We are finally on to the practical aspects of ritual! This is part three in a series of articles about Pagan offerings and ritual. Part 1 and Part 2 are focused on the reasoning behind why we do ritual. Now, we are looking at how we do ritual.
Per previous parts of this series, there are a few assumptions in this article. Reciprocity and hospitality are part of Pagan worship. The ancestors, spirits, and deities are complex beings who take the time to come to our altars. And one goal of ritual is to build strong relationships with these numinous beings.
What to Say
If you are new to ritual, you may want to write out a script, or at least an outline. If you speak truthfully and from your heart, it’s hard to go wrong. Your rituals can be formal or informal. Just remember to be polite to a being you are interacting with for the first time. And remember to carefully word your oaths. Do not make oaths you can’t keep!
That being said, we not only need to formulate rituals, but also the key component of ritual: prayer. Prayers of praise, prayers of thanks, prayers for blessings, prayers for aid – all of these are at the heart of a ritual.
Ceisiwr Serith, the author of The Big Book of Pagan Prayer and Ritual, has a few guidelines for prayers and invoking spirits. This book focuses on broadly Indo-European forms of prayer, but his prayer selections also include deities such as Isis, as well as the Wiccan Lady and Lord. Serith’s suggestions are broadly Neo-Pagan and historically inspired.
Serith suggests first make sure you use a name or title in your prayer. Ancient prayers and lore is often full of these titles. A praise prayer for Hera can start: “Cow-eyed Hera, Queen of the Gods, Goddess of Marriage…” and so on. You can use these deities’ associations or their myths to add to your prayers.
You may want to be careful which titles you use depending on what your ritual is for. You probably should not call on Freyja as a chooser of the slain – Valfreyja – when you are looking for love.
Serith says the next important thing is to honor the being. In a prayer, this can simply be stated: “I honor you” or “I offer my worship.” If you are just giving thanks to a deity, this is where you can state why you are grateful.
It is after the identification and honoring of a deity that you should do any work or ask for any requests in a prayer. You have given something, and now you may ask for something in return. “Hera, I have given you this offering on my wedding day. Please bless and watch over my marriage.” It’s as easy as that. Then it’s time to wrap up your prayer. Common endings I’ve heard include “so be it” or “hail.”
In fact, the structure of a prayer is a microcosm of the structure of a ritual. You call out to a being, praise them or ask them for help, give offerings, and then thank them before ending the ritual. Serith’s same guidelines apply to both.
Let’s look at another example that focuses more on ritual. Patricia Lafayllve’s A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru has an entire section on rituals and blots. I particularly love this description of a blot “in its simplest form”:
“You can grab a bottle of beer from your fridge, pop the cap, go outside, make the hammer sign over the bottle’s mouth, say “hail,” drink a bit of the beer, pour the rest out onto the ground, and go back inside. That’s a blot (170).”
If you’re new to Paganism, keep this simple blot in mind! You can always be more elaborate, but doing Paganism “right” can be as easy as this blot.
Lafayllve also discusses kennings and alliteration to address deities in your blots. Kennings are akin to titles, as they are descriptive phrases. Freyja can be called “boar-rider,” and a kenning of Hera would be “wife of Zeus.” And alliteration is useful tool to make your ritualized words flow. Lafayllve gives this example to bless the mead in ritual: “Bragi bless this brew (172).” A few lyrical sentences in ritual can give it that flowery, spiritual vibe.
There are several sample blots throughout her book, but the structure of them boils down to a few steps. The first step is to set up a sacred space by taking a breath and calming your mind for ritual. Then there is an invocation, where any number of beings are called into the ritual space, particularly the deity for whom you are doing the ritual. Generally the focus of the ritual involves specific words of praise to that deity (or, as I see it, prayers to them). Offerings are blessed and ritually given to all the beings invoked, often with a formal prayer. And the sacred space is “closed” by thanking all the beings that you called in and giving any remaining offerings as a final gift to them.
In terms of the wording of these parts of ritual, simply stating what you are doing, or even which part you are on, can be enough. As a solitary, this isn’t really necessary, but still useful. “We (I) call to the ancestors, spirits, and deities”, and “We (I) give praise to Freyja, boar-rider, goddess of the Vanir” are all perfectly good ritual statements.
