Ever since the first man killed his first game, there have been rituals associated with the hunt. Perhaps it was simple superstition. Perhaps it was a sacrifice of gratitude to the gods. Whatever it was, humans are ritualistic creatures and although we only know of some of these rituals, it is safe to assume almost everyone had one. Today, most of those rituals look very different than the rituals of the past, but not always.
Before we go any further, we should define both “tradition” and “ritual” because people often use them interchangeably. Although traditions can be religious in nature, ritual is more specific to spiritual matters. So, for the sake of clarity in this article, we will use “ritual” to describe spiritual matters and “tradition” to describe non-spiritual matters.
Most rituals, even for Christian hunters like myself, originate from our pagan ancestors. Some of these rituals are pre-hunt and some of them are post-kill. As humans, we have always asked for blessings before the hunt and given thanks for our success after it. This is not so different than the pre-planting rituals and the post-harvest rituals in our agrarian history. We need food to survive, so we ask for assistance and when we’re full, we express our gratitude in hopes that our appreciation will be looked upon kindly when it comes time to ask for assistance again.
Studies show that today, most American hunters identify as Christians, but I think it is important to recognize that when it comes to hunting, our faith overlaps quite extensively with our pagan ancestors and those modern-day pagans who hunt. A few months back, I had the pleasure to sit down with Chas Clifton, a wonderful writer who I became acquainted with thanks to his essay, “The Hunter’s Eucharist” that was published in David Petersen’s classic A Hunter’s Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport. We had a wonderful, albeit rambling, two-hour conversation centered around hunting, but one thing he said to me has stuck out ever since. “The hunt is complicated, so I think the only way to approach it is to ritualize the shit out of it. Because otherwise it becomes too complex to realize that you love something, but you kill it.”
Here we will look at three of the more popular rituals.
· Prayer– This is undoubtedly the most popular no matter the hunter’s personal spirituality and it takes many forms. Saying a simple prayer, asking God to keep you safe and help you ethically harvest game really makes too much sense not to do. However, some hunters are more elaborate. When I was in my 20’s and early 30’s white tail hunting every fall, I used to say a little prayer as I buried a small bit of tobacco as a sacrifice before walking into the woods in the morning. It’s a ritual that I borrowed from the Cherokee to not only bless my hunt, but to connect me with my distant Cherokee ancestors who held the white tail in such high regard.
· Blooding– People are starting to have mixed feelings about this ritual thanks to diseases such as Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), but many people, myself included, still find meaning in using the blood of the freshly slain animal to mark your face (there is no evidence that disease can be passed through the skin, but I would advise you to be careful to avoid the eyes and mouth). This is especially true for hunters on their first kill. According to Patrick Durkin, “This rite traces back to the 700s A.D. as a tribute to St. Hubert.” However, this ritual most certainly pre-dates Christian Europe. This can be used as an initiation to a group and also as a way to connect yourself with the animal and with your ancestors.
· Eating Raw Flesh– Thanks to the worries of diseases such as CWD, this one is quickly going out of fashion. In fact, many hunters do not want to eat any meat at all in camp, even cooked, until it has been tested for CWD. This too is a ritual based on ingesting the essence of the animal you harvested. Many animals we hunt have many admirable traits and this is seen as a way to give yourself some of their strengths. Personally, going forward, I am not sure what I will do, but I will say it depends on the animal and location; bear absolutely not, North Slope Caribou in Alaska absolutely yes. The question for me soon will be whether I eat Colorado elk in camp.
No matter what you choose to do or not do, adding a ritual to your hunt will give it more meaning. Getting spiritually connected to the land isn’t something that just happens, it’s a relationship and that means you have to give in order to take. Whether you are a monotheistic Christian or a polytheistic pagan, it’s really the same thing, you want God or the gods, to know your heart is pure and that you are grateful and humble. You’re not an observer or a user of nature, you’re a partner or participant in nature.