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Putting the Blood Back into Blót: The Revival of Animal Sacrifice in Modern Nordic Paganism



The meaning of animal sacrifice has fascinated historians of religion for decades. In addition, it goes against trends of professed concern for animals in contemporary Western culture, although the notion of sacrifice remains important in Christianity, and animal sacrifice is still practiced at the feast of Id al-Adha in Islam. Scholars of religion have viewed it variously as a bribe to divine powers (Edward Tylor), as reinforcing the community of believers (Robertson Smith, Émile Durkheim, and others), as recapitulating a primal event (Mircea Eliade, Sigmund Freud), as deflecting social tensions (René Girard), and as a substitute for hunting (Walter Burkert) or hunting's structure idealized in the face of primal chaos (Jonathan Z. Smith). Today, some followers of Modern Nordic Paganism (e.g. Ásatrú) have revived animal sacrifice as part of the ritual of blót, which honors important turning points in the ritual calendar. Fieldwork among these Pagans suggests that perhaps Burkert's vision of animal sacrifice as a privileged vestige of prehistoric hunting culture offers the best lens for understanding this controversial practice.
[The Pomegranate 9.2 (2007) 154-189] ISSN 1528-0268 (Print)
doi: 10.1558/pome.v9i2.154 ISSN 1743-1735 (Online)
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2007, Unit 6, The Village, 101 Amies Street, London SW11 2JW.
Putting the Blood back into Blót:
The Revival of Animal Sacrifice in Modern Nordic Paganism
Michael Strmiska
The meaning of animal sacrifice has fascinated historians of religion for
decades. In addition, it goes against trends of professed concern for animals
in contemporary Western culture, although the notion of sacrifice remains
important in Christianity, and animal sacrifice is still practiced at the feast
of Id al-Adha in Islam. Scholars of religion have viewed it variously as a
bribe to divine powers (Edward Tylor), as reinforcing the community of
believers ( Robertson Smith, Émile Durkheim, and others), as recapitulating
a primal event (Mircea Eliade, Sigmund Freud), as deflecting social
tensions (René Girard), and as a substitute for hunting (Walter Burkert) or
hunting’s structure idealized in the face of primal chaos (Jonathan Z.
Smith). Today, some followers of Modern Nordic Paganism (e.g. Ásatrú)
have revived animal sacrifice as part of the ritual of blót, which honors
important turning points in the ritual calendar. Fieldwork among these
Pagans suggests that perhaps Burkert’s vision of animal sacrifice as a
privileged vestige of prehistoric hunting culture offers the best lens for
understanding this controversial practice.
In Norse myth, the creation of the world is brought about by the sacrifice
of the primal being Ymir, as recounted in the Grímnismál and several
other poems of the collection known as the Poetic Edda,
Of Ymir’s flesh, the earth was shaped,
Of his blood, the briny sea
Of his hair, the trees, the hills of his bones,
Out of his skull the sky.1
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual American Academy
of Religion conference in San Antonio, Texas, in November of 2004. I am grateful to
those who have commented on various versions and provided constructive criticism
and alternative viewpoints.
1. Grímnismál,, verse 41, in The Poetic Edda, translated by Lee Hollander, 2nd rev.
Strmiska Putting the Blood back into Blót 155
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Animal sacrifice was a key religious practice of the pre-Christian peoples
of Germanic Northern Europe. It is now being revived by some modern
Pagans who reconstruct pre-Christian Germanic religious traditions,
drawing on medieval Icelandic literature as well as Anglo-Saxon literature
and other related sources.2 This revival, variously known by such names
as Ásatrú, Heathenry, and Forn Seð, has been emerging since the mid-
1990s as a transnational religious movement, with religious associations
established or now being established in all of the Scandinavian countries
as well as Germany, Belgium, France, Britain, the United States, Canada,
and Australia.3 In searching for an umbrella term that would cover this
broad range of different but related religious groups, I have come to
refer to this growing phenomenon as Modern Nordic Paganism, though
others prefer to speak of it as Northern European Paganism.4
edn (Austin: University of Texas, 1986 [1962]), 61. See also the Eddic poems Völuspá
and Vafthruðnismál.
2. For surveys of pre-Christian Scandinavian-Germanic-Anglo-Saxon religion,
see H.R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (New York and London:
Penguin Books, 1964); E.O.G. Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North:The Religion
of Ancient Scandinavia, rev. edn (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975); and
Thomas Dubois, Nordic Religions in the Viking Age (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania, 1999).
3. For an overview which compares several national formations of this type of
Paganism, see Michael F. Strmiska and Baldur A. Sigurvinsson, “Asatru: Nordic Pagan-
ism in Iceland and America,” in Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative
Perspectives, ed. Michael Strmiska (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 127-80. Other
important studies include Jenny Blain, “Heathenry, The Past and Sacred Sites in
Today’s Britain,” in Modern Paganism, ed. Strmiska, 181-208; Blain, Nine Worlds of Seid-
Magic: Ecstasy and Neo-Shamanism in Northern European Paganism (London: Routledge,
2002), Graham Harvey, “Heathenism: A North European Pagan Tradition,” in Pagan
Pathways: A Guide to the Ancient Earth Traditions, ed. Graham Harvey and Charlotte
Hardman, 2nd edn (London: Thorsons, 2000), 49-64, and Michael Strmiska, “Ásatrú
in Iceland: The Revival of Nordic Paganism?,” Nova Religio 4.1 (2000): 106-32. One of
the Nordic Pagans profiled in my 2005 publication and further consulted for this
research, Galina Krasskova, has written a fine introductory volume from an insider’s
perspective, Exploring the Northern Tradition: A Guide to the Gods, Lore, Rites and
Celebrations from the Norse, German, and Anglo-Saxon Traditions (Franklin Lakes, NJ:
Career Press/New Page Books, 2005).
4. Sc holars who pref er the term “Northern European Paganism” to my preferred
term of “Nordic Paganism” have noted that “Nordic” would seem to leave out
“Anglo-Saxon” traditions, certainly a valid concern. My own misgiving about the
term “Northern European” is that it might be seen to also encompass Celtic, Slavic
and Baltic traditions, which are distinct from the Scandinavian-Germanic (including
An glo -Sa xon , as a sub set of G erm an ic) bod y of tra dit ion s at th e co re o f co nte mpor ary
Nordic Pa ganism. The term “Heathenry” might seem a solution to these vexing issues
156 The Pomegranate 9.2 (2007)
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What I here call “Modern” Paganism has commonly been labeled
“Neopaganism” or “neo-Paganism” by other scholars. I prefer to speak
of “Modern” Paganism because of the concern expressed to me by a
number of Pagans that the “neo-” prefix seemed to them to represent a
veiled judgment of their religion as being in some way inferior or
inauthentic. When I argued with one Pagan leader that I thought the
“neo“ prefix a useful indicator of the very modern, quite contemporary
nature of today’s Paganism as revived and rebuilt forms of long repressed
religions, he responde d, “Then why don’t you call modern forms of Chris-
tianity neo-Christianity, or modern forms of Judaism neo-Judaism?”5 I
found this to be a convincing argument, and have since chosen to use
“Modern Paganism” as a more simple and neutral appellation than the
possibly loaded “neo” term.6
Modern Nordic Paganism is to be distinguished from the most popular
modern Pagan or neo-Pagan religious movement, Wicca, on two accounts:
first, its exclusive focus on related Scandinavian, Germanic, and Anglo-
Saxon forms of pre-Christian European religion; and second, the
sustained effort by its leaders and most dedicated followers to recon-
struct and recreate this religious heritage as accurately as possible. A
small but growing number of Modern Nordic Pagans have begun to
experiment with reviving the practice of animal sacrifice as part of the
seasonal feast known as the blót. In this article, I will explore some of the
meanings and motivations involved in this development, but I begin
with some general remarks about contemporary attitudes and cultural
representations that shape responses to animal sacrifice.
Opposition to Sacrifice in Contemporary Society and Culture
Animal sacrifice grates against popular contemporary attitudes and
sensibilities by pushing into plain view certain facts of life and moral
of regional definition, and has the further value of being a term of self-designation
found in the source literature itself, but has the disadvantage of being generally
understood as a synonym for Paganism. There is no simple way of adequately address-
ing all these concerns of inclusiveness and exclusivity. “Pan-Germanic Paganism”
might be best, except that for some, “Germanic” carries echoes of the Nazi period,
when Scandi navian mythology and Germanic folk lore were used to bolster the racist,
anti-Semitic, Nazi regime. For the time being, this author will stick with the term
Nordic Paganism, but I fully acknowledge the drawbacks.
5. Jonas Stundzia (leader of the Lithuanian Pagan movement Romuva), 2004.
6. For further discussion of these interminable terminological issues, see my
introductory chapter, “Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspec-
tives,” in Modern Paganism, ed. Strmiska, 1-54.
Strmiska Putting the Blood back into Blót 157
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2007.
ambiguities that most people customarily avoid, particularly the reality
that animals are regularly killed to provide humans with meat as a sub-
stantial portion of their daily diet. Though most people today eat meat,
only a tiny fraction of the population is involved in slaughtering the
animals from whose mechanically processed bodies emerge the steaks,
hamburgers, and chicken breasts that show up on supermarket shelves
in plastic wrap. One hundred or more years ago, many people in the
USA, and other nations also, lived on farms and butchered their own
animals, and a good number of people obtained some of their meat from
hunting. Now, as far as most people can tell from their daily experience,
meat is simply a manufactured consumer product like shampoo or light
Paired with the sanitization and sterilization in modern industrialized
life is an attitude of romanticization of nature, including animals.7 Many
modern people yearn for contact with the world of nature from which
they feel so alienated. This is often expressed in a prettified, almost
Disney-like view of nature that overlooks the basic order of the animal
world, in which animals do in fact attack, kill, and eat each other as a
matter of course. Even domesticated cats treated like pampered children
have their moments of bloodlust in which they hunt and overpower
smaller animals. Many a modern pet owner has been horrified to see the
animal carcasses that their dear little Fluffy periodically deposits on the
family doorstep, which one might imagine as a feline ritual offering to
his or her almighty master. The actual hunting and killing which are
natural activities for cats are given a humorous and bloodless treatment
in the Tom and Jerry animated cartoons and similar popular entertain-
ments, which playfully evoke the unending antagonism between cats
and mice and other animals. The romanticism that sweetly distorts
naturally c arnivorous animals into fluffy dolls and furry angels is unlikely
to foster a mindset that would look favorably on the practice of animal
Indeed, a fair degree of moral prestige is commonly accorded to veg-
etarianism in much of the popular media and among certain segments of
the popul ation, while t he opposite is true of animal sacrifice as a religious
practice.8 Given the contrasting stereotyped images of a peaceful Buddhist
7. Catherine Albanese explores shifting attitudes toward nature in America in
her fine study, Nature Religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
8. To mention but a few examples of the burgeoning body of pro-vegetarian
literature, John L. Hill, The Case for Vegetarianism: Philosophy for a Small Planet (Lanham,
MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996) and Michael Allan Fox, Deep Vegetarianism
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999). A range of religious perspectives are
158 The Pomegranate 9.2 (2007)
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2007.
monk who lives on a virtuous diet of rice and greens and a “savage” or
“primitive” who worships his or her gods by inviting them to feast on
the raw or cooked body parts of a freshly slain animal, there can be little
doubt that the former representation is more pleasing to modern
sensibilities.9 Hollywood and contemporary popular culture have long
been engaged in teaching horror movie fans in America and beyond that
animal sacrifice, and its higher-value alternative, human sacrifice, are
among the most reliable warning signs of evil, often Satanic cults
dedicated to total destruction of the world.10
The animal-rights movement is another response to our modern
alienation from nature with relevance to the question of animal sacrifice.11
This is a large and diverse movement, ranging from those who reject all
violence of any sort against animals and embrace a Buddhistic vegetarian
ethic to those who believe that certain forms of violence toward and
killing of animals, such as those which are done for survival purposes,
are acceptable, while others, such as testing the effects of potentially
harmful chemicals on laboratory animals, are not. 12 For animal-rights
activists who unilaterally condemn all violence against animals, the
religious use of animals in ritual sacrifice would seem totally abhorrent
as well as unnecessary, given the availability of less violent ways of
worshipping the divine. However, for those willing to grant that certain
acts of violence against animals may be justifiable and who furthermore
accept the principle of freedom of religion as a fundamental right, the
religious practice of animal sacrifice poses a difficult ethical challenge.
given in Kerry S. Walters and Lisa Portmess, eds., Religious Vegetarianism: From Hesiod
to the Dalai Lama (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001).
