Piacular Sacrifice

[Extracted from EBR 9, 21, 137-9.]


Among all primitive peoples there are certain offences against piety (especially bloodshed within the kin) which are regarded as properly inexpiable; the offender must die or become an outlaw. Where the god of the kin appears as vindicator of this law he demands the life of the culprit; if the kinsmen refuse this they share the guilt. Thus the execution of a criminal assumes the character of a religious action. If now it appears in any way that the god is offended and refuses to help his people, it is concluded that a crime has been committed and not expiated. This neglect must be repaired, and, if the true culprit cannot be found or cannot be spared, the worshippers as a whole bear the guilt until they or the guilty man himself find a substitute. The idea of substitution is widespread through all early religions, and is found in honorific as well as in piacular rites; the Romans, for example, substituted models in wax or dough for victims that could not be procured according to the ritual, or else feigned that a sheep was a stag and the like. In all such cases the idea is that the substitute shall imitate as closely as is possible or convenient the victim whose place it supplies; and so in piacular ceremonies the god may indeed accept one life for another, or certain select lives to atone for the guilt of a whole community, but these lives ought to be of the guilty kin, just as in blood-revenge the death of any kinsman of the manslayer satisfies justice. Hence such rites as the Semitic sacrifices of children by their fathers (see MOLOCH), the sacrifice of Iphigeneia and similar cases among the Greeks, or the offering up of boys to the goddess Mania at Rome profamiliarium sospitate (Macrob., i. 7, 34). In the oldest Semitic cases it is only under extreme manifestations of divine wrath that such offerings are made (comp. Porph., De Abst., ii. 56), and so it was probably among other races also; but under the pressure of long-continued calamity, or other circumstances which made men doubtful of the steady favour of the gods, piacular offerings might easily become more frequent and ultimately assume a stated character, and be made at regular intervals by way of precaution without waiting for an actual outbreak of divine anger. Thus the Carthaginians, as Theophrastus relates, annually sprinkled their altars with "a tribesman's blood" (Porph., De Abst., ii. 28). But in advanced societies the tendency is to modify the horrors of the ritual either by accepting an effusion of blood without actually slaying the victim, e.g., in the flagellation of the Spartan lads at the altar of Artemis Orthia (Paus., iii. 16, 7; comp. Eurip., Ipli. Taw., 1470 sq.; 1 Kings xviii. 28), or by a further extension of the doctrine of substitution; the Romans, for example, substituted puppets for the human sacrifices to Mania, and cast rush dolls into the Tiber at the yearly atoning sacrifice on the Sublician bridge. More usually, however, the life of an animal is accepted by the god in place of a human life. This explanation of the origin of piacular animal sacrifices has often been disputed, mainly on dogmatic grounds and in connexion with the Hebrew sin-offerings; but it is quite clearly brought out wherever we have an ancient account of the origin of such a rite (e.g., for the Hebrews, Gen. xxii. 13; the Phoenicians, Porph., De Abst., iv. 15; the Greeks and many others, ibid., ii. 54 sq.; the Romans, Ovid, Fasti, vi. 162). Among the Egyptians the victim was marked with a seal bearing the image of a man bound, and kneeling with a sword at his throat (Plut., Is. et Os., chap, xxxi.) And often we find a ceremonial laying of the sin to be expiated on the head of the victim (Herod., ii. 39; Lev. iv. 4 compared with xiv. 21).

In such piacular rites the god demands only the life of the victim, which is sometimes indicated by a special ritual with the blood (as among the Hebrews the blood of the sin-offering was applied to the horns of the altar, or to the mercy-seat within the vail), and there is no sacrificial meal. Thus among the Greeks the carcase of the victim was buried or cast into the sea, and among the Hebrews the most important sin-offerings were burnt not on the altar but outside the camp (city), as was also the case with the children sacrificed to "Moloch." Sometimes, however, the sacrifice is a holocaust on the altar (2 Kings iii. 27), or the flesh is consumed by the priests. The latter was the case with certain Roman piacula, and with those Hebrew sin-offerings in which the blood was not brought within the vail (Lev. vi. 25 sq.). Here the sacrificial flesh is seemingly a gift accepted by the deity and assigned by him to the priests, so that the distinction between a honorific and a piacular sacrifice is partly obliterated. But this is not hard to understand; for just as a blood-rite takes the place of blood-revenge in human justice, so an offence against the gods may in certain cases be redeemed by a fine (e.g., Herod., ii., 65) or a sacrificial gift. This seems to be the original meaning of the Hebrew ashdm (trespass-offering), which was a kind of atonement made partly in money (Lev. v. 15 sq.), but accompanied (at least in later times) by a sacrifice which differed from the sin-offering, inasmuch as the ritual did not involve any exceptional use of the blood. The ordinary sin-offerings in which the priests ate the flesh may be a compound of the ashdm and the properly piacular substitution of life for life. The two kinds of atonement are mixed up also in Micah vi. 6 sq., and ultimately all bloody sacrifices, especially the whole burnt-offering (which in early times was very rare but is prominent in the ritual of the second temple), are held to have an atoning efficacy (Lev. i. 4, xvii. 11). There is, however, another and mystical sense sometimes associated with the eating of sin-offerings, as we shall see presently.

