Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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A Technology of Connectivity: New Light on Animal Sacrifice

Exciting new scholarship is exploding many of the old “myths” about animal sacrifice and casting fresh light onto the origins and meanings of this ancient and—to many of us today—mysterious practice.

Some findings from the emerging new consensus on the topic:

Animal sacrifice is a phenomenon of pastoral and agricultural societies. Hunters-gatherers don't practice animal sacrifice. (Think about it: how could they?) Of course, they do make offerings; hunters may set aside the god's portion from their kill. But in virtually all known examples, animal sacrifice comprises the offering and sharing of a domestic animal.

Animal sacrifice is not a “primitive” phenomenon. The old “evolutionary” paradigms for understanding the history of religions broke down long ago. Some religions sacrifice; some don't. The absence of animal sacrifice in contemporary Judaism and Christianity is due to specific developments in the history of these particular religions, which cannot properly be generalized to other religions.

There is no single reason for, or meaning of, animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifice is polysemous: it means different things to different people. It may mean something different to every single person attending any given sacrifice. Previous theorists attempting to extract a single origin, purpose, or meaning for animal sacrifice were mistaken. While it makes sense to compare sacrificial practice across cultures, there are no universals when it comes to meaning.

Animal sacrifice is not "about" violence, and the actual killing of the animal is peripheral, not central, to sacrifice. While there is much art referencing animal sacrifice from antiquity, there are very few (if any) depictions of the actual killing. The notion that the “outpouring of blood” is the heart of sacrifice is an aberration of Christian theology, and has nothing to do with sacrifice in non-Christian cultures.

By those that practice it, animal sacrifice is considered to be a process of making connections. For the ancestors, and for contemporary sacrificers, sacrifice was (and is) a technology of connectivity: between ourselves and the gods that we offer to, and between the human community that eats the meat of the sacrifice together.

The practice of animal sacrifice was once nearly universal among human religions, and is now newly emergent among at least some of the new pagan religions.

While we may or may not practice it—or approve of it—ourselves, as contemporary pagans we stand only to benefit from the insights that this new academic understanding of the practice can give us into the ways of the ancestors.


Sarah Hitch and Ian Rutherford, eds. (2017) Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient Greek World. Cambridge University Press.

Jennifer Wright Knust and Zsuzsanna Várhelyi, eds. (2011) Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice. Oxford Univeristy Press.

Daniel C. Ullucci (2012) The Christian Rejection of Animal Sacrifice. Oxford University Press.


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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