This month’s topic at the Kemetic Round Table is about the nature of religious offerings:
Offerings 101: What do I offer the gods? How do I determine what to offer? Can I offer without a patron? Do I need to revert my offerings? How do I do that? What if I can’t?
Imagine you’re a farmer who has to grow and/or kill his own food (because grocery stores don’t exist yet), and whose family could easily die if his crops fail or his animals get sick. Then imagine that you’re able to harvest enough food to feed your family, and that you decide to return some of your food to the Gods as a way of giving thanks. Depending on how much food you actually have, this could be a pretty big gamble; most people living in the West today, in fact, would consider this “stupid.” But for a person in the ancient world, returning some of your food to the Gods was a way of saying, “We deprive ourselves of this potential meal to show You that we trust You implicitly, no matter how bad things might get.” In other words, it was the purest, the humblest and the most meaningful form of worship in which any person could engage.
Different cultures made (or continue to make) such offerings in different ways. The Greeks liked to burn their offerings in sacrificial fires, believing the smoke from these fires would carry their gifts up to the Gods in heaven. In Hinduism, it’s not uncommon for worshipers to leave their offerings at outdoor altars, allowing them to decompose and return to the elements. The Egyptians, however, followed a very different sort of sacrifice that might seem self-contradictory at first glance. At least when it came to the priesthoods (for we know very little of how the common peasantry worshiped), offerings of food and drink were actually ingested. Basically, the offerings would be presented to the image of a God or Goddess, and that Deity would be given some time to eat the spiritual essence of the food. Then, after a certain amount of time had passed, the priests would eat the physical remains of the food and effectively “dine” with the God.
This may seem to defeat the purpose of offerings (i.e., “I’m going to give up some of my food and return it to You by eating it”), but the Egyptian form of sacrifice was essentially like treating a Deity to dinner. When we treat people to dinner today, we don’t just pay for them to eat and not eat anything ourselves; we eat with them and cover the bill. The Egyptians also understood that their Gods don’t need to physically eat the offerings that are made to Them, and that if They consume anything in this process, it’s the love and good will that is expressed by making an offering to Them in the first place. So just as it was thought that every physical thing had a spiritual counterpart in the invisible world of Duat, so too was it thought that a Deity eats the spiritual counterpart of an offering and leaves its physical remains for His or Her worshipers to eat.
But those of us who live in so-called “first-world” countries generally aren’t accustomed to growing and/or killing our own food; most of us simply buy our food from stores. This and other factors have led many of us to think of food as something that comes cheap and that needs to be eaten as quickly as possible (so we can get on to doing other things). Very few Americans actually stop to think about all the hard work that goes into preparing food for mass market distribution; we don’t think about the men and women who have to grow our corn under a scorching hot sun, who have to mutilate all those cows so we can have hamburgers on the Fourth of July, or who have to inspect all those food products so we don’t all get food poisoning and die. Hell, many of us don’t even eat at dinner tables or say grace before we eat anymore. (And if anyone thinks I’m sounding too high and mighty here, I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else.)
Yesterday, I decided to try an experiment and made an offering to Seth during my lunch break. I really wanted to eat something with meat, but I ordered a vegetarian meal instead. (I did this because I’m convinced that Seth is at least primarily an herbivore, considering that most of His sacred critters are herbivores and that lettuce and watermelon are listed as His favorite foods in Egyptian mythology.) I ordered this meal and pulled up an image of Big Red on my iPhone. Then I switched my iPhone’s settings so the screen wouldn’t go to black (even though it meant draining my battery power). I stood the phone up on its side so the Big Guy could face me from the other side of my plate. Then, when I received my food, I said a prayer:
“Great Sutekh, I humbly invite You to come forth into this sacred image and to join me here at this table. If it suits You to do so, please accept this offering of food. I will give You 15 minutes to partake of its spiritual essence, and then I will join You and partake of the food’s physical remains. Thank You for seeing me through this day so far, and should You choose to accept this offering, I pray You will enjoy it at least as much as I do.”
