Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Human Sacrifice in Contemporary Paganism

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

 “How long has it been since you last attended a good, old-time human sacrifice? 'Too long,' you say?”

(Kermit the Frog)


You know the stereotypes as well as I do. Those bloody pagans and their human sacrifices.

Well, as for the Pagan Past, there seems to be good evidence for thinking that human sacrifice did indeed take place in some places, at least from time to time.

And as for the Pagan Future, well: bard Gwydion Pendderwen (Tom deLong) once told Hans Holzer that he looked forward to the eventual reestablishment of the Sacral Kingship.

And of course there's no true kingship without King Sacrifice.

So yes, the stories of human sacrifice are true.

But mostly not in the way that you might think.

The God of the Witches is preeminently (to use Starhawk's resonant phrase) the God Who Gives Himself Away.

And that's the real basis for human sacrifice in contemporary paganism.

If you live only for yourself, there's a limit to how much you can grow. You grow best by living for others, as well as for yourself.

Giving yourself away: self-sacrifice. The only worthy sacrifice is a willing sacrifice. Your time, your resources, your energy: if you want to become the best person that you can be, you can achieve it only by the giving of yourself to others.

In my opinion, the so-called “20th” century's single most important piece of New Pagan Art was Sergei Diaghilev's 1913 Sacre du Printemps: the Rite of Spring. (You can see the full original ballet, with Millicent Hodson's brilliantly reconstructed Nijinsky choreography, here. Prepare yourself for an exhausting, and exhilarating, experience.)

The ballet depicts the spring rites of a prehistoric Slavic tribe. (Gabriel Astruc: "Are there no tutus in this ballet?" Diaghilev: "No, my dear. Pagans didn't wear them.") We see divination, Sun worship, fertility dances, ritual combat. And in the end, to bring back Spring, the Chosen Maiden dances herself to death.

Sacre is all about collective existence. There are the Young Men, the Old Men, the Maidens, the Old Women, the Girls, the Boys, the Ancestors. All the dances are performed in groups. Even the priest and priestess of the Rite, the Oldest Man and the Oldest Woman, are not so much individuals as embodiments of their role in the Tribe.

The only individual in the entire ballet is the Chosen Maiden: the Bride of the God, in her terrible, sacrificial isolation. Of all the dancers, she's the only one that dances facing the audience. Her final solo is the most terrifying piece of dance that I've ever seen: it feels as though her body, flung wildly in different directions simultaneously, is flying into pieces.

Nijinsky has articulated a terrible truth here: There is no individuation without sacrifice. Paradoxically, the price of self is to give oneself away.

Human sacrifice is alive and well in contemporary paganism. You could even say, it's the most important form of sacrifice in contemporary paganism.

Literally, though? These days, not so much.


Check out Riot at the Rite, a 2005 BBC drama about the making of Sacre, with the succulent Adam Garcia as Vaslav Nijinsky.

Art that caused fist-fights among the Parisian crème de la crème. That you gotta love.










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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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