9. The Buddhist argument in favor of vegetarianism is given in Bodo Balsys,
Buddhism and the Vegetarian Ideal (New Delhi: Mushiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2004)
and Philip Kapleau, To Cherish All Life: A Buddhist Case for Becoming Vegetarian
(Rochester, NY: Zen Center, 1986).
10. The Satanic subgenre of horror film has too many offerings to list. Roman
Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) stands out as a well-regarded, influential film in
which the Satanic theme is linked with the motif of human sacrifice. Later films such
as The Believers (1988), The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), and the recent Skeleton Key
(2005) move away from the Satanic theme and place ritual sacrifice in a Voodoo or
Santería context, with both religious traditions portrayed as sinister cults. The film
Angel Heart (1986) combines Satanism with Voodoo as the doubly-evil religious
context for sacrifice.
11. Tom Reagan, All that Dwell therein: Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New
York: Ecco, 2002).
12. Cass R. Sunstein and Martha C. Nussbaum, eds., Animal Rights: Current
Debates and New Directions (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Strmiska Putting the Blood back into Blót 159
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Though such animal sacrifice is not done for purposes of physical survival,
the assertion of the right to practice sacrifice as an aspect of a religious
tradition, as a matter of religious survival, is a substantive argument that
cannot be dismissed out of hand. Obviously, this brings animal rights
and religious rights into direct conflict. In a similar way, the general world-
wide prohibition against most forms of whaling has come into conflict
with the rights of indigenous peoples to practice whale hunting as an
aspect of cultural heritage.
Religious Perspectives
Modern distaste for animal sacrifice is also rooted in the historical evo-
lution of a number of the world’s most popular religions. Some contem-
porary Hindus reject the idea that their Vedic forebears slaughtered
cattle as ritual offerings to the Vedic gods, although the evidence is plain
to see in the Rig Veda and other Vedic texts, which speak eloquently of
the merits of animal sacrifice and provide detailed instructions.13 The
rejection of animal sacrifice in Hinduism came some hundreds of years
later, with the development of the notions of karma,samsara, and ahimsa,
ideas which became foundational principles of not only Hinduism, but
also those other great Indian religions, Jainism and Buddhism. Animal
sacrifice does, however, continue as a minority religious practice in India
today, among Hindu worshippers of the goddess Durga, for example.
Such animal sacrifice is not always welcomed by other Indians, as is
clear in the following report from the Indian newspaper The Hindu:
GADAG, FEB . 4. A concerted campaign backed by stern measures initiated
by the di strict administr ation helped prevent what would have been one of
the biggest cases of animal sacrifice at the Durgadevi [Goddess Durga] fair
at Bommasamudra village of Ron taluk in Gadag district today [in Karnataka
Ev ery year, devotees from over 80 villages in Gadag and the neighboring
districts of Bagalkot and Koppal converge here on the full moon day of the
Hindu month of Magha to sacrifice thousands of animals, including buffa-
loes, rams, and chickens, to the goddess.14
13. A historical analysis of ancient Indian cow sacrifice is given in D.N. Jha, The
Myth of the Holy Cow (London: Verso, 2002). Jha’s book faced so much opposition from
Hindu groups within India that when the manuscript was in the final stages of
preparation, his original publisher backed out of publishing it. Jha himself received
death threats. In the end, no Indian publisher for Jha’s controversial work could be
found, leading to its publication by the British publisher Verso. See Jha’s ‘Preface to
the Verso edition,’ xi-xii.
14. “Campaign to Stall Animal Sacrifice Succeeds,” The Hindu, http://www
160 The Pomegranate 9.2 (2007)
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Animal sacrifice was likewise an important part of early Judaism, until
the final destruction of the great temple in Jerusalem and the process of
diaspora decisively shifted the focus of religious practice toward textual
devotion, though the earlier practice of animal sacrifice is still echoed in
the feast of the Passover lamb.15 In Christianity, animal sacrifice was
superseded by one supreme sacrifice that different theological perspec-
tives would describe as either human or divine sacrifice, or both, that is,
the crucifixion of Jesus. However, the ritual variously known as the
Lord’s Supper or as Communion, in which those assembled eat what is
either considered the real or symbolic body of Jesus, is, like the eating of
the Passover lamb, a re-enactment of the original sacrificial act, which
was neither bloodless nor peaceful.16 Furthermore, many Christian
hymns speak metaphorically of the redemptive “blood of the lamb,”
drawing on Revelation 7:14,17 as in the following two examples:
There is Power in the Blood
Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Would you over evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful power in the blood.
There is power, power, wonder-working power
In the precious blood of the Lamb.18
Are you Washed in the Blood?
Are you walking daily by the Savior’s side?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Do you rest each moment in the Crucified?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?19
We see then that in Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity there is a (accessed 23 July 2004).
15. Theodor Herzl Gaster, Passover: Its History and Traditions (London and New
York: Abelard-Schuman, 1958).
16. Gillian Feeley-Harnik, The Lord’s Table: Eucharist and Passover in Early
Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981). See also the
discussion of the Mass in Alan Watts, Myth and Ritual in Christianity (Boston: Beacon
Press, 1968).
17. “These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their
robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14).
18. Words and music by Lewis E. Jones, 1899,
~Synergy_2/lyrics/power.html (accessed 12 February 2006).
19. Words and Music by Elisha A. Hoffman, 1878,
heavenlymidis2/washed.html (accessed 12 February 2006).
Strmiska Putting the Blood back into Blót 161
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history of ritual sacrifice, which has over time been transformed, modified,
and in some cases denied or forgotten, to bring us to our modern situation
in which animal sacrifice is widely considered distasteful, disgusting,
and unnecessary, with its surviving echoes in contemporary ritual practice
easily ignored or rationalized. There is, however, one other major world
religion, Islam, in which animal sacrifice survives in much its original
form. The slaughter of many thousands of lambs, goats, camels, or other
animals for the feast of Id al-Adha is one of the final activities of the
annual Hajj pilgrimage that is central to the Muslim faith, and harks
back to the biblical episode in which the first Patriarch Abraham
(Ibrahim in Arabic form) substituted sacrifice of a ram for the offering of
his son Isaac.20
In the modern Afro-Caribbean religion of Santería, the performance of
animal sacrifice has occasioned controversy and attempts by government
authorities to ban the practice.21 The case of Church of the Lukumi Babalu
Aye v. City of Hialeah was eventually decided in the US Supreme Court,
with the proposed restrictions on the sacrificial practices of a Florida-
based Santería group declared unconstitutional in June of 1993.22
Theoretical Perspectives
Theoreticians of religion have created a number of explanatory models
for interpreting ritual sacrifice. In this limited space, it will suffice to
briefly mention some of the major theoretical constructs put forward by
past scholars. The early British anthropologist Edward Tylor began mod-
ern discussion of sacrifice with the interpretation that it was essentially a
gift or bribe to divine powers; in short, the concept of do ut des, “give-
and-be-given,” as known from ancient Rome.23 In this conception, the
purpose of sacrifice is a straightforward transaction with the divine.
Subsequent theories have focused attention on how sacrificial ritual
affects social relations rather than human–divine relations. The Old
Testament scholar Robertson Smith is a transitional figure in this respect.
He argued that the focal point of sacrifice was the consuming of the
20. Frederick Denny, Islam and the Muslim Community (S an Fr an cis co : Ha rp er a nd
Row, 1987), 55.
21. As discussed in a previous number of this journal by Mary Ann Clark in her
fine essay, “Santería Sacrificial Rituals: A Reconsideration of Religious Violence,”
Pomegranate 8.2 (2006): 133-45.
22. The case is thoroughly documented in David M. O’Brien, Animal Sacrifice and
Religious Freed om: Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (Lawrence: University
Press of Kansas, 2004).
23. Edward Tylor, Primitive Culture (New York: Harper, 1958 [1871]).
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victim in a meal of communion that strengthens bonds within the com-
munity of ritual participants as well as with their gods.
The French sociologist Émile Durkheim, who believed in no god greater
than society itself, and saw gods as projections of social authority, fol-
lowed Smith in seeing sacrifice as functioning primarily to cement the
social solidarity of the participants, through creating an “effervescence”
of ecstatic feeling in the course of the ritual drama.24 Durkheim also
called attention to how sacrifice functions to delineate the boundaries of
the sacred and profane orders of existence, which he saw as foundational
structures of all religion and society. Through the careful stagecraft of
the ritual, the polluting violence of death and slaughter is artfully
channeled into a communal celebration of life and propriety.
Building on Durkheim’s model, Henrí Hubert and Marcel Mauss
explored a wider range of religious traditions and introduced some addi-
tional distinctions that have continued to influence scholarly discussion
of sacrifice.25 They noted that the ritual was not performed for the benefit
of “societ y” in general, as a crude reading of Durkheim might suggest, but
for particular social groups or even individuals, who were often other
than the person(s) performing the sacrifice. Hubert and Mauss described
ritual patterns of the consecration of both the victim and the sacrifier
(recipient of the ritual benefit), a three-part sequence of killing the victim,
consuming it, and then reconstituting it, to restore it to symbolic if not
actual life, and distinct procedures of ascent and descent, that is, actions
leading up to the peak excitement of the killing itself and then stepping
down from that once more to gradually return to normal life. This con-
cern with unpacking the different functions of various stages of ritual
sacrifice ties in with parallel work by Arnold Van Gennep and Victor
Turner,26 and has proven a fruitful line of inquiry.
The Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade viewed the sphere of
the sacre d more positi vely and less reductively than did Durkheim, grant-
ing it an ontological reality separate from social reality that was echoed
in myth and re-enacted in sacrifice.27 As Eliade observes, “Insofar as he
24. Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Structures of the Religious Life, trans. J.W.
Swain (New York: The Free Press, 1965 [1915]).
25. Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, Sacrifice: Its Nature and Functions, trans. W.D.
Halls, with an introduction by E.E. Evans-Pritchard (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1981 [1898]).
26. Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, trans. Monika B. Vizedom and
Gabrielle L. Caffee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960); Victor Turner, The
Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969).
27. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard
R. Trask (New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1958).
Strmiska Putting the Blood back into Blót 163
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repeats the archetypal sacrifice, the sacrificer, in full ceremonial action,
abandons the profane world of mortals and introduces himself into the
divine world of the immortals.”28 A similar privileging of myth over
ritual was central to the work of the “myth-ritual” school of scholars
such as Jane Harrison,29 which looked to underlying myths as the key
datum that would unlock the meaning of rituals.
Just as sacrifice is in the most obvious sense an action interposed
between the society of participants and the divine presence toward
which the ritual is directed, these different approaches to understanding
sacrifice diverge between those which focus on social structure and
dynamics and those which highlight the supposedly higher order divine
or sacred meanings encoded in the ritual.
