Blood Sacrifices Are So Messy

My inbox over Thanksgiving weekend was flooded with talk of — you guessed it — blood sacrifices.

The debate raged over whether making blood sacrifices, a practice strongly rejected by my tradition, ADF, is worth consideration. After all (the argument goes), the ancients did it. Plus, there’s a case being made for the awareness of a meat-eater’s own bloody relationship with food. If we can eat it, should we not be able to kill it? And if we kill it, should there not be some acknowledgment of the Kindred in the form of a ritual blessing and offering?

Some might, I imagine, like to see some sort of Druidic Kosher or Pagan Halal put into place. Others, understandably, are concerned that any time a Pagan gets blood on their hands — literally — the crazies come out with their pitch forks chanting “Satanist!! Satanist!!”

Even just talking about blood sacrifices is messy.

(This man was not harmed in the taking of this sardonic photo.)

The timing of this sanguine debate lines up with a different conversation, one that was concerned not with literal blood and tissue but rather with the metaphorical heart and all of its messiness. This was what I planned to write about today. I was even going to call it, Sacrificing the Heart: A New Pagan Tradition. 

My idea was that we need to examine our own hearts, and perhaps allow them to be offered up — to one another, to whatever we think the Gods are — in order to know better what our raw materials for religious practice are made of. We produce those raw materials, after all. Shouldn’t we take a closer look at what we’re working with? Shouldn’t we seek to know our own heart?

This leads to more interesting questions. What is the heart, anyway? Is it the seat of the soul? The center of our energetic body? The location of our inner-knowing? Is the heart the author of our UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis), or is it the translator?

All this and more came from the idea of offering one’s own heart as a sacrifice. The richness of the discussion that (I think) could be born out of a talk of sacrificing one’s own heart is made possible by the fact that we aren’t talking about literally cutting out one’s heart and laying it on an altar. We’re talking in metaphor, and using metaphor as a way of becoming aware of a deeper meaning.

“Offering” by Katherine Harper (CC)

I’m reminded of conversations that took place years ago in the adult forum of my former Christian church. It was asked whether the Bible was laying out for parishioners an instruction manual for living (a “How-To” book, basically), or if it was intended to be used as a tool for unlocking the inner mysteries.

Some believed, as many Christians do, that the Bible was instructive and prescriptive. These were the folks that favored the legalistic books, the ones that spelled out clearly what was allowed and what was not.

Others favored the mystic writings of John or the poetic book of the Psalms, because these works were steeped in metaphor and clearly intended to evoke something in the heart.

The legalists believed that their actions would, in some way, bring either God’s favor or his wrath. The mystics, on the other hand, relished in the idea that God was the greatest mystery of all, and that seeking to appease him with “right action” did more to make a deity into a human than anything else.

I wonder if something similar is happening here.

Is the talk about literal blood sacrifice too one-dimensional? Is it without the rich, layered meaning of a metaphorical sacrifice of the heart? Or, is there something to the argument that Pagans need to make our religions more visceral?

Do we believe that the Gods want blood in order to be in relationship with us? Do we think they want the full engagement of our heart? Perhaps they want from nothing from us at all, and we are simply projecting our idea of “wanting” onto our idea of deity.

How do you sort through the messiness of sacrifice?





23 responses to “Blood Sacrifices Are So Messy”

  1. Herald Cedarsong Grove Avatar
    Herald Cedarsong Grove

    For me, this is a vocabulary issue, as I do not see the two words as interchangeable. At least internally, I separate “sacrifice” from “offering” when I make it.

    A sacrifice, to me, is something that I will miss – a bottle of mead for Odin, or the last twinkie that I will ever possess, which I am saving for our Grove Ancestor. These are things that I would certainly have enjoyed myself, and I am foregoing that pleasure myself in favor of providing it to a Being. The transferred enjoyment is the sacrifice. For this reason, I could not personally offer a blood sacrifice – I am squeamish, and the idea of saying “I do this for you” before doing something I know will make me retch (or even vomit) seems more insulting than reverent.

