I am a part of three separate traditions that practice some form of animal sacrifice, one of which is an ancestral tradition in which I was born and raised. I must admit, I have gone back and forth about whether or not to write this article, and I have reservations about having this published. But it occurred to me that most of the conversations about animal sacrifice that I’ve been privy to have been very theoretical, lacking in actual explanations of what these practices entail. And I have heard incredibly problematic statements made about who is engaging in these practices, and what kinds of threats we pose to the larger community. While I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this, it has been pointed out to me that, as a person who was raised within some of these traditions and who actively participates in these traditions, I may have some unique perspective to bring to this conversation by talking about my own personal experiences. Basically, when you are talking about “those evil/misguided/clinically psychotic/wannabe edgy hipsters” who practice traditions that include animal sacrifice, you are talking about me.
I want to start by discussing the tradition in which I was born and raised: Judaism. You may not know this, but Jews still practice animal sacrifice. I am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. I need this piece of information to be voiced first. My grandparents came to the US in 1950, after a number of years in concentration camps and several more years living in refuge camps, where they met and were married. I was raised with the very real spectre of anti-Semitism – my entire family bears the spiritual and emotional scars of the Holocaust; my still-living grandmother bears the physical scars as well. I need to voice this because I need you, the reader, to understand that I am not angry at the possibility that you might judge me and my people for engaging in these practices, I am not insulted or offended at the ways you might judge me. I am terrified of your judgment, afraid of what your judgment of my people and our practices may mean for what you might feel justified in doing to me, or what you would allow to be done to me and my people. And I feel justified in this fear. I am afraid to talk about this because I am afraid of the possibility of being subjected to violence, threats, loss of job, loss of protections. There are things that my Jewish community generally does not discuss with outsiders, for fear of violence or persecution: animal sacrifice is one of those things.
Animal sacrifice is an important part of Judaism; it always has been and it still is. As I understand it having grown up in this culture, our laws of Kashrut are based in part on the idea that meat from an animal that was not properly offered to G-d first is an abomination and not fit for consumption by Jewish people. Blood and life force are properties that are reserved for G-d alone; humans eat the meat once it’s been properly blessed and prepared. To kill an animal without first sanctifying it is to commit a violent and senseless act, to waste a life. Life is precious, and the taking of a life, even for the purpose of nourishment, is something to be done with the utmost respect, reverence and care. For those Jews who keep kosher, this puts us at odds with mainstream American dietary sensibilities – we see your commercially produced meat (even your ethically raised organic grass fed meat) as ritually unclean, because the animal was not properly sanctified and blessed. It’s not because we culturally think blood is gross, it’s because we culturally believe life is sacred, blood contains the life force, and blood and life force are to be consumed by G-d alone.
But kosher animal slaughter is not the only type of animal sacrifice done in Judaism. We also have spiritual cleansing rituals done annually prior to Yom Kippur among some of the more religious Jews that involve the slaughter of a chicken as part of the ritual. Many Jews do not participate in this ritual (heck, many secular Jews don’t even know that these rituals exist and are available in the US), but this ritual is still done. The men in my family try and attend this ritual annually, when timing allows.
You may be wondering why I am starting with my experiences of Judaism, when Judaism is not a polytheistic nor pagan tradition. The reason I start here is because some of the arguments I have heard against animal sacrifice seem to imply that those who engage in animal sacrifice are somehow psychotic, dangerous, mentally ill, or savage and backwards. Again, these types of arguments against sacrifice are precisely why many Jews are afraid to talk about our practices to outsiders. World War II didn’t exactly inspire confidence for us as a people in our fellow non-Jewish neighbors, and accusations of savagery and barbarism have been used to justify violence against us quite a lot in our history. When you levy these kinds of accusations against folks who practice religious animal sacrifice, you are making, in part, an anti-Semitic argument.
But the other reason I start with my tradition of origin is because it was in part due to my upbringing that parts of Heathenry felt familiar and comfortable for me. I found the fact that some Heathens were experimenting with bringing back humane and ethical animal sacrifice into reconstructed ritual practices to be familiar and comfortable. I felt this familiarity even more so when I found my way into Santeria, a tradition that has maintained an unbroken tradition of animal sacrifice. In my experience, those traditions which engage in sacrificial practices tend to have overall a greater respect for animals, a greater respect for the dignity and sacredness of life, of the taking of life, and of the process of eating.
