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Animal sacrifice

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Animal Sacrifice


Contemporary Paganism does not practise animal sacrifice. Many Pagans are vegetarians or vegans; those who are omnivorous prefer to eat meat which has been humanely reared and killed. According to the Charge of the Goddess (Doreen Valiente), “Nor do I demand aught of sacrifice, for behold, I am the mother of all things and My love is poured out upon the earth.” If this text is regarded as “channelled”, that is, direct revelation from the Goddess (and many Pagans do regard it as such), then clearly the current attitude of the Divine towards sacrifice is very different than it was in ancient times. Why is this? Clearly a revival of the practice of animal sacrifice would be a public relations disaster, for one thing. However, there must be more to it than that, as the practice of ritual nudity has also led to some public controversy, along with the veneration of the Horned God, but Wiccans do both of these, but not animal sacrifice. We offer libations of wine and cakes, flowers and fruit, but not meat. (Though everyone in our culture eats specific meat on high days and holidays, arguably the last vestige of a sacral meal.) I think it is because contemporary Paganism is a religion of Nature veneration, and animals are regarded as part of Nature, and as people too. If all of Nature is the manifestation of the Goddess, then animals are as well. Also, it is seen as inappropriate for them to suffer and die in order to achieve some selfish aim of the human performing the sacrifice. One reason why sacrifice is taboo in contemporary society is that we assume it meant that all the parts of the animal were offered to the deity. This was very seldom the case.


The ancient mythology of animals is intimately connected with their role as sacrifices and scapegoats. In the modern world, the idea of sacrifice is abhorrent to us, especially when more and more people are becoming vegetarians. However, we should not condemn the practices of ancient cultures without considering why they carried out sacrifices. Many animals were sacred to a particular deity because they were sacrificed to that deity, or vice versa. For example, at the rites of Eleusis, pigs were washed in the sea, then sacrificed to Demeter. In the ancient world, deities were propitiated with offerings because it was believed that giving them the best of everything would induce them to look favourably on the activities of humanity. In a world-view which regarded everything as having a soul, including Nature, sacrifice would not have been carried out lightly (at least in theory); rather it was the curtailment of an individual destiny for the good of the community. There is some evidence that some human sacrifices went willingly to their deaths in the belief that they were going to save their community from calamity.


There were various different kinds of animal sacrifice, depending on the relationship of the animal to the deity. If the deity was embodied by the animal (as Osiris was embodied by the sacred Apis Bull), the animal was killed when it reached a certain age, as an old and infirm animal could not be allowed to embody the god (in much the same way as the sacral king was killed when his luck ran out or he became too old). In this case, the animal was eaten as a sacral meal by the participants in the rite, who were then partaking of the body of the god. Sometimes the sacrifice had a fertility connotation, in that the failure of the crops was held to mean that the king or the animal was no longer bringing luck to the people. Another kind of animal sacrifice was when the animal was sacred to the deity, and was therefore offered as a propitiatory sacrifice, to persuade the deity to accede to the prayer accompanying the sacrifice. Sometimes an animal would be sacrificed before starting a journey or an enterprise, in order to persuade the deity to look favourably on the endeavour. The animal was usually eaten in these rituals as well; a portion was reserved for the gods and burnt on the altar. However, it seems that the sacral meal, where the participants partook of the body of the god, was the origin of this custom. Another form of sacrifice was haruspicy, when an animal was sacrificed, and omens were taken from its entrails.


Sacrifices were also performed to make the crops grow. The Romans sacrificed red-haired puppies in spring to ward off the malign influence of the Dog Star, and to make the crops ripen and grow ruddy.


An example of a sacrificial rite can be found in Homer's Odyssey (Book III):



"... The ship drew into Pylos, the stately citadel of Neleus. There upon the foreshore were gathered the inhabitants, doing sacrifice to the Earth-shaker, Poseidon, the dark-tressed God. Nine congregations they made, each five hundred strong: and every congregation had offered nine victims, jet-black bulls free from any fleck of colour, to the God: in whose honour the leg-bones were now burning with fire while the assembly ate of the entrails and organs."


There follows a description of the prayers offered to the god and the feasting afterwards upon the flesh of the sacrificed bulls.