What to Give
There are a lot of things to consider when we try to find good offerings for ritual. Many want to offer something historically accurate. Many are worried about finding eco-friendly offerings. If you are just starting out, my advice is: don’t overcomplicate things.
If you are giving offerings to the ancestors, think of an ancestor that you knew personally. What was their favorite food or drink, or else something they enjoyed? If you don’t know, think more generally. Many pagans give coffee or tea as an offering. Historically speaking, you can visit the graves of your ancestors, or bury your ancestor offerings.
If you are giving an offering to a deity, it is best to start with the lore. Offerings to Odin are notoriously easy when you read the lore: he gives all of his food to his wolves and only drinks wine. You can also argue that it’s historically proper to give Odin an offering of poetry.
Sometimes easy offerings come to mind based on the culture of your Pagan path. As a Heathen, mead is generally a good offering for Germanic gods. A Roman pagan could give offerings of incense, as that was historically common.
If all else fails, you can take a more modern approach. I know Pagans who choose offerings that the modern culture produces or enjoys, like giving Irish whiskey or Irish oats for gods from the Irish pantheon, like the Dagda. Do some divination for a sign that the being liked your offering.
While my (previously used) category of “other spirits” is very broad, there are still some general historical signposts for what to give them. In several cultures, household spirits like a clean home, so the act of cleaning could be your offering. It was also common to give household spirits food from your hearth, so a portion of your home-cooked meals are a great offering.
Fairies and similar beings are known to like sweet foods and shiny things. (And a modern ‘shared gnosis’ or shared belief is that the Good Neighbors like chocolate.) And if you are concerned about the environment, an easy general-use outdoor offering is steel cut oats because they do not germinate and are generally safe for birds.
This is a short list of ideas, not an encyclopedic account of all possible offerings. Some universal offerings are these: a glass of water; a prayer or poem; lit incense; a plate of whatever you made for dinner; a dance; even dedicating volunteer time. Anything you can give, and do not get to use for yourself, can be an offering.
On a final note — your offerings should be somewhat proportional to what you are asking for. On a weekly basis, I may only give offerings of incense and my words. When we asked Thor for peaceful rains after our shed was destroyed in a bad storm, we gave several cups of cooked oats. When I made an important oath to several deities one Yule, I gave an entire bottle of mead.
Another way to think about it is this: say you ask Hermes for a speedy commute whenever you are late for work, and you give him an offering before you rush out the door. Then let’s say you are starting a multi-day road trip, and you ask Hermes for a safe journey and give him offerings. In which situation should you give a larger offering? Make your offerings proportional.
You could give Hermes a five dollar bill for the road trip instead of your normal handful of change. If you generally give uncooked oats to a deity, cook them and add milk and honey. Dedicate a full month of volunteer work instead of just one day. Whatever it is you do, give more for a larger ask. We give so that they may give, and if we are asking for something big, they need to be able – and willing – to answer that larger ask.
None of this is intended to break the bank; remember reciprocity and hospitality. The deities would be bad guests if they expected you to give something beyond what is reasonable for YOU, their host.
This is a large chunk of information for this series. It’s hard to generalize across different kinds of Paganism while still giving practical advice, which is my hope for this article. Pagans also give offerings in a lot of situations. For example, when you’re thanking an ancestor for insight, you don’t have to do a full ritual. There are various situations in which we make offerings.
I hope this article is a useful guidepost directing you to new territory as you learn what types of offerings you want to give and how elaborate or simplified you want your rituals to be. A lot of this is truly up to you! So stop reading about it and start doing it. Remember – if you speak with a truthful heart, it’s hard to go wrong.
All articles accessed May 2021.
- Ceisiwr Serith. The Big Book of Pagan Prayer and Ritual. Weiser Books. 2020.
- Patricia Lafayllve. A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru. Llewellyn Publications. 2013.
- “What Not to Feed Wild Birds.” Kennedy Wild Bird Food. 2020. https://www.kennedywildbirdfood.co.uk/news/what-not-to-feed-wild-birds-your-complete-guide/
Other Books on Prayer:
Starhawk, M. Macha Nightmare, and The Reclaiming Collective. The Pagan Book of Living and Dying. HarperOne. 1997.
Jean Pagano, et al. A Tree for the Earth Mother: A Collection of Devotionals. Dark Moon Press. 2020.