Tag Archives: sacrifice

Who do we sacrifice?

As a younger human, I was fairly hardcore when it came to rituals. I’d go, no matter the weather and no matter what sort of state I was in. Pain and fatigue are longstanding issues for me, and when I was younger I was more in the habit of just pushing through. 

It didn’t help that I absorbed a lot of fairly toxic notions around sacrifice within Druidry. I had a strong feeling that I needed to put the Druidry first, and that complaining about my body or stepping back when I wasn’t well, wasn’t ok. I’ve had heatstroke doing rituals. I’ve been problematically cold, which makes me hurt more. I’ve pushed through exhaustion. I’ve done rituals that left me emotionally burned out and unable to function for days afterwards.

It was worse during the period when I was leading rituals because I felt obliged to show up, to not let people down. This was all voluntary, all given in service, and I was working alongside it and had a young child.

A culture of service and sacrifice can really hurt you if you aren’t well to begin with. I look back at a lot of my early experiences of Druidry and I can see how the ableism was hard-wired in. I can see my own, internalised ableism, and I can see how I unwittingly perpetuated it.

A real community doesn’t break its members for the sake of a seasonal celebration. At this point in my life I am much more aware of the importance of not demanding more than people can safely give. I reject the idea that sacrifice is a spiritual good or a social good. I’m deeply in favour of compromise and negotiation, but when some people have to sacrifice themselves for the ‘good’ of the community, you will tend to find that it is those who have least who end up giving most. 

Sacrifice is often what we do when power and responsibility aren’t equally shared. When there is fairness, equality of sharing and ownership, we shoulder the hardships together. We bear the hard things together, those who can do most help those who most need help. We give, to each other, to the land, to what we hold sacred but we do not ask anyone to suffer. Community is fundamentally about taking care of each other and that means it has to be safe to say no. 

The demand for high levels of commitment in Pagan groups tends to be ableist. Either those who cannot commit are excluded, or they are pushed into harming themselves. It has to be ok to not show up when you aren’t well.

So, for the autumn equinox I ended up leading by example. I found I was too ill to run a ritual, and I cancelled it. At the moment I don’t have other people who could take over for me, but I will aim to develop those skills in others so that it doesn’t all depend on me.

Druidry and Sacrifice

While I wasn’t raised Christian, I went to a Church of England primary school and it was there that the concept of self-sacrifice entered my consciousness. I took onboard that it was a good thing, and that we should be willing to help others even when that’s painful or difficult. I wondered, sometimes, how a person could tell when they qualified as the ‘others’ who needed helping. I did not find an answer.

I feel confident that for our Celtic ancestors, sacrifice was not self-sacrifice. It was other people, and creatures. There might have been an element of giving things up when people threw swords and bling into bodies of water, but there’s also status to be derived from ostentatiously giving things up, so I’m not sure.

When it comes to modern Druidry, we’re clearly not going to be sacrificing what is other than ourselves. As an animist, I find offerings difficult because they remain their own thing, and not you. A picked flower is not your sacrifice, it’s just a less bloody way of sacrificing something else. So we may talk instead about sacrifices of time, energy and the like. And always, there’s that question of when you get to say that perhaps making the sacrifice shouldn’t be on you. What looks like a small sacrifice to a well resourced person who lives in comfort is a much bigger deal if you don’t have those privileges.

In the past, I have made all kinds of sacrifices to Druidy. As a younger person, I repeatedly sacrificed both my bodily and mental health through my volunteering. Because sacrifice is what you do when you’re serious about your path. I can’t say it led me to any kind of spiritual experiences and it didn’t make me a better person. If sacrifice is supposed to be utterly selfless, then there’s a case for saying that regular burnout and trashing my health is good Druidry. But no matter what I did, it never really felt sacred to hurt myself like that. It just hurt.

Except I’m entirely sure it was a terrible way to carry on, and that a culture that encourages this is an awful idea. I do not, at this point in my life, believe that this kind of sacrifice is a good idea at all. I think we’re much better off looking at sacrifice in terms of rebalancing. If you have a lot, and more than you need, sacrifice. Give away. Share. Offer up. You can afford it. If you’re struggling, ill, under too much pressure, I don’t think it should be your job to make sacrifices, or for that matter to become some kind of living human sacrifice.

There was no one to tell child-me when you get to say ‘I am the one who needs helping’. We need to do this for each other. We need to avoid competing for the best excuses not to give, and we need to avoid putting pressure on people who need taking care of. We need to recognise that what we give comes at different costs, depending on circumstances. We need to keep an eye on our own privilege in terms of where we let ourselves off the hook, and what we expect of others.

