Friday, 30 March 2012

Imagining the Gods

Click on images to enlarge

Apollo, God of light and the sun, healing (or disease), music (especially stringed instruments), poetry, archery and prophecy
Statue of Apollo from Pompeii

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Pagan Offerings to the Gods

"Evocation" by A Rothaug (b. 1870)
Here follows a list of possible offerings to various divine beings. This list is neither comprehensive nor indisputably correct – if in doubt the following may be acceptable offerings:
  • Food – can be symbolically offered on a plate before an image or symbol of a deity, or burnt in a ritual fire, or left in a sacred location, or hidden in a sacred tree, or thrown into sacred water or onto crossroads.
  • Animal sacrifice by proxy.* You can perform an animal sacrifice by proxy by baking cookies or bread in the shape of an animal and offering this instead. Sheep, pigs and cattle were the most common sacrificial animals in ancient times. However, note that, following the Roman tradition of Numa, bloodless offerings are in fact most traditional. Wheat, salt, salted bread, sacrificial cakes/pastries (eg, see this recipe for Cato's libum), herbs, garlands of flowers, drink-offerings, and then, later, incense and saffron, were the most typical ancient offerings in Rome (Plutarch, The Life of Numa and Ovid, Fasti). We also know that bread, meat, onions and milk are traditional offerings to Germanic deities (Ibn Fadlan). Another substitute for animal sacrifice is to offer wine from a bottle with a cork instead of a screw top. If you discover that the wine is "corked" then this may be viewed as being equivalent to opening up the innards of a sacrificed animal and discovering irregularities (which is of course a sign that the offering has been rejected; thus necessitating repeating the ritual with a fresh offering). 
  • Fire – for a simple or preliminary show of reverence light a candle in a sacred location.
  • Incense (note that frankincense was the most popular incense used in ritual offerings in ancient Rome). For an in depth look at incense as an offering, including issues relating to health, see my post on Incense - Offerings to the Gods.
  • Aromatic herbs (juniper, laurel, rosemary, thyme, etc). 
  • Flowers.
  • Spices, especially Indian spices (ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, saffron, etc).
  • Wine, this may also include spiced wine and honeyed wine. Avoid diluting wine. Note that beer and mead are almost certainly acceptable offerings to Germanic Gods.
  • Milk (especially to Goddesses), but note that there are a range of ethical issues  (eg, see ciwf.org.uk) surrounding contemporary dairy farming which may serve to spiritually contaminate, or profane, the product because it was produced in league with unkind farming practices of which benevolent Gods may disapprove. Taking care to establish that dairy offerings come from ethically run farms (or using a plant based alternative) is recommended but ultimately this is a matter of personal discretion. 
  • Votive offerings. Votive offerings are, unlike the offerings listed above, relatively non-perishable. An example of this would be a gift of pearls to Venus. 
  • Spoils of victory (uncleaned) over enemies (especially to celestial Gods). Including the enemies themselves (to chthonic Gods). 
  • Temples and altars, for particularly elaborate offerings add temple/shrine priests/priestesses and/or designated feast/games days.
Roman rites
If it is possible to find a sacred place outdoors to make offerings this is ideal. Traditionally libations to celestial (of the sky) deities are placed into a fire on a raised altar so that their vital essence might rise to the sky; this ritual should be performed in the day (compare to the Hindu yajna). Offerings to aquatic deities are generally thrown into water. Offerings to chthonic (of the earth) deities are generally poured or placed, using the left hand, into a hole dug into the earth (and then entirely burnt in that place if possible, or buried) while the right hand is held over the fire, or touching the earth, with the palm/s facing down. 

Prayers can be made with open palms (both hands or the right hand only), fingers together and stretched slightly backwards. The palm of the right hand (or both hands) should be facing the presumed abode of the God/s being honoured (eg, the sky for celestial Gods and the ground for chthonic Gods). Hands and clothes should normally be clean (the cleaner you are the better). See this post for more on Pagan prayer.

Note that in the Roman tradition offerings are made to Janus before other Gods, because he is the gateway to the divine, while Vesta, Goddess of altar and hearth fire, receives the last offering (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, Bk 2), though Vesta's name may be invoked first at the start of the ritual (Ovid, Fasti, 6.304)The head is usually covered when praying to Roman Gods (notable exceptions to this general rule include Saturn and Hercules, to whom the ritus Graecus applies – note that despite the name the ritus Graecus in fact refers to a style of Roman ritual, which is inspired by, but not identical to, Hellenic rites; it usually involves wearing a laurel wreath and playing music during the ritual), and it may be desirable to face east when praying. 

Germanic rites
We do not know for sure what the intricacies of Germanic rites were historically, but it may be that worship was more likely to be conducted outdoors. Tacitus records that the Germanic people generally "judge it not to be in keeping with the majesty of heavenly beings to confine them within walls", and that instead they "consecrate woods and groves" (Germania). In the Hyndluljod a shrine that pleases Freyja is described as a "high altar of heaped up stones ... reddened ... with fresh cattle-blood" (Elder Edda). Ibn Fadlan describes the Rus place of worship as an outdoor place with "a great wooden post stuck in the ground with a face like that of a man". Around this post were long wooden stakes driven into the ground which had "little figures" in front of them; these were said to be the God's wives and children. Ibn Fadlan stated that a Rus man would bow before the great post, describe who he was and what he wanted divine assistance with before leaving food offerings (bread, meat, milk, onions and either ale or mead). Once the prayer had been answered the man would return with a grander offering in the form of slaughtered sheep or cows, after removing some of the meat to eat with his companions the rest was set before the great wooden post and the heads of the animals hung on the wooden stakes. When night fell and dogs came and ate the meat the pious man took that as a sign that the God had accepted the offering (Ibn Fadlan).

