Traditionally we offer alcohol and food in ritual, selected to be appropriate for the god we are offering it to. Alcohol is considered appropriate for any god who doesn’t have a specific aversion to alcohol, and wine is definitely our “default” offering, but it is not theologically mandatory in any way. It isn’t unusual to see offerings of juice or tea or milk or plain water. For food offerings, there is a huge variety, depending on the god. On occasion we have some kind of historical record of appropriate food offerings, but often it is whatever we think the god might like.
Fresh flowers are fairly common, whether from our garden or storebought. Often people give the gods little statues or knickknacks, appropriate to the deity. Again, sometimes storebought, sometimes handmade. Not necessarily representations of that god, but representations of things that god likes or is associated with. Little boats and nautical things for Njord, and little skulls and bony hands for Hela.
Singing is a very common offering. Our group is blessed to have a handful of musicians who can write original music for the gods, and we have found a good number of other songs. It is rare we to a ritual for a god without learning at least one song that is for them, about them, or about some concept dear to them. Some of the songs are praise for that god, but often they are songs intended to help the listener develop an understanding of that god, or songs that communicate some message which that god has brought to one of us. People will also recite poems or prayers as an offering, along similar themes, and on rare occasion someone might perform an instrumental musical piece.
Generally in rituals we will have a time where anyone present can come up to the altar with an offering for the specific god (or gods) we are honoring. These might be food, drink, or small items, but oftentimes they are very personal intangible offerings. Occasionally people talk about a personal experience they have had with this god, and express their gratitude. Some people, as an offering, make promises to do a certain service to others in that gods name, or make a commitment to change some behavior of theirs in a way that god would approve of. Often this is accompanied with a request for that god’s support and guidance in the effort. Sometimes, they give a token of something they have recently overcome, or are currently struggling to overcome, dedicating their efforts to this god and either thanking them for their aid, or asking for their aid.
Getting back more than we give
We have a shared understanding in my tradition that most of the gods want to be in relationship with people and are inclined to help us, so accepting their aid in some struggle is one of the ways we build a relationship with a god. Maintaining that relationship generally involves us giving back to the gods in some way, but it isn’t usually seen as a transactional type of relationship. It isn’t as if the gods are obligated to do X in exchange for Y, or we can demand this or that from them, but we understand them to be generous with their blessings. There isn’t any sense at all that the gods only take an interest in a select few exceptional individuals, or that you must make elaborate ritual offerings to get anything from them, or that a person must achieve some great state of personal development to be worthy of the gods’ attention. Maybe only a few select people have the mental “wiring” to carry on two way conversations with gods, but from our understanding, gods are happy to be in relationship with entirely ordinary people whose lives to not revolve solely around their spiritual practice. It is seen as very normal for a person to give offerings for no particular reason, just to express their love or admiration, and also normal for someone to ask a god for assistance without a clear “transaction” of specific offerings. There is a sense that they’ll let you know how you can make it up to them, and most often it seems to be that they want you to be a better person in specific ways that they value, not that they want you to pour a whole lot of liquor on the ground.
Actually making the offerings
We personally craft a lot of our offerings, both food and items, and sometimes beer. With offerings you’ve made yourself, there is sometimes what I think of as the “macaroni picture” concept. Some gods really appreciate us putting our personal effort into making offerings, even if they don’t turn out great. I think of a parent, genuinely delighted at the picture of a “bear” (or is it a snowman?) that their small child has made out of macaroni and glitter. The intrinsic beauty of the thing is irrelevant. The key thing is that the child put a great deal of effort into making the most beautiful bear/snowman picture they were capable of. The offering has your intent and devotion, which is often the most important part.
Some gods, however, are not interested in our macaroni pictures. Aphrodite, in my experience, would much rather I buy something genuinely beautiful than clumsily handmake something. She wants me to buy her perfect roses, not pick rustic wildflowers. Apollo, I have been told, is also not usually pleased by well-intentioned but clumsy efforts at art or music. Frey, on the other hand, has always seemed to prefer our own homemade things – especially food or beer – even when the results are not spectacular. (For the record, that lamb-cake is merely an illustration, not an actual example from one of our rituals.) Some gods of specific crafts might appreciate your ongoing effort to approve at their craft, and in that case I would very much see the effort as an offering, even if the finished product isn’t up to snuff. But in that case, I would expect it would need to be an ongoing effort where you are showing some genuine improvement, not a single half-assed attempt.
