Who do the gods sacrifice to?

I recently came across this review of Kimberley Christine Patton’s book, Religion of the Gods; Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity (2009).  In her book, Patton takes up the phenomenon of Classical depictions of the gods pouring libations and participating in sacrifices.

Zeus pours a libation .. to whom?

Apollo pouring libation

Apollo pouring libation

The cultic action of the gods which is depicted most frequently is libations, but it is not limited to libations.  There are images of deities sprinkling incense on altars, and even suggestions of gods participating in animal sacrifice.

Aphrodite sprinkling incense on altar

And in one curious instance, Apollo is depicted purifying himself in a lustral basin.

Often these depictions of the gods making offerings appear on vases opposite depictions of mortals making offerings:

“the gods’ worship seems to both parallel and respond to human cultic observance. This is why mortal libation scenes appear on the opposite side of the vases. As the gods pour, so do mortals. As mortals pour, so do the gods.”

This raises the question, “Who are the gods making offerings to?”  Patton rejects the theory that they are worshiping a higher deity.  She also rejects that the images are projections of human activities onto the divine realm.  Instead, she theorizes that when the gods pour out wine, they are doing so self-reflexively.  You can read Chapter 5 of Patton’s book here where she lays out her theory.

But Patton’s theory is more nuanced than simply saying that the gods are sacrificing to themselves.  Honestly, I am still trying to wrap my mind around it, but this is the gist of it as I understand it: Religious action is divine action, according to Patton, and belongs properly to the gods.  Thus, there is no object of devotion, no “other”, when the gods worship.  Religion, writes Patton “is created and self-referentially enacted by the divine for its own sake.” (emphasis added).

“The gods are actually worshiping in a recognizable cultic context, but they are not worshiping exactly as mortals do—that is, they are not worshiping something or someone else. They are worshiping because they are the source of, and reason for, all worship.”

(emphasis added).

It’s an interesting theory, and I don’t have the wherewithal to even begin to critique it.  But I share it here because I find the notion of making offerings without a divine recipient in mind particularly salient for naturalistic pagans.  I have found that pouring libations is an emotionally evocative ritual practice for me.  I pour out different libations and make other offerings in different seasons:

Winter solstice: oil (preferably myrrh) [representing birth and death]

Mid-winter: spring water and milk [representing renewal and fostering, respectively]

Spring equinox: flower seeds [representing potential new life]

Mid-spring: flower petals [representing the flowering of life]

Summer solstice: honey [representing love and fulfillment]

Mid-summer: fruit juice and ash [representing enjoyment and the sense of loss that follows consummation]

Autumn equinox: cornmeal and vinegar [representing death and lamentation]

Mid-autumn: red wine [representing sacrifice and blood]

(I deliberately chose libations, which are absorbed by the soil, and other offerings that are easily carried by wind.  I have never been emotionally comfortable with the practical problem of cleaning up offerings after the ritual.)

But while I pour libations and make other offerings, I never once thought that I was making these offerings to someone or even to something.  I do not pour libations out to gods, who I wouldn’t imagine would need them if they did exist.  Nor do I make offerings to the earth or nature — unless you count my compost box.  Who then am I offering to?  Not to myself.  Instead, I find value in the act of making an offering, a ritualized giving, even when there is no recipient.

I think perhaps this resembles what Patton describes in her book.  She writes:

“In the case of the ritualizing god, the reflexive relationship of performer to performance is even more intimate [than in the case of human ritual], in that the divine performer not only originates the ritual order he or she follows but also imbues it with the only meaning it can have. The origin and ‘purpose’ of the ritual order is one and the same: the self-expression of the god performing it.”

Although Patton emphasizes that “divine ritual is not the same as human ritual”, I find these images strangely validating.  Since I locate divinity (at least partially) “within” myself, I guess it makes that I would relate to the images of the gods making offerings.  I think Patton’s description of what is going on in these scenes applies equally well to the case of naturalistic pagans performing offerings.  In both cases, divinity is located (in part) in the person of the performer.  And in both cases, the ritual is performed for its own sake.  The ritual both begins (has its origin) and ends (finds its purpose) in the person of the performer.

A pagan reconstructionist might object that this is a case of hubris or even blasphemy.  But I wonder if this idea of the gods making offerings could provide bridge for naturalistic pagans to discuss religious offerings with polytheistic pagans.

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  • http://paganmythicist.wordpress.com M. Jay Lee

    Patton’s book sounds absolutely fascinating. I will definitely have to add it to my lists of books I hope to read. “They are worshiping because they are the source of, and reason for, all worship.” Yes.