Sacrifice seems abhorrent to the Western mind because we have ceased to regard the meat we eat as the flesh of a dead animal. Meat comes in packets from the supermarket, and it is easy to forget that it had to be killed for us to eat it. The logical result of making the connection between the meat that we eat and the animal from which it came is either to become a vegetarian, or to ensure that the animal is treated humanely whilst alive, and killed in a humane way. Hunter-gatherer cultures treat their prey with great respect, because they have not ceased to make the connection between the live animal and the dead meat. The reindeer-hunting tribes of Siberia bury the bones of the reindeer they have killed, so that the animal can return to the spirit world and be reborn. If the sacrificed animal was eaten by the participants in the ritual, then it is little different from any other form of meat-eating. If one eats meat, it is rather hypocritical to condemn our ancestors for sacrificing animals. At least they treated the remains of the animal with some respect (especially when it was regarded as the embodiment of a deity) in the hope that it could thereby return to the spirit world and be reborn. Presumably the animal also had a reasonable quality of life before being killed, unlike today's factory-farmed animals. If one is a vegetarian, then of course killing animals is abhorrent in any circumstances, and this argument is irrelevant.


It is generally considered undesirable to revive such practices as animal sacrifice. There are plenty of other methods of making offerings to the gods: fruit, bread, wine, etc. can all be offered. Alternatively, one can pledge to perform a specific task, such as clearing a sacred site of rubbish. If it is desired to partake of the nature of the god by eating a consecrated meal, then any food can be consecrated to the deity. Of course, customs such as eating a goose at Michaelmas, or a pig or boar at Yule, were originally sacral meals: the goose was sacred to Odin; the boar was sacred to Thor. Meat-eaters may wish to continue the custom of eating pork at Yuletide and goose at Michaelmas (the Autumn Equinox was Odin's festival, so goose was eaten then); if so, it is worthwhile to try and obtain a free-range animal for the occasion, and ensure that it has been killed humanely.

Different cultures had different forms of animal sacrifice. In order to understand this practice it is necessary to look at the different customs of various cultures in more detail.



The Sacral Meal and the Animal Embodiment of the Deity

It is probable that taboos against eating certain animals originated in their being reserved for the sacral meal, which usually occurred annually, particularly where the rite related to the death and resurrection of a dying god, such as Attis or Adonis.

In Deuteronomy 14 (in the Torah or Old Testament of the Bible), the animals listed as clean and permitted to be eaten are: "the ox, the sheep, the goat, the deer, the gazelle, the roe deer, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope and the mountain sheep" (all ruminants with cleft hooves). Unclean animals were the camel, the rabbit, the coney, and the pig (which either did not have a cleft hoof or did not chew the cud). Water creatures which were permitted were any with fins and scales; anything else was unclean. Insects were also unclean. Birds were permitted, except for "the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, the black kite, any kind of falcon, any kind of raven, the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, the little owl, the osprey, the cormorant, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat." It was also prohibited to seethe a young goat in its mother's milk.


The most well-known item on the above list is the prohibition against eating pork. The pig was sacred to Adonis and Attis, and it is this which has given rise to the theory that the pig was originally eaten as a sacral meal once a year on the festival of the god, and abstained from for the rest of the year. In later times, when the connection between the god and the animal was no longer obvious, it was thought that the animal was unclean. This theory is borne out by the rumour that certain Israelites gathered secretly in gardens to eat the flesh of pigs and mice; presumably this was a relic of an earlier sacral meal. On the other hand, the rumour may have been entirely unfounded, being merely an attempt to discredit the Jews. If it was the relic of a sacral meal, then perhaps a cult of Adonis existed among the Israelites, which would explain why JHVH was addressed as Adonai, meaning “Lord”.


The worshippers of Attis abstained from pork, regarding it as taboo. The legend that Attis was killed by a boar implies that the boar or pig was the sacred animal of the god. It is possible that the cry of "Hyes Attis! Hyes Attis!" which was uttered by Attis' worshippers meant "the pig Attis", as the Greek for pig is 'hys'. Adonis (a name which simply means 'Lord', and was probably a title rather than a name) also had the pig or boar as his sacred animal. There are various legends recounting the tale of Attis; he is not killed by a boar in every version. In a Greek version, the jealous Hephaestus killed him while he was hunting wild boars on Mount Lebanon. (Aphrodite had fallen in love with Adonis; Hephaestus, the smith god, was her husband.) Another story was his birth that was linked with the boar - a boar cleft with his tusk the bark of the tree from which Adonis was born.