    An offering, though, is something that will not be denying myself a pleasure, but instead was specifically purchased or created for the purpose of gifting to a Being. The seeds I harvested from fresh papaya and dried for Possibility, the carefully strung silver for the well… These are things that I *invested* in, whether my time or my money (but often both). They were gathered or created only to be offered, and thus, the investment is as much the offering as the item itself.

    For that reason, I don’t feel that I can “offer” my heart. Here, again, I stick on vocabulary. When I offer something, it is something that I freely give up and never intended to have a personal use for. Since I want to continue using my heart (in both the literal and metaphorical senses), I do not feel that I can *give* it. I can, however, dedicate certain acts or deeds to a specific Being, or even just say, “Here I am, mold me as you will.”

    My UPG tends toward offerings being better received than sacrifices, and dedicated actions being received much like a “hey, I thought of you and smiled” text message to a friend. (With the exception of sacrificing mead to Odin, of course. He seems to like the notion that I am actually giving something up for him!)

    Clear as mud, right?


  2. A Sense of Place Avatar

    I think the boundary between metaphor and the visceral is a lot more blurred than you imply here. There’s a phrase I found in a Tibetan Buddhist text that really gave me pause for thought and deepened my Pagan practice immeasurably. I can’t remember the wording exactly now, but it was something like, “There is no difference/separation between a symbol and what it represents.”

    For example, living in Scotland, the stories of the Cailleach, Angus and Bride can be seen as metaphors for the seasonal cycles of the region. However, they are also literal descriptions of meteorological and seasonal phenomena – for example, in the season when the stories say the Cailleach goes into a rage, there are thunderstorms; at the when she washes her shawl in the Coire Bhreachan is when the whirlpool is at its strongest, and when she hangs her shawl out to dry on the ground, we expect a lot of low-lying mist.

    I’ve gone off the point a little, but a blood sacrifice is not only literally about blood; it is also a methaphor in itself, just as an emotional or spiritual sacrifice isn’t only a metaphor but a literal thing.

    But when it comes to a ‘sacrifice of the heart’ to the Gods and Powers, to me that’s like saying getting married is a sacrifice – it’s a different kind of thing.

    — Elinor x

  3. crafters22001 Avatar

    My teacher Lady Rhea said that if you felt a blood sacrifice was called for, you should sacrifice your own blood.

  4. Eran Rathan Avatar

    Teo –
    I find myself in an odd spot on this one. On the one hand, I think that Uncle Isaac had it right in that we help create the gods, that our belief in Them helps to sustain Them. I also think that the law of conservation of mass-energy is largely ignored in Pagan circles – you can’t get something from nothing, and magic always comes with a price. Whether it is the gods Themselves or our own power, I subscribe to the idea that anything that can be done with magic takes the exact same amount of energy as doing it mundanely, and so sacrifice, if one is asking the gods to do something, is utterly necessary, and that energy will be either physical objects or a lot of energy (depending on what you are asking for). I also believe that blood contains our animus, the energy that sustains life, and that it is one of the most powerful forms of sacrifice there is.

    On the other hand, I do see where a metaphorical sacrifice, or a sacrifice of one’s time and energy, could be made as well. Since time is merely another direction, giving up one’s time is a sacrifice of potential energy.

    And, while I gleaned this from a UPG, I was told once, “Never give up what is not yours to give.” in regards to whether or not a sacrifice was acceptable or not. Your mileage (and deities) may vary.

  5. Cosette Paneque Avatar

    I haven’t entirely worked out how I feel about animal sacrifice. It’s a vital part of Santeria and one that I’ve witnessed and participated in a few times as part of my initiations on that path. When the animal is later eaten, I don’t have a problem with it. When it’s not, that’s more of an issue for me.

  6. Dave Avatar

    In many ways the ADF liturgy is meant to be symbolic of the shared meal, I think that the sacrifices and the asking of the blessing in turn reflect this nicely. So from that stand point an – actual – shared meal by not be necessary in terms of blood sacrifice. The further argument against it being that as people living in a post-industrial society we, typically, do not possess the knowledge necessary to humanely slaughter or even properly butcher a blood sacrifice and therefore such a sacrifice would be unethical.