I initiated as a priest of Ochun in July 2011. Santeros are notoriously private and secretive about our religious practices. Much of this is because our tradition includes both animal sacrifice and trance possession, two spiritual practices that are often harshly judged by outsiders to our tradition. Animal sacrifice is judged by outsiders as savage, cruel and backwards, while trance possession is seen as playacting or hysteria at best and the sign of dangerous psychosis at worst. And to be very blunt, part of why I can talk about these practices (part of why I can write this article) is due to my own white privilege. Most of the other folks in my House are first or second generation American citizens, legal and illegal immigrants; many of them are monolingual Spanish-speakers. Out of respect and protectiveness, I will not name any of my co-religionists – I would not want to put any of their safety at risk for being publicly identified as Santeros. You see, we are also judged by the same disgust and disdain currently being thrown at those Polytheists who choose to include animal sacrifice in their practices. And when I say “judged”, I mean folks risk losing jobs, housing, custody of their children, or having immigration called on them for practicing our religion. I am a third generation American citizen (second generation born on US soil), I am a native English speaker and I have light skin privilege; I am not as vulnerable to these risks as some of my friends are. But due in part to these very real fears, most Santeros will not publicly identify themselves as Santeros, and most will not associate themselves with the broader Pagan and Polytheist communities. Why would we, when these communities disapprove of our practices, and when that disapproval puts some of us at risk for being at the receiving end of significant negative consequences?
I have heard the argument made that reconstructionist Polytheists who engage in ritual animal sacrifice are problematic, while those who are part of African Diasporic or Derived Traditions and African Traditional Religions get a “pass”, as though somehow letting us “off the hook” for our practice of animal sacrifice makes the speaker “enlightened” or more “understanding” of traditional religions. These kinds of arguments are racist and offensive. It is as though you are saying to us, “European traditions, and the (mostly) white people who practice them, should know better – Europeans are supposed to be more enlightened. Traditions primarily being practiced by African, African American, and Latino folks can get a pass because we already know those folks are unenlightened savages”. This is far more offensive than if you simply condemned the practice of animal sacrifice across the board. This may not be what you mean, but this is what we hear when you say it.
I have heard the argument made that animal sacrifice is some kind of “slippery slope” to human sacrifice. This is as absurd as claiming that eating bacon is a slippery slope to cannibalism, and speaks more to the way the speaker has framed the world than those who engage in these practices. In all of the traditions in which I participate, animal sacrifice is an occasional practice, done for very specific religious reasons and done according to very specific rules and procedures. In Judaism, animal sacrifice is an integrated part of how we religiously and respectfully prepare our food, and is done for spiritual cleansing. In Santeria, there are very strict rules for how and when sacrifices happen – even the size, color, age and gender of an animal are factors in which animals are selected for which religious purposes. There are strict rules for how animals are handled before, during and after the sacrifice. And only someone who has been specially trained and sanctioned is permitted to perform these sacrifices. And in Heathenry, where some individuals and groups are experimenting with bringing some of these practices back, these are livestock animals who are humanely and respectfully slaughtered by folks who have experience with such slaughter, then prepared as food for the community.
Of the three traditions in which I participate, Heathenry is the only one which does not have an unbroken tradition of animal sacrifice (though there is no shortage of both written and archaeological evidence of animal sacrifice being an important component of worship to folks across Europe). In Heathenry, I have seen animal sacrifice happen in one of three ways. Some kindreds or worship groups will sometimes pool their money together and pay a local rancher in advance for part or all of a pig or steer (there are a number of small family farms that will let groups of folks do this). Either when the money is collected, or when the animal is due for slaughter, the group does a dedication to a god or gods, designating the animal as a sacrifice. Sometimes some or all of the group may go to the ranch and witness or participate in the slaughter; sometimes this is all done from a distance. The group receives the meat, which is then used as part of a feast to honor that deity or holiday. The second way I have seen this process happen is by heathens who are living on farms and who slaughter their own livestock – when an animal is to be slaughtered to feed their families or community, they say prayers over the animal before slaughtering it, dedicating its blood and its death to their gods. The third way I have seen this process happen is when individuals or groups commission an expert to perform the sacrifice for them. When those sacrifices are performed, again generally the sacrificed animals are butchered and used for food, or parts of the animal may be taxidermied or tanned and used for ritual items (such as a rooster wing or a goat skin). In all three of these scenarios, the animals in question are livestock animals who are blessed and respected, humanely slaughtered, and used for food, leather or parts.
