“We offer sacrifice to the Gods for three reasons: that we may venerate, that we give thanks, and that we may implore from them things necessary and avert from ourselves things evil.” ~Porphyry
The Platonist Porphyry summed up nicely, in a harmonious way, the Hellenic attitude on sacrifice (worship and prayer also) during his polemics with the Christians in Late Antiquity. I felt compelled to share this especially now at the beginning of a New Year to help those seeking a meaningful approach to their practice from the Hellenic tradition. Porphyry provides an authentic expression which can be traced across the Golden Chain of the Hellenic tradition. My exegesis is presented below.
“…that we may venerate…” We worship through sacrifice because the Gods are worthy to receive these sacrifices. We sacrifice to them because they are real and active in our world as ordering principles that create harmony which allows existence. We do not worship imaginary Gods. Because they are real and worthy of worship, it is pious to acknowledge them with sacrifices as is customary.
“…that we give thanks…” Gratitude to the Gods is essential in the Hellenic tradition, for the Gods give freely to us without any expectations in return. The Gods need nothing and are not dependent on us to sustain themselves, they have a perfection which is beyond our ability to contribute towards. Thus, our offerings to them are an act of thanksgiving. Just as the Gods freely give to us without condition, we mimic their example by our offerings that we to freely give without condition or expectation. Thus, we should never expect the Gods to give something in return for our gestures of gratitude. Such thinking is selfish and impious as it leads one to think a God can be swayed by material goods or enchanting words.
“…that we may implore from them things necessary and avert from ourselves things evil.” Here is one of the more important lessons from the Hellenic tradition that I have found consistently presented in the ancient sources. When we pray to the Gods, it is wise not to approach them with a wish list. It is best that we ask the Gods for, in the words of Porphyry, things necessary. Which means, we only ask that the Gods give to us what is appropriate for our situation. Asking for a specific thing may actually be a request of an ‘extreme’ (excess or deficiency). Porphyry in his own words is reminding us to follow the Delphic Maxim “Pray for things possible” and “Nothing in excess.”
The Gods ‘prefer’ the middle way, that which is necessary. What is necessary is also what is possible. Impossible things are not necessary things. Necessity determines what is possible. Because the Gods maintain order in the cosmos, they manifest into creation that which is best out of the possibility of becoming, that which can come about given the nature of present things. There are many things that can come into being from becoming. With help of the Gods, we ask that they pick the best out of the possibilities of becoming and bring it forth into being.
Praying for what is possible and necessary help to ‘avert evils’ because when we fall into extremes of any kind, it can attract ‘evils’ such as the envy or scorn of others. ‘Evils’ can also be unintended self-harm to our souls or others, because when ask for what we desire (treating the Gods like a genie) it may not actually be what is best for us or others. This is not a ‘be careful what you wish for’ type of warning – the Gods never give to us something that will harm us. What I think is being said here is that when we pray for things we want, it simply throws us out of step with the Gods and the world, like playing an untuned piano. Thus the best way to play the piano is to tune it, likewise to be in tune with the Gods is to pray for what is ‘good’ (necessary/possible) and leave the Gods sort it out while you do what you can through your actions.