Joyous Madness, October 21, 2014
Dr. Strangegod, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My God.
There has been a lot of talk about animal sacrifice over the last short while in certain corners of Dionysian Polytheism. I have spent most of that few days reading, doing divination, and talking to Sannion, founder of the Thiasos of the Starry Bull, about the subject. The Thiasos, for those not in the know, is a fairly new Bacchic Orphic tradition centered on the revitalization and retelling of the Orphic mysteries (those founded by the poet and prophet Orpheus).
Most of those conversations have been calm, respectful, and polite. It’s a hot issue, and not one to be taken lightly– no matter what side of the coin you stand on, I think we can ALL agree that this isn’t something to be flip about. For the last few days, my coin has been precariously balanced on its edge, not falling to one side or another, until it fell over last night in the wee hours of the morning, as I sat on the couch with my cat, unable to sleep for the worry that was clutching at me.
When the topic was first broached in Thursday’s Thiasos chat, everyone seemed pretty much okay with it. No complaints, just a few questions. I didn’t say anything right away, but here’s what was happening on my side of the screen: jaw slack, stomach threatening to return my dinner, hands shaking and sweaty. I didn’t say any of that at the time– what I said (to my recollection) was something along the lines of, “I’m going to have to think long and hard about that before I decide if I’m okay with it.” And the reaction was… positive. Sannion asked me to voice my objections, if I felt comfortable with it, and some of them I could voice (how is the animal treated, etc.), but some were simply gut reactions that I didn’t understand myself.
I was a vegetarian for 11 months in college. That probably would have lasted longer if I’d had options other than tater tots and whatever “fruit” the cafeteria was serving that day. Towards the end of those months, I had a series of long talks over the phone with my dad, who happens to have a degree in Poultry Science (and, consequently, worked at a feed mill/slaughterhouse for chickens for a number of years before he joined the military). He explained to me the mechanics of slaughter. I read the science and looked into my own misconceptions about the biology behind pain, consciousness, and our own evolutionary progress as related to our digestion. And I came to the conclusion that yeah, a LOT of what we’re eating is CRAP, and we really do need to be more careful about what we ingest and how we treat the animals (and plants!) that we consume, but there’s nothing intrinsically WRONG with eating meat. I had a hot dog yesterday. It was delicious.
So, towards the end of the chat, I asked if anyone would do divination for me, as I was uneasy and unsure of my future of the Thiasos. I got two responses that night, both of which emphasized the need to think about my ancestry– and to think about how my family would feel about the slaughter of animals. Now, my family isn’t pagan, by a long shot– they hate that part of me. But they are, for the most part, farmers: pig farmers, chicken farmers, I think there are a few cow farmers somewhere in there. Both sides of my family. It’s not strange, for my grandparents, for my cousins who did 4H, for any of my family to think “Dinner’s in a few hours, I should go grab a chicken” and have that chicken still be alive while they’re thinking that thought. It’s just a non-issue. It was a part of life.
I’ve heard arguments that “we don’t need to kill for our food anymore,” but… that’s not entirely true. For the chicken farmer who only has his chickens, it’s a lot of times cheaper and easier to kill a couple chickens to feed your 12 children (as was the case for BOTH my dad’s parents) than it was to go out and BUY someone else’s produce. And if you traded your chickens FOR that produce, it was with the full knowledge that those chickens were going to be eaten.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and go one by one through the arguments I’ve seen presented, on either side of the coin. I’m not interested in arguments, and I don’t have the emotional capacity for that kind of stress. When my Facebook thread on this topic started getting heated, I deleted it. I just don’t have it in me to even watch those arguments at this time. There are only three things I’m going to address directly: my own divination, the topic of human sacrifice (and where I agree with the Anomalous Thracian on that), and where I stand now.
I use the Greek Alphabet oracle for divination purposes. A lot of the Thiastai use dice rolls and long lists of phrases, but I like the Greek Alphabet– for one, I can carry it in my pocket, and it’s easier to remember. It is, however, harder to interpret, even more so when you’re doing it for yourself and you’re terrified of the answer. So, I asked four questions, and pulled four answers:
“What will be my role within the Thiasos?”
–Omicron: There are no crops to be reaped which were not sown.
–Interpreted: Put in the work to get the result. Standing on the sidelines will merit you nothing, sowing the crops will feed and nourish you and your family.
“What is the nature of the sacrifice desired by me?”
–Zeta: Flee the great storm, lest you be disabled in some way.
-Interpreted: Zeta is the symbol of Zeus. Zeus scares the everloving shit out of me (as do Poseidon and Hades, for that matter). But this symbol, in this particular reading, read as more of a “let go of that which no longer serves you” than anything else. In this case, given the mindset and the prayers from before the start of the divination, I believe this to be a caution against preconceptions.
“Should I receive the benefits of a sacrificial animal?”
–Theta: You have the helping gods of this path.
