Animal Sacrifice: a bloody mess of a topic

Based on the comments from Ancient Cans of Whoop-Ass, I figured I may as well compile some of my own thoughts on the topic of animal sacrifice.  The topic came up because, in the process of bringing up a ritual from the PGM, it was noted that the use of the blood and head of a donkey (an animal sacred to Set-Typhon) or any animal was abhorrent to some people.  I have my own points of view on the matter, as surely we all do, and it’s definitely a touchy or messy subject for a lot of us to think clearly about.  To be blunt, I don’t have an issue with it.  For some people and paths, it’s not only a good thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.  For others, it’s the wrong thing to do and can cause more harm.  Like everything else, there’s no clear-cut answer, and the acceptability of animal sacrifice depends on the context in which it occurs.

First, let’s clear up a few terms:

  • Sacrifice is the ritual offering of something to a god or spirit.  It literally means “to make holy”, and refers to the dedication of some act, object, or intent to a higher purpose.  A material object, a physical action, an emotion, invention, or discovery of thought or resource can all be sacrificed and made holy to a god.
  • Animal sacrifice, then, is the ritual offering of an animal to a god or spirit.  This can take two forms: giving a live animal to a god, such as the Asclepian snakes living in the temples to Asclepius back in the day, or killing an animal to dedicate its life and blood to the god.  For the purposes of this post, I’ll be referring to the latter method of killing an animal.
  • Animal sacrifice is not the same thing as the use of animals, animal parts, or animal life in magical rituals, especially “low magic” that doesn’t involve the gods but relies on the animal’s own occult virtues.  Of course, things always get hairy when discussing the differences between magic and religion, but I hope the difference is clear.

There’s a lot of drama between people who support animal sacrifice and those who don’t, and even those who aren’t against animal sacrifice and don’t properly belong in either group (but for some reason or another often get thrown into one side by the other).  Emotions run high and a lot of assumptions remain hidden, and it’s often these basic philosophical ideas and assumptions that are at the real root of the matter.  Here’s a rough sketch of the Hermetic and Western philosophical background I’m coming from:

  • All things descend from the divine Source.  This means that humans, animals, plants, metals, stones, angels, demons, and everything from the lowest hell to the highest heaven share the same spark of holiness.  This does not, however, mean that all things are on the same level of holiness or that all things share equally in consciousness or power.
  • Animals have spirit and intelligence and consciousness; nobody’s debating that.  What would the point of animal sacrifice be of something without spirit, intelligence, or consciousness?
  • Animals are connected into the cosmos as humans are; we all have our part to play.  Just as animals fight and kill other animals for their survival and betterment, humans fight and kill animals for their survival and betterment.  Let’s assume that we’re not talking about intra-species killing, e.g. wolves against wolves or humans against humans.
  • Even though (individual?) animals have spirit and intelligence and consciousness, they’re on the same level of spirit, intelligence, or consciousness as humans.  In terms of activity, spirituality, and food acquisition, humans are higher on the food chain and have been for most of our evolution.  We don’t interact with them in the same ways as humans, even humans whose languages and cultures are utterly different from our own.  Likewise, some animals treat predators on their level in similar ways or fight them for dominance, and predators treat prey further below them as, well, prey.
  • Humans are higher than animals, and as humans made in the image of God and act as an intermediary between the physical and metaphysical realms, we are entrusted with the care and use of the world and things around us in the cosmos.  If something works for us in a way that brings us what we desire, we’re enabled to go ahead and do it according to our means and power, which we should be increasing anyway.
  • Just as humans are higher than animals, the gods are higher than humans; so, the gods will make use of humans for their power just as humans will animals.  However, because we’re higher than animals and operate in different ways, this means that the gods have the option to make use of us in different ways than animals, and may appreciate the slaughtering of animals and not that of humans, accepting the worship and service of humans instead.

