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Life Arts

A Few (?) Thoughts About Samhain and Sacrifice

By Mortus, the Morose Druid  Posted by Rady Ananda (about the submitter)       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink

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We all know that there are only three certain things in life: death, taxes and idiots. As much as we dislike them, often all three arrive together. But with this essay, please tolerate the first and third.

Well, it is Samhain, so it's time to bring up that perennial subject: death. Yes, death, a subject rarely brought up willingly in our modern cult of youth and life. It is a huge far-reaching subject, on which I'd like to endlessly ramble for a six pages. It is a huge topic that we all are deeply concerned about. Life is, of course, not separate from death, it only looks that way because, "Death stares old men in the face, and lurks behind the back of youth." Perhaps one of the reasons we are so shocked in our society by sudden violent death, is that we persist in that infantile belief of immortality, bolstered by medical and social advances that virtually promise us a death by old age. Death always comes out of season to us, it seems.

Yet, throughout history, death was a daily possibility and old age a rare achievement; therefore worthy of respect. (Possibly, a reason why current seniors are not respected is that there are too many of them?) Talk to an insurance salesmen if you really want the morbid statistics of modern dangers. Our fear of death, combined with our materialistic fear of economic loss has made the whole concept of "sacrifice" particularly unpleasant to many today.

The very word "sacrifice" tends to ring warning alarms to pagans, who must constantly prepare arguments and defenses against ill-informed persecution; "Oh, we only use vegetables or Sacagawea Dollars," or such. But while this word is bandied about in this preparation of America for a "new" war, let's pause to reflect on its meanings. Here's a popular view of sacrifice from the Oxford English Dictionary (abridged edition):

sacrifice: n. 1.a. The act of offering something to a deity in propitiation or homage, especially the ritual slaughter of an animal or a person. b. A victim offered in this way. 2.a. Forfeiture of something highly valued for the sake of one considered to have a greater value or claim. b. Something so forfeited. 3.a. Relinquishment of something at less than its presumed value. b. Something so relinquished. c. A loss so sustained. 4. Baseball: A sacrifice hit or bunt. [Middle English, from Old French, from Latin sacrificium: sacer, sacred; see SACRED + facere, to make.]
Many cultures make daily offerings, to "respect," "feed," or "bribe" the spirits by setting aside something they want to "pay back" the gods for the kindness of giving it to the devotee in the first place. Taxes operate on a similar level, by our repaying society for the conditions that gave us a good business environment. The ancient Celts, to take but one collection of cultures, would sometimes bury sacrifices of food, animals, dislikable neighbours, in special pits; perhaps as a fertility-death cyclical bargaining (I give you one skinny deer in the fall, you give me six months' interest...say, three fat deer in the spring?) The Celts were also quite fond of throwing treasures and leaden body-shaped-parts into hot springs, pools, rivers, wells, fountains, oceans or anything wet. The Romans drained them and took the loot (initiating perhaps the first recycling campaign?) Hopefully, the gods will further bless us and the government will further improve our economic security and quality of life: a cycle of thanking. Uh-huh, that's the theory. And what is the greatest of material losses, but the death of our physical body? What do we get in return?

As a falling tree produces an arboreal opening for new saplings to grow toward the sun, so does death provide new space for youth to grow. What we call ourselves now is not the same self we will become in five minutes. You can't step in the same river twice. Even physically, parts of us come and go, with every breath and excretion. I was told that our complete skeleton is reformed on a cellular and molecular level within every seven years, and few cells in your body were atomically or biologically present ten years ago. Life is a process, not a stationary condition. (Decomposition and reclamation are processes, too.) We merely do not notice the death that is around us, when the forces of growth are more apparent or ascendant.

Yet we fear the loss of something we've lost many times before. We want quid pro quo: "if I die and give up this body, I WANT eternal life." Or, "I'll be really miffed about it!" The truth of the matter is that we probably didn't choose to be in this world and we likely won't be able to choose when and how we'll go. They also say, you can get by in this world with only half of what you're born with, if used rightly. That's all a hard pill to swallow and many religions and industries are built upon this grievous issue. I guess it's what you do in between that makes all the difference, and be glad that we are such a potentially long-lived species among animals.

Some of us have gone beyond a greedy desire for maximum duration of life to assist others (but not me, yet.) We all revere our parents, teachers and heroes for the hardships and injuries they have sustained on our behalf. Why do good people suffer? That's a $60 billion dollar question. I'm not going to go into a good and evil debate, because I'm not convinced they actually exist beyond the level of concepts. Some say that death and suffering inspire us to use our time wisely, and they are inherent to the biological reality of life on Earth. Around September 25th (2001), the Rev. Jesse Jackson said the 9-11 disaster has had some positive impact:

"Suffering breeds character, and character breeds faith, and in the end faith will prevail. This suffering has allowed, in the darkest hour, the light to shine most clearly."
Some of the reasons for tragic death are probably poor preparation, unforeseen consequences, and just plain bad luck. Such comfort takes a long time, if ever, to reassure the victims. Starvation and wasting away are not inherently noble in themselves. Mother Theresa once said, "I pray much better when well-fed and dressed comfortably."