    Now I’ve also seen some suggesting that in order for a sacrifice to be meaningful or significant is has to be severe in its impact upon the person doing the sacrificing. I would counter that if an on-going relationship is to be achieved through regular sacrifice a modest sacrifice made with a degree of regularity would be more prudent then a grand sacrifice made irregularly. Additionally, the investment of time should not be overlooked as a large scale sacrifice in and of itself.

    It is also interesting to me that you suggest the possibility of immaterial sacrifice. Personally I define sacrifice not just in terms of setting something apart but also in discontinuing its usage by humans. By this definition I would argue against the appropriateness of immaterial sacrifices as such due to the implausibility of setting intangibles aside for divine use only. For example it is appropriate to sacrifice an object which can be removed from human circulation. It is not appropriate however, to sacrifice one’s heart to be the exclusive domain of one’s divine powers. Rather than call religious devotion, emotionally speaking, a sacrifice per se I’d rather categorize it as something altogether different.

    1. L Avatar

      “Personally I define sacrifice not just in terms of setting something apart but also in discontinuing its usage by humans. By this definition I would argue against the appropriateness of immaterial sacrifices as such due to the implausibility of setting intangibles aside for divine use only.”

      I like this a lot.

  7. PhaedraHPS Avatar

    Sacrifice should mean loss in some way. It’s like giving up something for Lent. If you give up your favorite treat, that’s a sacrifice, but there’s no point in a vegan giving up meat, ’cause that’s no sacrifice. Maybe that’s what the Jesus parables about rich men having a harder time getting to heaven were all about. If you have a lot, it’s harder to give enough to make the sacrifice meaningful.

    Moderns tend to think about the emotional attachment to an animal, but in subsistence living, it’s an economic issue as well. There are hardships involved in maintaining an animal, & the larger it is, the harder it is. Not to mention the long-term losses associated with an animal that is a producer, giving milk or eggs and baby animals, too. Losing that critter could be life or death. I don’t think the Gods would expect us to die because of the sacrifice, which is why male animals are often asked for. You just don’t need that many male animals in subsistence farming. Fattening them up for meat costs more than the protein benefits. It’s interesting to remember that many of the sacrificial rites call for offal and skin to be given to the Gods, while the good bits are shared with the people, who normally would have little meat in their diets. That’s a benefit, but there was sacrifice involved in raising them to that point.

    I’m thinking, too, about how we have many instances where the sacrifice must agree to the sacrifice. If the critter shies away from the knife, it is not a willing sacrifice, and thus not acceptable. Telling the kids you’re not going to serve them dessert during Lent is not a meaningful sacrifice, unless the kids have chosen to give up dessert for Lent. Versions of story of Iphigenia say she goes willingly to her sacrifice, proud to be of service to her people.

    I have known priest of Ifa/Santeria who have done blood sacrifice. With them, it’s never done lightly, and never done unless divination says that’s what the Orisa want. As my one friend says, if you have a choice between your kid dying and a rooster (note, a male animal), what are you going to choose? But for most things there are other choices. One is money. A Babalowa of my acquaintance says money is a great sacrifice for contemporary people, because of the huge emotional charge we have around it. People sometimes are shocked that Ifa initiations cost a lot of money, but it is the equivalent of asking for cows. That’s a huge sacrifice in a different context. We have the same emotional and financial attachment to what’s in our wallet.

    1. A Sense of Place Avatar

      Thank you for this, Phaedra. I was thinking the same thing, about the sacrifice to the Gods being all the bits that don’t taste good, or that humans can’t digest; the sacrifice of an animal in that context is as much or more about nourishment – physical and spiritual – in community. I also love what you say about money and sacrifice.

      — Elinor x

  8. Kilmrnock Avatar

    I work sacrifice in the metaphorical sence . I have given my heart and soul to the gods , the TdD.In service to them . I am ADF as well , in a Celt centered Grove . As much as i hate to use a film reference , i believe how it was done in Avatar , a very pagan society, would be the correct way to do it . As an animal life is taken for food , thank mother earth and the animals spirit for the gift .In my practice i do thank mother earth and the nature spirits for the gift of food to sustain ourselves . Personaly in todays society i don’t see a need for actualy blood sacrifice . Kilm

    1. Kilmrnock Avatar

      I just believe thanks should be given when an animals life is taken for food. I will have to research this one a bit better , as a Celt pagan i am not familiar with any of our gods wanting blood sacrifices , bit i wouldn’t be overly surprised that if in the past some did . I havn’t seen such in ADF liturgy so far .