Am I saying that animal sacrifice is kick-ass awesome and everyone should get in on it?  No.  For one, there are other means to achieve the same ends that animal sacrifice obtains; it’s far from the only method of raising energy or empowering devotional or magical acts, though it’s certainly a powerful one.  For two, not all sacrifices have to be made with animal life, and sometimes an offering of plant life or symbols of prosperity will suffice.  Not everyone should kill, or even can; Pythagoreans were prohibited from killing or eating animals, and Buddhist and Jain monks are prevented from killing any living thing, though other devotees may make use of killing in trantric paths.  People involved in African diasporic religions make frequent use of the ritual killing of animals, and those involved with seriously reconstructing any number of ancient pagan paths from the Hellenic to Nordic to Semitic will eventually have to come to terms with the fact that the gods accepted, approved, and desired animal sacrifice.  This has happened across almost every culture, especially Indo-European and Abrahamic ones, for thousands of years, and for thousands of years into prehistory before or as cultures were coming together into civilizations.

Not all gods will want this to happen: some gods have begun to accept other sacrifices despite being accustomed to animal sacrifices over the centuries, while others are too young to ever have developed a taste for it.  However, to assume that all gods in every path and pantheon have “evolved” with humanity (a gross misuse of the term) to live without animal sacrifice is both short-sighted and hubristic.  Evolution does not suggest improvement, but only change and adaptation; the gods, being eternal and (usually) immortal, don’t have to evolve if they don’t want to., and the gods don’t have to change along with humanity if they don’t want to.  If anything, humans are changing faster and more than the gods ever will, and it may very well be that humans are changing in ways disagreeable to the gods rather than the gods ever having done disagreeable things.  Further, if you’re assuming anything on the part of the gods, you may have to answer for it if you happen to assume differently than how they actually think, and historically as well as mythologically this has ended poorly.  Consider Abel and Cain: they each made their offerings to the Lord, one of meat and one of grain, and Abel’s offering of meat was accepted while Cain’s wasn’t.  Cain thought that sucked, and so killed Abel; he assumed that this would be okay, and it wasn’t.  Consider, also, the siblings Antigone and Creon: Antigone wanted to obey the gods’ injunction to bury their deceased brother who had unfortunately committed treason, while king Creon threatened death against anyone who would dare it.  Antigone buried their brother; Creon had her buried alive as punishment.  Since it was the will of the gods that their brother should be buried as due to him, and since Creon hubristically decided otherwise, Creon got smacked and hard by the gods.

As for respecting animals and their spirits, that’s to go without saying.  Being the caretakers of the cosmos, born into it both as natives and visitors from the Source, we can’t just say “take it, rape it, it’s yours”.  That’s ascribing too much to ourselves and is dangerously prideful, and denies the holiness of everything else in the cosmos.  Animals are to be respected, honored, and cherished, but (based on the above cosmological framework), not put on the same level as humans.  I’m not saying you should grab any old cat or dog or raccoon off the roads, break their backs or skin them alive or douse them in lighter fluid, and drop them whole onto an altar; that’s disrespectful and needlessly painful.  When an animal sacrifice is to be done, it should be done to respect the humanity of the officiant, the divinity of the divine, and the holiness of the animal sacrificed/made sacred.  This is how we developed ritual acts of killing to begin with, done in prescribed ways to provide as clean and painless a death to the animal as needed, from which we have laws of kosher and halal butchery (which are known for being among the most sanitary, efficient, and respectful ways to kill animals for food and sacrifice).  Even then, some gods and practices require extreme forms of sacrifice, such as the tearing apart of goats in the Dionysian mysteries or the aspersion of blood in ancient Judaism, but these are also acceptable in their own contexts, because they’re allowed and supported by the gods that ask for them.*

Nothing’s stopping you or anyone else from respecting animals as humanity’s equals, if that’s your philosophy or cosmology, but by doing so in the Western framework you may be elevating animals to a position they may not have earned or lowering humans to a level they may be beyond.  Some (many?) humans are indeed on or below the level of animals, and some animals are indeed on or above the level of humans; these entities are exceptions to the rule, and again have their own context to consider.  Just as one wouldn’t be casting pearls before swine, one may want to think twice before sacrificing a certain animal that’s exhibited far and beyond normal animal qualities.

