The subject of sacrifice is always a heated one. When it comes up, it is natural and right to have emotions around it, whether you find yourself in favor of it, or against it. Feelings are natural. Sometimes those feelings override our sense of how to use word-things to communicate our thought-forms, or cause us to lose sight of the global world that we live in, which exists outside of our own experiences or preferences. I recently had the pleasure of discussing these issues with a Pagan who expressed views online which I found to be offensive and dangerous and hurtfully malign. We were able, in private dialog, to come together as two humans, and address the mutually agreed upon need for education, training, and outreach around these issues in every direction. But the way that this dialog is addressed in general is one perpetually riddled by problematic obstacles.
The problems are many. First, while the language used by Pagans who are against this practice often, but not always, does claim to support some kinds of sacrifice and not others, at the same time is very cherry-picking about who gets “permission” to do a thing. (For example, some argue that it is acceptable for Santeros to offer animals to their Oricha, but unacceptable for Heathens to offer to their gods. Similarly, it may be acceptable to some for Cuban Santeros to offer, but not white other-than-Cuban initiates to Cuban lineages.) It is almost always drawing upon incredibly slippery-slope models in its suggestions, such as repeatedly positing that animal sacrifice leads to human sacrifice. This is “Satanic Panic” type language, and we’ve already seen what that does to a community or set of communities.
“I’ve seen the topic used to mock Pagans in general, not just Polytheists in particular, again and again over the course of decades. “Duzzunt you’s guys sacerfice baby’s?” There, the sacrifices in mind aren’t even historically real. There were no baby sacrificing witch cults in the Middle Ages or in the 1980s. When used in this way, the intention was always to shut down discussion and reinforce Christian, or at least monotheist supremacy.”
…and I think that he makes a very good point, though I would add “or secular, academic supremacy” to the end. There is a definite trend in many of these discussions to posit one’s own position or stance as superior, whether it is that of an Evangelical Christian (“moral and divine superiority”) or because one holds a certain degree of institutionally recognized academic performance (“educational superiority”) or intelligence (“intellectual superiority”) or secular post-modern social prestige (“social superiority”), all of which exist comfortably within a secular dominant cultural paradigm as comfortably as they would in a Christian or Monotheist one.
He goes on to say:
“This is the context for the use of the charge being used by other Pagans to mock Polytheists. They are taking very real acts that took place under very particular circumstances and applying a false “slippery slope” argument to suggest that animal sacrifice or just the revival of historically conscious real Polytheism will somehow lead to the worst imaginable (at times Biblical) visions of priests with bloodstained hands. Those arguments are really frightened attempts to enforce a set of rules that Pagans have put in place in order to cope with Christian supremacy, namely “always be harmless, responsible, and nonthreatening”. As such, the fear deserves understanding and reassurance, while the norm needs to be used only where appropriate, (mostly small, conservative communities,) and this “slippery slope ” argument deserves the ruthless deconstruction you’re giving it here.”
The strongest and loudest voices in Polytheism — which as a group of religions and online religiously identified writers and devotees is specifically named and singled out in this discussion — are advocating for, and providing clear guidelines around, training and discipline when approaching this subject. People who lack the skills to do it right should not do it, as has been stated repeatedly by everyone involved in the most recent discussion’s subject. Those who were not involved in that discussion, but are nevertheless taking it wildly out of context to further their own ends in a greater community context, should take pause.
There simply is no evidence to suggest a “hip new trend”, as is claimed. The people who are doing these practices are by and large doing these practices with a mind for humane animal handling, ethics, training, discipline, and a nuanced and educated understanding of the whys and why-nots. Further, by and large people who are endorsing, studying, or practicing animal sacrifice in a religious context are not doing so for personal gain or empowerment or elevation; those are ideas found in magical thinking, not pious religious thinking. This is not the lens employed nor encouraged in religion as is being discussed in the venues where this criticism seems publicly directed. It is fine within a magical framework to endeavor toward these ends, and certainly discussions around sacrifice in that context should happen, but Polytheists writing about Polytheist religion are not writing about magic or magical practice. We are writing about and engaging in organized structures of religion and religious tradition. Further, these practices are not “new” nor “a recent development”; some modern Heathens have been practicing sacrifice of this kind since the 1970s, for example. This is not “new”. African and Afro-Diaspora traditions have been practicing this way indefinitely in all regions of the world. Judaism and Islam have been doing these things for thousands of years.
