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The Shieldmaiden Blog

Jul - 13

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.


Coru priests and allies performing Gaulish battlefield dedication

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.

22 comments on Of blood and battlefields: Sacrifice in Pagan practice

  1. Tim Fox says:

    Coming erm um several years late into this discussion. But I think relevant to the discussion of animal sacrifice – the majority of practicing pagans don’t – has to do with modern paganism being a reaction to the excesses of modern human exploitation of the nature. Most supermarket meat comes from animals raised in poor conditions on factory farms, where they are butchered on factory assembly lines. There animals experience incredible fear, and probably pain. Many modern pagans deliberately approach this reality by trying to differently than their ancestors did in the past. Respecting the land and nature takes at least sacrificing the past practice of sacrificing animals. This probably goes for many modern pagans who have not gone as far a vegetarianism.

  2. Circlelady says:

    Fascinating article! As it happens, it’s also a cultural barrier for some to consume horsemeat. In Europe I’ve found horsemeat in supermarkets and it’s commonly eaten by the general populace. It’s partially a United States knee-jerk reaction to something that is not typically done in America. Many have a hard time realizing that not all Western countries are like America, whether it be in terms of diversity or in terms of what is for dinner.

    In regards to sacrifice (the main point of the article), I mostly interact with Morrigan in Her aspect as the Washerwoman and my sacrifice to Her is the making of laundry soap and the washing of clothes stained with either blood, oil, food, or earth. Giving people grief over how they practice is (in my opinion) kind of childish, however you sacrifice or practice. Those giving your group grief should try not criticizing how someone practices, as I’m sure whomever they are knows not everyone is the same as they are.

  3. Hth says:

    Thanks for sharing! Your perspective on meat sacrifices match the way we practice pretty closely, and I found it interesting that you’ve had ritual experiences that show the Morrigan apparently unsatisfied without a flesh offering. That’s happened to us as well, only with Fortuna (my hearth practices a mixed Celtic and Roman polytheism), a goddess who has a distinctly similar vibe to me. After having to improvise with Trader Joe’s Sonoma Chicken Salad one time (*g*), we’ve learned that we can’t devote a ritual to Fortuna and not bring meat; she wants and expects that. Interestingly, it’s not happened to me yet with Morrigan rituals, where I primarily offer wine that is explicitly equated to blood on the ritual level (often other things, too, but nearly always wine — the Hungarian brand called Bull’s Blood is our go-to Morrigan offering). That could be related to the fact that I don’t consider myself on a warrior path and primarily venerate her as a sovereignty instead of a battle goddess; if I called her more explicitly in her battlefield role, there might be more of a need for flesh and blood offerings. Of course, that doesn’t explain Fortuna, who doesn’t have any battle associations that I know of (unless you count Fortuna Redux, who was a favorite among Roman soldiers for her power to get you home again after the campaign.)

  4. Brian says:

    Very interesting indeed! The Morrighan has just blessed our entire coven with the lesson of self sacrifice during the last summer solstice. It was an occurrence that happened to our coven as a whole and lead to a very powerful ritual. After reading your blog I felt compelled to share this story with with you. Keep in mind however I can only share parts of it being some parts are sacred to our coven.

    Two days prior to the Summer Solstice it started like so, a crow had flown into the front grill of one of our members van while he was driving and it died. He felt really bad being it is sacred to us. When I started talking to him about it I literally got this feeling like there was a fire blazing on my back. Which was strange I never got that kind of feeling before. The air condition was on but it felt as if this intense heat was beaming on my back. Then a bit of anxiety hit me which I know is the Morrighan speaking to me. Shortly after one of other members had just arrived for me to do a guided meditation on her. So we did a tarot reading together on the event before we began. Here’s where its get even more intense. All the 6 of the 7 cards I pulled all had fire on them. (I used the Hermetic Tarot deck I use for speaking with the Morrighan). Later we found out that our High Priestess at the same time was having a dream visited by Badb in a cave and she asked for a unified offering of importance.
    The Outcome: Since we are a coven that works towards one unified consciousness with the Morrighan, this crow that died, sacrificed himself for our coven in order to show us that even though it happened to one it effects us all as whole. And now in order to honor his life that he gave each one of us had to make a sacrifice as an offering to the Morrighan.
    So part of our Summer Solstice ritual each one of us gave a personal sacrifice. Which was a sacred item each one of us held dear and close. It was given to the Morrighan at a lake for Manannan to carry to her. Then the body of the crow was given.
    The energy that night was unbelievably strong, which also happened to be the night the “super moon”

