Making Simple Offerings to the Gods

Sacrificial lore is abundant, but not necessary

When Sallustius writes about ritual, he has elaborate ceremonies in mind, involving temples, altars, cult statues, prayers, symbols, plants, stones and animals (XV.2). Now, as much knowledge as has been lost, it is certainly possible to compile lists and tables of all of these elements and their correspondences to specific gods.

Vitruvius, for example, tells us that temples to Jupiter the Thunderer, Caelus, Sun and Moon should be open to the sky; temples for severe deities like Minerva, Mars and Hercules should be of the Doric order; delicate deities like Venus, Flora, Proserpine and the Nymphs of Springs, in the Corinthian order; while the Ionic order is right for gods between the extremes, like Juno, Diana and Bacchus. Temples of Aesculapius and Salus and similar deities must be built in places conducive to good health.

When it comes to altars, there is a mass of mutually contradictory lexicographical material that distinguishes the major types, usually based on the contrast between celestial and subterrestrial gods, with one or more intermediate classes sometimes added. In the commentaries on Vergil, for example, we can read both that arae (‘altars’) belong to the gods above, foci (‘fireplaces’) to the middlemost or marine gods, and mundi (‘pits’) to the gods below (SD Aen. 3.134); and also that the gods above are assigned altaria (‘elevated altars’), terrestrial gods arae (‘low altars’), and the gods below foci (‘fireplaces’).

The diversity of the iconography of cult statues is familiar enough that it requires no comment; prayers too are of an infinite variety, with many named subtypes (as enumerated by Proclus, On the Timaeus 2, see Kaye’s post on the passage), and again, there are various kinds of hymns (see, e.g., Menander Rhetor and Proclus the grammarian), with examples in Greek and Latin scattered across dozens of different collections.

For symbols (gr. kharaktêres), you can consult texts like the so-called Greek Magical Papyri; for plants, collections like the Anonymous Poem on Herbs, which tell us that boxthorn belongs to Nemesis or cinquefoil to Hermes; for stones, Damigeron, the Orphic Lithika and a variety of other lapidaries; and there are countless texts which name the animals appropriate to one god or another.

But as interesting as all this lore is, none of it is necessary to begin practicing.

How to make simple offerings

To make an offering, all you really need to observe are three principles:

  1. Pick out a place.
  2. Put an offering there.
  3. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Once more with a little more detail

You are probably aware that rituals require some kind of sacred space, usually called an altar; but things are both more complicated and more straightforward than that. An altar (gr. bômos, lat. ara or altarium), strictly speaking, is an elevated platform for making burnt offerings (animals, incense, libations, you name it), but offerings can also be laid on an offering-table (gr. trápeza) without burning them; incense can be offered in a burner rather than on open flame; libations of water, wine or other liquids can be poured into bowls. Whatever place, surface or vessel you use, it does not need to be decorated, dedicated, consecrated or fancied up in any other way (although it can be!). As long as you have a place and an offering, you are set.

The sacred space you maintain for the presence of the divine, meanwhile, is more precisely called a shrine (gr. naḯskos, lat. sacrarium, lararium), and while it can be combined with an altar in household practice, they are technically distinct. You do not need to have a shrine to start making offerings, and if you have one, you do not need to interact with it daily or center your rituals on it. In Rome, according to a letter of the emperor Julian, priests were only required to be at their temple for thirty days of the year. What this means is that you can have a fulfilling devotional life without a dedicated shrine, indeed without any permanent sacred space, and that even by just observing three days every month (burning incense on your altar or garlanding your shrine on the Kalends, Nones and Ides, for example), you will be doing more than a Roman priest was expected to.