A third branch of inquiry into sacrifice is the psychoanalytical view
first championed by Sigmund Freud and taken up more recently by the
literary theorist René Girard.30 In Totem and Taboo, Freud articulated a
model of social origins in which primitive society was cemented into
solidarity, and the f oundation laid for its important institutions, including
the ritual of s acrifice, by the collective murder of a monstrous, d ominating
father by his resentful sons. As Freud imagined this critical event,
One day the expelled brothers joined forces, slew and ate the father, and
thus put an end to the father horde…The totemic feast, which is perhaps
mankind’s first celebration, would be the repetition and commemoration
of this memorable, criminal act with which so many things began, social
organization, moral restrictions and religion.31
Girard sees such a murder giving rise to the myths and rituals of religion
that both commemorate and conceal the act of violence, providing a
release for social tensions and rivalry through the focusing of aggression
onto a substitute, scapegoat victim, mythically modeled upon the original
victim. Girard’s key hermeneutic tool is the suspicion that behind many
components of society and religion, particularly the ritual act of sacrifice,
there lurks the durable mechanism of “mimetic” desire giving rise to
rivalry and conflict, resolved by deflection onto a substitute object,
28. Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return or, Cosmos and History, trans.
Willard R. Trask (Bollingen Series; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971 [1949]),
29. Jane Ellen Harrison, Prologemena to the Study of Greek Religion (Cleveland:
Meridian Press, 1966 [1903]), and Themis (Cleveland: Meridian Press, 1962 [1913]).
30. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1977 [1972]).
31. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (New York: V intage Books, 1946 [1913]), 183,
quoted in Catherine Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (New York and Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1992), 14.
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which becomes the scapegoat or ritual victim. Girard’s theory is
intriguing, but because he seems to propose that this substitute victim
mechanism is the basis of all religion, it also seems to overreach.
The German classicist Walter Burkert has offered an equally ambitious
theory of sacrifice as originating in the practice of hunting among
Paleolithic tribes.32 Like Girard, Burkert sees ritual sacrifice as providing
an outlet for human aggression and potentially destructive rivalry, but
he regards the situation in a much more hopeful and positive light.
Where Girard sees his hypothesized foundational murder as something
of a “fall from grace” for early humankind, Burkert sees the channeling
of aggression away from inter-human conflict toward the hunting of
animals, subsequently commemorated in ritual, as a positive adaptation
that enabled early humankind to gain mastery of its environment and to
in time establish human dominance over the earth. Where Girard draws
on Freudian psychoanalysis, Burkert’s theory is strongly inspired by the
work of sociobiologists such as Konrad Lorenz.33
Burkert is well aware that the ritual of animal sacrifice long survived
the original hunting cultures from which, in his view, it sprang. His argu-
ment is that because hunting was such a successful adaptation for early
humankind, the emotional attitudes and social mechanisms that attended
it were embedded or “hard-wired” into all manner of human behavior
and social institutions, which in turn gave immense prestige to animal
sacrifice as a venerable tradition, intuitively felt to be something of the
greatest antiquity and significance. This helps explain why animal
sacrifice remained central in many societies even after the transition
from the nomadic, hunting-based lifestyle of the Paleolithic era to the
settled, Neolithic lifestyle of pastoralism and agriculture, to the first
urban civilizations, and continued to be observed in the cosmopolitan
milieu of the Greek city-states, even at a time when Greek intellectuals
were questioning the rationality of traditional Greek religion.
The final theorist whom I will note here is the historian of religion
Jonathan Z. Smith, who has put forward a provocative interpretation of
the bear sacrifice traditionally performed by Siberian peoples of north-
32. Walter Burkert, Homo Necans, trans. Peter Bing (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1982 [1972]). Burkert and Girard, as well as the religious historian
Jonathan Z. Smith, debated their respective theories of sacrifice in a colloquium that
gave rise to a seminal volume, edited by Robert G. Hamerton- Kelly, with a fine
introductory overview by Burton Mack, entitled Violent Origins: Walter Burkert, René
Girard and Jonathan Z. Smith on Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1987).
33. Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression, trans. Marjorie Kerr Wilson (New York:
Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966 [1963]).
Strmiska Putting the Blood back into Blót 165
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eastern Asia.34 Smith observes that the bear sacrifice is by no means a
straightf orward evocation of a bear hunt. An actua l hunt is unpredictable,
dangerous, messy, and chaotic, as the hunters enter the wilderness in
search of a powerful animal that is as fully capable of killing its hunters
as being killed by them, but the sacrificial ritual removes all danger and
disorder to produce an orderly interaction between well-behaved partici-
pants, including the more or less domesticated bear cub who is more of a
village pet than an unpredictable creature of the wilderness, treated like
an honored guest throughout the ritual, up to the point where its life is
taken. What Smith concludes is that the ritual represents an idealized
version of the bear hunt, showing the hunt not as it actually happens,
but as the hunter might wish it to happen. That is to say, the ritual imposes
a human-friendly order on the sometimes dangerous disorder of nature,
bolstering human confidence and motivation, and thus fostering
adaptation and survival.
For Smith, therefore, animal sacrifice is not so much a reflection of
primal dr ives and events, as in Girard and Burkert, as it is a rationalization
and reassurance that primal chaos can indeed be kept at bay.
Having surveyed these varying theories of animal sacrifice, as well as
some of the popular and religious attitudes that prevail in our time, we
can now proceed to examine Modern Nordic Pagan practices of animal
sacrifice, beginning with the historical background in relation to which
these modern practices were developed.
Animal Sacrifice in Nordic Paganism, Past and Present
In pre-Christian, Germanic Northern Europe, animal sacrifice was a key
element in the seasonal ritual gatherings known as blót.35 The word blót,
meaning in essence “sacrifice,” is closely related to the word blóð, meaning
“blood.” Putting the two related meanings together, it is not difficult to
gather that the blót involved blood-sacrifice, that is, the killing of animals.
Medieval Icelandic sources speak of various times throughout the year
when the blót was performed. The most often-quoted source is the
Ynglingasaga section of Snorri Sturluson’s quasi-historical text Heims-
kringla, which tells of one blót performed at about mid-October to mark
34. Jonathan Z. Smith, “The Bare Facts of Ritual,” in Imagining Religion: From
Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982), 53-65.
35. H.R. Ellis Davidson, Myths and Symb ols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and
Celtic Religions (Syracuse: State U niversity of New York Press, 1988), 37-40; Jón Hnefill
Aðalsteinsson, Blót í Norraenum Sið (Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan Félagsvísindastofnun,
166 The Pomegranate 9.2 (2007)
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the beginning of winter, another in December or January to celebrate
Yule, and a third in April to welcome the coming of summer.36 Other
texts provide somewhat different explanations of the timing of blóts. The
practice most likely varied by region and across history. The ritual pro-
cedure described in the Heimskringla was to kill the animal by slicing its
throat, c atch the blood in a special metal bowl designated for this purpose,
and then to sprinkle blood on the participants as well as on stone or
wood images of the gods. This seems to be the basic ritual procedure
followed by Modern Nordic Pagans who practice animal sacrifice.
In my research into Modern Nordic Paganism in the Mid-Atlantic and
New England regions of the United States, the first person I came to
know who was involved in the practice of blót was Mike Smith, a dedi-
cated Ásatrú practitioner from Massachusetts whom I interviewed in
2004 for the chapter on “Ásatrú in Iceland and America” in my book
Modern Paganism in World Cultures. The same chapter also featured a
profile of Galina Krasskova, a New York City resident who was not at
that time involved in animal sacrifice, but who subsequently did become
active in blót. Both Smith and Krasskova began their practice of animal
sacrifice under the tutelage of Ronald Branga, a Nordic Pagan with a
farm in southwestern New Hampshire where both Smith and Krasskova
performed their first blóts. He calls his farm Oðala Acres, the term óðal
being the Old Norse term for “inheritance,” a fitting name for the
homestead of someone looking to carry on the heritage of past times. As
a site of Pagan ritual activity, Oðala Acres is joined with the larger
community of New Anglia Theod, which will be further explained below.
As Branga is a key figure in the revival of blót in the New England
region, who was not profiled in my earlier publications, I will begin with
some discussion of his personal history and perspective on the place of
animal sacrifice in Nordic Paganism.
Branga, 40, first became interested in Paganism some twenty years ago
while serving in the military, through a fellow soldier who was involved
in a Saxon-oriented form of Wicca. Branga soon gravitated towar d Nordic
Paganism rather than Wicca. In about 1997 he made contact with the
Massachusetts-based Ásatrú group Raven Kindred North, where he met
Mike Smith, who had joined a few months earlier. Branga and Smith
soon broke away from Raven Kindred North to form or join other associ-
ations, motivated in part by an interest in reviving the practice of animal
sacrifice, which they saw as an essential part of the pre-Christian German ic
36. Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, trans. A.H. Smith and Erling Monsen (repr.;
New York: Dover Publications, 1990 [1932]), section 8, 6.
Strmiska Putting the Blood back into Blót 167
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religious heritage that was missing from most Ásatrú practice of the
time. As Branga puts it,
It fel t to m e as tho ugh our God s de se rve d th e th ing s th ey u sed t o ge t whe n
they were worshiped in elder days. Real treasures, things of beauty, not
just token things and a horn of store-bought mead. I also felt real folk
customs should be done, instead of the all too common drinking in some-
one’s living room and hailing our Gods and ancestors. For me, it was
pretty demonstrable that the rituals common in Ásatrú were not at [the]
reconstructionist level I needed and I began to feel swiftly that our Gods
deserve more. 37
Smith went on to form his own small Ásatrú group, Athelingulf, which
was rename d Úlfar aff Jer a Þjóð (Wolves of the Tribe of Jera) after moving
to New Hampshire. Branga joined Néoweanglia (New Anglia) Theod, a
regional branch of Theodism, an Anglo-Saxon-oriented Nordic Pagan
movement that draws inspiration from Anglo-Saxon folklore and texts
such as Beowulf.38 Branga was drawn to Theodism out of interest in his
own English ancestral heritage, as well as his awareness that Theodish
Pagans had performed several swine blóts back in the 1980s. Branga
correctly anticipated that his Theodish colleagues would support him in
his desire to revive traditional animal sacrifice. This became feasible after
Branga and his wife bought a farm with five acres of land in southwestern
New Hampshire. As he recounted in an email communication,
[M]y wife had a horse and chickens and ducks when she was younger. I
grew up in an ocean si de to wn north of Bost on. We both want ed to get the
kid s into th e rura l and f armin g envi ronme nt, if even j ust on a hobb y-far m
level. It would be good for them and us. Well, as soon as we knew we were
closing on the house, we bought some turkey poults with designs to blót
them that Yule, which we did…I guess I can say, having the land, the
desire to do it the way our ancestors did it and seeing precedent that it had
been done [in the Theodish blóts of the 1980s], combined with a very
strong desire to honor our Gods properly, finally came together and we
did it…These are also primary reasons for me building Ingsleigh hall, a 16
x 24-foot Blóthouse/hof I built.39
The blóthouse or hof is essentially a wooden shed decorated with Nordic
Pagan folk motifs which serves as a Pagan temple. The blóthouse is situ-
ated within a grove of trees that is understood as a sacred grove. Here
Branga and his wife, joined by other members of New Anglia Theod and
37. Ron Branga, personal communication, 1 June 200.
38. New Anglia Theod is currently led by Jeffrey Runokivi, who has the title of
“Lord” in the organization. Information about the Theod is available at http://www
39. RonBranga, personal communication, 1 June 2007.
168 The Pomegranate 9.2 (2007)
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other invited guests, such as Smith and Branga’s parents, have been per-
forming blót two to three times a year since 2002, primarily to celebrate a
summer solstice holiday known as Litha and the winter holiday of Yule,
with a third blót during the festival of Winternights, celebrated in late
October to mark the beginning of the long Nordic winter season.40 Branga
began with poultry, then progressed to larger animals, such as goats and
pigs. Smith has assisted in two blóts on Oðala Acres, beginning in 2003.41
The type and number of animals sacrificed at Oðala Acres have varied
according to how many people attended and needed to be fed. Branga
reports between twenty to sixty people having attended the two major
annual summer and winter solstice blóts over the last five years, with
much smaller groups composed of just Branga, his family and one or
two close friends attending the Winternights blót.
