Many modern Pagans and Heathens shy away from — or are downright horrified by — the idea of animal sacrifice. Arguments against the practice generally come from a place of concern for the animals involved, or a fear that it would result in an “othering” by mainstream society. On the other hand, the sacrificial priests say that the practice is rooted in compassion and community, and that criticisms of their work reveal a fundamental disconnect with the food system, and perhaps a smoldering of racism as well.
In recent weeks, a debate has heated up around this topic. It is clear that the very idea of killing animals in a sacred ritual evokes strong emotions among proponents and opponents alike, which can obscure the arguments and factual details as well as the religious reasons for carrying it out. Today we take a closer look at this difficult topic.
Technical details of sacrifice
. . . under optimum (e.g. correct, humane) circumstances of animal sacrifice, the animal has been raised in small farming set-ups (rather than industrial meat factories), handled by people it is familiar with interpersonally who regard them with respect and dignity from the start, and in the time leading up to the ritual, treated as living kings. A distressed animal, which is the standard state of industrial slaughter, is literally unfit for most sacrificial rites: the calmness and comfort of the animals is the primary logistical concern. — Anomalous Thracian
Trained as a sacrificial priest, Thracian argues that modern standards of sacrifice demand specialists who understand how to end life without suffering. As in the Kosher method of animal slaughter, the throat must be cut with a single stoke that slices through the arteries, veins, esophagus and trachea, but leaves the spinal cord intact. The reason for this precision was explained by another sacrificial priest, Tēlemakhos Night. He said:
A single cut is made at the neck, severing all vitals instantly, without compromising the central-nervous-system (the spine and neck bones). By leaving the CNS intact, the animal’s natural and biologically programmed response kicks in, which settles the animal into a state of euphoria and death, rather than agitation or panic. (Severing the CNS prevents necessary full-body signals, including hormonal release signals, from being delivered.)
Such exactness in the act was also stressed by Galina Krasskova, a Heathen priestess trained in sacrifice, who said:
. . . the animal is carefully chosen. It is cared for, pampered, fed well, and on the day of the sacrifice decorated, soothed, and kept calm. When the sacrifice is made, it is done with a scalpel-sharp blade and a clean, quick cut. Compassion is not what I look for in a sacrificial priest. I look for training and skill. Having the proper skill guarantees that the animal will not suffer, whereas if one approaches the act of sacrifice awash in strong emotion there’s actually a greater likelihood that a mistake will be made, the priest will hesitate, and as a result the animal will have pain.
The idea that an animal that has suffered physically or psychically is unsuitable for sacrifice may be a modern convention. Did the ancient practice of drowning horses as a sacrifice to Poseidon take into consideration the feelings of the animal? Did those people have the same 21st-century understanding of anatomy?
While a portion of the animal itself is often part of the offering, usually the bulk of the meat is consumed, a tradition which is described by Australian Hellenic polytheist Markos Gage:
In Greece when these sacrifices happened people would had been used to life and death. As a community they raised the beasts themselves, they saw them born, they fed them, treated them when ill, they killed them, they ate them. There was an intimacy that only livestock farmers know today. We live in a time of decadence where our guilt for killing an animal is non-existent because the creatures are slaughtered somewhere else and we see their meat as nothing but a product.
Many who support sacrifice see the disconnect from where our meat comes as being the driving force in the pushback against the practice this rite. Conor O’Bryan Warren, in a column on Polytheist.com, speaks of growing up in an agricultural family, and how his view of the killing of animals differed greatly from many of his college classmates:
Most of the people in the class are inculturated with a Western Protestant worldview which sees the exploitation and torture of animals for profit (and thus a cog in the machine of Corporate Capitalism) as being completely acceptable but which views their sacrifice for religious purposes as being terribly barbaric and backwards.
Rev. Kirk Thomas
The Druid organization Ár nDríaocht Féin does not permit any form of blood sacrifice in public rituals. Archdruid Kirk Thomas said that it’s fraught with problems for the inexperienced practitioner and from a public relations standpoint.
The reasons are many. One is it would be bad public relations — most people are more than happy to eat meat slaughtered in abattoirs in inhumane ways as long as it’s cheap and they don’t have to witness the killings. But to kill an animal in front of them would bring the horror of violent death far too close for comfort. Also, none of us are trained in the art of killing an animal in a painless and humane way. In the end we’d probably end up with a bloody mess.
