The Sphinx, or, The Caresses, by Fernand Khnopff

Gods & Devotion

I remember reading Francesca de Grandis’s Be a Goddess!, and I remember coming across her notes on devotional offerings to the gods. De Grandis tells readers to “feed” the gods, that doing so is essential. And being the contrarian I can be, I stopped and questioned this need. Surely the gods don’t need to be fed. I think about Edward P. Butler’s many theology posts and how that tradition’s gods certainly don’t need to be fed. Of course, I was willing to accept that the gods might like offerings of food and etc. However, needing and feeding were something else entirely.

Now, that said, I didn’t feel that de Grandis was being dishonest or even incorrect about the importance of devotional practice. Given my day job, I questioned how she framed the issue. (I have since come to the realization that most folks are not writing to me as their primary audience.) So I pondered why—what is the purpose of devotional practice, especially for contemporary practitioners.

Ultimately, my answer comes down to three threads.

The first thread points to good hospitality. If you ask the gods into your life and into your sacred (or mundane) spaces, then you should treat them as honored guests, family, friends. Pour them a cup of whatever you’re having and chat with them. If you believe the gods have agency and independent (if interconnected) existence, then treat them as agents with independent existence. For most cultures, meals and similar events are highly social events, presenting opportunities for people to talk while enjoying and sharing food and drink and some measure of intimacy.

The second thread points to exchange. I’ve noted several articles lately on offerings and devotion that touch on what you offer and the value of what you offer. Gordon from Rune Soup frames the question primarily within market discourse, which strikes me as problematic:

An idea you probably shouldn’t get is the notion that ‘as long as you put in some effort’ then that’s what counts. Yeah, maybe for your dead grandmother. But markets don’t reward effort. They reward scarcity, uniqueness. Often these correlate with effort but sometimes they don’t. So the ‘value’ in preparing food for the spirits is not in the effort as much as the uniqueness of having that activity performed for them. You are not charging for labour. You are selling an end result of that labour. The economic difference is very important to grasp.

Now, Gordon’s more magician than priest—though the distinction can be fairly arbitrary at times—and he likes to argue that “the spirits are fascinated when we deny ourselves something.” However, Gordon’s not talking about devotion so much as exchange. Gordon’s logic for offerings points to a fairly commonplace activity: greasing palms and ingratiating yourself to the right parties. Hell, offerings can be a good way to get the attention of Otherworldly intelligences, a good way to announce yourself (respectfully, amiably, discretely) to local spirits and more. Gordon also itemizes several offerings he’s made over the years, and you can see how they vary from the fairly quotidian for magical practitioners to offerings requiring thought and effort, but not necessarily expense.

Rhyd Wildermuth has also written about this topic recently, and he addresses that what we offer says more about who we are and the frame we impose on our relationship to the Otherworld:

In fact, we could say that the act of making private or group offerings isn’t for the god at all, but as a ritualistic act to world them into our own being. It’s an act of social creation; the god doesn’t actually need any of that shit.

In regards to what we offer, Rhyd argues that our offerings reflect how we want to perceive the gods:

And in the same way, you learn that these external things, what you do in the world, is actually internal to you. It would make no sense for me to offer a god a bullet because I am not the sort of person who thinks the act of killing is sacred. Likewise, no god with whom I co-create would ever ask me to give them blood, because they know me pretty well. I’ll not shed anyone’s blood, anymore than I’d ever hex someone.

Now, while I pretty much agree with Rhyd, I think I should address votive offerings, as well. Votive offerings are a well-established tradition and highly pragmatic on the mortal’s part (but providing opportunities for the gods and Otherworlds to problematize and inflect that pragmatism). Votive offerings typically start when you tell a god or gods that, if they help you achieve some particular end, then you will offer them something suitably cool in return: Dear <<deity>>, if you help me get this job, then I will build you a <<deity>> shrine and fire pit in the backyard and sacrifice some choice ribs with my first paycheck from this job. I would argue that votive offerings fall into the territory of pacts with the Otherworlds, but that gets into what the gods and Otherworlds do with things and actions we offer to them once they “receive” them.

(Of course, what we offer depends also on how we offer it. A poor person’s offering can prove as propitious—if given with mindfulness, with intention and will, and the proper emotional and other resonances—as an expensive offering. The emotional, magical, spiritual “value” (dimension? investiture? I think we run into problems with the mercantile metaphors) of the offering and act and etc. matter more than the value of the actual goods or even the value of your time as most Westerners understand it.)

Rhyd and Asa West—who helped spur Rhyd on this topic with her article on “Giving Bullets to the Morrigan”—really get at how I would argue these threads weave together with the third thread: orienting and connecting us to the gods and Otherworlds. These acts of devotion and offering and even socialization help earth, world, ground the gods into our lives, provide opportunities for us to bridge our lives into the gods’ and vice versa. They provide occasions for us to straddle the Otherworlds and thus to get “closer” to the gods in an almost literal manner: occasions in which we forget the disenchantment of the world and imagine that we can interact and hand things off to the Otherworlds—and to receive something in return. That is, devotional practice helps us imagine a different reality than the one we’re inculcated to make for ourselves. While I can imagine some folks might argue that this thinking profanes the gods, I would argue that instead it actually helps sacralize our lives and actions, helping us become more god-like, like the gods.

Next time: I want to talk about the embodied nature of the Otherworlds—and our own souls, selves, “bodies”—which I think connects to what I’ve talked about here.

Image: The Sphinx, or, The Caresses, by Fernand Khnopff 

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