The Economy of Sacrifice: Thoughts on the Value of Gifted Goods in Heathenry
Posted on May 21, 2018
In rekindling and perpetuating their devotion and engaging in the cosmic gift cycle with the multitudinous divine polytheists within Contemporary Paganism (especially those within Heathenry/Heathendom and its ancillary religions) engage in basic ritual acts in a daily or weekly practice. Among these acts are practices which can rightly be considered “sacrificial” in expression. The act of sacrifice, or more precisely the act of offering, is an intrinsic facet to the proper expression of polytheistic piety. In engaging with these practices, popular attitudes towards the ritual components and mechanics of the sacrificial act vary across the spectrum of belief and practice, sometimes rather drastically.
The practice, mechanics, attitudes, and values of the sacrificial ritual are all hotly discussed within contemporary circles of Heathendom and Paganism. The most frequent of these discussions tends to focus on the item given over to the divine in question; there is ultimately a class of ideological viewpoints regarding the perceived or tangible value of the item in question. A prevailing opinion is the belief that [Sacrificial Thing] ought to be something of worth to both practitioner and divine, so that its giving (and thus, loss from the profane to the sacred) can be keenly felt. This ‘worth’ is most often associated with financial impact/burden or, otherwise, an expenditure of relative skill (in the case of crafted items), which gives the offered goods a quantifiable level of associated value.
This is a position that scholars such as Raymond Firth take, believing sacrifice to imply a substantial offering of sometimes limited resources, thus to give it up would be to “give something up at a cost” . In doing so, the sacrificial item is dependent on factors located outside the mechanics of the ritual itself – it is anchored to wider ecological, economical, and social concerns. As scholarship often asserts the value of the commodity in the sacrifice it is understandable that modern practitioners would otherwise overlay such a view upon the traditional understanding of the gifting cycle, ritual efficacy, and relative value in the act. This leads to the aforementioned expectation that something given must be costly.
Ultimately this is what is referred to in this work as ‘the Economy of Sacrifice’ the views of the economic value and perceived commodification of ritual gifting goods within contemporary Western polytheistic rituals. In studying the history of the ritual sacrifice we find that this is not an unusual question. Unsurprisingly, this debate is very ancient. Different theories placed different weights upon the expected worth of offered goods, some of which will be discussed in the following text.
This work holds that emphasizing the perceived value or financial impact of the commodity for ritual is a particularly anachronistic modernism that is influenced by the West’s position within its economic systems, and proves to be more of a hindrance than a benefit to the establishment of a budding resurgence of polytheistic identity. It does this by continuing to internalize materialistic concepts with the expectation that this is desirable to the deity worshiped.
A brief survey of what is meant by “sacrifice” must be undertaken so we can more fully appreciate the discussion as it has raged throughout religious history. As scholars can have sometimes wildly differing views, compounded by colloquial usage of the term, this is beneficial for us.
Etymologically ‘sacrifice’ is derived from the Latin ‘sacer’ (holy, sacred), and ‘faciō’ (make, do). From ‘sacrificium’ we get the usage pertaining to our concerns: to offer something to a deity . There’s long been a question made in what constitutes a sacrificial act, making a distinction between ‘sacrifice’ and ‘offering, treating them as distinct things. In modern parlance, ‘sacrifice’ has connotations of bloodied acts (the ritualistic slaughter of livestock) or otherwise ritual offerings of objects intended for consumption (Van Straten, Gifts for the Gods, pg 65).
Despite these connotations of consumption or bloodied acts, traditional commentaries make use of the terms interchangeably, examples of which include Vedic writings and Roman accounts . This has given rise to scholarship which treats sacrifice as a subclassification of ritualistic offerings, as is the case with Frith’s treatment above or, otherwise, scholarship in the steps of Huebert and Mauss (1898) by hinging the classification of sacrifice on the destruction of the victim or oblation as the essential characteristic differentiating the two.
As we are concerned primarily with the perceived value of the offering in question, we will be treating sacrifice and offering as analogous and interchangeable terms under the broad definition given above.