However, we don’t regulate non-public rites. We actively discourage animal sacrifice but should some member own a farm and be trained in the slaughter of his or her own herds, then who are we to stop them from praying over their animals before dispatching them? Personally, I’d rather the poor creatures be commended to the Gods before their deaths than not, with forgiveness asked and, hopefully, given.
While it was often a public event in antiquity, modern sacrifice is largely a private affair, noted Night in his explanation of the mechanics of sacrifice.
The traditions which include sacrifice vary widely, crossing racial, ethnic, and religious lines. While there are sacrificial practices in all of the three major branches of Abrahamic religion, discussing them could distract from understanding the Pagan context. That includes sacrifice as it is understood in polytheist and African traditional religions, both of which categories have some participants who identify as Pagan. Confining the discussion in this way still results in a huge diversity of sacred practices, but clear similarities emerge.
Consent seems to be universal among these religions, and it must be obtained from the participants, the deities, and the animals involved. No one should participate in animal sacrifice if it makes them uncomfortable or violates taboos. This act is also not performed simply to do it; divination is generally used to confirm that a particular deity wants such an offering in the first place. Divination is also one of the ways that the consent of the animal is established. Although, an experienced priest may also observe the animal’s body language and ascertain the emotional state of the creature.
While sacrificed animals are often offered in part (or, in some cases, entirely) to the god or gods in question, that is not the only reason these rites are performed. This is a detail touched on by Lilith Dorsey, author of the blog Voodoo Universe, when she spoke to us for this story:
I understand that this is a very difficult topic for many, and is obviously one that I could speak about for volumes. Let me start by saying I am an anthropologist, filmmaker and author in addition to being an initiated practitioner of Haitian Vodou and La Regla Lucumi (more mistakenly known as Santeria), both of which include animal sacrifice as part of their rites.
Sacrifice is performed for annual feasts and also to heal individual issues.The way I explain it to people is that if you went to a medical doctor and was told that in order to save the life of a loved one you needed to give them medicine that came from a chicken gizzard, would you do it? If you would offer up the human life refusing on moral grounds, then my hat is off to you.There are several African Traditional Religious houses you can join that do not practice sacrifice of animals. Most people would choose their daughter, their father, or their true love over a chicken, and then the issue really comes to light, which is one of faith.This is a spiritual prescription, you can choose to take it or not. People put much more faith in modern medicine than they do in “scary” (meaning unknown and stereotyped) magicks that may, in reality, be much more effective.This is just one reason we perform these sacrifices, to heal. Another reason is for feasts where the ritual animals are very often eaten, which seems to quell a lot of peoples’ fears. For practitioners, myself included, the animals for ceremony are just what the Orisha or Loa (divine forces) eat. The same way lions are fed steak, the energies call for this type of offering.This is substantiated by time, tradition, divination, and success rate. People who perform these sacrifices are also highly trained, both in the spiritual art and practical design of carrying out these sacred rites.The implementation in most cases is much more humane than your friendly neighborhood slaughterhouse.
While the ADF does not advocate for the practice, Archdruid Thomas is familiar with its place in religious observance:
If we look at the ancients, we see that the sacrifice was seen in a variety of ways, such as the shared meal and as a form of reciprocity. In the shared meal we are sharing our food with the Gods, and this brings about the sense of community. And for animal sacrifices then, it was the chance for a great barbecue. According to Walter Burkert, in ancient Greece the only animal protein available for most people was from the meat of the sacrifice. Even today we often refer to our holidays as ‘feasts’. This is where that comes from.
But even as some find the practice of sacrifice life-affirming, it’s a clear violation of what other Pagans feel is expected of them by their gods. That’s where Jason Mankey is on the issue.
As a Wiccan I do not practice animal sacrifice, nor would I ever consider such a thing. In the Charge of the Goddess, it’s all spelled out pretty clearly: ‘Nor do I demand sacrifice, for behold I am the Mother of All Living, and my love is poured out upon the earth.’ If the Lady demanded sacrifice She would have said so, instead she said it was not required. If it was good enough for Gerald and Doreen then it’s good enough for me.
In addition to my Wiccan practice, I also participate in Hellenic Ritual from time to time.The Ancient Greeks sacrificed animals, like most ancient pagans, and they did so with reverence towards the gods and with a sense of practicality. People often sacrificed to the Greek gods in order to get a good meat dinner, and it was also rare (the practice, not how they cooked the meat). People were far more likely to leave the god Pan honey cakes and wine than they were to sacrifice a goat in his honor.
