The patter of the rain — herald of the monster storm we’re expected — has nixed the plans for the fire dish. It will be an indoor Samhain, alas, but not unexpected.
This morning, I had an email conversation with a Druid from another tradition on offerings. Specifically: What do you do with them in an indoor rite?
The clash of religious obligation versus real-life issues reminds me of this piece by the New York Times, in which Hindus use Jamaica Bay for offerings, in lieu of the Ganges. All waters and all rivers are sacred in Pagan philosophy, and there’s no reason the local river can’t substitute for the “official” one. The problem, however, is that offerings — no matter how well meant — tend to clog the ecosystem. Coconuts, sweets, even saris — these gifts from devotion can pollute a very real body of water.
And so, goes the article, the Hindus have come up with other ways to deal with offerings: dip them in the water seven times, and then take them home to dispose of the right way. The right way, in this context, means not offering them to the Goddess of the River.
So, what’s the right way, in practical terms?
In Keltrian rituals, we are supposed to burn our offerings, or keep them around until we can burn them later. I do this when I can in outdoor rites with a fire dish. While I do have a fireplace I can use for indoor rites, I’m very skittish about using it when my husband isn’t home since I’ve smoked out the basement at least once. I’m a moron with fire, and so I try to be uber-careful.
Frankly, I don’t always burn my offerings. I probably won’t today, since the weather precludes the fire dish and my husband won’t be home to make sure I don’t turn our house into a turkey-smoker again.
So, what do I do?
First off, I use biodegradable substances: fresh and dried flowers and herbs, nuts, mead or cider, and fresh-baked bread. I don’t offer a massive amount of anything; a hunk of bread will do, rather than the whole loaf, for example.
I also make non-material offerings: a specially written or recited poem, as well as spontaneous music via instruments and song, crafted especially for the occasion. Once in a while, I give something physical that doesn’t break down but is no hindrance to the environment, such as a beautiful stone or shell.
When using the fire dish, I burn the offerings that can burn safely. When the weather isn’t conducive to outdoor rites, after the ritual I walk through the woods and leave the offerings on a stone I have placed and consecrated for this purpose. It is a designated Sacred Place, as I picked the rock out, blessed it during a grove Imbolc rite a few years ago and then deliberately placed it at the foot of one of our oaks.
Not giving large amounts isn’t sacrilegious; it’s a necessity for avoiding pests. The same goes with the biodegradable nature of offerings. If I’m called to offer something I can’t easily dispose of — say, a piece of clothing — I would consider donating it to a person in need, or an agency that serves such a population. The point of offering is the act of giving itself, not the item; the Gods, quite frankly, don’t need your coconuts. They need a symbol of devotion, which is encapsulated by the ritual itself.
We don’t live in the sparsely populated ancient world, where we can send golden chariots into the sacred lake to appease the Gods. Gifts can have consequences — as seen by the polluted nature of Jamaica Bay, or even the original Ganges. We can’t always hold a bonfire in our yards, especially if we’re apartment-dwellers. To be relevant, offering-based faiths need to take today’s realities into consideration, which include zoning and environmental laws, public safety and health, and sheer ease of doing. If it’s too difficult to dispose of an offering appropriately, chances are you’re less likely to make them.
I’ve always liked the Hindu concept of prasad. During puja rites, worshiper offer food, which is kept on the common altar and distributed to everyone after the rite. Anything left over goes to anyone who happens to be in the vicinity, or in need. This reminds me strongly of the old tradition of animal sacrifice; the blood and inedible parts were burned for the Gods, while the rest went into the communal feast.
Perhaps, as modern Druids, we should look at such concepts. Why not prasad — with part of the offering given out at the end as ritual tokens? Or make an offering of canned goods, winter coats or other needed items and distribute them to the poor? Or make an offering of service, whether cleaning up parkland or working at the soup kitchen and dedicating that time to the Kindreds?
It’s not the “ancient way,” so to speak, but we tend not to follow most ancient practices anyway, such as blood sacrifice (the cornerstone of many ancient faiths, including Judaism and, originally, Vedic religion).
Just a thought.