Post-Pantheacon: The Third

Posted: February 25, 2014 in Uncategorized

Saturday morning of PantheaCon 2014 I awoke on the floor of the Temple of the Morrigan, to the chanted devotions and benedictions of two of the priests of Coru Cathubodua who slept to the side of me. Fighting against the urge to stay-the-fuck-asleep, I succumbed to consciousness and made myself upright. Caffeine flowed like blessed victorious allies into my veins, and I made myself decent enough to stumble out into the wild, whacky world of the conference. I managed to get myself some coffee before the big rush down at the hotel’s Starbucks kiosk-of-waiting-doom, and then did some check-ins via phone after the welfare of my corvidkid, back East with a babysitter.

Saturday was the “fullest” day for me in terms of programming I needed to attend, including Sacrifice and Modern Paganism: A Panel Discussion which was put together by the Coru, Lupercalia 2014 which is an annual Antinoan rite performed by the Ekklesia Antinoou, and Danbala Sevis – Honoring the Serpent & the Rainbow a Haitian Vodou ceremony hosted by Mambo T’s House, Sosyete Fòs Fè Yo Wè. I met up with Corvus Cardia before the Sacrifice panel, and we snagged some fashionably-not-quite-late seats in the back left of the presentation hall. John Fucking Beckett joined us in our row, as did another dear friend (clearly we were the cool kids).

The Sacrifice panel was a fascinated set of discussions, with a very knowledgeable group of five folks: Jeffrey AlbaughCrystal BlantonDr. Amy HaleMambo T, and Sam Webster (links stolen from John Beckett’s post), and was moderated by my friend Rynn Fox. John’s summary of the panel is a good one, and it is not my interest to go blow-by-blow through the whole thing. In fact, as has been my theme with these recounts so far, I will share only my personal process and inner experience of the panel.

The panel’s description, borrowed here from the Coru’s event calendar, reads:

From offering the best wine and grain to the finest animal or tribal member to the Gods, sacrifice was a central part of many ancient cultures. But as modern Pagans we must ask ourselves: what is the role of sacrifice today? How is sacrifice relevant to our experience, and should we invest the time and energy to restore ancient sacrificial rites to their place within Pagandom? Or should we invent modern sacrificial rites, and if so, what would they entail? Explore these questions and others as we discuss the place of sacrifice within ancient and modern traditions.

Despite seeming to be focused more broadly on “general sacrifice”, the major topic of discussion seemed to be specifically on animal or blood sacrifice, with one audience member bringing up (during the Q&A segment) the subject of human sacrifice. Sam Webster stated early on that sacrifice, if anything indeed could be considered such, is perhaps the universal theme connecting religious and spiritual traditions globally and throughout human history, which I thought was a powerful, accurate and evocative statement. While he, and several others — including Crystal — spoke of “other” forms of sacrifice (such intangible-made-tangible in the form of conceived thought put to word, or social activism), the focus and charge of conversation kept circling back to animal and blood sacrifice. It was very interesting to see the group of five assembled voices address the topic, and to note that amongst them, only one (Mambo T) had performed animal sacrifice.

I found myself thinking about other conversations that I wanted to have on the subject, but made the assessment that the present venue probably wasn’t the place.  I was disappointed, I think, that the subject of “general sacrifice” was not discussed more in-depth (e.g. is there a difference between giving a gift to the gods, versus giving a sacrifice? why did so many people seem to have a recoiled response to the idea of transactional relationships? is there a difference between an offering and a sacrifice? does the value of a sacrifice increase if it is harder for the giver to acquire, or does that not matter to the spirit or god in question? how much do these things depend entirely on the tradition or path in question, etc.) and that, with animal/blood sacrifice as the clear “buzz topic”, it wasn’t addressed with more hands-on experience or specificity. Overall, I think that this conversation was an essential and necessary starting point, which ultimately took off as a fledgling from the nest without any crash-landings. From here, more steps-and-flights can be taken (through different trees, approaching the canopy…) to further explore and engage the subject.. and I look forward to seeing where it goes from here!

Next on the agenda was Lupercalia. As a Lupercai myself, I always love returning to this ritual. My initiation into the fabled ranks of lupine fellowship happened not at PantheaCon, but within (and then outside of…) my very own Thracian Temple of Night, some years ago. However, at this particular time, I felt physically unwell; travel is never kind to me, and while I as remarkably able-bodied this convention weekend, I have health issues and am generally using a cane for mobility assistance (which I wasn’t, for most of the con.) I was critically fatigued, in the “I have a chronic invisible illness, and I ran out of spoons” sort of way, and spiked a fever for a short while. One of this year’s Lupercai-to-be was a friend and family member of mine, and it was an obligation that I stay to support their process in the proceedings, otherwise I may well have needed to duck out to throw myself into a power-nap or a vat of espresso or a swimming pool or something.