Another troubling issue, is that the people most directly responsible for the tragedy died in hopes of receiving divine reward for what is mostly a political statement in a "David and Goliath" act, where we were the loser. While suicide for reasons of depression or cowardice are often not esteemed, but doing foolhardy acts for a cause or to save a group are oft considered heroic, even if the same result is dead people. I guess for many moderns, it's not a question of "if" they die, but how they live and die. I believe, however, that you shouldn't make that choice to die for others without their permission.

All too often, violent acts are a result of cheating and are used in place of long-term remedies, ostensibly due to time constraints; thereby dampening rather than solving a problem. In the Druid Chronicles, "The Early Chronicles," it was determined in April 1963, that the Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA) would not choose animal or human sacrifices (lawyers and politicians were included in 1965) regardless of their purported effectiveness. Most, if not all, Druid, Wiccan and Neo-Pagan organizations since then have followed a similar tradition to ours. There is, of course, the agonizing issue of whether fungi are to be treated as plants or animals, as they have characteristics of both! There are strangely no records on how to choose a sacrifice, but there is some guidance on how to think about a sacrifice:

"For one man, the sacrifice of life is the offering up of himself to a god or gods. To another, it is an offering up of his mind to a search for truth." Book of Faith, v.9
"If one but says "Dalon ap Landu" with the knowledge of the power of it, truly the whole Universe will be forever consecrated." Thomas the Fool, 1970
Many peoples believe, that spirits with feelings inhabit all objects and creatures, not just "Homo Sapiens Sacrificius." I, personally, try to take only willing sacrifices by divining the feelings of the plants or objects, which might take a long time. And as always, thanks and apologies before and after are to be recommended. I'm moving towards vegetarianism, but still occasionally eat reptiles, fish and bugs. I try to reduce the frequency of consumption and have rarely done the butchering (cowardice on my part, not unlike many Hindus) but I try to be respectful. After all, according to "Babe" they say, "What you eat, walks and talks tomorrow" and "You are what you eat, from your head down to your feet." What goes in will come out. My wife says that means I'll become a vegetable as I grow older.

In my experience, a sacrifice is rejected when there is a hastily chosen unwilling plant, a poorly directed purpose, misguided intentions of participants, or the gods are in a plain weird mood; and killing for no purpose is not commendable. From my observation, the most common sacrifices in the RDNA have been; leaves, branches, berries, tufts of grass, acorns (plantable afterwards,) flowers, home-grown vegetables, etc. The divination of the winds will decide whether the sacrifice is acceptable, and we must patiently await and abide by their decision, not ours. I sometimes cheat though, by only holding services on windy days in areas with many birds... (By the way, bringing hand-held fans is strictly prohibited!) An area, largely unexplored, is how to have an RDNA service or activity without intentionally harming anything, (if such is possible, counting the squashed grass under our dancing feet, airborne microbes, etc. See Jainism.) Would it be too much to bring the ceremony to the uncut offering, which would then live a life of service?

It would be well for the squeamish Neo-Pagans to remember that animals are still routinely raised and killed for religious feasts throughout the world. Examples could include Thanksgiving Turkeys, Christmas Goose/Ham, Easter Lambs, July 4th BBQ, Sajigor goat sacrifice in Kalasha India, Kosher meat preparation, the ever-popular Uidhyah goat sacrifice for Eid holiday in Islam, the reverent buffalo slaughters among Native American plains tribes to teach their children, pig feasts in Borneo, Santeria rites, etc. Christianity prizes the voluntary human sacrifices of its founder and martyrs. Historically, the pre-diasporic Judaic kingdoms had their own fair share of temple sacrifices (and possibly may have again if a few hard-core Orthodox Jews can ever remove the "Dome of the Rock" mosque from the site of the Solomon's Temple.) For those tribal hunters who are still in an ever-present-holy-moment-union with the Earth, any act of hunting is a religiously imbued activity. Ancient tribes are especially afraid that angering an animal's spirit would reduce the hunt next year. All this goes on, yet journalists would be delighted to uncover a report on a dog killed by some pathetic Satanists. And yet in America, home of the top animal protein consumers, husbandry and abattoirs are conveniently efficient and simply barbaric; if not unhealthily operated as a whole, tastefully out of sight. No one prays during their deaths.

But why do people kill things in a religious service, if most religions are life-affirming, in theory at least? A possible theoretical liturgical reason, offered by the venerable Isaac Bonewits (2nd Epistle, Chapter 7) is that a living creature (plant, fungus, bacterium or animal) allegedly releases energy on its death, (and some while it's alive, too,) which might amplify the resonance of a magic raising activity. (I wonder if a flashlight, a plutonium cell, dancing, sex, or campfire could substitute the necessary energy in place of living sacrifices?) Perhaps it is so.

