From time to time the topic of Pagans and Sacrifice comes up in various forums online. Unfortunately, the majority of people (including pagans) who talk about Sacrifice don’t seem to understand about sacrifice. Most think of sacrifice (in the connotation of Pagan religions) as dealing with human sacrifice or animal sacrifice. While those are ancient practices and valid forms of sacrifice, they are not all that is.
First we need to understand the definition of sacrifice. Sacrifice means simply “to make sacred”. It is from the Latin root and in modern times it is defined as giving up something of value to gain something you wish.
Pretty cut and dried, but when it is translated into Pagan Religion, all anyone can see is things like the Wicker Men of legend, bog drownings, burning bodies and cattle dropping dead.
Because of this persistent vision of what sacrifice is, the act of sacrificing something to the Gods has a VERY bad reputation.
But let’s think about this for a few moments. Sacrifice does not have to be bad, since it’s done all the time by most Pagans.
Ever think of the act of consecration? Cleansing it and going over it with the salted water and so on or whatever ritual you do to make that item sacred sacrifices it to the Gods. You just gave something to Them. Granted you still get to USE it in your rituals, but taking that special goblet that your grandparents drank their wedding toast out of and consecrating it to use in ritual has taken it from the realm of the mundane and special into the realm of the sacred. So that sacrifices it.
You have, in effect, given it to the Gods.
You can do this with any object; a knife, a harp, a person, a steer, a mouse, an owl, a candle, a poppet, a stuffed animal or anything else. Heck, you can even take food, already prepared and cooked food and sacrifice it to the Gods.
Time is another sacrificial object. Most people don’t realize that it can be sacrificed until someone points it out to them blatantly like this, but time, effort and energy can all be sacrificed. It takes time to do something, to make something, to create something of your own. That is a sacrificial act. Creating candles and dedicating them to the Gods is sacrificing them to those Gods, even if you go out and use them to burn on the altar or to light up the chapel or circle.
Creating a poem is a sacrifice. I wrote an article on Lugh and on Tailtu at one point and sacrificed them to them during a ritual to get a new job. It’s perfectly valid to do so and a good and original sacrifice as well. It represented my willingness to sacrifice something that I spent time creating for Them.
In my opinion these original sacrifices are worth more than all the gold and food in the world. They show that one was thinking and that you actually took the tastes of the deity you are sacrificing to into consideration. If it were up to me, I would be more inclined to look favorably upon someone who was sacrificing something that was original than something that everyone gave.
In some cultures and deity sets, the more valuable a sacrifice is to the giver, the more acceptable it is to the Gods in question. One story I remember hearing as I grew up is of a ritual where the Gods would bless this town with health, wealth and prosperity if a sacrifice made to them was valuable enough. The Gods favor would be shown by the bell in the main cathedral ringing with no hand touching it. There had been ten years straight of famine so it was very important that this ritual come about and please the Gods. So the entire town gathered to make their sacrifices to the Gods, and as time passed things became more and more worrisome. Hundreds of people paraded past the altar and made their sacrifice with no result. From the poor to the rich, each gave what they considered to be a proper sacrifice to the Gods, but nothing happened. Finally the King himself knelt before the altar and placed his crown on the altar, sacrificing it to the Gods. Still no bells. The people were crushingly depressed. Finally, the last person to make an offering was this little beggar boy. He approached the altar with a silver coin he had begged from passers by. With this coin he could eat for a month. He placed it on the altar and when he moved away, the bells rang out for hours. The Gods were pleased with the monumental size of the sacrifice the beggar gave.
The beggar boy had given his entire worldly goods and in the process directly harmed himself to please the Gods, so his town could prosper. It showed a willingness to give that is the core of sacrifice.
The ritual of Cakes and Ale is a sacrificial ritual. Yes, it is also a ritual of Thanksgiving, one of sharing the bounty of the Earth with the Gods, but it is a Sacrificial rite.
Most people have this idea that sacrifice has to involve a living thing. But what about burning herbs in honor of the Gods? Is that a sacrifice? I say it is.
You worked to find those herbs. You dried them, and now you are giving them to the Gods in a ritual of honor. It takes energy and time to do all that, plus the herb you grew/found is now not usable by you for any reason. It is therefore a sacrifice. It may look like it is not since the Gods grew the plant and all you did was harvest it, but you fussed over it too. Even if you wild-crafted the herb (meaning you went and searched for it in the wild), you still had to do the work to find the herb if nothing else.
This point I have spent many hours in debate with the Gods about. It basically comes down to this; if you feel the Gods would enjoy something, if it is something you enjoy or that is valuable to you, then sacrifice it to Them.
I didn’t believe this, so I tried it once. I baked a loaf of bread for the Dagda for a spell I needed to come to pass. He loves bread and porridge, and I thought it was appropriate since it was something that looked to me as though it would be of little importance. I mean, bread is bread.
