Confessions of a Polytheist who Engages in Sacrificial Practices

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.



  1. I just wanted to thank you for writing what has been (for me personally) one of the most moving peices yet on animal sacrifice. This was a brave peice by a brave woman… I honestly have no words strong enough to reflect how much I admire you for putting this up. Again, thank you!

  2. River, thank you so much for this well written, well thought out reality injection. I have seen the human element being left out in many of these discussions about animal sacrifice, and you successfully demystified the “boogeyman” by giving him a face. Thank you also for talking about the real meaning of Kosher, and being brave enough to point out the racism and classism that is really at the root of these warped, horror movie narratives. Well done!

    • Thanks, love. I’m glad you found the article to be effective – I’m tired of folks thinking that animal sacrifice is like some kind of grotesque blood orgy nonsense, since much of the time, the biggest difference between dinner and animal sacrifice is that dinner you buy at a grocery store (where someone else killed your dinner, in a cold and impersonal manner) versus taking responsibility for the animal’s death, saying a prayer or dedication before the slaughter, and the love and care of the animal before and during its death.

  3. so true ! And well-written as well!

    I did not thought about comparing the Afro-Caribbean traditions with heathenism, but I’ve never seen a Pagan/Wiccan complains about Santeria sacrifices while they are often extremely vocal when it comes to Heathen sacrifices. Thanks for underlying this subtle yet idiotic form of racism.

    Also, while I appreciate articles like yours being published and read, I still cannot comprehend why they are still needed. If you live in the countryside, you probably need to raise and kill, or have killed animal to eat. As long as you do it so the animal suffers as little as possible (one of the problems I have about Hallal for example) there is nothing wrong about it. The worst is that so many of those who complain about animal sacrifice are unapologetic meat eaters. This is really stupid: a well treated sacrificial animal will have a much better time than 99 per cent of the cattle that end up in hamburger patties.

    • Thank you for your comment. I agree 100% about the unapologetic meat eating complainers, and it makes me nuts.

  4. It is really heartening to see this sudden surge in polytheists coming out and talking about this subject.

    I really struggle to grasp the mentality of meat eating people who are critical of animal sacrifice; aside from the hypocrisy it’s the complete disconnect they have between the meat they eat and the life that was taken. This whole process of part of the mysteries of my own beliefs; nothing that is can be without the ending of something else – the world, the stars and the living. making that transition and engaging in that transition from life to death to life in a ritual setting with the gods really should become a more central part of polytheist worship.

    • Thank you for your comment. I agree about the disconnect folks have between what they eat and where food comes from. Life feeds on life, this is a universal truth for all animals. Eating vegetarian doesn’t necessarily let us off the hook either – there’s some fascinating research about how plants sense when they are being damaged/eaten, and communicate their distress to other plants. I love what you have to say about the interconnectedness and cyclical nature of things as well, that is also a core part of my beliefs as well (hence the name of my column, the Web of Blessings 🙂 ).

  5. Thank you SO VERY MUCH for a brave and honest article. Your points about the classism and racism are particularly well-made. I will add that although I’ve been a vegetarian nearly all my life, I have no problem with animal sacrifice. I would not partake in consumption of the sacrifice’s flesh, but that’s purely between me and my gods!

    • Thank you for your supportive comment! And I completely agree and support your way of wrapping this stuff up too. I don’t believe my way of doing things is “the one true way”, it’s just the way that works for me. I support 100% folks who decide to not include animal sacrifice in their practices, and folks who decide to not eat meat (for whatever myriad reasons this may be a good choice for a person). The awesome thing is that there’s lots of ways to do good solid ritual work, and we don’t all need to do the same stuff (or eat the same foods, or wear the same clothes, or worship the same gods). Yay pluralism 🙂

  6. THANK YOU. You are my fucking hero. This piece is AMAZING. Honest, forthright, beautifully written. Damn, yo. I tip my hat to you.

    • Thank you for commenting! I am grateful and humbled by how much positive feedback and support I’ve been getting on this article, I really wasn’t sure how it would be received.

  7. From someone else who is a part of a tradition that maintains animal sacrifice (Haitian Vodou) and one that has so far opted not to (Kemetic Orthodoxy), thank you very much for conveying so much more clearly what needs to be said than I could possibly convey. I hope that your contribution is heard for what it is and offers some good education on this important subject.

