When the Goddess of my people demands the consecration of a living human being by fire, I step forward and offer myself as the sacrifice. Because the Goddess has not demanded such a drastic act since the Time Before Time, everyone believes that there must be some horrible disaster in store for us that this sacrifice is intended to prevent. My fellow villagers are moved to tears to see me come forward, but what they do not know, what they will never know, is that I have wanted to die in precisely this manner ever since I can remember. The priests who have known me all my life sadly take charge of me and bring me to the temple, where the sacrifice is to take place at dawn of the following day.
I keep a vigil of prayer and fasting all night long. Several hours after midnight, the temple priestesses come to bathe me, and once I have been ritually cleansed, they dress me in a plain linen shift. They then give me a light ritual meal and withdraw.
Just before dawn, a group of priests arrives to conduct me to the place of sacrifice. The one leading them approaches me, his face drawn with sorrow, and tells me softly, in a voice near to breaking, that it is time. I walk toward the priests and offer my arms for binding. With tears in his eyes, the leader tells me that this will not be necessary since I am a voluntary offering and he does not doubt my word. The priests then lead me outside to the temple courtyard, where the sacrificial stake and pyre have been prepared. I kneel in prayer for a few moments. Then I rise to my feet and nod once to the priests, signaling that I am ready.
Two priests take my hands and lead me gently forward, steadying me as I ascend the pyre, then turning me so that my back is to the sacrificial stake. Placing my hands behind my back, one priest binds my body to the stake with a new hemp rope, while the other secures me there with a chain wound several times about my waist.
As I feel the stake at my back and the bonds about my body, my heart swells with excitement, even joy. Silently I thank the Goddess for having allowed me to be sacrificed in this way, and I beseech her to allow me to be utterly consumed before her.
The rope and chain are tested and tightened, the binding completed. One by one, the priests bid me a ritual farewell and descend from the pyre. I remain there alone, bound to the stake, unable to move or struggle. Under my breath I pray softly to the Goddess, asking her to forgive all the sins I committed during my life and to accept my sacrifice on my people’s behalf. I formulate my prayer carefully, since it will be the last one I utter before the pyre is lit.
The High Priest now comes forward to ask me one final time whether I am offering myself as a sacrifice of my own free will. I tell him that I consent with all my heart. He thanks me, telling me that my name will live on among our people for all time. He begs me to speak favorably to the Goddess for my people when my spirit comes before her. I tell him that I will do as he has asked me, and I ask his blessing. He blesses me and returns to his place.
All the preliminary rituals have been completed, even drawn out a little to delay the inevitable for another few moments. But now there are no more prayers, no more petitions. It is time.
The leader of the group of priests who led me to the pyre approaches me, a lit torch in his right hand. Barefoot and bareheaded in his priestly robe, he kneels before me and asks my forgiveness for what he is about to do. As I see the flames dancing upon the tip of his torch, my courage abandons me for a moment and I shudder with terror. I want to throw myself at his feet, begging him not to light the pyre, not to burn me at the stake. I want to plead with him, with the High Priest, with the Goddess herself, to let me live. A tiny cry escapes me, but a moment later I regain my courage. I breathe deeply, sternly reminding myself that I offered myself for immolation, indeed that this had been my deepest and most secret desire all my life. But I am still frightened, for now there is no turning back. The flames are about to encircle my body, consuming, devouring, destroying�not in another day, not in another hour, but at this very moment. I close my eyes, silently begging the Goddess to give me strength and courage. After several moments, I open my eyes and reassure the priest in a clear and steady voice that I forgive him with all my heart.
The priest takes a great, shuddering breath. He has known me since I was a little girl, he has always liked me, and I see in his eyes that he does not want to cause me the agony that he knows I will shortly suffer. Once, long ago, he even told me that he would like to perform my wedding. I can see that he is remembering his words now, and my heart goes out to him. His face is a mask of sorrow and he closes his eyes tightly, squeezing back tears with a mighty effort. I want to whisper to him that it is all right, that I have come to the stake and pyre of my own free will, but I know that he will lose control of his emotions completely if I speak a single word. So I remain silent and look up to the heavens, allowing him space to master himself so that the sacrifice may proceed.
After several moments the priest’s face clears, and I dare a tiny smile. He looks up toward me, still sorrowful but now calm, and says softly: “Lady, I will not light this pyre except at your bidding.” I start in surprise. To have the sacrificial priest recite this sentence to me is a great honor. It comes from our sacred writings, and is what the first priest told the Goddess when she once deigned to live as a mortal woman and at one point endured the sacrificial flames herself. I smile quietly at the priest and recite the Goddess’s reply: “Be not afraid. Do as I bid you: begin the sacrifice and fear not, for though I may suffer, yet I shall never die.”
Although the priest’s eyes kindle anew with sorrow at my reply, he moves forward, gripping the torch tightly. In a wild moment, I reflect that I know how and where the fire upon that torch was lighted, since I have studied the laws of the temple for years and had even considered becoming a priestess at one time. A moment later I wrench myself back to the present, willing myself to be calm as I watch the priest walk slowly, inexorably, toward the dry wood piled at my feet.
