Articles by River Devora

River Devora

River Devora is a multi-trad spirit worker, healer, Gydhja, Seidhkona and Santera. She has been an active member of the Bay Area pagan and polytheist communities since the early 1990s, and has led classes, rituals, workshops and other programs locally and nationally. In 2013, she founded South Bay Heathen Shenanigans, a ritual and learning group for folks interested in the spirituality, magic and folkways of pre-Christian Northern Europe. She initiated as a community priestess with Waxing Muse Coven in 1996, initiated as a priest of Ochun in 2011, and has oaths of dedication sworn to Odin, Freyr, Loki, Juksakka, and the Morrigan. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her extended human, animal and spirit family.

Hreda and Eostre, The Goddesses That Bless This Time of Year

Blessed Hredmonath to all! Hredmonath was the pagan Anglo-Saxon name for the month of March according to the Venerable Bede in his *De Temporum Ratione*. According to Bede, the Anglo-Saxons sacrificed to their goddess Hreda during this time. Interestingly, the Christian holiday Easter ends up falling during the month of Hredmonath, when to the ancient Anglo-Saxons, it was the month of April (Eosturmonath) that was named for their goddess Eostre.

The only recorded information we have about either goddess is from Bede, and all he tells us is that March was Hreda’s month, April was Eostre’s. Other than Eostre’s name being preserved in the name of the Christian holiday, there is virtually no other recorded information about either goddess. We don’t have any surviving information about stories or myths, attributes, associations, relationships, functions, nor anything else really.

We know Eostre’s name cognates to the English word East (Shaw, 55). Because of this, Grimm postulated that she was a goddess associated with the dawn and the rising sun, and theorized an equivalent Germanic goddess whom he named Ostara (Grimm, 1882: 290). Theories abound trying to connect Eostre to the Matronae Austriahenae (over 150 inscriptions have been found near Morken-Harff, Germany), but from a scholarly perspective it is unclear whether or not there is a connection (Shaw, 52)

As for Hreda, we know even less. Her name does not neatly cognate to anything else, though there are a number of words that may be related. Possible related words include words meaning quick (hreð), goatskin or possibly a goatskin garment/mantle (hreða), to rejoice (hrêðan), fierce (hrêðe), and glory or victory (hrêð) (Shaw, 74). There are also related words such as scildhrêoða and bordhrêoða, both referring to the ornamentation or covering of a shield (with the hrêoða element implying a covering or an ornamentation) (Shaw, 76). Most compelling however is the name Hreðgotan, a name applied to the Goths and found in two Old English poems (Shaw, 87). The interesting and compelling bit here is the possibility that Hreda was such a significant goddess of the Gothic tribes that they were referred to as Hreda’s Goths. It is worth noting as well that the name Goth comes from the same root word as Godhi (an Old Norse term for a priest and chieftan) and God (Lehmann, 164).

The Goths were most likely a whole culture that thrived from about the middle of the first millennium BC, and possibly originated in southern Sweden (Wolfram, 16-35). According to Isidore of Seville, they were of the same race as the Getae, Thracian tribes originating from the regions found on either side of the Danube River in what is today Northern Bulgaria and Southern Romania. In their heyday, the Goths controlled a vast swath of Europe from the Danube to the Ural mountains, and from the Black to the Baltic Sea.

So where does that leave us? My personal work with these goddesses is entirely based on direct contact with them. For me, I understand Hreda as a goddess of hearth and home. I understand her as governing that felt sense of being in your own home. This concept of the idealized home is very powerful – this is the home that a soldier will go to battle to defend, and will die in defense of their home. Home is where we return to refresh and renew, where we are nourished and healed. Home, for many people (and more so for folks from older times), is where we were more likely to be born and where we may die. Home is where we sleep, where we are supported and loved. For me, Hreda holds all of this. For me, she also stands at the threshold of that idealized home and can help us to transition into whatever we need to be when we are out in the world, and transition back when we return home – she can help us put on our armor to deal with the rest of the world, and help us take it back off when we don’t need it any more.

Eostre, for me, is the early rush of spring, the renewal and rebirth that rapidly expands outward as the weather warms up. She holds the ecstatic energy of seeds bursting open, of animals giving birth, of ice melting and warmth returning. If Hreda holds the potential and the quiet renewal of home, Eostre holds the spark of a new season, the curiosity and wanderlust that awakens as more mild weather arrives. Eostre sends us back out of our homes to explore our worlds, the rising sun, the returning sun and the lengthening days that shines light on all manner of things. Eostre is the enthusiasm that sends us out exploring; Hreda is the comfort that we return to once we’ve done that exploration.

So for this Hredmonath, may we remember she whose name was nearly forgotten. Hail and blessings to Hreda, mother of the Goths, she who brings glory and speed. Hail lady of transitions, who holds the hope of spring in the end of winter. Hail to the bringer of victory, who holds the memory of home even when we are far away. Every bear has its den, every bird its nest. May she bless you with the warmth and safety of your own hearth, even if that hearth lives only as a dream inside your heart. May you have food on your table, loving caresses in your bed, and a warm safe place to hang your hat. Hail Hreda!

And as we transition from Hredmonath to Eosturmonath, with the celebration of that Christian holiday who derives its name from this much older Goddess, blessings and hail to Eostre, sister of Hreda. May the return of sun and mild weather awaken curiosity and hunger for experience. Lady, awaken the seeds so they may rise up! Awaken the animals whose kits and cubs and lambs may continue the legacy of their species! Shake us loose from our stuck places, thaw the ice that has kept us stationary and still. All hail the rising sun, the coming of spring. Hail Eostre! Hail the sisters, who send us out into the world to explore and learn, and receive us back home with open arms when we return victorious!


Bede, De Temporum Ratione. Wallis, Faith (Trans.). Liverpool University Press, 2004.

Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology: Translated from the Fourth Edition with Notes and Appendix Vol I & II. London: George Bell and Sons, 1882.

Isidore (Bishop of Seville). History of the Kings of the Goths, Vandals and Suevi. E.J. Brill.

