The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Posted: October 19, 2014 in Uncategorized

So recently the subject of sacrifice came up in a pocket of the Polytheist world, and as is often this case, this brought with it some level of controversy. Inevitably when this came up somebody had to spit out the accusatory, “would you kill a human if your gods asked you to?” This is a thing that happens nearly every time: the suggestion that if a person is willing to kill a goat or a rooster for their gods, because it is asked for or demanded, that they must be so weak-willed and unstable that they would obviously also kill their neighbors or friends or strangers, “because the voices told them to”.There are ways to discuss this very important topic, and indeed those conversations need to take places. But those are not the general prompts I am presently responding to, nor unfortunately are they the norm. (Though, they should be.) However, vague and passive-aggressive disdainful linking of legitimate living-and-lived religious relationships to death, as in the case of animal sacrifice, to things like mental illness and instability as a casual gestural thing is disgusting and debased. This tactic is offensive, ignorant, and meant only to derail and discourage discussion, and it frames the opposition to this human-centric “fauxgressive” voice of “reason” as being savage, sadistic, and unhinged. 

Well fuck that. “Progress” isn’t drone-warfare and a drug-addled prescription “paradise” generation deprived of free expression as penalty for being outside of a statically conformist mold. “Progress” isn’t the hypocrisy of our modern meat industry, or the corporations who govern global economics for profit on the backs and souls of workers and children. “Progress” isn’t blind. You, who spit this venom, apparently are.

Anyway, I chime in a bit, on the subject of human sacrifice, which I feel uniquely qualified to do, as I was in fact myself a human sacrifice.

For the TL;DR folks:

Nobody is suggesting that the gods have asked for human sacrifice in the way that you mean it, and it is in fact most likely that we are not as a species even worthy of such as that. Not because we have “progressed” (we haven’t, we’re just better liars today), but because we’re literally so removed from the idea of death — good death or bad — that we can’t possibly do those things cleanly. And this is not “progress”.

I am not advocating for human sacrifice. None of us is. But stop rubbing the stink of your ignorance of what “death” is all over the carpets of actual enlightened religious practice. Nobody is suggesting that all must adhere to practices that require sacrifice, but to suggest in turn that those of us involved in traditions for whom the ethical treatment of death — which is literally the only sacred universal quality of life shared at every level — are the equivalent of horror-movie tropes is offensive, stupid, and out-of-bounds.

EDITS: Edited opening text to clarify that I am not against discussing this in mature and level fashion, and in fact encourage these. I am wanting to be clear that I am critically responding to those who use the suggestion of human sacrifice, especially as an extension of animal sacrifice, to derail a subject and defame those speaking counter to their views.

  1. For what it’s worth, I personally think that the question “So what about human sacrifice?” is a completely valid one. And during the sacrifice panel last year at PantheaCon, when an audience member brought up that question, I actually didn’t at all read it as intended to derail or obstruct the conversation. I read it in the same spirit in which I myself often ask or bring up that question. That being the following:
    Look, we know lethal human sacrifice has been practiced by many cultures which have been simultaneously deeply intellectual, artistic and literate. We cannot simply dismiss it as brutal barbarism. So let’s talk about it. Hey, you’re discussing animal sacrifice in a public forum which really doesn’t happen all that often. Can we talk about human sacrifice too?

    Totally valid equation in my mind when it’s brought up in that way. Which I grant you it often is not, but my point is it’s not always brought up for the wrong reasons, and I am in favor of taking every opportunity to educate people about context for all these things. When that young Heathen guy brought it up at the panel, I was standing right behind him in the line of commenters, because I myself was going to ask the exact same thing. And I am no bomb-thrower.

    Talking about it allows us an opportunity to also point out that we ARE practicing human sacrifice in our civilization, but a hideously distorted and desacralized form of it. I want us to have that conversation.

  2. I have seen it brought it for the right reasons (as you’ve pointed out), and maybe I wasn’t as clear as I needed to be in my response here. I’m not against talking about it, at all.

    What I am against is people who bring it up specifically to both derail the subject AND discredit supporters of any practice of lethal sacrifice, which also happened at that panel at PantheaCon… by one of the panelists.

    Discussing these topics, both historically and in present sense and tense, is essential. The actual intentionally mature approach is not what I’m responding to; I am going to make edits to reflect this. Thank you!

  3. 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.

    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.

    On the other hand, I have also seen the use of questions about human sacrifice used in the spirit Morpheus is describing. There, we need open discussions of the nature of our diverse ancient societies and the cultural, economic, and institutional settings in which human sacrifices took place, so we can really understand it and convey that understanding. In this discussion, the voices of those who have experienced selection by the Gods and willing human sacrifice are absolutely essential.

    There is however, another aspect of your argument, and Sannion’s earlier column, that I can only cheer on as loudly as possible. Both of do a magnificent job of wreaking havoc on the notion that we are somehow more “advanced” than our ancestors. This has a special meaning to me, because I remember the days of nuclear terror and carpet-bombing entire cities of Vietnamese civilians in the name of defending civilization. (And, to be fair, or another side in the War being just as ruthless.) No matter how blood-stained our ancestors’ hands, they didn’t plot the systematic genocide of entire continents as a strategy of war, or maintain stockpiles of carefully cultivated plagues.

  4. I have been reading this at various blogs. I wonder if the idea of human sacrifice as a detrailer is one of the slippery slope. If we do this, then we will do that. All ethics are relative and community based, therefore if the community wants it, it will get it. However, as various people has pointed out, many communities past and present have replaced human sacrifices with animal ones. But, voluntary human sacrifice is still being practised ranging from the grotesque suicide bombers to the selfless individual who races into a raging fire to save a life. I believe that Christians refer to it as martyrdom, dying for the faith (i.e. for the Christian God).

    It is too bad that we cannot rationally discuss these topics without a reaction of “O the horror, the horror of it all.” My personal view is that folks who express this may still have minds clouded by the monotheistic filter, which also unfortunately for me includes colonial attitudes. (Oh no, I have I haven’t open up another can of worms, have I?.)

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