A Conversation About Sacrifice

In 2014 I was interviewed by T. P. Ward for a story the Wild Hunt was running on the often contentious issue of animal sacrifice within contemporary paganism and polytheism. Since they were only able to use some of my response, and it’s a subject relevant to the themes of Oschophoria, I figured I’d print the rest of it here. 

The elaborate procedures required for a blood sacrifice show how seriously and solemnly the Greeks regarded the killing of animals for sacrifice. The victim had to be an unblemished domestic animal, specially decorated with garlands, and induced to approach the altar as if of its own volition. The assembled crowd had to maintain a strict silence to avoid possibly impure remarks. The sacrificer sprinkled water on the victim’s head so it would, in shaking its head in response to the sprinkle, appear to consent to its death. After washing his hands, the sacrificer scattered barley grains on the altar fire and the victim’s head, and then cut a lock of the animal’s hair to throw on the fire. Following a prayer, he swiftly cut the animal’s throat while musicians played flute-like pipes and female worshipers screamed, presumably to express the group’s ritual sorrow at the victim’s death. The carcass was then butchered, with some portions thrown on the altar fire so their aromatic smoke could waft its way upwards to the God of the cult. (Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander)

Anyone who’s interested in reading some of the up-to-date scholarship on the topic of ancient Greek θυσία should check out F. S. Naiden’s Smoke Signals for the Gods: Ancient Greek Sacrifice from the Archaic through Roman Periods and the collection Greek and Roman Animal Sacrifice: Ancient Victims, Modern Observers edited by Faraone and Naiden. Burkert, Vernant and Detienne are also good, but their work is over 40 years old at this point and there have been some important discoveries and shifts in scholarly consensus since those groundbreaking texts were published.

So the first question:  why sacrifice animals as an offering?

θυσία or animal sacrifice was one of the central rites of ancient Hellenic polytheism which is why when the Christians sought to eliminate the competition and strangle the populace into submission one of the first things they did was pass legislation banning it, forcibly close the temples where it was performed and murder the priests and priestesses who possessed the knowledge and competency to carry it out. To understand its importance we must look beyond the surface of this polysemic act. On the mythic level this is a sacrament which was founded by the Gods and given to us as a means of communing and establishing reciprocal bonds with them. On the cosmic level it represents the primordial establishment of order out of chaos which we participate in by our reenactment of it. On the social level it coheres the community of participants through the shock of the act and the shared meal afterwards. On the philosophical level it forces us to be conscious of where our food comes from and the interdependence of all things, since every life requires the consumption of other life for its continuance. On the ethical level it deepens our compassion and identification with the animal and breaks down our anthropomorphic bias by giving animals an integral and inimitable role to play in the community. On the mystic level the creation of death opens a door for blessings to flow into this world and into our lives from the other side. And on a magical level it awakens us to who we were and who we are, which everything in this decadent, isolated, anemic and consumerist culture strives to blind us to.

Sacrifice is only performed when the Gods ask for it, do i understand that correctly?  What traditions do you feel are covered by that assertion

I only have familiarity with Hellenic, Roman and to a much lesser extent Egyptian traditions concerning animal sacrifice. I’ve done a little reading and talked with practitioners outside that Mediterranean sphere but I don’t feel that qualifies me to speak about let alone for those traditions. And while things were a little more routine in antiquity since it was an integrated part of their culture, animal sacrifice is only performed these days when the Gods request it through divination or other means. Even so it tends to be a fairly rare occurrence. I can count the number of animal sacrifices I’ve witnessed or participated in on both hands with fingers left over. Also note that I have only ever assisted in the rite, as I do not have the proper training or competency to butcher an animal myself and won’t be pursuing that as I have some pretty strong taboos in place and know specialists I can turn to when the ritual needs to be performed. Mostly my role has consisted of holding and soothing the animal, reciting prayers, determining that consent has been given and the animal meets the specifications of the Gods through the taking of omens, divination and associated rites, as well as clean up, aftercare and whatever else the sacrificer needs. This division of labor, incidentally, is how it was done back in the day as well.

Regarding the technical aspects, can you explain what is done to make this a humane act?

For the most part I’ll leave the technical aspects of the slaughter to the professionals to discuss, but one of the roles that I perform as an assistant is to help calm the animal as it is prepared for the sacrifice. So I’ll stroke and speak soothing words to them, pray over them and the sacrificer, make sure that they aren’t in view or scent of the killing if more than one animal is being done during a rite, pay attention for visible distress or anything out of the ordinary, watch for certain specific signs that traditionally indicated disfavor or lack of consent, perform divination and if anything’s not going right I’ll put a stop to it. If the sacrifice is performed poorly, cruelly or in any way that deviates from the religious norms there can be serious consequences for everyone involved so while my role is peripheral I do consider it an important part of the process.

