"I'll Grind Your Bones to Make my Bread": Pagans and Animal Husbandry
Article ID: 15312
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Posted: February 3rd. 2013
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Pagan ethics in relation to the animal world is a difficult topic to talk and write about. The diversity of our pantheons of Gods as role models, the cultural effects of generations of Disney cinema, and issues like feminism…all have left their mark on the Pagan/Heathen mindset. What is commonsense and a part of the normal, everyday world for some people may seem as an exotic and troublesome issue for others. So, let me start with what I am:
I am male. I grew up in the 1960s-70s in a rural area and participated in both scouting and 4H in my local community. I am an unapologetic omnivore. Growing up, I raised animals for projects and we always had a variety of pets and other animals ranging from aquarium fish to cats, dogs to horses and ponies. I also loved nature and wanted to become a wildlife biologist when I was a kid. I have an education with a lot of historical and anthropological emphasis. I have a small farm and my home life centers around keeping the land and caring for the animals there. I have lived long enough to know that death is a part of life. I have made that hard choice, and done the deed to end lives when needed.
So what does this all have to do with Pagan ethics towards nature and living things? Well I want people to know where I am coming from. I look at nature as a complex system and myself as a part of that system. To me, humans are another type of animal. We just happen to be a very smart tool-using animal able to change the world for good or ill.
The Wiccan Rede: “Harm none” is a simple statement, but fraught with interpretation. To some it means strict veganism, to others it means living consciously and with good intentions. To me, it means making good, logical choices based on an understanding that the world can seem cruel and uncaring. I choose to live with that reality. Regardless of what I feel, there are consequences to what we think the world should or should not be. I would hope others would look at the world in a way that benefits all life, not just to a preconceived cultural bias about how humans relate to the world.
Being a Pagan means that you worship Gods and Goddesses in a world where death is a part of life. That Pagans should practice good animal management in an ethical manner goes without saying. The “how” is in the details. All mortal creatures have to die at some point. The ethical question is, how and in what way? Taking the Wiccan pairing of the Mother Goddess and Hunter God of wild things as a model, what do they seem to be teaching me?
Lets start with domesticated animals. Humans and animals go hand in hand. Over the last 10, 000 years we have made the application of animal husbandry a part of what defines us. So what would be a way to live with animals according to the Goddess? She is love and compassion, personified in feminine form. To me, this means giving them the best life consistent with their needs (not the same as wants) , and sometimes having to make hard choices on their behalf.
As I wrote this essay, I read a posting on an equestrian forum I participate in from a lady who was telling others about the hardest choice any owner has to make: when to play the role of reaper and take the life of an animal you love. Thinking about this, I see the divine connection. Here is the Goddess in her fullest expression: we are to love animals in a way that only a person who has cared for and lived with an animal intimately for many years can do... knowing that the price of love is letting it go and sometimes even being the one who has to do the deed.
So what do we get out of it? Ask the Goddess. I’m sure she’d say much the same thing I’d say after many years of having cared for my own animals. I’m sure to our animals we seem unchanging and immortal. We are there for them and they respond with an affection that has no conditions. So there, here is your ethics: knowing that the price of caring ultimately will result in tears and sadness at some point. And yet you do it anyway because the love you have is returned by those with whom you have that relationship. It is the wheel of life, waxing and waning.
Keep in mind; animals are what they are unto themselves. Accept them for what they are. In a way, I liken it to being a good parent of a child, but with the understanding that animals are not humans with human type sensibilities. Too many kiddie shows in the back of the mind tend to blur the lines. Keep this in mind however: We humans have to acknowledge that a dog will always be a canine, a cat essentially feline and other animals will live according to their innate natures as evolution made them. We may have meddled with the evolutionary process by domesticating them (or the other way around in the case of cats) , but this only modifies them to relate to us and vice versa. You just go ahead and try to force a dog not to sniff, or cat not to want to catch and kill, or a horse to not try to see if you are the leader of the herd. It won’t happen. Animals are in their essence what they are.
It is arrogant and unrealistic to an extreme to anthropomorphize animals into “little” humans with human traits and human rights. Only we humans look at the world and try to remake it into the way we think it should be. They don’t try to change things the way humans will as a matter of course.
Many of our Gods are like us in that way as well. At least some of our pantheons of Gods show the animal nature of their origins. The Goddess Epona is depicted as both a human and mare, but in any depiction she keeps the essential horse nature. Animal or human, our Pagan ancestors tended to embrace the essential qualities of the natural world when they viewed their Gods and Goddesses. Don’t be fooled by the bowdlerized children’s versions of the tales out there. Once again, I think subconsciously those Victorian era kiddie versions of stories somehow stick in the back of people’s minds and skew their viewpoint.
Wild Things and Wild Life
The modern study of ecosystems (how nature works) developed over the last century offers many lessons on how nature adapts. The Green Man cares for his domain too, just in a different way. He is the God of wild things and the dynamic world of nature. Nature is a constant, daily struggle. Life to animals is to eat and find shelter, to thrive and reproduce, or to die. The latest researchers are now appraising effects as nature continuously adapts to a dynamic environment.