  9. Kauko Avatar

    You might be interested to learn that Rabbinic Judaism made a similar transition. With the loss of the temple in Jerusalem, the Rabbis replaced the the temple’s sacrificial services with what they called avodah shebalev ‘sacrifices of the heart’- or prayer. The Jewish liturgy, the number of times and when Jews pray throughout the day are meant to emulate and replace the temple sacrifice.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      That is interesting, Kauko. Thank you for adding your voice to the conversation.

      I’m curious how the transition was made in the Jewish community at the time. I wonder if there was a kind of theological crisis that occurred, a cause for questioning what their god wanted from them and whether this sacrifice of heart was sufficient.

      1. Kauko Avatar

        I’m not sure in very specific terms how the transition happened, but it was certainly a time of great crisis- this being the period immediately following the Roman destruction of the Temple. The Rabbis were kind of the ‘last man standing’, if you will, in that all other Jewish authorities were gone following the Jewish-Roman war; this no doubt made it easier for the Rabbinic ideas to take hold. In scriptural terms, the basis for this transition was already there; the Jewish Bible, the prophetic books in particular, frequently extol personal devotion, charity, kindness etc over sacrifices (see, for example, Hosea 6:6 “For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; obedience to God, rather than burnt offerings.”).
        Ultimately, though, Orthodox Judaism looks forward to a time when the Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem and the sacrifices resumed-although to what degree is a matter of debate in the Rabbinic tradition. More liberal forms of Judaism (Reform and Conservative Judaism) see sacrifice as ended permanently even if there is a new Temple built.

  10. Lo Avatar

    I think the problem with the subject of blood sacrifice in modern pagandom is that it’s often -thought- of as one-dimensional, when it in fact is far from it. In fact, I think the obsession with squishy emotional connections, endless pontification about feelings, and the offering up of vague personal intangibles misses many a point, and many a mystery. I’ve never killed an animal myself, but I think it would be easier for someone who hasn’t to write it off as simplistic and uninspiring.

    Pagans, for all their fixation on life cycles, seem to be as afraid and hostile of death as anyone else. Sometimes, I’d wager, even moreso.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Interesting comment, Lo. Thank you for being a part of the conversation.

      I have killed an animal, and I don’t mean to write it off as either simplistic or uninspiring. I think it’s valuable to discuss how that act can be meaningful, just as I think it’s worth discussing how meaningful all of those squishy emotional connections are.

      In the best conversations at my old church, there was a tension held between the prescriptive and descriptive viewpoints. In that tension, the mystery was made more tangible. I imagine that we might also benefit from holding the tension between the literal and the metaphoric.

      1. Lo Avatar

        Interesting! Glad to see a possible detractor actually have that experience.

        Maybe it’s reactionary of me– I’ve seen the ancient indigenous cultures of Central America get written off as simplistic and uninspiring too many times to count, all because of their unfortunate reputation for blood and human sacrifice (how often does your average person know that Celts and druids weren’t so ascetic either?) thanks to bad propaganda. What I have an issue with is how often blood is so often subconsciously linked to senseless barbarism and machismo. If that’s your perspective, then of course you’d want nothing to do with ritual bloodletting and animal sacrifice! I agree that a balance between both are necessary, but the terms of the discussion have to change if the desire for a deeper (emotional!) understanding of blood sacrifice is ever going to gain wider popularity.

  11. Arthur Shipkowski Avatar

    The comments so far bore out what I expected; focus on blood sacrifice
    in Paganism, and not on the metaphor you draw later. This is probably because it is a discussion that I think cannot be resolved, yet provokes strong reactions. (It doesn’t help that such literal sacrifice is strongly attested in the information we have from the time!)

    To return to your metaphor: I’m sure one of the other ADFers reading you
    will correct me if I get this wrong, but I recall part of the standard
    ADF clergy oath mentions pledging one’s hand, heart, and head to the
    work of the clergy. In that way it is an offering made not just to the numinous beings (deities or otherwise), nor solely to the community, but to both. This does have a certain similarity to the form of sacrifice known as the shared meal. In both cases the rite serves to draw the community together and produce bonds.

