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The Argument for Sacrifice
I would imagine that many and probably most Pagans have personal altars at home. But I would argue that the use to which we put our personal altars far outweighs in importance the way in which we decorate them. Why aren’t there more books out there about sacrifice and offerings and fewer about how to properly decorate our altars for the season? That is not to denigrate the importance of properly decorating an altar; after all, our ancestors spent a great deal of time painting, oiling, polishing and cleaning (and even dressing) the images of the Gods in the temples but I think our modern emphasis is misplaced. Let’s face it: all the effort they put into that would have been wasted had they not been making proper sacrifice.

Comedian Billy Crystal in impersonating actor Ricardo Montalban used to joke that it is “not how you feel but how you look” that is important. But appearances can be deceiving. We should spend more time and devote more energy to feeling like Pagans than the trappings of Paganism. In other words, what practices define us as Pagans? It is not the act of wearing a pentacle or a Thor’s Hammer or some other symbol that make us a Pagan – it is, other than the Gods themselves, cultic acts.

I argue often that modern ideas of religion must be divorced from ancient. There is a vast gulf separating ancient ideas about what constitutes religion and how the subject is viewed today, twenty centuries after the introduction of Christianity. Is religion defined by a collection of doctrine and a dogmatic application of specific belief or by cultic acts? And what, if any, acts are a part of religion? Ancient religion had many facets, some strangers to Christianity and some taken over by the new religion. There was singing and dancing, processions and sacred feasts and drinking and riotous and heart-felt public celebration. There were plays and mimes and even gladiatorial contests which even in later times retained something of their ancient religious significance.

But first and foremost must be sacrifice, which is called by Heathens, blót. Sacrifice, as McMullen stresses, were “a prominent act of piety.”1 Morton Smith is correct in saying that “Ordinary pagan worship was a matter of offerings (sacrifices, libations, incense) and petitionary prayer, on solemn occasions a choir might sing hymns praising the gods and asking them to be present at the sacrifice and favor the petitioners.”2 Sallustius was a fourth century Pagan author, possibly a Neoplatonist. He wrote that “Prayers divorced from sacrifices are only words, prayers with sacrifices are animated words, the words giving power to life and life animation to the word.” Sallustius was a Roman Pagan, not a Norse Heathen, but doubtless his words would have found agreement among the Germanic folk across the Rhine and beyond and archaeology has found offerings made by Heathens made all those centuries ago. Compare this to how a Christian might pray, on his knees, hands folded. There is no sacrifice offered, nothing given to the deity - nothing sacrificed. Proper acts of worship are not part of his prayer.

To a Christian sacrifice is not a part of religion. And the idea of sacrifice is not only rendered unnecessary by Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross, but is repellent and abhorrent in and of itself. Fourth Century Christian legislation is inflammatory, as historian Ramsay MacMullen reminds us, "aimed at 'pagans and their heathen enormities, since with their natural insanity and stubborn insolence they depart from the path of the true religion�[in] nefarious rites of their sacrifices and their false doctrines of their deadly superstition.'"3 Christians of the time clearly understood the significance for Pagans of the act of sacrifice. The importance of sacrifice is attested by the stubborn refusal of Pagans to abandon the customs and traditions of their ancestors and by the relentless pressure by the Christian authorities to stamp it out.4 For 60 million inhabitants of the Roman Empire, the Christian concept of what constituted religion seemed bizarre. And I would argue, it is remains bizarre today.

Sacrifice is thus (or should be) very much a part of religion for Pagans. Some people have a difficult time divorcing themselves from a lifetime of Christian indoctrination and the idea of sacrifice is a prominent victim. For many the idea of sacrifice may seem new and strange. From a Christian perspective this is understandable. But Christianity was out of step with the rest of humanity when it introduced the idea 2,000 years ago. It was out of step with its so-called parent religion Judaism as well, which itself practiced sacrifice. At root there is nothing unnatural about sacrifice. In fact, it is natural. Christians even pay homage to the idea in their fasting and “giving something up for Lent.” If you don’t give up something meaningful to you, it’s a sacrifice without value. Even Christians understand that.

Do I sacrifice? Yes, I do. I place offerings of food on the stall, or outside for the land wights (ON: landvaettir), or offer incense and sometimes libations of drink. I do not sacrifice birds or any other animal, and a bull costs as much as a car, making it too expensive for anything but a community-wide celebration, much as was the case in the ancient world. But I reserve the right to make these offerings to the Gods (rams were also a sacral beast). Christians might claim that it is wrong, but Christians are not, whatever they might think, the final arbiters of what is right and wrong.