When I engage with people with a mind for either defending lawful and ethical religious practice and rights, whether against prejudice from a Monotheist or an atheist or a scholar or a mainstream Pagan or a secular-ish philosophical magician, I am almost always put into a position of needing to “justify” my position. I have to defend my right to speak at all, and I have to qualify my statements with a list of qualifications and very ungently probed “background checks”, as if the people I am speaking to would not themselves be able to discern reasoned argument or defense of lawfully protected and sanctioned act absent the correct credentials. This same sort of behavior is used by police and self-appointed neighborhood-watch to ask why people of minority races are shopping in or walking through predominantly white neighborhoods all the time, suggesting that a certain type of person needs to be able to justify their right to exist unmolested based upon another person’s cultural discomfort with their presence, and what it might represent to them in their own insecurities, judgments, or indeed paranoias. No person should ever have to justify their right to exist in this country, or to participate in or voice support for a constitutionally and federally protected set of practices. That is not the type of country that this is, thank the gods. Answers are poked at with scrutiny as if they might be turned over to reveal a lie. How is this helpful?
In certain initiatory traditions it is acceptable to inquire after one’s lineage and “pedigree” to determine who initiated them. This is sometimes found in Orisa religion, and often in Haitian Vodou, and to varying extents is considered acceptable in order to prevent fraudulent people from claiming power or influence which is not theirs by right. However, in these instances, the people doing the asking are expected to have some form of knowledge already in order to qualify the answers provided, or else the answers themselves would be meaningless to them. Speaking about where we learn what we learn is acceptable, but it must be handled with, and addressed from a place of, an initial place of respect.
The counter-argument to practices of animal sacrifice — that they are done for “edgy” or “dangerous” feels — is just silly and completely untrue of the places where this is being discussed publicly and proficiently. Are there people killing animals for ritual reasons outside of ethical and trained contexts? Sure. But,
- 1.) those people aren’t writing about it in conjunction with Polytheist religion, to my knowledge or experience,
- 2.) those people are not going to have their opinions changed by soap-box proclamations which use language like “mental illness” and “organized thinning the herd”. In the cases where those practices are happening, they need to be understood — first and foremost — for what they are, and differentiated from what they are not, rather than lumped destructively together. And then, if indeed there is a true trend of unethical or inhumane practices happening, education and outreach are what are needed.
The suggestion that Polytheists who talk to their gods, and hear back, or affirm the conscious agency of the gods and spirits, are suffering from mental illness, delusion, or are “devolving” superstitious people who do not question anything critically is not only untrue, it is incredibly unethical. Proper employment of methodologies designed for pathological assessment and/or therapeutic interventions do not approach situations in this way, and nor should any who would use their influence or voice in a leadership capacity.
Are there people in various religious traditions, Polytheist or otherwise, who also have mental illnesses? Yes. Of course there are. And telling them that their religious identities are the result of an illness that they might have is destructive to both the classification and support of that illness and its symptoms, AND the development of that religious expression.
Every single Polytheist leader that I know makes referrals to mental health professionals and encourages whole-body-and-mind wellness in the people who are in their communities. We trade names and swap telephone numbers of therapists and counselors and mentors and advocates at every level of the medical and health and wellness industry who have proven themselves to be educated enough and aware enough of complex cultural and religious and spiritual matters to not “shoot from the hip” at everyone whose experience of reality is different from theirs, in order to supply these as resources to our communities, clients, students, friends and colleagues as needed. So, for the discussion of animal sacrifice, let’s leave the pathology out. That is unhelpful.
The class-and-culture related bias in this discussion is astoundingly thick, complicated, and driven. But right now, all of the people discussing Polytheists and the subject of animal sacrifice sound a lot like Evangelicals discussing homosexuality, with disgust and revulsion and superiority. That “othering” is just so insidiously harmful that it makes me sick. And then when we, the group who is being discussed this way and grouped together and “ghettoed” by this “evolved” group of “learned” folks, speak up in defense of ourselves or our practices, we are called “crazy” or described as having “anger problems”. You’re right. Many Polytheists do have anger problems, but not because of mental illness. These problems are social in nature, and stem from being constantly baited with rhetoric, hate-speech, death-threats, and discourse as if we do not qualify as humans at all.
