To everyone who’s attention I have received, I thank you for reading. Even and especially if you come to disagree with what I have to say.
Over the course of the last several months I have noticed a pattern that leads to misunderstanding and discord among all polytheists. It goes like this: Someone shares an idea about devotional practice. This time it was about libations given to Gods as a mindful sacrifice. Others challenge the idea, sometimes angrily. The anger is then reciprocated, and rather than either side being reached out to with patience and tolerance to continue a discussion of the original idea, a flame war breaks out that quickly devolves to the point of accusations of impiety and the illegitimacy of another’s practice.
This needs to stop. On all sides. If it does not, then any and all effort put forth to build some semblance of community among those who honor the Gods may one day be lost to it as those who would otherwise turn to the Gods run fleeing from the fire fight. Perhaps it’s a vain hope (one might argue I serve the God of vain hopes anyway) but I write today hoping to address some of the reasons why the current set of misunderstandings came about. I will also be personally reaching out and inviting as many participants in the argument as I am able to identify. To come here, read, think and perhaps talk.
The Source of the Misunderstanding
This time it began with a post by Tess Dawson which can be found here. There as Tess clearly states in the opening paragraph she responded to a question which was voiced to her at another locale (Facebook). The information she provided was specifically tailored to the question asked which was:
“Is it possible that a God calls you to reinstate something? Is this a possibility? Perhaps I was hallucinating?”
Tess very eloquently and generously provided her advice on how to reach out to a God that you are uncertain of the identity of, which happened to include at the end:
“Do not consume the liquid that you pour for the deity. Wait a cycle of a full day and night, then pour the liquid into the earth outside. Yes. Pour it into the earth. It is not “wasteful”–it was given to a deity and the deity consumed the essence of the liquid. By pouring it out, you are completing the process of sending it on to the deity. By drinking it instead, you may have interrupted this process (again, it can depend on context).”
“Search for a context. If you feel the god was Egyptian, look to Egyptian religion. If you feel the goddess was Greek, look to Greek religion, and so on.”
This is important as I move us on to the next part of this discourse, the responding article on tumblr. It can be found here. In it the author Satdeshret, expresses that in her experience of the Kemetic deities this would not be appropriate and the offering should be consumed. Not having a relationship with a Kemetic deity or researched their worship extensively myself I wouldn’t know, so I am willing to accept this is quite possibly true. However as noted above, Tess did specifically state that if the querent knew the general origin of the God in question than that tradition should be sought out for inspiration, even mentioning Egyptian religion specifically. The final piece of advice was a general fall back appropriate for a wide number of situations when one does not know which God they are addressing. Perhaps the God was Kemetic, perhaps it did prefer the querent consumed the offering as a gift from that God and reached out to explain so. Such things are not for us to know as they are private and wonderful moments between God and devotee, save when the devotee feels called to share the experience with others.
It was several of the comments on the tumblr post, and later else where that spawned the current fire fight. People wrote to say how they felt libations poured out on the ground or otherwise disposed of and not consumed felt wasteful to them and also cited financial concerns about the cost of said offerings in light of their own situations. Several of the responses to this pointed out that offerings need not be expensive or lavish and many have given what they could even when destitute. Conor of Under The Owl’s Wing even wrote a very helpful post here offering advice on offerings one can give on a low budget.
Why not eat perfectly good food?
I have seen a lot of information out there on various methods of how to make an offering and what to offer. What I’ve seen very little of is why a person may wish to do such a thing. That’s quite a bit trickier to explain.
It does at first seem nonsensical to dispose of perfectly consumable food or drink products and goes against the grain of many ideas we grew up with. Ever have someone tell you to clean your plate because children are starving in wherever? Or even just drill into your head over and over again ‘waste not want not’? Those are important lessons and hard ones to act against once internalized. If like me you’ve ever suffered from hunger (by which I mean once having survived on a packet of ramen a day for over a month, until I finally remembered that those food banks I helped donate to as a kid were there to help in just such a circumstance), the painful reaction to disposing of perfectly usable food is even stronger.
Feelings like those as well as more general negative feelings that can crop any time someone asks us to give up what we have, are extremely difficult to work past. Doing so takes time, effort and maybe a little experimentation. Others will probably be upset at me for this, but my advice is to not rush that process. In my experience the most important thing before the Gods is sincerity. Just as there are arguments as to why consuming an offering to a God may be considered impolite in certain traditions coming forward with an offering given begrudgingly and with a feeling akin to paying the tax man is just as impolite if not more. This helps neither the God nor your own personal development. All back and forth arguments about financial ability to purchase offerings or not aside, if a method of honoring a God feels at all wrong or just not something you’re ready to do at the present time: Don’t do it. Do what you feel able to do and allow for the probability that others will differ.
