Tag Archives: Michael S. Northcott

Oh deer! Some rambling thoughts on Christian animal sacrifice

In a conversation about something else Euthymios Rizos drew my attention to a Vita of St Athenogenes. I have now had the opportunity to read this in the edition of Pierre Maraval, La Passion inédite de S. Athénogène de Pédachthoé en Cappadoce (BHG 197b) (Brussels: Bollandistes, 1990).

What struck me most was the account of Athenogenes’ meeting a deer which he had raised; the saint promises that the deer will not be taken by hunters, but that its offspring will be offered to the glory of God each year. Subsequently we hear that a fawn is presented by its mother each year for sacrifice and consumption at the feast of the martyrs.

However, perhaps I should not be surprised; for all that we hear constantly of the cessation of animal sacrifice in Christianity (early Christians, as well as wearing open-toed sandals, being vegetarians and perhaps, UK readers will suspect, Guardian readers) the practice continued, particularly in Armenia, and continues still (see here for instance.) The surprise is that (as Andrew McGowan pointed out to me) the sacrifice should be of a deer, generally a wild animal. Canons attributed to Basil prohibit the offering of a hunted animal (see on these Fred C. Conybeare, “The Survival of Animal Sacrifices inside the Christian Church” American Journal of Theology 7 (1903), 62-90, at 79-80). But perhaps the point is that the deer on this occasion is not hunted, but is willingly offered by itself (thus I am unsure of the connection to a sacred hunt made by Franz Cumont, “L’ archevêché de Pédachtoé et le sacrifice du faon” Byzantion 6 (1931), 521-533.) However, we may also note that deer were reportedly offered by Justinian at the dedication of Hagia Sophia (at least according to a later account, on which see Kateryna Kovalchuk, “The Encaenia of St Sophia: Animal Sacrifice in a Christian Context” Scrinium 4 (2008), 161-203.)

Apart from being told that animal sacrifice was abandoned by Christians we are also frequently told that the eucharist, by becoming ritualized and by delivering food in token amounts, has lost its significance, and that it should once again take on the aspect of a meal. I do not cite extensively here, as the theme is surely familiar to all my readers, though I cannot resist referring to one contribution which suggests that, in rejection of the industrial meat-economy, the eucharist should be rediscovered as a “real vegetarian meal, and not just a token meal.” (Michael S. Northcott, “Eucharistic eating, and why many early Christians preferred fish” in Rachel Muers and David Grummet (ed.), Eating and believing: interdisciplinary perspectives on vegetarianism and theology (London: T & T Clark, 2008), 232-246, here at 243-244.) This essay exhibits such an astounding level of ignorance regarding both the early Christian eucharist and the pastoral reality of parishes that it comes as no surprise to learn that the contributor is a professor of practical theology.

In the spirit of “restoring” the meal-aspect to the eucharist I wonder whether I might start slaughtering animals at the church door during our parish mass; such has been considered seriously elsewhere (see here and here) but I think I will leave this to the Armenians (and to other cultures still familiar with acts of slaughtering) and allow the meal-logic which is already implicit in the mass we celebrate to speak for itself. This, after all, is why we keep a eucharistic fast, as Traditio apostolica 36 already reminds us. In its original context this provision intended that the eucharistic food should be consumed first in the meal; but who would eat a meal before going for a meal?


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