Making pledges to show the love

I’m a big fan of making pledges in rituals with other people. It’s a simple, powerful act to do it alone, but when you are witnessed by your community, it adds weight to the pledge. Humans are better at feedback than Gods. Also, hearing other people’s pledges is often inspiring, and being able to come back and say how those pledges are going, affirms the work undertaken and helps you keep going.

I’ve made space for pledge making in ritual circles, and have seen the process in action. People who are new to all this will pledge things like growing herbs, or being more diligent with the recycling. Those further along the path to living lightly make more radical pledges. Over a few seasons, the people who were aspiring to recycle will become more involved too.

It is a powerful thing to speak to whatever you hold sacred and make a promise. If you’ve been having trouble really making the effort with something, pledging as a sacred act can give you the focus to see it through. It’s one thing to let yourself off the hook for making small car journeys when you could have walked, and very different to have promised your Gods, your ancestors or the land that you would do this differently. It’s also different when your community of people has heard your pledge. We like to look good for each other. We get a lot of emotional rewards from the good opinion of others. Ritual with humans tends to make us want to offer more impressive pledges, and to see them through so that we can tell people we saw them through.

Radical green change to enable sustainable living can feel a bit hair-shirt. If we feel we’re suffering by sacrificing, there’s less incentive to keep going. Emotional rewards from your human community can really help offset this. If people are impressed by you, then what you’re doing becomes more meaningful. The trouble with being green is that we tend not to see any immediate consequences of it – because most of us don’t see landfill sites, or plastic islands in the ocean, and we have no personal measure of air pollution or carbon excess. And even if we did, our own bit would be hard to spot in the grand scheme of things. That our efforts are both tiny and important is hard to work with.

If you want to make sacrifices to your Gods, (or anything else you hold sacred) then your sustainable life choices are some of the most powerful things you can offer up right now. If the Gods can smell your incense, they can also smell the fumes from your car. If you recognise the Earth as a sacred being, or as a mother Goddess, then the landfill, the plastic and the air pollution are what we do to her sacred body. We honour her when we pledge not to harm her.

If you’re looking for inspiration, try the spinner on this website – https://www.theclimatecoalition.org/spin-the-love

If you don’t have a ritual space to share your pledges in, use the internet. Talk about what you are doing. Inspire other people through your action. Watch out for #showthelove during February.

Paganism for the planet

How planet friendly is your life?

What is there that you do, or own, that you know isn’t sustainable? If those things are a consequence of your wealth and privilege, what stories are you telling yourself to keep on with them?

How hard would it be to make changes? What would it cost you in terms of time, energy, and resources?

If you have a Pagan practice, consider making changes as offerings. If you are the sort of person to make offerings in rituals, or at altars, consider what you give. Does the planet need you to burn incense? Do the Gods really want your cut flowers? The effort and personal cost of living in a more environmentally friendly way might be a much more powerful thing to offer up.

If you can’t give something up entirely, try cutting back. Dedicate a day in the week to this, perhaps.

Try giving up the things that are a barrier to experiencing the real world first hand. Planes and cars are obvious examples. Walking and cycling will bring you into stronger relationship with the natural world. If you can’t be mobile in this way, look for the least power intensive way of getting about.

Consider what you put into the water, and what is done to the soil on your behalf. Consider what is burned for you, and what you put into the air. Change your relationship with the elements by treating them with greater care. Try dedicating to care for them when you next honour them in ritual.

Giving things up can be hard. It can feel difficult and challenging. You may find that easier if you take it on as an act of spiritual dedication instead. Every time you give something up, you are reducing the harm you do. Reframe your sacrifice, and it might look a good deal more attractive.

Sacrificing Virgins

Having been ‘out’ as a Pagan since my teens, I have always attracted questions from people who know nothing. “Do you dance naked?” and “Do you sacrifice virgins?” (no, and no).

My guess is that the idea of Pagans sacrificing virgins comes from bad horror films, B movie Satanists and the lurid dreams of people who want to shut Paganism down. I think for a long time, Paganism functioned as a kind of shadow self for Christianity – if you think about the ways people imagined witches, for example. Naked, having orgies, smearing themselves with strange substances, snogging devils and so forth. The idea of witchcraft has created an emotional space in which incredibly repressed people could think about sexy things without having to feel guilty, so long as they kept telling themselves they were horrified by it.

I see similar patterns today in tabloid ‘news’.

The obsession with virginity is a Christian thing, not a Pagan one. I think many of our more permissive Pagan ancestors divided women up only in terms of whether they had birthed a child or not – no child makes you a maiden. This is a pretty easy state for an observer to figure out, and making mistakes about it doesn’t matter when it’s not especially loaded with cultural implications anyway.

