Different gods engage different groups in different ways, asking for different things

The title of this post is a remark by Thrax, which I find very apt, in a longer post on the subject of animal sacrifice. I’ll take up the same topic in this post today—and why not, given that we are just a few days out from Equus October? I hope everybody’s horse sacrifices went well.

Kidding! Honestly, just kidding. I don’t sacrifice horses. Actually, even if I did go in for animal sacrifice (which I don’t) (see below), I’d probably conscientiously object to sacrificing horses, as well as dogs and no doubt other kinds of animals too (dolphins and primates, for example). Still, as ever, the debate over animal sacrifice raises a lot of important and interesting issues about where polytheists are—with respect to our own traditions, as well as to the wider society that distinctly disapproves of animal sacrifice. I’d like to take a different look at it, however, from the perspective of somebody who lived and taught for a number of years in a society that did not distinctly disapprove of animal sacrifice. I’m referring to Turkey, a country of 75 million or more people, many of whom have smart phones and nearly all of whom seem to be on Facebook; a country with high-speed railways, fashionable attire, a sophisticated modern military, beaches well frequented by bikini-clad locals and tourists, and an economy closely integrated with that of the EU. Animal sacrifice is simply part of that Turkish modernity. When a new airport was opened a few years back, the ceremonies included the sacrifice of a camel.

Nearly all of my students in Turkey were Muslims, and perhaps the most important holiday of the Islamic year is Kurban Bayramı (known in other countries as Eid ul-Adha, or by other names). This means ‘Feast of the Sacrifice’, and my students invariably explained the holiday’s significance in these terms: “It is when we sacrifice a sheep or some other animal, and give the extra meat to the poor.” Foreign teachers’ reaction was usually to curl their lips in disgust, or else to mutter that that’s a pretty sorry excuse for a holiday (although try explaining Thanksgiving to a non-initiated person without it sounding like a vacuous excuse for gluttony). In city parking lots at this time of year, you could sometimes see little pens of animals labelled kurbanlık (‘victims’).

As for my students, some (mainly female) felt sorry for the animals in question, but said killing them was necessary so that the poor could get meat at least once a year. Others concluded that it was too bad they had to kill animals, but it was written in the Qur’ân, so what can you do. Others again disclaimed any special pity for the animals and emphasized how delicious the resultant meaty meal would be. A very few (invariably male) took real glee in the prospect of either killing, or watching their elders kill, the sacrificial victims. No doubt there are people in Turkey who frame their attitudes to sacrifice in terms of heartfelt piety or of a transaction with the divine, but I never met any such.

It was clear to me that the real distinction was not between those who were involved in animal sacrifice and those who weren’t (because the latter category did not exist—even I was a participant in animal sacrifice whenever I ate halal meat, which was whenever I went out for a kebab). The real distinction, rather, was between those who knew what they were doing, and approached the business responsibly and maturely, and those who mistook the whole thing for sport. In the latter category were a small minority of males within a narrow age bracket.

So what does this mean for us polytheists in the West? I take away two things. First, a few people inevitably will be idiots. And second, animal sacrifice takes place within a social context. As we know, the wider society here strongly disapproves of killing animals, because of the deep-seated conviction that meat falls harmlessly off of a hamburger tree, and because Bambi’s mother was killed by an evil hunter. Within our polytheist subcultures, we can cultivate a different social context in which animal sacrifice is performed responsibly and maturely, in the way that Thrax indicates.

Personally, though, I don’t advocate for the latter, for two reasons. First, at least in my own religious framework, I’ve always found that other and better gifts can be offered the gods. Now, this is reason enough for me. But secondly, I also see myself (a lay polytheist) as part of a spectrum of viewpoints that range from the polytheist and pagan through the ‘spiritual but not religious’ to the secular non-Christian—all those, in a word, who might spontaneously self-identify as small-h heathens. If polytheistic paganism is, as Thomas Taylor put it, “the authentic religion of mankind”, then it does no good for us to place unbridgeable boundaries between ourselves and the wider society. They all participate in the spectrum of pagan culture every time they visit an art museum, listen to Wagner, or read Greek mythology. We ought to be encouraging more of that—and to add, ‘You know, you can worship those gods as well.’

Knee-jerk opposition to animal sacrifice comes, for the most part, from a place of deep and unexamined hypocrisy. But that’s where Western society is. I was raised in that society; so were most of us. And for whatever reason, I found it deeply comforting when I was a teenager first exploring paganism to be told that pagans nowadays Simply Don’t Do animal sacrifice. There are countless others out there, living in cities and inhabiting the same make-believe world of hamburger trees and chicken-finger fields as the rest of us, who are hesitantly exploring their relationships with the gods. If we were to tell them (and Thrax, I want to point out, is not!) that animal sacrifice was simply part of the bargain, love it or leave it, then that would be felt as a serious barrier to their developing piety.

By all means, let’s have a pluralistic polytheism where those called to perform animal sacrifice do so responsibly, in compliance with the law and with ethical best practices. But equally we shouldn’t let the issue become the defining one for polytheism. All in all, Thrax makes an excellent case for his own position within this pluralism.


About DeoMercurio

I’m a Gaulish polytheist, now back living in lands ceded by the Council of Three Fires after several years’ sojourn in Anatolia and in the land of the Senecas, with frequent travels to Gaul along the way. My grandfather’s family came from the area around Trier, and I identify closely with the Treveri in my religious practice.
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