The Semiotics of Sacrifice in Germanic Folk Religion

Written by Dyami Millarson

My theological research aim on this blog is studying the interpretation of blood sacrifice in the philosophical or psychological context of Germanic folk religion.

Semiotics is generally defined as the study of signs and symbols (*1). I do, however, not see the point of distinguishing signs and symbols in the context of Germanic folk religion, but rather I define the semiotic object of study as the Dutch word tekens, which could mean three things: 1) signs, 2) symbols, 3) omens. The reason I prefer to use this Dutch concept to explain what I am studying with semiotics is that I do not wish to distinguish signs, symbols and omens, whilst I see the advantage of lumping them together in one single concept as is done in the Dutch language.

The do ut des principle certainly applies to the semiotics of blood sacrifice in Germanic folk religion: Germanic peoples generally made blood sacrifices in order to receive favours from the Gods. Namely, when Germanic peoples made blood sacrifices, they asked for peace, victory, longevity, good harvest and fair wind. The formula of making a sacrifice for a specific purpose was encoded into the language: blóta til friðar sacrifice for peace, blóta til sigrs sacrifice for victory, blóta til langlífis to sacrifice for longevity, blóta til árs to sacrifice for good harvest, blóta til byrjar to sacrifice for fair wind. This is how I memorised the expressions listed under the entry blóta in Zoëga’s Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic. The formula, underlying structure, of those sacrificial expressions is: sacrificial verb + preposition til + genitive case. The semantic function of til + gen. is to denote the purpose.

Interestingly, the verb for sacrifice in Old Norse uses the accusative to denote the recipient of the sacrificial gift and the dative to denote the sacrificial gift itself. We may deduce from this that sacrificing in Germanic times worked more like “honouring someone with something” than “giving something to someone.” The Roman formula is as follows: “sacrifice gift Y to deity X.” However, the Germanic formula is: “sanctify deity X with gift Y.”

So, the Germanic concept of sacrificing would rather have been the equivalent of “sanctify a God with a sacrificial gift” than “sacrificing a sacrificial gift to a God.” In other words, “making a God sacred with a gift” (sanctify = make sacred with) rather than “making a gift sacred to the God” (sacrifice = make sacred to). The Germanic sacrificial concept falls into the same category as the following verbs: praise, please, honour, feed, heal, bless. Consequently, one may interpret the Germanic sacrificial verb as “praising, pleasing, honouring, feeding, healing, blessing a God with a gift.”

What does this have to do with semiotics? For our semiotic study of blood sacrifice, we are interested in blood sacrifice as a teken and the use and interpretation of this teken. The interpretation of the sacrificial act itself is important for improving our understanding of blood sacrifice, and the sacrificial act is reflected in the verb that is used for sacrificing. The Germanic verb that is used for sacrificing gives us a linguistic clue about what to expect with regards to the Germanic conception of the sacrificial act. Of course, it is also important to consult the written source materials for getting a picture of the semiotics of blood sacrifice in Germanic folk religion, but that is beyond the scope of this article, which is merely to introduce the aim of the semiotic study of Germanic folk religious blood sacrifice to the readers.

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