Long ago there was a critical piece written on a ritual called The Sacred Hunt. This ritual commonplace at large Pagan festivals, in which people are assigned the role of a “Hunter,” a “Drummer,” or a “Villager” and enact a symbolic hunting ritual, ending with a feast served to the Hunters by the Villagers. The main critique of this process is that, well, it’s backwards: The Hunters should be feeding the Villagers, after all! Why would they reward somebody who came home empty-handed, leaving the village to starve?
As I write this I want to wear two hats. The first is as a Lover of Ritual, even ones that aren’t completely my cup of tea or of which I have strong critiques. I mean, if you’ve seen me at a legal marriage ceremony, you know this… I get very emotional, and am willing to participate fully (including officiating them as a minister), even though I view legal marriage as a fundamentally oppressive concept. The second hat is that of a hunter… by which I mean a literal, honest-to-Gods person who goes out into the woods and kills animals to eat their flesh. Not only am I a hunter, I was raised into it, beginning as soon as I was legally able to at twelve years old.
The Sacred Hunt was something I considered participating in and then decided against. There are multiple reasons for this. First, the output I would get for the input I would have to put in doesn’t match up enough. The Hunt is a lot of work, and there’s other stuff I want to do when I’m there. Second, I already hunt, so I can’t imagine this ritual would be as meaningful for me as it is for people who weren’t raised into hunting. Where I encounter this ritual there are very limited slots for Hunters. Why swallow one up? Maybe I’ll participate as a Drummer (as drumming is a thing I want to get into), but probably not a Hunter. And third, because I do already hunt, the same criticism that I am addressing next does personally affect how I will respond to said ritual. For me, personally, the hunt will probably ring a bit hollow, like an Amish person going to a reenactment village or something (I don’t actually know how said Amish person would feel about it, but you get my drift).
Still, despite my own feelings about it, I think this criticism is very unfair, both from an honest-to-Gods hunter perspective and a Lover of Ritual perspective.
From a Lover of Ritual perspective, it’s important to recognize that literal hunting is not something that can be very easily emulated, and yet that spiritual hole still needs to be filled. Trying to think of ways to make the Hunt more like hunting leads to stuff that is much sillier than the Hunt is as it stands, if you think the Sacred Hunt ritual is absurd or silly because X, Y, and Z I’d like to see what your non-hunting alternatives are. Like… are you going to hide carrots in the woods for them to stab and bring back to feed the Villagers? Fight domestic bulls? Come on. It’s fairly obvious that this ritual is not about bringing back food, it’s about symbolically bringing back stuff that is way less tangible. The Hunt is a metaphor. If I’m going to rail against absurd metaphors, I’m going to at least start with the symbolic Great Rite or something like that. It’s way more pervasive than The Sacred Hunt, something that the vast majority of Pagans have probably never even heard of.
But let me put on my honest-to-Gods Hunter hat for a second here. Because I feel like people are making assumptions about hunting as an activity without really understanding what it’s like to be raised in a hunting family. So many Pagans I’ve met who hunt didn’t start hunting until they were adults and may not even have friends or family who hunt. I remember years ago reading an article that bugged the hell out of me, written by a Pagan hunter who wrote about his hunting experience like it was the definitive guide to how Pagan hunters are different from normie hunters, and almost all of it was better explained by the fact that he started hunting later in life, on his own, without being initiated into it by a community as I was. Just like a solitary Witch has an entirely different experience than a coven Witch, a solitary hunter has a very different experience than a community hunter.
A solitary Pagan hunter who ritualizes this experience has the following thought process in mind: In ancient times, if I failed in my task, I would starve. My community would starve. Not allowing us to starve is my personal, one-man responsibility. This is the thought process that makes it easy to see a hunter coming home to a feast prepared as ridiculous.
But as a community hunter? It’s not ridiculous.
My experience from twelve on up was this: I am not a hunter with a high body count. I have not taken home many animals. I hunt on over-populated public land, the deer are now concentrated in the cities and suburbs (seriously, they are), and I want to make sure the shots I take are good ones that are likely to kill quickly. But I am not a solitary hunter… I am a community hunter. I always have venison for the year, because if I don’t get a deer my brother or father will. If I come home empty handed, I may get teased, but that’s the extent of it. And when I was a child, and my whole family (including my mom, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my brothers) we would leave the woods to a special meal. Usually it was McDonalds (don’t laugh; this was a big treat for me growing up), but it could be a specially prepared meal. Other hunting families I know, they come out of the woods to chili made with last year’s deer, often prepared by somebody who stuck behind or (if their family has de facto gender roles, as mine does not) their wives. Maybe they get teased if they didn’t get a deer, but they aren’t somehow shunned from the community like critics of The Sacred Hunt imply they would, and they certainly still get fed.
“But Jackson,” I can hear some people whisper, “Hunting today is different from hunting in Ancient Times when not getting a deer meant certain deathhhhhh!” Or maybe you’ll cite some custom in some random band or tribe you heard about once that had some taboo against feeding an empty-handed hunter.
And this is super funny, because it’s an extension of a very common habit among Pagans and other “spiritual people.” They spiritualize activities that they associate with our ancestors without recognizing that people still do those activities, and those people who do continue those traditions can never be good enough if we don’t conform to whatever honor code or woo woo stuff the particular Pagan believes to be associated with The Hunt. And the tribal citations are even more ridiculous, because they’re also borderline if not full-on appropriative. There are lots of ways to pay homage to animal spirits and the spirits of the land without shallow emulation of. worldwide indigenous peoples or the assumption that rural folks who get a lot of protein from game animals are being disrespectful by not following your religious practices.
To sum everything up, there are some issues with The Sacred Hunt that make it not quite for me, but the bizarre assumptions people make in its critique also make no sense.