To speak on the sacrifice of animals one must understand several key principles: The Gift Cycle, understanding Myth, and most importantly the concept of Causality that underpins all of Germanic metaphysics. Underlying those key principles are two themes that I have harped on before: precedence, and reciprocity.
In this post I will attempt to explain the theological underpinnings behind the sacrificial act and to explore why, as part of the reconstruction of our Ancestral Beliefs, that I feel Animal Sacrifice has a place in our praxis.
Wyrd is translated as fate, or destiny, but an understanding of the word from its translation mangles it beyond meaning and actually manages to invert the understanding of it. A Germanic understanding of fate requires the seeker of fate to look backwards, not forwards. Everything you have ever done has built your wyrd, every action you have ever taken has moved you forward to this point. Once taken, that action becomes fixed, and can never be undone. You will always have read this word, no matter what happens from this moment on. Nothing in the universe can change that which has Come to Pass.
By your actions you weave the possibilities of the future available to you. Those possibilities are limited by the actions we have taken the past, and as we take the next option, those possibilities become still a little more limited. As you move through your life, you march, action, by action, step by step, and second by second towards the last choice you will ever make: the decision on how you will choose to meet your death.
This remains the briefest of treatments of Wyrd, but for the purposes of of this article, I want you to keep in mind that which has come before informs that which is to come. Our focus should always be on the past, informing our actions in the future.
The Gift Cycle
There is perhaps no greater action a man can do for a friend than to give a gift, and gain a gift in return. In the exchange of gifts, we create real, tangible ties between individuals, between hearths, between tribes, and between Men and Gods. We give, because we have recieved gifts. Because we have given, we are gifted in return. To be given a gift is to be placed into a debt relationship with the giver. By giving, the giver of gifts creates a power dynamic that places the recipient as the beneficiary of his power. Thus, the debt. By repaying that debt, by giving gifts in return, the recipient not only balances the dynamic, but tilts it in his favor. As the gift cycle continues, this power dynamic shifts between the two, drawing them ever closer, ever tighter, until the two are inseparable and the bond unbreakable; a family.
What makes a good gift? The giving of gifts is an art. But even arts can be understood to have certain guidelines: a good gift benefits the recipient, it costs effort on behalf of the giver, and is understood by both to be thoughtful.
The effort here is analogous to cost. By cost we might be talking about the cost, either monetary or in the amount of time creating and procuring the item in question (which amounts to basically the same thing, in the sense that money equals time). Or we might talk about the cost in the amount of effort required to overcome our aversion to giving up the item to be sacrificed. But above cost comes thoughtfulness. If our ancestors were fans of cheap cigarettes then the cost may be negligible, but the thoughtfulness would be paramount. In other cases, we may not want to give up our pre-packaged snack cakes, but given our understanding of Wyrd, pre-packaged snack cakes are inappropriate gifts to the Gods -- there is no precendent for them, there is no effort in their delivery. The sacrifice of pre-packaged snack cakes is in service to our own narcism, not in the pursuit of thoughtful gifts to the Gods. In pursuit of the thoughtful gift, we must look to the That Which Has Come Before.
A gift can only be given when the giver has the Right to give the gift. That means that he owns the item; to own something is to control it, to determine its fate. Livestock, the ancient way of determining wealth, is the ultimate expression of possession in a heathen world view. Livestock is wealth, it is fertility, it is life itself. In illo tempore, the gift of domesticated cattle was given to us. It is something that we truly own. More, the giving of life helps us mimic the Cosmogeny.
The original gift was the Cosmogeny, the creation of the World. It was given in the form of a sacrifice. Woden, Willi, and Weoh, together slew the giant Ymir and fashioned from his flesh and blood the Middlegearde, the Middle Yard, the world of Order in a chaotic and uncaring universe. This was the original gift to mankind, as well as the original act of creation, and the original sacrifice. All subsequent acts of creation, all subsequent acts of sacrifice, will by necessity mimic this act of creation; this act of sacrifice.
Beyond the Gift Cycle
There are deeper meanings to the sacrifice. All action are layed into the Well. As the same action is layered into the well over and over, that action gains more and more inertia. Its Wyrd grows.
To engage in a Mythic act, the practitioner of primitive religion steps into illo tempore and becomes part of the Myth. By re-enacting the cosmogeny, the practitioner recreates the cosmos. It is not just that all acts of creation mimic the first act of creation, but all acts of creation are the first act of creation.
By observing the wheel of the year, we continue the wheel of the year. Each action builds upon all previous actions, granting it inertia, moving it forward. This is the reason we try for orthopraxic accuracy. As our praxis approaches that of the elder heathens, then our engaging in the acts of cosmogeny build on acts ever closer to the original act, building on those actions and giving us, humans, a part to play in the Work of the Divine.
The Irrevocable Act
I want to suggest this idea: only actions have reality, for they affect the world. Actions create layers in the Well. Words only have consequences insofar as they provoke actions. It is only by doing that we create meaning in this universe.
Extending from that concept is the idea that more permanent the action, the harder it is to undo, then the the more meaning that action has, the more real it is. It is for this reason, I believe our ancestors destroyed the votive offerings of material possessions. This of course, creates a heirarchy of offerings, from the easily recovered - that of items made of precious materials, such as silver, gold, or jewels - to the irrevocable, that of animal sacrifice.
Of course, a broken ring can be reforged, but it will never be quite the same - that's why we break the offering. But the libation can never be unpoured, and blood can never be unspilt. Furthermore, the effects of the action carry a reality to it. Votive offerings retain their natures, a libation remains, at the end of the day, an offering of alcohol. But in the act of sacrificing an animal, we turn a living creature into food. Nothing can change that act, nothing ever will. It remains the highest form of offering because it can never be taken back. You will have always given that animal, you will always have given of yourself in that moment, and you will never get that action back.
My point in all this is not to convince those who are uncomfortable with the act of their folly. I'm not interested in changing their minds. My goal here is to demonstrate that there are always depths to the actions taken by our Ancestors. That to swiftly and thoughtlessly dismiss a behavior as "barbaric, thoughtless, and often cruel" as I have seen it characterized shows that the thoughtless, cruel barbarian is often the closeminded individual guilty of characterizing our ancestors thus. Our ancestors did not act without purpose. The actions they engaged in were well thought out and born of a worldview that was thoroughly crushed, and only now reemerging. This is the value in reconstruction as a technique for religious growth. Understanding first how, then why, gives us insights into the way our ancestors viewed the world, and into the Truths as they practiced them.