The practice of offerings and sacrifices is not universal among all Pagans. The Charge of the Goddess says “Nor do I demand aught of sacrifice, for behold: I am the Mother of all things and My love is poured upon the earth.” I suspect early Wiccans wanted to insulate themselves against mindless and fearful accusations of animal or even human sacrifice.
But offerings were quite common in ancient times, and the practice has been revived by a growing number of Pagans and especially polytheists. Giving things to the Gods, to the ancestors, and to other spirits is a regular part of our spiritual practice.
What’s the difference between an offering and a sacrifice? While the two terms have different word origins and definitions (offering means “to give” while sacrifice means “to make sacred”), in contemporary practice they’re virtually the same. I joke that pouring wine is an offering, but pouring Lakewood Temptress Stout is a sacrifice.
Offerings generally (but not exclusively) take the form of food and drink: wine, beer, mead, or whiskey; grain, bread, meat, or sweets. It can take the form of money, of objects, or of service. It can take other forms as required by tradition or by the Gods Themselves.
If you’re new to polytheism, especially if you come from a Protestant or an atheist background where religion is all about beliefs, dogma, and the written word, the idea of offerings may strike you as odd, anachronistic, or unnecessary. But for many of us, offerings are the cornerstone of our religious practice. This is why we make offerings.
To express hospitality. If you invited a friend over to your house, as soon as they got there you’d offer them something to drink. If they were there a while, or if they showed up at dinner time, you’d offer them something to eat. You’d try to be a good, generous, thoughtful host who cares for their guests.
The same is true with our interactions with the Gods. We don’t want to invite Them to our rituals and start demanding They give us stuff. We want to be polite and generous. We make offerings to the Gods to show our respect for Them, and to demonstrate we practice the virtue of hospitality.
To promote reciprocity. The world runs on reciprocity – “I give so that you may give.” Sometimes this is quid pro quo – a gift for a gift, or payment for a service. Sometimes you don’t expect to be paid back right away – you do a favor for a friend and you know that some day, they’ll do something for you. Occasionally it’s even less structured – you do a good deed and you figure things will even out in the long run.
We give to the Gods so the Gods will give to us. This isn’t appeasement and it certainly isn’t bribery (as though a divine being could be bribed with a glass of wine). It’s demonstrating that we understand the world runs on honest exchange – I give so that you may give so that I may give again.
Because our ancestors made offerings. Contemporary polytheists aren’t building a religion from scratch. We’re reviving, restoring, and reimagining the religions of our ancestors. We need not – and should not – slavishly duplicate everything they believed and did, but where a practice was meaningful and helpful to the ancients, we are foolish if we do not at least explore it. Reviving their practices not only lets us learn from them, it helps restore the bonds across generations as we do now what they did then.
Our ancestors made offerings. The photo at the right is a display of some of the coins that were deposited in the waters at Bath over the 400 year Roman period. Historian Walter Burkert described the ritual process for animal sacrifices in ancient Greece. The practice was beneficial to them or they would not have done it. It’s worth following their example.
Sometimes it’s just this simple: a God says “I want that.” Sometimes there’s a practical reason why They want it. Sometimes there’s a whimsical (to us) reason. Sometimes there’s no reason at all, just that familiar voice or feeling or intuition that They want something from us. I’ve learned to trust that if They ask for something, the best thing to do is to give it to Them.
Of course there are limits. I grew up hearing the story of Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac to Yahweh. If that was a test, Abraham failed. I’ve never been asked to give something I felt I shouldn’t give or that I had no right to give, and I don’t expect I ever will.
To remind ourselves we have enough. As the meme going around Facebook says, you can’t pour from an empty cup – you can’t give what you don’t have. By historical standards, though, all but the poorest among us have far more than we truly need. Offerings and sacrifices remind us that we are not lessened when we give.
We can and should debate how much we should give, who we should give to, and how our gifts should be made. But as we give to the Gods, we are reminded that we can also give to our fellow humans, because we have enough.
To remind ourselves to do what must be done. Let’s be honest. While I love being hospitable to the Gods and giving Them what They ask for, and the end of the day I really don’t like pouring out perfectly good wine that I could drink. I also don’t like going to work every day, wearing glasses, and putting up with Texas summers. But I do all these things because they must be done. They are necessary if I’m going to make enough money to live the way I want to live, if I want to read anything smaller than 16 point type, and if I want to enjoy the mild Texas winters and low cost of living.
When I make offerings I’m reminded that nothing comes for free. Even the most priceless choices involve a tradeoff of one thing or another – if I give a rare bottle of wine to the Gods, I cannot give it to a friend. Such is life – we do what must be done.
To express devotion. Why do we send flowers to a spouse, or bring souvenirs back for family, or take a close friend out for an expensive dinner? Because we love them and we want to do something nice and thoughtful for them – we want to express our devotion to them.
Likewise, as we come to know the Gods and to understand Their power and virtue, we not only want to ally ourselves with us by working for Their causes, we also want to express our devotion to Them. We make offerings because we want Them to enjoy what we have to give, however ultimately insignificant that may be.
I encourage you to make offerings a regular part of your spiritual practice, and especially part of your usual ritual liturgy. If you call (invite, invoke) a being into your ritual, be a good host and offer them food and drink. Practice good hospitality, reciprocity, and devotion with all your guests.