The following description of a blót is drawn from accounts provided
by Branga, Krasskova, and Smith, as well as one blót observed by the
author in June of 2007.42 First of all, the animal selected for blót should be
treated with kindness and served the best of food in the period leading
up to the sacrifice. The ritual proper begins with a hallowing of the ritual
area, such as by carrying a flaming torch around the perimeter of the
area, or fencing it off with a rope. An invocation of the gods to be honored
with the sacrifice is performed by reciting or singing verses from sacred
texts in Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, or other original languages, which may
be translated into English. The animal is then brought into the ritual area
and consecrated for sacrifice. One method of consecration is to hold a
special ritual hammer over the animal, evoking the magical hammer of
the god Thor, which was described in the Norse texts as being able to
revive dead animals, cause rain to fall, and fend off the enemies of earth.
The ritual participants then each go to the animal, place their hands
upon it and thank it for giving its life for their benefit.43 The animal may
40. Ron Branga, personal communication, 17 May 2007 .
41. My previous profile of Smith overstated the number of times Smith has
performed blót, which is only twice in total up to this point, not twice a year as the
article reported. The “New Hampshire farmer” mentioned in the article is in fact
Branga, who has been practicing blót two to three times per year, sometimes with
Smith assisting, as mentioned above. Se e Strmiska and Sigurvinsson, “Asatru: Nordic
Paganism in Iceland and America,” esp. 155-59.
42. Summer Solstice (Litha) Blót, held at Oðala Acres, Troy New Hampshire, 30
June 2007. Of about thirty people who came for the gathering, roughly half attended
the animal sacrifice to observe the animal’s death and half did not.
43. At the Litha Blót of 30 June 2007, this interaction with the sacrificial victim, a
piglet, took place after the animal had died, to avoid frightening the animal before its
Strmiska Putting the Blood back into Blót 169
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also be asked to bear messages to the gods or the dead. During all of this
procedure the handlers of the animal attempt to keep it as calm and
relaxed as possible.
The killing is typically done by cutting the throat of the animal, though
other methods are also known, such as strangling with a cord or decapi-
tating with an axe or sword. Branga and Smith both favor a rifle shot to
the forehead between the eyes, in order to minimize the animal’s
suffering, after which they proceed to slash the throat to allow its blood
to flow forth. The consensus position of Branga’s religious group, New
Anglia Theod, however, is to reject the use of firearms and bullets as
something that pollutes the ritual atmosphere, and to instead rely on a
precisely executed cutting of the throat to bring about a swift, if not
instantaneous death.44 The sacrificial animal’s blood is collected in a
bowl, mixed with mead, and sprinkled or dabbed onto partic ipants’ fore-
heads or hands as a mark of their participation.45
The remaining blood is then poured over a stone or wood altar into
the earth near a tree with the invocation, “From the gods to the earth to
us; from us to the earth to the gods; a gift for a gift.” The animal is then
butchered and the meat cooked and eaten by the ritual participants, with
a portion dedicated to the gods. Any pieces of the animal not consumed
in the feast are burned to ashes in a fire, thrown into a body of water, or
otherwise disposed of at the place of sacrifice, or nearby. This is done
because the animal’s body is seen as sanctified by the ritual and not to be
removed from the site of the ritual. Other ritual actions may include
passing around a horn full of mead or a substitute beverage for the pur-
pose of drinking toasts to gods and ancestors, with the recitation of
prayers, formal invocations, or spontaneous utterances. The mead, too, is
offered to the gods and ancestors by pouring a portion onto the ground.
Smith, Branga, and other Nordic Pagans all recalled with disgust a
blót sponsored by another Pagan group that they attended in which the
44. At the Litha Blót observed by the author, firearms were not used, but in
discussion with New Anglia “Lord” Jeffrey Runokivi and other Theod members, it
was explained that Branga is allowed his personal choice to use a rifle on other
occasions. The range of opinions on this topic highlights the varying ways in which
modern Nordic Pagans negotiate between recreating the past, on one hand, and adapt-
ing to the present, on the other.
45. A member of a different Nordic Pagan group commented to me that this
communal contact with the animal’s blood was understood to form a deep spiritual
bond between the worshippers, joining them in a “web of Wyrd,” a notion derived
from ancient Norse texts meaning a common sense of destiny as well as communal
obligation. Email communication (name withheld), 14 January 2005.
170 The Pomegranate 9.2 (2007)
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2007.
killing of the sacrificial animal was badly mishandled.46 Because of the
ritual leaders’ lack of skill or experience, the anim al’s neck was laboriously
hacked and sawed, rather than cut cleanly and precisely to bring a quick
death. The result was a long, drawn-out death for the screaming animal
and a sense of deep unease among the participants. This experience led
Branga and Smith to prefer the use of a rifle to avoid gratuitous suffering
for the animal.47
In explaining his ritual procedure, Branga emphasized the importance
of kind and gentle treatment of the sacrificial victim, with a sense of
gratitude and affection to the animal for giving up its life. In the blót that
I attended, there was a palpable sense of sadness and solemnity at the
animal’s passing among the participants, matching the great care that
had been taken with the piglet up to the moment of its death. Branga
furthermore comments,
Each time it is done, I feel th e same gratefulness [to the sacrificed animals]
and joy combined with sadness and distaste for killing…the honor I know
I give our Gods and the very real need it seems to fill for my guests and
my family, makes me continue it twice a year.48
Krasskova came to Oðala Acres in January 2006 to participate in a blót in
which a pig was sacrificed to Woden (the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the
Norse Oðin). Krasskova had previously observed several animal sacrifice
blóts performed at other locations, but this was the first one in which she
took a leading role, under Branga’s supervision. Though Krasskova’s
and Branga’s relations had been cordial to this point, certain divergences
of opinion began to make themselves felt. One of Krasskova’s religious
practices, not shared by Branga, was to enter trance states in which she
claimed to be possessed by Woden (Oðin) and other Nordic deities. This
practice is known within the Nordic Pagan community as spá or seið.49
46. The author received a highly detailed report from an email correspondent in
Texas who wished to remain anonymous, 17 May 2007.
47. Branga expressed concern that readers of this article who become interested in
blót should not attempt to perform animal sacrifice without training and supervision
in the skills required, to avoid the kind of cruel miscarriage of sacrifice noted above.
He suggested that for those skilled in the use of firearms, the use of a rifle would help
them avoid the mishaps possible in killing an animal with a knife, axe or sword.
Personal communication, 3 July 2007.
48. Branga, personal communication, 17 May 2007.
49. Also sometimes written as seidh. See the profile of Galina Krasskova in
Strmiska an d Sigurvinsson, “Asatru : Nordic Paganism in Ic eland and America,” 160-
61. For the most comprehensive treatment of such oracular and trance practices yet
published, see Blain, Nine Worlds of Seid Magic. Diana L. Paxson, a prominent
practitioner of seið and a leading figure in American Ásatrú, has written a valuable
Strmiska Putting the Blood back into Blót 171
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Krasskova also practiced runic divination in which she again claimed to
receive messages from the Nordic deities. On the occasion of this blót,
Krasskova reported Woden instructing her that the entire animal should
be burned to ashes rather than the edible parts being cooked and con-
sumed by the ritual participants, as Branga and the others had expected
would be done. Branga reluctantly assented to this, but felt misgivings at
this deviation from his usual ritual procedure, as well as Krasskova’s
assertion of authority based on supernatural communications with the
god Woden/Oðin, which seemed to leave no room for any negotiation
or discussion beyond Krasskova’s pronouncements.50
Branga’s unease over Krasskova’s practices of seið and possession may
suggest a division in the overall Nordic Pagan community between those
who embrace such practices and those who distrust them and/or their
practitioners. This might be described as a divide between “folkloric”
Pagans whose worship of Nordic deities extends only so far as communal
prayer and offerings, and “shamanic” Pagans whose worship also
includes ecstatic states such as trance and possession.51 A parallel situation
pertains in Christianity, where the practice of “speaking in tongues” is
enthusiastically championed by Pentecostal Christians as one of the
central expressions and experiences of their faith, but is disdained by
other Christian denominations. The key difficulty and cause of discomfort
which some Nordic Pagans report with seið and spá is the lack of any
clear criteria by which to evaluate the genuineness of claims of divine
communication or possession. There is also worry about how unbalanced
or unscrupulous individuals might use such claims to enhance their own
prestige and power.
Patricia Lafayllve, a gyðia (female priestess), long-time practitioner of
seið and High Steward of another Nordic Pagan organization, the Troth,
offered a different point of view. She noted that traditionally shamans
article,The Return of the Völva: Recovering the Practice of Seiðr (1993), now
available online at, 26 June 2007. The key
representation of seið in Norse literature is the episode of the “The Little Völva” in the
third chapter of The Saga of Eirik the Red, in which a seeress (völva) in Greenland goes
into a trance to predict the future.
50. Interview with Ron Branga, Keene, New Hampshire, 7 June 2007. Mike Smith
expressed similar sentiments in a discussion at his Hillsborough, New Hampshire
home (9 June 2007), as did Jeffrey Runokivi, “Lord” and high priest of New Anglia
Theod in a discussion at the Litha Blót conducted at Oðala Acres, 30 June 2007.
51. This is similar to the divide this author found in the Icelandic Ásatrú Association
in the 1990s, in which some members of the Ásatrúfelagið were content with fairly
staid ritual events focused o n the recitation of sacred poetry, versus others who sought
more exciting, even ecstatic experience. See Strmiska, “Ásatrú in Iceland,” 106-32.
172 The Pomegranate 9.2 (2007)
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exercise their function in relation to a community, which acts as an
informal check on the activities of the shaman by either approving or
disapproving of the shaman’s communications with the divine realm,
based on their pragmatic judgment of the utility of the shaman’s pro-
nouncements.52 This view of the reciprocal relations between shaman
and community helps explain how Krasskova fell afoul of New Anglia
Theod. In her use of seið at Oðala Acres, Krasskova seemed to expect that
the other blót participants would obey her divinely inspired pronounce-
ments without question, simply on her say-so, without Krasskova having
first convinced the group of her merit as a seið-worker. This led some
participants to suspect that Krasskova’s assertive behavior had more to
do with egotistically grabbing for power rather than faithfully serving
Woden, as Krasskova would have it. Krasskova may have succeeded in
establishing contact with the divine, but it would seem that on this
occasion she was insufficiently attentive to her human community.53
Another issue to be taken into account is that as Nordic Paganism is a
new religious community on the fringes of society in America, many
Nordic Pagans are leery of activities that could open the way for attacks
from mainstream, Christian-dominated American society. Krasskova
herself concedes that seið is controversial within the overall community
of Nordic Paganism, observing in a presentation at a Pagan studies con-
Within Heathenry, particularly within Theodism, such devotion [the
practice of possession by a deity] as well as the concept of being owned by
a God is distasteful. Amongst many Heathens this ambivalence toward
sacred power goes beyond distaste into outright denial of even the
possibility of such direct experience.54
Krasskova’s membership in New Anglia Theod became problematic due
to her continuing practice of possession states, which some in the Theod
found questionable, but the final breach came over a quite different matter.
It occurred when New Anglia Theod learned of Krasskova’s association
with Raven Caldera, the head and self-styled “king” of an eclectic Pagan
52. Discussion with Lafayllve at the Litha Blót at Oðala Acres, 30 June 2007.
53. Discussion with New Anglia leader Jeffrey Runokivi and other members of
New Anglia Theod and Rav en Kindred North at the Litha Blót at Oðala Acres, 30 June
54. Galina Krasskova, “Animal Sacrifice and the Ritual of Blót in Modern
Heathenry : An Ethnographic E xploration,” p. 17. Unpublished paper presented at the
Forging Folklore: Witches, Pagans and Neo-Tribal Cultures conference at Harvard
University, 4–5 May 2007. Copy provided to the author by Krasskova.