Lehmann, Winifred P.; Helen-Jo J. Hewitt. A Gothic Etymological Dictionary. E.J. Brill, 1986.

Shaw, Philip. Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons. Bristol Classical Press, 2011.

Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. University of California Press, 1990.

Interpretatio Romana and Matronae Iconography

Matronae Aufaniae. Note the exaggerated headdresses on two of the figures, the short cloaks over longer dresses, shell shaped canopy overhead, and the bowls of fruit in their laps. While it is difficult to make out in this photo, they also all have crescent moon pendants around their necks and fibulae holding closed their cloaks.

Matronae Aufaniae. Note the exaggerated headdresses on two of the figures, the short cloaks over longer dresses, shell shaped canopy overhead, and the bowls of fruit in their laps. While it is difficult to make out in this photo, they also all have crescent moon pendants around their necks and fibulae holding closed their cloaks.

While the Matronae and Matres are a collective of indigenous Germanic and Gaulish deities, they were worshipped by a broad cross-section of people in the Roman Empire using Roman religious structures, rituals, and concepts. It is understandable for modern polytheists who are trying to reconstruct old Germanic or Gaulish ways to try and “scrape the Roman trappings off” in an effort to distill Matronae or Matres worship back to its original roots. However, even if you choose to leave the Roman bits off in your modern practices, looking at the Roman trappings can provide us both with important layers of meaning as well as placing these Goddesses into a religious and cultural context in which they were worshipped for over 500 years.

The Matronae and Matres were worshipped in the Roman style from the first through fifth century AD. This “filter” was first described by Tacitus under the name Interpretatio Romana, in chapter 43 of his book Germania. He writes, when discussing the religious rites of a Germanic tribe, “Amongst the Naharvalians is shown a grove, sacred to devotion, extremely ancient. Over it a priest presides appareled like a woman; but according to the explication of the Romans (interpretatione romana), ‘tis Castor and Pollux who are here worshipped.” Interpretatio Romana can be understood as the “Roman articulation of an alien religion” (Irby-Massie, 1999). Under this concept, non-Roman deities were syncretized to Roman deities and, in places where indigenous religions continued to be practiced post-Roman conquest, were also fitted with Roman style rituals and religious trappings and framed within Roman cosmology.

In trying to understand or re-enliven Matronae and Matres worship, it is very useful to evaluate the Roman elements. The overlay of interpretatio Romana onto Matronae and Matres cults means that, despite there being no surviving written information about these goddesses, their rituals nor their worshippers, we can look at the iconography and the syncretism present in the remains of altars, statues and plaques and glean valuable information about these goddesses and this cult. Any Celtic or Germanic goddess who may have been understood as the Lady of the House became framed as a version of Juno; any goddess associated with sexuality, love or beauty became a face of Venus; any goddess associated with crops or harvesting became a face of Ceres, etc. And, given the well-defined and well-established lexicon of Roman artistic and symbolic “language” and the abundance of surviving Roman mythology, the symbols and images associated with these and other Roman goddesses found in Roman religious art are relatively consistent throughout the Roman Empire. This Roman syncretization gives us more insight into the interpretation of common symbols found in the Matronae and Matres statues, due to this consistency of iconographic meaning.

Iconographic Elements

As we evaluate the iconographic elements found in the Matronae and Matres artefacts, it is important to remember that the surviving stories that we have original versions of, and that were contemporary to this discussion, were the Roman ones. I have included references to later Germanic and Celtic stories, though the overwhelming majority of the written sources for the mythology of both of these cultures are generally from 500-1000 years after the fall of the Roman empire, and the end of Matronae worship as it was practiced in the Roman empire. We don’t know for certain whether the written Germanic and Celtic lore would have matched contemporary Germanic and Celtic lore from the period when the Matronae were worshipped. I have included it, however, because it provides context and insight into possible cultural understandings of these different symbols.

The Seated Female Figures:

The most common image found on these statues and altars are a depiction of three women, two wearing bonnets and one with her hair bared (though this is more commonly seen among Matronae carvings; Matres carvings sometimes have the women all with uncovered hair, depending on the region in which the artefact was found). Despite modern interpretations, this is not “maiden-mother-crone” imagery, as the images appear to be two married women on either side of an unmarried woman; all of whom appear to be of childbearing age. We don’t know why the women are arranged like this, though there are many theories. These three figures are generally depicted wearing linen dresses covered in short cloaks held closed by a fibula, and are often wearing necklaces with half or crescent moon shaped pendants. Two of the three woman wear very large linen bonnets. The clothing style is understood to be traditional Ubii fashion, even when the statues are found in regions that were not Ubii regions. As was discussed in an earlier article, the Ubii were a Germanic tribe who voluntarily joined the Roman empire, and Romanized early and thoroughly as compared to other non-Roman tribes (Garman, 2008).

While the artefacts clearly labeled “Matronae” most commonly show three seated female figures, several of the Matres statues include male/female god couples in affectionate poses, indicating a “sacred marriage” or a “wife-goddess and her consort”. Some Matres images also include nursing children, or with one or both breasts bared. The Nutrices plaques generally share attributes with the Matres images, and generally include bared breasts and nursing infants (Beck, 2009).

Given that the word “Matronae” can be translated as “matron, woman of status”, while “Matres” translates as an affectionate form of the word “mother”, it makes sense that we find different configurations for the seated figures depending on what name they are given. So, while “Matres” may have been goddesses associated with human fertility and family (or could be appealed to for help in those matters), “Matronae” may not have had this specific association.

In both Celtic and Roman traditions, when deities are depicted in triplicate, this generally implies great power – these were considered powerful deities (Garman, 2008). So the fact that these goddesses were depicted in triplicate didn’t necessarily mean there were three specific deities in any given Matronae or Matres group, but more likely simply implied that these goddesses functioned as a collective, and a powerful one. Later Celtic and Germanic mythology has numerous examples of deities found in triplicate, such as the Morrigan, the Norns, and some depictions of Odin, and these deities are generally given three individual names. There are no inscriptions indicating three specific and separate names for any of the Matronae or Matres goddesses, though there are a number of inscriptions that indicate specific goddess names. I’ll discuss inscriptions in another article.

