Beltane Offerings- Not the Post I Intended to Write
I recently posted a question on my Facebook, asking what recipes and dishes folks would suggest be made as offerings to Freya for Beltane. Cooking for the Gods, cooking up offerings is such a sacred rite in and of itself, and I can't help but wonder if our ancestors didn't have certain traditional foods or customary dishes (beyond roast pig) that were prepared for the various Powers. If they did, of course, we've lost that knowledge, but that doesn't mean that over time we won't regain it through the wisdom of our ancestors and inspiration of our Deities nor does it mean that we shouldn't give thought to what might please the various Gods and Goddesses the best right now. I very strongly believe that it's by engaging in devotion and working hard to strengthen the tradition and restore the lineage that such knowledge will be returned to us. Devotion is a powerful teacher in and of itself. So as I'm planning my House's Beltane celebration, I wanted to find out what foods other people customarily made for Freya at this time of year.
I had hoped (expected even) to get suggestions of specific dishes and some folks did come through to some extent. I came away from the conversation with a number of ideas that I wouldn't otherwise have had and which I"ll share with you at the end of this article. Unexpectedly, however, the conversation also highlighted yet another aspect of the devotional deficit so prevalent in contemporary Heathenry. I was really bowled over, though I suppose I shouldn't have been.
Suggestions ranged from having an eating contest ostensibly as part of the ritual, to getting drunk, to descriptions of ritual as 'a party,' with the tacit understanding that it was all about people socializing and not paying homage and veneration to the Gods.(1) There were repeated assumptions that the food being prepared would be consumed by the people, instead of being given as an offering and *left alone*. There was an over-focus on alcohol. I'm grateful to everyone who decided to offer suggestions, I really am. I think that people are doing their best to find their way often with a dearth of good role models. it is not my intention to attack any person who contributed to that discussion. I'm only going on the comments proffered and what I've seen directly in the community.
I was appalled. None of the suggestions given above have anything to do with a proper ritual. It took me awhile of pacing around my kitchen, smoking, and pondering to figure out what it was that was so 'off' to me. Firstly, any and all of the suggestions given are fine within the context of a human-centered social event. Have fun, behave boisterously, etc. etc. I've no quarrel with any of that from the human side of things. I like a good party! For me, it's a question of time, place, and appropriate context. Is the ritual about me (or the people) or is it for and about the Gods (with the understanding that right relationship with the Gods benefits the people)? That is the crucial question. As I was taught, rituals ought to be about encountering the sacred, about moving into space set aside from one's everyday life where one can engage with, honor, pay homage to, celebrate the Gods, in the case of group rituals, as a community. I've said it before and I'll say it again: ritual should be focused on the Holy Powers (or in some cases the ancestors).
Now there are plenty of ceremonies that focus on the interstices between human and divine interaction, and even some -- like coming of age rites--that make the transformation of the person involved their foci. Rituals like this have a good and necessary place. There are numerous ceremonies that salt the transitional times of a person's life with the sacred, like weddings and baby blessings. These, however, are not the type of rites of which I"m writing here; rather with this article, I'm specifically focusing on devotional rituals to the various Powers.
I used to believe that people had an innate sense of reverence for the sacred…at least until I became Heathen. I've since come to rethink that. Whatever innate sense there might be in us is rapidly destroyed by the shallow, spiritually dead, disconnected culture in which we live and if that doesn't do the trick, it seems like modern Heathenry is hell bent on finishing the job. When I hear comments like "i guess i tend to blur the lines between ritual and a party so we all have a good time" it's enough to make me weep. Some lines ought not be blurred and if honoring the Gods isn't a joy, if it isn't a 'good time' then I have to ask why one is even in the religion.
I'm sure by this time i must sound like a completely pompous prat. I can live with that if that's what it takes for me to openly address this issue. It seems more and more -- and I am not the only one to have noticed this--that far too many Heathens (and this may hold true for Pagans too, but in this article I'm focusing on Heathenry) go out of their way to make their rituals as secular as possible. Oh, the Gods are a nice *idea* I suppose, but the reality of actual ongoing veneration and right relationship something quite different, and something most Heathens would, i suspect, rather avoid. All too often the religious side of Heathen rituals seems little more than play acting, something to be gotten through as quickly as possible (and with as little unnecessary emotion as possible please) so folks can get down to what's really important: socializing. I do hope you read my sarcasm into this last statement, because it was there. Believe me, it was there. I think Heathenry as a whole is embarrassed by its Gods, by the actual realities of devotion so there is a concerted attempt to root it out of the religion, as if by distancing themselves from belief and active veneration, from anything approaching piety, the rest of the world -the monotheistic influenced, post modern world---might take them seriously. Devotion after all is so déclassé and having so many Gods is messy. Hear the sarcasm again?
My colleague Sarduriur Freydis Sverresdatter put it thusly:
"What is the point of having special terms and functions and Gods -- religion -- if all one does is try to bludgeon the religiosity out of it all? …
From where I'm standing, it looks as though they enjoy having an idea of the Gods around, but only as an idea. I think part of their apparent reluctance stems from their desire to appear "enlightened" in the eyes of the rest of society.
