NB some of the links in this post come with a trigger warning regarding animal abuse. Readers follow links at their own discretion.
Now here is a sticky wicket. The word sacrifice is one of those words that runs out all the red flags, sets the alarms blaring and gets the pitchforks rattling. The word, in conjunction with Witchcraft and the Occult, has the ability to spark images off images straight out of Hollywood and is a very sensitive subject so I wanted to break the issue down into two parts; societies gut reaction to the word and the reality.
What Society Thinks
The moment someone mentions sacrifice in the context of Witchcraft most ‘right thinking’ members of society immediately beginning to think about blood, body parts and animals, if not children, being led to their slaughter. There are many contributing factors that create this image such as; accusation from historical and modern witch trials, historical ritual practices involving human sacrifices and blood letting, misappropriation of particular signs and symbols by criminal classes and a general misunderstanding of the depth and breadth of modern witchcraft practices.
Once again Hollywood doesn’t help the situation and just as movies have distorted the perception of Witches, Witchcraft and the practice at large. We are either portrayed as fantasists, harmless or otherwise, or bloodthirsty monsters that terrorise the night and unsuspecting dabbler alike.
It’s unfortunately true that bizarre murders and crimes are often attributed to Witchcraft. For example this news article regarding the cutting of a horses forelock l in Scotland. This isn’t an isolated incident, or even the most extreme, in the UK. The Daily Mail (my apologies for this but it proves a point) sensationalise a series of animal attacks in graphic detail, starting with the mutilation of a young foal. These accusations are not limited to animals and this widely publicised murder from America in August 2015 led to many accusations (largely based on false assumptions and misinformation) and a strong rebuttal from the local community.
The fact is that all pagans that I have ever encountered, and that includes a fair number of Satanists, would find such activities down right abhorrent. The taking of a life sits outside of most Witchcraft/Pagan traditions and is loudly denounced and decried when the accusation raises it’s head. The taking of human life is, in my opinion, something totally alien to modern pagans who both respect the laws of man and society and humanity itself. Even those who use animal remains in their practices are carefully about their source. Legitimate culls, controlled and sanctioned, and foraging account the majority of sources for animal remains with animal welfare being a foremost concern of most pagans.
Historically animal and human sacrifice have appeared in a ritual context but even those groups who recreate historical practices have not returned to a time when a bull would be slaughtered to ensure the fertility of the land nor young children sacrificed to carry messages to the Gods. Helenic reconstruction does not include sacrifice of black puppies and modern Norse traditions no longer involves divination by sheep’s gut. Times have moved on, science and society have brought altered perspective and continue to do so today and the concept of sacrifice has come to mean something very different in comparison to both ancient a societal perspectives.
What We Actually Do
When modern Witches speak of sacrifice they refer to the exact same concepts and actions that modern Christians do; surrendering part of the self or something to the divine. This may take the form of offering up an object, time, money, important concepts and time to the deity being worshiped but always it is a process giving of something of value and meaning to the Gods.
The difference between an offering and a sacrifice is emotional attachment. Let’s look for an example.
I love pomegranates and when they are in season I have the ability to comfortably include them in my regular shopping budget. To purchase them for the sole purpose of ritual use is no onerous act and as such pomegranates (and other foodstuffs) take the form of an offering. If the purchase and use of the pomegranates in this context was burdensome in some way, for example I had needed to save for the purchase or the purchase meant that the family went without something essential, and had ‘cost’ on an emotive level as well as monetary one the pomegranate becomes a representation of a sacrifice.
In modern western society foodstuffs do not often come to constitute a sacrifice and we need to look elsewhere for examples of this act of giving to the divine. Items of material wealth have historically featured in sacrificial and ritual context and still do amongst modern Witches. Although there is an increasing awareness of what is left behind in nature the giving of personal possessions as a sign of suplication, commitment and/or devotion still features in modern practice today. Also the giving up of time or a seemingly pleasurable activity to persue a spiritual task may be considered a sacrifice in today’s day and age.
In all of this is it the action of surrendering a thing of personal and emotional weight to deity which designates something as a sacrifice. This may be done as a suplication, devotion or as a trade (something for something) when interacting with the divine. This is something that modern day Witches participate in where such interactions exist in their praxis.
There is, however, one exception to this lovely ‘we don’t harm fluffy animals and children’ post and that is blood sacrifice.
Blood is the essence of life. Loose around 40% and death is likely to follow. Even a loss of 15% can prove deadly in the wrong circumstances.
The act of drawing blood is always an act of giving and of sacrifice. We only ever truly own our bodies, yet without the blood that flows in our veins we are nothing. Blood carries with it all the nourishment that sustains us and keeps us vital and carries with it the information that makes us unique wherever it goes.
Throughout the millennia the offering of blood has featured. The Aztec and Mayans practiced personal blood sacrifice in addition to human and animal sacrifice. In these cases the giving of blood is one of nourishment and symbolism. The bood mimics the rain, life giving fluid, whilst the self injury (or death) indicates the importance of the symbolism to that society.
On the other hand Greeks offered blood, along with food and drink, to nourish the dead and empower them to speak to and act on the behalf of the mortal summoning them. It should be noted however that the Greeks prefered to use animal blood rather than their own.
Western Folk traditions also make use of blood however the purpose is somewhat different, focusing on the personal nature of the substance. Blood not only represents the person it came from through sympathetic means but can be taken to represent their ancestral line. Even before a clear concept of DNA and scientific genetics the importance of bloodlines and connection through blood has been well established. This, however interesting, is slightly off tangent and a conversation for another day.
Many moder day practitioners are wary of being involved in blood sacrifice. The risks of contamination and blood born viruses are high if not done correctly and the act in general may be considered a bit icky by some. It is possible to make blood offerings safely using medical equipment (like diabetic ‘stick sticks’ as I call them) and the act is a powerful one in many ways as it is an act of giving of oneself, sacrificing something that is an essential life essence. Most modern blood sacrifices are realistically only a few drops of blood, a symbolic act which may be better described as an offering in comparison to say a Myan blood sacrifice where large amounts are drawn from an individual.
One thing should be made very clear however.
Modern blood offerings never involve the taking of life, and the blood offered is always that of the practitioner and never that of another person or animal obtained through violence.