Snow on peaks

Snow on peaks

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Goat Sacrifice

Foreword:  “If you kill a goat to make yourself a sandwich, you have committed an error. If you kill a goat with reverence and gratitude in order to feed a community, you have taken responsibility for feeding yourself and your people and you have done an honorable thing.” 
 Loosely translated from the TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD – Kitty Snead

By 10 a.m. two male goats, one white and one black appeared and they were tightly tied to small trees at the west end of the dance floor.  Nabor had tied the white one and it could stand, head bowed and contemplate its fate.  The black goat had more slack in its rope and could move and jerk at its tether when we walked by.
Lionilo built the simple altar near the center of the patio.  A raised, two plank table on 6 spindly legs with three crosses rising from the back.  It was unmistakably an altar-- stark, primal...sacred.  I photographed the simple structure from both front and back and I photographed the two hapless goats.  Then the thought occurred to me to stand in the ravine where the black pipe supplied us with mountain spring water.  So balanced on small rocks, trying not to get my feet wet, I found an angle where I might frame the goat in the foreground with the altar and the mountains behind.
I was a little anxious.  Nabor indicated with his finger that a knife would be inserted into the neck of the goats at the jugular.  We laughed.  Nabor gestured and spoke of sending the goat to heaven to be with God and then he pointed to his stomach and I replied stumbling through, "gracias por su sacrificio por neuestra comida--barbocoa!"  Then for just a second our eyes met in a serious moment between us.
By noon, I was hot and tired of waiting on the sacrificing part to start.  I was determined to photograph the ritual.  But the Raramuri were waiting--(I think now) for the hot, still part of the day when women grind corn and visit and babies sleep.  That exact moment to commit the very deliberate act of taking a life without hesitancy, or trifling or any sort of dishonor.  I know this now but on Wednesday I was only hot, tired and restless so I told Lionilo and Clemente to "wake me for the sacrifice."  They nodded in agreement and I went off behind the hut to rest in the shade.  I dozed but awoke when I heard a muffled cry.  I jerked to my feet, grabbed my camera bag and shot around the corner to see the white goat on the ground, feet bound, with two holes--on each side of its neck-- being bled out into a large wooden bowl.  My first thought was "shit, I've missed the stabbing part!"  I noticed Chico and Lionilo held the goat's head still and one held its mouth closed to muffle its cries.  It was eerily quiet, the mood was somber, nothing stirred--no breath of air in the heat and glare of the mid day sun.
I began to photograph the event: the head, the bowl of blood, the long dagger with blood on its pointed end.  At some point in my photographing, the reality of the situation worked its way into my subconsious.  This death was both slow and painful and the men were very patient and quiet in the their handling of the animal.  When the goat was bled out, the bowl of blood was removed and raised to the sky, a prayer was offered which I could barely hear and certainly could not understand and blood was flung on the patio floor in a circular motion to the 4 directions.  Then the bowl was set upon the altar.
If I had missed the stabbing of the white goat, I was fully present for the second, black goat's mortal wounds.  The entire process seemed like a long time because I wanted the killing part to be instantaneous and painless like dying in one's sleep.  But most of the time death takes a while or rather life takes its time leaving.  THE HEART, the mind, the body struggles to overcome death, almost to the end--bleeding out.

There was one moment when the black goat was "left for dead" when the prayers and blood had been offered up to the heavens and scattered on the earth, and I photographed the head resting on its horns, chin pointed skyward, mouth slightly ajar, the opened eye's blank death stare and the altar in the background.
I was low to the ground on both knees, the animal jerked one last time and I shot to my feet.  Dusting the dirt and small rocks from my pants, I noticed I had knelt in some of the offered blood.  I walked rapidly and consciously washed my pants in the nearby running water.  My prayer--"keep death from my door a little while longer."
That was the last conscious thing I did for a while.  The men asked if I was alright--I nodded, yes, yes, I was fine but somewhat dazed and thinking about death, both my own and that of my friends and family.  It was time for honoring death and the part it plays in nurturing the living--the dancing, the drinking and the feasting, all saluting life.
Reading my notes from that day and sitting here now in this room in Dallas, sliding in and out of time between worlds, I feel strangely disorientated.  So I offer these journal notes and photographs as proof of this existing, parallel world.

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