The Sacrifice (Yasna)

  July 05, 2022   Read time 3 min
The Sacrifice (Yasna)
The Old Avestan texts are ritual texts in the sense that they are recited during the yasna ritual, the Zoroastrian haoma sacrifice. The vocabulary is to a large extent ritual, that is, it contains specific terms for addressing the gods and for ritual actions and objects.

The ritual is the means of communicating with the other world and the sacrificial ground the place where this happens. The communication is vital, because it keeps the world going, upholding the values of good existence and withstanding the pressures from evil existence. For this purpose the gods must be supported, as they are the guardians of the cosmic order and the principal opponents of the forces of evil. The sacrifice is therefore directed at the gods, and they are the ones that receive its “first fruits.” The all-important immortality of the gods is conferred upon them and maintained by the sacrifice, and they in turn bestow well-being: freedom from illnesses and long life on the commissioner and performer of the sacrifice and peace and fertility on their community. There is thus complete interdependence between the two spheres: that of men and that of gods.

The sacrifice is not a binary system, however, but a trinary one. This is not seen very clearly in Iran, but in India, the this-worldly participants in the sacrifice are two: the yajamâna “sacrificer,” or “patron,” as we would call him, and the poet-sacrificer who performs the ritual, the “libator.” The patron is the one who has commissioned the ritual, who will reap the benefits from it, and who will have to pay the performer of the sacrifice—here referred to as the poetsacrificer—his fee. In Iran, the role of the patron is never emphasized either in the texts or in studies of Iranian religion. The latter omission is commonly explained by assuming that Zarathustra’s (alleged) message or teachings are too lofty to be distracted by such material concerns as jobs and salaries. In the Old Avestan texts, however, the patron is clearly present as the one in charge of the material fee (mizhda), only obscured by the mythico-ritual identifications among the actors in the tripartite drama that is being played out.

The poet-sacrificer’s job is to perform a successful ritual, a performance of “sympathetic magic” in a religious setting, whereby the desired cosmic events are reenacted and so made happen. There always exists, however, the possibility that his ritual may not be successful and so produce the opposite result, cf. S. Lévi’s summing up of the Old Indic sacrifice as described in the late Vedic texts, the Brahmanas: ... the sacrifice, which regulates the relations between man and the gods, is a mechanical operation that acts by its own internal energy. It is hidden deep inside the nature, and only comes out by the magical action of the priest. The worried and evil gods find themselves forced to capitulate, overcome and subjected by the very force that gave them their greatness. In spite of them, the sacrificer rises all the way up to the heavenly world and secures for himself a definitive place: man becomes superhuman. But, although the gain is considerable, it is a tricky role to play. Once the force of the sacrifice is released, it acts blindly. He who does not know how to tame it is broken by it, and the jealousy of the gods who are awaiting their chance willingly takes upon itself to complete the work. Being experts in rituals they hasten to turn the errors to their profit in order to defend their threatened positions.

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