Fruit, Coins, and Bread:

The most common fruit clearly identifiable in these artefacts are apples. The apples are generally depicted in bowls, not on trees or pictured singly. Loaves of bread and coins are also common motifs. All three are believed to connote abundance, the provision of nourishment, wealth, “plenty”, and possibly offerings given to these goddesses as well as blessings received from them.
Apples are found as potent symbols throughout Germanic, Celtic and Roman mythology. In Greco-Roman mythology, the goddess Hera has an apple orchard which is tended by the Hesperides, the daughters of Atlas. There are either three, four or seven Hesperides who tend the apples, depending on the version of the story. These apples are said to grant immortality. Hera placed a hundred-headed dragon named Ladon to watch over the apples and protect them from being eaten. While this story was not considered as central to Roman mythology as it was in Greek (Hera was syncretized to Juno), the story was known. And in this story we see an image of at least three women tending apples guarded by a serpent/dragon, which is a very common visual motif found on Matronae altars.

Apples are found throughout Celtic mythology. The true home of Mannanan mac Lir, the principle sea deity and a trickster and ruler found throughout Irish written and oral lore, is said to be Emain Ablach (the fortress of apples). In Welsh and British mythology, particularly connected to Arthurian legend, there are stories of Ynys Afallach or Avalon, the Isle of Apples. Apples are often associated with immortality and abundance, and the wands of druids were said to have been made from either apple, oak, or yew wood. Apples feature in several well-known stories as well. (MacKillop, 1998)
As for Germanic mythology, it is Iðunn who tends the sacred apples. Iðunn’s apples of immortality keep the Aesir young and healthy. According to Hilda Ellis Davidson, she believes Iðunn was in possession of a bowl of apples as opposed to an orchard, and she cites the story in the Prose Edda where Loki gives her and her apples to the Jotun Thiazi, and then must steal her and her apples back. She claims that, since Loki is able to transform both her and her apples into a nut so he can carry her off, the apples must be in a movable form and are most likely a bowl of apples rather than a tree or a single apple (Davidson, 1990).


Most altars have decorative flora carved throughout, especially along their sides and backs. Trees, particularly oak trees, are common on these altars. Frequently snakes are found wrapped around these trees.

There is mention the 8th century Vita Bonifatii auctore Willibaldi, that Anglo-Saxon missionary Saint Boniface and his men cut down a tremendous oak tree sacred to Donar in the region of Hesse, Germany. Oaks figure prominently throughout Celtic mythology and history as well. They were considered sacred to Druids, and the English word druid is derived in part from the root dru-, meaning oak (Mackillop, 1998). Oaks were also considered sacred to Jupiter.

Trees are often understood to symbolize a deity’s ability to travel between the worlds and exist in different realms, the roots planted in the chthonic realms and branches up in the celestial ones, with the trunk in the human world. This is important, because it speaks to both the importance of these goddesses as well as indicating a possible ability to influence the human realms, the divine realms, and the realms of the ancestors. Images of trees, especially trees with snakes, are found cross-culturally and are generally associated with the concept of the World Tree that holds up and connects multiple realms of existence (Garman, 2008). Again, there are stories found in Greco-Roman mythology about snakes or dragons guarding sacred trees. In Norse mythology, there is the story of Nidhogg, the serpent who gnaws on the roots of Yggdrasil, the world tree. And dragons were often found at the bottom of deep lakes or guarding trees in Celtic mythology (Mackillop, 1998).


The most common animals found on Matronae carvings include snakes, birds, sacrificial goats, and dogs. Snakes are found wrapped around trees, sometimes with ram horns or ram heads. The sacrificial goats are sometimes depicted with one head and three bodies, or one body and three heads. The five birds found on Matronae altars are ravens, doves, peacocks, geese, and cranes or storks. Dogs are found on some altars, and are often found on altars that also have images of boats (as we see with Nehalennia’s altars). Images of eggs and a random assortment of other small animals are sometimes also depicted, and are generally understood to represent fertility and fecundity (Garman, 2008).

There are five specific birds found in Matronae iconography: the dove, peacock, raven, goose, and crane or stork. Doves were associated with healing, love, peace and health and were sacred to Venus. Peacocks were sacred to Juno and associated with childbirth (Garman, 2008). Ravens and crows are found throughout Celtic and Germanic mythology, and in both cultures were associated with war, death, wisdom, and prophecy. Geese symbolized guardianship throughout the Romano-Celtic period, and both carvings and the remains of geese have been found at sacred sites throughout ancient Celtic territories. Cranes were associated with female power and transformation in Roman society (Garman, 2008). Cranes are found throughout Celtic mythology as well, and are often believed to have been transformed human women. The ancient Britons, according to Julius Caesar, would not eat cranes because of this belief. And representations of cranes appear in Celtic iconography as early as 800 BCE. Cranes were thought to be associated with healing (Mackillop, 1998).

Goats were generally depicted as sacrificial animals, and in Matronae altars are depicted in the process of being sacrificed. In Rome, goats were sacrificed in the spring, and were the preferred sacrifice for forest gods such as Faunus, Silvanus, and gods of the spring. They represented fertility and prosperity (Garman, 2008).

For Romans, snakes represented protection, healing, rebirth, and prophesy. Snakes wrapped around trees (as stated above) may have indicated the snake as guardian of sacred trees. Snakes represented renewal and immortality to many ancient people, due to a belief that the snake’s shedding of its skin was a type of rebirth. And the snake was believed to be able to traverse multiple realms, an indication strengthened by the image of a snake wrapped around a tree (Garman, 2008). Again, as trees were often depicted symbolically as connecting the lower, mid, and upper realms, a snake wound around a tree would be understood as being able to travel between these realms. The snakes are commonly depicted with ram heads or ram horns.

Rams were commonly associated with Mercury and with northern British war gods, possibly symbolizing sexual energy and aggression. One theory about the meaning of this image is that the combination of snakes with rams could symbolize the combination of fertility, sexual aggression and regeneration (Mackillop, 1998).