The most common and useful description of why one would dedicate food to a God for the God alone is as an act of hospitality, akin to offering a friend something to eat and drink as they walk in the door. In my own experience recently with making offerings to the Old Man (how I refer to Odin), I’ve begun to also believe it can be a way for me to share smells, tastes and textures with Him from my life that He might not otherwise encounter. Sure He loves mead and that’s always welcome, but until the other day it never occurred to me to offer Him something like 7up. Thinking on it I realized: you probably can’t get 7up in Asgard. Or Coke Cola for that mater, which for equally quizzical reasons to me He also seems to be fond of.
I didn’t always give offerings like this to Him. In fact for the first several years, at least five, since I first became aware of His presence in my life I didn’t make a single offering of anything other than time and prayer. This was very simply because the idea had never occurred to me, having limited knowledge of written sources of information even less of an idea of how to seek out a good mentor. Odin was a major presence in my life during all that time, nudging and sometimes dragging me in directions that ultimately benefited my development greatly even as being the indolent pup that I was I continued to drag back in directions that led me further down less useful paths.
Once I was aware of the idea of giving Odin offerings it took me I’d say at least a year of wrestling with the concept until it made sense to me internally. Early on I even thought such offerings to be for grand public affairs as much of what I read described group ceremonies. The ‘oh’ moment of realizing a single person could do it came after and I struggled with questions about the value of such offerings for months after that.
It has only been in the last year that I began to share offerings of alcohol with Him, beginning with pouring out mead for Him (for those that will be curious, I spend about 15$ on this a month) on a weekly basis. Adding that regular ceremony which I have since been working towards developing into a daily practice for Him I found added a physical connection that I didn’t have before. Its a powerful way for me to say “This is for You, because You’re important to me and I want You to know that”. It really is much the same feeling as when I give a gift to a dear friend.
So I give Him offerings of various tastes and I leave them out until at least the next day (for soda, usually this means till it’s flat) to give Him a chance to enjoy the offering at His leisure. Which I’m sure for some begs the next question: how do Gods, which we do not perceive as flesh and blood beings directly in front of us, benefit from such a thing?
Linda Demissy who writes the blog Lofn’s Bard (awesome blog that gets far too little exposure) wrote on experiences with this phenomenon back in July. In her post she writes about her experience holding a spirit supper for Frigga, which is a rite in which she and her friends host a meal and set an extra plate as an invitation to a God or Goddess to come and join in the feast (for her group, often Frigga or one of Her Handmaidens).
Towards the end of the post Linda includes an anecdote detailing her experiences learning how to tell when food has been divinely consumed as well as how that changes the food:
“Testing the Offered Food
Sometimes the food gets eaten by the spirit, sometimes it gets blessed for sharing. It’s easy to test for that. Halfway through the meal, try reaching into their plate with the intent to eat a bite. I myself get nauseous if the food’s been “eaten” by the spirit, like I’m trying to eat a plate of rotten food. Another gets a sense of a thick fog that stops their hand, and some just get a feeling of wrongness. That food is drained of all lifeforce, if you eat it you won’t be able to digest it. I learned that lesson well: I and a friend were instructed by a God to eat a meal they had drained to prove the point. It tasted like cardboard and sat in our stomachs like lead for two hours before I thought to eat a bite of lettuce, to infuse it with a bit of life. Only then were we able to digest it. So don’t feel bad about throwing out “good food,” it really is quite dead after they’ve eaten it. It’s fine for the compost heap though, I say a prayer to Nidhogg to let it rot and return to being fertile soil. After testing their food in this way, try the drink, that’s more often what they bless and want shared. If you bring it to your lips and feel fine, then it’s meant for sharing.”
So yes, it has been experienced by some that food offered to a God is actively consumed and in some way the God is able to draw some tangible benefit from the offering. I’ve experienced this somewhat myself in offering bread (a loaf of pumpernickel that I shared with Her, along with some Southern Comfort) to Angrboda. After leaving the offering out for several hours I returned late in the evening to clean up and out of curiosity tested the energy in the bread in rather the same way I do when working with stones. My hand ached painfully when I did, like when I try testing the energy of a cheap piece of plastic or other extremely ‘dead’ thing. For me consumable food has a warm pleasing energy when I brush my energy against it to which this was a stark contradiction.
The one flaw in both these methods, mine and Linda’s, is that both of us are mystics and are able to sense these things in different ways. However, most people that I know (including my wife) are not able to sense and communicate with divine presences and also may not have an affinity for sensing magic, energy, prana, or whatever you want to call that ‘stuff’. Which is normal and just fine. I’ve never known lacking those traits to hold anyone back from living a fulfilling life. If you happen to be one of these people and you’re confused by some of what’s above, this next discussion is written for you.
What do Gods like anyway?
Lets say “just go ask the God what is expected of you” isn’t really useful advice for you. There are still a number of ways to gather information on how a particular God prefers to receive offerings available to you. A good starting point is examining ancient tradition through what historical information is known and available. How was this God honored in the past? Burnt offerings, poured libations over a statue or on the ground, animal sacrifice followed by a communally shared feast, offerings left out for a time then disposed of or maybe even human sacrifice? Those are just a few different possibilities that I’ve seen reflected in numerous places and cultures in my studies. Granted that last one isn’t as practical in modern times for what I hope are obvious reasons but even there studying the manner of and reasoning for the sacrifice may give you inspiration for an approximation.