The ritual itself is a powerful one, and despite some logistical snags — delays in getting the right furnishings from the hotel’s event staff, stalls and ritual modifications due to those delays, and some communication snares — this year’s expression was not lacking in potent deliverance. PSVL recounts the ritual here, and eir frustration at the logistics is clear, but I will say this: when the footrace came to a close and the energy built up through the rites coalesced and the ritual blessings — first of victory, and then the removal of defeat — were lashed out upon willing audience members, who lifted their palms to receive that which was offered, my fever fucking broke and the muscles in my face stopped twitching and the fatigue gave way to a feeling of cleansed restoration. Winged Victory struck through palms from flayed goat — as if there is any other way to know sweet victory, daughter of Styx — came and took stance at my back, which straightened out of pained slouch. She touched my shoulders and my head lifted and, fuck, I felt pretty okay. (Anyone who has suffered from chronic illness, pain, or extreme fatigue will know how rare such a wave of restorative relief is… and how much of a true blessing it really is.)

With victory assured and defeat slapped away, I found myself finally feeling the ground beneath me.

And it turned out that I would need these blessings to make it through the rest of the night…

As I would be attending the Danbala Sevis later in the evening, I was abstaining from alcohol for the day, and so I made do with 5-Hour-Energies and smoked salmon to keep myself upright and human-shaped. I changed into my ritual whites — which was quite a sight, for those who hadn’t ever seen me in that mode — for the ritual, and prepared for that with the rest of the House. There was a memorial service for Eddy scheduled  immediately before the Sevis, and there is a lot of overlap between those who were at that and those who would be attending or participating in honoring Danbala. I am told that the memorial was intensely powerful, and completely divinely profound and important; however, it also I think lent to a certain tension in the air transitioning the space for the Sevis, which was a thing that could have been logistically coordinated better by Programming. Part of the problem with an event like PantheaCon is that it is really fucking hard to coordinate all of the moving pieces; however, I think that sometimes the very real and concrete nature of some of the energies invoked and brought literally down into spaces for certain rituals is not necessarily factored into decisions of this kind. It is just not a good fucking idea to have certain sorts of events happen back-to-back in one space; but no Programming team can be on top of every single thing.

The ritual itself was powerful, and also immensely challenging for me on several levels. Danbala is amongst the biggest and most potent of the lwa (spirits) in Haitian Vodou, and is greeted and treated with a huge amount of deference and reverence. Prior to this evening, He had not come down — through spirit possession — into a priest at any event I was present for, and so to be asked to feed and greet Him when He arrived was a tremendous honor, which I hopefully didn’t fumble through too poorly. However, I will actually not be discussing the rest of the ritual in-depth here at all; Danbala had an interesting exchange with me as I knelt with Him, which — to say the least — left me spun and out of sorts. Under ideal circumstances, I — or anyone else similarly impacted by the very real and very present and very in-your-face Divinity — would have received care and intervention to alleviate some of what I was going through. (For that matter, in other sorts of ritual contexts, I would normally be one of the people doing this.) In this particular evening, however, the only Vodou priest present in the ritual was not longer present, because Danbala was riding her.

The remainder of the ritual is a blur — a thing Rhyd Wildermuth might appreciate me referring to as “Divine Trauma” later that evening, but which was equally just a state of spiritual overload and physical depletion — and my sequence in memory is mapped primarily by scattered images, shaky steps, and spinning rooms. I experienced high bouts of vertigo for the remainder of the night, feeling as though I were pressed against the head of a giant white serpent, who moved up and down through the sea and sky and heavens with such force that I was flattened and then lifted, weightless, and then pushed downward again. My equilibrium was vertically shot and I was loathe to get on an elevator — but stairs were absolutely out of the question. After the ritual was closed, and the space cleaned up, with altars and adornments moved back up to the tenth floor, I felt myself needing to not be sitting still. (The vertigo was worse when I was still.)

I found myself wandering through the halls of the hotel — probably ill-advised in my state, but we’ll take this as a “don’t try this at home” segment — and was appreciatively taken in by an ally, priest, and kinsperson some eight floors down, who spent a few minutes helping me reorient. It is humbling to be the one stumbling about, as I am so often on the other side of that, helping to ground people back into themselves and into this place and into this time, with my own feet never too terribly far from the earth beneath. But this weekend? I don’t know that I ever really landed.

Later I was blessedly collected by a supportive, nourishing presence and gathered up into the Temple of the Morrigan, where communion rites before the altar helped to calm the rise-and-fall; from serpents to ravens, I ended my evening in blessed darkness, safety, and prayerful repose.

