Wherever an Altar is Found, There Every Last Feature of Civilization Exists

The very day that Dr. Bill posted Sport is not about hunting or fighting, David Sansone’s Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport landed on my stoop. Like George Hersey’s Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture, it is one of those little books that knits together a large and diverse range of apparently unrelated items and links them coherently to ancient sacrifice. I highly recommend both books, if only for the fascinating factoids to be found by the dozen on their every page.

Hersey shows that the tropes of classical architecture all derive from the sacrificial rite; Sansone argues persuasively that sport began as a relic of the sacrificial cult that in turn was a fossil of the hunt. Both bolster their cases with overwhelming evidence.

So, Maistre seems with every passing month to be more correct than even he perhaps ever knew, in saying that, “Wherever an altar is found, there civilization exists.” Everything seems to go back to the sacrificial rite: to the hunt, to war, to violence and its expiation.

[I have but little doubt that there are other, similar books out there, relating drama, art, music, poetry, science, and all the other humane arts to sacrifice, war, and the hunt. If you know of one, please comment below and tell us about it, so that I may investigate.]

Sansone thinks that the athlete’s expenditure in training and competition of his surplus energy is a form of sacrifice. It replaces the effort that had formerly gone into the hunt (or war) and the training of the hunter. That effort – extending potentially even to death – was considered a first installment on the tribe’s reparation to its victim – the prey – for his suffering. The rest of the payment was proffered by means of the sacrifice itself, in which the uneaten remains of the victim were consecrated to the god, so that he was divinized. The ritual offering restored the moral balance that had been ruptured by the sacrificial violence, and expiated the sin of the hunter and his people.

When animals were domesticated and the hunt was no longer needed to supply food, no pain or effort of the hunt was any longer required of the heroes of the people. So they had to devise a substitute, and the rituals of sport began. All the Greek games were dedicated to gods; Achilles celebrated the funeral of Patroclus with sacrifices – of hair, horses, humans, food – and with athletic contests. To the victors even now go the chalice that once caught the blood of the victim. The crown of vegetation worn by victor and priest – both at one time themselves sacrificial victims – originated as hunter’s camouflage. The woolen fillets bound to the victor’s arm, leg and hair and signifying his consecration to the god began as animal skins worn by the hunter to mask his human scent, and survive today as the two infulae that dangle from the back of episcopal mitres.

Reflecting on all this, it occurred to me that no matter how we spend our surplus, it is eo ipso a type of sacrifice. Whatever we spend our spare time on, or money, or energy, we worship. Thus “You cannot serve two masters,” and, “where your treasure is, there will be your heart as well.” Are you spending your surplus on anything other than God? Then you are committing idolatry.

How to avoid idolatry then, when going about the business of life? Pray constantly; offer up every expenditure of surplus, however expended, to God as a sacrifice to him. Then the question becomes simple, and classical: What would Jesus want me to offer up to him? Would he want this thing I now propose to do? Is it quite the thing for the Courts of Heaven? Could I approach his throne with it as an offering?

A high standard, to be sure. But then, as we more and more consistently seek to meet it, we shall more and more find that we have everything we could properly want. When we sacrifice at the altar, we get to partake of the sacrificial goods; so the sacrifice is not a dead loss, but rather an investment that yields return.

17 thoughts on “Wherever an Altar is Found, There Every Last Feature of Civilization Exists

  1. Reflecting on all this, it occurred to me that no matter how we spend our surplus, it is eo ipso a type of sacrifice. Whatever we spend our spare time on, or money, or energy, we worship. Thus “You cannot serve two masters,” and, “where your treasure is, there will be your heart as well.” Are you spending your surplus on anything other than God? Then you are committing idolatry.

    How to avoid idolatry then, when going about the business of life? Pray constantly; offer up every expenditure of surplus, however expended, to God as a sacrifice to him. Then the question becomes simple, and classical: What would Jesus want me to offer up to him? Would he want this thing I now propose to do? Is it quite the thing for the Courts of Heaven? Could I approach his throne with it as an offering?

    Outstanding. I’d never thought of this before. As James127 notes above, our altars are desecrated. The challenge is to bring them back.

    • The Davidic line may not soon be restored to the throne, but if we can lay hands on a few Maccabees somewhere, why then we can cleanse the doors of the Temple and rededicate the Altar and the Holy of Holies, despite the Abomination of Desolation. God is not mocked. All we need is one stubborn priest who refuses to truckle, and the fire will begin to spread.

      Remember: Christmas is coming: always – now. At the rededication, the lamps on the Tree of Life burned for eight days without oil; but the lights on the World Tree revealed to Moses at Mount Horeb never go out, for they are the starry angels of the victim who is its dearest shoot and sweetest fruit, the logos spermatikos in whom it is rooted and from whom it first sprang up evergreen at Easter. Not all is lost, while God lives; God lives, so nothing worthy is ever irretrievably lost, no fit sacrifice vain. Christmas is coming, soon: Aslan is on the move. Deck your halls, light your Christmas Tree, set your candles in the window – being sure to trim the wicks – and wait for his secret advent at midnight, and at the turning of the tide.

    • Thanks, I will read this with interest. In writing the post, I considered launching into a discussion of the sacrificial roots of economic exchange – potlatch, gift, compensation for torts, avoiding feud, etc. – but decided it was too soon. Yet it is clear that the link is there. Sacrifice purchases future life; covenants are legal contracts governing exchange of service. And as Frederick Turner has pointed out, a bond is an instrument of love and commitment as much as of finance.