What do you do with the physical offerings?
There are a range of opinions in my tradition about the exact role of physical offerings. It is one of those things which we intentionally leave open to personal interpretation, but it is sometimes a source of conflict within our group.
Some people believe that the offerings are a token gesture. They are entirely symbolic, and the actual physical substance of the offering itself is not important. They don’t believe the gods get any benefit out of the actual substance of the offering. It is not uncommon for them to have tiny little dollhouse-sized cups and bowl they use for giving offerings food and drink, because more than that seems senseless to them. They might also give specific “spirit offering” items, of inedible symbolic foods or something like the “Hell Money” used in some Asian traditions. The mindful act of giving and expressing gratitude is important, but the tangible value of the substances given is irrelevant. The offerings themselves are generally disposed of at some point after they are given, but usually not in any ritualized manner.
Some people believe that the gods do get real tangible benefit from physical offerings. There isn’t a consensus on exactly how that works, but it is generally very important that the offerings be good quality – of the sort you’d give to an honored guest. They don’t need to be especially expensive, although they might be. The quantities given are usually something that would be a generous but reasonable gift to offer to a person. A cup of wine, maybe a full bottle, but not a thimble-full and not a barrel. It is common for a portion of the offering to be given to the god, and the remainder shared among the people. It is often seen in the context of hospitality – that by eating and drinking together with the god(s) we invite them more closely into our lives. Food offerings given to the gods in this context are always disposed of in some ritual manner, usually with liquids poured on the ground and food either burned or left for wild animals.
For some people, food and drink offerings are prepared and offered to the god, and the god blesses the food and drink and gives it back to the people, full of divine energy. These offerings are always eaten, and there may be a belief that absolutely all of it must be eaten and none wasted, or that the blessed food must be treated with special respect and eaten very mindfully. In some cases any leftover food can (or should) be ritually destroyed, and in some cases it is simply all must be eaten.
For some people, the sacrifice is the important part. The emphasis is on taking some of your valuable resources and voluntarily forgoing any benefit from them, for the sake of the god. In this case, the offerings are usually elaborate and expensive, and sometimes in very large quantities. Often the guideline is that the offerings should at the very least be expensive or time consuming enough that it is a notable inconvenience to you. There is often a sense that the gods are more pleased the small offering of someone of limited means, than they are with an elaborate offering than a more well-off person was able to give much more easily. The offerings are generally burned or otherwise ritually destroyed, and alcohol is generally poured on the ground or into a fire.
There are other reasons people destroy offerings. One theory that destroying an item in this “plane of existence” brings the item into existence in the “spirit world”, similar to how a person goes to the spirit world when they die. Another is that the gods have taken the spiritual essence from the things (especially of food) and they are now spiritually toxic or worthless, so they should be destroyed so no one is harmed by eating or using them. Another theory is that to be an appropriate offering, the thing must be “pure” or “perfect”, and using the thing or allowing it to decay would be to violate its purity, so it must be disposed of in a “ritually pure” way, often by burning. In some cases, it is considered appropriate for a person especially dedicated to a particular god to eat or use offerings which might otherwise be ritually destroyed. In fact, giving a gift to someone who is special to a particular god is considered by many people to be a valid way of making an offering to that god, often with no restrictions on how the recipient uses the gift.
Also, different gods have different natures. A death god might want a food offering to stay on their altar until it is substantially decayed, or they might want it buried. A god more focused on purity or beauty might want food or flowers burned as soon as they begin to look less than perfect. A god associated with food or charity might want food offerings to be taken off the altar after a short time and fed to someone. A god associated with wild animals might want it left someplace where it could be eaten by them. A god associated with rivers or ocean might want offerings that can be safely disposed of in the water.
This is one of those areas where the right way to do something by one person’s beliefs is wrong or offensive by another’s. In group rituals, the person in charge of the ritual gets to determine what they believe is the most appropriate method. Because we do have a mixture of beliefs on the subject, as well as a large number of people of limited means, it is fairly controversial in our tradition to destroy more than one or two generous platefuls of food or a bottle or two of alcohol. It is occasionally done, but only when (in the opinion of the person running the ritual) it is the only option acceptable to the god in question, and they may be asked to get an unbiased second opinion. On the other hand, someone inclined to give only tiny token amounts in their personal practice is encouraged, for group ritual, to scale it up to a more human-sized portion, and participants are always welcome to add additional offerings if they feel it is appropriate.