Whether spiritual, physical, or emotional, sacrifice seems to carry different values depending on the context. Motifs featuring sacrifice have evolved quite a bit over time, resulting in tales of pseudo sacrifice and martyrdom in which the martyr gets to live to see the result of his or her own sacrifice.
I think most recently of 50 Shades of Grey. This story is particularly interesting because there’s a pseudo sacrifice remediated with a contract. The domination, the power dynamic, is based on a false premise. The woman is ultimately always in control via the contract, yet she “submits” to the man’s whim on some level. It seems like the only level on which she succumbs is during the initial agreement, and even then there is negotiation.
Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs featured full self-sacrifice. The contract entailed giving one’s life over to the dominatrix, acknowledging that she could kill him at any time. Yet, as a masochist, the protagonist took pleasure in this decision. He was in control of the sacrifice on some level through consent, just as the protagonist in 50 Shades of Grey is in control of her debacle through her consent to the acts.
Some would argue that once Masoch’s character signed the document or consented to its contents he succumbed to the control of another. There’s a diachronic variable inherent in the contract, sure. He does not know when, or even if, his master will decide to kill him. Additionally, there’s the question of how his death might occur. Nevertheless, the protagonist consents also to these variables. He becomes a potential martyr to his own vices.
But that’s all trivial categorization and context. What’s important is that the predominant undercurrent in sacrifice mythology is control and power.
One of the most popular manifestations of sacrifice in fiction is the inevitable sacrifice, in which something happened in the past beyond a character’s control. That something then comes back to cause the protagonist to lose someone dear to him or her because they chose to live a “normal life” regardless of the danger they present to the “normal” people around them. All I can think of off the top of my head is the Wolverine series, where he loses the important people around him as his past returns to haunt him. Even though Wolverine chooses to try to live a normal life, he knows he places those around him in danger. He consents only to the possibility of loss, and perhaps delusion of grandeur makes him think he can reduce this possibility.
In Wolverine’s circumstance, there are two interpretations I’d like to offer. In the first, loved ones die due to his will to satiate his desire for companionship. In a strange way, his humanity becomes his vulnerability and his strength. His choice to engage in intimacy, his will to love, is a strength, a form of consent. His choice to neglect the danger of this decision is his weakness.
In the second interpretation, the desire itself is seen as the character’s vulnerability. For this interpretation, the character is thought to have no choice. He or she simply succumbs. The character’s weakness becomes a form of purification through innocence.
Regardless of the interpretation, the character is rendered invulnerable. If morally ignorant and unable to resist desire, it is humanity’s folly that purifies the character. They are not responsible for the sacrifice or loss of a loved one because the character has no choice but to move towards his or her desire.
If the character is seen to have the will to choose desire, especially in the case of most heroes, the consequence is deflected to the object of desire and the protagonist remains safe, able to see the repercussions of the sacrifice made for his or her decision. So, the hero is either morally exempt from judgment due to ignorance/innocence or physically exempt from consequence if portrayed as experienced or powerful.
Heero Yuy from Gundam Wing is an interesting variation of the phenomenon mentioned above. He is supposed to be the perfect warrior, which seems to require a sociopathic bent. One must be able to unflinchingly destroy the enemy, after all. But he is in love with Princess Relena. Even she knows that his love for her will be his undoing. So she outright requests that he kill her. The demeanor and tone in which she asks is even more disturbing. She shouts, “Kill me, Hero. Kill me now,” in an almost pornographic, submissive tone, the same you’d likely hear someone utter “fuck me. Fuck me now.”
But he can’t bring himself to do it. Is it because of the responsibility factor? Would Relena have been better off following Heero and dying inadvertently by catering to his need for love instead of initiating the sacrifice ritual before he, or someone else, did? Did this somehow ruin the power dynamic necessary for sacrifice to function in its traditional capacity?
Heero’s dilemma is symptomatic of a general problem with sacrifice. The act necessitates submission to some force in exchange for something in return. Through the act, glory is acquired in stories of self-sacrifice. The solution seems to be to find ways around the initial submission in stories of self-sacrifice, so the glory can be acquired without the suffering and submission. This “solution” is what causes the variations in sacrifice myth mentioned above. Ultimately all sacrifice stories, even ones in which another person dies in the stead of the hero, are attempts to regulate the messiah mythos.
In the story of Christ, for example, his knowledge of his own death, which is pre-ordained, is one way in which we can acknowledge his strength in vulnerability. He consents to death at the hands of mankind. A messiah’s birth presupposes this consent to possibility of death, so he shouldn’t have to announce the knowledge of his inevitable demise, but anyway.
In addition to consent, Jesus also benefits from returning from the grave to witness the product of his martyrdom.
Many other sacrifice myths try to emulate this by deflecting sacrifice of the hero to another, thus allowing the character to live on and experience being the world’s savior without dying. These various renderings are ultimately ways to render a character a messiah while also catering to the selfish desires for glory in us all. The hero consents to the possibility of death or self-sacrifice, overcomes that possibility and experiences rebirth through the death of another who acts as sacrifice in the hero’s stead. Finally, the hero gets to experience rebirth and glory after the sacrifice, just as messiahs in our most classic mythology. As an added bonus to the hero, and to bolster the reader’s empathy for the hero, the motif I’ve outlined here allows the hero to act as messiah while also keeping his or her humanity in tact. This final element is important because it allows for ambiguity in character motive, which can be interpreted as innocent/ignorant or strong/willful.
If anyone checks this out, I’m wondering what kinds of stories you’ve watched/read that feature messiah mythos or sacrifice. There’s so much I’ve glossed over here, so drop me a line in the comments section!