Recently in a certain corner of the Blogosphere there has been a big discussion of animal sacrifice in the polytheist community. I for my part have only seen one side of the argument – the side in favor of honoring the practice. I have not personally read the pieces arguing against it, largely because the blog posts that I have seen mostly refer to and cite those with whom they agree, which has a bit of an echo-chamber effect.
That being said, I do generally get the gist of the arguments that those who object to the practice of animal sacrifice make. They believe that it is inhumane, cruel, and unnecessary. Many like to make the “slippery-slope” argument that animal sacrifice will lead to human sacrifice, which they naturally feel that everyone thinks is wrong. I understand their positions, but I disagree.
First let me say that I have, on one occasion, practiced animal sacrifice (at least, in the context that we are discussing here). The primary sacrifice that was made on the Vulcanalia was an Immolatio of fish. Unlike most Roman sacrifices, the fish sacrifice was not performed in temples, with the viscera from the animal being offered to the gods and the flesh being cooked and eaten by the people.
This sacrifice was performed with large fires built on the banks of the river, where fish were basically hauled out of the water and thrown directly onto the fire. The flesh was not eaten by the people, rather the fish were consumed whole by the flames.
Several years ago, when I was still fairly early in my relationship with Vulcanus, I felt called to make a proper offering of live fish. I debated this for a while, tried to figure out a way that I thought would be appropriate to substitute the offering, but in the end, I followed through. I went to the pet store, bought three goldfish, and lit a small bonfire in my backyard into which I sacrificed the fish as part of my Vulcanalia ritual.
While I would not say that my decision to make the sacrifice was a “mistake.” Instead I would say that I performed the sacrifice in an improper fashion, due to lack of experience. I still at times had misgivings about having performed the sacrifice, and have not done it since. Instead, each year I have offered a fillet of fish, typically salmon, to Vulcan instead. I wish I could say that I had some theological reason for deciding that the sacrifice was/is unnecessary, but I really can’t.
I have to be honest and say that the whole thing just made me feel uncomfortable in a way that I have not continued with the practice. That isn’t to say that I won’t perform it again at some point in the future, but right now, I don’t feel that it is appropriate for me to be performing that sort of sacrifice.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not think there is anything wrong with performing animal sacrifice. I actually very much respect the practice, and would like at some point to be present for them. But I am not someone who is properly trained in the process. And unlike with sacrifices of larger animals which can be killed in a very peaceful and dignified manner, throwing live fish onto a fire and burning them alive is something that I just haven’t been able to see as anything but cruel and inhumane.
But the sorts of sacrifices that I hear of being performed by the polytheist community are very different from the one I did. The animals are given great care and respect. They are dispatched in the most humane way possible. The sacrifice is performed by a trained professional to ensure that the animal does not suffer. This is the sort of sacrifice I can easily stand behind. I may not want to perform the sacrifice myself, but I am perfectly willing to have such a sacrifice be performed on behalf of myself or my community.
In fact, given the choice, I would much prefer that all of the meat and poultry that I consume be given a sacred death. I have a big problem with the way the agricultural complex produces the meat that we eat in day to day life. You want to talk about animal cruelty? Go check out a CAFO, if you can manage to sneak onto the property.
Having established that I stand rather firmly in the camp supporting the practice of animal sacrifice, I want to discuss the debate itself, or rather, the arguments being made on my side of it. Sannion in his posts on houseofvines gives a very insightful, clear, and rational explanation of his position on the subject of animal sacrifice. He even does a great job talking about the possibility of human sacrifice that is neither sensationalized nor dismissive. Theanos Thrax of Thracian Exodus likewise gives a similarly well-written statement of his position.
And then there is Galina Krasskova of Gangleri’s Grove. I do not follow her blog on a regular basis, but my partner does, and I check in from time to time, particuarly when he says that she has posted something of interest. And to be honest, I frequently find myself frothing at the mouth by the end of her posts.
It’s not so much the particular positions that she has in her tradition that I take issue with. Rather, it is her tendency to make sweeping generalizations about polytheists, writing in a way that implies that she is speaking on behalf of all “true” polytheists. It is the hard-line positions that she takes in a way that implies that the rightness of her position is self-evident, and those who don’t agree with her just don’t have a good enough understanding of or right relationship with the gods.
Well I am a real polytheist, whatever that actually means, and I say that there is room for disagreement between us, and that doesn’t make either of us wrong or less knowledgeable, or that one of us has a less real relationship with our gods.
In her Red Thread post, in which she discusses the animal sacrifice debate, she provides several examples of this sort of generalization.
In her opening paragraphs, she talks about how animal sacrifice is not some “hip new practice” that polytheists are just discovering. She talks about how sacrifice is a well-established tradition within the vast majority of polytheisms. All of this I agree with. But then she says this:
To think that we can restore our traditions with integrity, while neglecting this most fundamental of practices is…naive, to say the least.
