Offerings or Sacrifices?

Caravaggio - Sacrifice of Isaac, 1603

Just above these words, you can see two pictures. At first glance, which one would you associate with sacrifice? I'm guessing the right one because this is definitely my association. For some reason, a lot of people think that Pagan rituals include sacrifices. And it is interesting to point out that "sacrifice" is usually perceived as/equated with blood sacrifice. This is yet another misconception that I will attempt to dispel in this post. Let us first have a look at dictionary definitions of these two terms just to cover the basics.
sacrifice /ˈsækrəfaɪs, ˈsækrɪfaɪs /, noun
(1) when you decide not to have something valuable, in order to get something that is more important
(2) a) the act of offering something to a god, especially in the past, by killing an animal or person in a religious ceremony; b) an animal, person, or object offered to a god in sacrifice
a human sacrifice (= a person killed as a sacrifice )

offering /ˈɒfərɪŋ/, noun 
(1) a book, play, piece of music etc that someone has written recently
(2) something that is given to God
(3) something that is given as a present to please someone  
According to these definitions (which were taken from the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 5th Edition), a sacrifice implies either blood and/or asking for something valuable in return for it. An offering, on the other hand, does not include blood and can be practically anything. In addition to this, offerings are usually given with the goal of pleasing someone/something. Speaking from personal experience, Pagans do not give sacrifices to the gods/God/Goddess or any being; they give offerings. Of course, when I say "Pagan", I am referring to Noepagans and not the people who lived in ancient times. Back then, blood sacrifice and bargaining with the gods was a completely normal thing. Nowadays, blood sacrifice is almost unheard of and the gods are generally treated differently. At the bottom of this lies the global change in ethics or rather the contemporary understanding of what is ethical and what is not (and I think it is safe to say that blood sacrifice is thought of as unethical by most people today).

I firmly believe that offerings and sacrifices are not the same thing and that Pagans give offerings, not sacrifices, because this is what our relationship with deities implies. But I will get to this a bit later on. It is worth noting that some Pagan authors would not agree with me on this subject. For instance, Raymond Buckland in his The Witch Book says the following about sacrifices:
A sacrifice is the giving of something or someone to a deity or deities as a gift, in supplication, to atone, or to appease. It establishes a connection between the profane and the sacred. Common sacrifices are food and drink, tokens from the harvest, animals, and - historically - even humans. (pp. 398-399)
 He defines an offering as:
A sacrifice or gift to the gods. Whenever Witches have a meal, before they eat or drink they pour some wine onto the earth, onto the altar, or into the fire, as a sign of giving thanks to the gods for what they have. This is an essential part of the ceremony of Cakes and Wine, a part of every Witch meeting, although it will also be done any time Witches are feasting together. Offerings may also be made at any time, but they are done especially at the time of harvest to show appreciation for the bounty of the gods. (p. 350)
Rosemary Guiley says something similar in her book The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca:
sacrifice: An offering of a gift, especially to a deity or being, in petition, thanksgiving or appeasement. The most common offerings are food, drink, the fruits of harvest and the blood sacrifice of animals and fowl. The highest sacrifice is that of human life, a practice now rare. Sacrifices can be made to the elements, the sun and Moon, the cardinal points, sacred landmarks (mountains, lakes, rivers and so on), the dead and supernatural beings. 
In contemporary Witchcraft and Paganism offerings are cakes, drinks, fruits, flowers, poems, handicrafts, incense, nuts and other items. Blood sacrifice is considered unnecessary for worship. In Witchcraft rituals, an offering of food and drink is presented at the altar or sprinkled about the outdoors as an offering. (p. 294)
In my opinion, both authors have failed to distinguish offerings from sacrifices. In both situations, sacrifices are taken as being synonymous for offerings (and vice versa), and are associated with begging (supplication, petition), appeasement and, in one case, even atonement (which, from this spiritual point of view, implies the concept of sin; but as we all know, Pagans do not acknowledge sin). 