Dogs were associated in both Celtic and Greco-Roman cultures with healing, hunting, guardianship, companionship and death. Dog remains were found in ancient Celtic holy wells, and were associated with the Gaulish deity Sirona, British deity Nodons, and Nehalennia, a Matronae goddess with her own temples and individual cultus who was either Gaulish or Germanic. Dogs are mentioned throughout Celtic mythology, sometimes as benign beings, sometimes as frightening beings. In both Norse and Welsh mythology, monstrous dogs guard the land of the dead.

Boats are mostly depicted with images of Nehalennia, but are found in a few other Matronae artifacts as well. Nehalennia’s temples were found on the coast, and she is believed to have been a Matronae goddess specifically associated with ocean travel, trade, healing and protection. Boats are straightforward symbols in all three cultures of trade, prosperity, and travel. Boats are also associated in all three cultures with the dead, as there are stories found in all three cultures about the dead traveling across water in order to reach the underworld. In Norse mythology this is far less of a central theme than in Roman and Celtic mythology, though Loki is said to ride in a boat, alongside the rest of the Muspilli, made of the fingernails of dead men during Ragnarok. More Germanic evidence of the connection between boats and the dead is to be found in the ship burials common throughout the Germanic territories.

Spinning materials, particularly thread boxes and a distaff, are found in just a few Matronae and Matres carvings. But the fact that this image is found at all is significant, as both the Parcae in Roman mythology and the Norns in Norse mythology are depicted as three important women spinning and weaving the fate of humankind.

Diapers and menstrual pads are more commonly found in depictions of the Matres. The symbolism of this is straightforward, and would have been recognizable in all three cultures. When these items are depicted, the images are referencing motherhood, human fertility and reproduction.

Iconography specific to Rome:

Cornucopias, globes, and shell-shaped canopies were motifs specific to Roman art, and had specific meanings in the context of Roman culture. While these motifs would not have been found in indigenous Germanic or Celtic religion or culture, the meanings behind these symbols must have been important and applicable enough that artists consistently included these images in depictions of the Matronae. Cornucopias were associated with abundance, fertility and prosperity, and with river deities specifically. Globes were sacred to the Roman goddess Fortuna, and implied fate or fortune and the ability to change luck at a moment’s notice. The shell shaped canopy was associated with Venus and other Roman goddesses associated with water (Garman, 2008).

Left: Altar combining a representation and a dedication to the Matronae Aufaniae from Bonn (Germany). All three seated figures hold bowls of apples. Right: Pipe-clay group of three Mother Goddesses from Bonn wearing the typical round hat of Germanic goddesses, with bowls of apples in their laps. In Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn. LIMC, Suppl., vol. 8, 2, p. 553, n°1 and 4.

Left: Altar combining a representation and a dedication to the Matronae Aufaniae from Bonn (Germany). All three seated figures hold bowls of apples. Right: Pipe-clay group of three Mother Goddesses from Bonn wearing the typical round hat of Germanic goddesses, with bowls of apples in their laps. In Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn. LIMC, Suppl., vol. 8, 2, p. 553, n°1 and 4.

Left: Single Mother Goddess from Alésia (Côte d’Or). In the Musée Alésia. Deyts, 1998, n° 28, p. 67. Right: Plaque from Cirencester, Gloucestershire (GB), representing triple seated mothers of Classical type. In Corinium Museum, Cirencester.LIMC, Suppl., vol. 8, 2, p. 554, n°16. Again, note the bowls of fruit and bread in the laps of the seated figures, and the distinctive clothing styles. Images from

Left: Single Mother Goddess from Alésia (Côte d’Or). In the Musée Alésia. Deyts, 1998, n° 28, p. 67. Right: Plaque from Cirencester, Gloucestershire (GB), representing triple seated mothers of Classical type. In Corinium Museum, Cirencester.LIMC, Suppl., vol. 8, 2, p. 554, n°16. Again, note the bowls of fruit and bread in the laps of the seated figures, and the distinctive clothing styles.
Images from

Bonn (Stadt Bonn; NRW): Altar by C. Caldinius Celsus to the Matronae Aufaniae with trees depicted on the side panels (Abb. nach Lehner 1930, Taf. 16). Note the snakes wrapped around the trees on the side panels, and the scene of sacrifice beneath the three seated female figures in the center image. Image from

Bonn (Stadt Bonn; NRW): Altar by C. Caldinius Celsus to the Matronae Aufaniae with trees depicted on the side panels (Abb. nach Lehner 1930, Taf. 16). Note the snakes wrapped around the trees on the side panels, and the scene of sacrifice beneath the three seated female figures in the center image.
Image from


Beck, Par Noemie. Goddesses in Celtic Religion. Cult and Mythology: A Comparative Study of Ancient Ireland, Britain and Gaul. Doctoral Thesis: University College of Dublin, published December 4, 2009.

Davidson, H.R. Ellis. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin Books, 1990.

Garman, Alex. The Cult of the Matronae in the Roman Rhineland: An Historical Evaluation of the Archaeological Evidence. Edwin Mellen Press, May 2008.

Irby-Massie, G.L. Military Religion in Roman Britain. Brill, 1999.
Mackillop, James. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Tacitus. Agrigola & Germania. Trans: H. Mattingly, Penguin Press, 2010.

The Matronae and Matres: Breathing New Life into an Old Religion

I recently had the honor of presenting a devotional and oracular ritual dedicated to the Matronae at the Many Gods West conference held in Olympia, WA. The Matronae are a collective of indigenous Germanic and Celtic goddesses who were worshipped syncretically in the Roman Empire. It was a blessing and a gift for me to be able to present this ritual along with Rynn Fox and a fantastic team of warders and ritual helpers. I love these goddesses very much, and because they are not very well known, I wasn’t sure how much interest there would be in such a ritual. But we had a wonderful turnout, and I have received many questions since the ritual. I will be posting a series of articles about the Matronae in the hopes of addressing some of the questions about who they are.