    1. Morpheus says:

      That’s a very interesting story, Brian. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Jalkr says:

    I am a Norse-oriented Heathen and I keep a temple with votive animals residing here, at my own cost. Horses and a swine. Many Heathens elevate the blot as the pinnacle of ritual observance–I am not among them. It’s taken far more commitment to keep the sacred animals than to kill them.

    Some observations:

    You haven’t disclosed the source of your horse meat. If you’re in Canada, you’re in a location where commercial slaughter of equines is a legal and thriving business, with a constellation of issues around it. Honestly disclose where, when, and how this meat was procured. This is blog-land, and I’m accustomed to people embellishing for optimal result. Did you raise the horse, collectively spend money to care for the horse, have any manner of bond with the horse? If the meat arrived already dead and ready to cook, the “sacrificial” element of your rite is wanting. If it didn’t, who conducted the slaughter and how do we, online readers, know you’re being honest? I’ve dealt at length with notable Heathens describing blot rituals so glowingly I find myself wondering if they were even at the same ones I attended, and no, it wasn’t merely a matter of varying perspective. They just didn’t wish to lose face. I think a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted.

    Then, there is the notion of “battlefield ritual.” Please. I’ve BEEN at events where people wear armor and embark on violent skirmishes on the field. It is NOT the same as actual battle, no matter how enthusiastic the players are. It’s an insult to people who gave their lives, or lost loved ones, or came home physically and psychically damaged. That you can elect to participate and return to your regularly scheduled lives afterwards is telling. That’s not battle, that’s play-acting.

    As you yourself noted, there are elements of ancient ritual which have been extinguished. Heathens no longer place horse heads on nithing poles, for example and we also do not drape carcasses on trees in a grove. Nor do we expose infants, or perform criminal executions in the context of ritual. Given the degree of suffering endured by far too many horses, and their ongoing service to us, as search and rescue partners, therapy facilitators, athletes, companions, medical research animals for the development of anti-venom and pulmonary disease, the deliberate selection of a horse as the main course in a pagan ritual seems misguided.

    As with many Heathens who fixate on the abolition of horse sacrifice and make that the locus of their modern ritual aspirations I perceive that its inclusion in your rite says more about the need to have the superficial “check list” of elements to tick off, than the more profound, deeply involved, and yes, even personally impoverishing form of sacrifice.

    Breidablik Temple

    1. Morpheus says:

      Thanks for your comments, Jalkr. Here are a few responses.

      Regarding the horse ritual I referenced in the blog post, it took place at a public gathering and one which we traveled a long distance to attend. It was not feasible for us to bring a living horse to be slaughtered and butchered on site. What we did was to work with a highly respected local priest who is an ally of our group, and asked him to bring ethically sourced, humanely slaughtered horse meat for the ritual, which he did. I don’t think because I’ve mentioned this on a public blog that I’m obligated to cite you the name and source of who slaughtered that horse. I affirm that it was ethically sourced, and you can choose either to believe me or not to. I’m not sure why you would be reading the blog of someone you think is dishonest, anyway.

