Sacrifice, the Indo-Europeans, and ADF

Many scholars have shed much ink trying to decide what the meaning of sacrifice is. Their efforts were doomed from the start. They were trying to find the one thing that lay behind all sacrifices. There simply isn't one. Sacrifice can have different meanings in different cultures, and even more than one in the same culture. I will concentrate on sacrifice in the shared Indo-European culture.

I see three meanings in Indo-European sacrifice: the shared meal, the ghosti-relationship, and the relationship with Chaos. Let's look at each of them in turn.

The shared meal is the simplest and most obvious of the three. The average person, thinking of sacrifice, thinks of the great holocausts of ancient Israel, where entire animals were destroyed by fire. This kind of sacrifice does exist in Indo-European religion (the Druidic human sacrifices come to mind), but they were exceptional and I will not try to deal with them here. The usual sacrifice is quite different. Rather than destroying the entire animal, certain parts (usually inedible) are given to the gods through the fire, but the bulk of it is cooked and eaten by the human participants. The sacrifice is thus a shared meal -- the gods eat their part and we eat ours, gathered together at the same table. It is a party to which we invite the gods, a sacred barbecue. It is communion in its most literal sense.

This leads us to the next meaning -- the ghosti-relationship. *ghosti- is a word in Proto-Indo-European which translates as "someone with whom one has a reciprocal obligation of hospitality." The English "guest" and "host" both come from this root. That describes the ghosti-relationship nicely. We are both guest and host to those with whom we have a ghosti-relationship; guest on one occasion, and host on another.

The ghosti-relationship is found in the very nature of the universe. This is true to the extent that I have identified the organizing principle of the universe as the ghosti-principle. This is the reciprocal given that establishes and maintains everything. It is shown in the Indo-European cosmology. The Tree (the axis mundi) is fed by water from the Well. The Tree drops fruit into the Well. Back and forth they exchange their gifts, and the Cosmos is maintained thereby. (The culture that has preserved the Proto-Indo-European cosmology most clearly is the Norse one. I recommend Bauschatz or the Eddas for a description of this. I dealt with the evidence from different Indo-European cultures and the cosmology that can be derived from them in Serith (1995).)

Human relationships operate in this manner as well. In Indo-European society, relationships are established and maintained through the exchange of gifts. Indeed, one of the reasons why the Germanic dragon was considered to be evil was that he hoarded his treasure rather than keeping it in circulation. Indo-Europeans do not admire a miser.

And the ghosti-principle operates in the relationship between human and divine. We give gifts to the gods, and they give gifts to us. We offer a share of the sacrifice, and they grant us blessings. We are the hosts today, and they are the hosts tomorrow. Sometimes this is called a "do ut des" relationship -- "I give that you might give." It is seen as a cosmic buying off -- we pay the gods to get what we want.

There is so much more to it than that, though. It is not a mere business transaction. Exchange is what Indo-European friendships are made of. By engaging in ghosti-relationships with the gods, we become their friends. And since in Indo-European society the king must give more in such a relationship than a commoner, the Great and Shining Ones grant marvelous blessings in return for our more humble gifts. "Ghostiyes to the Gods" is the most honorable title we can have. It is through sacrifice that this title is earned.

The final meaning I see is the most subtle. Sacrifice is a tapping of our relationship with the Outsiders, a way of allowing their power and life to enter into our Cosmos in a controlled manner, enlivening it without destroying it. Sacrifice is controlled Chaos.

But first some more cosmology is in order. I have already discussed the ghosti-relationship between the Tree and the Well. I would like to expand on that. The Waters of the Well come from the deep waters that, in Indo-European cosmology, support and surround the earth. But "there be dragons there." That is where the Outsiders dwell, beyond and beneath our Cosmos, our well-ordered world. There is Chaos, the power of entropy that would damage our order, that would destroy our Cosmos if allowed to enter in pure form.

Remember the relationship between the Tree and the Well, though. The Tree is Cosmos, the Well draws up the waters of Chaos. But the Tree is fed by the waters of the Well. How can that be? How can Chaos feed Cosmos?

Cosmos can grow stiff and brittle. Order can stifle. Established ways can grow old and die. There is life in the wildness that comes from the Well, and that is what the waters give the Tree -- a vivifying drink to be its sap, to keep its branches from becoming dry sticks. And in return the Tree, in true ghosti-relationship, gives its fruit to the Well.

I'm afraid I have let my enthusiasm run away with me. I hope I have not left my readers behind, asking what the heck this has to do with sacrifice. Hold on for just a bit longer, and I will try to make the connection.

The relationship with the Outsiders described in that between Chaos and Cosmos, between the Well and the Tree, is the one meaning of sacrifice where the actual death of the animal is relevant. Death is an instrument of Chaos: a living being goes from an ordered state of life into the decaying state of death. The system is closed, and entropy reigns. The killing is a gift to Chaos, and with the gift Chaos is brought into Cosmos to give its gift in turn. A hole is opened and Chaos flows in, the waters of the Well threaten to overwhelm Cosmos, to uproot the Tree, breaking it branches apart and scattering them. Unmediated, Chaos brings disaster, and that is just what the killing of the animal threatens to do.

Why invite it in in the first place? Why risk our world? Two reasons. First, as I have explained, Cosmos needs Chaos in order to stay alive. Everything needs a little wiggle room. The only alternative is death.

Second, Chaos will enter whether we want it to or not. Entropy affects us all, no matter what we do. Our only hope is to mediate Chaos in such a way that it enlivens rather than overwhelms us.

