Celtic sacrifice by immersion, detail of the Gundestrup Caldron, c. 1st century bc; in the Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen.
This is one of those posts that have been a long time coming. It’s one of those hot button topics in Pagan circles, and please go ahead with the knowledge that as with everything on this blog, this is all my personal spiritual belief system, disagreements, questions, points of contention all welcomed. What sparked this post was a post that came across my dashboard on Tumblr and the discussion that followed (you can read the original post here if you would like). I stand by all that was said there but want to expand further, past a simple conversation between two disagreeing people. To the different notions of sacrifice, to our societies inherent disvalue of food, to how that just does not work for me.
Cursory use of the internet to find the root of the word sacrifice tells us that it wasn’t until recently that it became attributed to “doing without something” or “giving something up” which tends to be its common association today. An association that continues to be retrofitted to ancient peoples and society, and perhaps wrongfully so. With this common societal association comes what appears to be the mainstream point of view of sacrifice and offerings in the modern Pagan community: That is something given of value with intention to the Gods.
No arguments there. But that is a fairly broad and wide plank to stand on and does not hint at the foundation of “Why?” or even what “value” is. Here is where I see the arguments, and not without reasoning, that animal sacrifice is no longer valid. This argument is usually coupled with the idea that sacrifice is to the Gods of things you wish to have more of, and the assigned value that meat and animals no longer have any. It is both of these things that I take a severe left turn from.
For me sacrifice and offerings have long since past the stage of being only about ensuring things that I want. In the beginning I approached sacrifice with the same understanding of it being something that I was giving up for a greater purpose, but after several years of steady offering I’ve come to wonder if that is not just a remnant understanding of the word from a belief system that I do not hold with. After-all it is Christianity that is choked full of its abstaining for the glory of God, of sacrifice bringing us closer to the Divine (whether this is a flawed understanding of Christianity I cannot say, but it is the prevailing one in my life). But is this a pagan thought process? Is this a Celtic one? Is this something that the ancient people of Ireland would have held with? I have to wonder. Or is this merely the point of view that I was raised with and never realized was coloring my perspective? I am going to make it a point this year to go back and see what I can find of pre-christian thought on sacrifice. But even without that academic knowledge I realize that I no longer view my practice in that light.
Chicken Livers prepared as offering
Whether it’s before my altar or within the glory and the presence of the Land, Sky and Sea, I do not sit and take pains over my offerings with the idea or feelings of humbling myself before the Gods. It is not an act of subjugation. Even at it’s most difficult and trying, it is something that I do with great pride and devotion. It is akin to the pride and care that I take in giving gifts to my friends and family, in preparing meals for guests, in prepping for a feast. All that times vastness of the stars in the sky. In short my friends, sacrifice and offerings are about hospitality and loyalty for me. Hospitality and loyalty on the divine scale.
It then goes rather rationally that I never once stopped to question or even ponder over the fact that the majority of my offerings to my Gods were of a consumptive nature. More precisely food. Because what is the cross-cultural symbol of hospitality? The act in which we do for each other to show we care? Sharing and giving food. We are mortal, without food we would die. This is a fact that is overlooked in American society but is still a fact none-the-less. It is an act of good will to feed the Gods and any spirit we wish to commune with. An act that is unique unto us. Obviously other tokens of offering are equally worthy, but no other offering besides food seems to be brushed aside so much on the internet at least.
I understand where the point of view comes from, but I feel like it is a iffy one. If I were to believe that the Ancient Celts were a bunch of mud-covered barbarians eeking out survival in the hill sides, then I can easily see how the privileged of today could lead you to believe the simple offering of bread and beer paltry in comparison to the days before. But I don’t believe that, the more I learn about the Ancient world in general the more this view of third-world standard just doesn’t seem to hold. True, life and death were much nearer and dearer then. Yes there were those poor who lived like that. But I wonder more and more if it was in fact the majority. The Celts were people of trade, of commerce, of agriculture, of war. These things do not lend themselves to such a rudimentary thinking. If I were to follow that logic, “because we live in modern times and food doesn’t have the same life or death value, so it won’t have the same meaning”, then sacrificing or making offering of little handmade crafts and goods does not equate the same meaning either. In fact in order to equate the same meaning (the meaning that value is something that is crucial to the livelihood of the person) then the only fit sacrifice would be large sums of ones income or maybe ones vehicle.
Thankfully I do not hold to this notion of sacrifice, or to the lack of value to food. Anyone who knows me, knows that I HIGHLY value food. A value I believe that was shared by the ancient world. Because while there are many wonderful and beautifully made artifacts of monetary value that have been found that were ritually sacrificed, never has that eclipsed the offering of food. But America is a strange place now, a place that does not value food and yet is obsessed with it. Obsessed with the over eating of it, of the process of making it faster and better, of reclaiming it, of any laundry list of things to do with it and yet…the FDA just announced it’s giving up on regulating antibiotic abuse in the meat industry, we have a meat and dairy industry that is abhorrent, cities take the notion that home grown veggies are too ugly to look at and should be illegal, the government has allowed companies to gain a monopoly on seeds in the farming industry, process foods reign supreme, the young and grown suffer from horrible eating disorders, bizarre and unhealthy diets continue to make the front page in magazines around the nation. All of this leads to an atmosphere that it is no wonder a majority of people have an unhealthy relationship with food. But does all that mean that food has no spiritual value anymore?
Not to me. To me food will always be one of those basic building blocks of creation, of magic, of alchemy. We put the pieces together, all the ingredients, prepare it, consume it. And in turn it helps us grow, aids us in our self-healing, keeps us alive. On a spiritual level it brings us together, creates bonds, symbolizes and holds up so much of cultural structures. There simply must be power in it. Being the somewhat animist I am it goes to follow that the more hands on, the more connected with it (as with any offering) you can get, the more strength and power it has. It is why all my food offerings are made with as little processed food as possible. It’s why when given the chance to go and make offering to the fruit trees and harvest the fruit myself before making it into bread or otherwise, I JUMP at the chance. It enhances the magic, it enhance the relationship, the connective thread of hospitality. From there it is just a small and tiny jump to wanting to be able to prepare and see through the process of life and death for my meat and for my Gods. There is a mystery, an initiation that comes with seeing the cycle of life and death through. Of taking it into your body, of being the one responsible for insuring its sanctity and humane nature. It is one of my goals in life to live in such a place that is possible. Now I can see how if you did not eat meat, for whatever reason, that then the act of animal sacrifice and offerings of meat would follow to be irrelevant to your practice. But to those who eat meat and still say that animal sacrifice is meaningless and invalid today, to me are also saying that offering and sacrifice of food is meaningless and invalid. I simply cannot agree.
Obviously these principles of offering, of sacrifice, are deeply sacred and personal things. They should be considered at length and frequently. At the moment I am content and solid in coming to this understanding of sacrifice separate from the one that prevailed before. It brings me great feelings of rightness to know that my sacrifices are not made solely under the pretense of need on my part or my deities part. But out of joyful devotion to them, and reciprocated respect. That I accept the fact that I eat meat, that my Gods enjoy it as well, and that when the time comes I am willing to see that through to its end. I continue to hope and strive for a world where traditions and faiths that can practice their values (that are within just laws) without recourse. And that in the end we come to an understanding of letting people worship what Gods they will.