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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Offerings to Gods and Spirits

  Offerings are a word that gets thrown around a lot in modern paganism and polytheism, particularly in the corners of it that I lurk in. Earlier this month at the Morrigan's Call Retreat I had a good discussion about offerings with another speaker at the event, Lora O'Brien, and she recently wrote a blog 'Working as a Spiritual Fixer in Ireland' which  I highly recommend reading. As I've been thinking about the subject more I've decided that it really is something that could use a more in-depth public discussion. On the surface it seems like a pretty straightforward concept - an offering is something that you give as a gift or in exchange for something - in spirituality usually to create reciprocity. And like all seemingly simple things it is actually much more complicated than it seems.

  I make offerings all the time myself because I see them as something that underpins my spirituality. Offerings are what create and continue relationships with the spirits and various beings around me, from my ancestors to the Gods, from the land spirits to the Other Crowd. I make offerings on holy days and important occasions, but I also make them on a daily basis, and I truly believe that I receive back in exchange.

altar space with offerings at Brushwood, NY

However there are some key things about offerings that I think are important to understand, and that are not often discussed. Firstly why do we make offerings? The main reason historically was twofold: to propitiate the spirits for blessing or to prevent harm, or to maintain an agreed upon exchange. In the first case, when applied to the Good Neighbors, the idea was that if we offered to them willingly they would not take from us forcibly so we see practices like milk being offered at fairy trees or cows being bled in fairy forts on holy days like Bealtaine. This ties in to some degree with the second idea which is that there was once an agreement between the Tuatha De Danann and/or aos sidhe and humans that a portion of our milk and grain would be given to them so that they would allow the land to prosper - basically we give back some of our harvest in acknowledgement that it ultimately comes through their good will. There are also those who traditionally would offer, especially milk or cream, once a week to the Fey in their home or immediate area in appreciation for their effort around the area and to ensure no ill luck about the place. Another aspect of this is that if we are taking something from one of their places, visiting where we don't usually go, or feel we have been given a gift by them or - in my opinion - feel we owe them in some way we should something back. With the Gods we may be offering for many reasons but ultimately the ideas can be the same: to build relationships, to create connection, in thanks, in propitiation. Offering to our ancestors may be more casual and more often because the relationship with them is closer and more implicit. Reciprocity is built piece by piece on giving when things are received and offerings are important to that.

Any offering should always be the best of something that you have to give, even if its a daily offering you are making. the idea here isn't to do something as a throw away action but to do it with intention and even if its small and casual it should be meaningful. It should have value, both intrinsically and to you as something that actually costs to give. the cost doesn't have to be monetary but it should be something that really matters to you, something that you have an investment in. I burn incense every day to the Gods and it is always either something I've made myself or the best quality one I could find to buy. Offering to spirits is not a matter of giving second rate things or whatever you have on hand*, although I will say that in some situations I have literally given the jewelry I was wearing. In my house we often share our own food with the various spirits we offer to, both in the belief that we are giving what is good enough for us, and because the practice of sharing food with spirits is a long one in many cultures seen in things like the Dumb Supper and in ancient ritual sites were evidence shows feasting and faunal deposits (people sacrificing animals, eating them and giving them to the gods).

Midsummer cake baked as an offering to Aine and the Gentry
When choosing what to give I do look at what would have been a traditional offering, like milk or cream for the Good Neighbors, or historically what was given to certain Gods. I also trust my intuition though, so my ancestors get things like coffee and hard candies. Sometimes I give things like poetry or songs, or my own effort or energy with something, if it seems like that is an appropriate thing to give. And I find that sometimes when something needs to be given I'll just get an idea for what it needs to be - and understand it isn't always something I want to give. For whatever reason I end up offering a lot of silver in the form of jewelry, usually jewelry I have a sentimental attachment to. These aren't things I necessarily want to give, in the sense of I'm not seeking to give them away or eager to give them up. I'd rather keep them, but I've found that when I get that feeling that I need to give something the more I resist it the stronger the feeling gets and the more little omens and indications I'll get that I need to make the offering. Recently for example I had gotten a feeling before going somewhere that I was going to need to give one of my favorite necklaces, a larger stone that was a cabochon of an amethyst naturally growing within clear quartz set in silver (my friend had called it a fairy stone when she'd seen). I did not want to give up this necklace but nonetheless I wore it when I went where I was going, and while I was there I kept getting that nagging feeling as well an assortment of different things going on indicating that an offering was needed. I tried other things first of course, because I'm stubborn, but finally I gave what they wanted and after that things shifted into a more positive sense. I've had the same thing happen before over the years, and I try to be philosophical about it. You may sometimes feel called to offer something with metaphysical significance such as your own blood or an oath and in that case you need to really seriously think about all the implications before you do it, especially if you have no familiarity with blood magic or with the power of oaths (when in doubt don't do it is always a good way to go, and try to find a substitute, if you really feel you must try to talk to someone more experienced first if you can).

