The Other Half of the Story

My lover Ember and I have decided to go through Galina Krasskova’s Devotional Polytheist Meme questions together, over the next several months. We encourage our friends to follow along, and welcome links to other people’s answers in our comments, as well as your thoughts on our answers.

What offerings do you make in your tradition and why?

In ancient times, wine, olive or perfume oil, incense, grain, and food were popular offerings to make to the gods. So were livestock, massive public works, treasure, and (on rare occasions) spare human beings. As the livestock, public works, and treasure are currently beyond my means, and human sacrifice is looked down upon in polite society, I’ll stick to wine, oil, grain, and food. I live with scent-sensitive folks, so incense is also out.

But that’s not really the heart of the question, is it? As I’m reading it (and Galina can correct me if I’m reading it wrong), it’s about why and how particular things are offerings. If all you wanted was a list of things ancient folk sacrificed to their gods, you could read Wikipedia. Though you shouldn’t–you should comment here so that I may dispense wisdom.

Wisdom, or whatever. But I digress…

The answer to “why?” is deceptively simple. It’s all about hospitality; I am being a good host to the gods I’ve invited into my home, in hopes that when I’m in their domain (you know… Life), they’ll return the favor. The fancy sociological/anthropological term is “mutual obligation,” and it’s why some folks still respond to help or gifts with the phrase, “much obliged.”

I mean, they’re gods. We can’t force them to do anything, and it would be rude (at best) to try. It doesn’t go well for people who succeed in backing a god into a corner. Just ask Semele.

Semele was a princess of Thebes, mortal mother of Dionysos by Zeus. She talked Zeus into giving her anything she asked, and then asked to see him in his full, divine form. He was forced to do so, as he could not break his promise, and she was incinerated on the spot.

Sure, it worked out all right for her (eventually), but as much as I love my son, I don’t expect him to follow me into the underworld and carry me off to Olympus.

So we give them gifts, feed them and praise them. And, being (usually) honorable sorts, they return the favor. Usually. One of the things about polytheistic gods is that they aren’t all-knowing or all-powerful, so sometimes they can’t do right by us, as much as they might want to.

But the problem is–and having to admit this is why I’ve stalled so far with wit and mythology–I kind of suck at this part of the deal. Sometimes, my altars go neglected for days or weeks. Sometimes, I’m not good at fulfilling my promises.

Sometimes, I’m not the best host.

I’m better about it when operating in a group. When I’m hosting a devotional event, and I can see the reactions of other humans to the effort I’ve put forth, the desire to hear people oohing and aahing over the feast and the altar drive me to do it up right. Basically, I’m really good if I’m doing it for someone else who either really needs it or visibly appreciates it.

This makes things somewhat frustrating when I’m (trying to) do it for myself, or in hopes of some kind of delayed, perhaps only vaguely connected, response. I don’t do well with delayed gratification; my brain remembers the time the deals fall through much more clearly that the times things work well.

At any rate, I want to compose prayers and hymns of gratitude and praise. I want to give every power in my life lovely statues and little treasures for their altars. I want to pour out wine and whiskey and rum and drink to their health. It just kind of slips by, though, without some sign that they’re listening and appreciate what I’m doing for them. The altars don’t look any different until the dust gets really thick. I don’t hear rumbling in the bellies of my idols when the gods are hungry.

There is a school of thought that says we don’t do this for the rewards. We do this for them, whether or not we think we get anything tangible out of it, because that is how the relationship between gods and mortals works. I wish that kind of thinking was anything but despair-inducing for me. The thought, “Yes, I know it’s not all about me. But can’t it be just a little about me?” is very loud, some nights.

Which brings me back to the theme of my last post. Sometimes it feels as if this would all be so much easier with obvious, concrete signs from on high.

For whatever reason, the small magical moments like hearing that bit on the radio while writing the last post don’t stick. I can remember that they happened, but not how they felt. Like it happened to someone else. Memories of bad things, painful things, though are as clear and as visceral as if they were happening right now.

Did I mention I have flashbacks? No? Well, there you go, then. I have a vague sense that other people have flashbacks to good things more often than not, but I have no way to verify that.

When I stand in front of the altar, I don’t anticipate how good it will feel to be in contact with the god, or how affirming it is to do the ritual correctly. I flash back to how shameful it felt to do it wrong, how much it hurt the times I did it and felt nothing come back.

I don’t know. I haven’t figured this one out yet. I get that this is part of the work, but damn is that dark night dark.

Ember’s answer can be found at her blog, Embervoices.

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About Lon Sarver

Lon Sarver is a polytheist priest of Dionysos, living in the San Francisco Bay Area and contemplating (with a healthy amount of dread) making a second attempt at a career in Marriage and Family Therapy. View all posts by Lon Sarver

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