Sacrifice and offering – then and now

This post is largely a response to Cat Chapin-Bishop’s reply to my previous post; I see from her comments where I need to expand on my thinking.

I hear what you are saying about the importance of sacrifice in Pagan religion historically, and I have certainly given thought to the ways that the small, token sacrifices in many modern Pagan religions are shabby substitutes for the level of commitment ancient Paganism once called for. (When I pour a libation, even of my best home-brew, it’s just not on the level of sacrificing one goat from a very small herd, in order to share a feast with the Gods in Homeric fashion–for cultures that so rarely ate meat, the loss of an animal was a tremendous sacrifice for a family to take on… or so it has always seemed to me.)

First, there is the question of vocabulary. “There is no prayer without sacrifice” is a common catchphrase, and since I was organizing my thoughts around it in the latter half of the post I stuck with that word… but it might have been more appropriate to say “offering” when describing my daily practice. The two words are connected – both the OED and Merriam-Webster use “sacrifice” in their definition of “offering” – but it’s true that “sacrifice” generally implies a large and significant offering.

That being said, the kind of public “sacred barbecue” sacrifice that you are talking about was not the most common form of offering even back in the day. Libations are mentioned throughout Greek literature, and it’s likely that the single most common type of offering the average person experienced was the first-and-last meal offering to Hestia. Other bloodless offerings are also mentioned: in addition to libations of wine, milk and water, there are recorded offerings of food, oil, honey, flowers, the work of one’s hands, money of course… pretty much anything that would be considered appropriate to the One being offered to might be fair game.

I have come to believe, though, that the Charge of the Goddess’s words, “I demand no sacrifice” can really be taken at face value. While, from a “hard polytheist” perspective, I suppose there are deities that respond exclusively to traditional, sacrificial prayer,

I don’t know about “exclusively” – I have been known to simply light a candle at one of our shrines and open myself to communication with one of Them – but in my experience the Gods I worship clearly do respond *positively* to the traditional forms.

I’m also convinced by my own experience that there are also beings out there who are no more interested in sacrifice from us than we are from our friends. I have the impression that for many of the sacred beings in the world, the thing most desired of us is relationship–friendship–and growth in integrity and wisdom (so we’ll be more interesting friends).

I’m not interested in “sacrifice” from my friends in the sense that I want them to worship me (well, maybe just a little… :) ), but I do value the time we spend together that they could have been using to do other things, and the cost and effort involved in preparing a nice meal when they invite me to dinner. It’s not quite the same thing in my relationships with the Gods, since They are after all Gods and not just people like me, but the basic principle still applies: I make the effort to do something nice for Them, not because I want something from Them or because I don’t want Them to smite me, but because I love and honor Them and want to give to Them of my time and effort. (ADDENDUM: This is part of one of the core virtues of our religion (and of many paleopagan cultures/religions generally) – xenia (literally “hospitality”, but more broadly covering the proper relationship between almost any two beings)).

As I said to Jeff in response to one of his posts, I think the deep, true purpose of religious ritual is precisely to foster relationship (kharis). In the Hellenic tradition generally, prayer with offering is the nomos arkhaios, the customary and traditional way of initiating contact and establishing relationship. You mentioned “feasting with the Gods” earlier – it’s significant in this context to remember that the value of this was not the killing of the animal in and of itself, but that the death of the animal is what enabled the feast to occur. Likewise, in both meal offerings and a standard libation, one is not merely giving to the Gods, but sharing with them – the remainder of the meal is eaten, and one generally takes a sip of a libation, in effect drinking with the Gods. There are specific occasions when a whole burnt offering (the original meaning of “holocaust”) or untasted libation is called for, but those generally revolve around either expiation of miasma (ritual pollution), or offerings to the dead or to the chthonic deities.

My most vivid and important spiritual moments have all seemed to come to me as a kind of “free gift from the universe.” I know it’s popular among intellectual Pagans to discount that perspective as kind of airy-fairy and white-lighter… but it really has been my experience, unfashionable as it might be to say so.