Photo by Roger B. Ulrich Bonn

Important things to Note when Discussing the Matronae:

The biggest challenge with discussing the Matronae is the scarcity of surviving information about them. All that we know about the Matronae are from archaeological finds. There are, however, over 1100 surviving inscribed plaques, altars, and statues, and several temple sites, scattered across Europe. These inscriptions name them as Matronae and/or as Matres, and in a few places there are inscriptions to goddesses called the Nutrices as well who share the same iconography and many of the same epithets. There is no intact surviving mythology about them, there is no information written by contemporary writers of their time period about them, their cultus, nor their worshippers. So to talk about the Matronae and Matres, we need to start with a discussion of their context and their inscribed altars and temples.

When looking at the cult of the Matronae and Matres, it is important to understand that “pan-European” universal paganism never existed – there was never a single unifying set of religious beliefs nor pantheon that spanned all of Europe. There wasn’t even necessarily a “pan-Germanic” or a “pan-Celtic/Gaulish” paganism. Every individual tribe had their own pantheons, with their own stories, rituals and worship styles, and their own individual deities that may not have been found in the next tribe over. Even the more popular or larger, better known deities who may have been found in a number of different tribes may have had different divine relationships, different attributes, or different roles in the pantheon from tribe to tribe (which is why in some Germanic tribes, Odin was the head deity in the pantheon, in other tribes it was Freyr, in others Tyr, and in others Thor). These regional distinctions are important to note, because the Matronae and Matres were a collective of many deities, each one specific, regional, local, and distinct. Each individual goddess had her tribe, her land feature, her individual relationships with others from her specific pantheon etc. Each goddess was a unique, standalone goddess. The Matronae functioned as a collective of individual goddesses, each of whom had their own separate stories, attributes and even pantheons. The individual goddesses crossed regional and tribal lines to function as a multi-cultural, multi-regional, and multi-traditional collective.

We do know for certain that the Matronae and Matres must have been very well loved, and were worshipped extensively throughout the Roman Empire. There remain over 1100 surviving inscribed plaques and altars, and several large temple sites surviving from the 1st – 5th century CE. Each inscription follows a specific formula – the altars were dedicated in gratitude for answered prayers. These surviving votive remains are mostly high quality plaques and elaborate temples and altars; each one would have been expensive and time consuming to have had made, and each would have been made by a professional artist. There may be many more surviving altars and votive items, however not all have survived in clear enough fashion to be able to be included in the count. All 1100 include an inscription clearly stating something like, Person x dedicates this altar to the Matronae and/or Matres in fulfilment of a vow for a prayer answered, which is how we know the altar is a Matronae altar – the inscription literally says so. There are many other surviving carvings that include three female figures and many of the associated iconography, but either there was no inscription or the inscription was damaged beyond recognition (Shaw, 41). This also means that for each surviving inscribed altar, someone had a significant and major prayer answered, and had an inscribed altar made in gratitude for their prayer being granted. In other words, we have hard evidence of over 1100 definitively answered prayers over a roughly 500 year period of time.

Matronae: History and Region

The Matronae, as they appeared in the Roman Empire, were worshipped from the 1st-5th centuries AD. We know this from carbon dating of surviving inscriptions and from dates written on some of the inscriptions. The earliest inscriptions that may pre-date the Roman Matronae cultus are written in Gaulish and located in Southern France, and may be as old as 1st-3rd centuries BCE (Beck, 40-42). These early Gaulish inscriptions were just inscriptions and did not also include images. The majority of the surviving plaques and altars are dated from after the Roman Empire had conquered many Germanic and Gaulish tribes. These altars almost always include an image of three seated women wearing the traditional (and distinctive) clothing styles of a Germanic tribe called the Ubii (Garman, 7). These outfits include exaggeratedly large linen bonnets and crescent or half moon shaped pendants.

Altars to the Matronae, Matres and Nutrices have been found all throughout Europe, from the Iberian peninsula to Northern Italy to Algeria. The vast majority of the altars were located all along the Rhine river, with a handful found along Hadrian’s Wall in Great Britain (Garman, 16-17). If Nehalennia is understood to be a Matronae goddess as well, there are also several temples found to her in the Netherlands. The altars found along Hadrian’s Wall are believed to have been brought there by soldiers from the lower Rhine region who were stationed there (Shaw, 43). And statues depicting the “nutrices”, who share common iconography and epithets, have been found in Slovenia and North Africa (Beck, 73).

Map of the votive inscriptions dedicated to the Matres, Rϋger, 1987, p. 7, fig. 3

Map of the votive inscriptions dedicated to the Matres, Rϋger, 1987, p. 7, fig. 3

Map showing the distribution of the dedications to the Matronae with and without epithets. ). A. Matronae with epithets. B. Matronae without epithets. Derks, 1998, p. 129, fig. 3.19 (after Rüger, 1987, fig. 1 and fig. 2). Maps from Beck’s thesis paper.

Map showing the distribution of the dedications to the Matronae with and without epithets. ). A. Matronae with epithets. B. Matronae without epithets. Derks, 1998, p. 129, fig. 3.19 (after Rüger, 1987, fig. 1 and fig. 2). Maps from Beck’s thesis paper.

No one is sure where the concept of a mother goddess collective originated. The earliest inscriptions are found in Gaul, indicating the possibility that the whole concept of worshipping divine mothers as a group in this manner may have been a Gaulish or possibly a Greek religious concept originally. There are several inscriptions to the “Matrebo” written in Gaulish using the Greek alphabet dated to the 1st-3rd century BCE that follow a similar inscription formula: “in gratitude on the accomplishment of a vow” (Beck, 40).

The female figures found on the Matronae altars however are understood to be dressed specifically and uniformly in Ubii clothing. The Ubii were a Germanic tribe who chose to make early and strong alliances with Rome rather than waiting to be conquered. They were originally from east of the Rhine river but were moved into a depopulated area on the west bank of the Rhine river. The modern city of Cologne was the Ubii capital (Garman, 8). The Ubii were one of the few civitates to be granted the status of foederatae, which gave them the unique status of having all of the rights of a Latin colony. They were extensively Romanized, and Romanized early as compared to other conquered and annexed tribes (Garman, 10). The majority of Matronae inscriptions are found along the Rhine river, in areas that were specifically Ubii territory (Garman, 8). It is possible, therefore, that the Matronae cult may have been originally an Ubii religious movement or idea that took on Roman iconography and attributes.