Depending on the particular God and culture involved there may be less information available, bordering on none. Even within in a well known and recorded pantheon such as the Olympians some Gods have less written about Them than others. That being the case you can still look to modern ideas. Poke around the net and see if anyone else has written about honoring the particular God, how they did it and why. Perhaps even write to and ask an author or two with questions. Do so with even more of a grain of salt than you did for the ancient sources (which you should still be carefully considering the exact source of and any possible bias involved) and consider each individual suggestion in light of your own experience as you decide if it is something you should implement or not for your own personal practice. After that you can always take what little information about the God you’re trying to honor and use that as a starting point for your own ideas. Look at the stories about the God and see if they give any hints as to what the God might like. Favorite foods, drinks, objects, actions, etc. You can also apply these methods to when you do have considerable historical information to go by in order to expand your ideas.
Those are the two best suggestions that come to my mind. I considered also writing about seeking the help of a diviner for guidance but chose not to on the grounds that I lack any breadth of experience seeking others to divine for me. Any questions or suggestions of good information elsewhere on this topic are more than welcome in the comments!
“Their Gods must not be real to them.”
Not only in the present discourse over the proper nature of libations but in previous conflicts I have seen a number of regrettable and hurtful things said on both sides of each argument. It would take me an inordinate amount of time to sort out everything I have witnessed that I see as attacks not only against the individual they were directed against, but against the very hope of fostering positive and supportive community relationships among polytheists. Therefore I have chosen to discuss only one today, which heads this section of my post.
The retort “Their Gods must not be real to them” I have seen repeated in a number of places and forms and believe it has now become rather commonplace. I have even used it once myself thinking I did so purely out of support for a friend, without really considering the implications of what I said.
If the individual on the receiving end of the comment is a Mystic, it implies that that person is not hearing Gods at all but merely voices in their own head. This could even be taken as a suggestion that the target of the comment is mentally ill. It also somewhat implies that the speaker somehow has gleaned from clues gained in discourse as to the inner mental workings of the recipient, that the speaker somehow knows the difference between what the recipient actually experiences and only imagines.
Proving or disproving the existence of the Gods is beyond mortal ability. An individual may find a proof that works for that individual, and find others who share in that experience. Even then there is still no empirical means of proving these experiences to an individual who does not share them. Or that the Gods exist as more than thoughts in our heads at all. While we may not accept the experience of another, we can no more disprove their experience then they ours. To imply otherwise one must also accept that one’s own experience with the Gods may be disproved, shown to be imaginary, and possibly the result of a deranged mind.
In the present context I have been seeing the implication that another’s Gods must not be real to them because a person does not make physical offerings that are not consumed by the one making the offering. The argument here is that to consume an offering is the same thing as taking away something that belonged to the God. By not acknowledging this principle the one making the offering does not actually give the God anything. Thus the individual must not truly believe the God is real, else would have known to leave the offering alone so that the God might benefit from it. If offerings are not given at all yet the devotee still professes to have a relationship with the God, then the devotee must still not recognize the God as real because he or she is not doing enough for the God to merit the God’s favor.
This implies that with an understanding of the reality of a God, a devotee would already know this. Given that almost all modern Polytheists come from a non polytheistic background this could not be more unlikely. As I noted above when describing developing my own practice of offerings I was unaware of the idea for considerable time and it was some time after that before I felt ready to incorporate offerings into my practice. If as in the above argument I would have already been doing so if I really believed Odin was real, then this implies I did not and several years of powerful experiences of the Old Man’s presence were all imagined.
Further this and related statements such as “if you’re not willing to put in the work then the Gods are not for you” which I have also seen used in the present debate and previously in different ways, creates conflict with the idea that the Gods have agency. Given that the Gods are individuals with the capacity for individual thought, decision making and most importantly action, then it follows that the Gods can and do decide for Themselves who is worthy of their interest, who is not and what is required of each individual. By stating that those who are not making proper offerings must not believe that the Gods are real or otherwise suggesting that such a person does not benefit from a Gods affection and concern without first meeting certain standards the speaker is interfering in that process.
Gods All Bless
In case I have not yet made it clear to the reader it is my personal stance that those who devote themselves to the Gods should put forth as much effort as they are able towards learning how best to honor the Gods in their lives in the context of each individual God’s standing traditions and the devotee’s personal experience. I myself agree with and include the idea within the Northern Tradition that anything I offer to a God is that God’s alone and not mine to interfere with or consume save with an indication from the God that I should, accepting such moments as gifts from the Gods. I hoped to have accomplished through this a moment for all reading to stop and consider how we educate each other in how this is to be achieved and to consider how our words and actions may positively or negatively effect the spiritual development of our peers.
Everyone who is able to read this has my personal invitation to speak freely in the comments. As I have time to do so, I will endeavor to respond as fully to each comment as I am able.
Gods All Bless, and thank you again for taking the time to read what I have written.
– James Grimswolf