My wife and I made a big deal of it, grinding the meal (we added oats to the bread), pounding and rolling it out, braiding it and putting it in the oven. And I offered it to Him. He was very pleased and even more so when I gave it all to the Birds who would be hungry for it. But it was such a little thing and it gave so much joy to many people around us. And the Gods were pleased.
Which brings up the point of what about the Voodoo custom of bringing cakes and alcohol to celebrations and giving them to the spirits? Well, understand that I’m not a practitioner of Voodoo, but I have learned (despite everything) from some of the specials on voodoo on channels like Discovery. What I remember one mambo saying about that was that the loa eat the spirit or the essence of the food offerings, leaving the physical behind. It is only natural at that point for the celebrants to have that to share in the bounty with the loa. It’s like a partnership where one animal eats only the forequarters, and another eats only the hindquarters. It makes sense for them to hunt together at that point so there is no waste.
Now, what I have talked about are the other forms of sacrifice. Your time, your energy, items you made, your attention, spells, poems, service and so on can all be sacrificed to the Gods. Let’s grasp the nettle here and talk about Human, Animal and Blood sacrifice.
Any discussion of these three topics needs to start with the disclaimer of these are special case sacrifices, and the people participating in them HAVE to know what they are doing. Those who have no clue are letting themselves in for a world of hurt and are going to spoil what is a sacred rite.
Here’s the point of these sacrifices; there should be no pain. The goal of these sacrifices is the energy bleed off.
When a life ends, there is a rush of energy that is released by that death. This is true for ANY living thing, plant, animal, human or whatever. It happens when a bacteria dies (but it’s so miniscule that most people don’t sense it). This life energy is exactly like the “Force” of Star Wars fame, and it can be channeled into the same purposes. That energy is simply lost when something dies, but those that know what they are doing can gather that energy and force it into spells or into other uses to boost it. BUT pain and anger and hatred and fear “taints” that energy. Just like using a paint stick that has mixed red paint to mix white paint without cleaning it first will result in a bucket full of pink paint, so too will fear and anger make this energy useless.
Blood sacrifice is exactly that, spilling your blood and offering that to the Gods. For some there is a mystic use for blood. Like Lugh (the Celtic God) had to store his spear (which had a flaming head) in a bucket of puppy blood to keep it from burning down everything from an unquenchable fire. For others, there is no greater essence of life than blood. Plus, it is nutritional all on it’s own. You can eat blood and live off it. Granted it’s very hard to do so and you will get sick, but what do you think Blood Sausage is? It’s mostly cooked blood.
But those that have been analyzing the attraction of Vampires have done a better job than I could do in telling you about the mystic use of blood. It is a primordial substance and an essential one. Because of CENTURIES of association with life, spilling blood voluntarily becomes a huge sacrifice for others.
Now, I’m not saying that every deity out there will enjoy a sacrifice of blood. Far from that, most will be repelled. However, there are some that do demand blood sacrifice and have demanded it in the past, therefore sacrificing blood to them will help your cause with that deity. Should you do this lightly? Not at all. It should be done only when there is little else that can be done and when there is great need.
Are there other solutions besides just letting it drip out of your hand/arm? Certainly. One of the most original blood sacrifices is dealt with in this article.
As to animal sacrifice. This one is a lot more problematic. There are traditions out there who practice it currently as part of their holy rites. There are some versions of Santeria, Voodoo and some pagan beliefs that do so as well. In EVERY case, the animal is treated with respect and honor. It is fed the best of the best, it is praised and sung to and the death it experiences is quick and painless. Great care is taken to ensure that the animal does not suffer during the actual sacrificial process. For the object of the sacrifice to suffer and to have a torturous experience is a terrible omen and will destroy the sanctity of the rite like nothing else will.
This is not about pain. This is about an offering to the Gods. The best animal in the herd is offered to the Gods, the energy is taken to fuel the ritual or spell the animal was sacrificed for, the soul of that animal is sent to the Gods for THEIR feast, and the flesh of that animal is eaten in a mirror feast among the practitioners. It’s not discarded or thrown into the ditch as some believe (that is an act of sacrilege and wasteful. Why praise and take care of the animal, thanking it for sacrificing itself and then throw it aside casually like day old bread?) but it is eaten and partaken of in a sacred rite. It also occurs to me that this act can have the same effect as other eating rituals. Eating the heart of a deer one has hunted and killed ritualistically takes the power of the deer into oneself. Ritually eating the body of a sacrificed animal takes the purity and those blessings of the Gods into oneself.
Human sacrifice is a different order of magnitude. Let me state that this is NOT practiced by any sect or religion that I know of currently. It may be done illegally, but if it is, the participants would be charged with murder under most laws of Western Nations. However, it was a valid form of worship back in the day.
Basically it’s the same as animal sacrifice with two differences: The first was that the sacrifice went to plead the case of those committing the sacrifice directly to the Gods themselves and second, the flesh was (normally) not eaten afterward. I say “normally” because some cannibal tribes probably did eat it.
