When I was very young and basically obsessed with Greek myths, I remember feeling envious of the lives of the Olympian gods and goddesses but puzzled about the terrible sacrifices they would demand from the less fortunate and much less dazzling real people. The ritual of sacrifice seemed incomprehensible, a cruel game played by the sadistic gods for their own amusement while to man, this same game translated into a tragedy, costing one’s own mind and, often, the very life. Why, I recall wondering, must Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, in order to set out for Troy? How can someone choose a war over a loved person’s life? The simplest and, hence, truest answer – it is what happens, after all – is that for Agamemnon war, invasion and expansion, reclaiming his and his brother’s honor weighs more than the small and insufficient familial circle.
Without questioning it, Agamemnon accepts his submission to greater powers and the obvious reciprocity between man and life, the gods, and nature. They request something in return for a favor. The demand is not necessarily equal to the favor granted but an exchange certainly exists. Victory or defeat depend on the pain, patience, the portion one deprives himself/herself in order to gain something. Sacrifice establishes equilibrium. Differently from Agamemnon, those who do not sacrifice are forgotten. In any case, even if unequal, the sacrifice made approximates the quality and intensity of the life lived and the name one leaves behind or doesn’t. Now, even more than before, I am grateful to the ancient Greeks for their preparatory lessons on everything but, above all, the knowledge on the delicate and intricate relationship between man and life/nature/the gods.
The second memorable encounter with the ritual of sacrifice – in theory, not practice – occurred in a literature class with one of the definite works on the topic, Roberto Calasso’s complicated and partially inaccessible work, The Ruin of Kasch. The puzzling and fragmentary text treats the gradual loss of the sacrificial ritual, from ancient times to the present day. We have moved from a world in which the sacrificial offering is a concrete, physical entity –a person, an animal – to one where the sacrifice is abstract, symbolic, with the biggest indicator of its nature and joke being the giving of a piece of paper to which we have granted value – money – in order to receive much more valuable things. The offering of a symbol – money or even more abstract forms like a card – in order to get permit to use something else has eliminated a great portion of the satisfaction in the act of taking. Calasso pinpoints the loss of this ritual as the cause of the degradation and internal decay of the contemporary world.
Despite my theoretical analyses of sacrifice, I never fully understood its point mainly because it wasn’t convenient. Like many others, I thought I was privileged and with a little mental effort I could find a shortcut, a roundabout way to get what I want without relinquishing something that might be dear to me. I would pretend I would sacrifice something but it was usually easily disposable anyway. Yet, despite our efforts, the gods still and always will play with us. The dynamics between man and the surrounding world remain fundamentally similar. What must be sacrificed to get what we want is not fully determined by us but a number of fundamental and circumstantial elements: our goals, the strength and veracity of our desires and those of others, the capability to really give in order to similarly receive. The sacrifices we are usually comfortable making, the things we deem sacrifices but do not cost that much – buying things, for instance – will momentarily satisfy us but afterward we will soon grow hungry again for a small, cheap victory. We have become merchants of petty sacrifices, trying to bargain even with the gods. Sacrifice, the origin of trade and business. But, despite occasional claims to the contrary, nice things are rarely cheap. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” Americans say, hypocritically and not fully believing it but, with the exception of a dress on sale or something similar, it’s entirely true.by Kleitia Vaso