Absolutely! If this blog is about anything other than “the Erik show”, it’s about the importance of responding authentically to your own experience of What Is, wherever that may lead you. But consider – would these moments have come to you if you had not been working on yourself, to become mindful of and receptive to them? This is part of what my offering practice does for me.


2 thoughts on “Sacrifice and offering – then and now

  1. Cat Chapin-Bishop

    Hey, Erik,

    On the topic of Homeric sacrifice, you write, “the value of this was not the killing of the animal in and of itself, but that the death of the animal is what enabled the feast to occur. Likewise, in both meal offerings and a standard libation, one is not merely giving to the Gods, but sharing with them – the remainder of the meal is eaten, and one generally takes a sip of a libation, in effect drinking with the Gods.”

    This is something I wish the folks who get all bent out of shape about “animal sacrifice” could take in. ( My impression is that in most–though not all–Afro-diasporic sacrifice, the same thing is true.) We are not talking here about some ritual of animal mutilation here, people–we’re talking about country people sharing a thanksgiving meal!

    I think I responded more to the idea of a meat sacrifice partly because I am so irked by the stereotypes that are used to malign ancient and modern Paganisms around animal sacrifice. Frankly, unless the critic is a vegetarian, it seems like hypocrisy to me to condemn this form of communion. I mean, who wouldn’t prefer to accept an invitation to share a nice, juicy steak or some barbaque’d spare ribs, rather than a tofu pup? Oh, wait… I wouldn’t–that vegetarian thing. Oops! ;>

    Not the point, though. The point is that, when company is coming, we take out the good silver, lay the table with fresh flowers, and generally try to communicate the value we have for our friends. Would we do less for our gods?

    You are right, of course–the big meat meal would (especially in the ancient world) have been the exception, and not the rule. In fact, my Hellenic friend Maureen R. has informed me that, even where an “animal” sacrifice was traditional, substitute sacrifices of, for instance, a cake shaped like the animal would have been suitable, if approached with the appropriate care and reverence. This led to the memorable Animal Crackers ritual, as I recall. Ah, the advantages of a religion (and gods) that appreciate mirth _and_ reverence…

    Of course, Pagans do not have the market cornered when it comes to meaningful, personal offerings to our gods. I still have, somewhere in my many cookbooks, a wonderful recipe for soda bread, that my college friend Mary used to bake for her Catholic student group, for when they would celebrate communion together. (Nice to know that Jesus isn’t always stuck with those bland little wafers, eh?)

    And, though the “sacrifice” of the last of the homebrew into the cauldron (and later, onto the earth) was never much in terms of financial value, I know that it did turn brewing beer into an act of reverence for me. And, in turn, that sense of friendship and communion, both with the gods and with one another, made the cakes and ale portion of my old coven’s full moons warm, glad, and intimate. How many nights have we stayed almost as long in the circle feasting with one another and with the gods as in the ritual leading up to that point?

    I know that, for some Wiccans, the wine blessing is supposed to be about raising energy, and that the intention was to use that energy to fuel the ritual. I think it’s interesting, though, that in common usage, most groups seem to have moved to something more like what we did. It’s not so much that food and drink are about grounding after ecstasy–though they can be good for that. I think it’s more that the point of good ritual is to create that warm and enfolded feeling, of being close enough to reach out and touch the gods. So many times, my friends and I have lingered in that afterglow… sometimes with the Goddess spontaneously “dropping in” in a far less dramatic, but perhaps more effective way than a formal Drawing Down of the Moon.

    And no one is in a hurry to end the evening. We would linger till the candles were beginning to gutter before we’d stir ourselves to take the circle down.

    In some ways, it feels like all of religious ritual boils down to creating those few perfect moments, sitting side by side with one another and the gods.

    Forgive me if I’ve rambled! It’s been a while since we retired the coven–you stirred some happy memories for me.

    Truly, it’s not about “sacrifice”–its sharing and being with.

  2. executivepagan Post author

    Hi Cat,
    Thanks for stopping back by!

    I’ve talked to Maureen a few times on various boards… always a rewarding experience.

    mirth _and_ reverence
    Amen! (Of course, Thalia is my favorite Muse, so… there you have it :) )

    I know that it did turn brewing beer into an act of reverence for me.


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