The Thebans and other Egyptians who worshipped the Theban god Amon regarded rams as sacred, and would not sacrifice them. But at the annual festival of Amon they killed a ram, skinned it, and dressed the image of Amon in the skin. Then they mourned over the ram and buried it with full ceremony in a consecrated tomb. The explanation given was that Zeus (who later acquired Ammon as an epithet, as in Jupiter-Ammon) had once appeared to Hercules dressed in the fleece of a ram and wearing its head. The ram was, however, the ancient theriomorphic deity of Thebes, just as Upuaut was the wolf-god of Lycopolis. It would appear that the ram was killed as an embodiment of Amon (hence the dressing of the god's statue in the animal's skin) rather than as a sacrifice to him.


At Memphis, there was the Apis Bull, worshipped as the incarnation of Osiris. There were actually two bulls at Memphis, one called Apis (Hapi in Egyptian) and the other called Mnevis, Menvis, or Merwer. They may originally have been entirely distinct deities, and only later merged with Osiris. They were also associated with the cult of Ra. Most of the other sacred animal cults were purely local, but the worship of Apis spread to the rest of Egypt. However, "although the bull Apis was worshipped as a god with much pomp and profound reverence, he was not suffered to live beyond a certain length of time which was prescribed by the sacred books, and on the expiry of which he was drowned in a sacred spring." (J.G. Frazer, in The Golden Bough.) According to Plutarch, the bull's reign lasted twenty-five years; but inscriptions on the tomb of two of the bulls dating from the twenty-second dynasty relate that they lived for more than twenty-six years.


An unusual case of an animal being sacrificed as a re-enactment of the death of a deity is that of the goat and Artemis. In Arcadia, Artemis was known as the Hanged One, and an effigy of her seems to have been annually hanged in her sacred grove at Condylea. A remnant of a similar rite may be traced at Ephesus, where there was a legend of a woman who hanged herself, and was then clothed by the compassionate Artemis in her own divine raiment and called by the name of Hecate. At Melite in Phthia, the tale was told of a girl named Aspalis who hanged herself. After her death, her body could not be found, but an image of her was discovered standing beside the image of Artemis (she is evidently an aspect of Artemis herself), and the people gave it the title of Hecaerge ('Far-shooter'), one of the epithets of Artemis. Every year the virgins sacrificed a young goat to the image by hanging it, because Aspalis hanged herself. In Northern Europe, hanging was a means of sacrifice whereby the person or animal sacrificed was sent to the underworld; sacrifices to Odin were hanged.


The worshippers of Dionysos consumed a live goat in an ecstatic frenzy, tearing the unfortunate animal in pieces with their bare hands, presumably in the belief that they were devouring the god himself. According to legend, Dionysos had been changed into a kid by Zeus to protect him from the wrath of the jealous Hera. Again, when the gods fled to Egypt to escape from Typhon, Dionysos was transformed into a goat. One of his names was "the Kid". In Athens and Hermion, he was given the title "the one of the black goatskin", and a legend told that he had manifested wearing a black goatskin. He was also the god of the vine, and in the wine-growing district of Phlius there was a bronze image of him which the husbandmen plated with gold leaf to protect their vines from blight.


The horse was probably the sacred animal of Virbius, the first of the Kings of the Wood in Aricia. Horses were not permitted to enter the sanctuary of Virbius, because they were responsible for his death as Hippolytus. According to legend, the young Greek hero Hippolytus, who was chaste and fair, learned the skills of hunting from Chiron the Centaur. Hippolytus spent all his time in the forest chasing wild animals with Artemis, the virgin huntress. The divine company he kept made him immune to the charms of ordinary women. Aphrodite, goddess of love, was angered by his indifference, and inspired his stepmother Phaedra to fall in love with him. But he refused her advances, so she accused him falsely to his father, Theseus, who believed her, and prayed to his father Poseidon to avenge this slight upon her honour. Hippolytus was driving a chariot on the shore of the Saronic Gulf when Poseidon sent a great and fearsome bull forth from the sea. The horses of Hippolytus' chariot bolted, and he was trampled under their hooves. Artemis was grief-stricken, and persuaded Asclepius, god of healing, to bring him back to life. Zeus was angry with Asclepius for restoring a mortal to life, and sent the physician god to Hades. But Artemis concealed Hippolytus in a cloud and carried him to Nemi. There she entrusted him to the nymph Egeria, and he ruled there as king under the name of Virbius, and was worshipped as a god. He had a son, also named Virbius, who rode in a chariot drawn by fiery horses to fight with the Latins against Aeneas and the Trojans. It is possible that a horse was sacrificed annually in his grove, probably as an embodiment of him as a deity of vegetation. A horse was sacrificed after the chariot races on 15th October on the Field of Mars in Rome. The right-hand horse of the victorious team was stabbed with a spear, then its head was cut off and decorated with a string of loaves. The head was then competed for by two teams from different districts. The tail was cut off and carried to the king's house, allowing the blood to drip on the threshold. The blood was kept by the Vestal Virgins and mixed with the blood of unborn calves sacrificed six days previously. This was then given to the shepherds to burn near their flocks in order to fumigate them. It is possible that the horse was the embodiment of the corn-spirit (which would explain the loaves); its tail, like the tails of other corn-animals in Europe, was the most fertilising part.


