Blót can be a terrible and terrifying thing – terrible in the older sense of the word: awe-inspiring, fear-inducing, and holy precisely because if done well, it places us directly in the sight of the Gods. It opens a door and creates a bond. It allows us to stand, for however long we engage in the rite, in that liminal space that begs and beckons to be filled with the presence of the Powers. It calls to Them with an urgency beyond the every day. Blót is a powerful point of connection, a tremendously sacred act. It’s equally terrifying because of its very sacral nature. There is no room for error, no room for hesitation, no room for ego or anything else that might stand between the blótere and the act of sacrifice.(2) This, unlike any other ritual that we may choose to do, must be enacted with clean, uncompromising precision. Too much is at stake spiritually to do otherwise.
Leaving aside questions of whether or not the Gods want this type of sacrifice (obviously I believe They do, and certainly our lore attests to the fact that this was common amongst our ancestors, plus I have seen the blessings attendant on a well-executed blót and the bane that comes from one done disrespectfully) I am going to discuss the process of this ritual, specifically the internal process and preparation necessary to see it through successfully.
I have been a blótere for close to twenty years. I learned the technical skills first from diligent study and the assistance of a Santerian friend. Then later I was able to observe other blót priests in action during my time both with Ironwood Kindred and New Anglia Theod. The observation was almost as important as the actual training that preceded it.(3) Blót is not a private thing. It is a community offering, a communal rite regardless of whether the sacrificed animal is given over completely to the Gods or shared in sacred feast amongst the folk. At its best it is a community experience of the holy. That being said, the act of slaughtering an animal is not one that most of us have seen close up. We do not live in a culture that has regular contact with every part of the cycle of preparing food for the table. Few of us raise and butcher our own livestock anymore. It can be an emotional shock to contemplate standing with a small group of people and consciously witnessing the killing of an animal. It doesn’t matter that the killing is quick and painless, far more painless I might add then the way animals are commercially slaughtered in food production, it can still be quite an emotional shock. Therefore, I think it’s important to see this act done in a respectful and sacred way. It helps immensely in finding the proper headspace when the time comes to make such an offering oneself. Since I reached a point as a priest (and householder) where I could afford to make blót, I have tried to make some sort of sacrificial offering yearly at the two Solstices—especially at Yule, which I connect strongly to Odin. Regardless of my training and experience, I am terrified and often nervous and sick to my stomach each and every time I take up the sacrificial knife, utterly terrified. (Of course, I’ve learned over the years not to show that anxiety to the other attendees gathered, lest it make them equally uncomfortable.) It never changes and I think that’s good. I think that anyone taking upon themselves the responsibility for making blót should be terrified. We should never get to the point where we can rest on our proverbial laurels. That way lies error and ultimately a bungled ritual and if a blót is bungled not only might it negatively affect one’s luck and wyrd, but an innocent animal might suffer and that, to my mind, is sacrilege. .
Doing a good blót isn’t just a technical act. It’s not just about making all the physical preparations, treating the animal well and ensuring a quick and painless kill, though those things are all very important. Over and above those necessary preparations, having the proper attitude is fundamental. I believe that humility, compassion, and most of all personal detachment are absolutely necessary for the blótere to be spiritually clean. There’s no room for hesitation caused by nervousness or emotion. There’s no room for that sentimentality which is really nothing more than ego or attention seeking couched as an emotional response. At the moment of sacrifice the blótere is the least important thing in the entire ritual. We are technicians and any personal emotional responses should be saved for later. Nothing, and I mean nothing can interfere with clean execution of one’s sacral duty. In blót, that means nothing can interfere with getting oneself out of the way and making the requisite sacrifice cleanly and respectfully. No one should be focused on the priest and his or her emotional response to the matter at hand. The focus should be on offering the animal in question to the Gods and creating that moment of sacred connection. The focus should be on reaching out to the Powers.
I have a whole process that I go through before I actually step into the sacred space to perform a blót. Now this is my process and it works for me. At some point in their training (and I sincerely hope there is actually training), each blótere is going to have find his or her own way of getting into the proper, respectful frame of mind, and managing what can be the intensely strong emotions – both in oneself and one’s fellow attendees—inherent in performing a blót. My preparations actually begin several days before the scheduled time of the ritual. I fast and cleanse via both cleansing baths and burning recels.(4) I will spend part of each day praying and meditating, preparing myself to enter into that detached headspace so necessary for me to function in this type of ritual. None of my own issues, fears, feelings, or anything else can be allowed to touch the moment of blót. Once I step into that sacred space and take up the ritual knife, I am there as a conduit, a vessel for the holy, a technician, and nothing of my human failings can be allowed to intrude. I must be absolutely and utterly clean. So for several days prior to the rite, I will meditate and also run through in my mind the technical process and structure of the ritual over and over again so I don’t make any mistakes.
On the day of the rite, I take a cleansing bath and make sure that whatever I am wearing to the ritual is spotless. I do this out of respect for the Gods: that I not come before the Powers with poor hygiene!(5) Then I spend more time praying and meditating, grounding and centering, and most importantly of all, I divine. I throw runes and take omens. I check and double check that it is ok to do the blót, that I, the animal, and everything else is acceptable to the Gods. Before the ritual I bless my knife, I bless my garb, I bless my blót bowl. If it’s there and about to be used in the rite, I’m probably blessing it. Of course I bless and pamper the animal too and thank it for its sacrifice.(6) I also divine on what should be done with the animal once it has been killed.
