Giving offerings to the Gods is an important part of most polytheist traditions. Many forms of religious witchcraft also emphasize the importance of offerings as well, often to a whole host of spirits and deities.
But what makes an offering appropriate for the Gods and spirits? And are there tiers of offerings and sacrifice?
Inspiration for This Post
I’ve been mulling over the topic of offerings and ‘tiers’ of offerings for a few months, after seeing a few Twitter threads on the topic. The topic had also been on my mind as I have been rereading Ceisiwr Serith’s A Book of Pagan Prayer. And this post by Melissa Hill had me thinking on the topic once again, so I figured it was time to get my thoughts out.
Across Paganism, within our myriad traditions, there are absolutely tiers of offerings. We might not mean to, but we love categorizing and ranking ourselves, each other, and what we have (and have to give).
The Simple Things
Some of the most standard offerings, across religious traditions, are candles and incense. These often double as useful focal points for a practitioner. Scents play an incredible role in our brain and memory, and associating a certain scent with rituals and specific Gods can help shift our mind quickly into devotional headspace. Candle flames can act as actual points of focus for us to gaze into while meditating or praying.
Their ubiquity can cause some to put them at the ‘bottom’ of the offering tier list. They’re standard and basic. They’re the offerings you’re expected to give.
Offerings of water, bread, and flowers can be treated similarly. ‘Everyone’ gives those, so they become devalued in our minds or communities. Alcohol is also incredibly common, but it usually ekes out just above these other ‘simple’ items. (People seem to understand that alcohol is not easily accessible for everyone.)
I would argue that basic does not mean lesser. It would be silly to say that we can abandon other basic aspects of religious practice once we have become more advanced. These simple offerings can still carry great meaning. They may be easily accessible, but they are not actually available for everyone to give. Treating them dismissively doesn’t make sense to me.
Flesh and Food
Giving meals and food to the Gods and spirits is a common practice. It is more involved than lighting a stick of incense, especially if we are making a meal from scratch. Some people offer bits of every meal they eat to the Gods. On certain holy days a whole plate of food and drink, or more than that, may be given to the Gods.
How we share food with the Gods can actually be quite controversial. Food offerings are handled differently in different traditions. In some, the food is returned to the worshipers and eaten; often they are sharing the meal with the Gods and receiving blessings. In others, consuming the food offered would be absolutely inappropriate, seen as taking food out of the mouth of a dinner guest’s mouth. And in others it may not be considered rude but ill-advised, usually in traditions that view the essence or ‘energy’ of the food as what is consumed by the Gods.
Some people believe that their tradition’s way of handling food offerings is superior. There have been many, many arguments on the topic. Giving food offerings without consuming them is ‘wasteful’, whereas eating the food is seen as ‘selfish’. We tend to view how our tradition or culture handles offerings as the ‘best’ way. It works the best for the Gods and spirits we interact with. And as much as we pay lip-service to the idea of diversity, we struggle at comprehending how diverse Paganism, polytheism, and religious witchcraft really are.
Time and Energy
The offering I see many Western Pagans and polytheists uphold as the shining jewel of devotion is giving our time and energy to the Gods. Technically, I don’t disagree that the sacrifice of ourselves in such a way can bring us closer to the Gods and spirits. Our lives can become suffused with Their presence.
But ‘time and energy’ are pretty vague.
Does this mean bigger, longer rituals? All night vigils? Growing a garden dedicated to Them? How about learning a new skill associated with a God we want to be closer to? Or changing our body in some way, such as growing out or cutting our hair, getting tattooed or pierced, wearing different clothing?
Does this mean volunteering for a cause we associate with a God? We can make offerings of money to organizations in honor of Them, if able. Such things can be very important to a person’s religious practice, a way of integrating the Gods into every facet of their life.
How do we perceive such sacrifices of ‘time and energy’ within community settings, though? Do we view one as more devout or pious or valuable?
Volunteer vs Ritual
If we place greater value on volunteering and donation and social causes: what makes someone volunteering their time to social causes more devout than someone tending their own private garden, if both are dedicating those actions to the Gods? The human element is what makes us perceive one as more devout and dedicated. And if we add in aspects of social capital, the way many of us will brag about our devotional activities, we have even more factors to consider. Are we dedicating our time to the Gods or are we more focused on the social scores we can accumulate by showing off not only how devout we are but how kind, how compassionate, how giving?
We, individually, are the only ones capable of answering that.
I agree that dedicating our time, energy, and money to causes we think the Gods value is important. It can deepen our connection to Them. It can also help us be more compassionate than we might otherwise tend toward. Maybe the way to get yourself volunteering for an organization is to buckle down and essentially make a deal with your Gods that you will do it, in Their honor.
If we place more emphasis on the ritual and overt religious practices: how are we treating acts of sacrifice that better the human community? Do we acknowledge that aiding our communities and working for social change can be deeply spiritual? Or do we treat the human element as unimportant or even a distraction from ‘proper’ devotion? Social capital and climbing plays out just as much in spaces that prioritize ritual as the peak of divine connection.
In-depth rituals, honoring the holy days, and giving lavishly directly the Gods can also deepen our connection to Them. We can experience incredible revelations and find our relationship with the Holy Ones better rooted than before.
I don’t think there is a definitive best approach when it comes to how we offer our time and energy to the Gods. Because in a vibrant religious and spiritual community, you’ll have all of it.
As it always does (unfortunately), what offerings are appropriate to give comes down entirely to specific traditions and cultures. How do we know that we are giving properly to the Gods and spirits? We have to look at our traditions, our elders, our histories, our living communities.
The Gods and spirits are so varied, and humanity has such varied relations with Them, that any advisement of what to give must be understood in context. If we strip that away we muddy the waters fruitlessly. We can easily, easily argue that another person’s offerings are not suitable or appropriate or ‘enough’, but we don’t progress much of anything in doing so. Rather, let us approach the discussion with an aim to understand and broaden our horizons.
The Act of Offering
Regardless of what we are giving, I think stating our intent to ‘offer up’ is vital. Some people believe that the Gods cannot respond to us without us first reaching out to Them; others believe the Holy Ones can, essentially, read our minds and intent. (I find myself in the middle ground between those two extremes, as I suspect most people do.) Making explicit that we are giving of ourselves, whether deed or item, is about more than just how the Gods ‘hear’ us, though.
It is easy to think, ‘Oh, I’ll make this activity an offering to this God’ or ‘I’ll dedicate this action to this spirit’. But we can fall into a trap where we tell ourselves that our actions or deeds are totally dedicated to this or that God, but we don’t actually dedicate our time in actuality. It’s easier to realize the association a God has in our daily lives than it is to go out of our way to sanctify or dedicate those moments.
This isn’t to say that every time we want to make an offering to the Gods we need to make a big production of it. Taking a moment to allow ourselves to sink into a devotional headspace is all that can be required. A silent prayer of thanksgiving or recognition.
Thinking about the Gods is its own pleasure but not a replacement for the other devotion we can give. That devotion and offering spirit can apply to the ‘simplest’ things, like water and bread and flowers, to the grandest acts of our lives.