The weather may have been growing colder, but, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, tempers were running hot in the first week of November as the Harvard varsity football team struggled to carry out its annual blood sacrifice in preparation for the Yale-Harvard game. The tradition hit a snag when McCafferty Dairy and Farm, who normally supplies the university with the required 13 goats and 13 cows, backed out due to a impending animal rights lawsuit.
“We were blindsided,” Chad Baker, head of the undergraduate occult committee remembers. “Eight days before we were supposed to start putting the pyre together, we got a call from the farm saying that they wouldn’t be able to complete our order.”
A ritual dating back to 1995, the “Victory Slaughter” has become a favorite among the undergraduate and graduate populations alike. Few are allowed to know the specifics of the sacrifice, but many attend for the spectacle (as well as to take advantage of “Blood ’n Brews” night at Russell House Tavern).
Although most university administrators criticize sports sacrifices as barbaric and outdated, the Harvard Corporation has continued to fund the Victory Slaughter, arguing that it promotes community spirit. “The Harvard Victory Slaughter has statistically attracted the largest undergraduate attendance of any university event,” reads a press release that was distributed in 2006 following the now-famous “Axe Incident.” The statement goes on to detail how “all livestock for the Victory Slaughter are purchased from local suppliers.”
It is no surprise then, that the initial email announcing the cancellation of this year’s Victory Slaughter was met with enormous resistance on campus. Many Harvard students felt that they were unable to deal with their workloads without the catharsis of a blood sacrifice. Fifty members of the football team staged a walkout, reporting that they were “uncomfortable” playing against Yale without the security normally afforded to them by the Victory Slaughter.
“I haven’t told anyone, but don’t actually know how to catch a football,” an anonymous starter claimed. “Without the sacrifice, we couldn’t even beat Columbia.”
In the face of an overwhelmingly hostile backlash, administration and student government pulled together and were able to locate a secondary livestock supplier. While this effort helped to quell a good portion of the Harvard community, traditionalists remain dissatisfied.
“They’re substituting sheep for goats,” Stephen Markland, a professor in Harvard’s Art History Department complains. “Once we start compromising like that, where does it end?”
Some focused more on McCafferty Dairy and Farm and the animal rights lawsuit. “The problem is people these days are too easily offended,” an anonymous Harvard student tweeted. “We’ve been doing this for years, and there’s never been any trouble until now.”
This is only somewhat true. While the Harvard Corporation has successfully defended the Victory Slaughter during legal disputes, there have been a number of incidents in the tradition’s 21-year history that have led to injury and discontent. Alumni remember, for instance, the 1998 “Limestone Controversy.”
“We let the sculpture students carve the sacrificial table,” Martin Liebowitz recalls. “It was a real hack job. We got trounced, three years in a row.” The student-produced ritual tools were quickly replaced with ones made by outside contractors.
The aforementioned “Axe Incident” of 2006 is another such disaster in Harvard’s history. In response to concerns over the weight of the sacrificial battle-ax, the Harvard Physics Department attempted to build an “ax machine” that would remove the human element from the ritual. When a number of the assembled livestock spooked, the ensuing chaos left two students mutilated.
“Worst of all, we lost because of it,” Jon O’Hara says. “Everyone was pretty bummed about that.”
While this year’s Victory Slaughter was held on schedule, students remain anxious about the use of sheep.
“They made a lot more noise than the goats,” says Harvard University President Drew Faust. “It just felt wrong.”
At Yale, efforts are underway to develop the University’s own sacrifice tradition. In a statement released to the community, the president’s office reassured worried parents and alumni, “Here at Yale, we are dedicated to growing a supportive and close-knit community. And beating Harvard. If it takes a mere blood offering to the Dark Lord, so be it.”
Harvard and Yale square off on Nov. 19 at 12:30 p.m.