The most curious developments of piacular sacrifice take place in the worship of deities of totem type. Here the natural substitute for the death of a criminal of the tribe is an animal of the kind with which the worshippers and their god alike cyant kindred; an animal, that is, which must not be offered in a sacrificial feast, and which indeed it is impious to kill. Thus Hecate was invoked as a dog (Porph., De Abst., iii. 17), and dogs were her piacular sacrifices (Plut., Qu. Horn., iii.). And in like manner in Egypt the piacular sacrifice of the cow-goddess Isis-Hathor was a bull, and the sacrifice was accompanied by lamentations as at the funeral of a kinsman (Herod., ii. 39, 40). This lamentation at a piacular sacrifice is met with in other cases, e.g., at the Argean festival at Rome (Marquardt, Rom. Staatsverw., iii. 192), and is parallel to the marks of indignation which in various atoning rituals it is proper to display towards the priest who performs the sacrifice. At Tenedos, for example, the priest was attacked with stones who sacrificed to Bacchus a bull-calf, the affinity of which with man was indicated by the mother-cow being treated like a woman in childbed and the victim itself wearing the cothurnus. As the cothurnus was proper to Bacchus, who also was often addressed in worship and represented in images as a bull, the victim here is of the same race with the god (Ael., H. N., xii. 34; Plut., Qu. Gr., xxxv.) as well as with the worshippers. In such rites a double meaning was suggested: the victim was an animal kindred to the sacrificers, so that his death was strictly speaking a murder, for which, in the Attic Diipolia, the sacrificial axe cast away by the priest was tried and condemned (Paus., i. 24, 4), but it was also a sacred animal sharing the nature of the god, who thus in a sense died for his people. The last point comes out clearly in the annual sacrifice at Thebes, where a ram was slain and the ram-god Amen clothed in his skin. The worshippers then bewailed the ram and buried him in a sacred coffin (Herod., ii. 42). Thus the piacular sacrifice in such cases is merged in the class of offerings which may be called sacramental or mystical.

Mystical or Sacramental Sacrifices.

That the mysteries of races like the Greeks and Egyptians are sprung from the same circle of ideas with the totem mysteries of savage tribes has been suggested in MYTHOLOGY, vol. xvii. p. 151, with which the reader may compare Mr Lang's book on Custom and Myth; and examples of sacramental sacrifices have been adduced in the same article (p. 150) and in MEXICO, vol. xvi. p. 212. In Mexico the worshippers ate sacramentally paste idols of the god, or slew and feasted on a human victim who was feigned to be a representative of the deity. The Mexican gods are unquestionably developed out of totems, and these sacraments are on one line with the totem mysteries of the ruder Indian tribes in which once a year the sacred animal is eaten, body and blood. Now according to Julian (Orat., v. p. 175) the mystical sacrifices of the cities of the Roman empire were in like manner offered once or twice a year and consisted of such victims as the dog of Hecate, which might not be ordinarily eaten or used to furnish forth the tables of the gods. The general agreement with the American mysteries is therefore complete, and in many cases the resemblance extends to details which leave no doubt of the totem origin of the ritual. The mystic sacrifices seem always to have had an atoning efficacy; their special feature is that the victim is not simply slain and burned or cast away but that the worshippers partake of the body and blood of the sacred animal, and that so his life passes as it were into their lives and knits them to the deity in living communion. Thus in the orgiastic cult of the bull-Bacchus the worshippers tore the bull to pieces and devoured the raw flesh. These orgies are connected on the one hand with older practices, in which the victim was human (Orpheus legend, Dionysus), and on the other hand with the myth of the murder of the god by his kinsmen the Titans, who made a meal of his flesh (Clem. Al., Coh. ad Gentes, p. 12). Similar legends of fratricide occur in connexion with other orgies (the Corybantes; see Clement, ut supra); and all these various elements can only be reduced to unity by referring their origin to those totem habits of thought in which the god has not yet been differentiated from the plurality of sacred animals and the tribesmen are of one kin with their totem, so that the sacrifice of a fellow-tribesman and the sacrifice of the totem animal are equally fratricides, and the death of the animal is the death of the mysterious protector of the totem kin. In the Diipolia at Athens we have seen that the slaughter of the sacred bull was viewed as a murder, but "the dead was raised again in the same sacrifice," as the mystic text had it: the skin was sewed up and stuffed and all tasted the sacrificial flesh, so that the life of the victim was renewed in the lives of those who ate of it." (Theophr., in Porph., De Abst., ii. 29 sq.).

