©Hermann Nitsch
Hermann Nitsch, ‘Schüttbild (action painting),’ dispersion paint on burlap, 200 x 300 cm, 1986©Hermann Nitsch
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On Sacrifice

Some paschal reflections on a human ritual practice

Michael Taussig
March 26, 2021
©Hermann Nitsch
Hermann Nitsch, ‘Schüttbild (action painting),’ dispersion paint on burlap, 200 x 300 cm, 1986©Hermann Nitsch

In 1993, the United States Supreme Court had to decide on a suit brought by the Floridian city of Hialeah against an Afro-Cuban Santeria church for practicing sacrifice of goats and chickens. The city argued that the killing of these animals was unnecessary. It was not for the processing of food, it was unhygienic, and it was traumatic for children to see animals being killed.

Everything that America holds sacred seemed to be at stake. There was no good utilitarian reason for the sacrifice. What’s more, it was dirty, and it was bad for kids in whose name (along with hygiene) we understand and defend most of our customs. Yet the court sided with the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye on First Amendment grounds.

Around that time, my teaching assistant in New York City made a video of himself and his young nephew, aged about 12, sacrificing a lamb in upstate New York. My assistant was Jewish and took his religion seriously. But he had done his anthropological fieldwork in Palestine with Palestinians and was deeply sympathetic to their cause. I assumed that this sacrifice was in a sense an homage to his Palestinian friends. It is also a fact that in Israel, although it has been banned for 2,000 years, sacrifice by Jews is surreptitiously being reintroduced.

But what most intrigued me was the presence of his young nephew and, for me, the utter strangeness of performing a sacrifice on a grassy hillside in New York State. What might have been normal in ancient Palestine became riveting here.

Therefore, let us look more at the city of Hialeah’s objections as a way of thinking through the assumptions about sacrifice and killing that my teaching assistant exposed.

First, why “unnecessary?” Why did the city’s lawyers state that the killing was unnecessary? This seems to be sheer prejudice, ignorant of what sacrifice actually entails as part of a family or intimate group gathered together with a priest carrying out a solemn ceremony.

Hermann Nitsch, ‘Schüttbild (action painting),’ dispersion paint on burlap, 200 x 300 cm, 1986

Hermann Nitsch, ‘Schüttbild (action painting),’ dispersion paint on burlap, 200 x 300 cm, 1986© Hermann Nitsch

There is another factor here as well, which is that the “business of America is business,” by which I mean that if there’s no practical use and there’s no opportunity for profit, forget it. Utility is everything.

Second, why is sacrifice bad but commercial slaughter is OK?

Every day in the United States, some 25 million cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens are slaughtered—not, heaven help us, sacrificed. These two words—slaughter and sacrifice—illustrate where our culture stands. Slaughter is fine, while sacrifice is creepy and barbaric.

In fact, slaughter is not so fine, and the word “slaughter” is now avoided because it seems as creepy as “sacrifice.” So, instead of “slaughterhouse,” we use the phrase “meat processing plant” (the word plant is also of interest here). But these plants are tucked out of sight, with appalling working conditions dependent on migrant labor and intense cruelty to both animal and worker, as was made frighteningly clear in Timothy Pachirat’s eye-opening book Every Twelve Seconds. Pachirat points out that an increasing number of state legislatures have enacted “ag-gag” rules against investigations like his own, which had to be done undercover. The states seemingly fear that the truth is too shocking—perhaps equal to or greater than the shock caused by sacrifice. Indeed, employee turnover caused by psychological trauma is frequent. Few workers last for a year.

You have to ask yourself about this level of hypocrisy when society can take a case of animal sacrifice to the Supreme Court while proceeding daily with the holocaust of animals.

You also have to realize that the major religion of the United States, Christianity, is built on blood sacrifice, namely the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. And although church and state are supposedly separate, presidents and politicians invoke God—implying the Christian God—at the drop of a hat.

With regards to slaughter versus sacrifice, an anthropologist at Columbia University, Ruth Benedict, once pointed out that the famous 16th-century essayist Michel de Montaigne argued that the cannibalism he read about in Brazil would be far preferable to the terrible religious wars raging around him in France. The point of such an observation was to make the reader wonder at the equanimity with which we regard our own barbaric customs while regarding with horror the customs of other societies.

