Animal Sacrifice, the Other, and the Day I Almost Fainted in Class

Sacrifice_boar_Louvre_G112When you research ancient magic, you acclimate to a world of weird, unorthodox, and downright gruesome rituals. Harvesting body parts for a spell? Graphic descriptions of ritual mutilation? Smearing animal dung on yourself for invisibility powers? Meh. I’ve read it all. So for all intents and purposes I’m impervious to being rattled by strange and disturbing rituals…right?

Well…apparently not…since I almost fainted in class after watching the beheading of a baby goat.

Seldom does Greco-Roman religion capture the attention of a class full of undergraduates, so what better way to rouse interest in Roman cult than showing an actual sacrifice? My professor pulled up this video—the sacrifice of a little goat in the West Bengal town of Tarapith in 2011.

She assured us that although she “could have found videos a lot worse than this,” anyone could close their eyes if it proved too much to handle. Of course, I wasn’t going to do such a thing. I, like any self-respecting expert in ritual, would watch with rapt attention and a scholarly eye to detail.

I watched as the priest flicked the goat with water, prayed over it, and stroked the weapon that would soon end its life. The video then reached a fevered pitch. With the drums pounding in the background, the priests carried the goat to the stake, pulled its legs back, and stretched its neck out as it bleated piteously. The sound was truly disturbing and shocked me out of my detached objectivity.

The priest then chopped its head off. No fanfare. No incantation or prayer. Just a hefty blow to the neck.

This didn’t disgust me. I felt more a sense of macabre fascination as the priests tossed the twitching body aside as if nothing happened. But as I ruminated over what I just saw (“wow, things really do twitch after decapitation!”), I started feeling lightheaded. First just simple dizziness. But then the voice of the professor became strangely distant, and I recognized the onset of a vasovagal syncope.

Somehow in the midst of my stupor, I had the mental wherewithal to feign taking notes on my iPad. Anything to save face as the only graduate student in the room right? I wouldn’t ever live it down.

Thankfully I recovered quickly enough. Shaken and sweaty, I sat back in my chair and brooded. What just happened? I’ve been raised in the Christian sub-culture. I’ve been reading about animal sacrifices since 1st grade Sunday school. Heck, I’ve been reading about human sacrifice since childhood if you count the episode with Abraham and Isaac. Am I really so shocked to see this for the first time? And even then, in a blurry YouTube video?

I decided the reaction stemmed from the radical “otherness” of the spectacle. For a modern churchgoer accustomed to well-tuned organs and dainty sippy-cups of grape juice as his idea of worship, beheading a goat is insurmountably weird or “other.“

This brings me back to a topic covered in an earlier post: how to exercise empathy in religious dialogue. One strategy to converse with “the Other” is to recognize the weirdness of your own religious practices in order to avoid creating a caricature. However, this recent episode illustrates how difficult this is. How can we honestly and openly dialogue between religions when sometimes the chasm of difference is so vast?

I have no easy answer. In fact, I’m apparently too ensconced in my own Western Protestant bias to even provide an answer. The true irony here is that animal sacrifice was the primary vehicle for relating to God for all the biblical heroes in the Hebrew Bible and a daily fact of life for many in the New Testament. Christianity’s modern iterations, in many (most?) respects, would be completely unrecognizable even to St. Paul. Like the sacrifice in West Bengal, the origins of my own faith are distant and foreign, and even though Christians like to cozy up with friendly characters like Moses or David, it takes a heavy dose of humility to acknowledge the difference in their religious experience.

As the British novelist L.P. Hartley quipped, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” This is the central challenge of the scholar and the layperson alike. We must excavate meaning from a culture that not only is foreign but is separated by millennia. Sometimes the differences appear insurmountable, but this should not discourage us from building bridges to the Other.

Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.

Comments

  1. Andrea D. says:

    I’m glad you didn’t actually faint! Yikes. I consider myself a rather open-minded person, but this kind of stuff really does freak me out. I don’t know if I could watch an animal sacrifice, it would haunt me for a long after. There’s a lot of stuff even in our own tradition that freaks me out. I mean, even taking Communion and the language surrounding it can be a stretch for me–maybe I’m really squeamish. Some of the things that happen in the Old Testament *really* bother me–and I’ve always despised the story of God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Just….no. And then there are people who try to justify it….agh..I just can’t. How do you get meaning out of a story like that? I mean…what is it there for? As someone who is not an ancient Hebrew, it always puzzles me when I read some of those stories in the Old Testament.
    I used to have a really hard time with Cross-imagery. Like crucifixes and crosses in general. I felt that it symbolised something cruel–a cruel execution ritual, and the substitutionary atonement theory that makes God out to be angry and in need of a cruel sacrifice to count as justice. But, I’m slowly coming around to the Cross as my ideas are broadened in this area. I see it as a symbol of Christ’s love and bringing us back together in wholeness with God. I now keep a Celtic cross in my home by the front door–it is a peaceful image to me now. I don’t know….I am always thinking about stuff like this.

