One of the problems with practicing a “reconstructed” religion like Ásatrú is that its beliefs and practices, by definition, have been kept in a fossilized state until relatively recently. Because of this, they have not undergone the sort of slow, society-driven changes that religions with an unbroken history of practice, such as Christianity and Judaism, have. Thus, many of the beliefs and practices of Ásatrú are considered not only antiquated, but in some cases downright unacceptable or even illegal.
As such, we as Ásatrúar are faced with the problem of what to do when we find our religious beliefs and practices conflict with the expectations and requirements of modern society. There are three possible courses of action in such cases: 1) abandon the questionable item, 2) modify the questionable item, and 3) retain the questionable item and face the consequences and pressures that may result.
The practice of animal sacrifice is a prime example of this conflict between tradition and modernity. That animal sacrifice was a central part of the religious life of the pre-Christian peoples of northern and western Europe cannot be denied; archaeology, history, and linguistics all agree. But in the modern world, slaughtering a pig in one’s suburban backyard, especially in a religious context is a highly dubious prospect (although I’ve personally been present at precisely such an event).
Not only are most modern people ill-equipped to perform the ritual (unlike in ancient days, when more rural lifestyles meant many more people were familiar with the basics of killing and dressing livestock), but social pressure against doing so is enormous. In some jurisdictions there are also legal obstacles that need to be overcome (although the US Supreme Court has ruled in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah (1993) that animal sacrifice is a protected form of religious expression under the First Amendment to the Constitution).
In this example, most Heathens opt to simply not perform animal sacrifices (option 1). Indeed, the form of blót performed by most Ásatrú groups today can be seen as a sort of faux sacrifice, with mead being used instead of the blood of the animal to “redden” the participants by sprinkling them. Some few, who have the benefit of training and/or private land where such rites can be conducted in relative privacy, continue to do so (option 3). Ásatrú as a whole is a large enough tent to accommodate all three strategies for dealing with these sorts of issues.
For myself, I tend to want to lean in favor of reconstructing the elder practices, and the desires of modern society be damned. Unless there are clear-cut legal prohibitions (such as the case of human sacrifice), I am of the school that holds that part of Ásatrú is the attempt to recreate the ancient pre-Christian Heathen mindset. And part of that effort means that modern mores (whether they be neo-liberal “social justice” or neo-Victorian social conservatism) must take a back seat to the ancient beliefs of our ancestors. This doesn’t mean I am against all innovation or change, but I think to immediately jump to change, without even giving the elder practices a chance to work in practical terms, is a mistake. Those ancient practices and beliefs were born of hundreds of generations of trial-and-error, and to turn our backs on that source of collected experience and wisdom seems unwise at best.
So this is going to be a rare post where I disagree with Lucius Svartwulf Helsen, who earlier today posted As It Was In The Old Days… over at his usually-excellent Son of Hel blog.
See, I consider myself on the reconstructionist end of the pool, and as such I really don’t have a particular problem with “our ancestors did it, so I’m okay with it” as a general principle. I think the specific examples the unis give regarding their anti-Folkish position are rubbish, but that doesn’t invalidate the general principle that, basically speaking, our ancestors spent tens of thousands of years honing their understanding of the Gods through a particular, if ever-changing, cultural lens, and they are therefore going to have a more accurate view of what those Gods are like, and what They happen to find pleasing.
Now, this approach necessitates a certain bifurcation when it comes to classifying beliefs and practices. On the one hand, we have those things that directly relate to the Gods, and can therefore be classified as “religious” according to our modern understanding of the term. On the other hand, we have those things that deal with those things that are purely interpersonal, and thus fall on the “secular” side of things, again according to modern understanding.
That does not, of course, change the reality that our ancestors didn’t see such a division. To them, there was no difference between those things that were done for the Gods (or other spirits) and those things that were done between men. But on a practical level, in a world and a culture where laws are in place that do not recognize the primacy of “but my ancestors did it this way” as an argument, such a distinction is necessary.
So, when Helsen provides a list of things he finds… problematic… I find myself nodding in agreement with a lot of them. Of course, being a product myself of a 20th-21st century post-modern, post-Christian, mostly-secular, liberal democratic culture that is ever-more obsessed with individuality rather than clan/tribal identity, I am programmed to find some of them personally distasteful. But when it comes to things from his list such as:
killing each other over insults
fucking at the dinner table
I really don’t see the problem (although I’m going to ask where he got the fucking at the dinner table thing, because I don’t remember reading that in any of the Icelandic Sagas).