As with cannibalism, so with sacrifice. Might it not be that we are secretly thrilled, that in our righteous indignation there lurks not only strong desire, but also a great deal of fantasy created by the very mix of horror and desire, attraction and repulsion, which makes sacrifice holy?

Sacrifice is an interesting word. It means a practice that creates sacredness, a meaning reflected in the very makeup of the word sacri/fice, which we can break down into “the making of holiness,” with sacer meaning “holy” in Latin, and facere meaning “to make.” This is to my mind fascinating. Ask yourself, how do you make something out of nothing? How do you make sacredness?

The answer here is by taking a life, meaning that killing creates a cycle of sacredness. It did so for Christianity, and that act of killing now lives on eternally, so to speak, in all Christian denominations, Catholic or Protestant.

In many rites, sacredness is created not from naught but from a subtle interdigitation of ritualized moments in dynamic interaction, like the spiraling of a corkscrew. For example, when a shaman (like Santiago Mutmbajoy in the upper Amazon, with whom I spent a lot of time from 1972 to 1999) sings over the hallucinogenic mix of yage and chagropanga at the beginning of an all-night healing seance, he is imparting his song and his breath into the medicine. The medicine at this moment is seen as “evil,” coming “raw” from the wild, we could say. Its sacred potential and power has to be transmuted before humans can drink it. At this moment, the shaman’s very being is sacred because of this moment of dialectical engagement.

His sacred potential comes from many previous such moments in which he has become infected, so to speak, by the sacred. The song comes from the medicine—from the yage people—and passes through the shaman to the participants. And so, the sacredness of the occasion is built up in stages and reciprocities.

Sacrifice, as I read about it, also requires a subtle interdigitation, a movement to-and-fro, in which the different elements energize one another—notably the killer and the object being killed, such as an animal or, in the case of Aztec sacrifice, a human captured in war.

So why is sacrifice so scary? Why is it scary to us? And is it scary to the people who practice it?

I think the scariness—if I can use that word—is as present in cultures that sacrifice as it is in those which do not. It is scary because of the awe aroused by killing and because—for us—of a trap in the evolution of the word and the concept.

Hermann Nitsch, ‘Schüttbild (action painting),’ dispersion paint on burlap, 200 x 300 cm, 1986

Hermann Nitsch, ‘Schüttbild (action painting),’ dispersion paint on burlap, 200 x 300 cm, 1986© Hermann Nitsch

Long practiced in the ancient world, its disappearance as a ritual within Western modernity has meant a transfer of its meaning. Now, it retains a surreptitious and sinister reminder of its sacredness, as when President John F. Kennedy is remembered for telling Americans to ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country.

The hangdog solemn expression used by U.S. presidents about “the ultimate sacrifice,” similarly registers the state’s interest in self-sacrifice, usually by poor young people defending the interests of the rich—who always seem to avoid military service.

It’s not just that working-class people are conned into military service, or that many might want to do this on their own. What’s important, socially and politically, is that the idea of self-sacrifice for the nation carries such weight, even when it is patently abused by our leaders—as demonstrated time and again by the president with bone spurs in his feet, and before him by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, both of whom strenuously escaped the draft before taking the country into a disastrous war based on lies.

We project sacrifice onto exotic cultures when in fact it is close at hand, indeed terribly close and even inside us.

Yet, the term sacrifice in modern Western society extends beyond the military to all manners of caring. We hear it in reference to mothers caring for children since time immemorial, or used by working-class parents whose bleak lives, according to The Hidden Injuries of Class, a study of Boston blue-collar workers, make no sense to them other than that they are sacrificing themselves for their children. Such self-denial offers a bleak view of sacrifice, a long way from the sacrifices we read about in Homer, for example, or what we find in the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—where sacrifice achieves a certain splendor by cementing a compact with the gods, or with God through rites heavy with portent.

The influential theorists of sacrifice, the French anthropologists Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert, chose to end their 1906 book, Sacrifice: Its Nature and Functions, by examining the implications of the god who sacrifices himself. They suggested that this provides the origin and endpoint, the “essential model,” we might say, of sacrifice. It is, to say the least, a mysterious thing that can be understood only to a certain degree. Indeed, much religious ritual is like that—mysterious, unfathomable, and treasured as such.

