More Devotional Q&A
It's been a crazy couple of weeks, folks, with lots of ritual work to be done as we move into fall. While we always honor our ancestors at the beginning of our rituals, autumn tends to be a a time when we focus even more strongly on our dead and that means a lot more rituals. I love it, but boy have I been busy! Autumn really is, for me, the best season. It's so vibrant and finally after an entire summer of positively aching for fall, i've started smelling the teasing promise of crispness in the air, the faint sense of crisping decay as the leaves ever so slightly show the first signs of their inevitable decay. I love it. Of course, I also love that questions on ritual and praxis keep rolling in. I've gotten quite a bit of good feedback on this series and I'm enjoying it greatly. Y'all have been sending in some really thoughtful questions and I find crafting my answers makes me look at my own practice in new ways too. I thank you, my readers for that gift. For today's Q&A, I have a series of questions on how to handle offerings from reader Lenore.
" I often have a lot of embarrassingly inane questions about the logistics of offerings. For example, if I leave food or something else perishable for a God or spirit how long is it appropriate to leave the offering on the altar. And then what do you do with it? Throw it in the trash? (I live in a city). And if leaving a glass of water, say, to the ancestors is it okay to use tap water? It seems so prosaic and un-sacred somehow. Maybe I just over-think things?"
I don't think those questions are inane at all. It's all about fundamental protocols, protocols that don't end with setting the offerings out before the Gods. It's painfully easy to get so caught up in questions like this, that one becomes too paralyzed to do anything devotional at all. The question always arises: what if i get it wrong? Truth is, you will and then you'll have to go back and make amends, and you'll learn. It's more important that one not allow fear of getting things wrong to stop one's devotional work all together. While it's a really good and thoughtful impulse to want to do things properly, mistakes will happen and correcting them is one of the reasons we have the grace of offerings and sacrifices (in order to correct and make amends when we do screw up). That's a topic for another post though. For now, I'm going to answer your questions and I have to say, the question of what to do with offerings is probably one of the most common that I get. You're not alone in wanting to know what to do here.
Firstly, it's fine to use tap water. In some traditions, water and prayer are the most basic of offerings. There's nothing wrong with that. Water is sacred. Sometimes the spirit or Deity in question may actually prefer water and sometimes that is the best that one has. In either case, there is nothing at all wrong with offering tap water. If you drink it, it's perfectly ok for Them to drink it. Then it almost becomes a type of sharing of what sustains. Plus, if your tap water is really gross, maybe this can serve as a motivation to campaign for better environmental controls. Also, the bottles used in bottled water are an environmental hazard. It's something that actually bears a good deal of thought when we go to make our offerings. In many respects, tap water is the better and more sustainable option.
As to how long one ought to leave offerings out, that really depends. There's no hard and fast rule. I think that it depends largely on the Deity or ancestor in question. I find that some Deities, like Hela, the Norse Goddess of the Underworld, like offerings to be left out until they completely decay. Others require that Their altars remain pristine, and that offerings be changed quickly and regularly. Others don't seem to care. When I make offerings to the Gods, I'll do divination to find out the best way to dispose of them, and if there's anything special the Deities in question want. I always do this after rituals. When I'm first developing an ongoing devotional practice to a particular Deity, I'll sit and do divination to find out what protocol I should follow with respect to offerings. For regular household veneration I have always found disposing in the garbage to be sufficient. With rituals it can be a bit more involved, but for regular work, usually disposing of the offerings as though they were the remains of a dinner for an honored guest will suffice. This is, in fact, what I do with any and all ancestor offerings as a matter of course. Still, it's always good to divine when starting out and for any special rituals.
As to how long to leave offerings out, I usually let them sit out for twenty-four hours, then I dispose of them without fanfare. Sometimes, I let them sit out longer and then if I want to make an offering, but don't for whatever reason want to leave it out overnight, I'll simply announce when I present the offering, that I am going to leave it out for X amount of time, and then will be throwing it out. That almost always suffices.
Sometimes I've made offerings to Deities or ancestors and have sensed almost immediately that it was received and that all the vital essence was taken. For instance, not too long ago I made an offering of cooked steak to Hermes. I placed it on His shrine, went and made an offering to my ancestors, came back and immediately was struck by the very palpable sense that Hermes had taken it, liked it, and there was no longer any reason to keep it on the altar: it had been devoured energetically. I did a very simple divination to confirm that it was ok to dispose of the offering minutes after having made it and, when that divination came up positively, I threw the steak away. In this case, I tossed it into the woods behind my house for local critters. This was a noticeable exception. Occasionally the opposite happens: i'll put out an offering and get the sense to leave it. So long as it remains in good condition, I will. When it starts to decay (barring an offering to Hela) then I'll toss it out. There's really no hard and fast rule.
If you garden, there's an even better option than throwing the offerings into the trash. You can compost and use the compost for your garden. That to me, is the best option, because then it's your food being nourished by the offerings. You offer that food to the Gods and it creates a sacred cycle.
If you have pets, you will want to tend your offerings quickly, leaving them out for only brief periods. Certain foods are or can become toxic to household pets (especially chocolate). So there is no harm with only leaving something out for an hour or two and disposing of it respectfully by whatever means might be at your disposal.
That's all for today, folks. I'll be posting an update on my Mani series soon, so stay tuned.
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