Strmiska Putting the Blood back into Blót 173
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association in central Massachusetts known as Asphodel Farm.55 Caldera
is a female-to-male (FTM) transsexual who has become a prominent
spokesman for the transsexual and transgendered community as well as
for the sexual practices of bondage, domination, and sadomasochism
(BDSM), in addition to his activities as a Pagan leader and author. For
New Anglia Theod members intent upon Nordic Paganism being
accepted by mainstream society and protected from public scorn and
persecution, Krasskova’s affiliation with a sadomasochistic, transsexual
Pagan leader was a cause of considerable anxiety.
The Theod’s concerns were magnified still further by the discovery
that Caldera had advocated the use of bondage and sadomasochism as
Pagan spiritual techniques on Internet web pages easily accessible to the
public. Defending Caldera on this point, Krasskova emphasized that he
uses such sexual practices for the shamanic purpose of altering conscious-
ness through the experience of bodily pain, which is indeed a well-
known aspect of shamanism, though shamans typically inflict pain upon
themselves, not others, as the sadistic aspect of sadomasochism would
seem to imply.56 Even granting Krasskova’s assertion that these activities
might be beneficial in certain, carefully controlled ritual contexts, a
perusal of Caldera’s web pages does not show a sustained effort to clearly
separate his personal enjoyment of BDSM from their use as Pagan spiritual
One example is a bondage-themed, poetic tribute to the Norse mytho-
logical being Fenrir, a demonic wolf bound by the Norse gods for fear of
his destructive potential. Caldera addresses the wolf in this manner:
“When the Great Wolf comes; take me, bite off my hand, Limit and
cripple me, Make me bleed and weep…”, and then goes on to more
explicitly sexual imaginings.58 The provocative nature of Caldera’s
55. That is, not exclusively devoted to Nordic Paganism or any other particular
ethnic Pa gan tradition, but freely intermixing elements from diverse spiritual traditions.
Caldera explains his “kingship” in an essay, “Things I’ve Learned about the Sacred
Kingship Path,”
(accessed 10 June 2007).
56. Galina Krasskova, personal communication, 22 June 2007.
57. A 2003 essay by Caldera which bears out Krasskova’s observation about the
shamanic aspect of Caldera’s sadomasochism, but also suggests that Caldera may be
as much a n exhibitionist, eager to court con troversy, as a shaman or a religious leader,
see (accessed
5 June 2007). Caldera proudly proclaims himself a “sick fuck,” and further explains,
“My sexual fantasies are all incredibly violent and grotesque, and so is my porn
collection. I am a serious fucking sexual sadist, and I’ve got a decent masochistic
streak in there as well.”
58. Raven Caldera, “Bindings,” from his collection of religious writings known as
174 The Pomegranate 9.2 (2007)
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publicly available, Web-posted writings had the effect of nails screeching
on a chalkboard for New Anglia members, horrified at the possible nega-
tive effects of Krasskova, a Theod member, being associated with an open
advocate of sadomasochism. Accordingly, in spring 2006, Krasskova was
asked to either sever her ties with Caldera, or be dismissed from the
Theod. She chose the latter. 59
The tale of Krasskova’s involvement with Caldera would hardly be
worth mentioning for this article were it not for the fact that Krasskova
went on to perform blót at Caldera’s community in August 2006.60 About
a dozen people participated in the event. The blót involved the slaying of
a sheep, with subsequent cooking and eating, in worship of Angurboda,
a female Jöt un or giantess. To Krasskova, this sacrifice was a great success.
As she recalls,
It was wonderful. Besides the host and his family, I was the only one there
who had ever witnessed or performed a blot before but everyone was very
respectful and awed by the energy of the sacrifice. There was a palpable
excitemen t and undercurrent of j oy as well as nervousness—blot is serious
business!—underlying all the preparations. It went so very well though,
even I was shocked. Those gathered, who had never seen blot before,
actually pointed out natural signs—omens (and very good ones)—that I
myself ha d ignored…The offering was obviously accepted and I placed the
head, hooves and heart by her shrine. I was immensely moved by the
eager willingness of those gathered to come forward and join in the
experience, particularly with the ritual asperging [sprinkling] of the blood.
The entire ritual was very beneficial to all, I think, and just an amazing
To Branga and other New Angli a Theodsmen, this b lót was offensive
on several different levels. One was that the recipient of sacrifice,
Angurboða, was a giantess best-known in Norse myth for mating with
the morally ambiguous god Loki to become the mother of Fenrir, the
monstrous wolf that ultimately kills Oðin in the final battle of Ragnarok,
the equally monstrous Midgarð Serpent, which kills Thor, and Hel, the
Jötunbok, http://cauldron s.html (accessed 5 June 2007).
59. Ron Branga, interview, 7 June 2007. Branga emphasized that he has no personal
animosity toward Caldera or Krasskova, but that he wishes to see Nordic Paganism
develop as a “family-friendly” religion, and not be associated with sexual activities
that might cause the religion to be perceived as more fit for “freaks” than for families.
Branga, Smith and quite a few other Nordic Pagans express appreciation for Krasskova’s
knowledge and writings, despite the disagreements mentioned above.
60. Galina Krasskova, personal communication, 16 May 2007.
61. Krasskova, “Animal Sacrifice,” 16.
Strmiska Putting the Blood back into Blót 175
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female overseer of the realm of death.62 As giants are generally represented
as malevolent beings in Norse tradition, they are not considered proper
subjects of worship by most Nordic Pagans, let alone fitting recipients of
sacrifice. As Branga put it in a discussion on the Northeast Asatru Internet
discussion group, he saw this as worshipping a “monster.”63 It was espe-
cially painful to Branga that Krasskova had used blót techniques that he
had taught her on his farm for her activities with Caldera’s community,
which indirectly and without his consent linked him to a person and
community with whom he had no wish to be associated.
Smith has remained on friendly terms with Branga, his mentor-in-blót,
and the two continue to participate in regional Nordic Pagan events,
despite their affiliation with different branches of Nordic Paganism,
Branga with Anglo-Saxon-oriented Theodism, Smith with Scandinavian-
oriented Ásatrú. Smith’s only blóts to this point have been performed at
Oðala Acres, though Smith has long performed other rituals in his own
home and elsewhere, such as the symbel, a toasting ceremony in which
the gods are honored through words and speech, and the forn, a votive
ritual of offering various items to the gods by burning, smashing or
otherwise destroying the items so that they are unfit for human use but
suitable for the gods. Having purchased a home with a sizable piece of
land in a remote location in New Hampshire, Smith is now planning to
raise his own animals and conduct blót, in much the same manner as
Branga.64 Krasskova is also looking forward to again performing animal
Theological controversies and personal enmities aside, all of the blóts
mentioned thus far have taken place on farms. An additional example
would be the animal sacrifices which are regularly performed by Jon
Cyr, a Nordic Pagan sheep farmer in Maine.65 This agricultural setting is
significant in several ways. First, there is the simple logistical matter that
animal sacrifice is a messy business that is much easier to handle in a
rural location than an urban or suburban setting. As Smith put it in a
2004 discussion, “a group in New York City is less likely to sacrifice a
pig than we are. Logistically they just don’t have the space to sacrifice,
62. Cf. Krasskova, Exploring the Northern Tradition, 105, where she includes a
prayer for Angurboða.
63. Northeast Asatru Yahoo discussion group, 17 May 2007.
64. Mike Smith, interviews, 10 June 2007.
65. Discussion at Litha Blót at Oðala Acres, 30 June 2007. I regret that due to time
constraints Cyr could not be properly interviewed for this article, but he was quite
eloquent in advocating for the value of animal sacrifice as a means of bringing human-
kind back into a deeper relationship with the cycles of nature.
176 The Pomegranate 9.2 (2007)
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bleed out, butcher, and cremate the remains of a 200+lb animal.”66
Furthermore, as animal slaughter is a traditional part of farm life, the
ritualized slaughter of sacrifice is far less likely to c ause offense or contro-
versy in a farming context. This may be one reason why Nordic Pagan
animal sacrifice has not run into the community oppositio n or legal chal-
lenges that Santería has met with in more urban milieus. An additional
logistical factor is the availability of animals in the farm context. Branga,
for example, raises free-range chickens, roosters, and turkeys that are
used in sacrifice. Larger animals such as pigs are purchased from other
local farmers but allowed to live on Branga’s land for some days before
the blot, so that they might partake of the essence and ambiance of
Branga’s family and farm.67 This would obviously be unworkable in a
more urban setting.
The farm context also correlates with the traditional milieu of Nordic
Pagan practice. The sacrifices of old were performed on the farm estates
of wealthy landowners, community leaders who were also Pagan priests
(goðar).68 Branga, as the host and priest of Oðala Acres, is to some extent
playing the part of the goði of the past, as is Smith, who has begun con-
ducting rituals, though not yet blót, on his own farm in south-central
New Hampshire, and Jon Cyr, with his sheep farm in Maine. While
Krasskova also plays the role of a gyðia (female goði), without owning a
farm, she cannot offer her own land as a site for ritual gatherings such as
Bloodless Blóts
It is important to note that Nordic Pagans such as Branga, Smith, Cyr,
and Krasskova who practice animal sacrifice are a minority of the overall
community of Nordic Pagans. Most Modern Nordic Pagans practice
bloodless blóts in which various items are substituted for animals as
objects of sacrifice. I will here provide two explanations of this kind of
substitution, the first from the website of Raven Kindred North, the
Nordic Pagan organization that Ron Branga and Mike Smith belonged to
in 1997 before they left in part because of their desire for actual animal
sacrifice rather than substituted offerings. RKN’s explanation of their
66. Mike Smith, personal communication, 25 October 2004.
67. Branga furthermore plans to raise his own pigs for sacrifice in the near future.
(Personal communication, 26 June 2007.)
68. If one accepts the theory of Indo-European commonalities, a line can be drawn
back even farther in time and distance to the ancient sacrificial rites of Vedic India,
where wealthy landowners would pay teams of priests to sacrifice animals on their
Strmiska Putting the Blood back into Blót 177
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bloodless practice acknowledges that animal sacrifice was indeed the
original form of blót, and still entirely valid, but one which the group no
longer feels bound to perform, in accord with changing lifestyles: 69
In its most basic form a blót is a sacrifice to the Gods. We, as humans, are
giving something of ourselves over to the Gods. In ancient times, it was
common to hold a feast in the Gods honor, [and] in this way people gave
of their crops and livestock to the Gods. In modern times, we must search
for different things to give to the Gods, marking our commitment to them.
The majorit ies of people to day do not live on farms and are not as connected
to the land as our ancestors were. Today, we also do not have the same
relationship with animals as our ancestors did. For our ancestors, these
animals were their lifeblood. Giving the animals to deity was giving of
It is, therefore, very uncommon today to see Asatruar sacrificing animals
to the Gods. It is more common that sacrifices today include alcohol,
usually mead that has been handmade, as the primary gift given to the
The website continues with an eloquent description of stages of their
blót ritual, which match those used by Branga et al. for the most part, but
which introduce other elements as well, such as a chanting of “Odin,
Vili, Ve” to commemorate the original sacrifice of Ymir by Odin and his
Bifrost, a Norwegian Ásatrú organization, takes a similar position.
The Blot is the most important celebration of the changing of seasons and
nature. It is a Feast to the forces of nature and includes both communication
and socialisation with these. Through ceremonies, giving gifts, and partying,
the friendship with the gods and nature is strengthened. The Blot can take
many shapes, from the small ones with a short timeline and simple cer-
emony, to a big gathering with complex rituals and demanding involvement.
It is common that both single members and the groups arrange blots,
usually about 3-4 times a year…
Common units in a blot is first to “lyse stedet I ve” , i.e. to invite the gods
to the place were one is to perform the ceremony, then to read, sing or in
an other way perform something for instance from the Edda. To drink
“einkjels” [is] a joint toast where a horn or a bowl with, for instance, mead
is shared and passed around to all the participants, and then everyone
salutes someone or something they want to honour. Last but not least, the
sacrifice. The gift can be many kinds of things, from flowers, seeds, eggs,
69. Though Jon Cyr, noted above, is both a practitioner of animal sacrifice and a
member of RKN.
