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Whosoever Loses Their Life Will Find It

The Sacrifice of Isaac. 6-8th century, Egypt. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Public Domain.

In The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and Religion, Joseph Campbell writes that the mythic metaphor, the mythic image, “is necessarily physical and thus apparently of outer space. The inherent connotation is always, however, psychological and metaphysical, which is to say, of inner space.” (5) Psychologically, then, what are we to make of the chilling mythological rituals and images of human—or animal, for that matter—sacrifice?

In a 1971 Sarah Lawrence lecture, Professor Campbell described what he called the basic myth of the Neolithic culture, which is that there was “a time when there was no time, a mythological age” in which beings were “neither human nor animal, nor plant; a kind of mixing of forms.” There was no death or birth, and this age came to an end with the “Mythological Event,” the killing of one of these beings. Campbell is pointing to the idea that when this generous understanding of existence as being simply one more thing among the vast, untold number of things—of one thing being no more important than another, of experiencing absolutely no separation from the natural world at all—when that is betrayed, then death and hunger enter the world. One of those beings was cut up and buried, and from the buried parts the food plant emerged. Therefore, what you’re eating is your relative, something very close to you, something of which you were once a part until the psychological development of the individual, subjective ego—a state of consciousness that emphasizes separateness and inescapable subjectivity—is undertaken.

Professor Campbell points out that the gruesome rituals of human sacrifice belonging to some planting cultures are literal reenactments of the primal murder and the subsequent boon of a dietary staple. The sacrificial victim is to be understood as the god or goddess who, by offering itself to death, functions as a somewhat more literal Eucharist, ensuring the continued well-being of the community. Additionally, the ritual killing seems to function as atonement, at-one-ment, with the nature of things both immanent and transcendent, indeed, with the energies of the cosmos itself.

Campbell writes that “if the witness is prepared, there ensues a transfer of self-identification from the temporal, reflecting body to the…eternal source, and one then knows oneself as consubstantial with what is of no time or place but universal and beyond death, yet incarnate in all beings everywhere and forever.” (Inner Reaches, 32) Such a sacrifice inculcates, theoretically at least, no individual or cultural guilt. These rituals created a temenos, a sacred space, within which one is through the act of sacrifice, returned to the mythic age, which is not located in some distant, murky past, but exists right here in the present.

What is clear, whether we discuss sacrifice in literal or symbolic, mythic terms, is that we are discussing an act of violence. However, sacred violence is different than, shall we say, random or profane violence. Sacrifice “makes sacred” an act of violence, which in a different setting, a setting devoid of the traditionally, intentionally and historically constructed temenos, would simply be a violation of law or taboo. Another quality that a sacrifice must possess is that of “meaningfulness.” Events like the Vietnam War, 9/11, or the ongoing pandemic weigh heavily upon cultural consciousness because so many people died for no apparent good or just cause.

It is the case that the way in which we talk about sacrifice matters, and a fair amount of categorical debate often surrounds the framing of a sacrificial act. For example: Did Jesus offer himself as a willing sacrifice, or was he executed by the State as a criminal? Indeed, both narratives may be, and have been, argued. But I want to return to Joseph Campbell’s notion that the mythic image, the mythological act of sacrifice, even though it may be described as a physical, material, and external act, is also necessarily psychological and metaphysical, lest we become fixated on the ethics and morality of the mythological act without understanding the psychological impact.

What is, then, the psychological impact of the mythological motif of sacrifice? C.G. Jung suggests that what we’re sacrificing is a self-interested, physicalist perspective; a perspective of the ego that compels one to think that I am only this material form, beyond which lies only oblivion:

What I sacrifice is my own selfish claim, and by doing this I give up myself. Every sacrifice is therefore, to a greater or lesser degree, a self-sacrifice. The degree to which it is so depends on the significance of the gift. If it is of great value to me and touches my most personal feelings, I can be sure that in giving up my egoistic claim I shall challenge my ego personality to revolt. I can also be sure that the power which suppresses this claim, and thus suppresses me, must be the self. Hence it is the self that causes me to make the sacrifice; nay more, it compels me to make it. The self is the sacrificer, and I am the sacrificed gift, the human sacrifice. (Transformation Symbolism in the Mass, Psychology and Religion: West and East. CW Vol 11, p. 261. Emphasis is mine.)

When an individual compels the sacrifice of another–say, as Abraham compels Isaac–one must at some level, Jung points out, “feel the knife [enter] into his own breast” and become “at the same time the sacrificer and the sacrificed.” (262) What good do we get from it? What we gain from the sacrifice is ourselves, resurrected and renewed, newly possessed of all the things in us that were previously scattered, never properly related, or objectively witnessed–and as Campbell has often remarked, we become transparent to the transcendent. The sacrifice facilitates the transformation of suffering into a creative force. To gloss the poet Wendell Berry: We get to have love in our hearts.

Thanks for reading,


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