Brjóta ekki bein (Don’t Break the Bones): Sacrifice in the Northern Tradition
(I know that this is going to be a challenging topic for some of you. If you are bothered by frank discussions of religion and animal sacrifice, stop reading and go watch this cat video. Here’s some pussies for you to play with. For everyone else, let’s have an adult conversation).
Years and years ago (at least fifteen if not longer) when I was still Theodish, I remember many heated discussions over the proper way to perform sacrifice. Those among us who were trained to perform this ritual were split about the proper way to dispatch the chosen animals. Some favored shooting the animal in the head first (as a mercy) and others using a clean cut at the throat. One of the reasons given for preferring the traditional method (the cut of the knife) was the story of the Thor and His goats.
Thor’s chariot is driven by two goats: Tanngrisnir (snarler, one who bears his teeth) and Tanngnjóstr (teeth grinder). When necessary, Thor is able to kill, cook, and consume these goats who will then be restored to life with His hammer provided their bones are left intact. The prose Edda tells the story of Thor’s visit to a farmer. He and Loki stop for rest, and Thor (perhaps knowing that hosting two Gods is a bit much for a poor farmer) offers up His two goats in sacrifice to provide the evening’s meal. There’s one caveat: the bones must not be cracked for their marrow. They must remain intact. The farmer’s son Thjalfi can’t resist and cracks one leg bone to suck a bit of the marrow. When Thor restores the goats to life, one of them is lame. In reparation for this, the peasant offers his children Thjalfi and Roskva to Thor as servants. It’s an entertaining tale and Loki, Thor, and the children go off to have adventures. For our purposes, however, the important point is the emphasis on maintaining the integrity of the bones.
In the Theod, we solved the initial debate by choosing to sacrifice in the traditional way (and in retrospect I’m very, very glad we did so). At the time, I didn’t see the problem with shooting the animal first. It seemed merciful and kind but over the years I’ve completely changed my position. Partly, I’ve had so much more experience with proper sacrifice and I’ve become far more confident in making sacrifice myself, and I’ve had far more exposure to other traditions where this is likewise common. I learned several things, not the least of which was that if a cut is done cleanly and correctly, it is actually all but painless for the animal. I’ve also come to realize how crucially important this story is to the ritual scaffolding in which sacrifice must take place.
When we do these ritual actions, like sacrifice, we’re re-enacting our cosmology. We’re bringing to life the communal mysteries of our tradition. A living tradition exists in those currents and it is the obligation of those practicing it to renew them regularly.
This is also largely why I no longer believe it appropriate to shoot the animal before cutting its throat. A) it’s far more humane to cut properly and B) any other method is a violation of ritual protocol. The bones must remain intact. I went back and forth on this for years and I used to come down on the side of shooting the animal first if one felt one must but now, I think that is incorrect. As we learn better, we do better. A sacrifice is more than just a collection of mechanical techniques. It is the living expression of a tradition. It is a sacrament.
For the blotere,(1) there are three parts to any sacrifice that must be carefully learned and understood: the mechanics (how to make the cut and to do it painlessly for the animal, and effectively), how to do the divination to determine how to dispose of the sacrifice and whether or not it was accepted, and the ritual itself, in other words, how to infuse the entire procedure with the holy, how to make the conscious connections between the cosmic structures in which we’re working, the ritual being done, the living tradition, and the Gods Themselves. This is a ritual process. It’s not enough to simply cut an animal’s throat, or kill it in some other way, and give it to the Gods. There is a proper ritual scaffolding for the act, an act that is our holiest and most important of sacraments.
It’s not just that you’re giving a life to the Gods; the act of sacrifice is an imitation of primordial creation: Odin, Lodhur, and Hoenir create the world out of the slaughter of Ymir. Sacrifice is tapping into that, recreating that act, everything that it encompasses, bringing our traditions into being again and again and again and that’s potent magic.(2) It must be approached in a proper way, with purity and focus, and attention to every detail. It’s not enough just to slaughter. We must understand what we’re tapping into and why.
This all came up recently within my lineage when one of my apprentices received inspiration for a sacrificial song. We had long felt that there should be some sort of song sung when the animal is being sacrificed.(3) In fact, it’s rather odd for our traditions not to have one; after all, the ATR have a special song that is sung when an animal is given and so did many Greek and Roman traditions. It was part of the procedure in many IE traditions and it always seemed rather odd to find the Norse and Germanic ones lacking. I was delighted when L. came to me with his song and when I did divination to confirm its appropriateness, the sense of it was overwhelming. Our tradition regained one of its songs. Think about how profound that is for a moment. When our traditions were destroyed by Christianity, our songs fell silent. Our procedures were lost. The scaffolding that supported our traditions was broken. This is one step back to full restoration and that is incredible.
It brings home the necessity, the crucial necessity of re-sacralizing our ritual procedures. It’s not enough to do, rather we must understand how to invest these actions with the sacred and why – otherwise, it’s pointless. (4) We must open ourselves up once again to awareness of the Holy. Our Gods are counting on us. Our traditions demand it.
The next time I take up the sacrificial knife and prepare myself for this ritual, I will think on this: Thor had two goats given over to nourish both Gods and man. Their bones must always remain unbroken and they will be restored to life. As I take up the blotere’s blade, with each offering, I am calling our traditions back to life again, and again, and again. May they flourish.
1. sacrificial priest
2. this article is about ritual sacrifice to the Gods only. Sacrifice for magical purposes is a different matter all together, not covered here.
3. It doesn’t matter to which Deity the animal is being given, or how the animal is disposed of afterwards: the act of sacrifice itself taps into certain cosmic grooves within the tradition.
4. and a mockery of our ancestral ways.
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