As many neo-pagans know by now, not too long ago Greece changed its laws about religious practice, officially recognizing the Athenian group Ellinais as a legitimate religious organization. For a church-dominated country like Greece this is a big deal. I've seen a few blog posts here and there make fun of the ritual Ellinais performed in January in Greece and it doesn't bother me because those funnymen obviously didn't fully understand the situation and thought reviving an ancient religion was foolish. Many also seemed to miss the fact that this ritual was also a political statement as well as an appeal to Zeus. They seem to think the folks from Ellinais are alone in their desire to reawaken the ancient gods.
Ellinais is just one of many Reconstructionist groups that seek to revive the ancient rituals and religions of old, often with exacting attention to detail. Take a quick gander at the traditions pages at Witchvox and you'll find recon religions of all types: Celtic, Minoan, Roman and, of course, Hellenistic (that's Greek for you muggles). As a pagan and a lover of all things ancient I have always mistrusted the philosophy of Reconstructionist religions. As pointed out in this Times Online article not everything about modern versions of ancient religions is exacting; the biggest factor being that there is little or no animal sacrifice. Now, as any student of ancient religions knows, sacrifice was usually the whole point of religious ritual.
All the hymns and libations and mysteries were just the pre-game show before the ritual slaughter of an animal, or perhaps animals. If it was a small, minor affair it might be only one small animal, if it was a big, extravagant ritual on an important festival day for the most important god multiple bulls might be sacrificed; the deity and reason for the ritual dictated exactly how much blood would be spilled. In many, many ancient cultures it was the duty of the devout to purchase animals for the sole purpose of offering them to the gods. That said, I am aware that some few ancient traditions and writings recommended against blood sacrifice of any kind but, on the whole, the ritual sacrifice of animals was the norm.
Animal sacrifice, and sometimes even human sacrifice, can be found in the history of every continent and in the roots of almost every religion. Sometimes the ritual slaughter of an animal was carried out for the sole purpose of appealing to the gods. Sometimes certain animals were sacrificed and buried with the dead for their use, as the ancient Nordic peoples were known to bury horses with their dead. And, of course, what didn't the ancient Egyptians place in tombs for use in the afterlife? The Romans not only sacrificed plenty of animals but there was an entire industry based on "reading" their entrails as a form of divination. Anyone who has ever read the Old Testament of the Holy Bible is no stranger to the idea of animal and human sacrifice. The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Celts, Norse, Aztecs and Hebrews all practiced some form of animal sacrifice and they had plenty of company; it was nearly universal.
So I'm left with this question that has bothered me about the Reconstructionist religions from the first time I heard about them: why don't they perform animal sacrifice? I've read all sorts of explanations: only someone with the necessary skills can humanely kill an animal; there are laws prohibiting animal sacrifice; the neighbors would call the police, I could never kill an animal, etc. And those are all very good reasons. But the line I can't quite accept is the idea that these are modern times and we, as humans, have outgrown the ancient necessity of sacrificing an animal to honor the gods. Where's the logic in that? You want to revive an ancient religion, and reenact exactly how ancient rites were performed because you feel a call to worship ancient gods but you don't want to sacrifice an animal because the idea is so "outdated"? Huh? That doesn’t make much sense to me. Either you honor the ancient ways or you don't. Are these folks reviving the ancient practices or just playing around?
Honestly, who do they think they're fooling? Claiming to be a modern pagan reconstructing ancient religion but excluding animal sacrifice seems almost insulting to the ancient gods. They're the same gods after all, just because we have the hubris to claim we are above such things doesn't mean the gods don't still desire sacrifices of flesh. Who are we to say what the gods do or don't desire? Maybe they don't even listen to prayers than don't follow the scent of blood. I wonder what recon pagans think of those folks whose religious practices do include animal sacrifice; modern practitioners of Voodoo and Santeria for instance, they are true to their roots. They acknowledge that animal sacrifice is not kindly looked upon by human society but also recognize that gods, spirits, etc. don't necessarily change with us. And so, they practice animal sacrifice as dictated by their religion. They are strong in their beliefs and have held on to all of their ancient ways, not just the easy parts. Now, am I encouraging recon pagans to start slitting the throats of their pets? Of course not! What I am suggesting is that these folks either drop the "reconstructionist" tag or be ready for an entire universe of gods, fellow pagans, and history buffs that cannot and will not take them seriously.
P.S. Lest you wonder, dear reader, I do not practice any form of animal sacrifice as I do not hope to revive an ancient religion as it once was. I think many of the ancient rituals, like animal sacrifice, self-castration and killing those who reveal the mysteries, should be left in the past where they belong so that new rituals can become modern traditions.