70.Raven Kindred North, “Blót,”
(accessed 17 June 2007).
178 The Pomegranate 9.2 (2007)
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incense, tobacco and beer. It is not common to sacrifice blood or animals,
but there are no laws against it. The sacrifice has a symbolic meaning of
showing sacrificial will towards the gods. The will to give and to gain. An
important aspect of all blots is also a Gilde, a party in the honour of
oneself, the gods and the forces of nature. In these ceremonies, as in all
other thin gs relating to the group s and Bifrost, the groups themselves have
a liberty in how they choose to compose their blots and which elements
they choose to include. As such there might be a great difference in the
arrangeme nts and performan ces between the groups and also the different
A third perspective, balancing both the animal offering and bloodless
styles of blót, was provided via email correspondence, by another Ameri-
can Nordic Pagan, Dave Curtis:
Although actually raising and slaughtering an animal is performed by us
from time to time, it is not the killing of the animal which is the sacrifice,
but the consuming of the animal at the feast, and the small portion which
is set out in nature afterwards for the gods and spirits. No one who is lore-
based in their understanding of the faith (that I am aware of) is against this
practice within the general Asatru community. We also perform this same
ritual sacrifice of a portion of what we brew containing alcohol.
There are those who do not consume alcohol or meat within Asatru,
depending on their preference, and who still sacrifice vegetable and juice
offerings. While this is an undocumented aberration away from the
standard historical ritual offerings described in the Sagas and other
references, most people do not take serious issue with it. The deities will
either accept a juice and vegetable offering or not, and of course the people
offering such sustenance as their form of offering are as serious and
devoted about their worship as any.72
Neither RKN nor Bifrost take a firm or absolute position against the
sacrifice of animals in blót, but neither do they feel that a bloodless blót
is in any way inferior, as Curtis also states. This is another example of
the flexibility of modern Nordic Paganism, in which different groups
and members find different ways to accommodate the ways of the past
to the conditions of the present.
Spiritual and Ethnic Meanings
Although only a small proportion of Nordic Pagans actually practice
animal sacrifice, with the majority preferring bloodless, nonviolent rites,
71. Bifrost, “The Asatrufellowship Bifrost,”
.php?option=content&task=view&id=2&Itemid=25 (accessed 6 March 2007).
72. Dave Curtis, email correspondence, 8 November 2004.
Strmiska Putting the Blood back into Blót 179
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the blóts performed by Branga, Smith, Krasskova, and Cyr, and the dozens
of other individuals who have participated in the blóts which these three
organized, demonstrate a continuing, and growing, tradition of Nordic
Pagan animal sacrifice in North America from 2002 to the present. The
next step in this discussion will be to examine the meanings which the
ritual participants ascribe to blót.
In my earlier researches into Ásatrú, I have come to identify two
different strands of meaning in Nordic Paganism, a “spiritual” and an
“ethnic” strand, which I also find in evidence here. In my view, the spiri-
tual thread involves a sense of relationship to greater-than-human beings
such as gods, goddess and land-spirits, as well as a more generalized sense
of overall cosmic unity conceived in Nordic Pagan mythological terms.
The ethnic strand of meanin g concerns a sense of relationship with Nordic
cultural and/or ancestral heritage, which takes different forms depending
on individual circumstances and perspectives. Many Nordic Pagans with
ancestors from one or another area of the Nordic region73 see their Pagan-
ism as an homage to their ancestors and their past life-world, while those
with no direct ancestral links to Nordic forebears value the cultural heri-
tage of the Nordic lands and peoples as the wellspring of the spirituality
and culture that they have chosen to affiliate themselves with.74 Insofar
as modern-day blót is founded upon the commemoration of past ritual
practices of Nordic peoples, the ethnic and spiritual dimensions of blót
are obviously intermingled, but nonetheless amenable to separate
Let us begin with the question of who is worshipped in blót, and then
consider what is thought to be achieved or obtained through the sacrifice.
Branga’s blóts are usually dedicated to Ing Frea or Ingvi Frey, the Anglo-
Saxon equivalent of the Norse god Frey, who is seen as the patron god of
Oðala Acres and New Anglia Theod. However, in the polytheistic tra-
dition of Nordic Paganism, other gods of the pantheon are also understood
to receive honor from the blót. At the June 2007 Litha Blót observed by
73. In this discussion, terminology is again highly problematic. The more precise
term would be Germanic Northern Europe, embracing all those lands dominated by
peoples with Germanic linguistic heritage languages and related cultural heritage;
primarily Scandinavia, Britain, Germany, Iceland, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
There are also, of course, non-Germanic peoples with long histories in Northern
Europe, such as Slavs, Celts, Balts, and Finns, which cautions against simply equating
all of Northern Europe with Germanic culture and tradition.
74. The ethnic and spiritual strands of Nordic Paganism are interwoven in many
ways, as in rites of ancestor worship, wherein one’s ancestors, whether of Scandinavian,
Germanic, Anglo-Saxon origins, or other ethnic roots, come to be honored in the style
of Nordic Pagan worship.
180 The Pomegranate 9.2 (2007)
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the author, the main worship was directed to Frey, but several participants
separately offered worship to the goddess Freya. Smith and Krasskova
likewise worship a variety of Nordic deities, with Krasskova furthermore
venerating the giantess Angurboða.
Is this a do ut des kind of transaction, in which participants expect to
receive specific forms of aid and reward in response to their offerings?
The answer would seem to be both yes and no. The ritual invocation
noted earlier, “From the gods to the earth to us…a gift for a gift,” would
certainly seem to express that expectation. However, in a discussion of
this issue, Branga held back from endorsing such a straightforward or
simplistic interpretation of the ritual transaction. He emphasized rather
that the main point of the blót was to show love and honor to the gods;
in return, the worshippers would hope to receive protection and support
from the gods , but o nly in the mos t gene ral way. That i s to sa y, the main
point of the ritual was to establish or re-establish a respectful relationship
of mutual support and honor, not to present the gods with a shopping
list of requests.75
Branga furthermore expressed his own belief that it was the spirits of
ancestors and local divine beings, the landvaettir or land-spirits of Norse
tradition, who were more likely to provide concrete forms of assistance
than the highest-ranked beings like Oðin, Frey, and Thor. In this matter,
Branga’s views seem to correspond with the understanding of divine
hierarchy in Hinduism, where lesser, locally based deities in the service
of the great, pan-Indian gods like Shiva or Vishnu are thought more
likely to help individual worshippers with their problems than the great
gods themselves. As Sukumari Bhattacharji observes in the conclusion of
The Indian Theogony,
Thus while on the one hand we have a high trinity [Brahma, Vishnu and
Shiva] with obvious metaphysical associations, with cosmic functions of
the first magnitude, and the truly “high” appeal to the imagination and
intellect, on the other hand we have those innumerable “low gods” which
dominate the popular imagination, and the vast majority of the people to
whom gods are chiefly functional and worshipped for the sake of
Applying similar logic to the Nordic gods, Branga observed, “Oðin
has othe r things to do. He is preparing for Ragnarok.77 It’s understandable
75. Ron Branga, interview, 7 June 2007.
76. Sukumari Bhattacharji, The Indian Theogony: A Comparative Study of Indian
Mythology from the Vedas to the Puranas (Chambersburg, PA: Anima Publications,
1988), 361.
77. In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is the cataclysmic battle in which the gods are
Strmiska Putting the Blood back into Blót 181
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that he might not have time to think about me.”
In Branga’s statements about the meaning of the blót, we can see both
the spiritual and the ethnic dimensions of Paganism coming into play.
As important as it is to honor the gods—the spiritual dimension—it is
equally important to honor them in a very particular way, recreating the
same kind of ritual procedure practiced by Anglo-Saxon worshippers of
the past—the ethnic dimension, which for Branga resonates with his
own English ancestry. In my past profile of Smith, he reported a similar
motivation to carry on the ways of his Swedish forebears.78
The fact that both Branga, with his Anglo-Saxon ethnic focus, and
Smith with his Swedish one, can participate side by side in the selfsame
ritual events demonstrates how the ethnic basis of Nordic Paganism is
both broad and flexible. This is also in keeping with historical accuracy.
The Pagan peoples of Germanic Northern Europe did not exist in self-
enclosed ethnic bubbles, but were constantly moving and mixing with
each other and with other peoples as well, most famously in the Viking
era.79 Th e sam e pan theo n of g ods a nd th e sam e re ligiou s prac tices can be
recognized across Germanic Northern Europe, despite variations, and
this allows for an easy interchangeability80 among Modern Nordic
Pagans of different ethnic orientations, including those whose devotion
to Norse-Germanic spiritual heritage is elective, not ancestral.81
As regards the spiritual dimension of sacrifice, Krasskova expresses
slain and the world is destroyed, then recreated. The fullest version of the battle is
given in the Eddic poem Voluspá (The Prophecy of the Völva). Some Nordic Pagans,
such as Mike Smith, see this prophecy as a warning about the possible consequences
of humankind’s destructive tendencies, rather than a prediction of inevitable doom.
78. The intermixing of ethnic and spiritual motivations, indeed their inseparability,
is pointedly expressed in a numinous dream which led Smith to embrace Ásatrú as
his spiritual path. The god Odin asked Smith what he had done to honor his ancestors,
and chided him for ignoring them. See Strmiska and Sigurvinsson, “Asatru: Nordic
Paganism in Iceland and America,” 155-56, for a fuller account.
79. Danes invaded England and Normandy, Norwegians colonized Iceland and
Ireland, and Swedes traded and settled in western Russia and Ukraine. A still earlier
Germanic invasion of England brought the Angles and Saxons and resulted in the
English language. The cultural artifacts left to us by the Pagan peoples of Germanic
Northern Europe demonstrate substantial interaction and intermingling, both with
other Germanic-language peoples and other peoples as well, as well as substantial
continuity and commonality. See Dubois, Nordic Religions in the Viking Age.
80. The Norse god Oðin was known by the Anglo-Saxon Pagans as Woden, for
81. This issue of Nordic Pagans without Nordic or Germanic ancestry, who embrace
the heritage out of personal interest, is discussed in Strmiska and Sigurvinsson,
“Asatru: Nordic Paganism in Iceland and America,” 134-37.
182 The Pomegranate 9.2 (2007)
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similar ideas to those of Branga and Smith, except for her worship of the
giantess Angurboða. Discussing her feelings about the blót to Woden
that she performed at Oðala Acres, Krasskova stated,
As a woman and priest very deeply dedicated to Woden, it was a joy to
give Him this sacrifice. I believe that within the traditional blót, the
quintessent ial nature of the Heathen relationship to the Gods is distilled: it
is reciprocal. Gifts given out of love show our thanks for blessings received
from our Elder Kin (i.e. the Gods). We give that which nourishes us and
are nourished in return. It is a celebration of our connection both in life and
in death with the Gods.82
In her primer on Modern Nordic Paganism, Krasskova relates the reci-
procity aspect of blót to traditional Germanic attitudes of social propriety,
noting that gift-giving was highly valued as a means of creating and
maintaining social bonds.83 Blót extends the gift-giving network to the
gods, in the hope that they will provide blessings in exchange for the
animals offered them.