Many Polytheist leaders hold positions of professional integrity, engaging in such fields as psychology, theology, classics, literature, history and counseling, at professional and/or doctoral levels. We are not a bunch of “savage” make-believing folks who think “we are the ancients”. We are people with a set of religions who are growing really tired of other people outside of those religions saying that they want or need or feel compelled to “organize against” us and our practices, because of some paranoia that they have that we might somehow turn their kids
into gays and… into people who perform or support ethical approaches to traditional rites of sacrifice.
The statement that “we are not the ancients” is one that gets brought up a LOT in this conversation. It has been stated to me by three people involved in this specific thread here, and a dozen others connected to the various communities represented here, many of them from the East Bay of California (near where I lived for over a decade). This statement is used to imply that somehow Polytheists do not know this, and it is used to belittle, satirize, and literally describe our religions as “devolved”. Nobody in Polytheism believes that “we are the ancients”; we are not advocating for enslaving our enemies or neighbors, warring with other nations, dismembering those who dishonor us, or blinding those who infringe upon our hospitality. We are, however, advocating for lived understandings of things like honor and hospitality, which include thousands of years of developed philosophies around ethical and moral conduct, from around the world. We are also using iPads, smart-phones, writing scholarly books, discussing the environment and our modern impact upon it, engaging in civil rights activism and education, sponsoring and fund-raising for indigenous rights and freedom-of-religion issues (not just our own, mind you!). This is not the “savage” and “superstitious” and “mentally ill” group that is so often mentioned like Paganism’s personal boogey-man under the bed.
The branch of Paganism which seems so trigger-happy in attacking us in this way, using this kind of language, also seems to enjoy speaking from a kind of “post-culture” standpoint, where people who still have a cultural identity just haven’t evolved yet, and people who are actively trying to reclaim, restore, or rebuild a culture are participating in harmful “devolutions”. This is the living definition of ethnocentricism and dominant-culture privilege and entitlement: it has no place in our communities or in interfaith, cross-cultural dialog. Further, statements are often made by, or draw language from, fields of academic study which suggest that only “old and ongoing” cultures or religions are “real”, and that anyone else is effectively just pretending… and yet, to my knowledge the field of anthropology is only about a century old, and yet cultures and cultural movements have developed and come to life in lived authenticity throughout time for a great deal longer than that. Apparently humans don’t need academic permission to exist a certain way; it is not the purpose of academic fields of anthropology (or theology, or religious studies) to define what a person who group can or cannot do, but rather to study and understand those things that are done. The key word there is “understand”.
As Polytheists we do not think that “we are the ancients”. We are modern people who are Polytheists, and we belong to many cultural backgrounds, with many religious backgrounds, educational backgrounds, and ethnic backgrounds. We honor our ancestors, and the ancestors of others. That includes ancestors who came up with and refined systems of justice, and education. Which is why some of us are lawyers, and others are police officers, and other are soldiers serving their country. We represent demographics from across all levels of the political spectrum, from so far left they fell off the edge to so far right they looped back around again into an awkward leftist camp, and aren’t sure what to do with themselves. We have college professors and college students, white people and people of color, men and women of cisgender identity and a gauntlet of amazing people from all over the gender spectrum, all over the sexual-preference spectrum, all over the global national and cultural identity spectrum. Some of our priests have sat at summits or participated in engagements with the United Nations on issues of world religion and indigenous rights. We are apparently not just a bunch of play-actors after all, eh?
Modern Polytheist religionists, as clergy and lay leaders and personal solitary devotees are involved in many exciting and living developments, from new religions to newly restored religions to expressions of ancient religion. We use words like “lineage” and “tradition” because they are accurate, and because it is the right of all people to have religious identity, and the framework to structure the defining qualities of those identities appropriately. When I personally discuss “authentic, lived tradition”, I am not — as I believe I have been mischaracterized by some — using the word authentic to mean “edgy” or “badass” or “impressive” or possessing of superficial “cred”, but instead embodied and true, rather than (as we are often accused) something made up more for show, performance, or pretense. This is something that is essential for the restoration and revitalization of Polytheist religious practice and identity and socio-cultural movement. I am proud to be a part of such a complex and multi-faceted set of religious movements. While we are a set of religious minorities in the American Pagan “scene”, we are disproportionally educated, professionally qualified, globally recognized and cross-culturally regarded with a (long fought for, hard-earned) growing sense of respect and admiration, even as others within Paganism or reactive Monotheism rise up to try and organize their efforts against us and our movements, traditions, and lineages. We face both organized and reactive attempts at erasure and an attack on even our right to call our efforts “authentic”, because apparently this word is reserved for… somebody else, maybe?