Bruce Lincoln (1986) has shown that the Indo-European creation myth involves a sacrifice. Through this sacrifice order is established, and through its repetition order is maintained. When we sacrifice we are present at That Time, at the beginning of the Cosmos. In cosmological terms, we are at the point where the Well and the Tree join. 

Through sacrifice we find ourselves at the place where Cosmos irrupts into Cosmos. The death of the animal brings us to this point by the destruction of the order of life. Chaos comes pouring in.

But the ritual of sacrifice is ordered and ordering. The sacrificial order takes Chaos and forms it into a non-destructive but still vivifying flow. In the sacrificial creation of the Cosmos, each thing is put into its proper place. Ritual order takes the formless and gives it shape. Through ritual Chaos is permitted to feed the Tree without destroying it. The answer to the question, "what is at the juncture point of the Well and the Tree?" is "the sacrificial order."

This, then is the final meaning of sacrifice. Sacrifice provides a way to mediate and mitigate Chaos. It keeps Cosmos going.

The sacred meal, the ghosti-relationship, the ordering of Chaos -- sacrifice puts us into proper relationship with the sacred and maintains us there.

Magnificent words, and I hope they have helped to dispel some of the distaste and misunderstanding surrounding sacrifice. We are not dealing here with the mystic powers of gushing blood. We are dealing instead with a far more subtle and beautiful thing.

But what does sacrifice have to do with modern times in general and ADF in particular? Are we about to start sacrificing animals?

When ADF began, animal sacrifice was outlawed. There is still reason for this. We simply do not have the trained personnel; there are no victimarii. Any attempt at sacrifice is likely to end in a bloody mess. It is likely to being Chaos in in an unmediated manner, it will give the gods an unsatisfactory gift, it will give us impure food for our shared table. It will satisfy none of the reasons for sacrifice.

The public relations alone would be enough reason to ban sacrifice. Jews can have their kosher butchery, Muslims can slaughter according to their rules, but the time has not yet come for society to accept our own sacred butchery. A proper sacrifice is more humane than the form of killing used in slaughterhouses. But the time is not yet here for society to realize that.

That does not mean, however, that there is not place for sacrificial imagery in ADF. In the classical world, it was considered quite acceptable to replace an animal with bread if it was impossible to sacrifice an animal. In Zoroastrianism and Hinduism, concerns over non-violence led to sacrifice being replaced with bread and balls of rice, respectively. There is sufficient precedent, then, for us to replace animal sacrifice with the a grain sacrifice while still following the ancient ways.

In the traditional ADF ritual, the sacrifice was replaced with praise offerings. The food from the animal was replaced with the Waters of Life. These can be retained while still following the old form and drawing from it some of the old meanings. But one way is manifestly missing. The ADF format does not allow for the mediation of Chaos. The Waters irrupt into the world, but we have not formed a channel for them. They come in, but they are not fully mediated. Chaos enters, but order is not imposed on it. Instead, the Waters are consumed without being ordered.

This problem can be solved without doing violence to the ADF ritual format, and without offending modern sensibilities. The ancient practice of ritual substitution shows us how. For the animal we can substitute bread. By the principal of ritual reality, that which is seen as symbolic from the outside of the ritual is, within the ritual context, seen as actual. A piece of bread named and treated as an animal sacrifice is, for the purposes of the ritual, the animal itself, and the sacrifice of it is ritually as effective as that of the animal would be.

I have myself participated in this sort of sacrifice. In one case, an animal cut from flat bread was used, and in another pita bread. (I recommend pita bread; it is more practical and no less symbolic.) The bread was treated as an animal. A prayer was said over it, identifying it with the appropriate animal. For instance, "We offer this ox, as we have named it to be, to Aryamen." The "animal" was sprinkled with water and with grain, and then "killed" by being touched with an axe. A slice was cut from its left side. This slice was cut in two, and the top portion placed in the fire as the god's portion. The bottom half was reserved. After the praise offerings the omen was taken. When a good omen had been received, the main portion of the bread was shared among the participants along with the Waters. Half of the reserved portion was eaten by the main celebrants, and the other half was offered to the Outsiders. In this way, a bit of the Outsiders was allowed to enter our Cosmos.

The Waters themselves were identified with the sacrifice. This was done by pouring them into a bowl as the "animal" was sacrificed. In this way, the Waters were shown to be the sacrifice as much as the bread was.

The addition of this form of sacrifice to ADF ritual allows all three meanings into the ritual. The strength and depth of the ritual are greatly increased thereby. And best of all, it puts us firmly in the ancient tradition. It allows us more closely to stand in the place of the ancestors, and approach the gods in the way they are used to being treated.


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Burkert, Walter. Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. tr. Peter Bing. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983.

Boyce, Mary. Mihragan Among the Irani Zoroastrians. Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies. ed. John R. Hinnells. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1975.

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. tr. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959.

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Jamasp-asa, Kakhusroo M. On the Dron in Zoroastrianism. Acta Iranica 24 (Papers in Honour of Professor Mary Boyce), (1965), pp. 335 - 356.

Lincoln, Bruce. Myth, Cosmos, and Society: Indo-European Themes of Creation and Destruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

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Serith, Ceisiwr. Proto-Indo-European Cosmology. The Druid's Progress 15 (1995), pp. 19-24.

Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. tr. Anthony Faulkes. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1987.

Watkins, Calvert. How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Author Information

David Fickett-Wilbar (Ceisiwr Serith)

Articles by David Fickett-Wilbar (Ceisiwr Serith)

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