    I never thought about why the gods are sometimes shown poring libations. Somehow it just seemed right. I am reminded of one of my very favorite books, “Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue” by Paul Woodruff. In this book he quotes a passage from Plato’s Protagoras where Protagoras tells this myth: “Whenever they gathered into groups, [early human beings] would do wrong to each other, because they did not yet have the knowledge of how to form society. As a result they would scatter again and perish. And so Zeus, fearing that our whole species would be wiped out, sent Hermes to bring Reverence and Justice to human beings, in order that these two would adorn society and bind people together in friendship.” It is the gods and the act of honoring them that teaches human’s reverence. Reverence is such an important virtue. Reverence reminds us of our proper place, yet it is somehow ennobling and holistic. It seems right that the gods should be shown being reverent. Reverence is something valuable in and of itself. It is the way of the gods.

  • http://thefirstdark.wordpress.com thefirstdark

    Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light.

  • Henry

    The question you pose in your heading to this essay is one of the two ‘theological/theogonic questions I have my students ponder. The other I mentioned in a comment on one of your previous posts (three centers-pt 2) “where do gods come from?”.
    From the excerpt you link to (chapter 5), I am not sure Patton rejects any of the other theories. She mentions the seeming ‘paradoxical’ qualities inherent in many of the other theories.

    Second thing, in dealing with iconography, one can’t really know what’s being conveyed unless one is steeped in the iconic ‘language’ of the particular system. There is also the dicotomy, as it were, between the theological/ theogonal views revealed publicly as it were, and what theological/ theogonal views were maintained via the sacerdotal classes. That’s where the seeming paradoxes arise.

    Personally, I see the gods making their ‘offering’ back towards the offerer. I think Patton hits upon that at the close of the excerpt. The depictions on the vessels show that, each deity responds according to office.
    One really can’t totally rule out the idea that the gods may be offering to higher beings, or even peer to peer as it were. That is part of a hierarchial view.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      “Personally, I see the gods making their ‘offering’ back towards the offerer.”

      Now that it a very interesting idea. It would seem to be supported by the juxtaposition of the mortal and divine offering on opposite sides of the vases.

      “Second thing, in dealing with iconography, one can’t really know what’s being conveyed unless one is steeped in the iconic ‘language’ of the particular system. There is also the dicotomy, as it were, between the theological/ theogonal views revealed publicly as it were, and what theological/ theogonal views were maintained via the sacerdotal classes.”

      I agree. However, in this case, I suspect that the expression may have been more reflective of an artistic convention than a secret priestly doctrine. It’s problematic to assume that art is reflective of either elite or popular spirituality.

      • Henry

        Hmmm, didn’t know we were considering art in general.The examples are depictions of ritual actions after all. I would find it problematic that depictions of ritual actions are not taken as reflective of “spirituality”, whether elite or popular. I’d also not rule out that any artistic convention, when dealing with certain motifs, have a grounding in religious practice and beliefs. I mean if these examples aren’t reflective of religious practices and beliefs, what point is there to use them as examples or as a departure for investigating ‘who do the gods sacrifice to’?

        • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

          There undoubtedly is a certain reciprocal relationship between religiously-themed art and religious thought/practice. But there is such as artistic license, and I suspect that artists in antiquity were not significantly different than artists in the Renaissance or today. An artist may paint a mythological scene that diverges from the canonical accounts of the myth. There are numerous examples of this, but one that stands out to me are the sculptures of tri-formed Hecate, which preceded any mythological associations of Hecate with triplicity. Similarly, an artist may depict religious practice that diverges from actual practice. I realize this can be disconcerting to pagan reconstructionists who rely on these representations to re-create ancient practice, but the fact is we cannot know for sure what the relationship is between art and historical fact. It is a mistake though to treat art as a simple historical document. Certainly there is some relationship there, but an artist may chose to depict something ahistorical in order to be deliberately provocative.

          The point of my post was not to answer the question of what these depictions meant to the artsits who created them, but rather to explore what the concept of gods sacrificing to themselves might mean in a naturalistic context.

          • Henry

            “The point of my post was not to answer the question of what these depictions meant to the artsits who created them, but rather to explore what the concept of gods sacrificing to themselves might mean in a naturalistic context.”
            Isn’t that what Patton was exploring? And yet theorising that the gods are sacrificing to them selves is an attempt to reach the artists meaning?
            I would say the only conclusion reachable is that these depict both gods and humans making offerings. Any attempt as to ‘who’ or ‘why’ is speculation, interpretation. Any of which is as good as another. They show a gesture of ‘giving’.

            • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

              I agree that there is very little we can say about what the Greeks were doing in this case. But what I wanted to explore in my post was, what is my reaction to these images as someone who does not believe in the literal existence of independent divine beings?

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