Another meaning of b lót, which pertains to both the ethnic and spirit ual
dimensions, is a strong desire, expressed by all the blót practitioners
consulted for this research, to step back from modern humankind’s overly
sanitized and mechanized relationship to the production and consump-
tion of food, and to restore, if only temporarily, the pre-industrial way of
life of our ancestors, in which the meat that would be consumed came by
hunting in the wild or the slaughter of one’s own livestock.84 As noted
earlier, all the blót rituals described in this article occurred on farms. In
this way, the Modern Nordic Pagan practice of blót is of a piece with
other cultural movements that seek to restore harmony with nature, with
the exception that sacrificing Pagans see animal slaughter as part of the
natural order, and indeed of the divine order, for in Norse mythology,
the creation of the universe comes about through an original, primal
sacrifice of the cosmic being Ymir, as noted at the beginning of the
The Nordic Pagans interviewed in this article also expressed the view
that the direct participation in death involved in blót was for them an
intensely sobering and moving spiritual experience, juxtaposing the
animals’ loss of life with the appeal to the gods as the source of life,
which they felt amounted to a poignant demonstration of death and
82. Galina Krasskova, personal communication, 16 May 2007.
83. Strmiska and Sigurvinsson, “Asatru: Nordic Paganism in Iceland and
America,” 148-49.
84. Jon Cyr was quite eloquent on this point in discussion at the Litha Blót at
Oðala Acres, 30 June 2007 .
Strmiska Putting the Blood back into Blót 183
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renewal. Branga and Smith expressed disgust about a blót they had
observed, performed by a different Pagan group, in which the animal
was dispatched with great brutality, and then its head paraded around
atop a spear, like a trophy.85 They felt that this was a horribly mishandled
ritual that could even bring harm on the recipients, as they imagined it
would be terribly displeasing to the gods.
Theories of Sacrifice and Modern Nordic Pagans
Of the various theoretical models of sacrifice noted earlier, some seem
highly pertinent to Modern Nordic Pagans’ revival of animal sacrifice,
others far less so. Edward Tylor’s view of basic reciprocity is, as we have
seen, fully endorsed by our sacrificers. Robertson Smith’s idea of a meal
of communion between worshippers and their gods also corresponds
very well to how Branga, Smith, and Krasskova all conceive of blót.
Robertson Smith’s idea of the ritual involving the sacrifice of a special,
“totemic” animal is not borne out, however, as our three sacrificers do
not view specific animals as being required for worship to specific
gods,86 and the broader community of Nordic Pagans accepts the
validity of bloodless offerings, and may even prefer them.
The Durkheimian view of sacrifice as functioning to re-affirm social
bonds between a community of believers and articulate a sacred order
separate from the profane world of daily life also applies quite readily.
The small bands of worshippers who assemble on isolated farms for
animal sacrifice are well aware of forming a special community apart
from the general society, and their ritual procedures augment the sense
of reaching toward divinity that is beyond the normal order of things.
The phases of blót ritual also demonstrate the process of building up to a
moment of high drama and spiritual intensity and then stepping down
from that peak, as variously noted by Hubert, Mauss and Turner in their
studies of ritual process.
85. I have also heard tell of this blót from another informant who attended the
event and reached a similar negative verdict on the inappropriate handling of the
animal victim. Name withheld, personal communication, 16 May 2007.
86. David Curtis, a Nordic Pagan cited earlier, provided a list of particular animals
described in Old Norse literature and Germanic folklore as being sacrificed to particular
gods. “Horse meat is associated with Odin (Woden [En], Wotan [De]), goat meat with
Thorr (Thunor [En], Donar [De]) etc. Other deities such as Freyja have animals
associated with them which we do not eat (for instance Freyja’s animal is the
cat.)…Freyja has a brother Freyr, whose associated animal is the boar.” Personal
communication, 8 November 2004. The Modern Nordic Pagan sacrificers contacted in
this research are not, however, following such a strict taxonomy of sacrificial victims.
184 The Pomegranate 9.2 (2007)
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The mythocentric view of ritual espoused by Mircea Eliade and the
myth-ritual school of Jane Harrison and others do not match very well
with the practices examined here. Our sacrificers do not model their
action on any particular myth, not even the creation myth with its dis-
membering of the primal being Ymir noted at the outset, though the
members of Raven Kindred North do make explicit reference to this
mythical sacrifice. Myths explain the natures, functions and personalities
of the gods who are honored in blót, but it is mainly later texts of
historical or semi-historical nature that provide the nitty-gritty informa-
tion about sacrificial procedure from wh ich our Nordic Pagans reconstruct
their blóts, though even quasi-historical texts like the Icelandic sagas and
theHeimskringla leave major gaps, which Modern Nordic Pagans fill with
their own creative adaptations.
René Girard’s theory of sacrificial ritual revolving around the com-
memoration and concealment of a conflictual drama of primal murder,
with the animal offering taking the place of a human victim, also does
not seem to apply with much resonance to the practices here documented,
though the dismemberment of Ymir by three brother gods in the Norse
creation myth would seem tailor-made for a Girardian analysis. Our
Pagan sacrificers approach the task of sacrifice with calmness and
solemnity, and it is difficult to find any traces of intense rivalry or bitter
conflict in their fairly peaceful collaborations.
Burkert’s v ision of animal sacrifice as a privileged vestige of prehistoric
hunting culture seems much more to the point. Just as Burkert sees the
violence of hunting as providing a crucial stimulus to humankind’s early
cultural development, with animal sacrifice providing a way of re-
experiencing the primal energies of that original breakthrough, our
Nordic Pagan sacrificers see the violence of blót as a catalyst for the
recovery of the Pagan spirituality and Nordic cultural heritage of the
past.87 For our Nordic Pagan sacrificers, the sacredness of the past, of the
spiritual traditions of the past, justifies the violence of the blót.
However, when we consider that the blót is a fairly placid procedure,
with a tame animal treated with kindness to ensure its tranquility up to
the moment of its death, we can also see the relevance of Jonathan Z.
Smith’s notion of animal sacrifice as a stylized, sacralized version of
hunting: a hunt in which nothing can go wrong, which provides partici-
87. There are, in fact, Modern Nordic Pagans in the United States who go beyond
the relatively tame process of blót sacrifice to hunt animals in a ritualized manner. See
the profile of Mitch Zebrowski and the discussion of the Brotherhood of the Sacred
Hunt in Strmiska and Sigurvinsson, “Asatru: Nordic Paganism in Iceland and
America,” 152-55.
Strmiska Putting the Blood back into Blót 185
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pants with fresh encouragement to face the uncertainties of actual
reality. For Modern Nordic Pagans, performing the blót bolsters their
sense of dedication to revitalizing the ethnic and spiritual heritage of the
Nordic Pagans of the past, while living in a Christian majority society
that is generally hostile to such endeavors.
Retrospective Religion
Insofar as animal sacrifice is distasteful to the majority population of
America and other similarly industrialized countries, the embrace of
animal sacrifice in Modern Nordic Paganism might seem to be a quite
radical undertaking. I would argue that what is truly radical is not the
blót-killing of animals per se, but the larger context of that controversial
action, that is, the serious and sustained dedication to exploring, imagin-
ing, and recreating past Pagan religious traditions of Germanic Northern
Europe. Of course, this is not wholly different from what all religions do
in seeking to recapture inspirations from the past, whether we look at
Christians desirous of ethical guidance wondering “what would Jesus
do?,” Muslims studying the hadith to see how the Prophet Muhammad
and his companions behaved, or Buddhists who take the life of Siddhartha
Gautama as their model for progress on the Buddhist path.
What distinguishes Modern Nordic Paganism, as well as other forms
of Reconstructionist Paganism, is the self-conscious understanding on
the part of its practitioners that they are not simply continuing an
existing religion, well-represented and easily accessible in society; they
are reviving a form of religion that has not been freely practiced, but
rather prohibited and repressed, and for all intents and purposes dead
for many centuries. This revival marks Modern Nordic Paganism as a
distinctly postmodern religion88 in which the truth and authority of the
tradition cannot simply be taken for granted and followed semi-
consciously or unconsciously, as with a firmly entrenched, majority
religion that enjoys a large degree of hegemony in its social context.
Modern Nordic Pagans choose to reject the dominant re ligious paradigms
of their societies and to instead consciously affiliate themselves with a
88. The author apologizes for the infelicitous clash of terminology in declaring a
“modern” religion to be “postmodern.” Insofar as Modern Paganism has its roots in
nineteenth -century romanticism, in response to the upheavals of industrialization and
colonialism, it truly is modern, but as the late twentieth and early twenty-first
centuries are the period in which this religious movement is gathering strength,
amidst an atmosphere in which the collapse of traditional authority structures has
created an open playing field for new religio us possibilities, it is also riding the waves
of the postmodern cultural moment.
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religious tradition that they know has been crushed, fragmented, and
nearly erased by the forces of history. Their decision to dedicate them-
selves to reviving this ghostly, marginal, vestigial religion of a distant and
not wholly accessible past may be viewed as an act of spiritual resistance
against social forces that they find oppressive, particularly the still largely
hegemonic power of Christianity in Western society, but also various
aspects of modernization that they find problematic, such as alienation
from basic realities such as land, nature, and the inevitability of death.
The blót stands out as an especially striking expression of this spirit of
opposition. The bloody sacrifice of a real animal is a bracing, fully
embodied encounter with real life and real death, rejecting the manifold
substitutions, distractions, and evasions that are all but inevitable in our
modern industrialized world where “virtual,” digital reality sometimes
seems to crowd out actual, physical reality. The setting of the blót on
farmsteads likewise rejects the dominant urban and suburban lifestyle in
favor of an older, rawer, and more rustic way of life that is closer to
nature and more dependent upon it, thus bolstering the Pagan sense of
reliance on divine powers that are closely linked to the forces of nature.
This is in turn a rejection of the fundamental meta-narrative of modernity,
the belief in inevitable and unending scientific and social progress. The
question is raised, the gauntlet thrown down, that not all progress may
have been to our actual benefit; perhaps there are things of the past that
were forgotten and rejected that now need to be remembered an d revived.
While it seems unlikely that all latter-day Nordic Pagans will forsake
their urban and suburban lives and relocate to remote, rural areas, to live
on farms, raise chickens, goats, and pigs, and practice animal sacrifice
blót, there is every reason to expect that the blót, and its rural setting,
will continue to have a special, prestigious meaning in the thinking of
Nordic Pagans, giving powerful, physical expression to the spiritual
values of this simultaneously old-and-new religious tradition and thus
facilitating its continuing reconstruction, revitalization, and adaptation.
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... Gardell (2003) categorizes Germanic neopaganism along the lines of spiritual (disconnected from ancestry), ethnic (linked to Nordic/Germanic ancestry), and racial (exclusive to those of Nordic/Germanic origin), thus arguing that almost all practitioners must, at a minimum, grapple with the issue of ethnicity when considering questions of faith and community. The two most popular strains in Germanic neopaganism are revival movements which make claims to honoring historical practices of the 'ancestors': Á satrú, a Scandinavian-centric religion based on the Eddas and worshipping Norse gods, and Wotanism, a 'continental' variant associated with the same gods, but lacking the 'Viking' connection (see Blain, 2005;Strmiska, 2007). Variants of reconstructed Germanic paganism have found fertile ground around the globe from the Czech Republic to South Africa, though in each locale belief systems tend to manifest a particular geoideological orientation, e.g. ...
... Such convocations can often invoke the sacred, yet in their essence these interactions are about crafting 'safe' geographies where communalism (in its most positive sense) reigns. Nordic neopaganism places a strong emphasis on such events, particularly the blo´t ('sacrifice') and sumbl ('banquet'), which are specifically designed to build bonds among the community, and has worked well in North America where vibrant communities of Germanic neopagans of many stripes gather together for boasting sessions, mead-brewing, and other 'Viking-lite' pursuits (Strmiska, 2007). ...
... Ascribing the prefix neo-to paganism is controversial in some academic circles, principally due to respondents' discomfort with being labeled as a novel sect when their traditions are closely linked to millenniaold practices (see Strmiska, 2007). Other appellations such as modern or contemporary paganism would therefore suffer from the same deficiencies, despite the claims of some authors. ...
Focused on religiogeographic practices in contemporary western paganism (neopaganism), this paper aims to fill a gap in the existing literature through a critical assessment of how neopagans imagine, delimitate, and interact with space, place, and territory. Employing a novel categorization of religious space along four overlapping geographies (numinous, poetic, social, and political), this essay addresses the need for geographers to produce publicly relevant studies that analyze religiously rooted ideologies and define cultural interpretations of places, terrains, and landscapes. Furthermore, I put forth a tentative research agenda for subsequent studies of how neopagans conceive of and interact with real and imagined geographies.