    One can see in certain prayers in Ceisiwr Serith’s A Book of Pagan Prayer an expressed desire for help with refashioning oneself. That can also be said to be a sacrifice of self, as an offering of raw materials that they might be refashioned.

    When I took my Dedicant Oath, I pledged to cultivate certain things, including Love — which might be taken as being relative to the heart, or different. I did not offer my heart, in part because it would feel messy to later re-offer something I’ve already offered.

    I’ll close my ramble with a bit on wanting. As someone who follows a deity of desire (or, perhaps, had my heart claimed by one), the idea of deities not wanting seems odd to me. That’s okay; I don’t have to agree with all perspectives. To me, wanting does not compel fulfilling that want. It might be safer in some cases to use the word like for something one of the numinous seems to enjoy.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for the comment Arthur. I’m glad you took what you posted on Facebook and elaborated on it.

      Just to clarify, you don’t experience deities *wanting* as much as you seek to provide them with a kind of *enjoyment*?

  12. Ty Avatar

    I believe that, if you believe in your connection to the Gods, you will know what is right for you and your deities. Their wishes will be whispered to you through the heart, sometimes through the head… perhaps in signs and symbols around you. They will make themselves known.

  13. Deklan Gael Avatar
    Deklan Gael

    I was raised with hunting in my family. Of course, nothing goes to waste, but it is a tradition. We were made to eat meat. Our bodies generally need it. True nowadays we can find fairly good substitutes, and I commend those who do, but the way I had seen it was that the animal was put there by the gods to feed our bodies so as opposed to so much as an absolute “sacrifice” it’s more of a small ritual of devotion and gratitude that takes place. Blood is never taken in sport, and never just because “god such and such said so” but when an animal’s life does get claimed, we are thankful for the bounty.

  14. Blake Octavian Blair Avatar

    Blood sacrifices, in my opinion, had veracity, meaning, and their sacred place in times gone by. But, I firmly feel that for most those times have indeed, gone by. I choose to make sacrifices in other ways more relevant to my modern life and culture. Thankfully, for me, this does not involve the sacrifice of blood from a living creature.

    Are there modern Pagans who live in situations and lifestyles where making the sacrifice of blood form a living creature (and thereby taking that creatures life) is truly a sacrifice? Sure, I just feel they are likely far and few. Truth be told, for many of us, that would not be a sacrifice at all. Few of us do not live within driving distance of a farmer’s market or a co-op. Few of us have a food scarcity (thankfully, and may we assist those who do), few of us actually hunt an animal fairly, and we don’t miss the food or animal sacrificed, and therefore there is little value in the killing for blood offerings sake.

    I instead choose to offer things as sacrifices that truly are a sacrifice. In this instance the definition of sacrifice I adhere to is: a loss incurred in selling (offering, giving up, etc) something of value. I donate manageable amounts of money to charities of appropriate causes to the reason of the sacrifice. Donating volunteer time to an organization that helps causes relating to the subject/goal of the sacrifice, etc.

    Just my two cents. For what it is worth…

  15. Skadi Llewen Avatar

    I believe that blood sacrifice helps us dedicate ourselves to our gods. There’s something to be said for raising and caring for a goat, or chicken until it’s of age to slaughter to your gods. Forming a relationship with it, bonding with it and giving the gods your favorite pig is a sacred rite. Going to the store and purchasing a sad animal and hacking it up horribly though is disgraceful. If it doesn’t hurt you to do it, it’s not a sacrifice.

    Having said that, I do believe some gods are more blood thirsty “per se” than others. The norse gods appreciate the clean loving slaughter, and it is said that yule ornaments are personifications of hanging animals (and people) from a tree to symbolize Odin’s sacrifice of himself to himself on the world tree. Imagine the bloating that occurs as the animal or person hangs, and connect that to the roundness of the Yule ornament. It is also known that our ancestors would whisper prayers in the animals ear before sacrificing them, asking them to deliver the message to our gods.

    So, to answer your questions, I don’t think it’s blood they want to have a relationship with us, but the proof that we are willing to do things that hurt. Yes they want the full engagement of our heart.