Not deferential enough: The Celtic Pagan and animals

Posted Sunday, September 15, 2013 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: The Celtic Pagan and animals

by Gina Hamilton

Over the years, I have been asked why it is so important for Celtic Pagans to maintain and keep livestock. Our livestock, whether they are humble poultry, or whether they are larger mammals, form part of the give and take that is our responsibility to the land, a huge part of our religious faith.

The eight great festivals of the wheel of the year have some component that involves the animals with which we share our lives and fortunes. We are responsible for them, whom we have tamed, and therefore we must endeavor to do what is necessary to ensure they have adequate nutrition, clean water, and so on, as brought forth by our own hands and on our own lands.

But there is more to it than that.

Our very animals' lives provide an example of not only the mutualism that lies at the heart of Celtic paganism, but also a connection to the sacred.

Like the sacred triune goddess Brighid, whose first stirrings are made manifest in early February at Imbolc with the preparation of the birth of the lambs, our animals mirror the Wheel of the Year and are part of it.

Like Brighid, they are helpless children at first, who need the gentle caretaking of human hands to reach their destiny. The Maiden Brighid's great loves, after all, are small children and young animals, as well as the first bursting forth of young plants in the spring. As we care for Brighid, in loving trust that the Maiden will become the Mother and in turn feed all her children, including us, so too we care for these small manifestations of the Maiden Brighid as young things. Raising chicks, ducklings, caring for kids, lambs, and calves is part of the cycle of life, but also a visual and daily demanding reminder of our place within the Wheel.

When the Maiden turns Mother on Lammas Day and the first grains are harvested, it is also the time of year when spring chicks begin to lay eggs. They, too, have become "Mother".

Lammas is also the time when the larger animals are covered in preparation for a spring birth, perpetuating the cycle and providing food in the form of milk, cheese, butter, and other dairy products in return.

On Lammas, the first loaves are broken up and given first to the livestock, before any humans are fed with them. This is a sacrifice of thanks to the goddess, who has blessed the harvest. The animals are given mash from apple pressings, peelings from new carrots and other vegetables, and windfallen fruit, a return of the Mother's bounty to the creatures we have caused to live with us.

The sacred relationship is even deeper when the animals are no longer producing, because unlike ordinary farmers or homesteaders, we are called to care for our livestock their whole lives. When the Mother persona of the goddess becomes the Crone, and can no longer provide for her children, we honor her knowledge and wisdom.

With our livestock, we honor their past gifts, and their unique ability to still be part of the mutual nature of the community. We permit our cows to pasture in peace; we let our sheep and goats graze, expecting nothing ... but fertilizer ... in return. Our chickens and ducks may eat ticks and mosquitos, and provide for the community in that way, but their lives are peaceful. They need not live in fear of death because they have ceased to be "of use". They have already been of use, and it is but a small token on our part to care for them for the rest of their natural lives.

When they ultimately die, they will be of use again. Their bodies will degrade and enrich the soil which will grow crops that will ultimately feed new generations of young.

The keeping of livestock is quite different from the keeping of pets. Pets are wonderful and life-affirming as well, but they are not participants in the sacred mutualism that marks our culture. They are more like furry or feathery versions of us, rather than of the Goddess. That is not to say that they do not have their place in our lives, but their place is not the same as the place of creatures that mirror, and are part of, the Wheel of the Year.

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