Virginity is a concept deeply linked to patriarchy. It is woman as property, unspoiled by the touch of another ‘owner’. It is reproduction as the property of the man, and female inexperience enables male ownership. Virginity is a construct, not a reality, and for many young people, gaining experience is a process, not an event. The idea of virginity tends to be focused on straight penetration and to miss out the experiences of gay and lesbian people. Sexual experience should be about exploration, not focused on this antiquated notion of ‘deflowering’. Virginity itself is a concept that doesn’t reliably hold up well in a Pagan context.

Human sacrifice has always been a popular thing to accuse your enemies of. It’s also been something many cultures have practiced. The Romans were deeply opposed to human sacrifice, considering it a barbaric custom and a reason to conquer a tribe. At the same time, Romans crucified people to make political points, and celebrated the deaths of countless people in the gladiatorial arenas, with death as a popular spectacle. Christians who burned/hanged Pagans and heretics did so ostensibly for the good of the sinner’s soul, but it still looks a lot like human sacrifice to me. The lines between punishment, ritual and spectacle are often blurred and uneasy when we look at the past.

Sacrificing virginity when it means the taking it for ritual or magical purpose just makes no sense in this context. People who practice sex magic are looking for the power and energy that can be raised through the act and for that, you need confidence and experience.

Why do people think Pagans want this kind of thing? I think it says far more about the people who ask the questions than it does about us.

Questions of worth

2016 is, without a doubt, the year I started questioning my worth in earnest. For most of my life I’ve been willing to accept the value given to me by whoever I happened to be dealing with. As a consequence I have a history of only removing myself from situations when they became so damaging that I had no other choice. Crawling away exhausted, burned out, emotionally flayed, unable to function, crying all the time, unable to sleep… it’s happened repeatedly.

This year it finally dawned on me that one way to avoid this would be to get out sooner. Saying ‘no’ more often, and spotting situations that aren’t clever will help me. The jobs no one else is prepared to do? Maybe I shouldn’t be striding in heroically. Maybe there are very good reasons no one else is willing to do those things. I’ve started thinking that it would be a good idea to hold a sense of worth, and standards for treatment, that aren’t shaped by how other people want me to be.

These are the things I have learned to be wary of.

  • People who repeatedly push for more than I am happy to give, people who can’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
  • People who are all about their own importance and ego trip and treat me as a means to promoting themselves.
  • People who don’t give clear instructions and then get cross because I didn’t do what they wanted, and people who expect me to magically know what they want.
  • People who think that ‘service’ means they are entitled to whatever pieces of me they want, with no obligation or duty of care on their part.

These are the qualities I look for.

  • Willingness to listen and negotiate.
  • Willingness to accept that not everything is going to be done exactly as was wanted at just the right moment, especially when you’re dealing with volunteers.
  • A default position of kindness, respect, and fairness.
  • More interest in the project than personal advancement, but no willingness to sacrifice anyone for the sake of the project.

There are times, causes and situations that call for heroic gestures and personal sacrifices. However, there are also a lot of people whose method for getting things done is to push others into heroic efforts and self-sacrifice. It seems to be widespread in conventional workplaces. I don’t want to participate in anything that cultures people to ruin themselves for some small cause that did not need their blood and misery in the slightest. I have to start with me, and with holding better boundaries. I’ve been complicit in unhealthy cultures too many times, convincing myself that letting someone run me into the ground was acceptable, and worth it. I’m no longer prepared to uphold that view. I won’t name names, but it is fair to say there are some things I won’t be involved with again.

Contemplating sacrifice

I’ve written before about all the reasons I don’t believe in or go in for sacrifice https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/no-sacrifice/. I come back to the issue at the end of a week that has broken me physically and left me with a very bruised mind. The latter is to a large extent a consequence of the former, pain and exhaustion being reliable depression triggers for me.

It hurts to type, but I’m here and typing the blog post anyway, because it’s what I do, and because if I stopped every time it hurts, most days  I wouldn’t get much done. Mostly I’ve learned not to notice what hurts my body, and I’ll take a fair amount of heart-hurting as well. Getting stuff done is important to me –the need to feel useful, the need to make a difference, however small.

There is a possibility that this week’s efforts could benefit me, in some direct way. There’s also distinct possibility that it won’t. Perhaps I have done enough to make a difference, perhaps not. It will be some weeks before I have any decent measure of what I have, or haven’t achieved here. There was possible scope to make a huge, positive difference. Did I do enough? There was no doubt in my mind that I had to give this my all, that I had to pour every ounce of strength, ability, passion and determination at my disposal, into what I’m doing. So I did that, and today I can hardly move and am tearful.