      Like you, I too have raised my own animals for food and sacrifice, as well as killing, preparing, offering, and serving them in both ritual and non-ritual contexts. I’m not claiming that the offering we made in the horse ritual was the equivalent of a full blood sacrifice of a live votive animal. Perhaps my post wasn’t clear on this point, as a few commenters seem to have that same perception. In my language about this, I’m using the ancient meaning of the term ‘sacrifice’, which is an offering of value dedicated to a holy power, thereby made sacred. There being various forms and levels of sacrifice, from the offering of simple prayer and attention, to material goods, to the full blood sacrifice of a living being, often then consumed by the worshippers (in the case of an animal). The latter form of sacrifice was, as I said, not feasible in this case. We did the lesser form of sacrifice instead.

      As for your comments on the battlefield devotional, I make no claims (nor do any of the other fighters I know) that our combat sport is the same as actual battle where one is facing death. It is something else – it is more akin to the kind of battle sport that warriors would engage in for training in preparation for real battle. Thus it still seems to be recognizable to our Battle Goddess, and the devotional rites we offer help to align the fighters who choose to participate, to a deeper level of what they are doing. I don’t think this insults anyone. Far from it – often when I come off the field what strikes me is the contrast between what I experience, and what my ancestors, and those who go to war today, have to deal with.

  6. Naali says:

    Thank you for writing on a topic that so many modern pagans choose to dance around and avoid. I think a lot of pagans have an adverse reaction to the idea of offering flesh or blood to the gods because they are uncomfortable with the realities of subjects such as death and the origins of our food. Others may shy away from the topic for fear of being judged negatively by the general public.

    So long as flesh or blood is harvested legally, ethically, and respectfully, however, I don’t personally see what the issue is, though I have more of a reconstructionist perspective and Morrigan is among my own primary deities, so I suppose that makes me a bit biased.

    In my own experience, certain deities do particularly favor offerings of flesh or blood, and I’ve heard of plenty of modern pagans in reconstructionist circles that own farms and make a respectful ritual act of slaughtering the animals they would already be slaughtering for food anyway, procure animal blood from butcher shops for rituals, or prepare food from the flesh of animals sacred to deities for rituals. I’ve offered both meat and small amounts of my own blood to the Morrigan before in my own practice.

    You mentioned the ritual with horse meat. I recall seeing a documentary on Asatru in Iceland in which horse meat was part of the feast in one of their rituals. Just out of curiosity since it has been brought up, where did you get the horse meat for your ritual?

    1. Morpheus says:

      Hi Naali, rather than re-post the same info several times in answer to commenters’ questions, please see above where I’ve answered the question about the source of the horse meat, in reply to Jalkr.

      Thanks for your comments. I appreciate hearing from another with experience working with sacrifice in this way. I know this is a very sensitive subject for some folks, but I feel it’s an important conversation to have. There are many minority faiths in the world which are regularly impacted by discrimination, based in part on reactionary ideas about animal sacrifice in religion. I hope some day we’ll be able to deal with this topic a bit more rationally as a society.

  7. Omisakin Ifawole says:

    I love this blog post so much. As a priest of Yemoja in the Ifa/Orisa tradition and an initiated Witch and Priest in the Craft I have run into so many misconceptions on the concept of blood sacrifice within the Pagan Community. You have addressed them well in this blog. In Ifa animal sacrifice is something we do not enter into lightly. We are trained in how to kill the animal so it feels no pain and once killed the spirit of the animal goes to the feet of OLodumare (God) in Orun (Heaven). The animal is then cleaned and prepared cooked and eaten. In some ceremonies some of the animal parts are especially cooked and prepared so that we might partake of the Ase of the life force offering to the Orisha. It is done in a sacred food context. I applaud you Morpheus for addressing this issue to the broader pagan community. Bravo

    1. Morpheus says:

      Thank you for your comments and kind words! I have a friend who is an Ifa priest, and I’ve been honored to see how reverential his approach to sacrifice is. Blessings to you.