At one time the goat was the sacred animal or embodiment of Athena, who is portrayed dressed in a goatskin (the aegis). The goat was not generally sacrificed to her, nor allowed to enter her sanctuary in Athens, the Acropolis. This was said to be because the goat injured the sacred tree of Athena, the olive. However, Varro relates that once a year, the goat was driven onto the Acropolis, and there sacrificed. An animal that is only killed once a year is often the embodiment of the deity. Presumably the goat was Athena, and (as with the statue of Amon) her statue was probably dressed in its skin as a new aegis.

The pig was sacred to Demeter, and may originally have been the goddess herself. Pigs and cakes of dough were sacrificed to Demeter and Persephone at the festival of Thesmophoria, which was celebrated by women alone in October. They were thrown into deep ravines where there were snakes, which ate the remains of the pigs. The previous year's decayed flesh (that which remained uneaten by the snakes) was fetched from the bottom of the chasm by women, and sown with the seed corn to ensure a good crop. Later legend explained that this custom originated when Hades abducted Persephone. As Hades opened the earth to return to the underworld, a swineherd called Eubulus was herding his pigs nearby, and they fell down the chasm into the underworld. Probably Persephone's sacred animal was the pig.


The problem with taking myth too literally is graphically illustrated by the practice of the people of Rhodes, who annually sacrificed a chariot and four horses to the sun god, flinging them into the sea for his use. Believing that the sun god rode across the sky in a chariot, they thought he would need a new chariot and team every year, as the old ones would be worn out. Another example of this is the lamb annually sacrificed by the Argives to Hades. Dionysos was supposed to have gone into the underworld by way of the Alcyonian lake to rescue his mother Semele from the underworld, so they threw a lamb into the lake.

The story of the Golden Fleece is also a tale of sacrifice. Notice how the female character, Helle, is conveniently drowned. Athamas, a king of Thessaly, married Nephele, and she bore him a son, Phrixus, and a daughter, Helle. But then Athamas married Ino, and had by her two sons, Learchus and Melicertes. Ino was jealous of Phrixus and Helle, and plotted their death. She persuaded the women to roast the seed-corn before it was planted. The next year, the were no crops, which resulted in a famine. So the King sent a messenger to Delphi to consult the oracle as to what the cause of this might be. But Queen Ino bribed the messenger to say that the famine would not come to an end unless Phrixus and Helle were sacrificed to Zeus. Accordingly, Athamas sent for the children, who were with the sheep. But a ram with a golden fleece spoke to them and alerted them to the danger. They climbed on the ram's back and fled. He carried them over land and sea. As they flew over the sea, Helle slipped from the ram's back and was drowned. Phrixus arrived in Colchis and married the King's daughter. Afterwards he sacrificed the ram to Zeus and gave the fleece to the King, who nailed it to an oak tree guarded by a dragon who never slept. The tree grew in the sacred grove of Ares. Zeus took the ram and made it into the constellation of Aries, the Ram (Krios in Greek). Here we appear to have another example of the embodiment of a god being slain and its skin given to the god, this time in the form of an oak, the tree sacred to Zeus.


