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On Being a Pagan Omnivore
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Author: Lupa [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: December 30th. 2007
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No doubt if you've been in the pagan community for any significant amount of time, you've seen or heard (and perhaps participated in) a debate about whether "proper" pagans should eat meat or not. Being an omnivore is rather un-P.C., and there are pagans who use their meat-free diet as a way of attempting to prove they're better pagans, more in touch with the Earth because they don't eat other animals (though not all vegetarian/vegan pagans hold this attitude).
I'm not going to attack pagans who choose to be vegetarian or vegan. I'm not even going to disagree with your personal choices. I simply ask that you respect mine. Emailing me to guilt trip me, or to try to convince me to go vegetarian/vegan will be a waste of words. (Though I won't be surprised if this essay sparks a couple of pro-veg essays on Witchvox in the future!)
What I present here is a discussion of my choices as a pagan who eats meat, and how that ties into my spirituality. Much is made of pagans who choose to become more spiritual through a vegetarian or vegan diet.
However, there will most likely always pagans who eat meat, whether because we choose to, or because our diets require it (some people's personal chemistry simply can't handle anything but an omnivorous diet).
While I certainly can't speak for all pagans, I can address what has worked for me.
The majority of pagans are animistic to one extent or another. We believe in spirits, including the spirits in animals, plants, and for some even rocks, waterways, and other "non-living" natural phenomena. Techno pagans may also work with spirits within automobiles, computers and other manmade technology. To a lot of pagans, the world is alive with spirits of many sorts, spirits that deserve respect and acknowledgement.
Speaking for myself, I respect all the spirits equally, though I tend to work with animal spirits most often while walking my path. I do not discriminate between types of spirit; a plant spirit deserves as much respect as an animal spirit, and the grass is just as important as the ancient oak tree.
Humans have a tendency, even pagan humans, to place beings in our world (both physical, and their spiritual counterparts) into a hierarchy, with humans at the top, and those beings that most resemble humans higher than those that are more alien to us.
Therefore, we assume that because a spirit in a non-human animal body experiences pain and suffering in the same way we do, then its death must be more important than that of a spirit embodied in a plant body, which may not have the same sort of nervous system. Additionally, the individual oak, bigger than we are, evokes more respect than the communal grass that we tread upon.
As an omnivorous pagan, I respect the life that must be given up to feed me, regardless of the type of suffering it may or may not experience. When I make soup, the carrot that was uprooted is just as important as the chicken that went into the broth. It's still a matter of energy transference that requires me to take from another spirit being, and to deprive it of its physical form. The only way I could avoid doing otherwise would be to subsist solely on fruit and nuts that can be harvested without killing the plant.
Interconnection and Responsibility
As a pagan, I believe all things are interconnected. Whether through energy, cause and effect, or whathaveyou, what we do impacts more than just ourselves. This is demonstrated in literally every interaction we may have with both others--and ourselves. The very act of typing this essay will not only have an impact you who read it, but it also impacts me by causing me to review my beliefs, either to change them as I find better arguments, or strengthen them as I repeat them for others.
I cannot deny the effects my choices have. Therefore it's essential for me to be conscious of these effects as I take action. For example, choosing to eat meat has a number of potential consequences:
--If I do not buy free range meat, I'm probably purchasing the flesh of an animal that lived in a crowded stockyard or barn under inhumane conditions. Even if I do buy free-range, the death the animal experiences may still be highly stressful. Additionally, sometimes "cage-free" chicken means she was still stuck in a crowded barn, just not in a cage.
--Depending on where my meat comes from, I may be contributing to habitat destruction. However, I may also be eating animals that were raised on land unsuitable for crops. Additionally, the grain that goes to feed the animals (as well as that which goes to make vegetarian food such as bread) probably exists in a field without any biodiversity, and unless it's organic has probably contributed to poisons in the Earth, Air and Water thanks to pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Forests may still have been clear-cut to make cropland. In any case, massive amounts of water have been employed to make my food, either through irrigation or watering animals.
--If I purchase from an individual farmer who raises livestock and offers the meat to sell at a farmer's market, I support an individual rather than a corporate conglomerate. I can ask about the conditions the animals are raised and killed under. If the cattle, for example, are raised in a pasture, then I can probably rest assured that deer, mice, rabbits, various species of birds, and other animals live safely in the same pasture, the grass is getting plenty of fertilizer from the cow patties, and the farmer isn't poisoning the cattle with pesticides.
--Not eating meat has historically adversely affected my health, no matter what dietary precautions I took. I was hungry all the time, my energy dropped, and I got sick easier. However, the quality of meat also has an effect on me, as well as the species of animal it came from; I find fish a lot easier to digest than beef.
And these are just a few of the considerations to keep in mind. Every action, whether it involves dietary choices or not, has a similar set of potential, wide-ranging effects.
For the time being, while I live in an apartment in an urban area, the option I have chosen is to buy free-range meat when I can afford it. There is a farmer's market nearby that has locally raised meat available for part of the year, but otherwise it's off to the organic grocer. I know I'm taking my chances on buying a "free-range" chicken that may have lived in a barn most of her life, but my options are currently limited.