But killing each other over insults? Honestly, we could do worse than returning to a state of affairs when we didn’t rely on an impersonal justice system that was more interested in slavish obedience to written law, rather than a situational system that was self-enforced. Holmgang isn’t the worst thing in the world. But that’s a social, not a sacral, thing. I don’t see it as a religious imperative.
Fucking at the dinner table? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t do it myself, and as mentioned above I don’t think that was a particular thing that our ancestors did, but I’m also not too concerned with Victorian mores concerning sex. As a rule, sex is a good thing, and the sooner sexual taboos that have been held over since the late 19th century go away, the better. But again, that’s social, not sacral.
Human sacrifice? Bring it on. We already execute criminals convicted of heinous crimes such as murder. If society deems they are to die, I see nothing wrong with doing it in a sacral manner that gives their death some meaning beyond mere vengeance. Bearing in mind that the objects of such sacrifice were state-defined offenders such as criminals and prisoners of war* (so it’s not just plucking random people off the street and hanging them), of all the things on his list, this is the first that deals with the Gods themselves.
Wholesale slaughter? I invite Helsen to watch any documentary about World War II. It is quite justifiable, and hardly confined to “the good old days.” So we return to the social.
But animal sacrifice in particular I object to being on such a list. I’ve written before about the practice, and its centrality (and modern relevance) to Heathen religious religion. I’ve personally been to a swine-blot, and to this day it remains one of the most intensely spiritual rituals in which I’ve ever participated. It also falls in the category of “things relating to the Gods” rather than things relating to men.
In this case in particular, short of Odin Himself appearing simultaneously to every Heathen on the planet and telling them to stop, I’m inclined to err on the side of history, and accept the idea that this was pleasing to the Gods for thousands of years, and there is absolutely no reason to think that has changed just because humanity in the West has moved away from a largely agricultural lifestyle where such things are common, to a place where most people don’t care where the hamburger-wrapped-in-plastic came from.
The Gods are not beholden to mercurial changes in human mores.
And polyamory? I’d never do it myself, but if someone else wants to do it, in full knowledge of what they’re getting into, I don’t see why my own jealous nature should prevent other people from trying it. Everything above-board, known to and with the blessing of all involved, then my personal preferences shouldn’t be enough to stop them. Once more, social, not sacral.
Now, Helsen has made the distinction between that which is legal, and that which is morally right, before, and I don’t disagree. Indeed, I think it has a very distinct impact on my own division between how our ancestors interacted with one another, and how they interacted with the Gods. But even there, it must be remembered that morality, as such, is a human invention, and the Gods are not held to the same standard as men. Thus do I make the distinction between the sacral and the social.
Again, the Gods are not beholden to mercurial changes in human mores.
If we accept the premise that our ancestors knew more about what the Gods wanted, based on their thousands of years of constant interaction with Them, and thereby honing their knowledge of what the Gods did and did not find pleasing (through observation of omens, comparison of outcomes, direct intervention, etc.), it stands to reason that we should defer to them in how we approach the Gods. And if the Gods find it pleasing to receive offerings of animals, or having capital punishment carried out by the State done in a sacral manner, then I’m frankly okay with it, as long as it can be done in the proper fashion.
I’ll weigh ten thousand years of religio-cultural evolution that says such things are right, against forty years of human cultural change that says some people don’t like it, any day.
__________ * The key being that the objects of such sacrifices are those already condemned to death by the laws of the land. Why not give their life a religious meaning beyond simple vengeance, or deterrent, or a cold calculation that it’s cheaper to kill a prisoner than imprison them for the rest of their life? If I was, for some reason, on Death Row, I would petition the court for such a death, to give my execution a deeper meaning that mere secularism can’t provide. Again, this is not about grabbing random (or even deserving) people off the street, hanging them, and sticking them with a spear.
Something I’ve been wanting to do for many years is start incorporating the consumption of horse meat in my ritual feasts. The consumption of horse meat was a defining feature of Heathen religious practice for many years during the era of the conversion to Christianity, and the willingness to consume, or not consume, horse flesh was sometimes used as a test of one’s faith…
The next day, when the people sat down to table, the bondes pressed the king strongly to eat of horse-flesh; and as he would on no account do so, they wanted him to drink of the soup; and as he would not do this, they insisted he should at least taste the gravy; and on his refusal they were going to lay hands on him. Earl Sigurd came and made peace among them, by asking the king to hold his mouth over the handle of the kettle, upon which the fat smoke of the boiled horse-flesh had settled itself; and the king first laid a linen cloth over the handle, and then gaped over it, and returned to the high-seat; but neither party was satisfied with this. (Saga of Haakon the Good (Samuel Laing tr.), ch. 18)
The prohibition against eating horsemeat (and the explicitly Christian connotations) was enshrined into law…
If a man eats horse flesh he shall pay a fine of three marks to the bishop. … If a man eats horse flesh in Lent, he shall forfeit all his property to the last penny and shall depart from the king’s dominions. – Gulathing Law, the Church Law, 20
Now, horsemeat is a common enough ingredient in Europe and Canada, but is not found at all here in the U.S., mostly thanks to the animal rights lobby. It’s not illegal to butcher horses for human consumption, but it’s impossible for practical reasons, and although there’s no direct ban on importing horse meat, there is a practical one, as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service will not allow travelers to bring meat of any kind into the country.
