Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The modern sacrifice of animals in Hellenismos

Okay, before someone goes off about animal rights, this is not a post to promote animal cruelty of any kind. This is also not a post to promote taking a knife to some poor goat's neck and ending his life. Thirdly, this is also not a post to encourage anyone to break the law. This is going to be an open discussion to try and find a way to bring animal sacrifice back to Hellenismos (because, yes, I feel it has a place there), but do so without infringing on any of the points listed above.

It's been a while since I went on about animal sacrifice. I must return to it, however, because it was a major part of the Hellenic religion for centuries, and as a Recon of that religion, I feel the need to find a way to incorporate it in modern practice. Your milage may vary, and that is fine. I understand the hesitation, and if the thought of animal sacrifice makes you somewhat queasy, please feel free to come back tomorrow.

Alright, so, we have already established that in most countries, animal sacrifice is regulated by law, and in most cases, it can not be done unless you have a special license and are operating in a building set aside for this purpose. This makes practicing animal sacrifice, as the ancient Hellenes practiced it, impossible. Putting that aside, are there alternatives that are acceptable?

This whole post is going to come down to intent: why did the ancient Hellenes partake in the practice of animal sacrifice? Were these reasons solely religious or was there a social element to it? If we--as modern Hellenists--want to bring back the practice we must ask ourselved: was animal sacrifice done for the act of killing, or the act of giving? I'm getting ahead of myself here, however.

We obviously cannot ask the ancient Hellenes themselves why they partook in the practice, so here is my take on the reasons for animal sacrifice within Hellenic religious life. I would obviously love to hear yours:

Hellenic animal sacrifice was done for a multitude of reasons. It was an act of devotion, an act to establish hierarchy--the Theoi are higher than mankind, but mankind is higher than animals, who are equal to each other--a social bonding affair, a nutritious necessity and tradition. First and foremost, sacrifice of any kind was given out of piety, out of a desire to please or appease the Theoi. I have pondered previously on the enormous sacrifice the killing of a domesticated animal was for the average Hellenic family. From that post:

"Can you imagine what an impact an animal sacrifice had on a family? They offered an animal they often couldn't really miss to the Gods out of piety. They took a blow to their income of money, supplies or food to honor the Gods. Often they got to keep the meat but can you imagine the depth of devotion it would take a poor family to sacrifice even a single animal in a holókaustos? With our supermarket society, that sort of sacrifice is absolutely unknown to us."

The animal that was sacrificed might not have been an animal the family could spare, but out of love, fear or--and I will get to this--tradition, they sacrificed the animal anyway. The meat that was distributed at festivals or private sacrifices was--in general--the only meat the average Hellen ate. It was considered very bad practice to butcher an animal outside of the formalized structure of sacrifice, and such--but this opinion might be colored by modern times--each animal was valued enough to be made sacred. In fact, for state festivals, the horns of an animal (if it had horns) were usually gilded and the animal cleaned thoroughly before being led to the altar. Animals who resisted were never sacrificed, and part of the rite entailed sprinkling water on the head of the animal to get him (or her) to 'nod'. That way he or she 'agreed' to be sacrificed.

Now for the social aspect; lets look at some of the rules concerning animal sacrifice. For one, it was largely done in groups only--either at state festivals, or in the home, with the entire family. The joined procession was a huge part of the ritual leading up to the sacrifice, and it often took the work of multiple people to stun, kill, hold up, drain, butcher, and sacrifice the animal. Anyone who was not involved with the actual sacrifice got to offer incense or barley on the altar--in essence making them part of the sacrifice. After the sacrifice--in case of a thyesthai, anyway--the remaining meat was cooked on the spot, and eaten communally before nightfall. The Theoi were given the thigh bone wrapped in fat; this was tradition. There is actually mythology that explains it: Prometheus' trick on Zeus, which made Zeus pick this sacrifice over the tasty meat. One of the shoulders of each of the animals sacrificed was given to the priests/priestesses as payment for their service, and this was the only part of the animal that didn't need to be eaten or sacrificed  before nightfall.

At this point, I want to focus on a Delphic Maxim for a second: 'give what you have' (Εχων χαριζου). I've always felt that this maxim relates to offerings and animal and votive sacrifices in particular. As stated above, sacrificing an animal was a rough thing to do, for the state as well as a single family. Some state offerings were over 300 cows; even for a wealthy city-state like Athens, that was a huge investment. The maxim says to give what you have, not what you want, or can afford. It puts a focus on the act of giving--possibly more than you can spare.

So, here is my question: if I managed to find a local butcher who would kill a pig for me, let me go home with the pig largely intact, and some of its blood in a container, would it be acceptable to offer that pig--either solo or in a group--to the Theoi? To walk the procession with that pig's blood in an offering bowl and sprinkle it on the altar, two others carrying the pig, and cutting out a thigh bone, wrapping it in fat, and laying it in the altar fire, followed by the rest of the participants, throwing incense and barley? I've looked it up, and an organic suckling pig is about € 100,- to € 150,-, which is a major financial investment for me. Would that be enough? Because legally, ethically and practically, it's the closest I'm going to get to the animal sacrifice of the ancient Hellenes.

Personally, I feel that sacrifice in ancient Hellas was largely an act of giving, not of killing. As such, we are free(r) to find 'loopholes' in the sacrifice clause. With blood to sprinkle and meat to sacrifice--preferably in the shape it originally came in--would the Theoi be appeased?

Do any of you practice animal sacrifice? And in what form? For those who practice Hellenismos, would you be comfortable participating in the setting I have just described? As you can read, I'm still struggling with animal sacrifice, but I think that I could live with the 'loophole' I set out here. As for the Theoi, I'm not sure. I would have to attempt it to see. Perhaps it is time for an all-out festival, preferably with more people involved. Oh, how I long for off-line Hellenistic community...

4 comments:

Richard said...

No one could argue that the sacrifice of animals was part of Hellenic practice. Personally (and not entirely because I find the idea horrifying and repugnant) I feel that the practice was far more driven by human greed and politics, at least in the sense of what one could garner in the sacrificial process via the larger public festivals. I honestly don't think the Theoi cared, one way or the other. I believe that offerings of non-animal bounty (grain, fruit, other foods, handcrafted items) carried just as much weight as any sort of animal sacrifice. I could not possibly condone animal sacrifice, and do not consume animals except on rare occasions. Were I to attend a large ritual to learn that this was happening, I would do everything in my power to stop it, and certainly never return to this group. Again, I don't believe that the gods cared specifically for animal sacrifice and the practice was driven by human sub-texts.

Elani Temperance said...

A very interesting (and passionate) reaction, thank you. I would love to hear more about your ideas concerning animal sacrifice as a result of human greed and politics. I've been pondering that statement, but I can't really get my head around it.
I'm not a big meat eater myself, but when I do, I sacrifice some of it to the Theoi, as I feel meat should not be eaten unless shared with them--much like the ancient sources I have come upon attest to the ancient Hellens did.
At any rate, thank you for giving me something to think about. I'm still in favor of the practice, but if I ever host a public ritual, I'll make extra sure to communicate this element of it, should it be involved.

Maya M said...

I do not understand why the pig should be organic.

Sabina Alderman said...

Maybe it was an issue of translation, but I thought I read somewhere that offerings of cakes and fruit was considered "purer." I may be mistaken, or it maybe was purer in comparison to, say, killing an ox since it is sacred to Zeus.