I have been reading with interest Nimue’s postings over the last few days on sacrifice, offerings and dedication, here http://druidlife.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/no-sacrifice/ and also Cat’s words here http://druidcat.wordpress.com/ Sadly I missed Cat’s original words, so can only respond to her current post.
*edited to say that Miss Cat has now re blogged her original http://druidcat.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/sacrifice-2/#comment-531
For Nimue, sacrifice is a word that she would happily see dropped from modern Druid vocabulary, evidently it doesn’t float her Druid boat, and that is fine. For Cat is seems to be something she uses in her daily devotions. For me, it is absolutely integral and central to my own craft, expressing and cementing a number of my personal relationships with my gods. Rather than drop it from use, I would invite us to reclaim it, considering instead its ancient meanings, steeped as they are in the deeply religious and devotional, releasing some of the fear that perhaps the word invokes in us as Pagans, which organised, monotheistic religion has so effectively instilled in us and society. I have no idea how closely my own practice and understanding matches the rest of the Druid community, but I feel Sacrifice to be a beautiful, religious concept, full of love, and gratitude, speaking powerfully of change and transformation, and what we dedicate and devote to being sacred in our own lives and what we release, leaving behind us in order to allow growth and change.
To look at the etymology of the word, at its root, we find the latin sacer meaning holy; it is the same word from which we draw our modern word ‘sacred’. We also find facio, to make or do. So the act of sacrifice is to actively dedicate something as sacred or holy. This is reflected in the most common use of the word found in translation around the world; that is, to give a gift of something deeply valued to a deity. For me too, this is sacrifice at its simplest and most powerful; the act of devoting a thing to the Gods so that it becomes sacred, set apart, no longer mundane, entrusted to a deity for safe keeping, transformation or simply as a gift. To me it is distinct from the small every day offerings and dedications I give, the food set out for my ancestors, the seeds shared with the birds and spirits of place, the prayers made as I kindle the fire, my daily affirmations of service to gods and community. Sacrifice is about the big things we give, it does hurt, it changes things because we release, let go and make space for new growth. Change is not easy, we shy away from it, it makes us uncomfortable but it is also necessary, a part of nature; the amount of space we make being directly proportional to the amount that we may grow.
Spending time watching as the cycles turn shows us this. We prune the roses so that we get better foliage and more beautiful blooms, the tree puts an enormous effort into fruit in the hopes that just one seed might find the fertile soil in which to grow. Watching as the box of baby blue tits fledged last summer right outside my window was a serious lesson in the sacrifices that parents make in order to bring their children to healthy adult hood. The babies, easily distinguishable from their parents, fat, healthy with beautiful feathers, sat at various strategic points in the garden as mother and father fed every last morsel of food they could find into their waiting mouths, keeping nothing for themselves. By contrast, the parents, thin, scrappy, and hungry, were ragged and exhausted from the hard demands of their young brood. This winter past, watching my sister go through the same process with her little boy, she is only just starting to reclaim a small sense of her own identity and self as he grows and finds some independence, she returning just a day or two a week to work. I realise how much she has given him, how little she has kept for herself and how just how much my own decision not to become a mother is about not being prepared to make that particular sacrifice.
And yet, however hard sacrifice is, it should always be willing and herein lies its power. We give, the biggest thing we can give, whether that is our ignorance, our time, our pain, our fear, our reluctance to change, in absolute freedom, knowing that sometimes it is the only way to grow. Or knowing perhaps if we do not chose to give it willingly, the frosts of winter may take it anyway which may be more painful. Knowing either way that we often hold the keys to our own bonds, the things that hold us back, keep us small. Sometimes it is easier to remain the victim, or the person who is frightened or hurt than make the biggest sacrifices to allow us to break those perceived bond, and change. One of the greatest and reoccurring sacrifices in my own life is the sacrifice of fear. Fear is an old friend, fear feels like hell, but it makes life easy. It means I can find excuses not to do the things that are challenging, that make me a bit vulnerable or exposed. I hate doing things in public, I would far rather follow my solitary nature and spend the day at home, which is daft for a person who regularly stands in front of a class of 50 students to teach, or a congregation of 100 at a hand-fasting. Yet I know they are important things to do, they are a part of my own vow of service, I value them, as do the students I teach and the couples I marry. So I gather up my fear and hand it over to my Goddess sacrificing it into the cauldron or offering it as blood onto the earth. The space that it leaves does create a vulnerability, but it allows me space to grow the courage I need to walk on. Without the repeated sacrifice of fear, I would not be doing the work that I do. More poignantly, a friend recently sacrificed her uterus to cancer, it was not a choice that she wanted to make, it bloody hurt and I do not envy her. With it she lost much of her sense of identity as a woman and she will now have to build a new identity based on what she has left, but she made that sacrifice to the gods of death in order that she might live. It was the only thing she could give. It would be nice to think that life is not meant to hurt, but the fact is that it does and sometimes we sacrifice simply to survive; sometimes the offering of an apple is not enough.
For many years I was part of a grove that hugely valued the act of sacrifice. It was something we celebrated at Lammas as being a part of the natural ebb and flow of life. We built John Barley Corn from sheaves of wheat we gathered in the field and dressed him with love and care, in fruits and flowers from our gardens as a symbol of how hard the earth works to feed us, giving selflessly, giving her bounty that we may eat and live. The small creatures that are taken by the combine, that our ‘nature loving’ society rarely thinks of, were grieved for. The sacrifice of the corn felt to be an ancient mystery, far bigger and older than any of us. To some he is Frey, to others Beowa, Yarn Kaax or Osiris. Either way, the story is fairly universal, the idea of sacrifice playing an important part in each story and to the peoples and cultures from whence those stories came. The symbol of the sickle or even the scythe is a powerful one in Druidry, linked with the first sacred cut or the harvest.
So, our ancestors standing with us as we cried for the death of the corn, that we might take it and transform it in to the bread that would feed our bodies, in deepest gratitude and thanks we made our own sacrifices to the earth in return, searching deep for the things that might in some way be sufficient exchange for what we were given. For some it may have been ignorance, others vowed only to buy second-hand clothes, reduce consumption, go vegetarian, buy organic, recycle, shower less. For each it was something that would take time, effort, that was not easy or was actually painful, inspired by what we were seeing and feeling in nature all around us.
Sacrifice is not supposed to be easy. Where is the value in what we give if it costs us nothing? Yet, neither is masochism, pain or hurt the point of sacrifice. The point is letting go what is necessary in order to move, change and grow and devoting that letting go to the gods we serve. Whilst the letting go is hard and often painful, there too can be great joy, freedom and healing in sacrifice done well. I think it is as powerful for us today as it was to our ancient ancestors.