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Why is it legal to kill ravens anytime and place in Iceland? Are they endangered in Iceland? What did ritual sacrifice to the old Norse gods involve?

Ask IR

Why is it legal to kill ravens anytime and place in Iceland? Are they endangered in Iceland? What did ritual sacrifice to the old Norse gods involve?

Q: Why is it legal to kill ravens anytime and place in Iceland as stated in a Daily Life column from December 28, 2007? Are they endangered in Iceland?

An excerpt from a Daily Life column dated December 7, 2007, reads: “The practice of bera út, abandoning a child in nature to die of exposure, was so important to Icelanders that it was one of the three exceptions they were granted when the nation converted to Christianity in 1000 AD. The other two exceptions were eating horse meat (which you’ll still find in the grocer’s meat case) and ritual scarification carried out in secret.”

I've heard about the first two exceptions but thought that the third one was that people could still sacrifice in private to the old Norse gods. Please tell me more about this ritual scarification.

Jordsvin, Lexington, Kentucky, USA

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A: According to biologist Jón Már Halldórsson, ravens flock to inhabited areas in fall and winter to look for food during the cold winter months. Ravens spend the night in groups numbering in the dozens, or even hundreds, in places like Mt. Esja, overlooking Reykjavík and Mt. Ingólfsfjall, overlooking Selfoss, south Iceland.

Ravens are killed because they are considered pests, like seagulls who settle too close to human settlements, rummaging through the rubbish for food. They are also hated for their cruelty, like when they peck the eyes out of trapped sheep. Ravens are also known for stealing eggs from nests of eider ducks.

Many ravens are killed in Iceland every year, and ornithologists believe their numbers have decreased to some extent in some areas of the country, but they are not an endangered species. According to Halldórsson, the stock biomass totals more than 2,500 raven couples (they mate for life) and in fall there are about 12,000 ravens in Iceland. In an article in Morgunbladid, dated February 22, 2008, it is stated that killing ravens in Iceland is not legal anymore.

By “ritual sacrifice carried out in secret,” I am referring to the fact that Icelanders were permitted to make sacrifices to the old Norse gods in private after the nation converted to Christianity in 1000 AD.

According to gothi Jóhanna Hardardóttir, one of the heathen priest at Ásatrúarfélagid, a religious organization for those who believe in the pagan Icelandic/Nordic gods, not much is known about the sacrificial traditions practiced at that time (probably because they were not carried out in public) and historians do not all agree.

What people do know, Hardardóttir said, is that when people carried out sacrifice, they assembled and declared peace and truce, dined together and drank to honor someone, the gods, supernatural beings, their forefathers and others worthy of honor. Eating was always an important part of the celebrations, so animals were slaughtered, but the slaughtering was not necessarily part of a religious ritual.

In the pagan religion there are four main feasts related to ritual sacrifice, called blót in Icelandic, on the first day of summer (this year April 24), the first day of winter (this year October 25), the summer solstice (this year June 20) and the winter solstice (this year December 21). A fifth annual occasion for such a feast is Thorrablót, held in mid-winter in the old Icelandic month of Thorri, this year between January 25 and February 23.

(The first day of Thorri is incidentally known as bóndadagur, Men’s Day, when women pamper their husbands, and the first day of Góa (the following month), this year February 24, as konudagur, Women’s Day, when women are spoiled by their partners.)

Not until Ásatrúarfélagid was founded in 1972, was blót carried out in public again. Click here to watch a video of the organization’s 2006 haustblót (“Autumn Sacrifice”).