In a material sense, I have no idea if this was a price worth paying. I won’t know for a while. There may be differences already made that I cannot see. It’s also possible that I’ve just broken my body and battered my mind in order to change nothing. Except that perhaps, just perhaps, simply being willing to go that far and do that much of itself changes something. In terms of magical actions, that has to be a consideration.

What is a sacrifice if not the giving of something essential; life, time, blood, sweat, tears? What is the point of sacrifice if not to go beyond the ordinary, the viable, the normal and the likely to try and beget uncanny levels of change? Apparently that’s available as an option with no recourse to Gods. Simply that I have done this, and the reasons for which I have done it, changes me, if nothing else. I hurt with every last cell in my body. I do believe it was worth it.

Pagans at Lent

Lent is a festival that exists in a context of tradition, and the cycle of the seasons. For our ancestors, Shrove Tuesday was the time when you used up the last of the fat, flour and eggs, making the pancakes. That which had been stored from the previous year would tend to run out somewhere around now, while new resources would not yet be reliably available. The thin weeks that were an inevitable consequence, became Lent. Making a virtue out of necessity, and a spiritual experience out of the hard times is a good, pragmatic response. It wasn’t a case of giving up one luxury of choice, it was a case of having very little to live on.

With our complex supply chains and supermarkets, the majority of us do not expect to feel the pinch at this time of year. We are disconnected from the cycles of the land. A Pagan might therefore consider joining in with Lent in order to connect with their ancestors, and to re-connect with an agricultural wheel that wasn’t persistently bountiful. Of course if you aren’t in Europe, you may have a wildly different seasonal situation to consider, and that should be taken into account.

For many, the quarterly power bills came out over the last few weeks. Winter is the time we need most light and heating. If you were a bit marginal with the money, it may well be that the coming of the winter bill creates a need to cut back and save money in the coming months. Modern fuel poverty may well re-invent Lent as a practical necessity for some.

When I was a child, back in the eighties, giving up something for Lent was common in the community around me. However, I did not see much of it as a spiritual practice. Competitive self-denial, self-aggrandisement through a personal martyrdom where the difficulty of the sacrifice was much emphasised… when you have a great deal, giving up some small thing is not as difficult or as noble as we might like to imagine. It’s also a very long way from genuine privation.

If you are thinking about Lent at all, it is worth sparing a thought for the many who are fasting and doing without luxuries. Not the people who do it by choice, but the ones so knocked down by life that they now depend on food from foodbanks. More specifically, the kind of food you can heat with water from a kettle, because they have no money for gas or electricity. For many, the experience of fasting and abstinence is not sought, or used for spiritual purposes. It is a harsh reality, and it will not magically end when the Easter eggs hit the shops.

To give up one chosen thing for Lent, as a personal exercise, seems highly suspect in this context. If you are going to make some kind of sacrifice, do it for the good of someone else who is in need. Giving your luxury foodstuffs to a foodbank for the month might be a lot more meaningful than just not buying them. I’m seeing online people taking this as a prompt to switch over to fair trade goods, or to bring other ethical considerations to their shopping.

Fasting as a practice was common for ancestors in many traditions across the globe. It has a very different feel and context when you also know what it means to give up and cut back out of necessity. We don’t have a good collective sense of the difference between necessity and luxury, nor much collective sense of what it means to lack for necessities. I think this lack of awareness contributes to our collective lack of action and compassion over people in abject poverty. Too many of us have no idea what that means, and when you look at undertaking it that way, fasting for Lent could be a very productive cultural activity indeed.

Human Sacrifice

This is a highly speculative blog post, I’m not claiming any of this is ‘right’ but it may be a productive way of reimagining a more uncomfortable aspect of human history.

I’ve been watching ‘Planet Earth’ recently – as a box set arrived over the festive period. I’ve seen great herds of wildebeest crossing rivers and being eaten by crocodiles. I’ve seen vast flocks of bats, and the snakes who wait at the mouths of their caves. Seals being eaten by sharks. Pretty much every creature that gathers in large groups to travel or feed, seems to get these predators. The large numbers improve the odds of survival for any given individual, but also attract the hunters.

We are a soft and squishy species. Our hides, teeth and claws really aren’t up to much. Tool use, developing into weapons of both hunting and defence, have changed the game for us considerably. Once upon a time, we must have been wandering ready-meals. No doubt we faced all the same issues as the wildebeest and seals. We’re also smart, we have a knack for thinking about cause and effect, a habit of seeing patterns, that will show us patterns where none exist sometimes.