I’m not saying that we should give up being conscious about the environment. Quite the contrary, our Gods and Goddesses tell us that we need to stay aware of them, and to live with them as a part of a dynamic system. Allowing science to guide our understanding allows us to see how we can affect things in both positive and negative ways. I’ll use a historical example: DDT. When it was introduced, it was hailed for its helpful effects in controlling insects that carry many very nasty diseases. DDT was a lifesaver. It took decades for the toxic side effects to be recognized, and more decades for the damage to be completely undone. I remember my excitement at the first Bald Eagle I ever saw. DDT damn near destroyed them and lot of species due to its side effects on the avian world.
We meddle with the environment. That is a fact. We also have the capability to change our environment, and to do this on both the short term and long term (intentionally or otherwise) . Our cities are a long term, very dramatic example of how we’ve meddled with the environment. A city is the ultimate human managed environment. I won’t say much more about city life except that it is an example of a place where nature shows itself meekly. Most large animals simply can’t live in cities (coyotes and some other animals may prove me wrong here) , but there are plenty of smaller ones who thrive, and some like rodents are greatly advantaged by life around humans (not that we like them) . Look around you at how the wild creatures live. Animals adapted to living close to humans are still wild creatures. Never make the mistake of thinking otherwise.
Impact of Introduced and Feral Animals on the Environment.
Dealing with these and their impact is not always a cut and dried process. Most feral animals are considered pests. However consider the case of the horse. The horse appears to have evolved in the American continent, but died out here and ultimately was domesticated in Asia only to be reintroduced here by the Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries. So are horses indigenous to the Americas or not? Tens of thousands of lovers of wild horses ultimately forced the federal government to give wild Mustangs protection. (Wild Horse Act of 1970) Other examples are not so benign.
Anybody living in the rural south can tell you all about the hogs and their devastating impact on the ecosystems there. One great solution to the problem was on a food show I saw on television recently. In one Texas community, the local feral hogs were live-trapped, inspected by a food inspector, slaughtered and immediately processed and shipped to a local organic, fresh food market. Talk about a sustainable solution, and tasty too! Because of our place in the world, we are in a unique position to manage nature. The Green Man says we do it because we can and we must. Those non-native introduced species are here to stay. The question is what to do with them and to mitigate their effects on the native ecosystem. However this is not the end of the issues as even our indigenous animals can also a problem.
The Native American community reveres the lives of wild animals, but uses them, too. In Pennsylvania, it is not too far a stretch to say that the stag is a secular religion to many here. Life is precious, but don’t think for a moment that nature is some romantic, garden primeval. Animals will live or die in nature regardless. So why shouldn’t we accept that we are part of the system too and exist with them in ways that help keep nature in balance? For instance, in many places we are overrun with deer. The fringe habitat of mixed fields and woods that people create with their homesteads are the perfect mix for deer to thrive on. Then people wonder why auto collisions, songbird habitat loss (the deer will eat all the under story songbirds need) , and Lyme disease have become big problems. Short of introducing African Lions to your local subdivision, the default control is to continue to support an ancient tradition.
The Role of Hunting
We really do need more ethical hunting. Laws passed to protect deer populations back a hundred years ago are now being amended to take into account this reality that deer are actually over populating their available habitat. There are still some issues that cause roadblocks. Right now, in many states, you can’t even legally donate venison to food banks. Then there are the cultural obstacles. Some people foolishly think of hunting as a sad example of an outdated primeval lifestyle. I’d hope that Wiccans and Pagans in particular would revere practices that support both the God and Goddess. We really should look at how we look at our environment and use it intelligently.
A life used in within the natural balance is a life with meaning, not just carrion for the vultures and maggots. I am simply sickened by the daily waste I view on the roadside from car collisions every single day. How can we think hunting bad if we tolerate this? So regardless if you eat meat, or want to hunt, I feel that any Pagan or environmentally conscious person should encourage lifestyle practices that include ethical hunting even if they don’t practice it themselves. Whether it be by gun, bow or humane trap, when done ethically the end is the still better than random collision with auto and far better than a mass processing facility. Anyway when did our nature Goddesses and Gods suddenly all become Vegans? (Hint, they haven’t; it’s a recent cultural thing.)
Support ways that are sustainable, and do little things that make the land a better place for all the life on it. I’ll admit I’m not all the way there yet myself, but as time goes on, I keep aiming for that goal.
Conversation with Devon, maid of Epona on the nature of mythology of the horse Goddless Epona.
Carson, Rachel., Silent Spring., Copyright 1962, multiple editions.
Episode of Bizarre Foods America food show on the Travel Channel.
Swan, James A. PhD, In Defense of Hunting: Yesterday and Today. Copyright 1994.
Copyright: Original essay, c 2013
A. I. Mychalus
Location: New Park, Pennsylvania
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