When the topic of sacrifice, especially that of animals, flared up on pagan social media sites recently (and only the Gods old and new know why), posters and commenters immediately formed two camps, categorial opposition versus “but the ancestors”.
As always, before I decide on anything, I try to deliberate the nuances of the question. And folks who know me know that I take great pleasure in deliberation of pros and cons, and none whatsoever in actually taking any decisions. I am a Libra after all.
What I did see a lot in the online discussions is a confusion of sacrifice and offering; often playing out as “why don’t you pour some milk and honey on the ground instead of killing a chicken. Well, short answer, “Because the former is an offering and the later (most likely) a sacrifice. We have to qualify the statement with most likely because if you were, for example, a member of the Perdue family (a mass producer of chicken in the USA), killing a chicken might as well be an offering. As you can imagine from that nuance, an offering is typically something that one has in more or less abundance. It can be obtained routinely — milk, for example, every day, whether you buy it at the grocery store or you are a dairy farmer. An offering is a gift, a token of acknowledgement, often an in-kind reimbursement for a deity’s or a spirit’s presence, blessing, guidance, or inspiration. Sometimes the offering is for straight forward divine help. In such cases, it usually is a bit more than a tablespoon of honey; a gold bracelet or a sword hurtled into a lake or such.
A sacrifice has a few components that elevate an offering to a different level. For one, the English term sacrifice comes from the Latin sacer facere, translating into making sacred or holy. That means you take an item (in the widest sense of the word) and, through an act of transformational Magic, change its very essence into something that is worthy of, and of the ethereal consistence accessible to, the Gods or the animus of whatever you want to gift that item to.
That sounds a little theoretical, but consider one widely practiced and known sacrifice, the Christian eucharist. In this process, a particular form of bread is, through the Magic of the Christian priest, transformed into the body of their demi-God, and then devoured by the worshippers. It’s a somewhat complicated (and deeply discussed) procedure, where the very essence of the inanimate piece of “bread” is made holy and then destroyed through ingestion.
Similarly, when our pagan ancestors sacrificed an animal, the intent was to give it to the Gods, not in its material form (that would be an offering), but with its essence changed. To achieve that, they, animists that they were, needed to free the soul of the animal – the part that actually is of the ethereal consistency that can be accepted by the Gods — from its material boundaries, the animal’s body. And the only way to do that is to terminate the current vessel trapping the soul, in other words kill the animal.
That transformation, the liberation of the animal’s soul, was the very act of making it holy, of sacrifice. Burning a part of the flesh, transforming that into ethereal smoke, too, was also oftentimes part of this transformation. Equally important in the process, but not the core act of sacrifice, was the ingesting of the animal’s flesh, most often as a communal affair. That allowed everyone to participate in that transformation, to become part of this Magic.
This complicated procedure was never done lightheartedly. There had to be a major issue at hand; the tribe had to be at a dead end of some sort, or needed one particular outcome of a venture to survive, so that the killing of an animal, of valuable live stock, was warranted.
So, if you are thinking about embarking on an animal sacrifice instead of an offering, don’t even start down that path unless it’s of immensely high importance for your whole community. Cracking a chicken’s neck to secure a new job or something of that nature would not fall under that. From the way the Gods communicate with me, slaughtering a goat to, say, bind an annoying person, is not only quite literally overkill, it would also be viewed as offensive brown-nosing. That one of their creatures would have to give its life for some personal profit or vanity would appall them far more than flatter them.
Also, please avoid, at all cost, justifying an animal sacrifice with “our ancestors weren’t such pussies” (as I have read on occasion in such discussions). Yes, they saw slaughtering of live stock – especially before winter — as a normalcy of life.
But, as discussed above, a sacrifice has never been a normal thing. And the animals chosen for a sacrifice weren’t normal either. Most likely, they were picked by the farmer well in advance, right after they were born, for that exact purpose. They were brought up in a special way: fed better than other animals, even brought into the living quarters to spare them from the elements. The farm family had a deep relationship with these animals.
And thus, when the animal’s time to be sacrificed came, it was a big deal to separate from it. It hurt. Emotional pain and suffering was part of the process. It supposed to hurt. It was the high and painful price to pay for the Gods goodwill.
In that sense, anyone whose plan is to grab a random chicken at the farmer’s market on Wednesday and to kill that poor bird in a non-pussy manner on Saturday has totally missed the point. Don’t go there unless you have obtained the animal as a little fluffy chick or big-eyed lamb, bring it up as if it were your own child, give it all it wants, including your love, and then cry your heart out when you gift it to the Gods (again, also only if the reason for that is of an importance as discussed above).
“So, Libra-man, what’s your decision, your judgment on animal sacrifice?”, I hear you, dear reader, asking. “Well,” I’d say, “Not hard. If your community faces a threat from where the only way out, the only guarantee for survival, is the sacrifice of an animal, and where that animal was brought up by you in the above described manner, or is given to you by a community member and their heart is ripped out by giving it to you, then by all means, conduct an animal sacrifice with the greatest integrity you can muster.
For all other instances: milk and honey. A gold bracelet maybe.
Here’s some food for thought, though. There is a valley in the Alps that has something like three villages, and every so often a ram is sacrificed. Based on a rotation, one family in one village is tapped to rear up a male lamb until its ready to be sacrificed. As it is tradition — stemming from pagan times — this animal is being pampered beyond belief, and then, when its old enough, brought to church in an elaborate procession. Nowadays, it is basically gifted to the church and the community, albeit the sacrifice is that it is not being killed, but rather that is allowed to spend the rest of its life in bliss, grazing on pastures and pampered even more. The sacrifice is that it is not turned into profit.
Just an idea.