I will go down to self-annihilation and Eternal Death;
Lest the Last Judgment come and find me unannihilate,
And I be seiz’d and giv’n into the hands of my own Selfhood.
— William Blake, “Milton’s Journey to Eternal Death”
Animal sacrifice was common in the ancient world. Today, Neo-Pagans do not sacrifice living beings. Some Neo-Pagans may make offerings as part of their spiritual practice. Such offerings may be as simple as pouring water onto the Earth as a libation, or as complex as devoting one’s life to the service of divinity.
But there is another sense in which sacrifice remains an important part of Neo-Paganism: the mystical “sacrifice” of one’s ego to the divine forces of fate. Perennial philosopher, Ken Wilber, states that ritual sacrifice—from human sacrifice to the Catholic Eucharist—can be understood exoterically, as a rite of fertility, or esoterically, as a rite of transcendence that “works to undermine or dissolve the self in God consciousness.”
It is normal to resist change and to, in the words of poet, Dylan Thomas, “rage against the dying of the light.” We want to live forever, but this is not our fate as human beings. We must surrender to change. For Neo-Pagans, the inevitability of change is symbolized by the Wheel of the Year and the Spiral Dance of the Neo-Pagan Goddess. As Joseph Campbell explained in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “The hero is the [person] of self-achieved submission.” “When our day is come for the victory of death, death closes in,” wrote Campbell, “there is nothing we can do, except be crucified—and resurrected; dismembered totally, and then reborn.”
We must strive to surrender to our fate, which is represented by the dark aspect of the Goddess. Through surrender, we are transformed, not to endless life, but to meaningful life in the context of the cosmic cycle of change. We must not only come to terms with the fact that we will one day die, but we must also experience a change of consciousness whereby we cease to identify with our isolated, individual ego-selves, and instead realize on a deep level that we are part of a greater whole that will survive our individual deaths. Mystics call this realization “ego death.” This surrender is expressed mythologically as the pathos of the Dying and Reviving God and the descensus averni of the Hero.
According to psychiatrist, R.D. Laing:
“True sanity entails in one way or another, the dissolution of the normal ego, that false self competently adjusted to our alienated social reality: the emergence of the ‘inner’ archetypal mediators of divine power, and through this death a rebirth, and the eventual re-establishment of a new kind of ego-functioning, the ego now being the servant of the divine, no longer its betrayer.”
This is one of the purposes of Neo-Pagan ritual. Through ritual, we symbolically enact a voluntary offering of our transient self to the Goddess who is endless change. It is a renunciation of the need for control and permanence, for the sake of transformation and renewal. Joseph Campbell explained:
“When the will of the individual to [their] own immortality has been extinguished—as it is in rites such as these—through an effective realization of the immortality of being itself and of its play through all things, [they are] united with that being, in experience, in a stunning crisis of release from the psychology of guilt and mortality.”
Ken Wilber explains the meaning of sacrifice in this way:
“The whole point of these esoteric ceremonies, rituals, prayers, etc., was to accept the death of the separate-self sense and thus rise to an identity or communion with the Great Goddess. This was a self-sacrifice, which allowed the individual to transcend the self without obliterating it, murdering it, or regressing to prepersonal stages. … These ceremonies and prayers became offerings of one’s soul to the Great Goddess, not another person’s body in blood to the Great Mother.”