Ahimsa Grove

Ahimsa Grove is a resource for vegan pagan living. It will include personal experiences and musings, recipes, shopping tips, vegan ethical and dietary considerations, and ideas for pagan practice including spells, rituals, and herbcraft.

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Ahimsa Grove History of Vegan (Paganism): Transmigration of Souls (Part One)


            For a long time, I believed that vegetarian and vegan (strict vegetarian) practices were fairly new in human societies and cultures. In doing some research, however, I have found more and more that this is far from the case. Many ancient writers, thinkers, religious leaders, and ethicists considered this topic. They tended to be concerned both with ritual animal sacrifice, and with the eating of animals. These two issues were almost synonymous in the ancient world, since sacrificed animals were eaten at least by the priests, and usually by the general public.


Several of the ancients I will discuss limited, or entirely removed, meat from their diets. Some went farther and were essentially similar to modern vegans. Of course, we all hopefully know that it is impossible to fully understand the culture and context of ancient people. But in the next couple of posts, I will highlight the ways that some ancient thinkers, who in many ways are our Pagan ancestors, made these choices. Most of the men (yes, men, due to patriarchy) that I am quoting were motivated in their beliefs about non-violence to other animals by a couple of major ideas. These ideas can be summarized as the Transmigration of Souls, and as the ideal of a Golden Age. I will focus on the Transmigration of Souls in this post.


            Transmigration of Souls is a complex set of theories developed by many different people, but a summary might be this: the belief that souls journey through many different incarnations on the path to enlightenment, and that these lives could occur across species. In other words, other animals besides humans (and perhaps plants) also have souls. When we kill any other creature we may therefore be committing just as severe a crime as if we kill another human being.


            Ovid (43BCE to 17CE) attempted to explain the Transmigration of Souls in book fifteen of his “Metamorphosis” as follows:


“O species, stunned by your terror of chill death, why fear the Styx, why fear the ghosts and empty names, the stuff of poets, the spectres of a phantom world? Do not imagine you can suffer any evil, whether your bodies are consumed by the flames of the funeral pyre, or by wasting age! Souls are free from death, and always, when they have left their previous being, they live in new dwelling-places, and inhabit what received them…. Everything changes, nothing dies: the spirit wanders, arriving here or there, and occupying whatever body it pleases, passing from a wild beast into a human being, from our body into a beast, but is never destroyed. As pliable wax, stamped with new designs, is no longer what it was; does not keep the same form; but is still one and the same; I teach that the soul is always the same, but migrates into different forms. So, I say as a seer, cease to make kindred spirits homeless, by wicked slaughter: do not let blood be nourished by blood!”


            This is a pretty clear explanation of the doctrine. Pagan ancestors who believed in the Transmigration of Souls felt that killing animals, like killing people, trapped them in a negative cycle of reincarnation until they finally learned from their mistakes.


            The doctrine of Transmigration of Souls is an expression of Oneness. We are all one: past, present, and future. We are the energy which cycles in and out of multiple forms and incarnations. If we practice harm, we have to come back. We therefore risk being harmed ourselves. This is the same type of motivation that has led many throughout the ages to an ethic of Ahimsa, or Harmlessness. The Wiccan Rede, practiced by many other Neo-Pagans as well, is the same idea: the practice of “harmlessness,” to our greatest ability.


            In part two of this post, I will go into some specific examples of our Pagan ancestors who wrote about what we moderns would see as vegetarian (occasionally even vegan) practices. Of course, “Pagan” is not a term they probably used for themselves, any more than vegetarian would have been. This is a modern term used to designated a wide variety of people who were not part of the Christian, Hebrew, or Islamic faiths. Basically, they worshipped other deities (whether they were monotheist, pantheist, or whatever), and were probably informed mostly by their own culture of origin. They are our ancestors in the sense that we, as modern Pagans or Neo-Pagans, choose to learn from them and reference them (knowingly or unknowingly) when we form our own beliefs and practices. And in the case of the ancients I am going to discuss, veganism has a firm place in our mish-mash of rich and exciting magical history.


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Leslie earned her Master of Divinity Degree at Vanderbilt University and is a Wiccan Priestess, Ordained Interfaith and seeking ordination through the Temple of the Feminine Divine in Bangor. Her column in SageWoman, “Child of Artemis,” deals with women and our relationship with animals. Leslie considers herself a cultural worker, dealing with issues of violence and oppression as they impact humans and other species. She has worked at a rural domestic violence prevention program since 2001 and is a board member on VegME, Maine’s vegan advocacy group.  


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