The god killing himself is clearly the undergirding of Christianity. In the famous The Golden Bough, written toward the end of the 19th century, its author James George Frazer expands on this in anthropological terms which are still relevant to our world today. His book of many volumes begins with the legend of a priest and king of a sacred grove near Rome, who circles a golden bough (hence the title of Frazer’s book) until he is weakened by old age. A young man approaches him, murders him, and becomes the priest of the sacred grove, taking his victim’s place and awaiting his turn in the ad infinitum cycle of sacrifice.

The idea of the golden bough itself comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, in which the bough must be presented in order to pass to the underworld. This in itself suggests that the pagan roots of Christianity are tied up with death, and, as Dante’s great poem hints, that religion gains its power through contact with these ancient roots.

Frazer draws a parallel between the cycle of the seasons from spring to winter. In other words, we can read him as endowing nature with a self-sacrificial character ensuring rebirth and the sap of life, which is then repeated with the birth of Christianity. In this reading, sacrifice—as with the crucifixion—is the exact opposite of entropy.

But more needs saying, since sacrifice comes in many shapes and forms, such that many anthropologists even dispute the use of the word as overly general and essentializing.

Thus, let us agree on a simple definition, as offered by Georges Bataille, who wrote that “sacrifice consecrates that which it destroys.”

He certainly had a vested interest in saying this. His major theoretical work, The Accursed Share, focused on the topic of economics, or should we say “economics,” in which he emphasized consumption in a very literal sense of that word, going against profit-oriented and utilitarian understandings of economy.

Bataille argued that the defining trait of a society was not how it produced wealth but how it spent it—or in other words, how it sacrificed it. He discusses examples in wars, festivals, feasts, games, religion, gifts, rites, and luxury, all of which entail giving in abundance for the sake of giving, as in Potlatch, art, and, of course, sex. When he said “spent,” he really meant spending for the heck of it, living in the fast lane as if every minute is your last. His word for this was depense, used in the sense of wasting, as in burning up or making nonproductive expenditures. The great, if not the greatest, Irish soccer player George Best put it well when he summarized his life: “I spent a lot of my money on booze, birds, and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”

In essence, Bataille argued that sacrifice was all about transgression—an art form, we might say, that brings to a fine point the transgression of a taboo, in this case, that of taking a life.

Hermann Nitsch, ‘Schüttbild (action painting),’ dispersion paint on burlap, 200 x 300 cm, 1986

Hermann Nitsch, ‘Schüttbild (action painting),’ dispersion paint on burlap, 200 x 300 cm, 1986© Hermann Nitsch

But how, you ask, does that lead to making something sacred? And how did the killing of the messiah by the Roman state change the world? You might also ask, was it the crucifixion that made him the messiah?

It was crucial, however, to the model of sacrifice presented by Mauss and Hubert that there normally be an intermediary, such as an animal, between the sacrificer and the god. The latter was too “hot” to be approached directly. The space between the profane and the sacred had to be maintained, which is what we see in the Christian church through the presence of the altar, as well as with Christ himself being both the intermediary and the son of God.

It is often claimed in anthropology that sacrifice exists like a bribe: I sacrifice a goat to the god, and the god gets rid of my leprosy or pesky ancestor.

But I don’t think for a moment that was what George Best the soccer player meant when he discussed his “squandering.” As E.E. Evans-Pritchard pointed out in his book Nuer Religion, based on his 1930s fieldwork in the Sudan, the god, or gods, gets very little. Some fatty smoke or a morsel here and there, sure, but the meaty feast is for the people in attendance.

Evans-Pritchard says no. In fact, what the god gets is a very special gift—if we can play with words and call it a gift—and that is the gift of life.

Is this too clever for words? Reading Bataille, one is tempted to say not the gift of life but “the gift of death,” meaning something like “wasting” or “giving” with no sense of return and no expectation of profit. If this way of looking at sacrifice holds sound, then it is no wonder that the town fathers and mothers of Hialeah in Florida were distressed.

In other words, the point is the killing. Indeed, Hubert and Mauss themselves declared that the central act of sacrifice was sacrilege and a crime, a very special sort of crime, we might say a sacred transgression.

