Ritual Sacrifice: Establishing Beneficial Relations With Blood
Although the origin and significance of sacrifice has long been a matter of debate, the essential element in the institution clearly is centred in the offering of a sacred victim for the purpose of establishing beneficial relations between a source of spiritual strength and those in need of such strength. This relationship may be one of communion, when strength is imparted to man or to a deity and a bond of union is effected with the beneficent powers who either participate in a communal meal, or become the actual sacrifice by a process of identification. Conversely, it may be one whereby a human weakness, error or transgression is held to be "covered", "wiped out", neutralized or carried away by a piacular offering. From these primary considerations secondary motives have arisen, such as the notion of securing the favour of an offended god by offerings which are in the nature of fines rather than of efficacious oblations, made either in kind or money, as in the later Hebrew ritual. Honorific free-will or thank-offerings also have been made in grateful recognition of the mercies and blessings received. Thus, the first-fruits of the crops and the firstlings of man and beast, and many other gift sacrifices, have been conceived more in the nature of honoraria, sometimes not far removed from bribes, on the utilitarian do-ut-des principle—"I give that thou mayest give".
The fundamental conception of the institution of sacrifice seems to have been the giving of life to promote and preserve life, and to maintain a vital relationship between the worshipper and the object of worship in order to gain free communication between the natural and the transcendent orders. When [Edward] B. Tylor enunciated his "gift theory" of the origin of sacrifice in terms of offerings to secure the favour or minimize the hostility of supernatural beings he forgot that the word dare, employed in Ovid’s maxim, do-ut-des, contains the implication of placing oneself in relation to, and participating in, a second person by an instrumental agent which is part of oneself. As [Gerardus] van der Leeuw has pointed out, "to give is to convey something of oneself to the strange being, so that a firm bond may be forged." Thus, a victim is first consecrated to the service of the altar and so identified with both the offerers and the recipient of the oblation. It is then killed in order that its life-giving blood may be poured out sacrificially to establish a "blood covenant" between them. The gift is the inherent vital principle and the ritual shedding of blood is the giving rather than the taking of life, death being merely incidental in the process of liberation….
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