One cannot do any study of the actual ways of ancient European religion, i.e. Paganism in its original forms, without encountering the fact of animal sacrifice, and the rumor of the taking of human lives in ritual. It is undoubtedly true that human sacrifice occurred in most ancient European cultures at one stage or another. However it was never the central element of Pagan religious ritual.
Let me begin with the word ‘sacrifice’. From the Latin, it means ‘Sacred Work’; and ‘sacred’ means ‘set apart for the work of the spirits’. While it has come to have connotations of ‘giving up’ and even of loss, to reclaim its sacred power is to affirm sacrifice as a joyous work of connection with the divine. During the work of sacrifice, many offerings may be made, of many kinds. In common language these offerings are often referred to as ‘sacrifices'. This is, in a way, a mis-speaking. To say “the sacrifice” is not to refer to whatever object is the central offering of the ritual, but rather the whole ritual of offering and blessing is, itself, ‘the sacrifice’ – the sacred work. So I find myself enjoying referring to our public Pagan rites as ‘the sacrifices’… feels nice and archaic.
Secondly, in preface, I mention that the Neopagan Druid system I work in has specifically disallowed live-animal offerings in our rites. We do make many offerings – ale and meal and bread and fruit and even meat, but we admit that we haven’t either the call or the skill to take the life of an animal and butcher it for cooking in ritual.
|Classical Indian Fire-Sacrifice|
The basic form of larger, community worship from Ireland to India was a feast, shared with the spirits and graced with poetry and song. The best way to serve meat is fresh, and the terrible truth of the human ability to bring death to other beings required ritualization. So animals were ritually honored then killed, and their meat cooked. In Hellenic rites (of which we have written records) the bones and fat were wrapped in the skin and that was burned on the altar for the spirits. The cuts of meat were cooked and shared with the attendees. In ancient Indian fire-sacrifice it was said that the rite was not properly concluded 'until the poor had been fed'.
Smaller or personal religious rites often made offering through ‘libation’ – the simple pouring of wine, grain or other offerings on the altar of a spirit, or by ‘dedications’ – the giving of gifts of images, inscriptions, altars, buildings, even gold and cash to a deity. This form of offering was, in fact, gaining in popularity in the classical period, and even internal and native philosophies in the ancient world found reason to argue against the ancient customs of animal sacrifice. Modern rites that replace animal-meat feasting with such offerings are only expressing a Pagan-era trend.
• Human Sacrifice-offerings:
Ritual killing of political and criminal prisoners is described among the Celts. Scandinavians are said to have offered human lives before their greatest idols. Greek and Roman myths speak of youths being ‘offered’ to this titan or that monster, and the Romans specifically outlawed human-life offerings (which means that there was something to outlaw) in the years around 100bce. Human sacrifice seems to have had two major kinds, though we have no literate remains of ritual for those that I know of. (Some rites may exist buried in Indian Tantric material). First was the killing of prisoners of war and criminals. This seems to have been done en masse when needed, and to have been somewhat casual and pragmatic. We read, also, that when armies faced one another, the opposing army would all have been dedicated to the gods, so that every life taken in battle was an offering.
|Modern Druid Fire-Sacrifice|
Personal human sacrifice (the 'virgin youth' sort) had to be voluntary. The lore suggests that an offering such as that would have been intended to 'remake the world' - to restore the essential elements of existence. Bone is given to make stone, flesh to make soil, breath to make the wind, etc. This is, I think, where the occasional claim comes from that the Druids said they had created the world.
To live in the Old Ways was, I think, to seek to live in harmony with the world as it really is. To do so, especially for those living and eating straight from the farm, would seem to require the sanctifying of the fact of death, and the ritualizing of the deed of killing. What is murder? Murder is killing done outside the laws, and without the blessing of sacrifice. So, killing for food, killing for law or religion, even killing for war - the ancients seem to have considered the power to kill to be so sacred that it had to be acknowledged and ritualized. As an exercise we might make an ethical comparison between such an attitude (and recalling that life was cheaper, in fact, in ancient days) and our own culture of sanitized, mechanized, and commoditized killing.
• The Takeaway: ‘Sacrifice” is the sacred work of offering to a god or spirit (the gods or spirits), often as offerings of food and gifts as if for a noble guest. Animal-life offering, while common in the ancient world, is not mandatory in modern work. Human sacrifice was already passing away in Pagan times, and need never be contemplated in ours.