One more thing: karma.  Though a useful concept in the contexts in which it arose (with different definitions for different dharmic paths), karma doesn’t have a place in Western traditions.  It’s an import, it doesn’t make sense when used by a lot of poorly-understanding laypeople, and it doesn’t quite fit with a lot of other things even when well-understood.  In Western philosophies and paths, we often have the notion of a divine, infinite Source, and when you throw anything infinite into the mix, all notions of balance and zero-sum games get thrown out of the window.  The physical universe and metaphysical cosmos is not limited, in the Western framework in which I operate, and so there is no need for ancient actions to have to have effects except for those allowed by those involved, though it may be difficult to escape them.  When you have infinity on your side, you really can do anything, and it’s hinted at that devas, bodhisattvas, and buddhas in dharmic paths are enabled to act without generating karma.  Even in Vedic Hinduism in which the notion of karma first arose, there were common thoughts of karma being dispensed by the gods themselves which could be placated into dealing less punishment or more blessings.  Hinduism, too, also allows and supports animal sacrifice in some contexts (primarily those worshipping Shakti, the divine feminine), and if they with their notions of karma can get by with it, I don’t see why others can’t.  Saying that animal sacrifice is “karmically bad” or “continuing suffering” is short-sighted; this ignores the past karma of the animal that led it there to be sacrificed, whether its karma warranted a more severe or painful death than the one given to it, whether the combined karma of animal and officiant was overall a good or bad thing, whether the animal sacrifice was an expedient means to solve bigger problems, and so forth.  Again, generalized and myopic use of misunderstood terms won’t help here.

You’ll notice that I keep using the word “context”, and it’s important you recognize what I mean when I use it.  I refer to the culture in which something occurs, the reasons and circumstances for something, and the people and entities involved with it.  Cultural appropriation is the act of taking something from one context and using it in a radically different one, dogmatic purity is the restriction of allowing any externally-derived innovation in a certain context, and so forth.  When I say “context”, I’m really saying “it depends”, because a lot depends on how, when, where, why, for what, and by whom something occurs.  Calling something “barbaric” or “abhorrent” disregards the notion of context, and is a kind of appropriation and judgment that often cannot be reasonably or reliably made from outside the relevant context; it’s a different story if you’re operating within that context.  Blanket statements cannot be made except at the highest, most general level, and at that level you can’t get much more specific than “it is” or “shit happens”; when you get any more specific or specialized than the cosmos taken as a complete whole in which everything occurs as it should, you’re going to run into different paths with different notions of acceptability.  Just as I wouldn’t use Solomonic conjurations to get the Greek gods to do something for me, so too would I not use animal sacrifice for a god that didn’t want it.  Different people have different views of divinity, and have different relationships with their gods than you may have; telling them that their practices are wrong when they’ve got it on good authority (assumingly) that they’re right is, simply, disrespectful and ignorant of their context.

As for my own practice, I do not make use of animal sacrifice, but am generally not against it.  I offer praise, wine, food, candles, incense, and the occasional flowers to the gods and spirits I work with, and while sufficient, I also don’t work with gods or spirits that I know demand animal or blood sacrifices (that I know of).  The god Hermes, with whom I’m starting a much closer relationship than I had expected to, has said that he would appreciate the sacrifice of small birds or larger animals, but understands that I am not in a place or position to do so; this may change when I move out of an apartment into a place with my own land and yard, and when I learn the proper procedures and handling involved.  The use of animal blood, organs, or other body parts are well-attested in Solomonic, ceremonial, and Western magic generally, and are not always some “witch’s code” or blind that swapped out names of herbs or bodily fluids with exotic names of animal parts.  Sometimes substitutions can be made, like this nasty mixture I’m setting for consecrating the Solomonic black-handled knife to stand in for the blood of a black cat; sometimes, the use of animal fluids, parts, or life cannot be substituted without a much greater cost.

I understand that even a position as mild(?) as mine will get some people riled up, angry, vitriolic, and downright spiteful of my very existence.  Some people, like militant vegans or extreme PETA activists, will vociferously argue against the use of any animal life for personal gain in any way; that’s okay, though I find their arguments against killing animals in any case to be more emotionally than logically or philosophically driven, not to mention ideologically oppressive.  Honestly, if a topic like animal sacrifice is all it takes to set someone off and think less of me, I’m sure they’d find more unsavory and disagreeable things to hate me over.  If you’d like to discuss this further, privately or publicly in the comments, feel free to, but keep it respectful, reasonable, and rational.

*  Remind me to work out my own notion of holiness and fix Socrates’ issues with piety later.