Things you don’t need to worry about (at least not at the beginning)

If this seems too simple, based on what you may have read elsewhere, consider three factors. One, even if you’ve been practicing for years, you’re living in a culture that makes pagan devotion much more of a chore than it would have been in antiquity. Two, the idealized household cult we read about in classical sources was maintained not just by entire families, but more importantly by their slaves (we do not know very much about how ritual practice scaled down when people had less space and income). Three, what you’ve read elsewhere was probably based on very specific moments in time (like Athens around 400 BCE or Pompeii in the 1st century CE), which are not representative of the breadth of what was actually going on in antiquity. If a “standard” Athenian or Roman/Pompeiian practice is your goal, that’s great, of course – but it’s not the place to start, and ending up elsewhere is not a failure.

Concretely, you do not need a separate space or rituals for Hestia, Zeus Ktesios, Zeus Herkeios, Hermes, Hekate and Apollon Agyieus. Start with impromptu offerings to deities you have been thinking of, or whose help you think you could use, or begin with the one statue you have and build from there (if you want to). The same applies, of course, to Vesta, Lares, Genius and Penates.

You also don’t have to follow any of the instructions you find online, or in handbooks, about what your shrine or altar should look like, what words you use, or what steps your rituals should consist in. All of these templates are cobbled together, generally with a hefty dose of pure invention, and no matter how much they insist that some one aspect or another is indispensable, it probably isn’t.

To name just one example: many resources now describe khérnips or lustral water as something that is absolutely necessary in every ritual of worship, whereas the ancient Greek writer Athenaeus (2nd/3rd cent. CE), whose voluminous opus often dwells at length on aspects of ritual, mentions its use only in an aside, as a custom of the past (Deipnosophists 9.76).

On another note, do not fret about how to dispose of offerings. There are no hard rules, just use your judgment.

What you can offer

The quintessential offering is incense, particularly frankincense, but ethical sourcing is more important than the specific plant species. Pseudo-Apuleius, for example, says that “before frankincense was known, people would placate the gods with rosemary” (Herbarius 80), and there is ample evidence that different people used different incenses for the same deities. In the Orphic Hymns, for example, Zeus is assigned storax and Hermes, frankincense, while the Eighth Book of Moses (a pagan text despite the name) gives Zeus malabathrum and Hermes cassia, but Kronos receives storax and Helios frankincense. In more elaborate rituals, one deity may receive a range of incenses (e.g., storax, myrrh, sage and frankincense for Selene in Greek Magical Papyrus IV 2870).

Another simple offering is flowers; again, superficial features like color (e.g., yellow for Helios) and local sourcing are more important than giving specific kinds to a given god.

What is usually translated as ‘sacrificial cakes’ is simply pastry. You can do research and try to match or replicate ancient types, but you can also start your own traditions. The pastry does not need to be homemade.

Seasonal vegetables and fruit are also an excellent offering (called ‘first fruits’ if they are from your own harvest).

Libations are most typically from wine (or other alcoholic beverages), either from the original vessel into a bowl (which may then be emptied into an altar or into the earth), or, in a whole-offering, the vessel is emptied directly into the earth.* Libations to the dead (excepting heroes and mortals who have been deified) should always be whole-offerings, as one should share neither food nor drink with them or with underworld gods (cf. the story of Persephone condemned to stay in the underworld because she has eaten pomegranate seeds there). When offering to the Erinyes, wine should be strictly avoided.

*This is written from a European perspective. In settler colonial countries,
this way of interacting with the land may not be appropriate for non-Indigenous people.

Wineless libations can be of water, honey or milk; other liquids are less common but not necessarily inappropriate. According to the scholia on Sophocles‘ Oedipus at Colonus 100, sober libations are appropriate not only for the Erinyes but also Mnemosyne, the Muse,* Eos, Helios, Selene, the Nymphs and Aphrodite Ourania.

*This may mean “Mnemosyne the Muse”, or just possibly “Mnemosyne and the Muse(s)”.

An optional observance

Sacrifice to the celestial gods in uneven numbers (especially threes, e.g., by making three libations, cf. Theon of Smyrna), to the dead and underworld gods in even ones (see, e.g., Servius, On Eclogues 5.66).

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