chapter  7
11 Pages


What is a martyr? In the previous chapter, I explored how mothers came to be considered like martyrs, and in this chapter I look even more closely at the transformation of the idea of martyr. The word martyr originally meant “witness,” and people in the second and third centuries knew clearly what martyrs were: people who held fast to their faith and were killed for refusing to renounce their principles. Today the word has acquired an additional meaning, and it’s not altogether a positive one. We often use the word to mean “long suffering” or sacrificing one’s own pleasure or well-being for the sake of another. This is the role that too often becomes attached to mothers, but the attribution is not limited to a maternal function. When we say “Don’t be a martyr,” we mean “don’t be self-sacrificing.” What is going on here? How did the blood shed during martyrdom become the blood of sacrifice, and is sacrifice good or bad? As we look back at the age of martyrdom, we can see that pagan ideas of sacrifice entered Christian consciousness through the blood of martyrs, and as time passed, martyr no longer meant witness but instead meant a sacrificial victim, and in this form it retains its most insidious meaning in the twenty-first century. How did this happen?