Written by Dyami Millarson
The Germanic peoples practised a cultural religion, where culture and religion were blended. While we have established this, we should immediately ask: what were their priorities from the perspective of their cultural-religious worldview?
Food was way more prominent in the Germanic cultural-religious worldview than many in the modern world may realise. Food was way up the list of priorities in the ancient Germanic world. Famines were a common occurrence back then.
Although a historic explanation may be offered for the prominence of food in the Germanic worldview, it would be incorrect to overlook the fact that there is also a timeless aspect to this perception, because food is still essential today.
We live in a world of abundance, but we are still biological beings that need food in order to sustain their biological bodies. In this biological regard, we are no different from our Germanic forebears who dwelled in these Northwest European lands.
As food was an all-important topic that pervaded the Germanic worldview, the Germanic ritual of blood sacrifice should be seen in this light. No doubt, the Germanic peoples of yore practised blood sacrifice on a regular basis.
However, what many fail to understand is the context of blood sacrifice. We may define blood sacrifice, particularly animal sacrifice, as a ritualised act of slaughter. In the ancient times, there were no slaughterhouses which would do the work for us.
The way for the Germanic peoples to get meat was to slaughter the animals themselves and they did so in a ritualised manner. They called in the help of the Gods to assist them in pacifying the angry soul of the sacrificial animal.
Killing an animal was not an act that humans ever took lightly. As intelligent beings, humans have always been acutely aware that they took a life. In the past, they didn’t have mechanised systems to make the slaughter a distant affair.
In fact, the slaughter of an animal for obtaining its meat was a very intense affair in the Germanic past, and that made it all the more harrowing when a hungry community had to resort to slaughtering an animal to feed its members.
While the Germanic peoples needed the meat, the sacrificial rite was a magical affair where the Gods were invoked to assist in dealing with the animal’s soul. The entire local community was involved in this affair as it was crucial to their well-being.
Blood sacrifice was thought of as a way to bring good luck to the community. This is quite understandable because if the rite were not performed properly, the Gods would not be pleased or the angry soul of the animal would come to haunt them.
To the Germanic peoples, sacrificial blood was holy. After all, blood was and still is the substance of life; to the Germanic peoples, it had magical and spiritual properties, because when a creature was bleeding to death, its spirit was leaving.
The sanctity of blood is related to the correct observation that it is linked to life. This is why blood plays such an important role in blood sacrifice. After the animal had been slaughtered, Germanic priests caught the blood in a sacrificial bowl.
The blood was not wasted. In fact, this holy substance was smeared on the tree sanctuaries or the idols of the Gods that were carved into the wood of trees. The holy blood was also sprinkled on the witnesses of the blood sacrifice.
This is the manner in which the God idols and the witnesses were sanctified. The power of the spirit of the animal was conferred to them and would protect them. The blood had protective magical properties, warded off disease, and so on.
So, while slaughter was not a mechanised process in the Germanic times, the Germanic peoples had to get intimate with their sacrificial victim. They ascribed a spirit to their victim and they treated their victim with due respect.
This cannot be said of modern slaughterhouses where the spiritual aspect of slaughter is sorely neglected, the souls of animals are not tended to. The Gods of the Germanic peoples had the role of guiding the animal souls in the afterlife.
While the Germanic Gods, also called höpt (fetters) and bönd (bonds) in Old Norse, are not invoked in the slaughterhouses nor are the animals brought before sacrifice trees before meeting their end, the animal souls receive no proper guidance.
The spiritual guidance that is offered to the animal spirits is inherent in the sacrificial rite of the Germanic peoples and required no second thought. It was an obvious aspect of the rite that they performed, it required no elaboration.
We have now come to grasp how the Germanic cultural religion is properly associated with blood sacrifice, which is contextually related to food. We may ask: did blood sacrifices occur with any regularity and so when may we expect it?
Blood sacrifices occurred in cycles every year. It is not like Germanic peoples would slaughter animals every single day. A community could live off the meat of a slaughter animal for a long time and so there was no need for excessive slaughter.
Sacrifice was done in moderation. This is highly understandable because the Germanic peoples had to be careful with their scarce resources. It is even recommended in the Poetic Edda that one should not sacrifice too much.
The sacrificial cycles that occurred in the Germanic religion were entirely related to the cycles of food and slaughter. Major cycles of slaughter occurred in midsummer and midwinter, which fall on the summer and winter solstices respectively.
The Germanic peoples sacrificed for peace, victory, longevity and good harvest. Such were their general concerns in life. One ought to understand that personal concerns were linked to those of the community; everything was communal.
Similarly as in folk religions in East Asia, the Germanic folk religious prayers were simple and they were focused on the common good (of the tribe or clan). The topics of the prayers were highly stylised and would be pretty much the same every time.
The content of the prayers may thus be regarded as quite fossilised throughout the ages, for the concerns expressed therein would be timeless. The Germanic peoples desired peace, victory, longevity and good harvest in all ages.