The Spiritual Gift Economy
“Unlike a modern money transaction, which is closed and leaves no obligation, a gift transaction is open-ended, creating an ongoing tie between the participants. Another way of looking at it is that the gift partakes of the giver, and that when we give a gift, we give something of ourselves.”Charles Eisenstein, “Sacred Economics”
Humans have been making offerings to spirits since the earliest traces of prehistory. Offerings are simply gifts. It’s useful to decouple the idea of worship from the act of giving offering. It is possible, of course, to give offering during worship but there are other reasons one might ritually offer gifts to spirits than outright worship.
In our ancient past, spiritual engagement was as often about appeasement as it was petitioning divine beings for favors. The world was a more immediately dangerous place and those threats were projected onto the imaginal as storm gods, animal totems, and daemons of place; and offerings were paid as acts of tribute, to appease them and earn their favor -or mercy.
Worship and appeasement are very different concerns but they share the common requirement that contact be made and a bond established. Ancient goddess cults in the Mediterranean sacrificed a bull at harvest time, her mythological offspring, to renew the world with its lifeblood. Paleolithic humans made offerings to the spirits of the animals they hunted.
“…what were the pagans trying to accomplish through their sacrifices and prayers? At Lake Saint-Andéol, it was rain; elsewhere it was healing…The hope was to have enough -enough water for the crops and enough sun for them to grow…Neutrality or kindness was desired from the local spirits. People wanted the spirits to leave them alone, which is to say they did not want the spirits to send any illness, nor pester the livestock.”Claude Lecouteux, “Demons and Spirits of the Land”
There is something essential and timeless about the idea of exchange. When asking a favor it is polite to bring a gift. This is the essential nature of reciprocity, a gift which is given represents a sacrifice (time, resources, etc) denoting respect and appreciation. Gifts require recognition and fair exchange. Much of our way of life already depends on this fundamental concept. What’s worth considering here is its role in spiritual engagement.
A reciprocal exchange creates a bond between the two parties which lasts beyond the moment of the exchange. It’s nature’s way of encouraging relationality. We all flourish more when we all flourish. These bonds establish networks, facilitating the mixture of diverse elements, and contributing to the evolution of all.
Gifts, offerings, tribute, etc., these concepts exist in a universe where reciprocity is an essential spiritual law. Understanding this dynamic, we can apply the idea of spiritual gift exchange liberally to establish contact protocols with any number of the Creator’s many children.
Gifts of food are the basis for the relationship we have with our pets. Dowry gifts were a (fairly sexist) means of binding together new families by their fortunes. There are many expressions of gift economics in our world and in each case the act of giving is a means to ingratiate the participants in the exchange with each other.
As mages, offerings represents the most efficient means of establishing contact and building rapport with spirits; and this works equally well if the gift is devotional, purely transactional, or otherwise.
There is no shortage of historical precedent for making offerings to spirits to appease them, to seek their mercy, or to ask to be left alone. Appeasing potentially angry gods is not unlike paying taxes; this is the meaning of tribute after all.
“Almost everywhere until fairly recent times, we find confirmation of the existence of the rite of sacrificing a living being in order to to be able to erect a building. Folklorists and ethnologists have long interpreted this rite as a sacrifice addressed to the local land spirits so they will not oppose the construction. In fact, this sacrifice appears like a payment of damages for the land being occupied.”Claude Lecouteux, “Demons and Spirits of the Land”
Appeasement is a simple principle and, though it has its roots in placating the forces of nature which most terrified us, it is also essentially the same approach that one takes to keep in the graces of the “good people” (Fae). It is an act of recognition more than subjugation; it demonstrates our respect for the forces in the world beyond our control and comprehension.
This kind of offering takes the form of gifts relevant to the nature of the spirit: local foods and goods for local spirits, tobacco and myrrh for the dead, blood for the blood gods, etc. In many cases in the ancient world this took the form of a literal blood sacrifice, the life of a rooster (a solar creature), a bull (a symbol of fertility), or other living metaphor was conveyed into the spirit realm in trade for mercy and favor. Over time blood came to be represented by wine and it is now tradition to pour libations in tribute of all kinds of spirits.
The medium changes but the goal remains the same: pay tribute to avoid offending the spirits we coexist with in this extremely haunted world.
Similar, but different, offerings in acts of veneration look identical to offerings given in appeasement (or otherwise). A plate of delicious fruit, a bouquet of flowers, a slab of meat, or a pile of iron filings; each is a valid offering under the right circumstances. The act of giving doesn’t change but the medium does; and, where appeasement can take many forms, acts of veneration, by their very nature, require gifts of specific materials which are “sympathetic” to the spirit being addressed.
Mystics may be satisfied with acts of veneration for their own sake but magicians will want to know what stands to be gained from performing such acts. And the answer is: much. It is only advisable to venerate divine beings, and safer to regularly devote such acts to benefic spirits; and thus veneration’s most prominent role in western esotericism is within celestial theurgy.
Veneration is jet fuel for astrological magic. Prayers to celestial spirits in the days and weeks leading up to a talismanic election increase the potency of the eventual working. Established relationships with the planetary pantheon ensures their good fortune when a reason presents itself to petition for their support.