      In the journal entry that formed the kernel of the post, the last paragraph reads:

      Saving is a form of sacrifice, too, wherein we sacrifice present enjoyment for the sake of future enjoyment.

      • Interesting how David Graeber pursues the same idea from the opposite angle (left-wing anarchist and presumably atheist), namely how a religious conception of sin originated from the social practice of debt. (Debt: The First 5000 Years) I don’t remember the full argument (too left for me) but it was something along the lines of accounting preceding coinage. That it was possible to conduct spot transactions with barter or gifts, but if a party owed something for the longer run it had to defined in a general currency unit. Weregild would owed for crimes like murder and then sin derives from here.

        I think Graebers account is too ideological, but I do find it interesting how important a role debt plays in The Republic and how often paying a debt mankind owed to God is used as an analogy of Christ’s sacrifice – so apparently, some kind of connection is likely. The interesting aspect that a debt does not necessarily begin with a promise. For example if a murderer automatically owes weregild then not.

  2. Pingback: Wherever an Altar is Found, There Every Last Feature of Civilization Exists | Reaction Times

  3. I had to read Homo Necans by Walter Burkert for class in undergrad. It’s rather interesting. One detail that struck me was that most sacrificial rites required assent from the victim — and this includes bestial sacrifices. Priests had methods to motivate cattle to nod and such. Fascinating.

    • Homo Necans had been on my probably-ought-to-read list for some time. A couple days after I started Sansone’s book, I ordered it, and now it is next on my list. Sansone refers to it constantly, reverently, and enticingly.

    • Animal sacrifice is a mark of moral progress. The sacred animal must be made to nod in assent to its sacrifice, as though it were a witting participant in it, because it substitutes for what was formerly a human victim, who, like Oedipus, assented to his own immolation or expulsion.

  4. There was an article in National Geographic a while back about how anthropologists have changed their view on the relationship between organized religion and civilization: the former view was that the latter was the cause of the former, that organized religion arose as a way to deal with the new tensions that resulted from the formation of large complex agricultural societies. But in more recent years, evidence has led anthropologists to reverse the causality, that it was organized religion that led to the development of agriculture and civilization. The evidence for this, if I recall correctly, is the existence of massive ancient temples that predate complex societies and that must have been used by people living relatively far away from the site. Such large gatherings of people who lived so far away led to the development of agriculture because of the need to feed these people.

  5. Well, if I got my Eliade right, for ancient civilizations almost everything is sacred in a way as nothing can be separated from the divine. The difference between more sacred and less sacred things is how strongly the symbolize the divine, a pagan sacred grove or a Christian church symbolizes it more closer than a rock does, but ultimately they cannot separate even a rock entirely from the divine.

    The point is, this means for long time in history pretty much everything invented pretty much necessarily has a sacred dimension. This does not really suggest that religion is any ways a sufficient or necessary cause for inventing e.g. sports but it is clear that everything that gets invented in that eras will be integrated into religion.

  6. > Everything seems to go back to the sacrificial rite: to the hunt, to war, to violence and its expiation.

    Well, everything goes back to life and death. This is basically the male narrative of it. Taking other life in order to defend or feed people close to us. I guess the female narrative of it would be centered on getting pregnant and giving birth, and nurturing later on. Which lived on in the various Earth Mother cults.

    I have always accepted that spirituality is a need to be psychologically healthy, and I think sooner or later in an atheist age some kind of new spirituality will be need to be constructed. It is not a new idea, art was understood as a replacement for religion already in the 19th century, a poets-are-prophets attitude (see Adam Mickiewicz).

    At any rate, I think a modern non-theistic spirituality will necessarily have to be focused on life and death, as they are really the only ordinary things that can be felt as sacred. I am not laughing at women who feel there is something sacred about giving birth, and neither am I laughing on men who feel boxing or MMA has an element of sacred to them. Birth and violence and probably the most readily sanctifiable things. This is something I always felt for example I never wanted to live in a room without some plants in it – things living and growing are the most basic “unit” of the sacred. Seriously, if you wanted a basic unit of measure of the sacred, the millimeter of it, take a living flower that is just about to bloom. And so are things dying too, in a more terrible way.

    Edmund Burke got his aesthethics very right. Everything goes back to the sublime and the beautiful and the beautiful goes back to life and the sublime to death.

    To put it differently, how to be blind to the sacred (in this modern non-theist etc. sense of sacred) ? By averting your eyes from life and death and focusing on objects. Or concepts, but objects are more common. The idolatry of the yacht and the Ferrari. The issue is simply that they are not alive. Although I do admit you can feel very much alive when driving over 200 km/h! 🙂

  7. Wonderful piece. I have more than once described myself as a ‘De Maistre Reactionary’, the man was brilliant. Looking back at the various heroes who have been felled by the barbaric forces of modern ideology, notable among them Captain Codreanu, I am somewhat amazed De Maistre saved his neck. His critique was indeed devastating and this statement on altars has a clarity to it that is hard to beat.

    “Wherever an altar is found, there civilization exists”

    Amen to that.

    What we offer up at this altar is a mentally taxing question, but I think you nailed it in saying what would we want to approach the throne with.

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