  8. Keechy says:

    If you don’t value the animal as pat of your life then it isn’t a sacrifice. You’d do better to sacrifice your iphone or something else you love and will miss. Also, just because our ancestors did something doesn’t mean we should today. Personally I feel the gods have evolved along with us and no longer need blood sacrifice. I’m sure it’s lovely to feel all warrior-y and tough and eat horse meat while others around you gag, but the only way you could do it is if you have no feeling for them and then it means nothing. We have a different pact with horses, dogs and cats than we do with other animals. They deserve better than to be anonymously eaten by some tough-acting pagan who wants to live in the past.

    1. Morpheus says:

      Thank you for sharing your perspective, Keechy. It’s a good thing that the world has room for a wide variety of practices and values. You’re entitled to yours.

  9. JoBeth Sexton says:

    I have never thought of ritual meat consumption. It has never come up. But, I think you are correct when you say it is different to consume meat, any meat, within the contex of ritual. I can imagine doing it and I can say without reservation that I could and would do it. Especially within the context of a ritual honoring the Morrigan. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

    1. Morpheus says:

      Thanks for your comments, JoBeth. You know, one of the things I didn’t mention in the blog post is that under ordinary circumstances, I don’t even eat red meat! I make an exception to that for the purpose of ritual, which goes to show how significant this ritual was for me and others in the group. Blessings to you!

  10. Saigh says:

    Wow…just wow….I can’t even ….mind you, I believe in animal sacrifice, because animals eaten should be raised with respect and killed with respect. Slaughterhouse animals are NOT sacrificed. And the hell horses go through in the slaughter house is evil. It was Macha who charged me to fight horse slaughter tooth and nail, so I hope you understand why I can no longer associate with you.

    If you want to understand please read the attached article.

    Good luck to you.

    1. Morpheus says:

      Hi Saigh,
      There doesn’t seem to be an attached article, but I’d be glad to read it if you will re-post the link.

      I am in agreement with you about the terrible conditions that exist in many slaughter facilities – that was one of my points about why people who eat factory farmed meat aren’t in a position to make judgements against animal sacrifice. I’m not actually clear what it is that you find objectionable. From your comment it sounds like you disagree with the use of horse meat from slaughterhouses that mistreat horses; but since you didn’t ask me where we got the horse meat, it looks to me like you’ve made an assumption about where it came from, and then had an emotional reaction to that assumption. I’ve appreciated our correspondence and would be pleased if it could continue, but you must of course do what you see is best. I honor your commitment to fighting for ethical treatment of horses.

      1. Laurel says:

        Hi Morpheus,

        If we are to be honest here, Saigh’s assumptions of where the meat was procured is a fair one given you did not disclose where you got the meat from. Horse slaughter is unfortunately legal here in Canada when done under the disgusting conditions of industrialized farming. If someone were to ritually sacrifice a horse here, I am of the understanding that would be classified as horse abuse under Canadian law, which would make it illegal.

        I too am a Canadian devotee of Macha and have been involved in grassroots activism to abolish horse slaughter here in Canada. So I am in full agreement with Saigh here. There is no way to legally or ethically sacrifice a horse or consume horse flesh in Her name.

        One more thing I would like to add in regards to the meat that you had consumed: if you did procure slaughter house meat in BC, then it likely came from Alberta, one province over. Not too long ago most of the horse flesh for human consumption was that of foals of PMU mares. So, baby horses that are taken away from their mothers, so the mares can be impregnated again for PMU. Do a quick google on this and you will see the squalid conditions these horses live in, should you not be familiar with this subject.

        I am sure that you are decent folk who wishes to make honourable sacrifices to Macha and/or An Morrígan, so I ask to please reconsider doing horse sacrifices/consuming horse flesh in the future, especially in Their names.

        Sláinte mhaith!


        1. Morpheus says:

          Thanks for your comments and the info you’ve given here, Laurel. I respect the work people like yourself are doing to help horses and other animals in situations of inhumane and cruel slaughter. I gave some additional info above in my comment reply to Jalkr, about the ritual and the horse meat. Be assured, I and my cohorts have no interest in supporting cruel and industrialized slaughter operations. Nor do we plan to do rituals of this kind with frequency – it was a pretty special occasion.

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