The Red Thread – Res Ipsa Loquitur
This past week of discussion on the topic of sacrifice — often quite heated discussion–has been incredibly vexing. It’s highlighted for me yet again what a tremendous learning curve there is as we move forward in the restoration of our traditions. Yet again I find myself struggling to hold onto the grim hope that we will, in time, succeed. In a way, it is a gift and a grace when fractures in a working group, a community, a House are highlighted in so clear and undeniable a fashion. To move forward cleanly, after all, one must have a clear and accurate lay of the land. We must know what it is with which we work. Sometimes though, it’s a very ugly process.
Animal sacrifice is not a hip new practice. It’s a tremendously old one. It is one of the oldest and holiest of rites practiced in pretty much every ancestral polytheism across the world (and the three monotheisms, for that matter. It’s a universal practice. Show me an intact polytheism, in a traditional culture, that doesn’t sacrifice to the Powers). Those tapped as sacrificial priests are picking up the threads of a very ancient sacramental contract between humanity, the natural world, and the Powers. There is rigorous training. There is respect. There is devotion. To think that we can restore our traditions with integrity, while neglecting this most fundamental of practices is…naive, to say the least. It’s easier, I suspect, for those of us coming either from a background in working with animals and animal care, or from farm-folk to position these practices as sacred but for those deeply ensconced in modern, post-Reformation, “Enlightenment” values, there can be a powerful learning curve. It really highlights that while we may navigate between our contemporary secular (but really protestant christian) informed society to our ancestral ways, in the end, one must make a choice. The two mindsets are diametrically opposed. It always comes as a bit of a shock to those of us entrenched in our ancestral ways to realize just how deeply so.
That is what I intend to discuss in this post. Those of us in the forefront of this work bear a very heavy burden: the weight of traditions upon our shoulders. It is not enough to rest in the panacea of only those practices that do not challenge our comfort levels. It is not enough to pick and choose only those things that do not force us to call into question the very foundations upon which our modern values rest. We are charged with going deeper. To say that the weight of a tradition rests upon us means that we have a greater, far greater obligation not just to the Gods and ancestors but to the tradition itself, to the very lineage that we are seeking to restore. We must be clean. This week I watched someone I love, step back and release a nascent tradition, withdraw as carrier of the mysteries of Dionysos from a group that he had founded to be the carrier of this received tradition. He will take the Mysteries that he carries and move forward, having cut ties with that group. I’ve seen people questioning why it is that it was necessary to so thoroughly break and move on and the answer is simple: contamination.The original group became so impure, so contaminated by something that goes deeper than miasma, something akin to spiritually corrosive poison that there was no clean choice but to sever ties. Why? Because you do not build a tradition on filth.
There are things that can be discussed, dissented with, argued vehemently, and there is a way to argue vehemently but some things are immutable within their traditions. Sacrifice is one of those things. When one is part of a community, those sacrifices done benefit that entire community, down to the least involved member. It is a reverent portal through which a thousand blessings flow. It is the metaphorical water that nourishes seeds planted in the rich soil of devotion. Through right relationship, reverence, devotional practices, ecstatic ritual, sacrifice and a dozen other ways, threads that were savaged so long ago with the spread of monotheism are woven anew. They are fragile at first, and require care. They must be cultivated, tended, kept free of harm. Instead, we have seen them set upon from within and it is not the first time that I have seen this.
To have people encounter the idea of sacrifice for the first time react with confusion, or with a deeply emotional response, or to question whether or not they can participate, or to want to understand more before making a decision is normal and even a respectful process. We should seek to understand those sacred things that we are given the opportunity to touch. It is a way of deepening our own understanding not just of our traditions and Gods, but of our own spiritual processes too. If someone, for whatever reason, chooses to walk away because of a practice like sacrifice, that is their choice and it does not harm the tradition. If someone chooses to reject sacrifice, maliciously attempt to play upon readers’ unexamined sentiments by bringing up non sequiturs like human sacrifice, slavery, etc., equating these things with animal sacrifice, that is an attempt at violence being done to a tradition. If someone by utter lack of hospitality condemns and attacks the authority of the one who received the Mysteries of a tradition, all the while claiming a desire to stay and *reap the benefits of his knowledge, and of community sacrifices*, that is obscene. It is reprehensible. More to the point, it brings impurity into the line.