In his Corrector, Burchard of Worms describes Heathen rites that were apparently common in Germany in the early 11th century (Burchard's purpose was to set a standard form of penance for common sins):
“Have you gone to any place to pray other than a church ... to springs, rocks, trees, or crossroads; and have you burned candles or small torches there to venerate that place, have you brought bread or some other offering there, have you eaten there, or sought anything there for the health of the body or the soul [cited in Shinners (ed), Medieval Popular Religion, at 442-443]?
He also speaks of offerings of knots, bread and herbs, over which incantations are uttered before being hidden in a tree or thrown into crossroads. Burchard's contemporary in England, Wulfstan, wrote that offerings to Odin were made at crossroads and on high hills (cited in Boenig and Emmerson, Anglo-Saxon Spirituality, at 136).

Intent and expectations
Just because one has made an offering does not mean one has obtained a favour. The Gods are not merchants, or prostitutes who sell their favours. They favour whoever they will, and we cannot bribe them to do anything; they likely have little use for our offerings in any case. Offerings signal both our understanding that we cannot get something for nothing as well as our respect for their divinity. Ritual offerings are a means of (attempted) communication, or even a divine conversation, and never a payment for services bought.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Pagan Prayer


Prayer to ask or to thank 
A model with the head covered in a way that suits
most Roman rites. Image: "Lycinna" by Goward (1903)
If not a regular, household ritual (ie, it is not in honour of household divinities) prayers and offerings are generally best performed outdoors under an open sky, preferably in a place which seems to be associated with the Deity. Creating a shrine, of either a temporary or permanent nature, is a possibility when a sacred location cannot be identified. 

It is important to prepare for rituals. Some of the things you may want to consider are as follows (all that follows relates primarily to Roman rites):
  1. Determining what it is that you want, and thus who are the appropriate Deities to supplicate. To identify the Deity the following (hyperlinked) posts may be helpful: Contemporary Visions of the Divine and A Long List of Deities.
  2. Determining whether the Deity to supplicate is primarily celestial (of the sky), aquatic (of water) or chthonic (of the earth). If celestial, normally a ritual fire should be lit and offerings burnt in this fire. The ritual should normally be performed in the day, but not if it is windy. Safety dictates that you bring a fire blanket or jug of water in case the fire becomes unsafe. If aquatic, normally offerings will be poured or thrown into the body of water most close to the Deity (eg, if Neptune, the ocean; if a river spirit, in the river). If chthonic, normally offerings will be poured into the earth or a pit is dug into which offerings are placed, such offerings may be burnt whole in that place or merely buried. Alternately (a) food, liquid or plant offerings can be symbolically placed on a plate before an image or object associated with the Deity; (b) incense may be burnt at the Deity’s shrine; (c) ornaments, garlands or other objects may be placed around the statue of the Deity; (d) offerings specific to the Deity may be made – embroidery honours Minerva; smithing honours Vulcan; music honours Apollo; eloquent prose honours Mercury; the very act of drinking wine may honour Bacchus; sexual acts may honour fertility Deities, and so on. See Pagan Offerings to the Gods for more on suitable offerings. 
  3. Note that in the Roman tradition offerings are normally made to Janus before other Gods, because he is the gateway to the divine, while Vesta, Goddess of altar and hearth fire, receives the last offering (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods), though Vesta's name may be invoked first at the start of the ritual (Ovid, Fasti). Arguably, Vesta need not be invoked if the ritual involves no fire.
  4. It is advisable to prepare what you will do and say so that the ritual does not become fumbling or ineffective. Note that you should speak in a clear voice; stumbling over words in the midst of a ritual is not desirable and may even be regarded as inauspicious. It is perfectly fine to read from a prepared script during the ritual – in fact this may be preferable.
  5. Hands and clothes should be clean (the cleaner you are the better), normally white clothes will preferable, and the head is usually covered when praying to Roman Gods (notable exceptions to this general rule include Saturn and Hercules, to whom the ritus Graecus applies – note that despite the name the ritus Graecus in fact refers to a style of Roman ritual, which is inspired by, but not identical to, Hellenic rites; it may involve wearing a laurel wreath). You do not need to wear a toga  (traditionally a fold of the toga would be placed over the head) – a hoodie with the hood up is sufficient. Otherwise a scarf or shawl. Only the back of the head needs covering; the greater part of the arms and neck can be left exposed.
  6. Prayers should be made with open palms (both hands or the right hand only), fingers together and stretched slightly backwards. The palm of the right hand (or both hands) should be facing the presumed abode of the God/s being honoured (eg, the sky for celestial Gods and the ground for chthonic Gods) or at an image of the God or shrine to the God.
Some tips for a small, outdoor fire ceremony (feel free to disregard; this is tailored for a city dweller to perform on an apartment balcony): before starting the fire line the bowl/container in which the flame will burn with aluminium foil and place a small tea light in the middle. Light the candle then place very small broken up twigs (up to 2 inches long) and dried leaves over the flame. Do not place too much fuel in the bowl as the fire will grow too large. Keep a large jug of water handy. Do not perform this ceremony on a windy day.

The following words are the kind of things you might say during Roman rites, but of course your own prayers might be worded completely differently. The key words may include (1) correct identification of the God you wish to honour (hence the name of the Deity and a description of their domain), (2) a clear statement of what you are praying for, and (3) a clear description of what offerings you are making or will make should your prayer be answered.