An article about the not so different ways that humankind deals with its gods.
Most people who pray, be they Christian, Jew, Moslem or Pagan, may not realize that they are not simply asking the gods or god for a favor, blessing, forgiveness or understanding but many times are actually threatening or cajoling the deity. “If you grant this one favor,” they may pray, “I will go to church…stop this bad habit…” etc or, on the other hand may say, “If you don’t grant this favor I will join another church…stop believing in you…continue to do it because you don’t care” or “endlessly bother you until I get what I want.”
Prayers have contained these thoughts for thousands of years. Prayers have also been used to curse and to call down calamity on supposed enemies. So what then is prayer? It is, simply put, the use of spell-work. Sacrifices have been a common method to solicit favors from the gods and keep them happy at the same time. Sacrifices were meant as sustenance for the gods and there was an expectation that if the gods did not comply with the wishes and the prayers of their followers, these sacrifices would be terminated, effectively punishing the gods. Threatening the gods in this way became ritualized.
Likewise, family members and friends of persons deceased would bring food and drink to the grave. Pouring libations down into a tube set in the grave was a way to feed the dead and to ask for favors in exchange.
Offerings are intended to please whatever god one solicits, but it is always a given that such offerings will cease if the expected response is not forthcoming. Offerings in the form of incense, animal sacrifices, candles and other items such as food and drink have been used unchanged for thousands of years. Christianity and Judaism continue this practice today.
Offerings and sacrifices have the same function—to bribe, to cajole, to offer substitution (i.e., the life of an animal in exchange for the life of a human).
Native Americans used to offer thanks to the deer and other wild animals that they hunted to ensure that the animals would not become angry and totally avoid the hunter. Obviously, this act was in the self-interest of the hunter to ensure the continuation of the species and a successful hunt. There is evidence that similar acts were observed up to 50,000 years ago by Neantherthal populations.
Throughout time, the gods and goddesses, spirits and demons worshipped and feared by humankind have been given semi-human characteristics including personality traits of fickleness, love, hate, greed, envy, forgiveness, and anger in an ever changing montage of forms. Never knowing what their mood was at any given time, humans had to bribe as well as threaten these divine beings to ensure their self-preservation.
Plato, writing in his Laws during the 4th century BC, indicated how common this practice was by sorcerers during his time: “They undertake to persuade the gods, through the practice of sorceries with sacrifices and prayers and spells, and try to destroy root and branch individuals and entire houses for the sake of money..”
Writing in Republic he added, “Beggar-priests and prophets go to the doors of the rich and persuade them that they have the power, acquired from the gods by sacrifices and incantations, to cure with pleasures and festivals any wrong done by the man himself or his ancestors, and that they will harm an enemy…for a small fee, if a man wishes it, since they persuade the gods…to serve them, by certain charms and bindings.” Plato’s sorcerers were not that different from modern day televangelists who solicit donations from worshippers so that God will perform some sort of desired act—from protecting marriage from gays and lesbians to bringing wealth to curing illness. Man and his gods have existed in a give and take relationship since the beginning of time and it will continue far into the future as long as humans desire something more than they have and believe that they have something of value to trade for it.
“A fundamental aspect of religion,” wrote Rodney Stark, author of Discovering God, “is an exchange relationship between humans and Gods. Since Gods are the only plausible source of many benefits humans greatly desire, the most basic religious questions are: What do the Gods want? And, how can we gain their favor? Nor surprisingly, humans have answered that question based on their image of God(s). When people conceive of God as being of infinite power and scope, their answer tends to emphasize morality, good works and faith…But when Gods are conceived of as ‘humans’ with superpowers, the answer tends to focus on basic human needs and desires—food, drink, wealth, sex, and deference.” (1)
This may be true in the theological sense but in all practicality, contemporary humans treat their gods the same way they have for thousands of years. Christians and Jews depict God as the “father” with jealousy, anger and envy as major personality traits along with forgiveness, love and understanding. In some instances, God asked for a sacrifice as when he commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. In this situation, a ram suddenly appeared and was sacrificed instead. Traditionally in Judaism, the first offspring of specific animals (calves, goats, lambs, rams, ewes and turtle doves) were permitted to be ritually offered to God in exchange for the welfare of the Jewish people.
Sacrifices such as these continued until 70 AD when the Romans destroyed the second temple. Under Jewish law, all sacrifices must be conducted in the temple and could not be transferred to another location.
Because the temple was never rebuilt, the sacrifice was abandoned. Sacrifice does continue however among the Jewish sect of Samaritans. Each year sheep are sacrificed as part of the Passover rites.
Christians, for the most part, do not practice sacrifice in the same way. Animals are not slain and offered to God but money is an offering that continuously pours from the pockets of the worshippers in exchange for health, wealth and other desires. However, there are those isolated areas of the world where Christianity has mixed with indigenous religions and sacrifice does continue as a viable part of religious tradition and ritual. On St. Elijah’s day in Estonia, rams were sacrificed into the early 20th century to the water spirits. It was slaughtered and tossed into the river to prevent humans and cattle from drowning. Folklorists have recorded that even into the 1960’s money and scarves were tossed into the waters to appease the “lake mother.”
According to Ergo-Hart Västrik, “In Kotko (Estonia) the sacrifice to the water spirit (jokiämmä, merenhaltei, huonoi, kirlouks) was integrated into church practice: a small wooden chapel was located near the sacrificial site, the ceremony was conducted by a priest. The Christian background is reflected in the word ‘Kirlouks!’ said out loud during the ceremony, which most likely is the Old-Russian counterpart for the priest's ‘Kyrie Eleison.’” (2)
Both Muslim and Christian Ethiopians even today gather in huge numbers for the fertility rite observed at Lake Bishoftu, which include an animal sacrifice. Holy wells and waters around the world are visited by pilgrims in search of health and this is true in Ethiopia as it is in Great Britain and the United States. Many pilgrims toss coins, flowers and other offerings into the waters in an effort to get on the good side of God(s). The often ignored “ritual” of tossing coins into fountains is a continuation of this ancient rite.
In some cultures, it is not unknown to beat idols with sticks and clubs in an effort to force divine beings into complying with the wishes of their followers.
“Clearly,“ writes Brenda Lewis, “the old gods and their sacrifices, rooted further back in time than history knows, still have currency in the twenty-first century. …Perhaps somewhere in the world there will always be those who stay faithful to the old ways and their sacrifices, and use them as the pathway leading to God.” (3)
1. Stark, Rodney. Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief. New York: Harper Collins 2007, 105.
2. Västrik, Ergo-Hart. “The Waters and Water Spirits in Votian Folk Belief” in Folklore, Vol. 12, December 1999, Published by: Institute of the Estonian Language
3. Lewis, Brenda Ralph. Ritual Sacrifice: Blood and Redemption. Glouchestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited 2001, 173.