A Libation Without a Prayer is Just a Spilled Drink

I love panel discussions.  They’re filled with knowledgeable people who bring wisdom and insight to a subject, and they’re usually moderated by someone who knows when to let the panelists run and when to bring them back on topic.  Panel discussions inform me, challenge me, give me food for thought – and they inspire blog posts.

Somehow I only managed to attend one panel discussion at Pantheacon, but it was a good one.  “Sacrifice and Modern Paganism” was organized by the Coru Cathubodua and it was moderated by Rynn Fox.  Participants were Jeffrey Albaugh, Crystal Blanton, Dr. Amy Hale, Mambo T, and Sam Webster.

I took a few notes, but this post is not intended to be a summary of the panel, much less a transcript.  Rather, it’s my impression of the discussion and my response to it.

One of my first observations was the difference – in content, tone and emphasis – between the practitioners (Mambo T, Sam Webster) who do sacrifice and the academics (Jeffrey Albaugh, Amy Hale) who study sacrifice.  Not that one or the other was right or better, but they were clearly different.  Crystal Blanton – who counts social worker as one of her occupations – had a third perspective that did not get the time it deserved.

Actually, I’m not sure any of the perspectives got the time it deserved.  This panel could have been much longer than 90 minutes – and could have had many more participants.  In particular, I would have liked to have seen a representative from ADF, since sacrifice is a key element of their standard liturgy.

One of the reasons the panel needed more time was that the discussion kept getting hung up on animal sacrifice, especially once the floor was opened for questions from the audience.  I wrote on this last year.  Here’s a key quote – you can go read the rest if you like.

I see a clear difference between offering a life to the gods and sharing our food with the gods. But I understand that if you don’t see animals as a legitimate source of food, you aren’t likely to see much difference between the two …

Let’s not let our disagreements over the appropriateness of animal sacrifice distract us from the more important issue: we need to incorporate sacrifice into our regular practices. Sometimes that will mean “to give up,” sometimes that will mean “to make sacred” and sometimes that will mean both.

The exact form a sacrifice should take is a question for specific Pagan traditions – a Vodou sacrifice will look and feel different from a Hellenic sacrifice.  A pan-Pagan setting such as this panel is most appropriate for comparing and contrasting and especially for discussing the why of sacrifice.

I heard four major themes in this discussion.

Sacrifice is a dialogue

Jeffrey Albaugh said “sacrifice is a dialogue.”  Though this was a Pagan discussion, it wasn’t long before the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac came up.  In the small Baptist church where I grew up, Abraham was praised for being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac because he was being obedient to Yahweh.  I’ve heard more progressive Christians say no, Abraham should be praised for trusting that his God would not ultimately demand the life of his son.

The Pagan consensus was that this was a test and Abraham failed.  Abraham was asked to do something he knew he shouldn’t do.  Even though a God was telling him to do it, he should have exercised his sovereignty – and respected the sovereignty of Isaac – and told Yahweh “no.”  In the discussion, Sam Webster said “say no, then we can go into negotiation.  Gods are looking for priests, not minions.”

Are you a vegan who can’t offer milk to Brighid?  Then ask Brighid what she would like instead (she seemed to have no problem with the almond milk some of us offered her last year).

Not every substitution will be acceptable, and some deities are more inclined to negotiate than others.  Some traditions (Mambo T’s Vodou being one obvious example) have hundreds of years of experience with what offerings are acceptable to which deity.  Others don’t – we’re still trying to figure it out.  But don’t violate your core principles even if a God tells you to do it.

But beware simplistic quid pro quo

Jeffrey Albaugh complained about “transactional sacrifices” that provide a “sitcom answer” – the solution to problem X is to offer sacrifice Y to deity Z, all nice and neat and wrapped up in 30 minutes with time for commercials.

There are times when quid pro quo offerings are appropriate, particularly when they come as a result of the kind of dialogue described above.  But there are some Pagans who approach the Gods like They’re vending machines, Pagans whose only interest in the Gods seems to be what they can get from Them, as opposed to developing reciprocal relationships and participating in a Great Work that is bigger than any of us.

Speaking of more non-ritual sacrifices, Crystal Blanton said “this what I’m supposed to do.”  She said her sacrifices aren’t done for herself, they’re done to build a just and compassionate society.

Even when we expect to get something back in the exchange, we know many sacrifices won’t bring immediate gratification.  The distance runner sacrifices day in and day out for the experience of completing a marathon.  The parent sacrifices so the child will have a better future.  The adult child sacrifices so the aging parent’s final years will be spent in peace.

Pouring a bottle of wine to a deity is no shortcut for any of this.

The ritual of sacrifice is there for a reason

“A libation without a prayer is just a spilled drink” – Sam Webster.

We tend to think of sacrifice as giving up something.  But sacrifice has another meaning:  “to make sacred.”  When we offer something to the Gods and it is accepted, it takes on some of Their divine essence.

For the ancient Greeks, just killing the cow wasn’t a sacrifice – they were going to do that anyway.  But by killing the cow with the proper rituals and by offering it to the Gods, some of the essence of the Gods was returned to the worshippers.  The ritual of sacrifice – whether it involves blood or a solid object or service or something else – connects us to Them and provides a means for Their blessings to return to us.

If your tradition has established liturgies of sacrifice, use them.  Writing around 300 CE, Iamblichus said:

It is necessary that the prayers of the ancients … are preserved ever the same and in the same manner, with nothing of alternative origin either removed from or added to them. For this is the reason why all these things in place at the present time have lost their power, both the names and the prayers: because they are endlessly altered according to the inventiveness and illegality of the Hellenes.

In the Q&A portion, Morpheus Ravenna asked “how do you check to be sure what you’re sacrificing is appropriate?”  Mambo T responded that her Vodou tradition includes lots of requirements to check off, and that anyone can stop the sacrifice if it doesn’t seem right.  She said “any God worth worshipping will wait till you know it’s right.”

Those of us working in traditions without Vodou’s established practices have to rely on research and on our own UPG (unverified personal gnosis).  Over time, UPG becomes SPG (shared personal gnosis) and eventually becomes CG (confirmed gnosis).

Gaining that gnosis begins with making the sacrifices and paying attention to the responses.

Sacrifices form relationships

Jeffrey Albaugh said “family is who we share food with.  Sacrifices make the Gods part of our family.”

We read about how family dinners strengthen family bonds.  Holiday meals connect the family and the holy day with special foods.  Church dinners build relationships among the congregation.

I used to have a boss who bought lunch for his staff once a week – the shared meal was a team building exercise.  While that’s not the only reason, I’ve never had closer relationships with co-workers than I did then.

When we share our food with the Gods we invite them to be part of our family.  Sometimes that means giving up the food – pouring a libation on the ground or burning a piece of meat or bread in a fire.  Sometimes it means offering it to them with ritual and prayer, and then eating what they do not consume – what the Egyptians called “reversion of offerings.”

Sacrifices give to the Gods, encouraging Them to give to us, so that we may give to Them in a never-ending cycle of reciprocity and blessings.

My thanks to the Coru Cathubodua (I seem to be saying that a lot lately – and with good reason) for facilitating the discussion, to the panelists for sharing their wisdom and experience, to the participants for their questions, and to everyone who is working diligently to re-establish the noble and necessary art of sacrifice.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.


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