O is for offerings

…for there is no banquet of mortals without thee, none where, Hestia, they be not wont first and last to make to thee oblation of sweet wine. (Homeric Hymn XXIX, trans. Andrew Lang)

For much of my life, “offerings” have meant “money.” In the churches I’ve known, people offer money, laid in a plate during the service or tithed via check or credit card. This is used for church expenses and charitable works, and the churches I’ve visited as an adult haven’t said much about these being offerings to God. (Of course, this might have something to do with the fact that most of these churches are Unitarian Universalist.)

As a Wiccan, I learned to save a portion of the food and drink from a ritual and leave it outside for the Goddess and God. There were other kinds of offerings, of course, usually left on an altar, although I rarely managed the altar, much less the offerings. My romantic imagination latched onto these offerings as it did to the rest of Wicca. It’s kind of hard to explain; something like real gods, real magic, real offerings—a package deal of the best sort. I didn’t think the Goddess and God needed these offerings, not in the way I needed, say, a paycheck, but I had the sense that Someone was receiving them and that sense gave them meaning.

After letting my spirituality go dormant for several years, I’m being drawn back to Paganism. But even without actively practicing my spirituality, my beliefs grew and changed. What’s relevant to this post is that I’ve become a nontheist, which makes offerings both a philosophical and a practical issue for me. With no sense that there are gods as such, why make offerings at all? If I did so, would it be out of habit or superstition, or can I do it without losing my integrity? And if I’m going to make offerings, what should they be and how should I do it?

Hestia statue and candleTime, pondering, and Google (“why make offerings”) gave me some answers to the philosophical dilemma to think about. One Buddhist site explained, “We make offerings to create positive energy and develop good qualities such as giving with a respectful attitude and gratitude. Moreover, the offerings remind us of certain teachings of the Buddha.” I also realized that theists consider these issues as well—why do you offer a libation to a god who doesn’t need it? So on a Hellenic site, I read that we are attracted to the beauty and goodness of the gods, and offerings express that attraction. I can see making offerings that remind me of qualities of the gods that I want to emulate. And while I am not convinced that there are actual gods out there, I see beauty in what they represent. I’ll need to think about this more, but I’m starting to see reasons that I might make offerings nowadays and mean it. And these were just the reasons I found on two sites; there were pages of results I haven’t gotten to yet.

However the philosophical angle comes out, the practical aspect continues to challenge me. Right now, I feel drawn toward specific gods and goddesses from Greek and Roman mythology. One of those goddesses is Hestia, and one of the best-established facts about Hestia is that traditionally she receives the first and last parts of any sacrifice in the household. If I decide to honor her (or the idea of her) with physical offerings, I’ve got to figure out what to do with them. Many Pagans pour drinks out on the lawn and leave food for the local wildlife. This works if you live in a house, but I’ve never figured out how to do that while living in an apartment. My current apartment building has no backyard, just a parking lot connected to an alley. There are a couple of patches of grass out back, but they’re directly in front of the garden-level apartments, and I don’t want to be practically standing in the neighbors’ living room while leaving offerings. So I’ve ended up waiting until well after sunset, going out to the far end of the parking lot, and slipping offerings under a tussock of grass hidden from view by the recycling bins. Any devout thoughts of gods, nature, the seasons, beauty, or whatever is driven out by the practical concerns of trying not to trip or slide on anything in the poor lighting and worrying that someone will see me and start asking questions. As a religious practice, it lacks something. A daily offering to Hestia? Ha. I tried taking a single flake of breakfast cereal, leaving it in front of her statue until I left for work in the morning, and then tossing it in the bushes lining the alley as I headed for the bus. It felt like littering. I quit.

So the issue of my making offerings (or not) isn’t resolved by any means. But if I choose to make offerings, it will be because doing so means something to me spiritually, which is more than placing a bit of money in an offering plate has ever managed.