How can an outsider know if a priest is properly trained to be compassionate?

Ask around. What is this person’s reputation in the community? How long have they been doing it? What training have they received? Who trained them? How have past sacrifices gone? Talk to the person as well. Are they willing to answer these questions? Have they done so to your satisfaction?  Or are they vague, defensive and otherwise give you an impression of untrustworthiness or incompetence? Furthermore, I’d advise praying to your Gods (and to the Gods who are to receive the sacrifice if they aren’t the same) and ask if the sacrificer has their approval, confirming it through divination if you don’t have a clear line of communication with them.

Mind you, all of this should be done well in advance of the sacrifice. The sacrificer will need to get into a proper headspace and state of ritual purity to perform the act, so you shouldn’t be bombarding them with questions going into it, as that could be profoundly disrespectful, disruptive and have an adverse effect on the proceedings. If you’re not certain that the Gods want this and the individual is qualified and prepared to do it, you shouldn’t be involved.

When the sacrifice is performed, what happens to the life force of the animal? What happens to the physical remains?

That depends on the purpose of the rite. In a standard traditional sacrifice the lifeforce is carried to the Gods with the prayers and smoke of the sacrificial fire – thusia in fact derives its name from the burnt portions of the offering. (That lifeforce can be used for other purposes such as purification and magic, but that’s getting off topic as we’re discussing a religious offering here.) The physical remains are then divided up as the Gods have indicated. Usually this means a portion goes to them, such as bones, fat and innards though sometimes they want a choice cut as well, and the rest is shared in a communal meal by the participants. Sometimes however they want the entire animal to be burnt or buried, especially if they are chthonic Gods or daimones, with none of it going to the humans.

If I asked a priest to perform a sacrifice on my behalf, what should I expect to be my responsibility, and what will I get in return? What do I owe the priest?

That needs to be worked out between the individual and the sacrificial priest. Usually you will be responsible for covering the expense of the animal and any other related offerings or supplies, as well as paying for the sacrificer’s time and expertise. (When you’re paying a doctor’s fees you’re not just paying for the procedure that’s done but also the years of schooling and experience they’ve accumulated.) You may also be required to participate in the ritual as a witness, a purifier or a speaker of prayers though it can also be done long distance on your behalf. If that’s the case I’d recommend making prayers and offerings at your home shrine at the same time as the rite is being performed.

What would you say to the concern that animal sacrifice sends a negative message about your (and the wider polytheist and Pagan) religious practices?

I’d say that a person who has such concerns needs to evaluate their own unexamined assumptions, or in the parlance of today, they need to “check their privilege.” First off, I’m guessing that they’ve never actually observed thusia being performed – it’s a very beautiful, sacred, solemn, joyous and ultimately life-affirming ritual. And if they still have a problem with it after witnessing it done rightly and respectfully they should search their hearts and see where that’s coming from.

Is it because they are uncomfortable about their own dietary choices? 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. Won’t someone please think about the carrots?!?!

However, if your objections are social and driven by a craven desire to curry favor with the Christian overculture you need to think again. There’s nothing you’re going to do to make the Fred Phelpses and Pat Robertsons of the world like you. There just isn’t. So forsaking your own sacred traditions to do so is doubly stupid – they’re still going to hate you and now you’ve cut yourself off from everything that truly matters in your religion. (Assuming that this is part of your religion – and if it isn’t then what concern of yours is it if others happen to practice differently from you?)

If you have some misguided notion that we’re more civilized and evolved and intelligent than our ancestors who held to these practices, what do you have to say about all those brown people in the world today who still carry out animal sacrifice? I mean, really. Just because you live in some kind of sanitized suburban seclusion and have never seen it done doesn’t mean it isn’t happening in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East – to say nothing of your nearest big city. Ever see signs for kosher and halal meat? How is what Jews and Moslems are doing any different from what we do when we pray to our Gods as we kill the animal so that we may share in feast with our community? For that matter go to Greece around Easter and you’ll find folks stringing up lambs left and right in the streets and inviting you to their own festive meals. Same thing in parts of the South, where pig roasts and communal barbeques are a part of everyday life and integral to their culture and identity. Is everyone in the world primitive and dumb except you and people who think exactly like you? I was not aware that xenophobia, racism, religious intolerance and discrimination were part of contemporary pagan values.

No one’s saying everyone has to participate in this practice – so why don’t you try and demonstrate the same sort of civility and respect and avoid making dictatorial pronouncements about what is and is not appropriate behavior for someone from a different religious tradition, eh? 

That’s what I’d have to say to such a person, more or less. 

And if you have competent and qualified professionals to perform the animal sacrifice, Oschophoria is an auspicious and appropriate time to do it.