Never taking his anguished gaze from mine, the priest lowers the torch to the pyre. There is a crackling sound as the fire takes hold of the kindling, and a tendril of smoke begins to rise upward. Slowly and methodically, he circles the pyre below me, touching the torch to the wood at even intervals and pausing to make sure that it has caught fire. I realize that he is doing this out of mercy, to make the fire as quick and even as possible, and I am grateful for his compassion.
The pyre is now lit. The flames are approaching, but they have not yet reached me. There is a tradition that the Goddess is especially moved to mercy at such a moment, and I close my eyes and pray for my people. Then, not knowing how much time I have left before the flames reach my body, I pray for myself: for strength and courage, and above all for the acceptance of my sacrifice.
I hear my first gasp of pain from far away, as though it had come from someone else. I glance down quickly and recoil in horror. The flames have fastened onto the hem of my linen robe. The wood beneath my feet is blazing, and the fire has begun to burn my flesh. The agony is terrible. I gasp and shriek even as I try to remain quiet. I groan in misery, ashamed of my weakness. I had wanted to be a perfect sacrifice to the Goddess, even to the point of not crying out as the fire consumed me. But I cannot stop the torrent of agonized shrieks. Tears trickle down my face, mingling with sweat. The heat is unbearable. “Goddess, have mercy on me,” I moan, writhing in my bonds.
The flames rise, enveloping my legs. “Lady, help me,” I beg, shrieking and struggling helplessly against the ropes and chains that hold my body cruelly immobile. Slim fingers of flame brush my robe at my abdomen and hips, followed by greedy, thick red tongues that rise to devour first the cloth, then my flesh. All pretense of heroism gone, I writhe at the stake and howl in unimaginable pain, shaking my head from side to side in a vain attempt to move away from the fire that rises to consume me.
The flames ascend higher, drawing from me sharper shrieks of anguish. The ropes hold my body motionless, as they were intended to do, so that my immolation may proceed with as little hindrance as possible. And indeed I am being immolated, my body consumed slowly by the sacrificial fire, my every breath a helpless cry of torment, a desperate prayer to the Goddess to end my suffering.
Suddenly my gaze focuses and I see my people gathered before me. Some are kneeling in prayer. The priest who had conducted me to the sacrifice and lit the pyre is weeping openly, supported by his fellow priests, unable to bear the sight of my body in the flames. Somehow I find the strength to recollect myself. It is for my people that I have come here. The agony is still great, the torment still overpowering, but from somewhere inside my spirit I find the strength to pray for them.
And as I beseech the Goddess for their welfare, the tiniest tendril of a feeling I cannot place begins to weave itself through my agony. As I continue my prayer it gathers strength, until I find myself crying out in wonder: “The Goddess is merciful! There is no pain!”
The priest who had lit my pyre looks up toward me, transfixed. “It is true, my brother,” I call to him through the flames. “There is no more pain. The Goddess is kind. You need not sorrow for me anymore.”
Suddenly, I find myself experiencing an ecstasy as overpowering as my earlier agony had been. The fire is still consuming my body, but instead of the terrible pain and anguish I had felt before, I now feel the heavenly bliss that I had always imagined must accompany such a complete act of sacrifice as giving oneself willingly to the flames. The Goddess has truly accepted me! I sink back against the stake, murmuring a prayer of gratitude.
The villagers look on in sorrow as the flames rise toward my face. My body is now burning of itself, no longer merely being burned by the flames fueled by the wood beneath me. I take a shuddering breath and beg the Goddess for one final favor.
“Lady, I thank you for the relief and the ecstasy you have sent me. I know I am shortly to die, and I am no longer afraid. Now, please let me know what it feels like to be enveloped once more in the fire. Let me know how it feels to be utterly consumed, utterly sacrificed!”
Instantly my ordinary physical sensations return. Yet to my surprise I do not shriek with the returning torment, for there is none. Even though I can feel my body burning once again, I still feel the Lady’s ecstasy. The mingled sensations of my immolation and her gift are more compelling than the touch of the most skilled and devoted lover, and I cry out in delight even greater than the bliss that the Goddess had sent me moments before. And from somewhere, the realization comes to me that what I am feeling now is the true essence of sacrifice.
Even as the flames continue to devour my body and the smoke of my burning flesh rises to heaven, I strain against my bonds in unendurable pleasure. In one corner of my mind, I remember the tales that I had once dismissed as pious legends meant to comfort the naïve and the simple. Now I understand how saints and martyrs could endure the flames calmly, even joyfully. Finally I stand absolutely still within the fire, asking the Lady not to take me yet, to let me feel this unimaginable delight a little while longer. And I pray further: if this is what it means to be burned before the Goddess as a sacrificial offering, then I am willing to be immolated before her for all eternity.
Now I see a light before me in the distance, a light far more bright than the flames that are consuming my body. I strain toward this great light, willing to let it consume me as well if that is the Lady’s will. As it grows stronger and the flames about me begin to fade, I look upon my people one last time, murmuring a final prayer for them. My body sinks in its bonds as sparks and flames rise up around me.
The sacrifice is completed, the offering accepted.