Should people be free to practice animal sacrifice in 2014? Of course. Eating and hunting are both legal practices, and there is a long tradition of animal sacrifice within many different pagan traditions. As long as the animals in question are being slaughtered humanely and their meat is being eaten, I don’t personally have a problem with it. In addition, if people are sacrificing animals, I hope it’s from a real place of devotion and not simply to ‘prove a point.’ If everyone’s intentions are honorable, I don’t think it’s my place to tell people what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ To some degree we’ve all got to figure that out for ourselves.
Legal and cultural context
In the United States, the Supreme Court ruled that animal sacrifice is legal in the landmark decision of Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, in which decision Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.”
That said, many Pagans, such as David Salisbury, object to the practice on moral grounds, or because it may lead to connecting these religions with “Satanic panic”-style hysteria associated with the abduction and unwilling sacrifice of house pets. Others maintain that all life is sacred, and that taking any life is never acceptable. In his recent blog post, Salisbury concluded:
Animal sacrifice boils down to ego. Our human egos want us to think that taking a life in our own hands will impress our gods and show them that we’re willing to do big things to appease them. But we must get over ourselves. Animal sacrifice serves only to tell our minds that we’re more important than the majority of other living beings who we share this planet with.
Sannion is a Hellenic polytheist who, while is does not perform these rites himself, is an outspoken champion of the practice. He questions the notion that animal sacrifice is less ethical than consuming supermarket meat, or even a vegan lifestyle:
Unless you get all of your meat from local-sourced, free-range, organic farms who practice ethical slaughter you’ve got no room to object. Animals are tortured, raised in filth and never permitted to move about, pumped full of dangerous chemicals and antibiotics, shipped ridiculously long distances so that their meat can end up at your neighborhood supermarket or fast food chain. How is that preferable to what we’re doing? And if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you do realize that you’re still responsible for the taking of life, right? Life that science is increasingly coming to recognize as sentient and capable of suffering. All you’re doing is prioritizing one form of life over another — a form of life, by the way, that unlike all other forms of life derives its nutrients from sun, soil and water, and therefore causes no harm to other living creatures. If you’re strictly approaching this from an ethical position, plants are the most innocent things on this planet and so should be spared from predation.
Anomalous Thracian was willing to tackle the question of perception in the overculture:
Whether a person supports or is uncomfortable with animal sacrifice, none of us wants to see the evangelical right come with pitchforks. I guarantee that in the list of ways to strategical prevent this, coming after our own with pitchforks is not a suitable answer.
If anyone on any side of this issue is serious about wanting to see peaceful, progressive, enlightened resolution take place, the issue needs to be framed as it is: a topic of prejudice against certain lawful and protected practices, which is definable as religious intolerance and discrimination. It is never acceptable to attempt to pathologize people whose cultures or religions call for the ethical slaughter and sanctification of animals. Instead we should as a movement be examining the pathology of intolerance, prejudice, and panic.
Thracian also raises the thorny question of racism as it has manifested in dialogue around animal sacrifice, a subject which River Devora addressed in her own piece on Polytheist.com about the practice:
I have heard the argument made that reconstructionist Polytheists who engage in ritual animal sacrifice are problematic, while those who are part of African Diasporic or Derived Traditions and African Traditional Religions get a ‘pass,’ as though somehow letting us ‘off the hook’ for our practice of animal sacrifice makes the speaker ‘enlightened’ or more ‘understanding’ of traditional religions.These kinds of arguments are racist and offensive. It is as though you are saying to us,’European traditions, and the (mostly) white people who practice them, should know better –- Europeans are supposed to be more enlightened.Traditions primarily being practiced by African, African American, and Latino folks can get a pass because we already know those folks are unenlightened savages.’ This is far more offensive than if you simply condemned the practice of animal sacrifice across the board.This may not be what you mean, but this is what we hear when you say it.
While animal sacrifice is legal and, in modern America, generally more humane than industrial slaughter, it evokes strong reactions in many Pagans and Heathens. We may never agree on whether or not animal sacrifice has a place in religious practice. However, the dialogue is opening up, as individuals carefully examine their own feelings toward sacrifice within their own belief structures and within their relationships with the gods.