

What is a sacrifice?  For some parents, it is the giving of their son or daughter in the service of the nation and then that child makes the ultimate sacrifice of dying in battle.  For others in the contemporary world, it means putting in a great effort to succeed in business, to create jobs and construct buildings, and make a lot of money for oneself by taking a risk in the stock market.  But what is the difference between martyrdom, heroism and sacrifice? Let us look at some historical background to the current controversy.

1.    Literally to sacrifice is to make something sacred which is otherwise profane or ordinary by accepting intense suffering and often death.  It is the giving away or destruction of something very precious to yourself in order to help or rescue someone else, or to serve some noble cause, God or some particular god or one's family or friends, community or the grateful nation.

2.    In some cultures, the sacrifice of a human being could be substituted by an animal or a sheaf of wheat, and what was killed or burnt on the altar by a priest was meant as a gift to the heavens or a sign of intense loyalty and devotion to the higher power. 

3.   The sacrifice was a gift offered selflessly or a bribe intended to placate the anger or dissatisfaction of the gods or to awaken their sympathy or merely draw their attention in a time of crisis.  If an individual or a community felt that it was being punished for some sin or failure by the lack of rain or the spread of a terrible disease, the sacrifice would be a plea for mercy. 

4.   In other cultures, the sacrifice was a communal meal, the beast killed on the altar being shared by the gods, who often got blood, bones, fat and smoke, while the people through the officiants of the city or state partook of the meat.  This sharing of a communal meal would bind together the people into a harmonious body politic.

5.   When someone or something very valuable has been offered to the gods and then killed, the person or object disappears, but this place of absence is not ordinary or profane: it is liminal, like a threshold, betwixt and between, neither one thing nor another: it is an open space into which the officiants of the sacrifice hope will flow something of at least equal value from the spirits propitiated or roused to action by this show of devotion-a gift of protection, a return of fertility, an answer to a deeply troubling conundrum.

6.   Or another way to look things: On special occasions, the human being to be killed-even if at the last moment the person is substituted for by an ox, lamb or goat, would be told a message to deliver to the heavenly beings upon arrival as a transformed spirit.  This message will make clear to the powers of nature or other supernatural forces what it is the people seek. 

7.   There was a different way of bonding the community and communicating with the gods in ancient Greece.  As each polis or city-state had its own ceremonies, liturgies and history of sacrifices, when cities sought to cooperate in times of war, disaster or other catastrophe (or if they were suspicious of the motives of one another in any secret alliance with the gods), the government of one city would send out officials (or spies) to attend and observe what went on in the other polis.  When the official, known as a theoros (god observers), returned he described what he saw in vivid detail, so that the local officials could imagine what had occurred, and it often was such a powerful experience in itself that this theoretical knowledge was sufficient to energize the second community, as if it too had taken part in the distant and alien place.  One town's sacrifice was thus shared by another and then another, thus the power of words to create images, and also the power of reproduce iconic images (sometimes called "ideas") in the mind (and later on stone, clay or parchment) also capable of passing on this theoretical knowledge of the gods.

8.   The scapegoat among the Hebrews and the pharmakos among the ancient Greeks was a different sort of a sacrifice.  In Jerusalem, the scapegoat was one of two otherwise perfect creatures, the only difference being which one was chosen by the priest (by lot), or by chance, thus leaving the choice up to God). In Greece, it was already always marked out as old, ugly, stupid, poor or diseased, the victim would be proclaimed to have all the discomforts, anxieties and feelings of uncleanness put upon it, chased out of the city to the mocking laughter of the populace, and then killed, so that for a year or some other period of time everyone would feel comfortable, relieved of their sins, and cleansed of impurities.

9.   The hero in epic tales was someone with extraordinary strength and courage who set himself above all others and gave his life for the victory of his tribe or city, this death pushing him beyond the realm of mortality into that of divinity.  The tomb where his mortal remains were kept would then be a sacred place out of which would emanate cures for disease, fertility in place of sterility, and answers to enigmatic questions of historical and personal importance.  In many ways, the ancient hero was like a medieval saint, a source of spiritual strength and an intermediary with the forces of nature and the supervening providence.  The miracles performed would be listed in a legend. Later they would be retold as a narrative.

10. The martyr was someone who died for a cause, in defiance of attempts to compromise their purity, loyalty and spiritual beliefs.  The death might be passive, as in acceptance of torture and death, or active, as in a deliberate placing of oneself in harm's way to deflect or prevent the murder or torture of others.  This too was an act of self-sacrifice.

11. In more modern times, many of these paradigmatic roles become confused with one another.  Not every soldier who goes into battle is heroic though many may show bravery to which he and today also she performs as a duty, even extraordinary bravery above and beyond the call of duty.  When one or many of these fighters are killed or wounded, they can be called heroic in their actions, or even having sacrificed themselves-without always reaching the ultimate sacrifice of death.  The grateful nation recognizes and awards this sacrifice through the giving of medals, proclamations and a formal military ceremony and a burial place in a national cemetery. 

12. Parents, marital partners, siblings and children are then also recognized for their sacrifice, meaning their acceptance of the hero's death as a gift to the nation, the person not having died in vain, for no reason at all.

Norman Simms has just published the first volume of a new book, Jews in an Illusion of Paradise: Dust and Ashes (Cambridge Scholars Publisher.  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK).  It is available from the publisher as well as and other online bookseller sites.  The second volume may be out before the end of this year    

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