Okay, so let me preface this with the fact that I wasn’t going to write this. Then, as I was writing the first draft of this, I wasn’t going to post this. I’m hardly the expert here. Then, well, fuck, people, sometimes you just need to post, because it seems like I may have more to say than some.
There is an important caveat: I use ‘you’ frequently in this post. That ‘you’ isn’t meant to refer to every potential reader. It’s a hybrid phrasing, because I am caught between referring to people in the conversation I’m referencing and to myself. This ‘you’ can be substituted with an ‘I’ in many cases, because much of this comes out of distinguishing my personal practice from various cultic ones. I guess I could say ‘we,’ but that invokes too much intimacy. So, the uncomfortable ‘you’ it is.
Okay, so apparently talking about sacrifice is a bit of a thing in one of the super-tiny microworlds to which I pay some attention. I have taken a look around following some of the links in that original post and some of the websites of the conversants I didn’t recognize in the thread that follows. The overall content of the original post? Eh, it’s alright. The degree of casual racism and classism that structures some of it…well, ignorant folks be ignorant. Folks have tried to educate them about that and they have only retrenched in their ignorance, so I won’t wast anyone’s time with that here. All I can say, is if you can’t spot it, you should spend some time examining your vision.
Focusing on the racism and classism drives the discussion into reactionary postures. Regardless, if you put the gods first, if you would welcome the opportunities that allow you to opt out of community, you really have no place telling people who are concerned about their communities how to make sacrifice. Personal devotion gives you little context to talk about sacrifice in any deep way.
Let’s be clear, too, that this sort of private devotional attitude isn’t in line with the way that those in the ancient world thought of cultus and the role sacrifice played in it. On this point, communities presently engaged in it (like the Haitian ones mentioned by Sindh in the comments) or the ancient ones touted by the polytheists have a distinctly different attitude.
Cultus has everything to do with a community in which it is embedded. The cult receives support from a community because they help that community navigate the mysteries of the divine. They provide a degree of protection from divine whims and the satisfaction of a divinity well-served should bring good fortune on the community that supports its cultus. Folks practicing Vodou or Ocha or the other Afro-diaspora faiths seem to have a much better intuitive grasp of this than those in the contemporary polytheist community.
I guess the polytheists could say that the Afro-diaspora folks are just blessed with a wider community…but, of course, that is sort of the point, isn’t it? The blessings of spirits well-served in cultus overflow because they do serve a human community.
There are (and always have been) avenues for people to engage with the divine in a more direct and intimate fashion than cultus. As a general rule, though, they have been met with a comingling of suspicion and respect. It seemed (and still seems) antisocial, unnatural to privilege the divine so highly that you would place the divine over and above human relations. These sorts of devotees form part (not all!) of the milieau from which the stereotype of the malefic witch or sorcerer emerges. It isn’t that these people are by nature malefic, but that their preference for the spiritual realm over the human made them seem dangerous to a fundamentally human-centric community.
We can call these people witches and wizards (I mean neither of those terms to be gendered, btw) as a shorthand. They have an important place in a robust spiritual ecology, but it is toxic when they take on airs and start playing the priest. There are witch-priests and wizard-priests, no doubt, but it is in much the same way as you might find doctor-mechanics; the one does not presume the other.
Cults have at their foundation a special class of priests, sacrificers. Cults are born from great sacrificers and to participate in them is to sustain the legacy of those great sacrificers. Sacrifice is not simply an act, but a form of expertise. A sacrificer knows when to make sacrifice, how to make sacrifice, how to share or not share the sacrifice. The discussion of whether or not you eat sacrifice is bollox. You might do either. The question is whether you know when and how to make that distinction.
The great sacrificers also know how to negotiate with the divine, how to please the divine in a way that brings blessings to their community. Great sacrificers bequeath to their cults a mode or style of sacrifice that comes to define a path for spirit into the world. Like actual paths, these styles of sacrifice are temporal and not eternal thing. When it passes away, it is gone. True cultus cannot begin again until there is a great sacrificer who can negotiate a new form of sacrifice. The degree to which the new form of sacrifice resembles the old is an open one.
The constant return to devotion also leads us to bollox. Devotion is one component of what sustains cultus, but it is not the primary component. Cultus is defined by the network of people, living humans, that appreciate the role of the cult in their lives. The key component of that is the concern of the cult for its human constituency. A cult with very little devotion can be vibrant, so long as the members keep firmly to their place, which is the negotiation of the divine and the human. I get that you can call these acts ‘devotions,’ but if you do, you must keep in mind that the devotion goes in two directions. The cult’s devotion is for the human community as well as the divine.
Now, if you are just making offerings for yourself and your god(s), you aren’t a sacrificer. You aren’t learning the skills that make you qualified to speak on the arts of sacrifice. You do things a certain way, that’s fine, but that is all it is. It isn’t an injunction that you can hold over anyone else’s head. You have a personal relationship to a spirit, not a cultic one, even if your personal relationship is influenced by your understanding of cultic ones. The reality of the cult is not in the idea of the cult, but in its actuality, which is messy and full of people, many of whom will not be directly part of the cultus.
Googling all the pictures and reading all the books will not cut it. I’m kind of horrified that this even has to be said: cultus begins with community.