As Pagans we need to divorce ourselves from the Christian worldview. We need to understand that it is an alien and unnatural worldview and has no part to play in our lives. We need to understand that what is natural to us, what should be natural to us, may at first seem strange, especially for those recently come from Christianity. It is not easy to expunge a lifetime of indoctrination and brain-washing. But it can be done, and it must be done, or we are simply instigating a form of plug-n-play religion, where we simply replace one God with another and keep the system in place. But it is not only the God who must be winnowed, but all the trappings, the beliefs, the very concept of faith. All the things people are brought up to think of as religion are alien to the Pagan concept of religion.

Look at it from the point of view of the Frisians and Saxons who were facing extermination at the hands of the Christian Franks. Remember the words of Radbod the Frisian, who told the missionaries, “I would rather go to hell with my ancestors than to heaven with a parcel of beggars.” Sacrifice has always been part of Pagan custom and there is no reason why it should not be now. The Germans sacrificed, as did the Celts and the Romans and the Greeks and Egyptians and all the other ancient peoples. Whatever your “tradition” sacrifice played an important role in the lives of your ancestors. The truth of our ways has not changed over these twenty centuries. The only thing that has changed is the prevailing worldview, but numbers do not make something right. As Anatoly France is reputed to have said, “If a million men do a foolish thing; it is still a foolish thing.”

We need therefore to set aside Christian notions, Christian ways of understanding religion. Paganism is not about belief. It is not a religion of the book (however some might view the eddas or Homer), and it is not a revealed religion; it is earth-centered, and directed towards this life and not some anomalous future existence divorced from this world. The world is not evil, there is no original sin and therefore no need of a godling to give his life to expiate it, no reign of evil thus expunged. Certainly we have beliefs about our Gods, but this is a different sort of belief than that which is required by a book, enforced by doctrine and dogma. “God is this nature or that nature” is not an argument one should hear in Heathen circles. Arguments about God’s existence is not something we have any need for. Only people whose belief is challenged, who are themselves full of doubts, feel compelled to resort to such devices.

When I sacrifice, I am gifting to the Gods. I am not gifting to his middlemen. I am not enriching a priesthood or a Church hierarchy. If I were to sacrifice (blót) and have a ritual feast (and sacrifice and feasting went hand in hand among Heathens just as among Mediterranean Pagans) the Gods participate and the Gods are honored. They are among us and we are enriched by the experience. This is as real a part of religion as Christian notions about the Eucharist, which are themselves Pagan in origin. Life is holy, the land is sacred, and they should be celebrated and not denigrated as something to be escaped on the one hand or to be plundered on the other. There is symmetry to our existence, and not to belabor a point often made, but life is an unending cycle of connections. In other words, when Christian emperors forbade sacrifice, historians might call the policy tolerant but Pagans and Heathens know the truth of it: sacrifice is an essential part of our way of life. Would Christians view a policy as tolerant that deprived them of the Eucharist? It is unlikely. It is essential.

Sacrifice then is an essential part of religion for a Heathen, and this importance is stressed in such stories as Hrafnkels Saga, where Hrafnkell decides that belief in the Gods is silly and resolves never to offer sacrifice again. There is a clear connection to maintaining sacrifices and religion. Sacrifice is representative of devotion to the old ways as Heathen kings are described as “maintaining the sacrifices” rather than as “remaining Heathen.” Snorri describes Olaf Trételgja (Wood-cutter) as being an irreligious man and therefore little given to sacrifices. So important, however, was sacrifice that his followers seized him and burned him as a sacrifice to Oðinn in order to improve the harvest. Whether Snorri’s story is true or not, it illustrates the centrality of sacrifice in Heathen religion. Religion is for a Heathen, as it is for a Pagan cultic acts and of these acts, sacrifice was foremost. In essence, without sacrifice, there can be no religion. The idea of one without the other would have been absurd to our ancestors. It should be absurd to us. To worship our Gods as we once worshipped the Christian God would be nonsense, and our Gods would be right to take the insult to heart.

1 Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997), 43. MacMullen correctly points out that sacrifice “rewarded the ordinary participants in several different and important ways, most obviously through uniting them in their worship and affirming it communally” but notes also that in so far as participants were dining in the presence of the Gods themselves that sacrifice and feasting was “much more than a social act…It was religion, and understood as such by the participants.”

2 Ibid., 14 citing Nov. Theod. 3.8.a.438 (trans. Pharr).

3 Morton Smith, “Pauline Worship as Seen by Pagans,” HTR, 73, (1980), 245.

4 The Theodosian Code (Codex Theodosianus) of 438, a compendium of Roman law, had an entire book dedicated to religion and one section of this contained 25 titles addressing Pagan cult practices and temples.

Sidebar Notes

Cultic acts - not beliefs - are central to historical Paganism

The most important cultic act is sacrifice - not the casting of spells