-Interpretation: “Hon, you’re worrying too much. We’ve got this.” This was the symbol that inspired the punful title of the post, actually. It’s been coming up a lot for me lately, and almost always with a strong connection to Dionysos himself. A similar reading came from one of the aforementioned divinations from another Thiasos member: “Dionysos won’t get angry at you whatever you choose. In fact, your free choice is preferred.“
“Should I continue the work I am doing within the Thiasos of the Starry Bull?”
–Alpha: The God (Apollo) says you will do everything successfully.
-Interpretation: “Hon. WE’VE GOT THIS.” Alpha is one of the few universally positive symbols within the set. As a friend of mine stated in one of her interpretations, “Stop second guessing yourself and just act already.”
Did it happen in the past? Yes. Even if there’s some question about the Gauls (given that the only cases of it happening there were written by their enemies, Julius Caesar in particular), there’s no question that it happened amongst the Greeks, PARTICULARLY within the Bacchic cults. You can’t read 3 (thousand) stories about maenads dismembering someone and not recognize that it is a tradition strongly rooted in blood– even if you don’t take the myths literally, which I don’t, people still died. It happened. Dionysos himself was dismembered on at least one occasion, and died more times than I can count. He’s not all wine and sex and wild parties, and to characterize him in that manner is either ignorance of myth (which is certainly excusable, especially if you’re new to this whole thing) or WILLFUL ignorance (which in my book really ISN’T that excusable). Does Dionysos call everyone to blood and gore? Of course not. We’re not all formed from the same mold, and we’re not all given the same gifts. Calling everyone to the same path religiously is like telling every artist they have to be a banker– some of them might have side skills they can use for it, but most of them are going to be uncomfortable with it. And that’s perfectly okay.
The main question for me is this: do the gods still require or request human sacrifice? Short answer… no. Long answer… kinda. The Anomalous Thracian commented on Sannion’s post about the matter with something I’m just going to quote verbatim:
“If the gods required human sacrifice of us today, as they did lawfully call for in the past, they would have ensured that we had the priests and paradigms to see these things returned. They have not, nor does it seem that is is likely to change anytime soon. We literally don’t have priests for those rituals, even if we had the rituals themselves required of us. And, as is ALWAYS stated on the subject of sacrifice, it is better to not do something at all than to do it wrongly, unjustly, without skill or training or lawful place. And the reality is, we simply do not have that job or role any longer in any tradition that I know of in Polytheist religion, today.”
Do the gods require human sacrifice? No. Do they request it? Sometimes. Does it involve someone standing over an unwilling victim holding a knife and chanting in some dead language? HELL no. A lot of what Sannion has addressed is the idea of consent– an animal is not sacrificed if it doesn’t consent, end of story. Because we don’t speak the languages of these animals, we use divination and body language to determine that consent. With humans, though, consent is different– we know our own consciousness, and I firmly believe that the ONLY person who can or should give your life for the gods is YOU, and ONLY as a last resort, when you have been psychologically evaluated and determined to be of sound mind. Sannion gave a 99.5% probability of that not ever happening – I’d give it more of a 99.9% probability of not happening.
I will never, ever, willingly take the life of another human being. I know this. My gods know this. If they ask me to do so, even if the person is willing, even then… I will tell them no. The only god I’m close enough to who would even get away with asking that sort of thing in jest is Dionysos, and like Markos Gage has pointed out, this is a god who pushes our boundaries… but doesn’t go past them, so long as they are set.
If, in some break with reality the leadership of our tradition states that we, as a Thiasos, need to accept or participate in the sacrifice of another human being, I will challenge that person, per our stated rules, for authority over the Thiasos. Failing that, I will leave. End of story. As the omens said… my choice is my choice, and it is preferred for my path that I follow my own choice. That may sound extreme, but this is one area where I won’t compromise. If someone gives their life in service to the gods (either intentionally, walking into a situation where they know they will likely die, or as part of performing some sort of service whereby they are accidentally killed), then I will respect and honor them as a martyr. But I will not knowingly cause their death.
My fears have been allayed. A combination of knowledge of the ritual itself (specifically, how the animal is killed, how the divination is done to determine consent, and the level of involvement I need to personally take) and my own divination has shown me that my choice and my gut are paramount for me, personally.
I choose to stay. I choose to receive the benefits of a humane animal sacrifice, though I have determined that I will never be the one performing the sacrifice. And not only do I choose to stay, I choose to progress: not on the sidelines, but as an active participant in a growing tradition. I could not be happier or more proud to be part of a tradition where disagreement is treated with respect, where I need not be afraid to say, “I’m feeling something weird about this and I don’t know why.” I could not be more blessed to have a space wherein I can examine my own preconceptions and let go of those that no longer serve me. And whatever my specific calling may be, whatever gifts I have that can be used, I will give those, freely, as my choice offering to the gods, and to the community.
That is my sacrifice.
About the Author:
Joyous Madness is a student in the Midwest. She has been a polytheist-pagan for 8 years and a devotee of Dionysos for 3. She enjoys wine, wit, and complex theological dilemmas. Her personal blog can be found at joyousmadness.blogspot.com.