Many religious traditions involve making offerings to deities or spirits, and African traditional religions are no different. Many African traditional religions and Africana traditions including Ifá / Isese, Lucumí / Santería, Candomblé, Vodou, Vodun, the Palo traditions, and hoodoo all sometimes involve making animal sacrifices in addition to a multitude of other offerings.
Animal sacrifice is one of the most controversial and wildly misunderstood aspects of ATRs, and so I’d like to clear up some misconceptions and help set the record straight.
Which animals are used and why?
Different offerings in Africana traditions range from cooked food to fruits and vegetables to physical items and live animals who are sacrificed in a traditional manner. Live animals are used for different reasons within the context of each practice, but generally, it is because that is a traditional practice where tradition is paramount to the integrity of the practices. Another common reason for animal sacrifice within all these traditions is that divination methods show that’s what a particular spirit wants. In Yoruba, Fon/Ewe, and Congo derived religious traditions, it is normal to use traditional divination methods to discern what sort of offering is desired or called for by the spirits.
The types of animals used and the methods of slaughter can both vary a lot across all these different religions and traditions. In Ifá and Lucumí, it is usually farm animals like chickens, goats, pigeons, or doves that are sacrificed. This is always done in a humane manner by priests specifically trained in effective techniques. However, in the indigenous forms of Vodun practiced in West Africa, you’ll find a wider variety of animals that reach across more controversial boundaries such as cats, dogs, and chameleons. From my understanding, the slaughter is also humane and happens very quickly. Even in the United States, some of the older traditions of Southern black belt Hoodoo involve the sacrifice and usage of body parts from animals such as cats, frogs, and rabbits. Not in all cases are the traditional hoodoo methods humane to the animals being used, but I’ve never ever heard of those methods being carried on today in the modern practice. Across all these traditions and cultures, there is a strong respect for the lives of the animals and appreciation for the powerful role they play.
Is this illegal?
In the United States, no. Sacrificing animals for religious purposes in the US is currently protected as exercising one’s right to freedom of religion. In 1993 during the case of the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, the Supreme Court established that it was unconstitutional for the city to ban the “unnecessar[y]” killing of “an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption” because it infringed on religious freedom. This means that animal sacrifice is not a criminal act nor is it reportable to the police. The notion of someone calling the police on their neighbors if they believe animal sacrifice is going on in that home is simply racist harassment based on the notion that these practices are “barbaric.”
In some other countries, animal sacrifice for religious purposes is illegal. These freedoms may not be protected in other countries where Africana traditions are practiced, especially under African, Caribbean, and Latin American governments that are heavily influenced by religions like Catholicism or Islam. Of course, I highly recommend looking up and being aware of the laws around these practices in your country of residence.
I am against animal sacrifice…
Anyone who is upset about the idea of animal sacrifice, feels grossed out by it, or thinks its inherently immoral has every right to feel that way. We all have a right to have our own different beliefs and morals, and that isn’t limited to this topic and this set of practices. However, it is not only rude, but also racist to try to shame or interfere with practitioners of African and Afro-diasporic religions from engaging in our own traditions. While you are entitled to feel whatever way you feel about it, you do not have the right to dump those feelings and opinions on others if they don’t have any interest in hearing them.
On a personal note, I practice the traditions of Lucumí and Palo Kimbisa. I have also been a vegetarian since the age of three. The moment I realized that meat was the body of an animal, I never wanted to eat that again. Much later in life when I came to African traditional religions, it took a lot of prayer, meditation, and reflection to come around to the idea of animal sacrifice. Ultimately, what brought me around is the context, meaning, and methods of the slaughter itself. To me, there is something so fundamentally different about an animal dying alone in a slaughterhouse or painfully inside of a factory machine than being appreciated, prayed over, and killed humanely during a sacred ritual.
I am a vegetarian because I do deeply care about not consuming living beings and about their quality of life and suffering. I view making ebo and other forms of humane animal sacrifice in Africana traditions as a process that is very loving and kind towards the animals compared to what most commercial slaughter processes entail. In Lucumí, we lay down the animal on the ground so that they have the option to run or to demonstrate that they accept being a part of the ritual. I’ve seen this time and time again when the animal had the freedom to run, and I truly do believe that they calmly choose to stay because their spirit is elevated and carried off to Olorun, where they embark on the next part of their destiny.
In all my life as a vegetarian for moral reasons, I’ve never tried to shame the many people in my life who do eat meat or convert anyone to vegetarianism. Though I personally disagree with it, I respect other people’s lifestyle choices around what they eat because I believe it’s their choice to make. I wish that in the same way, more people who on a personal level disagree with animal sacrifice would still be respectful and understanding of it.