The purpose of sacrifice in a polytheistic religious system should be well known. In order to enter into and sustain a good personal relationship with the gods, practitioners engage in what is colloquially known as the gifting cycle, in varying ancient cultures this was resorted upon primarily by two distinct means: prayer and sacrificial offering . This cycle of do ut des is intrinsic to traditional Western polytheistic traditions, and forms the basis of many pre-Christian societies around the world (as explored by Marcel Mauss in The Gift, inspired primarily by Seneca’s De Beneficiis).
In studying the history of the polytheistic sacrifice in the West we can discern that the value of appreciated goods is ultimately philosophical, as seen through and understood by the scope of traditions promulgated by philosophical fathers and the schools which followed them. Except in cases of theological concern which required or hinged specific desires and accepted sacrificial practices to a specific deity in question any literary views which survive are informed by the dominant tradition of intellectualism held by the authors in question .
Polytheistic identity is mutable to such an extent that it is common that thinkers can be worshiping the same deities with different opinions regarding the value of sacrifice. In this way where we have Pythagoras and Epedocles caution heartily against blood sacrifice as reprehensible to the gods and, thus, valueless no matter how much is spent upon such things, Socrates and Plato advance an attitude of support for the act . Neither view is wrong to this system.
It is thus that Theophrastus, in following the tradition of Pythagoras, values the philosophical kinship of all life within a sacrificial context and did not partake in animal sacrifice. But, more importantly for this discussion, he cautioned against the overburdened expenses of such things:
“The gods like what is cheap and the deity attaches more importance to the disposition of the sacrifice than the quantity of what is sacrificed.” – Peri Eusebeias, Fr. 7, 53-54
Theophrastus’ concern for moderation, ethics and virtue is thus philosophical as it informs his interpretation of proper religious piety. More importantly to him and to other authors is the concern of goodness and propriety reflected in ritual action and offering – the idea of spending mightily on sacrificial goods to buy the favor of the gods was abhorrent. Xenophon would have us believe that it would be “ethically monstrous” were the gods to derive more gratification from large sacrifices than the small ones from the pious .
Stoic philosopher Epictetus cautions towards moderation:
“But it is also incumbent on everyone to offer libations and sacrifices and first fruits, conformably to the customs of his country, with purity, and not in a slovenly manner, nor negligently, nor sparingly, nor beyond his ability.” – Enchiridion, 31
However as Van Straten is keen to point out these are opinions of Greeks and not the opinion of the Greeks, or of any other group of people who may commentate on religious matters. It is otherwise difficult to explore the reality of popular views regarding the value of offered goods . Votive representations, religious offerings in their own rights, also sometimes commemorate the sacrifice of goods which would not remain (livestock, and thus a meal), in order so that it is remembered as a memento. In the case of such votives are themes of the poor sacrificer who apologizes to the gods for the exiguity of their gift due to extraneous circumstances, and this theme is not rare; it is often assumed that the large and expensive sacrifice is preferable .
A discussion of the value and weight of sacrificial goods in ritual is this intertwined with these concepts: of piety, of religious virtue, of ethics and metaphysics, and the other subsets of theological consideration heavily influenced by (if not truly the purview of) philosophical schools. It is within this sphere of thought which many religions under the umbrella term of contemporary Paganism, especially that of Heathendom, are deficient. When attempts to reconstruct pagan religions moves away from the literate regions of antiquity the paucity of information prevents us from discerning what, if any, motives regarding ethical philosophy existed. Little of the traditional views of the Germanic peoples, for instance, exist in an easily identifiable way, and those views which can be gleaned from the texts tend to be more identifiably societal in nature with little direct correlation to apparent ritual value.
In a culture with a paucity of written information, the overall analysis of such ritualistic practices are beyond difficult. Where creative or poetic literature may use imagery, metaphors and metonyms to convey abstract meaning, grave goods and material remains contain their own ‘symbolic grammar’ which are taken as indicators of information as to the status, social position, and intent of the person buried, but nothing as to the intent of those goods found with them . Ornamental grave goods are no indication as to the disposition towards what can be classified as attitudes of religious offering, either for or against our argument. Even the rare snippet of Germanic literature that speaks to the moderation of goods (Havamal, 145), or of the qualities one should possess can be seen as a perspective and not the perspective.
