The Problem with Offerings by Lupa
When I was a new Pagan, I read voraciously, since I didn’t have very many Pagans in my area and I wanted to learn everything. And then I’d dutifully go out into the world and use the information I’d gathered in my studies, sure that this new path was for me. This included making offerings when I would go and pick wild herbs and other plants for spells. I’d scatter a few tiny chips of quartz or other crystal on the ground around the plants I picked leaves from or pour a bit of rainwater I’d blessed in the Full Moon light at their roots. I felt that this would be an appropriate exchange of energy for what I took from my fellow living beings.
It wasn’t until I was older that I began to think more about this sort of spiritual supply chain. Where, for example, did those quartz crystals come from? Who mined them and under what working conditions? What effects did the mining have on the environment nearby and downstream? How many hundreds or thousands of miles were they transported before they got to me, and how much fossil fuel did that transport cost? If the crystals were drilled and strung on cord, who did all that arrangement and where did the string come from? If I was using small quartz chips in a small glass bottle, what was the background of the bottle, and so forth?
And that got me wondering whether I should be thanking more than just the plant I took leaves from. Should I thank the quartz and the land that gave it to me, and the people who helped it get into my hands? And then what of the cotton string that held the strand of crystals together, should I thank the cotton plants and the people who wove its soft fluff into a fine line?
You see where this is going—the world is a lot more complicated and interconnected than I initially assumed. And it really shook my conception of offerings and how they worked. Was it really a proper offering if I was taking something from one piece of land to give it to another in thanks?
What Are Offerings, Anyway?
Let’s start with the concept of an offering in spirituality. One interpretation is that a spirit, deity, or other being has done something for you or given you something that you value, and you want to do or give something in return in gratitude. Another way to look at it is trying to achieve balance: you want to replace as much as you took, to the best of your ability.
Pagans often like to give food as an offering. It’s one of the most easily obtained forms of energy, it’s something that we value, and the tradition of offering food to the spirits is likely as old as spirituality itself. While store-bought food certainly won’t be turned down, we’re encouraged to make the food ourselves from scratch, with bonus points if we can grow or raise at least some of the ingredients.
And that answers the basic problems an offering supposedly solves: honoring a being who has helped you with a gift and giving back as much as you have received, albeit in a different form. But food isn’t the only option. Artisans may give pieces of their craft, particularly if a permanent shrine or altar is involved. Those who don’t feel comfortable making something by hand may give up part of their income to buy items made by others to offer up.
What happens if we don’t give offerings? Well, the spirit, deity, or other being may feel miffed and be less likely to help out next time. (We’ve all had those people in our lives who take, take, take and never give back!) And we may end up feeling guilty and wrong, as though we aren’t observing our path properly.
And really, a lot of the offerings we make are about making ourselves feel more right in the grand balance of the universe. But that can lead us to a very self-centered way of thinking of offerings, which is where I ran into problems so many years ago when I was making them without thinking about what I was giving and what its greater impact was.
Unweaving a Web of Connections
The way I counteracted that self-centered tunnel vision was to really look at how everything was interconnected, starting with my offerings. I started with a loaf of bread. It’s a fairly simple thing when made at home—flour, water, salt, yeast, and whatever other extras I might like to add in. Let it rise for a while, then put it in the oven and let the heat bake it.
But it gets more complicated. Let’s look at the bulkiest ingredient, flour. In order for flour to be procured, you need wheat. In order to grow wheat, you need a field. And that field is made from a wilderness place in which all the native plants and animals have been violently displaced, the soil turned, and the fungal mycelium disturbed, and these days the land soaked in pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals. Huge amounts of water are poured on the field every day, taken from local waterways and aquifers.
Next, the wheat must be harvested. Small farms may do all the work themselves, but bigger operations may hire migrant laborers at low rates to help with larger yields. Harvesting machinery kills many small animals as it gathers the wheat. And the trucks that then carry the wheat to be stored or processed release greenhouse gases into the air, burning petroleum ripped from the earth with plenty of pollution as a side effect.
Processing the wheat into flour is similarly energy intensive. White flour is made when the bran, or outer covering, of the wheat is removed (along with many important nutrients), creating a product with less flavor and nutritional value. And then it needs to be packaged and transported again to the store. I go to get it (usually by driving), take it home, and use even more energy in the oven to bake it into bread.
Where do I even start with my gratitude to the many beings and lands that are part of the path my bread has taken to get to me? Yes, my intent was to bake the bread as an offering to a deity, but in the process I’ve contributed to environmental degradation, habitat loss, and the deaths of animals, plants, and fungi along the way.
I could just get frustrated and throw the bread outside for wildlife to eat as a way to make up for my impact. But then the wildlife would become more habituated to humans as sources of food, and bread isn’t really good for a lot of animals to eat, and I might have made them sick. Can I possibly do anything to make this all right?
Some Potential Solutions
As you can probably tell, there’s no easy answer to the offering conundrum. However, I’d like to offer a few possible ways to mitigate your impact while still being able to meet the goals of an offering (honoring someone who has helped you and restoring balance).
A Daily Thank-You
Every night when I go to bed, I say the following prayer:
Thank you to those who have given me this day,
Those who have given of themselves to feed me,
And heal me.
May I learn to be as generous as you.
It’s an acknowledgment that I couldn’t be in this world without the combined contributions of many, many beings. It doesn’t automatically fix the imbalances caused by my taking things from the land, but it at least reminds me to be mindful of the impact I make and to find ways to minimize it while still allowing myself to practice my spirituality.
Giving of the Self
Technically I don’t even own my own body; it’s made of molecules drawn from the environment through the food I ingest, and when I die it will all go back to be turned into something else. But for the purposes of this article let’s say my body is the one thing I know I have to offer freely.
That means that my efforts are there for the offering. I can create songs and poems to those who have given things to me, I can dance in their honor, and I can even dedicate the effort of one of my long-distance runs to them.
But I can also take my time and offer it in more concrete ways. I can volunteer time to clean up litter and other pollution, plant native species and remove invasive ones, create wildlife habitat, and reduce my consumption of fossil fuels and other destructive resources. I’m even able to tailor these offerings to the beings I’m giving them to. If I harvest herbs in the wild, I can also take time to improve the land they grow on. If I receive a blessing from a deity of the ocean, I can volunteer time with a nonprofit working to clean up marine habitats.
Time can also be translated into money. If I don’t have the time to volunteer, I can take what money I can afford to put aside and donate it to organizations doing the sort of restoration work I’d love to support.
Stop Giving Offerings
This may seem counterproductive, but stay with me here. When we make offerings, we’re trying to balance out or honor very specific interactions we’ve had. This puts our giving back into distinct chunks of time and effort. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to live selfishly the rest of the time, because you’re trained to only give when you’ve already received or when you otherwise have a specific reason for making the offering.
What if you lived as though every moment was worth reciprocation? What if you walked every path, every day, full of gratitude for what you have received? What if you kindled an awareness of every being that contributed to the very air you breathe?
The goal is not to wallow in the guilt of never being able to truly give back to every spirit, deity, and living being that has had a hand in your existence. Instead, it’s to cultivate gratitude and a desire to pass it on to others. Walk lightly on the earth, help those in need, express your thanks to those who help you, and pay it forward without expecting anything in return. Be an active, aware part of your community, human and otherwise.
Perhaps that life of reciprocity and interconnection is the greatest offering you can give the universe and all who share it with you.