They're not attempting to reconstruct a religious platform from which to build and grow and change healthily. No. They're attempting to reconstruct the culture. Which is sick. Knowing what I know of Medieval societies from my academic discipline . . . no. Just no. They were/are not desirable societies in which to live, especially if you were/are female. Scandinavian societies didn't always suck as much as, say, Burgundian or Frankish society, but it was almost as bad. What functions Gods and Goddesses played religiously, and how deities treated one-another mythically, was/is not a reflection of the law, and how everyday people were treated. It was fucking hell. And these hardcore Recons want to bring these antiquated societal models back -- treat women like chattel, hurl crude wood spears at each other to settle disputes, dress in (historically inaccurate) Medieval clothing, and get drunk off their asses *kind of* for the sake of communing with the Gods, but not really.
And they think that by distancing themselves from active belief and worship of Gods, from popular piety, the rest of the world will take them seriously."(2)
Which brings me right back to my initial question: is ritual a thinly veiled social hour or is it about the Gods? Time and time again in Heathen rituals, I've seen it be a real fight to get the average person to give generously to their Gods and ancestors. I'm sorry. A couple of drops of alcohol simply doesn't cut it. Unless that's really all one can afford to give, it seems so incredibly paltry in light of all the many blessings the Gods and ancestors have given and continue to give to us; and I've seen some people complain about giving that! It's as though somewhere along the way the community decided stinginess must be one of the nine noble virtues.(3)
Of course, to be fair, this is not representative of every single Heathen in the United States. There are many Heathens who are very devoted to their Gods, Goddesses, and ancestors and who do their best to maintain right relationship with Them. What I'm talking about, however, represents an attitude that is, nevertheless, endemic to the community as a whole. To me, this is a tremendously sad state of affairs. I believe that we should go to the Gods with joy, with our hands and hearts full of offerings and our lips full of praise. We simply cannot give Them too much. The same holds true for our ancestors.
Part of this attitude both of ingrained penury and of aversion to the sacred comes from the exclusion-conscious and unconscious-- of the sacred from our holy rites. Symbel and blot as they've com down to us through the surviving lore in no way represent the best of Heathen ritual praxis.(4)They have little to do with the Gods (though I have seen powerful Blots that were fully focused on the Gods, at the same time, in many instances, they stifled individual expression of devotion. It seems we've yet to find anything approximating a happy medium). Instead, the average Heathen ritual, drawn from these frameworks, focuses almost exclusively on people. The Gods are little more than an afterthought. I"ve attended Heathen rituals, where a horn of mead was passed around and people were encouraged to hail their Gods. Few managed more than a "hail, Thor." If one cannot take the time and care to craft a few simple words of devotion again i ask: why bother? Giving the least seems too much for many of us.
I love my religion. I love the Gods and Goddesses. I love my ancestors. It hurts seeing how tangled and devotionally neglectful Heathenry currently is. It could be so much more and I believe it should be. Devotionally clumsy would be ok---we all are clumsy in our devotions at times. But that's not what i see. I see hostility and aversion.
I think as a society, and as a community we're all self-centered enough. When entering ritual space, our focus must of necessity change from ourselves to the Powers. If that doesn't happen, regardless of the external structure, it's not a ritual. Or rather it's a very poorly run one. So how do I think a ritual ought to run? Well, "ritual" can encompass many different elements. It should ideally be a flexible practice, a process whereby one engages with the sacred in a meaningful, committed way. It can be simple or elaborate. the important thing is that one's focus shifts to experiencing and honoring the sacred. That being said, I'll describe a bit of how I and those in my House might go about it.
For me, planning and facilitating a ritual takes at least a week's preparation. Usually, I start planning out all the particulars a couple of weeks ahead of time. A few days before the rite, I'll decide on what food and drink offerings are going to be made. I want to be clear, this is food for the Deity or Deities in question, or the ancestors. It is not something that the people gathered will touch. You don't give food and then take it back and really, we all get to indulge our appetites quite enough. A ritual is not party time. (We always have a potluck after our rituals and folks hang out and, if they wish, party then so the human part of the equation does not go without).
A couple of weeks before the ritual, I'll start doing extra devotions to whatever Deity or Deities I intend to honor in the ritual. This may include praying to Them before I do the grocery shopping and as I'm preparing the food, which I will likely do the day before the rite), and letting Them know what i'm doing and why. The cooking is a ritual in and of itself for me. Sometimes I will do divination to figure out exactly what is desired as an offering. I'll email all the members of the House the pertinent information about the rite, including a list of appropriate offerings. The night before, I go over my own check list to make sure I haven't forgotten anything.
The morning of the ritual, I will set up the altar which may include moving pieces from my personal shrines to the main, House altar. I'll attend to all the ritual cleansing of space and then, about a half hour before the ritual starts, I'll put out all of the food and drink offerings, grouping them as prettily as possible on the altar. As people arrive, they know from experience to put their own offerings out. They'll be formally offered during the ritual.