They developed a distinction between sacrifices meant to de-sacralize and those meant to sacralize. An example of the former would be ridding a person of a possessing spirit, while with the latter, the sacred status of the person for whom the sacrifice is made is elevated. In Christian doctrine, the Roman colonial state enhanced Christ’s status by killing him, and there exist many accounts of this happening to the victims of state execution in Britain and Europe through the 19th century.

Crucial to the Mauss and Hubert scheme, as Evans-Pritchard described in detail, is the identification of the sacrificer with the animal to be killed: The slayer is at one with the slain.

In other words, destruction creates a relationship between the destroyer and the destroyed as much as it severs their actual physical relation. Indeed, the slaying augments their connection.

For a month or more, the victim to be sacrificed in Aztec sacrifice would be given the choicest meals and maidens, adorned with flowers, and treated like a god. In fact, he became a god. Once he was killed in elaborate ritual combat in which he stood little chance, in the Feast of the Flayed One his captor would eat a morsel of his flesh and wear his stinking skin for a month, so close was his identification with the victim.

Compared with this, how crass the arguments of certain anthropologists that Aztec sacrifice is to be explained by the need for protein! Not only crass, but also how telling this is of our culture. The amount of actual flesh eaten was minuscule and symbolic, while the entire event was permeated with mystical force, not a desperate search for fuel!

If, as Bataille writes, “sacrifice destroys that which it consecrates,” it behooves us to think more about the existence and role of destruction in our modern world, in which destruction plays as important a role as construction. That was the idea of the famous economist Joseph Schumpeter, who posited that capitalism depends on destruction as much as it does on construction, a thought seconded by Marshall Berman in his marvelous book, All That Is Solid Melts into Air (quoting The Communist Manifesto). Then there is Bakunin’s motif of the passion for destruction as a creative passion, and Nietzsche’s argument in The Gay Science that we create only as destroyers. In America, of course, such “negative” thoughts are considered unwholesome.

I could continue, but my point is that sacrifice—as defined above by Bataille—is actually a pulse in social life, in religions, in art, and, apparently, in the deep structures of the human personality. We project sacrifice onto exotic cultures when in fact it is close at hand, indeed terribly close and even inside us.

But there is one fundamental caveat: In our post-Enlightenment epoch, we do not feel the sacrificial buzz. We do not glorify the destruction as a magical or religious accession to other worlds or states of being. That was Bataille’s focus, the idea of sacrifice as ecstasy, as an end in itself. Bataille was not anxious to promote sacrifice per se, although he did try to organize a sacrifice of one of his colleagues, Roger Caillois, just outside of Paris. Bataille’s preoccupation was where the buzz had gone, or if there was any left. George Best comes to mind again. But humor was not Bataille’s strong suit.

Ominously, when considering the modern capitalist world in which, he thought, depense barely existed, Bataille suggested that war had come to replace earlier forms of sacrificial ritual. It was an enormous “wasting” in the sense of depense of life and resources—a sacrifice, we could say, that channeled profound passions such as patriotism, hate, and self-sacrifice. In the United States and in Latin America, war finds its counterpart with evangelism, a Dionysian and potently reactionary political force.

This raises the issue that although the word is common, sacrifice today in the West has come to lead a double if not a false life. While trading in the earlier sense of awe tied to destruction, it now tends to mean the opposite—drudgery and exploitation, including self-exploitation. We sacrifice ourselves just as Hubert and Mauss said the gods did, but without quite the same impact. We suffer not for our sins, not from our guilt, but from our self-sacrifice.

This theme lies at the heart of Dialectic of Enlightenment, written by those very sophisticated Frankfurt School thinkers, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. After the Enlightenment, sacrifice as practiced in the ancient Middle East, Greece, and Rome has, as it were, became inverted into an instrument of self-abnegation, a buzzkill.

The most obvious instance of sacrifice in the United States today is police killings, which amount to three per day, according to the statistics kept by The Washington Post and the Guardian (since the U.S. government is loath to supply figures). We can think of these killings in other ways, of course, but as with the Aztec sacrifices, we have to wonder whether, when all is said and done, the United States has discovered a form of sacrifice that restores the holiness to killing, which has spilled out of phone videos and fueled a mighty cause.

Michael Taussig is an Australian anthropologist and a professor at Columbia University.

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