So that should give folks a sense of the history, time and locations from where the Matronae and Matres originate, and some of the complexity of understanding who and what they were (and were not). Stay tuned for more Matronae information!


Beck, Par Noemie. Goddesses in Celtic Religion. Cult and Mythology: A Comparative Study of Ancient Ireland, Britain and Gaul. Doctoral Thesis: University College of Dublin, published December 4, 2009.

Garman, Alex. The Cult of the Matronae in the Roman Rhineland: An Historical Evaluation of the Archaeological Evidence. Edwin Mellen Press, May 2008.

Shaw, Philip. Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons. Bristol Classical Press, September 2011.

The Art of Being Led

Participating in Community, Holding Our Leaders Accountable

Polytheism as a religious identity is growing. And communities to support these old, new and emerging religions are growing too. As communities grow, leaders step up to help shape, guide, inspire, organize, and support these growing communities and the individuals within them. As leaders arise to guide new and expanding communities, it is important that we who are being led maintain active engagement with the shaping and maintenance of leadership structures. We must both support and feed our leaders while being prepared to hold them accountable to the standards we are shaping within our communities, and stay in dialogue with our leaders and with one another around what standards we want shaping our communities.

I’ve been seeing a lot of really excellent conversation over the past few months about leadership in the pagan and polytheist communities – sharing power, making space for new leaders, and how to be more graceful with power across age and experience differences. And I am so glad to see these conversations happening. But many of us are not in positions of leadership. And even if we are, there are still others whose leadership roles stretch over us in some way or another simply by being a person who is identified as a leader in a community we participate in or are identified with in some way or another. Regardless of whether or not we choose to take on a position of leadership, what do we do when our leaders behave in ways we wish they hadn’t? How do we hold our leaders accountable for the things they say and do? What ethical standards and community accountability models will we choose for ourselves as new leaders emerge in our newly forming or already existing communities? For many of us in many of our overlapping communities, these are more applicable questions.

There are several different types of leaders we find in our religious communities. And there are different levels of leadership with different levels of influence. Some folks are leaders because they start or help start groups that others decide to join. Some are leaders because they are elected to a leadership position in a group with an election process. Some are leaders because they write books, or because they teach classes. Some are leaders because they help design or organize major events or rituals, or perform in major events or rituals. Some are leaders because they serve on councils or are chosen to (or volunteer to) represent paganism or polytheism outside of these communities. Some serve as clergy. Some are musicians. Some own pagan, new age, or metaphysical shops or other businesses. Others are leaders because they write popular blogs or columns with loyal readership who are influenced by their ideas. Many who are considered leaders do more than one of these things.

Each person who might be considered a leader carries some amount of power and influence. That’s what it means to be a leader – leaders are the ones (hopefully) who get things done or make things happen, but leaders also (intentionally or unintentionally) help to shape the beliefs, thoughts and practices of those who look to them for leadership. Historically, many parts of the broader pagan and polytheist communities had “anti-authoritarian” roots, and many pagans are (understandably) uncomfortable with the idea of hierarchical power. This discomfort often leads to a complete denial of the existence of power structures, or a knee jerk reaction to discussions of power. While we who are polytheist may or may not also participate in pagan communities, because so much of the roots of the early pagan communities originate from these and other related movements in the 70s and 80s, we may very well find ourselves influenced by these roots as well.

When we can’t comfortably talk about power, we lose the ability to be responsible with our own power, and we can’t accurately assess the power we are giving to our leaders. We also lose the ability to hold our leaders accountable. But the truth is, we who are led are the ones who give our leaders their power. We decide (or at least we *should* be deciding) to allow them to influence us and our communities. The relationship between a community and its leaders is a type of explicit or implicit contract – the community agrees to be led in exchange for giving that leader respect, power, and influence. The leader agrees to lead (and to work on behalf of that community, by performing the services and duties that their form of leadership requires) in exchange for the community giving them power, respect and influence. Imagine a horse and rider. The rider decides where the horse goes, but if the horse decided it did not want to be led, the little human on its back would not be able to do much other than hold on and hope they didn’t get thrown.

Of course, in order for a horse to accept a rider, it must be trained (sometimes referred to as “broken”). We have all been trained, to varying degrees, to accept some amount of leadership. But horses are still bigger than a single human rider; communities are still stronger than any one leader. When our leaders are leading us in directions that we know are wrong, it us up to us, the communities that give them their power and their legitimacy, to take the reins back.

In the past several months, I have witnessed several prominent Heathen leaders be outed as having racist ideology. Many of us who have been in the Heathen community for any amount of time all knew these leaders espoused varying levels of racist ideologies, but folks outside of Heathenry began to notice as these leaders became more public with their beliefs (posting publically visible racist memes on Facebook, specifically). So what as a Heathen community are we to do? If we claim that these individuals are not “really” Heathens (as I’ve seen some folks do), we run into dangerous territory. By forswearing them, we forfeit any ability to hold them accountable. We also open the door for anyone to declare any other person not really a Heathen (or insert your tradition of choice here) for differences in belief and action. At the same time, I certainly do not want anyone to mistake what I believe for what these public Heathen figures believe.

It is on us, the community being led, to hold our leaders accountable. To demand that our leaders serve as ethically and wisely as they are able. And to remove them from influence when they are creating influences that we don’t want shaping our communities.

What does holding leaders accountable look like? Some of this depends on the size of the community, the scope of influence of that leader, the nature of their leadership role, and the relationship we have to them. Sometimes accountability looks like pulling a leader aside privately and having a difficult conversation about their statements or actions. Sometimes it might mean making a public statement, organizing a petition, writing an open letter, leaving a group that you just can’t ethically continue to participate in. Sometimes it might mean electing a new leader, if there is an election process in place. Sometimes it means starting a new group, and stepping into your own leadership, while being transparent and public around your motivations and process. Though if you decide to go this last route, be sure not to fall into the same traps that caused you to leave the last group – consider getting additional training if needed, and consider working collaboratively with others.

