When you’re creating a new life for yourself, sometimes you don’t think about a certain concept, idea, or myth with much depth for a long time. Sometimes you need to run away from something that’s deeply damaged you until you can heal a little bit. Among the many things I had to step away from for awhile on my journey, is the concept of sacrifice. I simply didn’t think about it for a long time. It still meant, to me, all the ways that my fundamentalist upbringing had tried to get me to essentially kill my self, my will, my personality, to offer up everything that is me to someone I’d never even met (and to everyone around me as well).
But then, as so often happens, a coincidence of several disparate things, things you wouldn’t expect to fit together, got me thinking about sacrifice again. How does it fit into my worldview now?
I had already been thinking about personal sacrifice. The myths we could create out of uterine wisdom: rather than the obsession with a Christo-patriarchal demand of one-for-one, of one having to die on order to save someone else, we should make myths about how one can give one’s blood in a life-giving act without then having to die oneself. When I watched Mad Max: Fury Road, I was stunned that there, on the screen, at a pivotal moment, was this new mythos I had been contemplating [spoiler alert]. Max chooses to give his own life-giving blood in a transfusion to Furiosa, and both of them live. In that moment Max is not a patriarchal Christ-figure, he becomes another one of the many, many mother-figures in the movie.
A new thought, a new dimension, came crashing in yesterday. It did not relate to personal sacrifice, it related to sacrifice as ritualized in religions throughout time, and how that relates to the current climate crisis. How does something so ancient, now so emptied and sterilized, something once stinking of blood and smoke that clung to the hair of priests and priestesses even after their ritual cleansing, how does that have anything to say to us modern people speeding toward a disaster we cannot fathom in our comfortably air-conditioned SUVs with leather seats?
I watched The Wicker Man for the first time yesterday – and I mean the awesome 1973 movie with the late Sir Christopher Lee, not any of the reportedly bad remakes. If you haven’t watched it, you should, and don’t whine if I’m going to spoil the plot a little bit here because the movie has been out for forty years, dammit. The plot revolves around the idea of sacrificing in order to appease the old gods who are able to bless the islanders with a bountiful harvest. At the same time, I have had the song “Creator Destroyer” by Wendy Rule stuck in my head (which I don’t particularly mind because it’s a great song). Somehow, the movie and the song meshed together for me and I realized with gripping clarity how I think sacrifice really fits into my worldview. Not just a thought about masculine versus feminine myths, for both are found in nature and neither one can be done away with if we want to face realty honestly. But the overarching meaning and, indeed inevitability, of sacrifice.
Don’t go rushing off to call law enforcement on me, we obviously should not do anything anywhere near what happened at the end of The Wicker Man (again, 1973 version, not the one with Nicholas Cage). I’m not suggesting anything specific and I would strongly urge against doing anything unethical or immoral. Hang with me while I make a bigger point here.
The whole of nature is set up in cycles, some very small, some so large and spanning so many millennia that we don’t fully comprehend our place in them. As long as human civilization was largely agrarian and worshiped pantheons directly connected to nature, we acted out in ritual the cycles that we took part in day by day. We gave sacrifices of firstfruits to gods and goddesses, and we also went out every day into those fields and orchards and put into the earth the work necessary to get fruits, vegetables, and grains from it. A farmer who only sacrificed to the gods but did no work in his fields would be called a fool, even as a farmer who only worked but did not reverence the earth and the processes going on within it would also be considered unwise.
When industrialization and colonialism began, massive environmental degradation and devastation of human populations who were less industrialized quickly followed. Humankind, especially the western titans of industry and colonization, did everything we could to separate ourselves from natural cycles and processes. We wanted to have non-native fruits and spices, and any kind of food we wanted all year round. We wanted to have more things, and better things, far more than we actually needed, and the more “exotic” the better. And we didn’t care who or what we harmed and killed in order to get it. By shutting ourselves off from knowledge of our dependence on the earth, the kind of daily knowledge that comes from knowing your food for the winter depends on the weather this summer and whether you care for your crops properly, we made ourselves aggressively ignorant consumers. At this point, we desperately need to stop our frenzied consumption and disregard for the earth, for the cycles and networks that weave everything on this planet together, and yet we dare not. Humanity has never collectively had an addiction this harmful before, and we have no real idea what the detox will entail (though every guess is extremely grim).
It’s not that old gods are trying to throw a petty fit because no one’s remembered their birthday. Sacrifice is about the way things are, the way things have to be, the cycles that exist and demand homage. If we refuse to sacrifice, if we refuse to live deeply aware that we are a part of nature, and only a part not the lords of it, if we refuse to give before we take, if we ignore the reality that we are crashing toward the most massive OD of all time unless we detox right now, the earth will force from us the sacrifice we’ve neglected to give.
If we can make a lifestyle that is not one of capitalist hyperconsumption, if we can reestablish the human race as just one part of this organism called earth, we will need our imagination to change. We will need to reawaken old rituals that remind us what we are. We are not gods, we are not devils, we are not spirits forced to live in bodies. We are the children of the earth; she cares for us and we must care for her and for each other. We might choose to offer something, an incense, a loaf of bread, a king made of corn husks, but we will certainly spend part of each day giving something to the land: water or compost or a little time or energy, and gaining something from the land: food, shelter, transcendence, restfulness, fulfillment. We will need to reawaken old rituals that teach us about cycles of giving and receiving, of living and of dying, of knowing oneself and of knowing others. We need to know how to be, in our skins, in our communities, and in the whole circle of the earth. How to be content with having enough. How to be human, fully integrated, not fragmented or set at war with each other or ourselves. How to give without emptying ourselves. We will need to find and create myths that make it impossible for us to ever again forget what happens when we attempt to live alienated from the world and from each other.
It’s going to absolutely take hard work to bring ourselves back into our lane, to become a functional part of the ecological world instead of marauding invaders (like the fire ants and kudzu those of us in the South of the US have to do battle with). It’s not going to happen all at once and I doubt it will happen in time to halt climate change. But if we begin to practice these better ways of being among our own communities, a few of us at a time, we could make a difference.
This isn’t hippy-dippy garbage, and this is extremely important even, or especially, for people who don’t like to go outside. I don’t think everything’s going to be perfect if we just start doing a nature ritual now and then. I don’t even think everything will be perfect if we somehow, impossibly, manage to fix the things that patriarchal religion and capitalist industrialization and colonization have done. But what hope do we have other than a sea change in our behavior, thinking, stories, and rituals? And why not begin with (or integrate into our other new ways of being) a return to a healthy, reality-based understanding of sacrifice? As far as emblems for how the world can be saved, I will take the death and resurrection happening in my compost heap over a stained-glass Jesus high up in a cathedral window any day.