There are a thousand chasms to be navigated here. When, for instance, do you sever and withdraw, and when do you bear on, dragging the tradition through to cleaner waters? When does the latter become an impossibility? When do you risk contaminating yourself and all the Mysteries that you have been given to hold, to nurture, to transmit? There are obligations here: to the Gods, to the ancestors, but to those Mysteries themselves, and to future mystai. Each tradition is a gloriously woven tapestry but keep picking at the threads, pulling out certain ones that you don’t like and eventually that tapestry is reduced to nothing. It loses its integrity, physically and metaphorically. The boundaries of a tradition are an immutable line for just this reason.
I believe very strongly that both the Gods and our ancestors watch carefully as this process of restoration grows. I believe that there is a tremendous investment in our progress. I believe we are accountable, those of us so tasked, for what we do and what we neglect to do in the process of this work. I think we are answerable for our choices. But I also think that the Gods and ancestors grieve deeply when we fail. In fact, I know it. I know it because I have been carrying just that grief all week.
I serve the ancestors almost as much as I serve the Gods. Part of my work as a tradition bearer and sometimes as a diviner means that I key very strongly in to the grief that pours like a wailing river from both the dead and the Powers. All this week, since it became clear how deep the vein of dogged ignorance runs and how quickly it spiraled to begin contaminating a tradition, I have found myself carrying, hauling around a growing and heavy grief; and as I watched, I was surprised as I am always surprised by how fiercely people cling to their surety that our ancestors were idiots and their sense of entitlement and privileged belief in their own enlightenment. I’ve been Heathen since 1995 and a sacrificial priest for almost as long. This is not the first time I’ve seen this play out. Each time I sense the same grief and each time I respond to those bringing poison into the Gods’ House with anger and vitriol –admittedly in part my response to the gravity of the grief I am given to bear, grief that is not all mine, but that of the ancestors’ and Gods as well. Incidents like this highlight with ferocious clarity what tangled and difficult work lies before us all. Two steps forward, one step back eternally.
I am bowed over with the grief of the dead, ancestors who saw their traditions torn away, snatched and sundered, destroyed, spat on, and rewritten by the victors as savage fictions. I am bowed over with the grief of ancestors who, each time we lay down threads, hope anew for full, viable, sustainable restoration, only to be, yet again, disappointed, yet again reminded of the ignominy and horror to which their traditions fell. I am filled with a cold, grating fury toward those who willfully refuse to examine the price of their own allegiance to “progress”. It’s because of people just like you that our traditions fell in the first place. It’s because of people just like you that we have to do this restorative work now and there is a screaming fury in my soul that could I but find a way to unleash its wrath would reduce your world to fiery cinders. But such would not serve and so I make offerings to the dead, I make offerings to the Gods, and I pray as fervently as I possibly can to instead turn that raging anger into momentum for renewed inspiration and work.
It is not enough to have separated ourselves from the contamination. Now we must grieve, giving voice to our ancestors, allowing their anguish multiplied down the generations to pour through us into sacred ritual. Now we must pay greater homage to our Gods, divining for and preparing the sacrifices that will cleanse that which is worse by a thousand times than miasma from us and that which we hold. I think on the words of the great Sufi poet Rumi:
“Blood must flow…
for the garden to flower
and the heart that loves me
is a wound without shield.”
and I am filled again with a gratitude so humbling that it drives me to my knees to be given into service. It is a joy even in the face of such despair and I turn my mind to devotion, away from the fury and the fire. I turn my soul to the glorious free-fall of leaping again into the canyon abyss of ecstasy that is adoration of the Gods.