And here’s the thing: not all Polytheists believe in or endorse or practice animal sacrifice. Polytheism is not “one religion”, but a set of them. Some of these involve and encourage sacrifice and the trainings, specialized rituals and technologies involved therein, while others do not at all. Some very important and vocal Polytheists are vegetarian, and their ritual arrangements with their gods and religious structures reflect this; or, perhaps their dietary status and moral structures reflect that of their gods? In either case, some Polytheists are part of traditions which are intentionally bloodless in their diets and dispositions, and that’s just fine; respected, honored, protected. Different gods engage different groups in different ways, asking for different things. This is the way of things, and always has been, not just in the distant “ancient” past, but through the continuity to the present age of now.
But for many of us, this is an important topic, and an important practice, which like any lived cultural facet is something that we will guard and protect, as is our natural (and legal, and federally protected) right. And for those who fall into this camp, and are in leadership positions and use our voices to teach, influence, and shape? Every single one that I know of uses that platform on this subject to endorse systems of specialized training, ethics, and sensible compassionate regard at every level. There is zero emphasis or encouragement on people adopting these practices without training for any reason. And whether on the topic of animal sacrifice, or pouring of libations, or considering one’s self a clergy, Polytheist movements are by and large calling for strict application of critical process, questioning, differentiation and delegation, rather than a whimsical “one size fits all” everyone-and-everything free-for-all. Our gods are demanding service, submission, discipline and training of us, as laity and clergy alike, which is sort of the opposite of what the moral panic arguments against sacrifice are suggesting so publicly.
(As an aside, since much of this argument seems to be couched around the proposed desire to minimize suffering of animals, it should be pointed out that such attacks as these directed at those of us who are actively encouraging training, discipline, ethics, humane handling, education and deference to professional specialists in matters of sacrifice, is actually more likely to bring about an increase in likelihood of harm. This is a thing that I do not believe the speakers and advocates against the discussion or practice of sacrifice “get”, in all of their assumptions about the people discussing the subject. The more fear and terror and shame which is hysterically drawn up around the subject, the more panic that engulfs people on either side of the issue, the more likely animals are to suffer, either from a nervous and faulty blade or a hasty rite in poor lighting, or because a person has actually just been made too afraid by all of the militant rhetoric that they never find their way to the specialists, teachers, and educators that many Polytheist leaders are advocating for, and encouraging the use of. At no time in the history of humankind, to my knowledge, has scare-tactic panic-inducing proclamations of paranoid “what ifs?” ever brought about anything but further dissonance, fear, and pain, all of which are in the fields of study which define what is or is not humane, are called by the name of harm.)
The suggestion that we will next be killing people is as offensive as it is ludicrous and intended only to derail and discredit a set of religious and cultural practices that you do not understand or prefer. Yet, while we are regularly told what we can and cannot do by occultists, magicians, and mainstream Pagans, most Polytheists do not at all care what other groups or people are doing, unless it involves things like bigotry, racism, or the sexual exploitation, abuse, and harm of other persons, especially children, or the attempts by a community to cover these things up by forcing the issue underwater like an unwanted litter of cats.
Yet we, who often endeavor to raise our own animals or shop through agricultural co-ops and livestock auctions and get discounts at cutlery shops for professional grade slaughter-and-butchery tools as legally recognized religious clergy whose job entails the processing of animals in a legally sanctioned fashion? We’re obviously mentally ill and super into feeling “dangerous” and “edgy”.
For conversation to happen and progress, language needs to be developed that doesn’t immediately couch Polytheists or anyone at all who is practicing animal sacrifice as “threats” or “mentally ill”. Not only is this unhelpful and largely untrue and built upon a principal of scare-tactic-mentality akin to how Fox News discusses Islam, it is also incredibly demeaning, unfair, and cruel to those with mental illness, regardless of their religious practices or beliefs, as well as those whose employment or lifestyles regularly involve the taking of animal life in ethical fashions. This argument poised against us presents itself as evolved, progressive, and educated: but it isn’t. It isn’t informed, it isn’t critically examined, and it trades-in intelligent discourse and honorable observation of another groups’ identity and culture for catty one-liners and frighteningly militaristic rhetoric and dehumanizing belittling and bullying statements.
Let’s find a better way.