A current trending topic among friends and colleagues is the discussion of sacrifice and its place in religious practice. Far more eloquent people than myself have said some excellent things. I’ve been asked to share my own thoughts, and I’d like to offer an excerpt on this topic from a book I wrote a couple of years ago as my response. It’s still as relevant now as it was then, or when I was asked to speak on a panel about the topic at PantheaCon last February. It’s a long read, but I think it will be helpful.
Excerpted from HAITIAN VODOU, Chapter 3: Sacrifices in Vodou
Getting back to Haitian Vodou, we address perhaps the largest confusion and/or controversy that outsiders to the tradition will confront: the nature of sacrifice, and particularly animal sacrifice. The Lwa of Haitian Vodou request, and are given, many things as offerings or gifts as part of their ceremonies and service. Some Lwa want special candles or tangible objects like perfume, mirrors, or drums. Some Lwa might demand various drinks, from cool water to fiery kleren (pronounced kleh-REN, a high-proof, raw rum). Still other Lwa want various kinds of foods including fruits, vegetables, fancy pastries, breads, candies, and specially prepared dinners. Very few of our Lwa are vegetarians, and most of our Lwa eat meat, just as most Vodouisants eat meat. Remember that the practice of vegetarianism, or other decisions about what to eat or not eat, are generally considered luxuries in a country where food shortages and famines are far too frequent.
Because most of Haiti is rural, or possesses substandard infrastructure compared to what most people living in the industrialized world would consider standard, even now there are no grocery stores with gleaming packages of pre-cut, pre-cleaned meat products to bring home and offer to the Lwa. In many places in Haiti, reliable refrigeration is sporadic or impossible for various reasons. Even in Port-au-Prince, people often live as they did in the United States before the advent of iceboxes and butcher cuts: they hunt or fish and/or raise their own meat animals, then are personally responsible for killing, cleaning, cooking, and eating any animals or fish they consume.
This is important to remember when confronted with what might seem to be a cruel practice of killing animals as part of a Haitian Vodou ceremony. Still photographs of thrashing animals and people or Lwa covered in blood do not convey the entire context of animal sacrifice in Haitian Vodou. They only heighten the sense of the lurid, and give credence to sensational rumors started during the Marine occupation of Haiti’s early 20th Century. To see some of these images might make one very well believe that Haitians carve up animals (or, Bondye forbid, humans!), gleefully splash blood all over the temples for their evil, bloodthirsty spirits, and then just toss the carcasses aside, if one doesn’t know any better.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
Any animal that is given as a sacrifice in a Haitian Vodou ceremony, for any reason, has been raised for that purpose: to be a special gift and a messenger to Bondye and the spirits from the people who offer the sacrifice. It has been treated with respect, and the full understanding that this animal will give up its life and its very body for a sacred act. Animal sacrifice in Haitian Vodou is a special and generally uncommon event: not every Vodou ceremony contains an animal sacrifice, and in fact, over my decade as a mambo thus far, I can count the number of sacrificed animals I have seen, or assisted in ceremonies for, on two hands. Especially in the practice of Haitian Vodou outside Haiti, where we have access to meat that doesn’t necessarily require us to slaughter animals personally, the number of animal sacrifices that are incorporated in a Vodou ceremony is low; even in Haiti, it is a special occasion.
A sacrificial animal is not only raised in a respectful, humane manner. It will be treated with great dignity before, during, and after the ceremony where it will be sacrificed. It will be washed, sometimes more than once, by the participants in the ceremony, and decorated with special objects, flowers, or sometimes even paint or makeup in preparation for its part in the service. The mambo or houngan who is responsible for the actual slaughter of the animal is trained in butchery; their object is to kill the animal with as little suffering or pain as possible, and every effort is made to secure a swift, respectful death for the designated animal.
Before most sacrifices, special food is set out before the animal; if it does not eat or drink of the special food, the animal will not be sacrificed, as its non-participation is taken as a sign that it is not willing to give its consent to be killed. Sometimes, the Lwa to whom an animal has been dedicated will come personally, via trance possession, to slaughter and thus receive its offering. Once the animal is killed – which again, contrary to still photographs, is not dwelled upon or made into anything any more gory than the reality of butchery requires (do you really think pieces of meat in the grocery store were always so bloodless?) – a group of hounsi swiftly carry the animal off to be prepared as food, while others clean the peristil. Nothing of the animal is or will be wasted or thrown away, as a life has just been given to the spirits, and to waste it would be an offense not only to the spirits, but also to the spirit and body of the sacrificed animal itself. There are a very few, rare circumstances where an animal will be killed without anyone eating from its meat, but these involve an animal permitting itself to be offered as a spiritual stand-in for an individual. Such a circumstance might occur if, for example, a child was near death, and a Lwa indicated that if an animal can be found to replace that child, he or she will recover. In those situations where animal sacrifice does occur in Haitian Vodou, almost universally the animal is then served as part of a communal meal to the sosyete that offered it, in honor of its sacrifice.
Some people find the idea of animal sacrifice abhorrent, no matter how many explanations or assurances are offered. Others are accepting of the practice, but afraid that if they become involved in Haitian Vodou they might be asked to kill an animal themselves, and are unwilling or unready to consider that. I can reassure you here, perhaps, on both concepts by saying two things.
As for the practice, it is exactly like the common Christian or Neopagan practice of praying over one’s meat before a meal; the only difference is that as Vodouisants, we pray over the meat before we cook it, and even before we kill the animal to provide that meat. In that way, we are directly thanking the animal personally responsible for our food. People who have a connection to what they eat are far less likely to disrespect it. It is difficult to waste meat when you know precisely where it came from, and what had to happen to get it to your table. One of the saddest side-effects of modern life is that we often have a greater mental and spiritual disconnect from the things we live on and with, including the plants and animals who provide our nourishment, because we are no longer responsible for the daily work of getting our food from the fields and into our stomachs. It becomes impossible to disconnect yourself from the circle of life when you are confronted with an animal whose blood is symbolically, or even perhaps literally, on your hands.
After reading this, you may still have personal objections to the practice of animal sacrifice, in Haitian Vodou or elsewhere. I respect your objections, and am happy to report that I have never known any Vodouisant in or out of Haiti to be forced to participate in animal sacrifice against his or her will, nor do I ever expect it to happen. If one had an issue with the process, it is a simple thing to not train as a butcher, and thus never be asked to perform a sacrifice. Many Lwa accept manje-sèk, or “dry food” (food that doesn’t involve meat or blood), and I am aware of vegetarian and vegan Vodouisants who are able to give manje-sèk to various Lwa without any repercussions. The Lwa are probably far more understanding of these concepts than humans are.
Excerpted from Haitian Vodou: An Introduction to Haiti’s Indigenous Spiritual Tradition, by Mambo Chita Tann. Copyright 2012, all rights reserved. Used with permission. Please do not copy this excerpt without permission.