Similar customs were observed with animal deities in other parts of the world. It is often believed that the animal killed goes to intercede with the gods on behalf of the tribe. The Issapu tribe in Fernando Po killed the sacred serpent and hung its skin on a tree. Every child in the tribe had to touch the serpent's tail (possibly to bring the children under the deity's protection, or to make them identify with the tribe by touching the sacred animal). The Psylli, a snake clan of Africa in ancient times, used to put their newborn children amongst snakes, believing that the snakes would not harm them if they were true-born members of the tribe.


Among the Lapps, sacrificed animals were believed to go to Jabme-Aimo, the subterranean realm of the dead. They set aside the bones, eyes, ears, heart, male sexual parts, and some of the meat from each leg, and laid them in a coffin. The god to whom the animal was sacrificed was believed to give it new life in the underworld. The Lapps also buried the bones of bears which they had eaten.


The Todas, a pastoral tribe of Southern India, relied for their main food-source on the milk of their buffaloes. They held buffaloes sacred and treated them very kindly, even adoring them. They never ate the meat of the cow buffalo, and only ate the meat of the male once a year, when they killed a very young male calf, which was taken into the depths of the forest and killed with a club made of the wood of the Millingtonia tree (the Todas' sacred tree). They then made a sacred fire by rubbing two sticks together, and the calf was roasted on the embers of the fire, which had consisted of various trees. Only the men of the tribe partook of the meat.


The Kalmuck people, in the Caucasus, consecrated a white ram, called "the ram of the spirit" or "the ram of heaven". It was never shorn or sold, but when it grew old and its owner wished to dedicate a new one, the old one was killed and eaten at a feast to which the neighbours were invited. It was killed on an auspicious day, generally in autumn, by a sorcerer. Its meat was eaten, and some of the fat and the skeleton was burned on a turf altar, and the head, skin, and feet were hung up.



Oracular Sacrifice


Another form of sacrifice was the oracular sacrifice. Among the Kuruvikkarans (a caste of beggars and bird-catchers in Southern India), the goddess Kali was believed to descend on her priest, and he gave oracles after drinking the blood which streamed from the slit throat of a goat. In the temple of Apollo Diradiotes at Argos, they sacrificed a lamb once a month by night, and a woman subject to a rule of chastity tasted its blood, and then prophesied or divined, inspired by the god. Similarly, the priestess of Earth at Aegira in Achaia drank the fresh blood of a bull before going down into the cave to prophesy. In Rome and Etruria, the entrails of sacrificed animals were read for omens; this was the practice of haruspicy (probably meaning 'entrail gazing'), which originated in Etruria, and most of its prominent practitioners were Etruscan. The College of Haruspices at Rome consisted of sixty members, who would interpret the liver of a sacrifice for a fee. The liver was considered to depict the universe in microcosm, and various areas of it were designated as belonging to specific deities. Presumably, if the liver of a particular sacrifice differed from the norm, it was interpreted accordingly.


In Celtic Iron Age Britain, the act of eating meat sometimes had ritual overtones. There was the rite of Himbas Forosnai, which involved chewing the meat of a red pig, a dog, or a cat, then singing an incantation over it and offering it to the gods, for the purposes of divination. In 'Togail Bruidne Da Derga' there is an account of a man eating a huge quantity of beef and then entering into a sacred sleep in which he would discover in a dream the identity of the future king. One of the functions of the vates was to interpret sacrifices, divining the future from their death-throes.



Intercessionary Sacrifice

An ox was sacrificed in Greece around the end of June, to intercede for an end to drought and food shortages. All those present at the sacrifice blamed each other for the "murder of the ox" (bouphonia). The ox to be sacrificed was chosen by driving the animals round an altar with corn strewn on it. The ox that ate the corn was the one to be sacrificed (this could be interpreted as the god claiming the animal as his own). All the participants ate of the meat, and its stuffed body was yoked to a plough. The ox probably represented the corn-spirit. At Great Bassam in Guinea, oxen were killed at the harvest.


The Aino of Japan and Sakhalin killed a sacred bear to take their prayers to the bear-god. When they killed a bear whilst hunting, a ritual of propitiation was carried out, and bear-skulls were displayed in a place of honour in their houses. Many of the Aino who live in the mountains are called kimun kamui sanikiri (descendants of the bear), and they regard the bear as a minor deity. The Gilyaks (a Tungus people of Eastern Siberia) also held a bear-slaying ritual in January. It was similar to the Aino rite - both tribes killed the bear with arrows - and the Gilyaks believed that the bear went to the Lord of the Mountain to intercede on their behalf. Before being killed, the bear was led into each house in the village, to share its divinity among the people.


