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Towards A Better Understanding: Animal Sacrifice And The Community

(Warning: This is a controversial subject. If you don't care for controversy, don't read it. There, now I've almost guaranteed that you'll read it, haven't I? Well, don't say that I didn't warn you.)

As a Norse neo-pagan who has practiced Umbanda (a Brazilian form of the Afro-Caribbean Yoruba religions such as Haitian Voudoun and Mexican/Cuban Santeria), I'm often caught between neo-pagans who are dipping into these imported practices and neo-pagans who vastly disapprove of them. It seems that everyone has an opinion on whether the Yoruba faiths should be allowed into our little circle of predominantly European-based mysteries. Leaving aside the implied racism in that question (white people's ancient religion vs. black people's ancient religion), one of the biggest objections many neo-pagans have to these faiths is that they practice animal sacrifice, and if we appear to approve of them, outsiders will be able to accuse us of performing animal sacrifices.

There's a lot of misunderstanding about what animal sacrifice exactly is, however, and what it's for. Ask fifteen people- no, ask fifteen pagans, even - and you'll get fifteen different answers. The lines between what is and isn't animal sacrifice are thin and blurry, and move around a lot. I don't want to get into a big debate over whether killing and eating animals for meat is wrong, no matter how it's done. That obscures the issue, and deserves more than this tiny article. I will state that my position on this, as a pagan farmer/homesteader who raises and butchers my own meat, is that if the animal is raised in comfort with others of its kind, given healthy conditions and food tailored to its species, treated with kindness, not filled with chemicals, killed quickly and cleanly, and as much of its body is used as is possible, then it's ethical.

Those who disagree with that statement should take it up in an entirely different forum, as that's not really what I'm focusing on here. However, it is true that the average commercial slaughterhouse (and the average penning operation leading up to it) treats an animal far worse than any Yoruba sacrifice. The hand-raised goat who was throat-slitted and barbecued for a bimbe probably lived a better life and died a cleaner death than the steer that went into your last McBurger.

For the tribal societies that practiced animal sacrifice (including all our own ancestors) it served an important economic function. Generally, the richer people owned most of the livestock, and the poorer people had few if any animals. By demanding that those with meat animals give them over to be slaughtered for the community, the tribal religious structure tried to equalize wealth and hunger a little. For example, when a bull was slaughtered for Dionysus, or a goat for Ogoun, it was as if the god was saying to the poorer people, I give you a good meal via that rich guy over there. For the donator, it wasn't just saying to the god, Please grant my wish because I slit an animal's throat for you, it was saying, Please grant my wish because I just fed my community in your honor. For some poor folk, public sacrifices might be the only time they would get to eat decent meat. The sacrifices also might feed the full-time clergy, who otherwise subsisted on donations.

Today, much of the Yoruba faiths are still practiced in third-world countries, a fact that we forget. Neo-paganism was rediscovered by first-world people, and rewritten for our cultural comfort. The animal-sacrifice clash between Yoruba and neo-paganism is about class and culture and economic status as much as it is about ethics. In Brazil and Haiti, ritually killing and barbecuing a chicken that everyone present will feast on still serves a useful purpose. In America, where most food is available at the supermarket wrapped in plastic, where we are able to be in complete denial about where it comes from, where we can ignore the fact that everything we eat was once alive and died for us, it seems out of place. I would beg to differ with that notion.

Of course, I am not advocating that neo-pagans necessarily take up animal sacrifice. I am merely saying that we need to step back and be objective about why it's so darn awful in so many people's eyes. When we shoot livestock on our farm, we chant in honor of their spirits, and thank them for their gift of food. Does that make it ritual sacrifice? If so, why is a cold, unfeeling slaughterhouse butchery with no spiritual content a better thing? At our last Beltane gathering, someone bought one of our meat rabbits to be offered to the community as a stew, in honor of the sacrificial Green Man. Was that ritual sacrifice? I personally think that it was a very generous thing to do.

A year ago, a dear friend and father figure was suffering from leukemia. He came very close to death, and the emails went out that family and friends were gathering at his bedside for the last hours. I wanted very much to go, but our buck goat Phil was also very sick, and we had to stay home and wait for the vet. Phil, after all, was our responsibility. The vet came, checked the suffering goat, and regretfully informed us that he had a terminal case of kidney stones. Sadly, we took him to the slaughter area and quickly put him out of his misery with a bullet. As we did it, I asked Hela, Queen of the Dead, to take Phil's spirit instead of our friend's. The next day, the email arrived that he had turned the corner and was going to live.

I don't know if what we did helped at all, but the point remains: was it animal sacrifice? Was it wrong? Hela didn't seem to think so. I felt no disapproval from her; if anything, she seemed pleased to be remembered. (We couldn't offer Phil's body to the community as he was sick, so we burned it and kept his horns to remember him by.) Our American assumption that killing your food publicly, with the blessing of a deity, is wrong while killing it coldly and unfeelingly where nobody will ever see is right ....well, says Hela, that's all about your phobia of death. Death is a sacred part of the cycle, and it should be honored, not hidden and demeaned. Individual people might not want to watch an animal being slaughtered, but that should be seen as their particular aesthetic choice, not a moral choice made for everyone by some death-phobic community standard. After all, I don't drink alcohol, but when someone ritually passes around the cup of wine at a pagan circle I'm visiting, I don't make a fuss. I pour a few drops out on the earth as a libation, and pass it on. Thus, if someone chooses to do a ritual animal sacrifice at a festival, you don't have to watch it or eat it, but neither should you assume that they are evil or cruel.

We have a lot to learn from religions that have continued unbroken from ancient times. One of those lessons is around death and sacrifice, and how connected we are to each other and the earth through the food cycle. The fact that the Yoruba people do in their food animals as a community activity, honoring a particular god, and then making the sacrifice into a communal food sharing, is something we can learn from. If you go back far enough, everyone's ancestors did that.

I've worked hard, on my farm, to put together a kind of death-dealing that could be called the pagan version of kosher butchering. I go to a great deal of trouble to make sure that my critters are treated kindly and killed painlessly with a well-aimed bullet. Part of that is remaining in a headspace where I am fully aware of the sacredness of that animal's life, and how much it means that I am consuming that life so that I can live. It's hard to stay in that headspace the whole time you are disassembling the carcass and preparing it for cooking. It would be much easier to just blank it out, and chop it up with the uncaring denial of a factory worker. Easier, perhaps, but I would be making myself less human. I believe that keeping animal-killing a spiritual activity cuts down on potential cruelty. I think there's much more tolerance for suffering when there's nothing spiritual involved. I think that when we are doing it in honor of a deity that we believe in, whose respect and love we value, we don't want to dishonor them with a sloppy job.

I think that in an ideal society, every time an animal was given death so that we might live, it should be a sacred thing, a ritual sacrifice. If that horrifies you, go back to your world of plastic-wrapped hamburger and denial. Those of us who will remain, we know the reality of life. We won't live cut-off existences. We live in the world, with all its pain and beauty. We know that our lives are sustained by a million plant and animal deaths, and that is Nature's plan. We understand what it means that John Barleycorn Must Die.

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