So we've looked at why we offer and what, and I've mentioned to whom. When we offer is another question we might want to discuss. I mentioned daily offerings, and those are an option. I usually make daily offerings to the Gods in the morning and do some meditation on the day to come as part of my morning routine. these offerings are fairly small and basic - usually incense and lighting a candle - and represent a way to connect to the deities I honor. I also make a weekly offering to the Good People, of cream, because its traditional and to maintain a right relationship with them. And on the holy days, the holidays I celebrate I make offerings as well, to the ancestors, Gods, and spirits. If I am traveling I also will make offerings when I come to a new place, sort of a peace or friendship offering to the spirits of that place. I don't think there's really any right or wrong for when to make offerings but I do think if you are pagan/polytheist that making offerings at least on the holy days is a good idea.

  I will add this though on the subject of regular offerings to the Other Crowd: its a commitment that you shouldn't start unless you're willing to follow through with it. There are weeks were I am literally spending the last of my grocery money - or dipping into my gas money - to get the cream to give the Good Neighbors, but they always get theirs, sure enough. I learned my lesson on that one years ago when finances made me decide to stop giving them milk and I had an entire gallon pulled from my hand; as my grandfather would say, if you don't give them their due they'll take it. And in my experience they really will.

Where you leave offerings is really going to depend on your own circumstances and preferences. I follow the school of thought that the Gods and spirits consume the essence of the item, if it's food or drink, within the first 24 hours of it being offered and after that the physical item itself can be disposed of. So I leave offerings on my altar for a day then throw them out, or put them outside. In some cases I put them directly outside, but if you choose to do this consider whether the item is safe for any animal that might eat it. Milk, cream, honey, or alcohol are either kept on the altar for a day or poured directly outside. Flammable items like paper, butter, ghee, or herbs, I burn, because of the old Celtic belief (recorded by the Romans) that what is burned with intent in our world appears in the Otherworld. Solid items like silver, jewelry, or weapons, I give to earth or water, again because of archaeological evidence that this is how historic offerings were made in the pagan period.

**Editing to add: This should be common sense but we all know the saying about that...Most of this blog is discussing offerings in the context of home or private ritual sites. If you are visiting a historical, archaeological, famous, or natural site please do not leave a tangible offering there unless there is a policy in place allowing it. Its bad form to leave items, even what you might consider small things like crystals or coins at sites, that might be excavated for study at some point, and its extremely bad form to leave any sort of trash or litter anywhere. FYI - candle wax, food wrappers, bottles, and such are trash and they shouldn't be left at public sacred sites for other people to clean up. When in doubt pouring out a bit of water is usually a respectful and safe option. You can save the bigger offerings for other private settings later, or ask someone local (if you are traveling) how best to handle what you need to do.

So, I think we've covered every aspect of offerings I can think of, excluding how which is really a personal detail that I think is up to the individual to decide and also probably depends on your specific path - although its been touched on anyway here in bits and pieces. Offerings should never be taken lightly, and even when they are part of the daily round of our spirituality should never become routine. And whatever we offer should always be understood as important and valuable, or quite frankly its not worth doing, because if its being done without the proper intent or without any meaning - offering something with no real value to the person - then it will have no meaning or value to the spirits receiving it either.

* I'll add one exception to that, in emergency situations obviously you may end up offering what you have on hand but it should still be the best you can muster.

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