The Devotion and Sacrifice of Martyrs


The sacrifice of Felicitas and the other martyrs who entered the arena with her. Their unshakable devotion united them in the face of their deaths.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about martyrs, and the concept of martyrdom, is the sheer amount of devotion a martyr must have in order to sacrifice themselves for their faith. To give up everything, including your life, for the sake of religion is not something that most people could stomach. But to martyrs, particularly the Christian ones talked about on this website, to die for their faith is the natural choice, even if they didn't intend to be martyred in the first place. Perpetua and Felicitas seemed to have no doubts about being thrown to the beasts, and Perpetua essentially finished herself off in the end, bringing a blade to her throat of her own volition. I think the question of whether this level of unwavering devotion is admirable or not remains to be seen. Regardless, the lengths these martyrs are willing to go to for their beliefs is astounding.

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A mosiac in a Spanish abbey of Saint Perpetua, and the son she left behind for her religious devotion.

In the process of building this humble website, one of the questions we posed had to do with whether devotion to faith should outweigh devotion to family, and if sacrificing oneself is acceptable when it means leaving family behind. Though there may be mixed feelings about the answer among modern readers, for martyrs, it isn't even really a question. A martyr's devotion to his or her faith is everything. Many, like Perpetua, seemed to be assured that their sacrifice would result in salvation, a sort of paradise granted to them because of their unwavering devotion. Whether this idea came to them through visions or other means, it took precident over everything else. No matter how a martyr's family was involved in his or her story, and no matter how much the martyr loved them, family was just another thing to sacrifice for loyalty to religion. Perpetua and Felicitas were both mothers who gave up their children for their faith. Perpetua's father tried to talk her out of sacrificing herself, and she refused to listen. She was regretful, of course, but her regret was outweighed by the strength of her religious devotion.


A painting depicting the sacrifice of Polyxena to Achilles and the Greek gods.

The theme of devotion and sacrifice over family extends beyond just Christian martyrs as well. In the story of Polyxena (from what little I gleaned from the original description for the painting shown), a young woman was sacrificed as a means of appeasing the ghost of Achilles. Though technically Polyxena might not be considered a martyr, she still upheld the same ideals as one. Her mother tried to stop her from going through with the sacrifice, begging her to reconsider her choice. But Polyxena was adamant about sticking to her decision, as Perpetua was about holding onto her beliefs, even in the face of losing her father and son. Polyxena exemplified a level of devotion to the will of the gods that surpassed her familial devotion. Religious duty permeated the core of her being, as it did for Perpetua and Felicitas.

The bottom line is, for martyrs, or anyone with similar immovable beliefs, being devoted to their faith stands above all else. If it didn't, then martyrs wouldn't need to be sacrificed in the first place. Had Perpetua renounced her faith, she might have lived on with her son and the rest of her family, but she wouldn't have become a saint and holy symbol for Christians. She wouldn't be a martyr at all. Neither would Felicitas, or any of the other martyrs that went into that arena with them. Martyrdom is centered on religious devotion, and that is why they are regarded so highly among the people of that religion. They are embodiments of bravery and loyalty toward their God. And even if sacrificing everything like that may seem a little far-fetched to us, that's still an amazingly hard decision to make.