I’ve tried several different exotic food websites in the U.S., but although one can get iguana, alpaca, and camel, horse is off the menu for some reason. And stores in Canada and Europe won’t ship to the U.S., doubtless because of the aforementioned ban by U.S. customs.
However, I think that, given the fact that the the consumption of horse meat was a traditionally Heathen thing to do, and a blanket ban on all imported meat is hardly the least restrictive strategy for achieving the government’s goal (which they’ll doubtless say is public health), some sort of waiver for the importation of modest amounts of horse meat for religious purposes is not unreasonable.
So this is the email I sent to U.S. Customs and Border Protection:
Hello, I am a practitioner of the Asatru religion, which is the reconstruction of the ancient faith of the Norse and Germanic peoples. An integral part of our religious faith centers around the consumption of horse meat during religious rituals, a practice that is well-attested in both the Icelandic Sagas and the Heimskringla (one of our historical religious texts).
I lead an Asatru congregation in New Jersey, and we are looking for options to import a small amount of horse meat from Canada for our personal religious use.
How do I go about requesting a religious exemption (under the authority of the First Amendment of the Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act)? I would like some sort of letter that I can show to customs officials in order to be able to bring in a small amount of horse meat from Canada, again only for my personal religious use.
I would appreciate any information and assistance you could provide.
Joseph Bloch, goði, Skylands Asatru Fellowship
I’ll report back when and if I get a reply (the website says to expect a wait of several weeks). This may end up in court!
UPDATE (11/5/2015): That was quick! I heard back from Customs, and they informed me that it’s all right to bring in “personal consumption” quantities of horse meat from Canada. They pointed me to the USDA Animal Product Manual, which states, in Appendix A, page 33:
Personal-use amounts of equine meat or meat products commercially packaged and labeled will be allowed in passenger baggage. No import permit or other documentation is required.
So there we are! Problem solved. Now all I need is a passport.
Naturally, the Jewish and Muslim communities in Denmark are not pleased with this attitude, as it has direct impacts on both the Kosher and Halal food industries. In fact, there aren’t any, because such slaughter of animals has been effectively banned in Denmark for about a decade, and the Danish government is apparently pleased with that state of affairs.
It should, however, be of concern to Heathens as well, since in some Asatru and all Theodish groups the practice of blót, or animal sacrifice, is one of the central rites. While there aren’t any laws prohibiting blót on the books in Denmark that I’m aware of, if the Minister’s remarks are implemented as policy, an important element of many Heathens’ worship will be itself sacrificed on the altar of Political Correctness and animal rights. I’ve written before about the arguments in favor of animal sacrifice, and won’t repeat them here, but everyone of any religion should be alarmed when the rights of animals are elevated above the rights of people to practice the faith in their God or Gods.
Regardless of where one comes down on the specific question of animal sacrifice, the slippery slope is obvious. If animal rights come before religion, then what else can be placed above one’s right to religious expression? What about the right of society to be homogeneous and free of strife? If a government can put the rights of animals above religion, why can’t a government put its own interests above religion, and ban minority faiths, too? When it puts animal rights above religious rights, it could just as easily put one religion’s rights above another, and that would certainly be bad for both Pagans and Heathens. When religious rights are infringed for one thing, they can be infringed for anything.
In Estonia, all animal slaughter must take place in a government-approved slaughterhouse. That effectively ends all private animal slaughtering, and once again is a measure aimed at kashrut and halal practices.
The unintentional fallout of laws like this is that they can also affect smaller religions that sometimes practice animal sacrifice, such as Paganism and Heathenry, as well as other faiths such as some forms of Hinduism and Sikhism, Santería, and others.
Not all Pagans and Heathens practice animal sacrifice, of course; in fact, many are strictly opposed to it on moral grounds. But many Heathens and some Pagans, especially those who are of a more reconstructionist bent such as Ásatrú, Théodism, the Religio Romana, etc. do practice and/or support it (again, not all, but many), and they are seeing their own rights trampled as the law attempts to legislate more “humane” treatment of animals. I myself have been present at a svínblót (pig-sacrifice) and it was one of the most stirring and spiritual events I have ever witnessed.
