In magic, metaphor is everything. The premise of much of the magic of cunning traditions, in particular, is that one thing can represent another in ritual such that it becomes the other thing through intention. If a doll made with your hair gets pricked and you bleed -this is a metaphor represented physically.
We light candles for spiritual illumination as much as candlelight. All the traditional activities described by spells (making images, cutting cords, burying, washing, and so on) are all metaphors.
This extends to all corners of the magical tradition, beyond spells and talismans, to even the simplest actions, including giving offering to the gods. Offerings are more than “sympathetic materia”, they are gifts to invisible allies -and gifts are an entire language unto themselves.
The language of gifts is metaphoric; there are no words, only signs of respect and appreciation, and every gift is loaded with implied meaning.
When giving offerings or making talismans, it is customary to involve herbs, stones, metals, and other materia(ls) that are thought to be “sympathetic”; that is, they are more of the nature of the energy of the (planetary) spirit in question than others. This attunes the ritual space to the spirit’s energy, in the case of celestial / astrological magic. But the practice of giving offering is important to every other current of magic as well. Since not all magic is astrological in nature, this means the materia selected for offerings can be linked to the spirits receiving them in a variety of different ways.
Nature spirits accept local fruits and foods happily. House spirits are keen on bread, milk, and liquor. Ancestors prefer the things they favored in life -or, perhaps, an extra seat at the dinner table occasionally. It’s an oversimplification to say that you give what the spirits “like”, but it’s not entirely inaccurate.
The point is that it’s better to treat offerings like gifts to honored guests than simply ingredients in a magical formula. In this form the act takes on greater meaning and more can be expressed through the gesture.
The Spiritual Gift Economy
In gift economies, reciprocity is generated through the exchange of symbolic gifts. The purpose of this practice is to bind the involved parties together by acknowledging their relationality through ritual. The spiritual dimensions of our universe operate on similar principles and we connect to our invisible allies through the repetition of this ritual of gift exchange.
While it is best to give these gifts from a place of genuine admiration and love, it is not wrong to give with the intention of receiving a gift in return. This is the nature of supplication; we give a relevant gift of symbolic value and the spirits return the favor by accommodating our requests. The exchange benefits both parties and requires only that which can be easily given, building a connection that is not unlike one forged by doing business with someone regularly.
Through the relationships formed in this manner we end up doing all sorts of work on behalf of the spirits involved. We do this in veneration, of course, but also because it directly benefits us. This is sacred reciprocity at work.
The Meaning Of A Gift
Spells are messages to our spirit allies detailing the outcomes we want to manifest. The language is metaphoric and its vocabulary is symbolism mixed with implication. Metaphor defines the meaning of the message, thus the metaphor you use in a spell can make a huge difference in the outcome.
Selecting materia for its metaphorical value in a spell is very good magic. We use whatever we can get our hands on in a pinch but, whenever possible, we should be mindful of the message our materia is sending.
If you’re blessing a social event, for example, it’s a good idea to do so with strong libations, sweets, and pleasant scents. If you’re calling in the god of war, on the other hand, iron filings and blood are the ideal medium. For contacting the fairy queen, flowers and the fruits of a recent harvest are proper (as are milk and honey) to share in your bounty with “the neighbors”.
There are many such examples, and many traditions to pull from, but what’s most important is that the gift make sense to you and that it convey your intention clearly. I give flower water to the water spirits when I pray “calm weather”. Scott Cunningham suggests encircling two sticks laid out in a cross with salt when praying to stop the rain -perhaps this is to indicate a dry area (protected from rain).
In early times, in gratitude for the harvest, a bull was slaughtered and parts of its carcass were offered through fire to the Moon goddess (and later the Sun god). Bulls represented Nature’s fecundity, and the male aspect of creation, returned at the end of the growing season to the regenerative Mother so that she would birth it again the following year.
The act of offering is neither mechanistic nor categorical -it is metaphorical. One thing represents another as metaphor and then becomes the other through ritualized intention.
When constructing astrological rituals, where the sympathy of materia is determined by its similarity to a planetary influence, the metaphor is always (at least) that the materia is a “part” of that planetary influence here on Earth. A concentration of that material essence in your spellcraft brings more of the ruling planetary influence to bear.
Outside of astrological magic (in the cunning traditions and so forth) the metaphors vary and there is more flexibility with how you can use materia in your spells. The materia, in itself, is not as meaningful as the context you’re using it in and why -thus as always, intention is at the very root of the matter.
A gift is not only a transaction (albeit a sacred one), it is also a statement. When giving a gift, especially in an important relationship, it’s best to be very deliberate about the the message you’re sending.
Featured Image: Sacrificial Ritual by Shane Le