It is also important to be clear about what we expect from our own leaders, and to assess whether or not these expectations are realistic, just as it is important for leaders to assess for themselves what their role is and whether or not they have the skills to execute that role effectively. Many smaller “subculture” type communities are notorious for “eating their leaders”, and I have certainly seen this happen at times over the years in the polytheist communities in which I have participated. Well-meaning folks step into positions of leadership because they love their tradition or spirituality, or because they have a vision of what kind of group they want to participate in. Sometimes folks start groups or assume other types of leadership roles because they feel a calling to do so. But even when there is a calling, leadership is a big responsibility. Others rely on the leader for direction, regardless of the type of leader. It is reasonable to expect a leader to fulfil whatever leadership role they have chosen to assume (clergy, writer, group leader, etc.). It is not reasonable to expect a leader to act outside of their proscribed leadership role, nor is it reasonable for a leader to assume that because they have taken on some kind of specific leadership role, that they have the needed skills to handle situations that would normally involve additional training that they do not possess (assume a journalist should also lead rituals; assume an administrative leader of a group should also write liturgy; assume that having attained some kind of tradition-specific spiritual elevation confers the ability to mediate disputes or provide psychological counseling without additional training in those disciplines; etc.).

Some of the leadership challenges in our communities arise from a lack of adequate training. Some of the challenges arise from the unwillingness of many leaders to recognize that they need additional training, or not knowing what kind of training would most benefit them, or not knowing where to go to get trained once they figure out their own missing competencies. There are groups that are beginning to offer more training opportunities for pagan and polytheist leaders, though many of those groups continue to mostly offer spiritual or religious training rather than training in group facilitation and mediation. And many of these training opportunities (though not all) are more appropriate for pagan or Wiccan leaders and may not be applicable for polytheist leaders. Furthermore, there is often a disdain for mainstream leadership training opportunities (like conflict resolution courses, sensitivity trainings, etc.), and sometimes it is as simple as folks not knowing what training opportunities would make the most sense for them to pursue.

It is on us, the community, to take care of our leaders – leadership done well is a precious resource to a community. Our leaders help us understand and shape our religious practices, create opportunities for us to gather as community for religious or social support, they take care of us, inspire us, challenge us, move us forward, organize us and support our growth as individuals and as communities. But if we want our communities to flourish, we need our leaders to be ethical, competent, well supported, and well trained. It is on each of us who are not leaders to help shape communities where leaders are held accountable, where our official groups are well organized with clear organizational structures (including clearly delineated leadership roles and responsibilities). It is on us to support our leaders so they can best serve us, and to be realistic and respectful about what we expect to get from our leaders.

It is also on us, the community, to take responsibility for our own leaders, being willing to speak up when our leaders behave in ways that we don’t deem acceptable by our community standards. If a leader makes racist statements, or tries to shape discriminatory policies for our groups, or sexually harasses or assaults community members, it is on us to step up as a community and say no, you don’t get to do that kind of thing and continue to have the privilege of leading us. We as the community are not at the mercy of our leaders. We are in a contracted relationship with them, and they lead because we let them.

As we continue to grow and shape our communities, we need to be thoughtful, clear and intentional in how we shape our community ethics and standards, in how we shape our contracts with our leaders, and in how we shape our accountability structures. There is too much at stake for us to do otherwise.

Continuing the Conversation on Sacrifice

I received a thoughtful and respectful comment in response to my article on animal sacrifice, disagreeing with my stance. I am grateful to the writer for being willing to engage with me on this topic, and I felt the response to this comment deserved its own article.

The comment in question read:

“I applaud the author for trying to write about this topic with a sense of compassion and an authentic intention of trying to promote understanding. However, not all of us who disagree with animal sacrifice think that it makes someone “savage” if they practice it. Instead, I think that it shows a lack of interest in moving on from something that can and should be left in the dustbin of history. Tradition is no excuse for cruelty, and we really need to move beyond the idea that animals are tools or objects, whether for our faith practices, for food, for clothing, etc. Is there no other way to honor the gods without enslaving and killing animals? Those are the conversations that I wish we could all start having. Holding ourselves to higher standards of ethical practice is possible, especially with all of the many wonderful an innovative polytheists out there. Let’s work together for peace for all beings.”

Thank you for your thoughtful and respectfully worded comment. I very much appreciate the opportunity to delve further into these complex issues. I wanted to address a few of the points you brought up here, because I think these are important.

You said:

“…and we really need to move beyond the idea that animals are tools or objects, whether for our faith practices, for food, for clothing, etc.”

I respect that many folks have strict vegan ideologies, and I absolutely support your right to have these principles govern how you make choices. This is not my personal ideology, though emotionally I have sympathy for it. I abhor suffering, anyone who knows me knows this about me. I have been a professional healer for 14 years, and before that I worked in crisis intervention. I have no more stomach for the suffering of humans than I do for the suffering of animals, plants, nor the planet. But there are several factors that for me have made a vegan lifestyle not feasible nor desirable for me.

One factor is my health. I was vegetarian for about 8 years, largely because I felt that, if I could not bring myself to end an animal’s life with my own hands, I didn’t have the right to eat one. But then I became seriously ill. I developed a debilitating autoimmune disorder that included severe multiple food allergies. I no longer had the luxury of having my ideology dictate my dietary choices, I was simply too sick. I began eating some meat at that point, after a great deal of introspection and prayer. I decided that, if I were to eat meat, I needed to become more comfortable with the entire process of death. For me, participating in animal sacrifice helps to put me in direct responsibility for the death of an animal. I try to have my diet choices guided by ethical guidelines as much as my health and my budget allows, and working professionally as a clinical nutritionist, I have a good sense of what works for my body and what doesn’t. My 14 years of clinical experience shows me that most people don’t do well health-wise long term on strictly vegan diets (some people do just fine long term, but most get sick after about 5 years), though I support anyone’s right to adopt this lifestyle choice for themselves despite this fact.