There is no denying that Germanic polytheism viewed their sacrifices within the same context of the sacrificial act of gift-giving. Norse literature provides us with implications of such sacrifice. The verb gefa is the most common of verbs used for sacrificial purposes, most frequently used within the extant literature. The reciprocal nature is readily apparent, where figures ‘give of’ their sacrifices to their deity, an example being within the Víga Glúms saga, where Thorkell the Tall gave to his patron:
“Frey, you who have long been my patron, and accepted many gifts and repaid them well, now I give (gef) you this ox, so that Glúmr may leave the land of Thverá no less compelled than I leave it now.” 
Sacrificial efficacy is ultimately related to the effects or functions which they are phenomenologically believed to bring about . This makes it a matter of ritual necessity and less so the perceived value of goods. Studies into Indo-European sacrificial rituals, especially those of Roman and Vedic concordance, identify certain acts of ritual to have greater importance in social concerns than nritual effect – this is especially the case in Roman animal sacrifice, which performs the function of social stratification and hierarchical creation moreso than providing a greater benefit to ritual offering. Were we to compare the expected values of animal sacrifice – oxen as an example – with the first libations of wine it would be probable that the sacrifice of cattle would appear of far more “value” for a multitude of reasons: rearing, sustenance, dramatics, etc. Yet John Scheid has shown that within a Roman context sacrifices of wine (and of wheat) were of the same ritual importance, if not truly greater in a ritualistic setting .
Modern practitioners can in part see the goods-value in the ritualistic context of their sacrifices. The role of the sacrifice in ritual, within the ritual myth, is perhaps viewed as more important than the value itself. The concept of mimesis, conveying the ritual realities of myth, helps to conceptualize the authority of the ritual – so long as society assents to the values contained by the framework of the myth, they will have continued value . Those who hold to the Eliadean framework of ritual will see the value of the ritual in the recreation of the first time of reality, where the first sacrifice will be enacted in every practice in order to bridge profane space with mythic time .
Jaan Puhvel has identified hierarchies within the victimal sacrifice of Indo-European religious spectrum which feeds into the accepted role of sacrifice-as-cosmogonic-creation, that each event enacts such a thing . If we are to accept Germanic sacrifice, notably provided through treatments of Old Norse religion, is ensconced within this same religious continuum , then we can expect a similar weight placed on such a hierarchy of victims. However, if animal sacrifice does indeed do more to create a social hierarchy of religious participants as Scheid would position, then it behooves modern practitioners to view their actions through a lens of religious activity in which modern Heathendom is found.
We are speaking here to the distinction between secular and religious spaces and the simple logistical fact that many contemporary practitioners do not have the ability to engage in a wider social action of group religious ritual. Traditional polytheistic identity was interwoven in what modern practitioners would consider their secular “day-to-day life” and so many themes of their social and cultural ethics would have been replicated in their daily and civic cultic activities. Modern Heathens, by contrast, invariably treat their religious exercise as something separate from their day-to-day lives, its own specific sphere of concern and influence.
Heathendom finds itself ensconced in contemporary Western society, which remains thoroughly dominated by prevailing themes of ethics and theological influences gifted by Christianity. This is true in societies which are perceived to be the most “secular”. It is understandable as the basic foundation of Western social thought has been laid down through centuries of Christian thinking and rhetoric. While it is argued that the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic” of the West is not as pronounced in its influence on a materialistic drive for wealth and ensuing commodification and exploitation of the world as it first appears it nevertheless has had a strong hand in the internalization of such capitalistic forces.
If we were to place ever-increasing monetary values on gifted goods – that they should be a financial burden, or something that we keenly feel – is contemporary Heathendom not perpetuating the over-excesses of such displays of wealth? And in doing so, in attempting to bedazzle the divine with these gifts solely in exchange for asked favors or attention, can Heathendom be considered different than some manner of prosperity gospel?