Once again the sacrifice themselves was the best of the best, someone who was pampered and praised and made to feel special, then they were killed in a ritual that did the least amount of pain to them. When the soul got to the afterlife, they were normally under orders by the priests to plead whatever case they had to the Gods directly. This showed the Gods that the situation was very serious and that immediate help was needed. I mean, if you are willing to give up your life to talk to the Gods about a problem the tribe is having….
One special note on Human sacrifice; the people who were the sacrifices were volunteers. It may have been a case of “I can sacrifice you in a ritual, or we can starve/torture you to death, but either way you are going to die” kind of a choice, but they could trade a potentially painful death for one that would allow you to die at peace. But they were volunteers.
There are some who may still practice this, but it is not a matter of someone else doing it to them, but more along the lines of self-sacrifice in the form of suicide. Groups like the Heaven’s Gate cult can be seen as practicing self-sacrifice to bring about a specific end. It is simultaneously a form of protest and channeling their lives into a greater goal. Buddhists used to do this all the time.
Some notes on sacrifice: There are those who believe that sacrifice, especially willing human sacrifice, has the power to change the world. Not the extreme cults either, but Judeo-Christianity believes this. Let’s look at the biggest sacrifice in history, Jesus’ crucifixion. According to the belief of the followers of Christ, his sacrifice saved the entire world, past, present and future from the fires of Hell so long as they believe that he sacrificed himself for their sins. And that is a hugely powerful magickal act.
Scapegoating has been known for centuries by many peoples. It is basically a cleansing ritual in which the purest animal in the village is ritually “loaded down” with all the evilness, pettiness and sins of the people of the village, then it’s sacrificed to the Gods. That takes all the sins of that village to the Gods and the people are clean again. This allows for closure on many things that could fester and get worse and worse over time for those people.
And if you look at it, the sacrifice of Jesus was just another form of scapegoating. Ritually cleansing the whole planet so long as they buy into the ritual in the first place.
Now, all that said, I know of very few groups who still practice Blood or Animal sacrifice and I know of no groups who actively practice Human sacrifice. But this is not to say that those who do are wrong. It is saying that their practices are not my practices and may not be YOUR practices. It makes them different, not wrong.
If you think of it, there are mainstream practices of Animal sacrifice all the time. Kosher law (in which the blood is removed and the rabbi checks to make sure the animal is clean) is a sacrifice of a kind, and saying prayers before dining CERTAINLY is an animal sacrifice. In case you don’t get it, the animal is killed and made into hamburger patties. Then you bless and thank the animal for sharing its body with you. That is one definition of a sacrifice, since the food is now blessed and sacred. This happens every day. So don’t jump to conclusions too quickly about the need or evils of sacrifice. And this holds true for any meal you eat, it was a living thing that has given its life for you and you have thanked it, therefore it is now a sacrifice.
I mean, if you base an entire religion around a human sacrifice, it can’t be THAT bad, can it?
Let me add a personal observation here. Sacrifice is not bad. It simply is. Animal sacrifice may not have any place in Wiccan practices, but that does not mean it is not a valid form of worship for others. Human sacrifice isn’t bad either, so long as it is not done casually and care is taken for the person to be sacrificed, but unfortunately most law enforcement agencies aren’t going to see it that way. Thankfully this is not that big of a problem, no matter what the fanatics try to convince you of otherwise.
Update March 3, 2006
I was contacted by a lady who read this article and had some things to add to it. I’ll share her comments with you here:
By Cassi Dixon
Thoughts on Sacrifice, in specific animal sacrifice:
Animal sacrifice in which the animal is eaten afterwards also serves the purpose of connecting the participants with the cycle of life/death. In industrial society most people get their meat prepackaged and are very removed from the actual process of animal husbandry and slaughter. There’s little relationship between the cellophane wrapped bundles in the store and the animal that gave up its life to bring you dinner. Most people have no idea of their place in the lifecycle because they have no relationship to their food.
You cannot have an functional acknowledgment of the cyclic nature of life without seeing yourself in that lifecycle. Animal sacrifice serves to drive home “something dies, you eat – you die, something else eats”. This of course has even broader implications for most practitioners of Pagan religions because our gods are not only gods of life, but gods of death as well. In many cases our gods have even died in order to keep the lifecycle moving. Bringing our awareness to our place in the divine order brings us into unity with the Divine itself. Sacrifice not only makes the food sacred and consecrated to the Gods, it makes the person who consumes the food sacred as well.
You can do this of course with plant products, but most people are not capable of easily making the leap that plants are also alive until we kill them for food. Many sacred stories and practices were created in the past to try to illustrate the point to us, the God of the grain dies at harvest time and is consumed by the followers in a ritual manner, but even in modern day Paganism such practices and stories are rarely observed.
Sounds good to me. I wish I had thought of this.