In Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, Tenar is taken as a little girl from her village because she is believed to be the reincarnation of the high priestess of the Tombs to the Nameless Ones. She goes through a symbolic ritual where she is almost beheaded but is spared at the last minute, so it is said that Tenar has died and Arha, which means the “eaten one,” lives on.
The idea of one eaten by the gods, consumed in sacrifice to an immortal, is an old one. Andromeda’s parents left her to be eaten by the sea monster, the Canaanites sacrificed their children to Moloch, and Psyche was given to be devoured by the Shadowbrute in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces (a re-telling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche).
We are often described as consumers. Consumers of merchandise, food, media. But in this act of consuming, I wonder if we are actually being consumed? “You are what you eat,” says the idiom. Are we losing ourselves to the nameless gods? Are we being offered up as a sacrifice and slowly losing our identity?
Jesus is the Eaten One. He is the one consumed and sacrificed, and it is he who asks us to eat him.Hetty White
In one of the more moving parts of The Tombs of Atuan, Ged, a wizard from the inner lands who has spent his life learning the ancient language of the Making, calls Arha by her true name: Tenar. She never told him her name and is astounded by his speaking it. She asks him how he knew and he says:
“You are like a lantern swathed and covered, hidden away in a dark place. Yet the light shines; they could not put out the light. They could not hide you. As I know the light, as I know you, I know your name, Tenar.”
Christianity talks a lot about “losing yourself.” Does the God of Christianity also ask for our identity? Does he want us nailed to a pole on a mountain? Or beheaded in a stone temple? No, he did that for us. In Orthodox Christianity, Jesus is the Eaten One. He is the one consumed and sacrificed, and it is he who asks us to eat him. Once again, God flips every other religion on its head, reversing the pattern of how men would try to please the pagan gods.
Yes, we are asked to sacrifice our whole selves to God, but it’s for the purpose of Him giving our true selves back to us. The part that God asks us to sacrifice forever is essentially our “not-selves,” our “un-identity,” the part of us that is not us. That, we have to let go.
Years ago I was having a hard conversation with a friend where I was telling her some patterns I saw in her life that were hurtful to me and others. She was very receptive and said, “Am I really like that?” I replied quickly, “No! You aren’t! That’s the part that’s not you. Your real self is something totally different.”
God is the wizard Ged who calls us by our true name. He gives us back what the world and the evil one has taken. Let us be that to others as well. Let us remind each other who we really are. We are not the Eaten One. But we serve him. As we take communion this week, let us remember that.
Check out The Tombs of Atuan here.
Image by Astrid Nielsch.