Mama Gretchen’s Beginners’ Guide to Offering and Sacrifice
“Knowest how one shall write, knowest how one shall rede?
Knowest how one shall tint, knowest how one makes trial?
Knowest how one shall ask, knowest how one shall offer?
Knowest how one shall send, knowest how one shall sacrifice?”
–The Havamol (Bellows)
One of the most common sources of frustration for people who are new to Heathenry or who are resuming active practice after a long break is the act of sacrifice. What makes an appropriate offering? Which gods prefer which observations? How should the act be performed? Why would a god want anything that I have?
Now, in my opinion, the most important thing to remember here is that an offering establishes a very personal sort of connection between the person or group giving the offering and whatever wight (god, nature spirit, ancestor, et cetera) it’s being given to. As such, the wight is going to be the final authority on what is and isn’t appropriate. If you don’t have that kind of relationship, or aren’t receiving any signals, here are my tips:
A great place to start is to read up on whatever wight you want to build communion with, what sorts of items and deeds they’re associated with, how they may have been honored historically, and how contemporary devotees are honoring them now. Thor, as one good example, is strongly associated with drinking alcohol, both in the extant lore and in a lot of people’s modern conceptions of him, so a bowl or horn (or can, bottle, cup, etc.) of your favorite adult beverage is something you can’t go wrong with. Likewise we’re told quite explicitly in the stories that Odin enjoys wine; and just as a general thing, the sharing of drink as a way to build relationships is a very common motif throughout modern Heathenry.
There are a lot of wights about whom we don’t have a lot of that direct information, so you’ll have to divine or contrive the associations based on stories about the things they’ve done–and that’s just fine! Whatever you end up doing is only “wrong” if it doesn’t work.
And about that: A lot of folks will ask why the gods “need” this or that thing in sacrifice. Well, they don’t. But that’s not the point. The act of sacrifice is meant to express love, devotion, and respect for the target by demonstrating your willingness to give of yourself–as such, as long as whatever you’re giving is something of value to you (even if that value is entirely sentimental), the intent is far more important than the thing. The idea here is to build community and establish relationships, not material enrichment.
You really can’t go wrong with consumables–food, drink, sweets, even cigarettes. I’ve always had best results with offerings that seem in some way appropriate, but really, “appropriate” is a relative term; that’s up to the wight of the hour, so trust your intuition. I’ve been told by devotees of Loki that he’s a fan of sponge cake.
But an offering doesn’t have to be something like that, or even a tangible item at all. The target of your devotion will appreciate anything made by your hand or craft, or anything you hold dear yourself or that you think they’d like. I’ve done well writing devotional poetry for Woden, for one thing. Whatever you’re giving, you need only approach your focus, whatever that might be–an altar with a picture or statue, or a plain altar, or anyplace that feels sacred to you—with a sense of reverence and respect, and give up your sacrifice with appropriate words. Again, “appropriate” is a funny word; most of the time, just something along the lines of, “Here, this is for you, I thought you might like it” will be plenty.
Now, a point of order: Whatever you’ve offered up in sacrifice belongs to the wight of the occasion, it’s no longer yours, and it must be got rid of.
That doesn’t have to be as scary as it sounds, though; you certainly *can* ritually break something and throw it into a bog, if you *want* to, but you don’t have to. There are a lot of ways to do that.
With offerings of food or drink, my favorite thing to do is return it to the earth in some way, by pouring out, burying, or exposing–If you like historical precedents, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan reported that the Kievan Rus would rejoice when dogs came to eat the food offered to the gods, because they saw it as a sign that the offering had been well received.
Burning is also a good option; not only is the offered thing got rid of, but also the act of burning can be seen as symbolizing a transmutation from the physical to the spiritual.
If none of these are an option, there’s nothing wrong with putting offerings in the trash or down the drain; that’s what you do with your own leftovers you aren’t going to finish, yeah? Just make sure it’s done with the same respect and reverence as the act of offering was; try viewing it as a separation or disavowal rather than disposal.
And you *can* eat the food or drink the beverage yourself, but that’s a different sort of sacrifice; call that sharing a communal meal, rather than giving a gift.
For less tangible things, I consider my devotional poetry to be “got rid of” when I’ve posted and shared them, sending them out into the aether. And a devotional deed is “gone” once you’re done doing it.
If you’re giving an object that you’re hesitant to break or throw away, that’s okay, too; you can “get rid of it” by considering it a sacred object that you’re now borrowing, and so shouldn’t be used for mundane purposes. A statue or some other kind of focus is a good offering; it can sit right on your altar, and depending on your spiritual tradition you might’ve just given your wight a nice place to live when they’re visiting. Knives make good athames. Tarot decks, kitchen implements, anything else “witchy”; it’s a great way to build spiritual relationships and consecrate your tools at the same time. And you can come up with a special new purpose for just about any item, if you think about it.
You can generally expect to get some benefit from your offering, but you shouldn’t expect anything specific unless you have a very, very close relationship with the target of your offering, and you should never treat it as a quid-pro-quo relationship. The idea here is to build a mutual relationship, and whether that means a friendship or the relationship of client and patron, demanding one thing in exchange for another like a financial transaction is pretty friggin rude.
Ultimately, gift-giving and sacrifice are fundamentally personal things; in individual practice, it’s between the wight and the practitioner; in communal practice, it’s between the wight and whatever in-group. So, what you should or shouldn’t do depends on a lot of things–the particulars of your spiritual path or tradition, the nature of whichever wight you’re offering to, the relationship you may or may not have with them, your living situation, and so on. All I have to offer are tips and suggestions; at the end of the day, the best advice I can give you is to trust your instincts. If it feels right, it probably is.