More important to this point of discussion is the very nature of the gifting cycle itself and associated understandings of that system. Polytheists give so that the gods might give in return, entering into an ever-deepening and increasing cyclical relationship of obligation that ties the two together. Through our votive remnants we clearly see that individuals petitioned by the holy powers for very specific requests (or otherwise presented such goods as fulfilled oaths for receiving their desired blessings) but it is rare (if ever) that we see such things affixed with a clear sense of value or wealth associated with it. Those that had the means would give within them, and those that did not would do the best that they can.
Affixing a dedicated sense of cost to such a deeply important act pushes these gifts into the realm of an emotionless business transaction. In effect the indoctrination of Heathens into the mindset that a financial burden is a virtue that must be reached in order for it to have meaning does nothing but treat the devotional faith as a religious vending machine. This pay-to-win bastardization of the virtue of gifting goods treats the numinous divine as little more than repositories of the pleasures and desires of their so-called worshipers.
A lack of defined Heathen philosophy is keenly felt in the perception of gift-value. Until such a time as dedicated schools of philosophies arise, Heathen practitioners have to judge for themselves utilizing their personal ethics their perceptions of worth, value, and the circumstances in which gifts are given to their gods. As one provides a fine meal for a cherished guest without intending on purchasing their affection, so too can Heathens provide for their deities, if they have the means to do so. Impiety occurs when one engages in a cycle of rampant consumerism and perpetuates an emphasis on financial strain for the benefit of impressing their gods.
 Raymond Firth, “Offering and Sacrifice: Problems of Organization”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 93, pg. 13
 “Sacrifice.” Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary. 7 May 2018, 22:39 UTC. 8 May 2018, 10:34 <https://en.wiktionary.org/w/index.php?title=sacrifice&oldid=49462445>.
 Clemens Cavallin, The Efficacy of Sacrifice: Correspondences in the Rigvedic Brahmanas, Goteborg, 2003, pg. 1.
 F.T. Van Straten, “Gifts for the Gods” in Faith Hope And Worship: Aspects of Religious Mentality in the Ancient World, ed. H.S. Versnel, Leiden, 1981, pg. 63. In reality, Van Straten identifies three means, splitting sacrifice and votive offering into two distinct categories. They have been combined here
 Examples are readily available of this, as Ovid accounts in Amores 3.13.13-18, where the “she-goat” is hateful to Iuno Curitis of Falerii.
 Van Straten, “Gifts”, pg. 65. Yet nevertheless still couched within their ethical paradigms.
 P.A. Meijer, “Philosophers, Intellectuals, and Religion in Hellas” in Faith, Hope and Worship: Aspects of Religious Mentality in the Ancient World, ed. H.S. Versnel, Brill, 1981, pg. 247.
 Van Straten, “Gifts”, pg. 68.
 Van Straten, “Gifts”, pg. 68.
 Christina Lee, Feasting the Dead: Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon Burial Rituals, Boydell Press, Suffolk, 2007, pg. 52.
 E.O.G. Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia, Greenwood Press: Westport, CT. 1964. pg. 252.
 Cavallin, Efficacy, pg. 2.
 John Scheid, “Roman Animal Sacrifice and the System of Being” in Greek and Roman Animal Sacrifice: Ancient Victims, Modern Observers, Chr. Faraone, F.S. Naiden eds., Cambridge, 2012, pg. 84. Scheid interestingly puts forward the idea that where animal sacrifice creates social hierarchy, the actual act of libation is the defining feature which separates humanity and divinity.
 Kimberly Christine Patton, Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity, Oxford University Press: USA, 2009, pg. 179.
 See Mircea Eliade’s Myth of the Eternal Return for a thorough treatment of this phenomenon.
 Jaan Puhvel, “Victimal Hierarchies in Indo-European Sacrifice”, in The American Journal of Philology, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Vol. 99, No. 3 (Autumn, 1978), pp. 354-362.
 As Daniel Bray asserts in “Sacrifice and Sacrificial Ideology in Old Norse Religion”.
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