My eventual goal, once I have the resources to do so, is to raise chickens and/or rabbits, so that I know exactly how the animals I eat are raised and killed. Additionally, if I ever get the opportunity to be taught how to hunt, that's another option. People cry about Bambi; however, a bullet to the heart is quicker than being suffocated or bled to death by a pack of wolves, or dying of starvation, exposure or parasites (a deer or moose can harbor literally thousands of ticks on its skin, to say nothing of worms and other internal parasites that are exceptionally common in all wildlife). At least in that case I know the animal lived a wild life. If I can find relatively clean water, fishing is another idea.
Rituals and Totems
I've been working with "food totems" for some time now, the totem animals that represent species we often only associate with food, such as Pig and Chicken. In my belief system, totems are archetypal beings that embody all the qualities of a species, from biology to folklore, though they do have independent existences rather than simply being figments of the psyche.
My goal is to build healthy relationships with these totems, not only to learn from them but also to find out what I can do to help them and their physical counterparts. They're understandably upset by the current state of things, and at first I had a lot of trouble getting them to communicate with me beyond them venting their anger. But we've had some constructive interactions, especially recently.
While I don't currently hunt or raise my own meat, I do sometimes work rituals into the preparation of store-bought meat. For example, I bought a whole free-range chicken and did a ritual in honor of her spirit as well as the totem Chicken. Once I get to the point that I can raise my own meat, I want to work a ritual into the slaughtering process, partly to show my appreciation for the sacrifice of life that the animal has made, and also to be mindful of what I'm doing so that I don't take this gift for granted. (I do intend to work rituals for plant spirits as well, though my current focus is on animals.)
Part of the purpose of a ritual is to make the participant (s) more mindful of what's happening. You generally aren't supposed to sit and daydream randomly in a ritual; rather, it's designed to bring your focus in on what you're currently doing, giving it more meaning than what we experience in our usual robotic mindset.
Killing an animal for food (or, for that matter, uprooting a carrot) may not be something that everybody necessarily wants to pay attention to in close detail, but if you're going to deprive another being of life energy in order to survive, you should at least be aware of the process by which this happens.
Additionally, rituals have been used to appease the spirits of animals for millennia, particularly in hunter-gatherer cultures. I think we could certainly use a dose of that sort of reverence.
This is not an argument against vegetarianism/veganism. My goal is not to antagonize those who choose not to eat meat. Unfortunately, I've run across too many omnivores, pagan and otherwise, whose general attitude comes across as "I eat meat, therefore I'm better! Grrr!" *thump chest loudly*. Stereotypes like all vegetarians are weak, wimps, and wusses are no better than the assertion that all meat-eaters are insensitive brutes with no consideration for life other than their own.
I am an omnivore for my health, and because I choose to be. That's my decision to make, and I don't expect anyone else to automatically do the same. However, neither do I appreciate vegevangelists trying to convert me, any more than they would appreciate me serving them up a steak.
I think we'd all learn a lot more about the reasons for each other's choices if we stopped yammering at each other about how "You're doing it wrong!” Instead of trying to force each other into decisions we're not willing to take, let's be conscious of the choices we DO make, WHY we make them, and WHAT we can do to be more aware of their impact.
I am responsible for what goes into my body. I am responsible for my own choices. And I see myself as responsible for making choices based on my understanding of the impact I could have. Just as I would consider potential consequences before working magic, so do I consider potential consequences before taking mundane actions as well.
What I eat affects not only me, but also others as well--animals, plants, the soil, water and air, other people, and so forth. While there's no way to completely negate my impact, I can minimize the negative effects without bringing ill health to myself. Being more aware of the health of my body--my personal microcosm--has made me more aware of the health of the macrocosm-at-large.
It's not about being a "better" pagan than someone who eats differently than I do. It's about making the best decisions that I determine based on the observations I make. It's about awareness, and conscious choices, and balancing what I need to be healthy with the impact that my need for health has on others. And it's about the spiritual relationships I have with the natural world in general, whether in the wilderness itself, or, like me, taken out of the wild and placed in the land of domestication and civilization.
I may not be a hunter-gatherer; I may not live off the land. But that doesn't mean that the food I eat is any less sacred or deserving of appreciation.
Copyright: Copyright Lupa 2008. Please do not copy and paste; I would prefer you linked directly to the article hosted here on Witchvox. Thanks!
Location: Portland, Oregon
Author's Profile: To learn more about Lupa - Click HERE
Bio: Lupa is a pagan and (neo) shaman living in the Pacific Northwest with her mate and fellow author, Taylor Ellwood. She is the author of several books on paganism and magic, on topics ranging from animal totems to Otherkin to sex magic. She is also a ritual tool artist, creating sacred items from bone, fur, leather, feathers and beads. Lupa is in the process of creating a personal neoshamanic path; you may track her progress at http://therioshamanism.com. She may also be found online at http://www.thegreenwolf.com and http://www.kinkmagic.com (18+ only, please) .
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