    • Thank you for voicing your support! It means quite a lot to me, especially coming from you. I am also hoping this article is read by folks who would benefit from seeing an alternative view of these issues, and can serve to educate folks.

  8. This comment is probably going to sound a little strange following the others, but I want to say thank you for making me uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable because, in a lot of ways, I fit into the categories of the judgmental, uninformed, assumptive points of view described here. Reading this article helped clarify a lot of the contradictions I held that were causing confusing friction in my own soul, such as supposedly having a view life as sacred yet being unnerved by the “barbaric” idea of ritual animal sacrifice while also being a meat eater.. Although I never openly spoke out against the practices of animal sacrifice, I held an inner attitude of disgust because the narrative that I had been given, and had not questioned, was that animal sacrifice was inherently disrespectful to the animal and always used for selfish, evil intent. After being indoctrinated as a child into the worldview of Protestant Christianity (specifically the very close-minded, hypocritical, middle class, white privileged American brand of it), it is wonderfully written articles like this that have called me out on my assumptions and challenge me to set the proper foundations for a spiritual and/or religious practice that is authentic to me. Again, thank you, and I look forward to reading more of your work 🙂

    • Thank you for commenting, and for voicing your truth! This is exactly why I felt it was important to write this article, because I also know what the narrative is in mainstream society (including and especially in mainstream paganism), and it’s important to me that folks hear an alternate perspective on these practices. I’m glad to hear my article “landed” effectively for you, and that you found it helpful.

  9. 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.

  10. Thank you for being awesome, as always, and for outlining this in such an insightful way. Of course, I have no problem with the arguments for animal sacrifice, but I still have not been involved in one directly (though that’s likely to change in the coming years); but, reminding your readers (and me in particular!) here of the still-going practices in Judaism is also extremely useful and important.

    It’s interesting that one of the only things that has come through in regards to the Tetrad++ (and guess who it came from–!?!) was that they are not to receive animal sacrifices at this point, though any other variety is fine/great/much-appreciated-and-needed. The specific reason stated was that “they’re not old enough yet.” Isn’t that interesting? 😉

    • As always, I am glad to read your comments! I am intrigued by the information about the Tetrad++, and yes, this makes perfect sense to me :).

  11. Thank you, River Devora, for insight into these practices.

    There are too many generations between me and my Farming Ancestors. Your essay brought me closer to them as well. Thank You.

    • Blessings to you, and blessings to your ancestors. I am glad to hear this.

  12. I have to admit that I have not bee following the actual discussions about sacrifice, other than hearing that they are happening. I only have so many hours in the day and spoons to spare.

    Somehow this should be tacked up as THE post to read anyway. Very well done, dear!

  13. > 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.

    Oh! That’s very different from what I have heard in the past.

    Previously, my understanding was that Kashrut was to guarantee the animal had *not* been offered to any *other* god[s], even accidentally, and that a stark distinction was made between Kashrut and Sacrifices, there being laws that the latter could only be properly done in a Temple and there hasn’t been a proper Temple for hundreds of years now.

    By my own reasoning, Kashrut certainly *does* qualify as a form of Sacrifice – in the sense of making sure the animal is dispatched and handled in a sacred, set-apart manner. But I had understood it to be disrespectful to characterize it that way within a Jewish context.

    This is a very interesting difference to read now, thank you!

    (Erm, back to the rest of the article, but I rather expect I already agree with you on most of it.)

  14. Yup, finishing the article, I do indeed agree with all you have to say, unsurprisingly.

    Generally, my argument is this, which I get from Freyja:

    If you use no part of an animal, then you are certainly not expected to honor that animal. But if you eat it, if you wear its skin, if you turn its bones or teeth or horns into jewelry, even if you use the milk or honey or shed wool without harming the animal, you have a responsibility to establish a respectful relationship with that kind of animal.

    Animal sacrifice sounds dire, but in reality, it’s a way of being mindful of our relationships with these animals.

    If you HAVE no such relationship, then the point is moot – but I could argue that merely sharing the same world with them means we’re already in relationship with them, and have obligations accordingly.

    I’ll not argue the point with vegans, other than to point out that plants, too, are alive.


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