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.