People mill around chatting and catching up before ritual but once the ritual actually starts, everyone's focus is on honoring the ancestors and Holy Powers. That's the important part of a ritual, at least I think so: respect and mindfulness. We don't script our rituals. We don't have to. I have an outline of what needs to happen in my head, and we allow the rest of it all to flow. I make sure that everyone knows what to expect and what is and is not appropriate before the ritual ever begins. Once it does so, the Powers are invoked, many prayers made, there may be music, full prostration, offerings formally given, a horn passed around---the actual internal elements of each ritual may vary but the common thread uniting them all is respect.
Our rituals are not solemn either. We have a hell of a good time. Devotion is, at its heart, a celebration after all. But for the time the ritual proceeds, the focus is not on us. After the rite is concluded, folks eat, drink, and make merry all they want. There is, I think, a palpable sense of moving into the sacred, experiencing that engagement with the holy, and then transitioning back into "regular" headspace and place again. At some point, some of us will dispose of the offerings in whatever way divination has deemed appropriate (sometimes that occurs later, or even the next day).
While this may seem like a lot, in reality it's all part of the ritual process. I don't think ritual needs to be a daunting process either. What I do on a day to day basis is very, very simple. The description above is that of a major House ritual, not what I do by myself to maintain my devotions. Ritual doesn't have to be fancy, in fact, some of the most powerful ones that I've experienced have been simple and to the point. What I believe and what i teach is absolutely required, is that mindfulness, that art, practice, and discipline of keeping one's mind centered not on the delights of socializing with one's neighbor, but, for the time the ritual proceeds, on the Gods. It's really not that difficult. One just has to want to do it, to see value in it, and then, to commit. My colleague Mikki Fraser put it best: "The god/dess needs to stay the focus of the ritual, otherwise it's too easy to make the whole thing a game or an ego trip."(6)
In the end, do whatever it is you do to honor the Powers, just do it with focus and mindful devotion *on* those Powers. From that, everything else will ultimately flow: from the blessings the Gods bestow to the reclamation of our traditional ways.
What did I finally come up with, by the way, as a result of the initial question? What foods will I be making for Freya on Saturday? I did promise to tell you. I received many, many great suggestions as a result of the aforementioned conversation and after careful consideration, I decided to give Her the following:
* a plate of appetizers: oysters, smoked fish, large spanish olives, and caviar.
* several bars of various types of high quality chocolate.
* strawberries: chocolate covered Godiva strawberries and also a bowl of regular strawberries coated in honey.
* bananas with marshmallows and chocolate syrup
* Godiva chocolate liquor
* Goldschlager or champagne (i'll decide Friday)
* roasted pork loin with baked apples
* fresh asparagus -- kindly offered by a friend from her own garden
* potatoes au gratin
* creme brulee
* chicken with honey- beer sauce.
* baby back ribs
* good milk-stout
* a baked fish dish---i haven't decided upon the recipe as yet.
My friend Elizabeth V. suggested offering several bags of cat litter and then donating them to an animal shelter, pointing out that she's found Freya to have a very protective interest in felines. Given that there's a cat shelter in my town always in need of funds, I might do that as well. Then of course, there are whatever offerings House members bring. I'm sure there will be amber, perfume, jewelry, and a plethora of other items as well for Her. At the end of the ritual, the objects offered will either be burned, buried, or given to the river behind my house and the food will be taken to the woods behind my house and poured or placed out.
so what are you all doing for Beltane, and what offerings do you consider appropriate for Freya?
Here endeth my rant.
1. The one exception to my hard line about ritual vs. party is when the "party" is focused in celebration of the God or Goddess in question, which in fact, is what my colleague, Mikki Fraser, was describing in the Facebook conversation I mention. While I agreed with his use of the term, it reminded me of other recent conversations where the idea of a 'party' as ritual was not so sanguine and it is to those latter aberrations that I speak here.
2. This is quoted, with permission, from an online conversation with Sarduriur Freydis Sverresdatter. It should be noted that her academic discipline is medieval history.
3. This is part and parcel of the doggedly Protestant mentality that permeates so much of contemporary American Heathenry. Inevitably, people will reference the Runatal section of the Havamal, one of the lays of the "Poetic Edda" and the line "tis better not to give than to give too much…". This line of course refers specifically to negotiating with rune spirits. It does not in fact refer to offerings to the Gods or dead, but it provides a convenient excuse to the lore thumper to avoid stepping into a generous, reciprocal relationship of gift giving with the Powers.
4. Given that the few accounts we have were largely recorded by Christians after conversion, Christians who had little interest in preserving the minutiae of polytheistic devotional practice, it's unlikely that they're entirely accurate. Nor were the surviving historical and literary texts we so facilely refer to as 'the lore' ever intended to be utilized as religious resources. Their purpose was never the preservation of Heathen practice. We must therefore be very careful when reading these texts for insight, not to take them as literal and thoroughly accurate accounts. In many cases (such as "Hakon the Good's Saga," from which we get an account of symbel) we're dealing with fiction.
5. This is quoted, with permission, from a private conversation Mikki and I had on Facebook.
Happy Beltane, folks.
Please login first in order for you to submit comments