Then I sat for about 15 minutes, with my food right in front of me and with Seth staring at me from the other side of my plate. After a while, I began to feel self-conscious; I began to wonder if people weren’t watching me and wondering why I wasn’t eating my food. I was half-worried one of the restaurant staff might walk over and ask me if anything was wrong, and I wasn’t exactly sure how I would reply. At the same time, I was hungry and wanted to start eating immediately. I kept my word, however, and gave Seth time to have His share of the food first. I have no way of knowing for sure if He actually accepted this offering or not, but I do know that making the offering made me feel really good. It also made me think about how I usually rush through my lunches; I don’t even take the time to look at my food that closely. I tried this experiment again today, and I’ve decided that I’d like to try and “do lunch with Seth” as often as I can.
Of course, this won’t be possible all the time; there are days when we have staff luncheons at my office, or when co-workers invite me to go to lunch with them. Making offerings to Seth in these situations would be inappropriate, since they would probably make the people around me uncomfortable (which, in turn, would make me uncomfortable too). But I’m pretty sure Big Red won’t mind when that happens; besides, not all offerings need to be of food. As I explained in one of my more recent posts – Keeping It Real – we can make offerings out of activities as much as we can make them out of food. Here in the LV-426 Tradition, for example, it’s not unusual for us to invite Seth to rock shows with us. This may seem foolish to people outside of our tradition, but the way we see it, offerings are about interacting with Deities in a social context, and inviting someone to a rock show is just as much of a social event as inviting someone to dinner. (I might also point out that inviting Seth to a rock show is much more expensive than giving Him a salad, so there’s definitely a financial sacrifice that goes along with that sort of thing.)
When it comes to deciding what food you should offer to a Deity, consider the Deity’s sacred animals and their diets. If they’re herbivores, offer the Deity a vegetarian meal; if they’re carnivores, offer Him or Her something with meat. (A good rule of thumb: don’t offer beef to a Cow Goddess or lettuce to a Crocodile God.) If you wish to offer something that isn’t food, choose something that resonates with the Deity’s personality in some way. For example, Thoth might like a short story you’ve written, while Hathor might enjoy a good belly dance. (I’ve even talked with a fellow metalhead who enjoys dedicating his exercise workouts to Sobek.) Be open to suggestions from the Gods, as well. Always phrase your prayers during offerings with the proper respect; humbly invite the Deity to accept your offering instead of trying to “force” it upon Them. If the Deity doesn’t like what you’re offering, either you won’t feel His or Her presence in your life or He or She will give you some kind of sign that you won’t be able to miss.
When I left work yesterday – just a few hours after offering my vegetarian lunch to Seth – I experienced a brief moment of disorientation in which I felt as if I’d left my statue of Seth on my desk. This was extremely weird, since I always keep that statue at home. Sure enough, the statue was right where it was supposed to be when I got home, but this didn’t change the fact that I felt as if it were with me at the office. I take this as a sign that Seth approves of my offerings and that I should continue making them whenever possible. Most of the signs I receive from Him are like this – strange, mysterious impressions that just seem to come from nowhere. Sometimes the signs I receive show up in dreams or in oddly serendipitous coincidences, but usually they show up when I’m fully conscious and there’s absolutely nothing strange going on around me; something will just feel weird. Perhaps I’m limited in my experience since I work exclusively with Seth for the most part, but I expect some people out there will know what I’m talking about. My point is that a Deity will let you know whether He or She appreciates your offerings or not.
I don’t believe anyone needs a patron or patroness to make offerings. You can make offerings to any Deity you like, so long as you’re respectful and thoughtful in doing so. In the ancient pagan world, people made offerings to lots of Deities without necessarily worshiping Them for life. I’m well aware that some people think you should only “revert,” ingest or otherwise use your offerings to the Gods if you’re a priest. This is a prickly issue for me, because the old priesthood model is no longer relevant in today’s world. It used to be that priests made offerings to the major Gods and didn’t have to earn a living (except when they weren’t serving as priests), while the peasantry earned a living and didn’t have to make offerings to the major Gods (except in the form of taxes). But anyone who worships these same Gods today will also need to earn a living (unless they’re truly privileged), and we all must serve as priests to some degree if we’re to worship Them at all. So while the old division between priesthood and peasantry might have made sense in ancient Egypt, it would prevent almost anyone from being able to worship the Gods today.