I also disagree with the above definition's hint that only "victims" are sacrificed. While all religions have offered material sacrifice in some format, most ancient cultures freely accepted the necessity or advantage of sacrifice of living creatures, some even considering it such an honor as to volunteer themselves. In some cases, the volunteer would be instructed with lengthy messages to convey to the deities involved, kind of like a court witnesses being briefed by lawyers to present their villages case. However, I suspect that the vast bulk were less than thrilled with their candidacy, often being the criminals, disliked trouble-makers, or prisoners of war of a society. Civilization helped make it possible, as self-sustaining small villages needed as many people alive as possible, due the death rate; but cities often have less-than-necessary inhabitants to be mistreated or sent to war.

With rare exceptions, death is irreversible and final; so unsanctioned killings have been punished more severely than non-fatal injuries by legal codes of most states. It's not my purpose to wade deeply into the debate the pros and cons of capital punishment (see China, Florida, and Texas,) but it's interesting that priests are still an integral part of the execution process, although few would label these priests as "blood thirsty;" rather, they're merely there to comfort the victim and restrain the vengeful passions of bystanders, and perhaps to mitigate the executioners' guilt for breaking one of their 10 commandments. To their credit, that great Fertility Cult, (known as the Catholic Church) now tries to sacralize life; and prevent such state-sponsored murders, albeit sometimes to excess.

The Druids, themselves, were often also present at matters of life and death, like councils of war, exiling (which equaled death) or executions. Depending on the individual, perhaps they enjoyed or dislike the responsibility involved. One could also make the case that vendettas and war are a "viral" form of human sacrifice that is out of control and self-feeding (like an inferno,) soon bereft of whatever religious impulses that may have motivated or restrained the initiators. Once life is stripped of its holy aspect, fearful things become conceivable.

I can think of three attitudes towards death. 1. If you feel that death is an end to all existence, it is a dirty distasteful thing to be feared and avoided at all costs and deeply mourned. 2. If you feel that death is a one way journey to a (hopefully) pleasant place, then death should be an acceptable; if not desired. Of course, "A man's dying is more the survivors' affair than his own," so you shouldn't recklessly hasten your death, widows really hate being told, "He's in a happier place." 3. If you feel that death is a two-way or cyclical journey, then the above applies, plus any apprehension or anticipation of having to start all over again from scratch; either in re-birth or re-incarnation. Perhaps it is so.

The ancient Celts and Europeans, on first glance do not seem inordinately afraid of death; in fact, many literary heroes hardly even notice their death until long after the fact. After all, "A brave man dies but once a coward many times." In the case of the Celts, there are references to ancient Celts loaning money and expecting repayment in the next life. People would keep the heads of enemies or friends, occasionally talking and giving them a feast. But, how the average Joe McBlow felt is less certain. Perhaps, it's along the lines of "It's a good day to die...tomorrow" or "Who wants to live forever? Okay, but who ELSE?" Or, "I am not afraid to die, I just don't to be around when it happens."

In Celtic myth, there are tales of Avalon (island of apples,) Tir nan Og (land of youth,) Islands out West over/under the Ocean (America?,) Hybrasil, Annwyn (in the Tales of Pryderi,) and the Faery underworlds of mounds and tombs. (See the Voyage of Mael Dun for another interesting journey by boat.) A general sense of connection is thought to exist in the same place, like parallel universes, that are crossed-over sometimes (especially on holidays like Beltane and particularly Samhain.) Ghosts, spirits, saints, saints, monsters, faeries are rampant in their mythology that continues to this day.

Finally, the greatest traditional remnant concerning death is the great fire-festival of Samhain (or the triple holiday of Halloween, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.) If you've already read oodles about Samhain on the internet, you know its roots and know all that stuff about it being a Celtic new-year (a new calendar year in the NRDNA.) I'm a "do-er" not a "liturgist;" festivals for me are about doing interesting related projects.

Originally posted as A Druid Missal-Any, Samhain 2001.


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In 2004, Rady Ananda joined the growing community of citizen journalists. Initially focused on elections, she investigated the 2004 Ohio election, organizing, training and leading several forays into counties to photograph the 2004 ballots. She officially served at three recounts, including the 2004 recount. She also organized and led the team that audited Franklin County Ohio's 2006 election, proving the number of voter signatures did not match official results. Her work appears in three books.

Her blogs also address religious, gender, sexual and racial equality, as well as environmental issues; and are sprinkled with book and film reviews on various topics. She spent most of her working life as a researcher or investigator for private lawyers, and five years as an editor.

She graduated from The Ohio State University's School of Agriculture in December 2003 with a B.S. in Natural Resources.

All material offered here is the property of Rady Ananda, copyright 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009. Permission is granted to repost, with proper attribution including the original link.

"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Tell the truth anyway.

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