A Rite of Memorial
Crossing the River
Paganism, food and spirituality
Over at Patheos, Sam Webster wrote a most engaging essay on the revival of the Pagan concept of sacrifice. The article starts with the traditional and ancient concept of animal sacrifice and continues on to more symbolic sacrifices such as invocations and acts of service. Naturally, it was the part about animal sacrifice that generated the most comments, many thoughtful and appreciative, and quite a few that were angry and accusatory.
It’s not a surprise that some people have a natural revulsion to the kind of blood sacrifice practiced in the religions of the ancient world, and in some branches Paganism and Afro-revival religions. We have little exposure to death in our industrial world, and what exposure we do have is from the media ie. news, film fiction, and video games. Last week’s episode of Game of Thrones concluded with a scene of violent and dishonorable death, and more than one person I know found it deeply disturbing and unnecessary. (For the record, so did I) I’m not sure how realistically GoT portrays a feudalistic society, but the version we see on HBO is certainly nasty and brutish.
And our industrial farming practices are no less horrendous. When the idea of animal sacrifice comes up, the miserable life of such animals may be the first thing that comes to mind. A visceral repulsion to keeping animals confined, and feeding them the wrong food while keeping them from anything resembling a descent life is – in my world – healthy.
But if this visceral reaction against animal sacrifice is more about a failure of exposure to good death, or a fear of death, then that is worth examining. No being gets out of here alive, and we are all food (at least if we don’t get embalmed). Sacrifice is a good death for an animal. The commenter on Sam’s essay that argued that apple tress get to live out their natural lives while still providing food, failed to address the reality of “natural” animal death. *trigger warning*
Animals not under human care don’t ever die nicely. Humans are the only predators on the planet that have some care about how their prey dies. Predators chase their prey down, and it is frightened and in pain by the time the end comes. And sometimes it’s not dead before the eating starts.
Contrast this with the death of the grass-fed cow I purchased a few years ago. I buy beef in this form yearly, and on this occasion, the cow in question was owned by a friend, so I asked if I could be there for the killing. The bull died cleanly with a single shot to the head. I did not do a full ritual, but was able to give a blessing to the process. He lived his life fully as a bovine, eating only grass and having the company of his own kind. He was treated with care by my friend and was having a treat of day old bread when he went down. The ease of death is an indicator of how well the animals have been treated. An animal that fears humans will not stand around waiting for the bullet. Kindness and care are necessary to a good death.
I know a number of people who raise livestock for sale to local people. They all say the slaughter process is hard. They care about the well-fare of their animals and even though they know their eventual end, they understand that the price of distancing is worse. None of them got into farming because they dislike animals and enjoy seeing them killed.
Religious animal sacrifice increases the level of care. Increasing the level of care increases the level of caring. To give what we care about is the very essence of sacrifice.
A Rite of Memorial
Crossing the River