Mystic sacrifices of this sacramental type prevailed also among the heathen Semites, and are alluded to in Isa. lxv. 4 sq., lxvi. 3, 17; Zech. ix. 7; Lev. xix. 26, fcc., 2 from which passages we gather that the victim was eaten with the blood. This feature reappears elsewhere, as in the piacular swine-offerings of the Fratres Arvales at Rome, and possesses a special significance inasmuch as common blood means in antiquity a share in common life. In the Old Testament the heathen mysteries seem to appear as ceremonies of initiation by which a man was introduced into a new worship, i.e., primarily made of one blood with a new religious kinship, and they therefore come into prominence just at the time when in the 7th century B.C. political convulsions had shaken men's faith in their old gods and led them to seek on all sides for new and stronger protectors. The Greek mysteries too create a close bond between the mystic, and the chief ethical significance of the Eleusinia was that they were open to all Hellenes and so represented a brotherhood wider than the political limits of individual states. But originally the initiation must have been introduction into a particular social community; Theophrastus's legend of the origin of the Diipolia is expressly connected with the adoption of the house of Sopatrus into the position of Athenian citizens. From this point of view the sacramental rites of mystical sacrifice are a form of blood-covenant, and serve the same purpose as the mixing of blood or tasting of each other's blood by which in ancient times two men or two clans created a sacred covenant bond. In all the forms of blood-covenant, whether a sacrifice is offered or the veins of the parties opened and their own blood used, the idea is the same: the bond created is a bond of kindred, because one blood is now in the veins of all who have shared the ceremony.

The details in which this kind of symbolism may be carried out are of course very various, but where there is a covenant sacrifice we usually find that the parties eat and drink together (Gen. xxxi. 54), and that the sacrificial blood, if not actually tasted, is at least touched by both parties (Xen., Anab., ii. 2, 9), or sprinkled on both and on the altar or image of the deity who presides over the contract (Exod., xxiv. 6, 7). A peculiar form which meets us in various places is to cut the animal in twain and make those who swear pass between the parts (Gen. xiii. 9 sq.; Jer. xxxiv. 18 sq.; Pint., Qu. Rom., iii., &c.). This is generally taken as a formula of imprecation, as if the parties prayed that he who proved unfaithful might be similarly cut in twain; but, as the case cited from Plutarch shows that the victim chosen was a mystic one, it is more likely that the original sense was that the worshippers were taken within the mystic life.

Even the highest forms of sacrificial worship present much that is repulsive to modern ideas, and in particular it requires an effort to reconcile our imagination to the bloody ritual which is prominent in almost every religion which has a strong sense of sin. But we must not forget that from the beginning this ritual expressed, however crudely, certain ideas which lie at the very root of true religion, the fellowship of the worshippers with one another in their fellowship with the deity, and the consecration of the bonds of kinship as the type of all right ethical relation between man and man. And the piacular forms, though these were particularly liable to distortions disgraceful to man and dishonouring to the godhead, yet contained from the first germs of eternal truths, not only expressing the idea of divine justice, but mingling it with a feeling of divine and human pity. The dreadful sacrifice is performed not with savage joy but with awful sorrow, and in the mystic sacrifices the deity himself suffers with and for the sins of his people and lives again in their new life. (W. R. S.).