I want to talk more about the importance of recognizing what personal narrative you bring to the animal sacrifice conversation. Especially in pagan circles, I find most folks tend to think that whatever they and their friends believe and do is what they consider to be “normal” for all pagans to believe and do. This personal narrative becomes problematic when we remember that the “pagan” community is actually a very large umbrella that includes folks of a multitude of beliefs, traditions and practices, including atheists who work with archetypes for personal elevation, folks who have a reverence for “nature” without necessarily identifying individual entities, folks who believe in the existence of or worship gods and/or spirits, folks who engage in magical practices, folks who believe all gods and goddesses can be categorized by gender and worshipped as aspects of a great God and a great Goddess, and folks who like to hang out with other folks who are scantily clad and getting drunk in the woods, as well as many other permutations of belief and practice. All of these individuals and more are doing valid and legitimate paths, however one absolutely cannot assume any of these folks share a common narrative or set of practices.
Here’s where this narrative/framing conversation becomes important. If you, for example, are coming from an ideology that says the gods and spirits are symbols and metaphors to inspire humans to reach their highest potential, of course animal sacrifice makes no sense in your ideology. The gods and spirits are stories – you wouldn’t perform this kind of devotional act to feed a story. You might perform symbolic acts to feed a story, but animal sacrifice wouldn’t make any sense in this frame. Another example of this might be if your spiritual path includes strict veganism, and you endeavor to neither eat food derived from animals nor wear clothing or use other animal derived items. For this person, animal sacrifice would be exactly as nonsensical as eating hamburgers, using lanolin-based hand cream, or wearing leather shoes.
However, when a person’s frame is a religious one, where sacrifice is done as a means of honoring deities and gifting blood and life force to a power that exists outside of oneself (and who, traditionally, was or is honored that way), there are checks and balances already built into this frame. In my Jewish frame, for my people to slaughter an animal without blessing and sanctifying it first is an abomination and a violent, wasted death, deeply disrespectful to both the animal who is being slaughtered and to the G-d of my people. In my Santeria frame, these are old ritual technologies that have been passed down through generations, intended for specific ritual purposes, and the animals are treated more respectfully and more humanely than animals thoughtlessly slaughtered for food or products. In my Heathen frame, especially for those Heathens who are living in rural settings anyway, ritually slaughtering their livestock is a more honorable and respectful way to procure their food than simply slaughtering without sanctifying first. And for those of us who are not living in rural settings, animal sacrifice is a way for us to honor our gods in traditional and meaningful ways, reconnecting the act of procuring, preparing and eating food to honoring our gods and blessing our communities. How could any of these scenarios be seen as criminal, violent, savage, backwards, or clinically insane?
I understand that animal sacrifice is a charged topic for many people. I hope that perhaps by talking more openly about what my own practices and experiences have been, folks have an opportunity to peek into my world and see that those of us who engage in these practices are not all crazy violent primitive savages. If we are to move forward as a multi-faith community of pagans and polytheists, we need to find ways to support one another’s traditions, whether we agree with them or not. We do not need to all practice the same way, we do not need to all believe the same things, we don’t even necessarily need to understand what others are doing entirely. But racist, ethnocentric, close-minded attacks and accusations of savagery, insanity and violence levied against those of us who engage in these practices are not ways to facilitate multi-faith community cohesion. Much of mainstream US society already doesn’t trust pagan and polytheist folks. Attacking members of our own communities because of differences in practices and beliefs only serves to further divide us, and does not make us more “palatable” or “acceptable” to mainstream monotheistic or atheistic sensibilities. I look forward to the day when we can all find some common ground in our multi-faith community identity, and get one another’s backs in a culture that would vilify us for our beliefs and practices. Perhaps if we put faces and descriptions of actual practices to the boogey man of animal sacrifice, the idea of animal sacrifice will seem less horrifying to those of you who don’t have any lived experience with these traditions.