Of blood and battlefields: Sacrifice in Pagan practice
So today I’m thinking about sacrifice again. It’s a subject that’s been showing up recently. Not long ago, my friend Sam wrote an excellent blog post on the subject of sacrifice; and the comment discussion on the post is very revealing of the fearful attitudes many people still hold toward the notion of sacrifice. You’ll find a commenter in that conversation blithely stating that he eats meat, but virulently objects to animal sacrifice as wanton murder, and seeing no contradiction in these two positions.
Not long after that, I traveled to a Pagan gathering in British Columbia, where as part of a series of intensive rituals working closely with Macha, an epiphany of the Morrígan in horse form, several of we Coru priests and our allies held a ritual feast of horse meat and other ancestral foods, cooked over a sacred fire and eaten within ritual. We experienced very mixed responses to this ritual. Some of those present were moved and honored to participate; others who heard about it after the fact reacted with horror to the idea that we would ritually consume horse meat.
The common theme expressed by those who object to blood sacrifice seems to be the idea that it demeans or insults the being that is sacrificed. That to spill blood for a religious offering is to waste life, when something else could be offered. I think this is arising from a misunderstanding of the nature of sacrifice; and I encourage readers to go and read the entirety of Sam’s article on the subject. We should know, of course, that the term sacrifice means ‘to make sacred’; and that sacrifice is, historically speaking, a core practice of Pagan religions in the ancient world. I’ve written on this subject before, as have many others.
This week, I’ve just returned from a weekend of armored combat and ritual offerings to my Gods. As part of our martial and devotional practice, when I and the other Coru priests and warriors attend large war events, we lead battlefield devotionals to bless the fighters and the field, and to dedicate the combat to our battle Goddess, the Morrígan. As this practice has developed, it became clear to us that blood offerings were needed. In the past, every time we performed the battlefield dedication without offering blood, at some point in the fighting day one of us who had been involved in the dedication would take an injury, and blood would flow.
This tells me something important about how this devotional process operates with the Morrígan. How many times have people told me that libations, food, flowers, whatever, are sacrifice enough for the Gods? How many times have I heard that offering your time, dedicating acts of service to the Gods, time spent in devotional prayer is just as good a sacrifice? Well, we did all that, and She asked for more. Rather, She took more. We offered beer, whiskey, cream, woad, etc.; we brought Her many fighters to raise their voices with us and dedicate their fighting in Her name; we gave Her the battlefield, and we threw our bodies into the fray; we offered Her our many bruises and every ounce of fight we had in us. She took all that, and then She took blood, too.
Until this time. We got wise and added a sacrifice ceremony the night before the fighting, in which we made blood offerings which were placed into the cup with the offerings that would be dedicated and poured out on the field the next morning. Several Coru priests, as well as some of the other warriors gathered, chose to offer their blood. And this time, none of us took a bleeding injury during the fighting. I can only conclude from this that She requires blood sacrifice in the context of a battle dedication.
This should not surprise us, really. We know that it was a common practice among the warrior traditions of the Gaulish Celts to offer dedications to their war Gods prior to a battle, and we know that human and animal sacrifices were among those offerings. It stands to reason, and I think has been shown, that these Gods (or at the very least our Goddess) still expect some kind of blood sacrifice. Modern Pagans love to talk about how the Gods evolve with us, and how forms of offerings can be different in modern times. I agree – but I think the important thing that has shifted isn’t whether or not living sacrifice is needed or useful. What has shifted is the importance of the individual soul and the idea of consent, the willing sacrifice. Everyone whose blood went into that cup offered it of their own volition. Similarly, when we organized the blood donation drive at PantheaCon last year, that was a form of sacrifice which was purely volitional. That focus on volition with regard to human offerings is reflective of how sacrifice can evolve in a modern context – a religious practice now shaped by modern values on individual liberty, but still preserving the core function of the act, which is the offering of vital life.
That core function is also present in animal sacrifice and is the reason why the practice is still relevant today. Obviously, consent cannot work the same way with animal offerings as it can with human blood offerings. But it seems to me that we don’t expect to receive consent from the domestic animals who are raised and slaughtered for our food, so it is an unreasonable standard to apply to religious sacrifice. To my mind, if we’re willing to kill to eat (and I think all beings have a moral right to kill when needed for sustenance or self-defense), there is no reason to be squeamish about dedicating the life force that’s being spilled in a religious fashion. From a Pagan perspective, an animal that’s being killed humanely and with attentive care in a ritual context is being honored far better than one that’s being killed as part of a routine assembly line, packaged for food without attention to its soul process and the spiritual quality of its death. Thus, unless it comes from a person who eats no meat nor otherwise supports animal processing industries, I can’t give much credence to categorical objections to animal sacrifice.
There’s another argument about consuming animals based on totemic links, and this was part of the objection to the horse meat that we heard. Reflections of this exist in history and mythology of Pagan cultures – as one well-known example, the Irish hero Cú Chulainn had a geis which prohibited him from eating dog meat, and this is usually interpreted as resulting from his totemic connection to dogs. This is a valid spiritual argument, but it still only holds for those individuals who have a specific relationship with the animal that would confer such a prohibition. Others’ relationship with horses doesn’t preclude me from participating in ritual horse meat consumption, any more than Cú Chulainn’s geis means no one in the world should ever eat dog.
There’s much more to be said about this subject. We’re hopeful of organizing a discussion on the subject of sacrifice at PantheaCon next year (spearheaded by my sister Coru priestess Rynn Fox). I hope the conversation on sacrifice continues, because I think it’s a very important one in the evolution of Pagan thought.