The Celts also sacrificed animals (and occasionally humans). Ritual deposits seem to have consisted mostly of domestic animals which had not been butchered for human consumption (which undermines the theory of the sacrifice as a sacral meal). In England and Wales, the skulls of cattle, horses, and dogs, and the bodies of horses and dogs have been found beneath Iron Age houses, and in the ditches or beneath the ramparts of forts. Presumably these ritually interred animals were 'foundation sacrifices'. We know from the stories of Merlin that King Vortigern was told by his advisers that a human sacrifice was required for the foundations of his castle to stop it falling down, and that Merlin was going to be the sacrifice, but he managed to escape this fate by discovering that the castle was being undermined by the conflict of two dragons in a pool beneath the hill. Animal remains were also deposited in votive pits (found mostly in southern England), and can only be distinguished from domestic detritus by the way in which they are deposited (arranged in layers, not butchered, and sometimes only a part of the animal is deposited). Foundation rites were also performed when a well was sunk or a boundary ditch dug, and similar termination rites were deemed necessary when it was filled in again. Votive deposits of animal remains have been found in wells and boundary ditches, though their purpose is unclear, and it is not known to what deity, if any, they were offered. In the period of Roman occupation the presence of inscriptions and of temples dedicated to specific deities makes the task of identification easier. Most of the bones of sacrificial animals at the temple of Mercury at Uley in Gloucestershire were those of goats; there were also some cockerels sacrificed. Animal skulls were also placed in human graves, both in Roman Britain and in the early English kingdoms. Whole or cremated horses and dogs were sometimes interred in Anglo-Saxon burials.



Animals as Scapegoats

Animals were also used as scapegoats; symbolically loaded with the sins or illnesses of the community, they were sent out into the wilderness, or killed to expiate the sins of the people.


In Formosa, a lamb, goat, or camel was used to take on disease or evil or the sins of the community, then driven out into the desert. In Morocco wealthy Arabs used to keep a wild boar in the stables, so that djinni and evil spirits would enter the boar and leave the horses alone. Similarly, in the New Testament, Jesus cast a whole legion of evil spirits out of a man and into a herd of swine, which then rushed headlong into a lake. Afterwards, the people of that region (the Gadarenes) "pleaded with him to leave their region". (Matthew 8:28-34)


The Badagas of the Neilgherry Hills in Southern India laid the sins of a deceased person on a buffalo calf. This calf was then left to wander, and was never made to work again. In Central India, when an epidemic struck a village, they put dye or paint on an animal (a chicken, a goat, or a pig, depending on the seriousness of the crisis) and drove it out into the wilderness. The Bhars, Mallans, and Kurmis of India used a black female goat or buffalo when cholera struck them.


Among the Dinka people of the White Nile, a sacred cow was laden with the sins of the people when war, famine or other disasters threatened, and it was driven to the other side of the river. Some cultures carried out these rites annually. An example is the sacrifice of a goat and a monkey by the Garo people of Assam, or the stoning of a dog by the Bhotiyas of Jahur (in the western Himalayas), or the sacrifice of a red red horse or buffalo by the Bataks of Sumatra.


Another sacred animal (other than the pig) in the rites of Attis was the bull. One of the initiatory rituals was to crown the devotee with gold and wreath him with fillets. He would then descend into a pit. The mouth of the pit was covered over with a wooden grating. A bull decked with garlands and gold leaf was then driven onto the grating and killed with a consecrated spear. Its blood then poured over the eager worshipper below, who emerged bloody from head to foot, and was greeted with adoration by the other devotees as a person reborn to eternal life, with his sins washed away by the blood of the bull. This rite was carried out at Spring Equinox, when Attis was reborn. In Rome, it was probably done at the temple of Cybele on the Vatican Hill. Excavations in the catacombs of St. Peter's basilica uncovered a shrine of Cybele.


In France in the Middle Ages, cats were burned in the bonfires at Easter, Shrove Tuesday, or the first Sunday in Lent, occasionally at Midsummer (St. John's Day). The cat was believed to be a form taken by witches, and an animal of the devil. This singularly unpleasant custom was instigated in the belief that burning a cat was the same as burning the witch who had shape-shifted into a cat. J.G. Frazer suggests that it may have been a remnant of a Celtic sacrificial rite, because the cats were burnt in wicker baskets. Foxes and snakes were also burnt in the midsummer fires in the belief that they were witches in animal shape.