  1. Thank you for sharing this in such detail. My life is complete now! 😉

  2. […] out my Anomalous Thracian colleague’s post on it and several other things–it’s well worth a read (as is the rest of his […]

  3. Niki says:

    I wish more people had a sacred interaction with their food. I have performed animal sacrifice: every time I cook meat or clean a fish I’ve caught. Feeding my family and guests is a sacred act and the meat I serve, may it nourish us. Is it my sacrifice? I don’t know: what did I give up? Money to purchase the meat (or the effort of fishing, when I do it). But my hands get dirty and I offer a prayer as I prepare the flesh for our nourishment. It’s not quite the same, but kind of?

    There are so many things I wish I had attended at PCon!

    • Thanks for reading, and for replying!

      Your discussion follows some of what came up in the panel. I personally have this to say, around that and other (I’ll mentioned them below) views of sacrifice: killing an animal with a prayer (or for that matter, cutting wheat with a prayer or crushing grapes with a prayer or kneading dough with a prayer) for the sake of nourishing and feeding your family, community, kinspeople, or strangers (such as a homeless shelter network, or even an animal shelter network, etc) is undeniably a sacred and important undertaking. But is it sacrifice? I would say no. But that doesn’t mean “don’t do that”; by all means, do that! Do that more!

      Sacrifice requires a component left out of these examples, which is (in my off-the-cuff estimation) the intentional act of making something sacred in the giving of it to a specific being or group, generally deities or ancestors. If I were to be hunting, say, a deer, for the sake of feeding my community, and clothing us against the winter with a skin — I actually survived this record-breakingly-cold winter with animal skins as my primary means of staying warm in my van — I would do this within a ritual context and each step of it would be in some way prayerful. But ultimately I would be stalking and killing an animal (in a sacred and lawful and spiritually balanced) fashion for my own survival. This is not a sacrifice; it is ethical spiritual hunting and killing. What could make it sacrifice? If the rites performed were dedicating the animal to a god — perhaps Sabazios — and each step was a step taken and made for Him. But hunting-or-fishing as sacrifice is itself a challenging concept, because generally speaking there is an idea of “having a thing” and “giving it away through a process of making it sacred”; in the case of hunting from the wild, we don’t “have” those animals, those fish.

      An interesting discussion would be the nuanced differences between “sacred acts of consecration or dedication” (e.g. dedicating bullets, or a whole rifle, to a deity, and using those bullets only in a sacred hunting vocation) vs more conventional “animal sacrifice” (e.g. an animal raised for the primarily purposes of feeding, whether ritually or not; a domesticated animal that is “had” and can then be respectfully “given”.) Is there a difference between a gift to the gods (e.g. flowers, a new wood carving of the god’s favored animal form) and a sacrifice? Are all offerings to be considered sacrifices? A lot of this changes tradition to tradition; blood spilled in a Heathen Blot is very different than blood spilled to Ogun in Orisa, and both are very different from an offered ox to Sabazios in Thraco-Phrygian work.

      Bringing a sense and practice of “the sacred” to things like hunting, fishing, food preparation, and so forth — these are fantastic. Do they make a thing sacrifice? I don’t think so. But maybe I am protective of the term.

      Many people practice divine sexuality within their religious practices, performing sexual actions or prescribed rituals within a religious and devotional context; in many of these cases the actions (or the resulting effects of those actions) are treated as offerings. Are they sacrifices, too? Again, I would say no; but I can’t really say why. Offerings, certainly, and devotionally given, and (depending on the deity, and the relationship between the devotee and that deity…) likely very well received in most cases. But are all offerings sacrifices?

      The discussion of sacrifice as the “act of making something sacred” is drawn from the Latin etymology, but reasonably speaking this word in the English language has been applied to cultures and practices that exist far outside the scope of Latin linguistics, and I think it is inappropriate to apply rigidly that original meaning (in the instances of, say, African or Meso-American indigenous rites), not because these things are not about “making a thing sacred” but because it implies a certain universality of intent and paradigm which I personally have observed just isn’t there. But, similarly, the idea of sacrifice as “giving something up, losing something” is not correct either, at least on its own. You hear people often say “well that wasn’t much of a sacrifice for that person, they have so much money”; does the wealth of the person really effect the deity’s preference for mutton? It gets complicated, and I think that it is important to do the best we can to actively and intentionally strip away humanistic (human-centered) considerations from the exchange, in order to understand it from the perspective of giving these things to literal beings (rather than, as is often discussed in academia, deciding that sacrifice only happens to feed the community, and the religion is just dressing to make it seem okay.)