... The rituals I focus on in this study are Heathen gifting rituals, which include making offerings to various entities and the ritual known as sumbel. Practitioners give offerings to deities during blót, a formal ritual that is central to Heathen practice (see Strmiska 2007, Calico 2018, 7 and also make other less formal offerings. Historically blót included animal sacrifice as an offering shared with deities and/or ancestors, but animal sacrifice is rare in contemporary practice. ...
... Although both sources inspire the reconstruction of tradition in contemporary Heathenry, like the story of Ymir's sacrifice, the story of the sacrifice of Balder is not referenced in the procession of Nerthus at Raven's Knoll. 102 For discussion of animal sacrifice in Heathen blót rituals, see Strmiska (2007). Recent treatments of sacrifice more broadly suggest that it does not necessarily make sense to try to interpret all sacrifice as a singular phenomenon that has universal features or meaning. ...
This work investigates what motivates environmental action through developing a case study on how ecological conscience forms in the ritual practices of a new religious movement. I conducted a two-year ethnographic study with a community of contemporary Heathens in eastern and southwestern Ontario to investigate how ritual practices are related to the formation of conscience in the group. I used participant observation and interviews to investigate how ritual is related to conscience formation, and how it can generate a sense of obligation to others, including nonhuman others. I draw on social psychology (especially terror management theory), cognitive science, anthropology, ritual studies, and philosophy to describe and interpret three ritual practices, each of which involve some sort of gift giving. First I discuss high sumbel, a ritual of sharing drinks and giving gifts, then Dísablót, an example of ancestor veneration in which offerings (a type of gift) are given to the dead, and finally the procession of Nerthus, in which offerings are made to a figure participants understand as a power of nature associated with a particular bioregion. I find that giving gifts and expressing thanks in ritual inspires a sense of gratitude and a desire to give in turn in participants. Among these Heathens this gratitude and felt sense of obligation extends beyond human relations to include the more than human world. When one gives a gift one develops an appreciation for what one has already received, and when ritual activities include things that make participants aware of their mortality, the values that come to mind during the activity can be operationalized. In this case, values of inclusion, gratitude, sharing, and generosity are reinforced through ritual practice and influence participants’ dispositions, attitudes, and habitual behaviours.
... hierzu etwa die antagonistischen Positionen von Gutman (1990), S. 432 und 439 ("amazing, that Parsifal was ever considered a Christian work") und Reinhardt (1979) 157 Wagner, Parsifal 2,967-973. 158 des kranken Gralskönigs ermöglicht, der durch eine Berührung der blutenden Wunde mit der nunmehr ebenfalls blutenden Waffe geheilt wird -man bemerkt den Rückgriff auf die Longinussage -und an dessen Stelle der bereits durch Gurnemanz gesalbte Parsifal als neuer und würdigerer König, aber immer noch als Mensch und nicht etwa transzendenter "Erlöser-Ersatz", 160 treten wird: "Den heil'gen Speer -/ ich bring' ihn euch zurück! / (Alles blickt in höchster Entzückung auf den emporgehaltenen Speer, zu dessen Spitze aufschauend Parsifal in Begeisterung fortfährt.) ...
... Klingsor: "Halt da! Dich bann ich mit der rechten Wehr: / Den Toren stell' mir seines Meisters Speer!" Parsifal: "Mit diesem Zeichen bann' ich deinen Zauber: / wie die Wunde er schließe, / die mit ihm du schlugest, -/ in Trauer und Trümmer / stürze er die trügende Pracht!" 157In diesem Lichte ist auch der Umgang Wagners mit dem Mitleidsgedanken Wolframs hochgradig bedeutsam. Während sich nämlich Parsifal im mittelalterlichen Gralsroman dadurch versündigt, dass er aus falscher Scham vor der Bloßstellung eigener Unwissenheit es unterlässt, Amfortas nach dem Grund seines Leidens zu fragen und somit sein christliches Mitleid zu bekunden, ist es bei Wagner nicht das Fehlen der Frage, sondern das Fehlen des Gefühls, welches im Zentrum steht, was dadurch ersichtlich wird, dass Wagner bereits 1859 die Mitleidsfrage als so ganz abgeschmackt und völlig bedeutungslos bezeichnet.158 Somit steht am Ende der Oper auch nicht die rituelle Stellung der zu Anfang unterlassenen "Frage"; 159 vielmehr ist es allein die nach langer Zeit der Prüfung gefestigte Entsagung und damit die gelungene Rückführung des heiligen Speers zur Gralsburg, welche die innere Reinheit Parsifals bekundet und dadurch die Genesung154 Vgl. ...
... While the revival of ancient religious practices involving animal slaughter and the consumption of their meat are on the rise in Israel and elsewhere (e.g., Strmiska 2007;Arumugam 2015;Perez 2016), veganism in its many forms and measures has also become increasingly popular throughout the world (Budgar 2017;Lundahl 2020;Sexton, Garnett, and Lorimer 2022). Indeed in Israel, where public consumption of meat is celebrated as an expression of national sentiment (Avieli 2013), veganism has been steeply on the ascent (Gvion 2021). ...
This, the first article in our co-edited Thematic Issue, “Eating Religiously: Food and Faith in the 21st Century“ introduces Food, Culture and Society readers to the intriguing research questions posed by the volume’s authors, who discussed these with us in a novel Israel Science Foundation-sponsored international conference at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in May 2019. We open this Introduction by presenting a contemporary paradox in which demands for resurrecting ancient animal sacrifices and encouraging the re-traditionalization of religious practices coexist with the growing influence of ecological, climate change and animal rights advocates’ pressures to ban such sacrifices and embrace veganism. After adding a brief overview of the growing anthropological subfield of Food and Religion, we set out the main concepts that guide the structure of this volume and explicate the social, cultural and political importance that considerations of eating religiously bring to bear in the 21st century.
... 2002 einige, doch innerhalb der "Szene" durchaus einflussreiche Akteure erneut rituelle Tieropfer durchführen. Diese werden zumeist von Asatru-Farmern abgehalten, wobei die Tiere zunächst rituell den Göttern geweiht und anschließend (in Ermangelung praktischer Erfahrungen der Ausübenden im Ausbluten) einfach erschossen werden (Strmiska 2007). Aus Gründen des Tierschutzes ist diese Praxisform jedoch selbst in den USA keineswegs unumstritten. ...
... Therefore, the animals typically present for ritual sacrifices and blessings are tame (i.e., not wild). Even the Siberian bear sacrifice ritual is performed with a bear cub rather than an adult wild bear, which signifies the importance of domesticated behavioral characteristics in animal participants of rituals (Strmiska 2007). ...
Long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) at temple sites in Bali may be considered sacred because of the presence of monkeys in Hindu texts or through their association with sacred temple spaces. Using an ethnoprimatological approach, our research goal was to further explain how primates become sacred by exploring differences in perceptions of primate sacredness between Balinese Hindus living in Bali and those living in transmigrant communities in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Structured face-to-face interviews were conducted with 100 individuals from three transmigrant communities regarding their relationship with local booted macaques (Macaca ochreata). We found that the majority of transmigrants did not consider booted macaques sacred. Reasons given for this lack of sacredness included the absence of macaques in and around transmigrant temple sites, as well as generally unhabituated and destructive behavior. Our research also helps explain perceptions of macaque sacredness in Bali. We demonstrate how macaque sacredness cannot be viewed through a singular lens; rather, it is multifaceted, deriving from the convergence of multiple factors and contexts. The presence of long-tailed macaques in temple sites during rituals, their habituated (i.e., peaceful) behavior during those rituals, and a landscape of social engagement between humans and macaques in Bali contribute to their perceived sacredness.
Primary data gathering for this work included participant observation research at the procession of Nerthus at Well and Tree Gathering in May of 2018 and 2019 at Raven’s Knoll, a privately-owned campground and dedicated Pagan festival site in eastern Ontario. It draws upon a larger research project on inclusive Canadian Heathen ritual practices and environmental values. Well and Tree Gathering includes Pagans of various types, but is largely run by Heathens, and prominently features the Heathen deity Nerthus. Practitioners conduct a reconstructionist revival of the procession of Nerthus based on Tacitus’ description of such events in Germania, which included human sacrifice. Contemporary Heathens revere Nerthus as a primordial power, process her veiled figure through the campground, and give her offerings in a sacred body of water. Giving these offerings operationalizes the values of inclusion and sharing, and contributes to the formation of ecological conscience through relational ontology.
Heathenry, the modern Pagan religion inspired by the Germanic societies of pre-Christian Europe, is broadly divided between those embracing an inclusive, Universalist perspective, and those who favour a racially exclusive, Folkish alternative. This article represents the first academic analysis of Folkish Heathenry in Britain, focusing on the country’s three most visible groups: the Odinic Rite, the Odinist Fellowship, and Woden’s Folk. Examining how they promote themselves online, it explores how these organisations present an extreme right-wing socio-political vision focusing around the centrality of ‘the folk,’ while at the same time professing an officially apolitical stance.
Few issues apply universally to people as poignantly as death and dying. All religions address concerns with death from the handling of human remains, to defining death, to suggesting what happens after life. The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying provides readers with an overview of the study of death and dying. Questions of death, mortality, and more recently of end-of-life care, have long been important ones and scholars from a range of fields have approached the topic in a number of ways. Comprising over fifty-two chapters from a team of international contributors, the companioncovers: funerary and mourning practices; concepts of the afterlife; psychical issues associated with death and dying; clinical and ethical issues; philosophical issues; death and dying as represented in popular culture. This comprehensive collection of essays will bring together perspectives from fields as diverse as history, philosophy, literature, psychology, archaeology and religious studies, while including various religious traditions, including established religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism as well as new or less widely known traditions such as the Spiritualist Movement, the Church of Latter Day Saints, and Raëlianism. The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying is essential reading for students and researchers in religious studies, philosophy and literature. © 2018 selection and editorial matter, Christopher M. Moreman. All rights reserved.
The position I favor (the “rights view”) prioritizes the moral rights of individuals when it comes to our moral thinking. Some defining features of these rights are explained; reasons for recognizing them in the case of humans are advanced; and arguments for extending them to other-than-human animals are sketched. Several objections are considered, including those that dispute the rights view’s alleged inability to explain (1) the amorality of predator-prey relations and (2) our obligations to preserve rare and endangered species.
Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928) was a pioneer in the academic study of myth in its historical and archaeological context, and was also one of the first women to make a full-time career as an academic. In her introduction to this book (1903), making the point that 'Greek religion' was usually studied using the surviving literary retellings of myths and legends, she states: 'The first preliminary to any scientific understanding of Greek religion is a minute examination of its ritual'. Using the then emerging disciplines of anthropology and ethnology, she demonstrates that the specific mythological tales of the Greeks embody systems of belief or philosophy which are not unique to Greek civilisation but which are widespread among societies both 'primitive' and 'advanced'. Her work was enormously influential not only on subsequent scholars of Greek religion but in the wider fields of literature, anthropology and psychoanalysis.
This founding work of the history of religions, first published in English in 1954, secured the North American reputation of the Romanian émigré-scholar Mircea Eliade (1907-1986). Making reference to an astonishing number of cultures and drawing on scholarship published in no less than half a dozen European languages, Eliade's The Myth of the Eternal Return makes both intelligible and compelling the religious expressions and activities of a wide variety of archaic and "primitive" religious cultures. While acknowledging that a return to the "archaic" is no longer possible, Eliade passionately insists on the value of understanding this view in order to enrich our contemporary imagination of what it is to be human. Jonathan Z. Smith's new introduction provides the contextual background to the book and presents a critical outline of Eliade's argument in a way that encourages readers to engage in an informed conversation with this classic text.