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.