Now I’ve often been chastised for occasionally giving the entire sacrifice to the Gods, instead of butchering and cooking up the animal for the assembled folk after the rite. Sometimes, if divination (or a Deity directly) indicates during my preparations that such a thing is desired, I will place the carcass in a bonfire for total immolation (or, if a fire is not possible, bury it or place it at the base of one of my Godpoles). I do not assume that the animal will always be cooked and shared with the folk after the blót. Neither do I assume that it will always be given completely to the Gods. Often They are content with the life-force, the blood, and perhaps a portion of the meat. I always check, then double and even triple check beforehand (and sometimes after the blót has been performed as well). (7) I have been accused more than once of ‘wasting’ an animal’s life this way, however, let’s remember that while blót may be a community ritual, first and foremost it is a gift to the Gods and the focus of the ritual should be on the Holy Powers and giving to Them, not on the community feast. That which is given to the Gods and ancestors is never wasted.
We as a people can be incredibly self-centered. Blót is a time to focus on the Holy Powers and if divination indicates that the Gods in question want the sacrifice given completely to Them, then that is the only thing that is right and proper to do. Good divination will tell the difference—and if one isn’t prepared to acknowledge that the Gods may request what They want through various means large and small, then one shouldn’t be doing blót. It’s as simple as that. The Powers should drive the structure of blót, not our own comfort.
Which brings me to another point: the presence of the Gods can be very, very strong before, during, and even after a blót. It can lead to a sense of holy dread, of nervousness, or even outright terror amongst the gathered folk, particularly if they are sensitive to such things and have never experienced such intensity before. Tacitus mentions this sense of dread in his account of the rituals to Nerthus and I myself have experienced it many times before and during blót.(8) That sense of dread does not mean that anything is wrong. It means that we are about to encounter something very holy and holiness and terror all too often go hand in hand. A good blótere will prepare the people for this before the ritual space is even prepared. I often forget about this part, I have to admit. It never occurred to me that it would be an unusual experience for people (dealing with Odin for years has perhaps over-accustomed me to that sense of holy terror). But it is, and that needs to be addressed. We are dealing with Powers that are, for lack of a better word, inhuman, and there is often an ingrained fight or flight response to the sense of danger that can unconsciously evoke.
Blót is an oddity really. It’s an odd mixture of solemnity and joy. I think it’s very, very important not to forget the joy. At its best, blot should be a celebration of the reciprocal connection that we share with our Elder Kin, the Holy Powers, the Gods and Goddesses that hopefully we both honor and love. That blend of solemn joy makes for a certain tension during the rite unlike any other ritual I have ever experienced. I think this is good. I think it’s a sign of the importance and enormity of what we are doing when we decide to make a sacrificial blót.
So why do we do this? For love the Gods, for devotion, in reverence, and because it is the right thing to do. It is a sustaining act.It is not about killing an animal. It is not about shedding of blood. It is about acknowledging, celebrating, and renewing a very sacred contract between ourselves and the Powers. It is a celebration of the holy. In all ways large and small, it is a celebration of the holy.
For those about to honor the Solstice (be it with a blót or in some other manner), may you be blessed in this time of richness and growth. May the Gods in Their abundance pour out Their blessings upon you and may your luck grow strong. For those Heathens celebrating next week (I can hardly believe the Solstice is but a week away), may Frey bless.
Enjoy the Solstice, folks and remember, there’s a lunar eclipse today (June 15) so if you’re Heathen, it’s a great time to pour out an offering to Mani.
- Blót, which is pronounced to rhyme with ‘boat’ is a ritual wherein offerings are given to the Gods. In some –not all--branches of Heathenry, this particular word is used, as I do here, only in reference to rituals where an animal is offered.
- Blótere is an Anglo-Saxon word for the priest who performs ritual sacrifices. On a tangential note, one of our most beloved goddesses, Freya, bears the title of “blótere” for the Gods, which I personally find intriguing.
- Contrary to what I have seen claimed in various forums by members of New Anglia, I did not in fact learn how to perform a sacrificial blót from anyone in that Theod. I had been performing blót for my own kindred for many years before my association with New Anglia.
- Anglo-Saxon medical/magical texts—there was little difference really—mention energetic cleansing via the burning of bundles of mugwort, so I often use mugwort in my preparations both of myself, my tools, and the space itself.
- See http://www.patheos.com/community/paganportal/2011/06/07/wyrd-designs-cleanliness-and-garb-at-rituals/ for a very interesting article on hygiene, garb, and ritual.
- Prior to the ritual itself, the animal, usually a small pig, is feted. It’s fed well and pampered, even coddled. It is treated like an honored guest. People may touch the pig, talk to it, give it milk, beer, fruit, ask it to convey messages to the other world, give it blessings. The sacrificial animal is treated like a king.
- Once, I was performing a blót to Odin in which we were preparing to sacrifice a young pig. Right as the pig was being led out to the Godpole, someone’s gun went off. No one had touched the gun, it just went off. My colleague made sure everyone was unharmed, and then began to bring the pig forward. I immediately called for a halt, then called for my runes. After thorough divination, it became clear that the pig was not to be sacrificed. A devotee of Odin present was given the chance to take upon himself care of the pig (he owns a farm) as a votive animal for Odin. No blood was spilled that day, yet I consider it an excellent blót. I mention this here as an example of the type of spiritual receptivity needed to ensure a good blót —this is for the Gods. They should be central to the action, and therefore, the ones organizing and performing the rite should always be open to Their input. Skill in omen taking, to my mind, is essential for a skilled blótere. Also, not all Gods want this type of sacrifice. I would never offer an animal to Sigyn, for instance. It just would not seem appropriate. That’s why divination is so important. Now not everyone has a talent for divination and that’s ok. If the blótere isn’t a skilled and confident diviner, there’s no harm in calling in someone who has this talent.
- See Tacitus’s “Germania,” chapters 40-42.
Happy Litha, folks.