When done in such a setting, an animal sacrifice is most definitely neither terrifying or inhumane for the animal involved. Indeed, care and love are heaped upon the animal; if it shows fear and terror as it is led up to the spot where it is to be given to the Gods, that is a sign that the sacrifice should not take place. It is often bathed and garlanded, pampered and given affection and honor that it would never have received in an industrial slaughterhouse. The killing itself is invariably as quick and painless as possible, again in keeping with the general principle that a frightened offering is a failed offering. When done properly, the animal simply drops with nary a whimper, content to bring the words of those assembled to the ears of the Gods, happy that its last hours were gentle and pleasant, and the meat then shared among those assembled to witness the act.
The mere fact that in such a slaughterhouse the animals are stunned (either by a 300-volt shock to the back of the head or by a hit from a powered hammer right between the eyes– quite “humane”) prior to being killed does not make their final moments any less uncomfortable or terrifying. In fact, I would argue that an animal who is given to the Gods in such a fashion dies a cleaner, less stressful, and less painful death than it would have suffered in an industrial slaughterhouse, crammed in with hundreds of other animals, mutually terrified and treated like… meat.
In this sense, these efforts by animal rights activists to make animal slaughter more humane are misguided, inasmuch as they inadvertently sweep individual sacrifices up into their net alongside industrial practices. Not only is it a violation of the religious liberty of those who choose to honor the Gods in this particular way, but it arguably the case that such individual sacrifices (conducted by those with the training to do so) are much more humane even than a “humane” industrial slaughterhouse.
This is not, of course, to imply in any way that those who do not wish to engage in animal sacrifice do so. But while no one should be coerced into participating in or observing a ritual against their wishes, the door of coercion swings both ways, and those who do choose to make offerings should have the right to engage in the practice, as long as it is done humanely and respectfully.
Ah, the perennial topic of animal sacrifice is upon us once more, thanks to the Hindu festival of Gadhima, celebrated in a little village in Nepal every five years. Some folks in Queens tried to make it an issue in the recent election involving Theodsman Dan Halloran, since Theodsmen practice animal sacrifice as part of our faith, and anything that smacks of The Serpent and the Rainbow makes good newspaper copy. But Dan, at least, didn’t get Brigit Bardot protesting against him. Then again, Dan never sacrificed 200,000 animals before.
The usual suspects are out in force, bleating about how “barbaric” the practice is, and how it must be stopped, etc., etc., etc.
But in reality, their protests are really aimed at the entire non-animal-rights community; anyone who doesn’t think that every fuzzy baby isn’t-he-so-cute beastie with big brow eyes deserves full human rights and representation in the World Court. The meat industry is just the tip of the iceberg for these fanatics; given their choice, they would outlaw not only circuses and zoos, leather and KFC restaurants, but even pets and service animals as well.
They are, quite simply, unhinged. Their arguments have nothing to do with animal sacrifice specifically as a religious practice; the meat from the animals is used to produce a communal feast, and the rest of the parts (hooves, hides, etc.) are sold to provide money to support the temples and the district in general. It’s not like they’re just being killed to give someone some jollies at the sight of blood being spilled. It’s quite obvious, too, that the ritual is an old and sacred tradition, and that the people sincerely believe that their efforts will bring them prosperity and the favor of the Goddess Gadhimai. They’re not just a bunch of drunken louts, Ms. Bardot’s snide comments to the contrary; only 250 men took place in the actual sacrifices, and they needed to be licensed by the state.
The parallels between the Hindu ceremony and that of Germanic paganism are obvious. The sacrifices at Uppsala took place on a regular schedule (every 9 years in that case) and consisted of many hundreds of animals sacrificed to Odin. The current practice is under siege not only by hard-core animal rights whackos, but by more “progressive” Pagans and Heathens, who are certain that the Gods have moved beyond the need for such displays and are quite content with offerings of bread and wine, thank you very much. Their precise source for such pronouncements is, as a rule, lacking.
I should also point out that such blood sacrifice in modern Paganism is not limited to Theodism, although it does seem to exist in the reconstructionist wing of the broad faith-umbrella that is modern neo-paganism. Practitioners of Asatru, the Religio Romana, Hellenism, and Celtic Reconstructionism all engage in such practices, although it should be pointed out that, as noted above, support for such is hardly universal. (When I started up a Sacrifice Fund in Nova Roma, to allow private citizens to make donations to pay for priests who chose to do so, to perform the sacrifices, the reaction was, in retrospect, predictable.)
