Posted by: justblade | February 18, 2009

On Sacrifice, part 1

Know’st how to write, know’st how to read,

know’st how to stain, how to understand,

know’st how to ask, know’st how to offer,

know’st how to supplicate, know’st how to sacrifice?

(Havamál/Sayings of Har v144, Hollander translation)

This may seem a strange topic for an essay. We modern Westerners are unaccustomed to considering sacrifice as a good thing. In its current colloquial sense it has connotations of deprivation, self denial and asceticism, or loss and generally sadness about something we have to give up, or don’t have any more. Many of us have grown up in a world offering instant gratification, delayed repayments and interest-free periods. Sacrifice sounds too hard. It sounds like things one’s parents might have said about making sacrifices because the family does not have enough disposable income, giving something up, or quitting – all of which seem out of step with the prevailing culture. The only other echo this word conjures happens around Anzac Day and Rememberance Day, when we talk about the horrendous loss of life in successive wars.

“Sacrifice” derives from the Latin meaning ‘to make sacred’. The connection with religious rituals involving the killing of animals or humans to honour the God or Gods gives us the implication of the offering of a life for a specific purpose. However if we take this back a few steps and examine the core activity implied here – making holy and giving – we find opportunities for creating some positive meanings and strong relevance to both historical and modern Heathen ritual and devotional philosophy.

The first question for me is, then, ‘why give?’

Giving is a basic human activity. We create and maintain connections with others through the process of giving and receiving. Gifts are the shuttle that weaves the weft through the warp to create the bonds of the social fabric. We give in celebration, from obligation, in the hope of reciprocation, the desire to share what we have with those close to us, in recognition of need and out of generosity for the benefit of the wider community. It comes, then, as no surprise that humans should seek to create and maintain a relationship with the Gods and wights they encounter through giving. The enduring practice of giving something to divine figures in most religious settings, be that prayer, worship, offerings, or gifts and service to other humans and the community in the name of that divine figure, is testament to the power this activity has as a human characteristic. Giving and gifts create a particular resonance for the modern Heathen because of the emphasis on gifts and the processes and obligations of giving recorded in the literary and historical record. 1 The wisdom poem Havamál has a significant proportion of its verses devoted to the theme of giving and wise ways of balancing generosity and obligation. Arguably the most quoted is found in verse 145 ey sér til gildis gjöf‘ – a gift always looks for a gift. Another example of the exhortation towards reciprocity comes in the earlier section, verse 44 –

Veiztu, ef þú vin átt, þann er þú vel trúir,

ok vilt þú af hánum gótt geta,

geði skaltu við þann blanda ok gjöfum skipta,

fara at finna oft.

If you know that you have a friend and that he is true,

and that you will get good from him,

share your mind with him, exchange gifts,

and visit him often.

(Havamál Chisholm translation)

The verse at the top of this essay suggests key ritual activities within the historical Heathen context 2 and all have the potential to connect with the concept of sacrifice. The word translated as “sacrifice” in that particular verse is translated elsewhere as slaughter – further evidence of the intimate connection between ritual killing and our modern concept of sacrifice. There, however, is ample written and archaeological evidence of a wide range of possible sacrifices or offerings that reaches beyond this narrow concept of what constitutes ‘sacrifice’ both for historical Heathens, and by extension also for modern Heathens. The historical evidence and modern practice can be grouped into four broad categories – objects, food, animal and human.


One of the boons of recent archaeological work in Europe and Britain is the increasingly plentiful evidence of the place of object offerings in pre-Christian practice, stretching back to the Neolithic Period. Often referred to as votive offerings, many objects have been preserved in peat, bogs, at the bases of post holes and ditches, and in silt around waterways as well as around grave mounds or barrows. Thanks to the popularity of the BBC production Time Team, the book and television series Britain BC by Francis Pryor and other ‘wider audience’ publications on British and European archaeology, the average modern Heathen has greater access to sources, evidence and interpretation that in previous times was liable to remain the sole province of academia. These have highlighted the extent and role of placement of objects as making, marking and keeping a place holy as a practice that reaches into the earliest ‘prehistorical’ periods.

