The pagan and heathen communities have been discussing animal sacrifice a lot lately. Most people discussing it seem to agree with the brief statement I wrote about it in my book, Asatru For Beginners, which is that ancient heathens did eat animals and did perform animal sacrifices, but if you are not a farmer and do not know how to humanely slaughter an animal, you should not try, because a suffering animal is an insult, not a gift. The discussion from there seems to go in three general directions: that modern city people should not engage in animal sacrifice because it’s no longer part of our culture, that people for whom it is still part of their culture should be able to continue this practice, and that both those ideas can be subtly racist and classist if we’re not careful. There is of course the question of whether to eat animals at all, but once one decides to be a meat eater, it would seem that the moral argument should be in favor of lovingly raised animals rather than factory farming.
One thing that keeps coming up, which I am writing this essay because I feel the need to refute it, is the idea that sacrifice should mean hurting yourself or your family. That sacrifice means pain and deprivation. I think that’s the opposite of what sacrifice is supposed to be about. Having a relationship with the gods, spirits, ancestors, land wights, elves, etc. is supposed to be a positive experience, to benefit you and yours and your community. It’s not supposed to mean you take away from your children and make them go hungry. It’s not supposed to be about throwing away what you need to survive.
I think what we’re missing is that in a traditional farming society that ate meat, the animals were going to be killed anyway. Doing it in a ritualistic, holy manner made an important part of the agricultural year linked to the gods and also made people feel better about what they were doing. Is it not more humane to tell your child who has named the family goat that Butty is going to Thor, not only that Butty has to be killed and eaten because the snow has come and there isn’t enough for him to eat? Is that not the primal impulse to ease the concept of death by commending the souls of those we care about to an afterlife with the gods, whether they are people or animals, whether they were people killed in war or who died of old age, whether they were animals killed for meat or pets who died of old age?
Annual slaughter of excess animals before winter was going to happen whether the blood was dedicated to a god or not, and people were going to eat the meat whether the blood was dedicated to a god or not. The ritual allowed people to share this important event in their lives with the gods and bring the people and the gods and the spirits of the animals closer together.
Sacrifice was not about deprivation. If the gods wanted their people to suffer and starve instead of succeed and thrive, would they still be a people’s patron gods? Beings inimical to life are fought, not welcomed; one of the things the gods do for their people is protect them from such beings (Thor fighting the ice giants, for example.)
These days, most of us who are talking on the internet don’t live in that kind of society anymore, but we still observe feasts, and we invite those we want to have friendship with to these feasts, gods, humans, spirits, etc. It’s about relationship and community. What we give to the gods when we feast, toast, or sacrifice an animal is inclusion in our thanksgiving, the same inclusion we give to the humans invited to attend our celebrations. The food we give people and the blood we give the gods might not be exactly the same thing, but it’s energy in material form that we’re giving, and part of the energy we are giving is the emotional energy we are experiencing when we are giving. When we give joyously, we are giving joy; the energy that is exchanged will be reflected back on us. If we give feeling loss and grief and worry, believing the act of giving will deprive our families and put them at risk, is that not the energy we are putting into the exchange?
I think the word sacrifice has become a confusing word; it is often used in a non-religious context, and when it is so used, it can mean loss or death. The word has picked up negative associations over time. Words change. Perhaps we would be better off simply calling what we give the gods gifts, and what we do giving.
[Erin Lale is the Acquisitions Editor at Eternal Press and Damnation Books. Her writing and publishing career began in 1985. She has an extensive list of published nonfiction, fiction, poetry, etc. In the print era she was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine and owned The Science Fiction Store, and she publishes the shared world Time Yarns.]