One of the most powerful image in mythic traditions throughout the world is the Sacrificed God. From the stag god Herne, hunter and hunted, who allows himself to be killed to feed his people, to Odin hanging on the world tree to acquire knowledge to Christ dying on the cross for to redeem the world’s sins, the god who gives his life for the benefit of the community plays a central role in most myths and religions. (And what is myth, after all, but the religion of another time and place?)
What makes this archetype so compelling? It seems, from one angle, almost counter-intuitive. We expect gods to be powerful. Why would we follow a supposedly divine being that succumbs to death? I believe the answer may be twofold.
First of all, death is only the first part of the story. After death comes rebirth. The stag that dies with the sun on Samhain night becomes the stag-horned sun king that rises Solstice morning. Odin comes down from the tree to share his new wisdom and Christ rises from the grave to prove that death is illusory. It’s comforting for us mortals doomed to die to believe that death is not the end. Further, the archetype gives us hope in all those smaller deaths we will face throughout our lifetime. The end of a marriage, the loss of a job, an injury that radically changes our assumptions about the future. We need something to remind us that the days will lengthen, the crops will sprout and grow, and the young stag will bound through the woods once again. This part of the myth also symbolizes transformation, and brings with it hope that we can become the people we want to be.
In fiction, this archetype can be a return from literal death. (The dread pirate Westley at Miracle Max’s springs to mind, even if he was only ‘mostly dead.’ The Doctor’s regenerations in Doctor Who could be considered a form of the death/rebirth cycle.) It also comes into play when a character is believed to be dead and returns to the astonishment of all. (Think Gandalf’s return after he fell into the chasm in Moria.), or even if the character faces great mortal peril and survives. (As in Frodo nearly dying on the summit of Mount Doom or a thousand tales of knights who nearly perish slaying dragons.)
(For more information on this aspect of the legend, read The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Actually, read it in any case. He is the master, I am merely an acolyte. )
Secondly, the willingness to sacrifice is one of the most compelling virtues there is, one that we love to see in our heroes and protagonists, and what are gods but larger-than-life heroes and protagonists. Think Harry Potter going to face Voldemort for the last time thinking that he must die to end the menace. Or (in my opinion, more poignant) Severus Snape permitting everyone to think the worst of him for all those years just to keep his cover so he could spy for Albus. It’s fine for Superman to stop bullets with his chest. But what really makes us care about him as a character is how he sacrifices his chance at love with Lois Lane by never letting her see beyond the bumbling façade of Clark Kent.
Admiration for self-sacrifice may be hard-wired into our DNA. How else would puny social animals like humans survive? Relatively powerless as individuals, we needed the strong, able hunters to risk their lives against charging mammoths in order to feed the elders who kept the tribe’s wisdom, the artists that fed the tribe’s soul, the mothers who bore the children and the children who would someday be hunters, artists, wise men and parents to the next generation.
So next time you settle down with a good book or movie, look for one of the faces of the Sacrificed God.
About the author:
Shawna Reppert is an award-winning author of fantasy and steampunk who keeps her readers up all night and makes them miss work deadlines. Her fiction asks questions for which there are no easy answers while taking readers on a fine adventure that grips them heart and soul. You can find her work on Amazon and follow her blog on her website (www.Shawna-Reppert.com). You can friend her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter, where she posts an amazing array of geekery. Shawna can also sometimes be found in medieval garb on a caparisoned horse, throwing javelins into innocent hay bales that never did anything to her.