Imagine if the wildebeest figured out that by deliberately giving someone to the crocodiles, the majority would pass safely. Nature takes its tolls and tithes, and more often than not, these are fairly predictable in terms of timing and location. Whether they wanted to or not, our human ancestors were losing people to the wilderness. Storms and floods kill, so do famines. It’s not a great leap of logic to go from pacifying the crocodiles in a very literal way, to trying the same trick with the sea.

Oddly enough, I suspect giving human sacrifices to other dangerous things may have worked to a degree for wholly pragmatic reasons. Every time you do it, you pass on a degree of knowledge that you are dealing with something dangerous here, something that will have its tribute in blood. Every time you do that deliberately, you remind everyone else not to get complacent about the river, even if it hasn’t killed anyone in ages. You enact the dangerousness, you reinforce the need for respect. You quite possibly do reduce the chances of other people dying there.

The world was a much more dangerous place for our ancient ancestors. It strikes me as possible that the practise of human sacrifice would have started out as a much more pragmatic activity, much more immediately connected to life as experienced. It’s only later, when you get away from the immediate needs and start to build institutions around the process, that you might develop something innately sinister. As a species we don’t really know when to stop. We find something that works, and default to the assumption that scaling it up, doing it more often and in a more organised way will be even better. We have an innate assumption that more is better.

In just the same way we’ve gone from useful bartering tokens to money systems that people kill for, and that bring about numerous deaths around the globe every year. We needlessly kill and maim vast numbers of people on the roads each year, for the sake of going further and faster. We are still practicing human sacrifice on a large scale. We’ve just labelled it differently so that we can uphold our illusion of being more civilised now.

Human Sacrifices

Dear George Osborn,

I heard you talking yesterday, in your Autumn Statement as Chancellor of the Exchequer. You mentioned the ‘sacrifices’ of the British people. I’d like to take a small, semantic issue with this, but it has considerable implications, so bear with me.

When people ‘make sacrifices’ as a voluntary act of love or devotion, that’s one thing. However, what’s been happening in the UK over the last few years has not been people voluntarily putting themselves through hell for the good of the economy. You did this to us. People have not made sacrifices. People have been sacrificed. I was surprised you were brave enough to even use this word, it was remarkably honest of you, because your government’s policies are killing people, and at this rate are going to kill more people before we’re done.

This report from the 3rd December, in the British Medical Journal, suggests Britain is on the edge of a health crisis caused by malnutrition. http://www.bmj.com/content/347/bmj.f7157. There’s every reason to think that malnutrition is in turn caused by poverty (given the rise in foodbanks) but your government has yet to publish its look into the subject. We’ve also got a lot of fuel poverty in the UK, Mr Osborn. Add together a cold winter, and poor diet, and there will be people who die as a direct consequence. Many of them will be elderly.

The Daily Mail has reported that poor people are killing themselves as a direct consequence of government actions and ‘austerity’. There have been a few explicit suicide notes on that topic, from people pushed over the edge. How do you sleep at night, Mr Osborn, knowing that your choices have led people to kill themselves? And then there are the sick, vulnerable and disabled people bullied by ATOS, too many of whom have already died in abject poverty because their benefits were cut. As more than 60% of appeals against ATOS are won, it’s clear we have an unfair, unjust system here. No terminally ill person should die in abject poverty, abandoned by the state.

People are dying, Mr Osborn. Vulnerable, elderly, ill, disabled people with no options are being made more sick with anxiety by your cuts. Do take a moment to read up on the impact of severe stress on the human body, and the impact of malnutrition, and unheated homes. Hospitals are seeing more people with hunger related illness (that’s doubled since 2009, are you proud?) and those freezing through the winter are going to get ill, too. But then, someone in your party (Owen Lister, Tory councillor) recommended guillotining disabled children. Some of us wonder if your aim really is to kill off the vulnerable. Is this malice, or incompetence at work?

There are frequently no jobs available for people who want to work, and yet your government blames the jobless and penalises them with draconian systems. Are you aware, Mr Osborn, that it is entirely possible to cause mental illness in people by putting them continually in impossible situations? I doubt we will ever know how many people have become sick with anxiety and depression as a direct consequence of your policies.

Human sacrifices, Mr Osborn. Human lives brought to an end in the name of the Gods of GDP. We frown on ancient peoples who sacrificed people, and animals to their Gods. I ask, how are you any different? The bodies of badgers, and the rising number of the dead stand as witnesses against the government you contribute to. Stop sacrificing people for the sake of the economy. An economy exists to serve and facilitate the people it belongs to, not the other way round!


Sincerely etc.