      There is this idea that the reliance humans have on killing other animals to survive somehow stains us, dirties us, breaks us; I disagree with this passionately. This idea has fostered an academic suggestion that animal death is brought into religious context only as a sort of salvation or comfort to us as humans, who otherwise would look upon our bloodied hands with shame and guilt and terror. There is nothing shameful or guilty or terrible about any of the deaths that my hands have brought into this world. (Perhaps this would be otherwise if we didn’t have skilled slaughterers, but, then, an unskilled hand has no business holding a knife.)

      I am tired of explanations of religion that focus upon the human, as if it is inconceivable that the human elements actually evolved socially and organically around the sacred contexts.

      Fuck humanism.

      When I perform an animal sacrifice, humans — as many close knit humans or strangers in need as I can find — are fed. There is a feast. Or two. Or fucking eight. But I don’t kill an animal for a feast, I don’t perform the sacrifice because of human things; I do so for my gods. Our human reliance upon the meat of those animals is also true, and so the feast happens as well. When I drive my van, my tires press hard against the road, traction is (hopefully obtained) and the vehicle is propelled forward; the objective here is to get from one place to another. It is not to press four rubber donuts against the pavement. That one must happen for the other to be achieved is true, and that one is the intentional motive does not discount the reality of the other, but I would say that it is clear that automobiles were not likely invented because people enjoyed the act of pressing rubber to road, but rather from an interest in expedient transportation. The motive of transportation doesn’t change the reality of traction and rubber and pavement, but these are peripheral. To me, feeding an animal — or a glass of wine, or a sprayed swig of rum — to my gods or spirits is not about the human elements (e.g. feasting, drinking, celebrating, dancing, fucking), and even if those things accompany the deed (which they usually do, and should) they are peripheral to the relationship between myself, the thing being given, and the deity I hope will receive it.

      I think.


      • Niki says:

        Thank you for such a detailed and thoughtful reply. I in no way mean to ignore sacrifice to the gods, nor assume that the human elements of a holistic life are more ‘holy’ than action taken on behalf of gods or spirits. Not at all. And again, I wasn’t present at this panel, so I’ve surely missed out on the nuances of the discussion.

        Your point is well made about the focus being on the relationship between gods and the human, not about the human to human relationship. Though I do really like these lines of yours:

        “There is this idea that the reliance humans have on killing other animals to survive somehow stains us, dirties us, breaks us; I disagree with this passionately. This idea has fostered an academic suggestion that animal death is brought into religious context only as a sort of salvation or comfort to us as humans, who otherwise would look upon our bloodied hands with shame and guilt and terror. ”

        I suspect you and I are on the same page about this topic of sacrifice.

        • I hope my response didn’t come across as counter or correcting to yours; I wasn’t trying to attack your position at all. (Tone doesn’t always get communicated well in quick, unproofed comments!) Your discussion of hunting and fishing actually echoes some of the major dialogue that came up amongst folks who were at the panel, afterward: it would have been an entirely different discussion if there had been a hunter involved.

          There is this fascinating idea that “killing is inherently wrong and bad”, whether it is in pursuit of sustenance, sacrifice, or otherwise. Certainly there are a whole host of wrong and bad forms of killing (e.g “Wow, that’s a cat in the road! I have a truck! VROOOM!”) but by and large I think that our culture has just a broken relationship to death and dying that it skews everything, even in discussions that aren’t necessarily against such practices.

          Does death carry a very potent “energy” or spiritual significance? Of course it does. So does an orgasm, a life-saving tackle-out-of-traffic, a heated but constructive debate between intellectual rivals, and fucking giving birth. ALL of these are examples of things that a spiritual-savvy person would want to take note of the “spiritual temperature” of, and adjust accordingly, through acts of ritual cleansing, cooling, or even withdrawing/incubation for a period of returning-to-even. The ending of life is, to me, not significantly different than the delivering of new life into this world: both can be immensely traumatic, neither is for everyone, but for those who are specialists in a given vocation and training? No stain, no cloud or miasmic “blech” follows neonatal surgeons around, why should it follow one who performs ethical, balanced animal sacrifice?

      • I really appreciate what you’ve written in this comment, especially about the complicated relationship between the two meanings of the word “sacrifice” and the need to “actively and intentionally strip away humanistic (human-centered) considerations from the exchange.”

  4. Soli says:

    Coming back to read this and now going to be thinking a lot about sacrifices vs. gifts. Also so glad to see your comments about the reluctance of blood offerings. Have my own set of thoughts on this, given my dietary choices, and one of these days I need to put them together in a coherent matter.

    So thank you.

  5. […] The Sanctification according to Anomalous Thracian The Rest of Friday and Saturday Lupercalia 2014 Lupercalia (and other things) according to Anomalous Thracian “Pagans and Privilege” Panel with T. Thorn Coyle and a Kick-Ass Panel! Mega-Patheos […]

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