As strange as it may sound, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa—a children’s movie—gives us one of the most authentic explanations of sacrifice in modern media. Stranger still, it comes from the mouth of King Julien, a demented lemur.
In this second installment of the franchise, the gang of zoo animals from the original Madagascar find themselves in an African wildlife preserve. During their stay, the local animal community is thrown into panic as their watering hole suddenly dries up. They have no idea what to do until the lemur king calls out to them (you can watch this scene on YouTube):
Julien: “Listen up! I will help you! There is only one way to get your precious water. I, your beloved King Julien, must simply make a small sacrifice to my good friends, the water gods, in. . . the volcano!”
Rhino: “What does that do?”
Julien: “What does that do? Excellent question. My sacrifice goes in the volcano. Then the friendly gods eat up my sacrifice: ‘Mmm. Very nice. Thank you for the sacrifice.’ ‘Here, have another sacrifice.’ ‘No, I’ve had enough for today.’ ‘Listen I’m gonna be very insulted unless you have another.’ ‘I don’t want another sacrifice, okay?!’ ‘Look at you! You look skinny!’ ‘No! I think I’ve had enough! Is that clear?!’ — The gods eat the sacrifice. They are grateful. They give me some of their water, and then I give it to you.”
Julien explains sacrifice with a mock dialogue echoing conversations at dinner tables around the world. This banter is especially familiar in cultures—Lebanese, Greek, Italian, etc.—that emphasize food hospitality as a way to show love. We’ve all heard the proverb, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” Julien’s explanation just transfers this logic into human-divine relations. Humans present sacrifices to the gods like a host or hostess insisting that guests take their fill of the table’s delights. This hospitality engenders gratitude in the divine recipients and moves them to provide help to those who have made the offering.
Broadly speaking, this is the way ancient people understood sacrifices—that is to say, they saw them as food offerings that foster relationships between gods and men in the same way meal hospitality establishes bonds between human beings. It seems unlikely that anyone ever thought that gods literally ate the offerings. Instead, these rituals were symbolic gestures abstracted from any practical significance—much like the traditional greeting of a Russian Orthodox bishop with bread and salt when he arrives for the Divine Liturgy, even though he is fasting before communion and can’t eat it. In sacrifices, as in that ritual of episcopal greeting, it is the thought that counts.
As one would expect in an animated comedy, Julien hams it up. He describes the interaction between offerer and gods in farcical terms, as if the gods were like human guests. Yet this is actually quite similar to portrayals of sacrifice in ancient Greek comedies. Take, for example, a passage from The Clouds, a play by Aristophanes (c. 420 bc), in which worshipers are criticized for disrupting the gods’ meal schedule by celebrating sacrificial feasts on the wrong days:
As we were preparing to come here, we were hailed by the Moon [considered a goddess in Greek mythology] and were charged to wish joy and happiness both to the Athenians and to their allies; further, she said that she was enraged and that you treated her very shamefully. . . . You do not reckon the days correctly and your [lunar] calendar is naught but confusion. Consequently the gods load her with threats each time they get home and are disappointed of their meal, because the festival has not been kept in the regular order of time. When you should be sacrificing, you are . . . administering justice. And often, we others, the gods, are fasting in token of mourning for the death of Memnon or Sarpedon, while you are devoting yourselves to joyous libations [sacrificial offerings of wine]. (Translation from Internet Classics Archive)
In another of Aristophanes’s plays, The Birds, the protagonist persuades all the birds of the world to build a great city in the sky (called “Cloud Cuckoo Land”), which blocks the smoke of burning sacrifices from reaching the gods. This blockade leads the gods to the point of starvation (because they need the smoke of the offered food as nourishment) and forces them finally to surrender the heavenly throne to the protagonist.
As I said above, these comic scenes do not reflect the true beliefs of ancient people; rather, they poke fun at symbolic rituals by literalizing them. The playwright’s motivations are hard to gauge at this distance. It is possible that he is mocking sacrifices and the pagan religion of which they formed the core, but this seems unlikely given how radically anti-religious and antisocial such a message would be. It is more likely that he is satirizing the overly simplistic religious ideas that some people might have held: not the laughable idea that divine beings are nourished by sacrifices, but the more appealing idea that the mere offering of food (or its absence) can affect the gods and even control them.
How silly would a god be if he or she could be manipulated by gifts of food! What matters in sacrifice—what makes it effective—is not the material of the gift or the mere fact of offering, but the intentions the offering represents: love, honor, and the desire for communion. These intentions ought to accompany the gift, and their fulfillment ought to follow it. They alone have the potential to establish the sought-after friendship with God.
This point was made by the Old Testament prophets after Jewish worship had degenerated into a similarly shallow and superstitious focus on material offerings. For example, the prophet Micah emphasized spiritual qualities over the material of the offering:
With what will I reach the Lord [and] lay hold of my God Most High? Will I reach Him with whole-burnt offerings, with year-old calves? Will the Lord accept [me] by means of thousands of rams or ten thousands of fat goats? Should I give my firstborn as a result of my ungodliness, the fruit of my womb for the sake of the sin of my soul? What good thing has been proclaimed to you, O man, or what does the Lord seek from you except to do justice and to love mercy and to be willing to walk with the Lord your God? (6:6–8)
There is nothing wrong with the material offering itself. Meal hospitality can be a very meaningful gesture of goodwill, but it can also be undermined and emptied of meaning when unaccompanied by actual demonstrations of goodwill. We might have in our minds an idealized vision of Christmas dinner in blissful harmony and love, but the reality is often a lot messier. No matter how juicy the turkey or how flakey the pie crust, a single political argument or snide remark can sour the whole occasion. Likewise the sacrifice of “thousands of rams or ten thousands of fat goats” means nothing unless the offerers also “do justice and . . . love mercy and . . . walk with the Lord.”
In Madagascar 2 King Julien’s sacrifice works, kind of, but in real life it takes a much deeper and more personal effort to make friends with God. We must put our heart and soul into demonstrating that we really want God in our lives—by listening to Him, obeying Him, working for Him, and spending time with Him.