In South Africa, disease, suffering and sin was transferred to a goat by dripping a few drops of the patient's blood on the goat's head; the animal was then turned out on the veldt. The goat was also used to take cholera away in Central India.

Even as late as the nineteenth century, in times of cattle sickness, farmers in Cornwall, Wales, and some parts of Scotland would slaughter one member of the herd to protect the rest from sickness. It was believed that the voluntary offering of a victim would ward off the sickness, in accordance with a law of nature. These were not offerings to a deity; rather the slaughter was intended as a magical act. Animals were also buried under buildings or interred in the walls, a custom which prevailed until the early nineteenth century; this was believed to bring good fortune to the structure. It was even justified on the grounds that it improved the acoustics of the building. Again, this was a magical act rather than a votive offering.


In the context of Christian beliefs, sacrifice was clearly rendered unnecessary by the intercession of Christ on behalf of sinful humanity. However, in certain more remote areas, sacrifices to saints were made. Oxen were killed in St. Benyo's honour at Clynnog Fawr in Gwynedd, and at Wester Ross in honour of St. Maelrubha, but the Gwynedd custom was suppressed in 1589, and that at Wester Ross in 1678, by reforming churchmen.




Whilst sacrifice seems abhorrent to the modern mind, it evidently fulfilled a socially cohesive function in ancient societies: it united people in a common purpose; they shared a sacral meal (probably the only time some of them obtained any protein); and in times of emergency (famine, war, epidemics), it helped them to believe that the deities were on their side.

It is difficult to ascertain whether animals were sacrificed as an embodiment of the deity, or as an offering to the deity. J. G. Frazer attempted to prove that most deities were originally conceived of as animals, then went through a phase of being represented as part-animal, part-human, and were then represented as fully human, but retained the animal as an attribute or emblem. According to this view, the logical development of this process is for the deity to become more and more abstract, until a monotheistic religion arises as a result. Still later in the process, there is a rational attempt to explain the universe, and the logical outcome is either atheism or humanism. However, closer scrutiny of the mythological material (e.g. that of the Celts) has demonstrated that it was not necessarily always the case that an anthropomorphic deity developed out of a theriomorphic one. The relationship between a deity and the animals associated with him or her was more subtle, and often more complicated than this; sometimes a human hero or god was turned into an animal; sometimes the animal form was contemporary with the human form.


Whatever the purpose of sacrifice, it was a central feature of ancient religion. Among the Celts, according to Caesar, the Druids would 'excommunicate' rebellious elements by excluding them from sacrifices:



"When a private person or a tribe disobeys their ruling, they ban them from attending at sacrifices. This is their harshest penalty. Men placed under this ban are treated as impious wretches; all avoid them, fleeing their company and conversation, lest their contact bring misfortune upon them."


In any case, being confronted with the concept of sacrifice forces us to think about our relationship to animals. The modern view of animals is a distorted one, in that we are divorced from nature. The ancients lived much closer to nature in the sense that they depended on it for survival; they were not necessarily animal lovers, nor environmentally friendly in the modern sense. They were almost completely at the mercy of the elements, and knew very little about fertilisers or crop rotation. Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that they looked for divine assistance simply to survive, and were prepared to use any means at their disposal to secure the favour of the gods. In the modern world, on the other hand, we regard animals either as pets, in which case we anthropomorphise them, or as food, in which case we try and forget that they are animals at all. We forget that animals are wild creatures with a different form of consciousness; we also forget that humans are also a species of animal, and a predatory one at that. Personally, I feel that if one is going to eat meat, one should be capable of killing the animal (preferably humanely), and of acknowledging that the piece of meat on the table is a piece of animal. The logical outcome of recognising this would be to give the animal a reasonable quality of life, and to kill it humanely. It is the refusal to face up to the moral implications of meat-eating that allows factory-farming to continue. At least with sacrifice, the animal in question was left alone for most of the year (if its meat was taboo except for the occasion of the sacral meal), even pampered in some cases, and only killed once a year on the festival of the deity, if Frazer's interpretation is to be believed. This is not to advocate the revival of sacrifice, merely to put it into perspective and the context of meat-eating in general.



from The Magical Lore of Animals by Yvonne Aburrow

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