I think it was Stephen Posch that gave a talk about animal sacrifice at Paganicon (Sorry Stephen — I can’t find my notes and for some reason Pagnicon doesn’t have the class listed in the old online schedule). The presenter was discussing Wiccan ritual structure, and how raising the cone of power was adapted to fill the hole where animal sacrifice would occupy a ritual from antiquity. I haven’t followed up that theory with any research of my own, but it makes sense: most religions in antiquity had some manner of sacrifice, and the Victorian sensibilities of Gardner would not have been amenable to including the practice in his creation.
As a young magical practitioner, that bias against flesh offerings extended to other types of offerings. Offerings in general were devotion, you see, and that sounded an awful lot like submission, which good magicians discarded along with their Christian backgrounds. Magic was all about energy and will, you see, and I took pride in not kneeling before any gods.
What I was missing, however, was that offerings can be transactional. For some reason the high magic version of offering energy to an angel in exchange for information or a favor didn’t seem like an offering, and a more traditional offering didn’t seem like a payment in the same manner. But yet they are the same basic thing: an exchange of something the other-than-human being wants in exchange for something you want.
Offerings also help establish a relationship. It can be seen as an economic transaction, payment for services rendered. Or it can be more of a neighborly thing, like shoveling snow off an elderly neighbor’s driveway. Throughout antiquity, offerings often served as a kind of bribe, so that dangerous and potentially malevolent gods would leave you alone. And to ancient sorcerers, offerings were a way to gain the attention and favor of those same beings, to get them to act on your behalf.
This is a much different perspective than ideas of devotion or submission to a higher authority that someone seeking to flaunt their new-found freedom from Christianity would take. This kind of devotional work is about establishing and maintaining relationships with the entities and energies that you interact with on a regular basis — relationships that serve to provide additional pathways for magical results to manifest. Cultivating spirit allies, benevolent ancestors, and the favor of gods is an important part to many kinds of traditional sorcery, and offerings help to establish and strengthen those relationships.
The kinds of offerings would depend upon the entity you are engaging with. Wine and incense are popular, and many sorcerers I have worked with have used coffee to positive effect as well (As Satry Magos says, coffee serves the same social function today that wine did in antiquity). Some gods might like meat or eggs, and others might avoid you if you have eaten meat or eggs before your offering. Candles can be nice, especially if you have some kind of figure or idol to illuminate. Some gods may accept money — perhaps in the form or a donation to a charity or some kind. Songs of worship are very potent in Christian traditions, and there is evidence that the Biblical psalms were sung. Traditional Chinese religion often featured offerings of special ghost money to ancestors, and in Hong Kong you can buy paper effigies of houses, televisions, and other comforts to burn and send on to those in the afterlife.
Leftovers are also important. In some traditions, food offerings are distributed to the poor and hungry, or confer some benefit to those who consume them. In others, they are left out for nature to reclaim. Ashes from incense offerings can be used as materia for other spells or crafts, signifying the connection being built with a specific being. As scholarship improves we are learning much about how offerings were handled, where they were presented, and what effects were expected from them, and as your relationships develop, the beings themselves may offer suggestions.
If you’re new to devotional offerings, the process can seem intimidating, but it can begin as simply as speaking a name and lighting a candle or stick of incense. If you don’t know an entity’s name, its location and function can serve as well: “To the Land Spirit of this house I inhabit” will probably suffice until it provides you with a preferred name. If you are following a specific tradition, this kind of work may already have a designated formula, and if you are dealing with a being from antiquity, there are plenty of sources where you can find appropriate procedures.
For daily offerings, I use an adaptation of Jason Miller‘s general-purpose procedure that he describes in his book The Elements of Spellcrafting. There are three basic parts: a purification, an invitation, and a license to depart. The invitation itself addresses four classes of beings: gods and goddesses, ancestral beings, land spirits, and supplications to angry spirits.
For the Purification, Miller intones words of power associated with fire, water, and air, imagining that element washing over the offering. Personally, I rinse my hands with water and dust them with cinnamon.
The Invitations are addressed to the various classes of beings:
- To the gods and goddesses, angels and avatars, and most especially to [patron deity or other important being], and to the overseeing powers of the land on which I dwell, I give offerings of respect.
- To my ancestors, protectors, and allies, I give thanks and offerings, and most especially to [whomever you want to single out or particularly honor], I give offerings of gratitude.
- To all beings of the sky, the land, and the underworld, most especially those who dwell in the area upon, above, and under the earth, I give offerings of substance and nourishment.
- To all beings to who I owe a debt, and who I have angered by mistaken or ignorant action, I give offerings of supplication and pacification.
At this point the offering is made, with whatever gestures or other words you deem appropriate.
The License to Depart is simply a polite dismissal, and indication that the rite is concluded. I usually close with something simple: “May the entities I have invited be pleased and fulfilled by these offerings, and depart in peace.”
Miller also advises that for your daily offerings, you refrain from offering the best of what you have, reserving that for special occasions. Save the 25-year-old scotch for that big job spell, and use the Jack Daniels for daily offerings.
I also want to be clear that I have used this as a template and adapted my own work as appropriate, and to remind new practitioners that they are encouraged to do the same. It’s also quite okay if much of this template doesn’t speak to you and you end up doing something completely different. The important part is to develop something that can be worked into a daily routine and helps to develop the connections you want to maintain with the beings around you.