The reason why I think Bucland's and Guiley's definitions are not precise is because Pagans do not beg deities or beings for anything because our relationship with them is slightly different that what most people are used to. Whereas most organized religions see God as being transcendent (the ultimate Creator, above us all and therefore waiting to rescue us), most Pagans understand deities as being immanent (which basically means that they permeate the world and everything in it, including humans). Therefore, humans themselves are partially deific, as is all of nature from the Pagan perspective. So why would we beg a deity for something if we don't perceive them as hierarchically above us (after all, we are interconnected)? Also, most Pagans believe that the gods can bring good fortune, or blessings, strength and so on, but they cannot make something magically happen. It is up to the individual to do the actual work. For example, most Pagans will agree that no god in the history of mankind could help you get a job if all you did was sleep all day, watch TV and stay at home without even picking up the phone or newspaper to look for employment. Appeasement implies an angry god/goddess who needs calming down. From the Pagan point of view, gods have no reason to be too angry at us because there is no sin. Of course, if we do something wrong, we will have to endure the consequences. They may be of a worldly or spiritual nature but even if consequences are understood as being sent by the gods, we do not perceive them as pure punishment for a "sin". The gods sometimes have to give warnings and teach us lessons, but they do no condemn us, they do not simply strike us when we do something wrong. The consequences of our actions are there to teach us a lesson. In this sense, the gods are not angry or vengeful; they are like parents trying to teach their children how to take responsibility for their own actions. As for atonement, I think it is clear that Pagans do not acknowledge sin and therefore have nothing to atone for in the usual religious sense. If atonement is understood as making amends in the worldly sense, then this falls under the above category of taking responsibility for one's own actions. We "atone" for our wrongdoings by understanding what we have done and then trying to fix it or simply bearing the repercussions.

Although, to be fair, both authors do emphasize that blood sacrifices (i.e. human or animal sacrifices) are primarily a part of ancient customs and a few contemporary religions/spiritual paths that have nothing to do with Paganism. In fact, they clearly state that typical Pagan offerings include food, drink, fruits of harvests, flowers, poems, handicrafts, incense, nuts and so on. And they do indeed bring us closer to the Divine because offerings are only one way of communicating with the gods. After all, any form of communication is good for this, or any other relationship.

For us Wiccans, but also many other Pagans, the ceremony of the Cakes and Wine is the part of the ritual when we give offerings to the gods. This time, I have no objections to Rosemary Guiley's definition:
cakes-and-wine (also cakes-and-ale): In Wicca and Paganism, a relaxed sharing of refreshments, conversation, dancing and singing that follows rituals, circles, seasonal celebrations, rites of passage and other sacred occasions. The food and drink, which help to replenish energy after psychic work has been done, are consecrated and blessed by the high priest and priestess, which imbues the refreshments with divine energy of the Goddess and God. An offering is made to the deities as a thanks for the basic necessities of life. The high priest and high priestess sample the food and drink then share them with the group. Some of the refreshments may be scattered upon the earth as an offering, or be left for the fairies or elementals. (p. 49)
I can testify that the above definition is very accurate because all of the Pagan rituals I have attended or lead have included a food/drink offering. Occasionally, some crystals or flowers were also given to the earth, elementals or other beings, but the first bit of food and the first sip of the drink are generally left in a libation bowl as offerings (or directly poured/scattered on the ground).

It is also necessary to mention the nature of Pagan offerings. Pagans do not atone for their sins by giving gifts to the gods, they do not try to get on their good side by doing this or try to make them less angry. My perception of offerings is like food or drink that you give to a respected, pleasant guest when they enter your home. For instance, when you welcome someone you like and respect into your home for tea and cookies (or whatever), it is a matter of etiquette to pour tea into their cup first and offer them a snack to go with it. Only when you have done this do you take some tea and cookies. This is simply a sign of respect and greeting or perhaps gratitude for the guest coming to your home (e.g. if they are very important). As I see it, it's the same with gods and basically any entity which is welcomed into the ritual circle. Offering them food and drink is a way of saying: "Hello. We welcome you into our sacred space and wish you to join us in celebration. We thank you for being here with us and give you love and respect just as you do to us". Hopefully this has made things a bit clearer.

As for the topic of blood sacrifice, I don't have much to say except that it is not a part of Paganism. Most Pagans see it as being an ancient tradition that simply does not fit into modern-day ethics and the Neopagan worldview in general. Personally, I think that blood sacrifice completely goes against the "golden rule" of Paganism - harm none - because "none" includes basically all living beings.

So these were my thoughts on the subject and I would love to hear yours (even if they might differ from mine). Feel free to leave them in the comments below. :)

Until next time. Yours,
Witch's Cat

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