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. There is no ritual more moving, more startling, and more powerful than a properly-conducted blood offering. In modern practice, such offerings are invariably done by people trained in the practice, and under the most humane conditions. The animals do not suffer, and the flesh is used to feed the gathered folk. It is, by any standard, a much more humane death than that afforded by modern slaughterhouses, and the only people that, given a few moments’ intellectual honesty, would still object are those kooks who object to the entire concept of animals being used for human comfort and sustenance.
Animal sacrifice has become a hot topic once more among the pagan community. Another Santeria practitioner, this time in Eulass, Texas, has won the right to practice his faith in the manner it proscribes. In this case, by the practice of animal sacrifice. His attorney, Eric Eassbach, has written a spirited opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal defending the practice and the lawsuit as fundamental to the principle of religious liberty we in the United States enjoy. And, in the latest turn of events, the city has asked the 5th Circuit of Appeals to re-hear the case, arguing that the ruling as it stands would require each municipality to judge whether a given religious practice was, in fact, valid, and such would impose an undue burden on the cities.
Well, I’m not a lawyer, so I cannot really comment on the substance of Eulass’s appeal (although it would seem to me that the obvious solution is to say that everything is permitted, unless it obviously threatens public health or safety; erring on the side of personal liberty seems not to be too much of a “burden” on government, but I’m more than a little libertarian that way). However, I am Théodish, so I can damn well comment on the near-hysteria and self-righteous bleating that has befallen the greater pagan community over this issue. Animal sacrifice is one of the most solemn and significant rituals in the corpus of Théodish Belief.
You see, I’ve attended a swine blót, unlike the holier-than-thou knuckleheads who are condemning the practice as sadistic, sinister, and sacrilegious. The comments on Witchvox.com on thesestories are indicative. Just some examples: those who practice animal sacrifice are “sick and depraved”, and “human scum”. It’s “barbaric” and only serves to give ammunition to the enemies of paganism.
To be fair, there are also comments supportive of the practice, and the occasional principled few who say that while they don’t practice it themselves, they wouldn’t attempt to force others to stop. But it’s the Politically Correct, “I’m a vegan and you’re a horrible monster if you’re not too” crowd that irk me beyond belief. I have no problem with the notion that they have made a choice not to partake of animal flesh (tasty, tasty, animal flesh). I have no problem if they choose not to perform animal sacrifice; it’s not exactly widespread even within the Heathen community, let alone the greater pagan community. But the gall to be sanctimonious and judgmental, as if their beliefs and practices are oh-so-more “evolved” than mine, is unbelievable. Especially when it comes from followers of a religion that itself– completely beyond the scope of animal sacrifice– is constantly criticized as “evil”, “barbaric”, “depraved”, etc. The double-standard is astounding. You think giving up a millennia-long practice is somehow proof that your faith has “evolved” beyond mine? Guess what? The Christians and Muslims would argue that their faith is more “evolved” than yours because they have shuffled off the multitude of gods and goddesses, spirits, elves, etc. that you recognize and revere. Evolution, in this sense, implies superiority. The Christian view of religious evolution is wrong, just as the PC-pagan view is.
That the PC-pagans feel the need to outright lie about how the practice actually works is indicative of the hollowness of their argument. A real animal sacrifice is beautiful, powerful, and deeply spiritual. The animal is pampered, revered, and given every comfort. It is slain quickly and with the absolute minimum amount of injury or pain. Indeed, in both ancient Rome and modern Théodism, a panicked sacrifice would be an incredibly ill omen, and would render the whole ritual invalid. Pains are taken to ensure it does not happen. It is not a sadistic, blood-thirsty event. It is a solemn or sometimes joyous occasion.
Some actually bring up the canard of human sacrifice in this context as well. To them I say, yes, I would absolutely support the human sacrifice of criminals duly convicted under our criminal justice system. In fact, if I were ever convicted of a capital crime, my appeals exhausted, and I faced the prospect of lethal injection or death in the gas chamber, I would go out of my way to request that I be executed as a sacrifice to Odin; hung by the neck and pierced with a spear. And that is not just hyperbole. I am dead serious. If we accept capital punishment as just and necessary (and I do), why not let it serve another purpose as well? But this question is not about such outlandish proposals.
The human slaughter of an animal, preparatory to a feast (or even otherwise!), should not be outlawed merely because there is a religious component to doing so. The motives of those behind such bans are plain as day. On the Christian side, it is a fear of the growing power of faiths other than their own, which they see as undermining their control in the culture. On the PC-pagan side, it’s a complete lack of understanding that someone might, somehow, disagree with their “principled position” and not in the process be an inhuman (or inhumane) monster.