The debate recently went round the ADF e-mail lists about the practice of offering silver to the well. Is it good, because it was traditional, and honoring tradition is respectful? Is it bad, because even the tiniest chemical alteration from the introduction of silver to a body of water may alter the biochemistry of the environment?
Well, I completely missed the boat on that argument (again), given that it happened almost three weeks ago. I am, dear readers, that busy. Forgive me. While one of these days I’d like to talk about the biochemistry of silver in water and the sustainability of using silver generally, today I’m after something a little more nebulous.
What, I ask, is in an offering?
I’ve started doing twice-daily devotionals, and the offerings are—literally—piling up. I don’t feel right performing ritual without making offerings (OCD, much, Kristin?), so I find myself making dry offerings of barley, oats, herbs, and cornmeal quite regularly. But, as they say, all beings enjoy variety, so I like to throw beer, whiskey, wine, and milk in there as well.
The trouble is, though, that those things can’t just sit in my offering bowl the same way grains and herbs do—they ruin the surface of the bowl, and they attract pests. While I try to be friendly to the minuscule invaders of my home, encouraging the drain flies is simply unacceptable.
I can’t run the offerings out to the woods near my apartment after every devotional, either. I’m usually in my pajamas and either falling into bed or scampering off to work immediately after my mini-rituals. My houseplants can only take so many alcoholic offerings, and I don’t think the downstairs neighbors appreciate it when I chuck offerings off the balcony.
And I just don’t feel right about putting offerings in the trash. It seems disrespectful, somehow, to put in the garbage something I offered to the Kindred… and anything I put in the garbage is contributing to the land use and waste-disposal issues troubling our communities. But is putting out wine-soaked barley good for the environment, either? It can’t be doing my local bird-life any good.
In the end, offerings are loaded with the following factors:
- A desire to please the beings receiving the offerings (through variety, immediacy, etc.).
- A need to make my offerings sustainable, in all meanings of the term.
- A question of what is actually “happening” to the physical offerings I make to non-physical entities.
So what’s a practical pagan to do?
[Perhaps I should create a series of blog posts entitled "Practical Paganism." I rather like this idea, actually.]
Someone once told me that the magic of sacrifice comes from the moment of sacrifice, not from the sacrificed object itself. The value is in the act of giving, not in the gift itself. But what does that mean, exactly?
Well, I know the gods aren’t enjoying a bowl of oatmeal at my bedroom altar while I sleep—despite our insistence on literal gift-giving, the act is symbolic all the same. I would never switch to making “symbolic” gestures and calling my intentions good enough, though, because that’s far too easy. Think of it in literal terms: If, every time you went to a friend’s house and she said she “wished” she could offer you a beer, you wouldn’t really appreciate it, would you? Especially if, on that promise of a future beer, you kept giving her beers of your own?
Hypothetical beers aside, we must actual commit to giving to the Beings we love—that’s where the magic of the *ghosti relationship really happens. We must actually give if we expect to receive: it’s only polite, after all.
I see a few solutions:
- MAKE SUSTAINABLE OFFERINGS. It may seem a little too efficient to offer gifts pleasing to both ancestors AND living birds, but that option is far better than waste. Choose to give birdseed to the nature spirits, beautiful stones you find on the ground or plain clear water to the deities—while variety is the spice of life, it’s possible to rotate between a variety of sustainable offerings.
- OFFER NON-PHYSICAL GIFTS. Write a poem. Do a dance. Sing a song. Don’t always do it spontaneously and call it a gift (lest you run the risk of appearing to the gods as the goofy three-year-old who thinks his aunt wants to see him perform a “choreographed” dance: funny, perhaps, but not exactly mutually beneficial). Instead, write, compose, and perform true praise offerings.
- DISPOSE OF OFFERINGS IN CREATIVE WAYS. Incense isn’t necessarily the best for your lungs or the environment, but it does burn away, and if you choose locally-made, eco-friendly incense, it’s burns away semi-cleanly. Compost the remains: ash works in compost (often), as do a variety of foods and drinks. Don’t just throw out food and call it an offering. Instead, bury it, compost it, or make it useful to the environment. If the act of giving is the sacred moment, this won’t count as “taking the gift away”: it’s not quite the same as donating offered silver or money, because the only entity that benefits is the Earth herself.
- MAKE PERMANENT OFFERINGS. (This one’s a little fuzzier, and some may disagree with me.) Offer time and energy into making representations of your patron deities or the Kindred: carve a stone, make a doll, write a song! Be mindful of your crafting time, of course, and make sure that you truly offer time and service to the Being in question. Even if you “benefit” from having these permanent offerings, that’s still time you can’t take back, and (hopefully) you’ve made something pleasing to the Kindred
What other ways can you think of for making offerings sustainable?