    • Andrew Henry says:

      The irony about the Abraham and Isaac story is that we praise Abraham for talking back to God when trying to save Sodom and Gomorrah, but then praise Abraham for NOT talking back to God to try to save Isaac. I think I’d have more respect for the guy if he had said, “No God, sacrificing my son is wrong.”

      As for the Cross imagery…it is odd that Christians have adopted a tool of execution for a symbol of hope. Perhaps there is beauty in the reversal, but for many in the world, it has regained its original meaning of imperial oppression.

      • Andrea D. says:

        That’s what bothers me. The imperial oppression part. It really does sadden me that the message of Christ has been twisted and used for oppression. But the cross is a part of my faith so it can be freeing to see it in a new light. I just don’t want to dismiss something just because it makes me uncomfortable. In fact much of my discomfort with Christianity has led me to a new level of awareness and empathy. In some ways, seeing that cross on my wall can be a reminder that I can be a channel for peace as St Francis put it. I can really understand why it is a symbol of oppression, but hopefully I can in some small way facilitate healing and peace to the Other. Not in a “white guilt” kind of way but in a sincere and honest way.

  2. Thank you for this – I’m planning on sharing it with my roommate! He and I have been speaking about Islam in the same respect, but from a modern perspective – how people that identify themselves as Muslim practice their religion differently. Some at the expense of other people’s lives.
    I’m not one to judge what is right or wrong, for that is a man-made construct. Religion is a type of culture, and just like culture, it serves as a way to define ourselves so that we can feel like we belong in some type of community. However, this sense of community comes at a price sometimes when the ego comes into play. We start looking at everyone else that doesn’t share our beliefs as “the Other” – as you stated. And to me, that is a very dangerous perspective. It’s a perspective I constantly try reasoning with, to an extent that I stopped identifying myself as anything.

    Though there are many different translations of the Bible, there is one scene written by Luke that I think of when I start thinking of the Other:
    “They all asked, “Are you then the Son of God?” He replied, “You say that I am.””

    I think of this as two ways – 1. I don’t “label” myself as anything because any label will put you in an inclusive or exclusive position. I desire to be neutral.
    2. It’s harder to be looked at and look at others as “the Other” when you allow your actions to speak louder than words. I am not ashamed of my beliefs and will very willingly share them with people, but I do not agree or enjoy labeling myself under a specific “culture”. I’m too ambivalent in my culture – religious and otherwise (Polish Catholics and different from American Catholics) – to be only one thing (in ancient times, this wasn’t as bit of a concern because people didn’t travel as much).

    With this approach, it’s very easy for me to have friends of all faiths. And very easy not to think of them as being strange. I’ve prayed with them in their own methods and practiced a sense of devotion through their perspective. I’ve been called Jewish and Muslim by my friends of those faiths. Ironically, I have been ostracized more by Christians, though my beliefs mainly stem from that religion. I’m still trying to figure out why this is. Maybe it’s this fear of the other. Maybe it’s ego. Maybe it’s pride. Maybe it’s something within me? Maybe it’s not understanding this unbiased perspective. Or maybe it’s fear – maybe people are afraid that I’m okay with not knowing and not being certain. That I’m okay with having my practice and being okay with the religious expression of others, even if it’s different from mine. I don’t know….Something I’m still trying to understand so I can better relate to people. 🙂

    All I know is that I’m certainly not going to prove to anyone who I am through a title.

    • Andrew Henry says:

      Thank you for your kind words. You raise so many good points.

      “I’m not one to judge what is right or wrong, for that is a man-made construct. Religion is a type of culture, and just like culture, it serves as a way to define ourselves so that we can feel like we belong in some type of community.”

      I find this comment curious. Religion certainly is an expression of our culture, but I’d say we can objectively label (even without appeal to some sort of divine law) something as “right” or “wrong” in religion. I’m thinking particularly of human sacrifice right now, which most would objectively call wrong…but even the ostracizing you have experience from Christians deviates from what is “right” (and even deviates from the central message of Christianity of showing radical love to your neighbor).

      As far as your comments about labels, I guess I am more hesitant to jettison all labels. I would say the variety of nationalities, ethnicities, and religions show the beautiful plurality of humanity (as long as our labels do not dehumanize or do violence to our neighbors).

  3. Edwidje Jean ( Shadrach) says:

    Hey Andrew! Good Stuff. I don’t know if you were there in the small group when I shared my testimony, but the video reminded me a lot of my testimony. Check out Leviticus 1V4, I so happened to read your blog after this chapter.

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