It really highlights that while we may navigate between our contemporary secular (but really protestant christian) informed society to our ancestral ways, in the end, one must make a choice. The two mindsets are diametrically opposed.
And this is where I have a problem. Animal sacrifice has been a key part of various polytheisms all along, that is true. But it is also true that the discussion of whether or not that sacrifice was appropriate, ethical, and desirable has been going on for thousands of years. It isn’t some hip new trend either.
Part of the formation of Christianity out of Judiasm is the concept that there was no longer a need for animal sacrifice because Christ was the final sacrifice. While she might choose to dismiss the example of Christianity because it is a monotheistic religion, the same discussions have been going on in polytheisms.
While when we think of Roman Religion we often picture the great animal sacrifices in the temples, there was also well-established precedent for bloodless sacrifice. Ovid writes in Fasti that sacrifice to the Gods was originally bloodless, and blood sacrifices were only added later.
According to tradition, Pompilius Numa was the second king of Rome, and established most of the foundation of the Religio Romana. Both Pliny and Plutarch state that in the time of Numa, blood sacrifice wasn’t just not included in public Roman rites, it was expressly forbidden.
Perhaps in the Northern Tradition which Ms. Krasskova follows, there has never been until recently debate on the topic of animal sacrifice. But to pretend that it was a universally accepted practice among the ancients is disingenuous. Perhaps for those trying to restore her tradition with integrity, it is naive to neglect the role of animal sacrifice. But for those trying to restore the Numa tradition, neglecting the discussion of whether or not animal sacrifice is appropriate is equally foolhardy.
Her overbroad generalizations lead to a false dichotomy. She claims that modern sensibilities and traditional views of animal sacrifice are diametrically opposed. But that is not true for all polytheist traditions. There are threads within polytheism that go back thousands of years, where the views with regard to animal sacrifice are quite in line with many modern people’s sensibilities with regard to the practice.
I agree that most people’s objection to animal sacrifice has more to do with modern ideas and beliefs rather than a deep analysis and evaluation of traditional ways. But that doesn’t mean that no one has made that evaluation. And even if they haven’t, if we are rebuilding living traditions from the ashes of the past, we must take our current understanding and philosophy into account. To not do so is to be a reenactor, not a reconstructionist.
If the old ways had managed to make it unbroken into the present, they would have undergone many changes during that time. Religions, like the Gods, are living things that grow and evolve. There would have been splits and divisions, fracturing of smaller and smaller cults along various points of belief. If we dismiss those who’s views differ from our own as not being “real polytheists,” we are no better than the fractured christian denominations, each claiming that they posses the one true way.
If someone chooses to reject sacrifice, maliciously attempt to play upon readers’ unexamined sentiments by bringing up non sequiturs like human sacrifice, slavery, etc., equating these things with animal sacrifice, that is an attempt at violence being done to a tradition.
Human sacrifice and slavery being equated with animal sacrifice is a non sequitur? If we are going to say that we are performing animal sacrifice because the ancients did, then asking why we do not also practice human sacrifice and slavery cannot simply be dismissed as a non squitur. The reason why we perform animal sacrifice is not simply “because the ancients did it,” and we need to explain that to those who disagree with us, rather than simply wave our hands and regard their argument as beneath us.
“Because the ancients did it” may be where we started, but ultimately we have a responsibility to evaluate what the ancients did and determine whether they still apply to us today. I believe in the case of animal sacrifice, it still has value. I believe that human sacrifice has value. I believe that slavery does not. Other polytheists out there have the right to disagree with my positions and that does not make them any less of a polytheist than me.
While I agree that people who use the “human sacrifice” argument are trying to use it as an emotional trigger to shut our argument down, there is still a very real discussion that should be being had about human sacrifice. Sannion and Theanos Thrax both addressed this issue well. Ms. Krasskova’s dismissal does none of us any favors. Who is the one avoiding their unexamined sentiments here?
And it is her dismissiveness that is a big part of my problem with so many of her writings. When she uses words to frame the opposing position like “contaminated,” “impure,” “corrosive poison,” “filth,” “obscene,” and “reprehensible” she displays her utter contempt for viewpoints other than her own. And if she were speaking on behalf of merely her own tradition, I wouldn’t care. I’m not a part of that tradition and I could frankly care less how other traditions view mine.
But Ms. Krasskova instead claims to speak on behalf of “real polytheists.”
I am a real polytheist. I believe that the Gods are real, that they are individual beings with their own wants and needs. I believe that they have their own self-interests, which may or may not be in the best interest of myself or the rest of humanity. I believe that they often help us and provide for us, and for that we should be grateful and give them the reciprocity that they are due.
I am a real polytheist, and I find Ms. Krasskova’s hubris to be incredibly frustrating. I do not claim to speak on the behalf of all polytheists, nor even on the behalf of all Roman Polytheists. I claim only to speak on behalf of myself, and my relationship with my Gods, and I wish she would do the same.