Within the group of object offerings, there appear to have been two types – used objects and purpose-made objects for offering. Pryor discusses both of these, citing many examples of both at a wide range of significant sites, particularly where relationship or propitiation may have been important. Examples of each of these types include finds at Flag Fen of carefully positioned intact pots and a small bronze dagger that had been pulled away from its antler hilt and placed in the shallow water 3 and a jadeite axe head found near the Sweet Track in Somerset, an item of beauty and such construction that it would shatter if ever used.4 These purpose-made votive objects are often either flawed, incomplete or manufactured in such a way that they would not be useable. Another example cited by Simek in his Dictionary of Northern Mythology is of a find of around 100 miniature golden ships near Nors in Jutland. The suggestion is that these objects were never intended to be used and were created for the purpose of giving to the Gods or wights of the place where they were deposited. Simek also suggests that the kind of gift is influenced by the kind of response sought from the deity or wight. Of the showier ‘spectacle’ votive offerings, spoils of war often feature as object deposits in sacrificial bogs including weaponry, armour and even clothing.5 Ewing draws on written historical records to construe some elements of motive, perhaps a combination of symbolic decimation of the vanquished enemy and thanksgiving to the Gods for victory and according Them their due portion of the spoils.

While a significant proportion of earlier archaeological work focussed on ‘big event’ activities and votive offerings of weaponry, more recent work has highlighted more everyday objects and ‘homelier’ offerings that appear to be just as numerous. “It is easy to become diverted by the glamour of live sacrifice, ships and war gear from the fact that many sacrificial offerings appear to have been far more mundane in character.”6 Farm tools, pots and other everyday items appear just as frequently, and increasingly so with greater focus on people’s daily lives from academic archaeological work. Similarly, Pryor comments in relation to his work at Flag Fen that the sheer volume of objects “suggests that ordinary people played a direct role in what was going on.”7

Our Heathen forebears’8 enthusiasm for offerings of objects appears not to have been taken up with similar enthusiasm by modern Heathens. This might strike us as curious, given that it is arguably as accessible as food offerings as a sacrificial practice.

These days we throw our unwanted objects into holes, rivers, lakes, seas and anywhere we can find to get rid of the stuff. The environmental devastation of pollution creates a very different feeling about putting objects in places and leaving them there. Given the nuisance factor and potential detrimental impact of litter, depositing the types of objects that historical Heathens would have does not hold for us a sense of respect and gift to the spirits of the land or sea. The concern for anything left on the earth or put into water being a potential contaminant or cause of harm to the environment (including animals or other humans) is a very different world than that of historical Heathens.

The evidence we have is that historical Heathens used offering of objects to give worth, to enhance the maegen of a holy or important place, or indeed seek to propitiate the spirit of a dangerous place, which came to include coins as well. A bit of creativity has inspired some Heathens to consider how they might add value to a location through giving of hallowed objects within a public or natural space, through donations to a park or cause, or something else within their means which may be acknowledged ritually prior to, at the time of or in recognition of the gift. Some choose materials that will biodegrade or are likely to be ‘recycled’ in some way. Anecdotal evidence suggests that for some, giving their time might stand in place of an object. In a similar vein to the votive offerings of historical Heathens, many modern Heathens talk about such offerings having a symmetry with the God, Goddess or wight to whom they are being offered or the purpose or request for which the offering is being made. This has a huge amount of scope for developing and adapting a highly accessible component of historical Heathen practice to be relevant for modern Heathen practice.

1 Most frequently referred to in Heathen circles by the shorthand term ‘lore’ – sometimes capitalised depending on what literature is under discussion and the interpretive application to which the person discussing subscribes.

2 Rudolf Simek (1993) Dictionary of Northern Mythology, rev ed. sv “sacrifice” p. 272

3Francis Pryor (2003) Britain BC p.286

4Ibid. p. 131-2

5 Thor Ewing (2008) Gods and Worshippers in the Viking and Germanic World, p. 26-7

6 Ewing p. 28

7 Pryor p. 286

8‘Forebear’ here meaning Heathens of earlier times, assuming no necessary familial lines of descent. In some respects, anyone who is living in an English-speaking context or where the dominant culture derives from one of the European traditions may be thought of as having Northern European forbears by virtue of being a part of that cultural context. Constituting community and belonging will be the subject of future essays.



  1. Fantastic article and one that makes me reflect on my own practices in this area. Indeed, it make me feel inspired to explore new ways of making sacrifice.

    I think that your point about how central gift gving is to both social and religious expression in heathenism is very important. The whole gift-giving thing just seems one of the mos essential elements of what ‘ye olde’ heathens did and its great to see this clearly enunciated.

    I love your line that “Gifts are the shuttle that weaves the weft through the warp to create the bonds of the social fabric”!

    Keep it up, this is awesome!


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