Another factor that for me is an important consideration is that, ultimately, I am an animist. I believe that plants, animals, land features, spirits, gods, humans, even sometimes things like cars and computers have sentience and some type of consciousness (whether or not I am able to understand or communicate with that consciousness). For me, I believe plants are as sacred as animals, and both are as sacred as humans. We are all equal in my mind, in this way. And yet, life feeds on life, and we all need to eat in order to survive. Plants are able to find their nourishment from sunlight and water; animals (including humans) cannot and must consume other beings that are alive. But even plants require the decayed remains of other living things (plants and animals) in order to live, in the form of soil. For what is soil, but the decayed remains of things that were once living, along with a whole vibrant microbiome of fungi, insects, single celled organisms, water, and minerals from evaporated water and eroded rocks?  I find the idea of the web of life to be one of my most important and central sacred spiritual concepts, hence the name of my column.

There is a prayer I say frequently as part of my regular practices. Part of the prayer says, “every breath I breathe in, breathed out by another. Every bite of food, every sip of water, nourishing and sustaining me, connecting me to the great web of life. Every breath I breathe out, every bit of waste and matter that leaves me, returning to the web to nourish and sustain others.” When I eat, whether my food is plant based or animal based, I am participating in this most holy interconnected relationship. I see myself as part of the great web of life – not higher nor lower, but interconnected and part of the great blessed web. Why should I value the life of an animal over the life of a plant?

Plants know when they are being eaten. Plants know when other plants are being attacked – new science is emerging that examines these forms of communication and consciousness. For some absolutely fascinating reading on the sentience of plants, check out the following articles:

You say:

“Let’s work together for peace for all beings”.

I would love to see greater harmony and balance for the entire Web, but attempting to avoid death does not bring balance, in my mind. When apex predators are removed from ecosystems, it spells disaster for the entire ecosystem – I remember growing up in NY and there being a tremendous State-wide problem when all our wolves and coyotes were killed off when I was a kid. The deer, having no remaining predators, became so numerous that they ran out of food that winter. The forests where this was being a problem became tremendously defoliated, which put the entire area in serious imbalance as the forests began to die, which impacted all the other animals living there. The deer began to starve to death. There were dead deer everywhere, which caused an increase in scavenger activity, including rats which were spreading diseases. It was a nightmare that went on for several years. The park and game management agencies in my State began issuing a tremendous number of deer tags to hunters, because humans had to step in to the gaping hole left in the local ecosystem that wolves and coyotes had previously occupied. This tragedy was entirely human-wrought, because we shortsightedly believed that removing these predators would somehow make the area “safer”. Death is a part of life, and death, in balance, is required to maintain balance. I don’t think that attempting to avoid participating in death is possible, nor do I think it ultimately results in peace for all beings. Certainly, removing apex predators from an ecosystem does the exact opposite of providing peace for all beings. And I don’t believe that humans are somehow exempt from our participation in the ecosystem – we are not “smarter” nor “more ethical” nor more spiritually evolved nor superior in any other way to other beings who are also part of this planet’s complex and interconnected ecosystems. For a thoughtful article on this subject (which mentions the ecological tragedy in NY during my childhood), read this:

Truly avoiding causing death is not really possible, even if we wanted that. Eating a vegan diet does not actually release the eater from responsibility in the death of other beings, whether those other beings are plants or animals. There was a fascinating study done evaluating the “least harm principle” in dietary choices, and the author’s conclusion was that, ultimately, fewer total animals die when a human diet includes large herbivores. The author looked at the number of animals killed during agricultural activities, and the list of killed animals simply from harvesting plant foods was significant. A quote from the study:

“Animals living in and around agricultural fields are killed during field activities and the greater the number of field activities, the greater the number of field animals that die.  A partial list of animals of the field in the USA include opossum, rock dove, house sparrow, European starling, black rat, Norway rat, house mouse, Chukar, gray partridge, ring-necked pheasant, wild turkey, cottontail rabbit, gray-tailed vole, and numerous species of amphibians (Edge, 2000).  In addition, Edge (2000) says, “production of most crops requires multiple field operations that may include plowing, disking, harrowing, planting, cultivating, applying herbicides and pesticides as well as harvesting.”  These practices have negative effects on the populations of the animals living in the fields.  For example, just one operation, the “mowing of alfalfa caused a 50% decline in gray-tailed vole population” (Edge, 2000).  Although these examples represent crop production systems in the USA, the concept is also valid for intensive crop production in any country.  Other studies have also examined the effect of agricultural tillage practices on field animal populations (Johnson et al., 1991; Pollard and Helton, 1970; Tew, Macdonald and Rands, 1992).”

He goes on to cite one other study that showed that up to 52% of all animals living in a field used for agricultural purposes are killed. Organic agricultural procedures do not necessarily reduce this number, either.  Here’s a link to the study in question:

Animal-derived products are used in many items, including food, clothing, personal care products, and medications. My father is an insulin-dependent diabetic; I am very grateful for the advances in medicine that enable my father to live an otherwise healthy and quality life, and his insulin is derived from animal sources (for information about the use of animal products in medications:

I generally prefer to use products that have not been tested on animals when possible, and I prefer to know the sources of my products, so that I can make informed choices around what products I use. But in my mind, it is not really possible to live in the world as it currently exists and to not participate in some way in the death of other beings.

For me, I try and be thoughtful and intentional about the ways in which I participate in this larger web of life. And for me, animal sacrifice allows me to sanctify the death of an animal in such a way that I can guarantee that the animal has had a humane and sacred death, and maintain a carefully chosen place in the larger Web. I don’t eat meat often, and when I do, I eat the meat left over from a sacrifice as often as I can. Because for me, I feel more comfortable knowing that I was there when the animal died, I know how the death occurred, and I had a chance to say thank you to the animal before it died. If I don’t have access to such meat, I try and stick to humanely hunted, wild-caught, grass fed, or otherwise humanely raised and slaughtered meat. We all wrap this stuff up differently, and this is how I have made my peace with these important and difficult questions.

I know I have been lengthy in this response, but I feel that the discussion is an important one to have, and I am grateful that you have chosen to engage with me in this discussion.

Confessions of a Polytheist who Engages in Sacrificial Practices

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.