As I said, the qualities of the materials being offered are key to a meaningful ritual; the metaphor matters. A devotional ritual to Helios would not feature acrid smells, heavy metals, or the bones of dead animals -but one to Kronos might. A blood sacrifice for Venus seems extreme; pricking your finger for Mars, though, feels about right.
“When you wish to address the planet to which your petition properly belongs, dress in clothing dyed the color of that planet, and suffumigate yourself with its suffumigation, and pray its prayer. Do all of this when the planet is established in its dignities and called superior in its dispositions, for by observing these things, what you desire will come to pass.”Unknown, “The Picatrix”, Book III Chapter 7
That some materials feel right and others do not is the result of how much of a particular divine essence is expressed within them. That sunflowers are solar in nature should surprise no one. Likewise, the rose is unsurprisingly Venusian -though its thorns suggest a Martial side as well. Dense, black stones have more of the nature of Saturn. White and translucent stones are attributed to the Moon. Gold and yellow stones; to the Sun. Stones and plants of mixed natures, colors, and animals who are quick and clever are said to have a Mercurial nature.
Sympathetic magic is the practice of attributing the physical world to the spiritual one through the phenomenological experience of it and an understanding of the language of metaphor. Building altars and giving offerings of sympathetic materia leverages the “like attracts like” principle of the universe to attune ourselves (and our spaces) for engagement with the celestial powers and their ministering spirits.
Traditions for appeasement and worship of various spirits stretch back to the dawn of human consciousness. After a time, though, we were no longer all satisfied to keep the gods happy and the spirits at bay.
The role of the “shaman”, a mystical liaison to the spirit world has nearly always existed. It grew into priesthood traditions and, later, mystery schools, as spirituality, religion, and society evolved. The role expanded as the ambitions of mankind grew beyond survival and into the ascent of man.
Fragments of prayers to deities, and petitions to conjured spirits, to achieve certain ends can be found in ancient Sumer. They appear throughout the Greek Magical Papyri and other ancient magical texts. The tradition of asking various aspects of the divine for assistance in mundane matters like health, love, prosperity, victory, gaining favor, and other all-too-human concerns is known to be as old as human civilization -and is, therefore, quite likely much older.
Combining theurgic ritual (i.e. prayer) with offerings and a petition turns veneration into supplication; that is, asking the gods for their favor. The importance of the offering, as a symbol of reciprocity, cannot be overstated.
With our prayer we offer time, with goods we offer gratitude for what has previously been given, with sympathetic materia we offer the space itself -filling it with the essence of the spirit being invoked to help summon it into the ritual. The spirit properly conjured and appeased, the ritual observances performed, and so on, our petitions may be stated with intention and assumed to be received and fulfilled –and it is the dynamic of reciprocity that guarantees this result.
“Hail, Helios! Hail ,Gabriel! Hail, Raphael! Hail, Michael! Hail, [the universe]! Give me the authority and power of SABAŌTH, the strength of IAŌ, and the success of ABLANATHANALBA, and the might of AKRAMMACHAMAREI. Grant that I gain the victory, as I have summoned you…”Unknown, “PGM VII. 1017-26”
Through veneration, that is, building relationships with the divine beings whose favor we seek, we create the opportunity for supplication -petitioning for favors. A routine of regular devotional work, interspersed with periodic magical rituals calling on these powers, creates a renewable source of magical potency for the practicing magician.
And there are ways to further increase this potency, such as:
- Making your own sympathetic materia (incense, candles, oil, etc)
- Collecting ritual tools and materia at astrologically auspicious times or the appropriate planetary day and hour
- Wearing relevant talismans
- Anointing one’s self and ritual tools with relevant talismanic oils
- Dressing in ritual clothing of the color(s) attributed to the spirit
- Selecting music that evokes the appropriate emotional qualities
In Summary, Offerings Are A Tool For Spirit Engagement
As I’ve shown, the act of making an offering -leaving a gift, if you prefer- is a valuable tool in the arsenal of the practicing magician. Making offerings is naturally associated with the idea of worship but that isn’t its only application. In fact, at its core, the ritual of gift exchange embodied in the act of offering is a symbol of the reciprocal relationship being formed. This relationship itself is the value, both from a mystical-theurgic perspective and from the point of view of the sorcerer; in support of future magical operations.
Gifts are a universal language, and thus a universal first contact protocol; which is designed to build affinity and establish trust. This is useful in a human context as well, but when your only means of communicating are metaphors and synchronicities, it can be uniquely difficult to trust anything -including your own senses.
Some tools are designed for highly specialized roles; ceremonial magic has plenty of these fetishes. Some tools, though, are seemingly universal; unlocking doors like a skeleton key. Offerings, and the implication of reciprocity they represent, are one of these essential tools that practicing magicians find themselves returning to situation after situation.
Spirit contact is a confusing experience, at least for humans (I can’t speak for the spirits), but there are certain constants which can always be relied on -and reciprocity is one of these constants. It is never wrong to pay respects with relevant offerings and it, very often, is exactly the right way to get a conversation started.