Apotropaic Offerings?

I recently encountered the practice of making so-called “apotropaic offerings”: offerings made, at some distance from the site of one’s primary ritual practice, to placate potentially disruptive beings.

Such offerings as described above are not a part of my own religious or spiritual practice. And looking in from the outside, something very quickly seemed “off” or not-quite-right about this. Hence this blog post, which I present in the spirit of (a) working out a bit more precisely my own understanding of why we make religious offerings, and how such offerings work; (b) clarifying exactly what my concerns are with the “apotropaic” practices described above; and (c) opening a space for conversation, where others might help me refine this understanding and/or resolve some of these concerns.

One important note, before getting into the details: As polytheists, our religions have their source and their completion in the actual lived practices (plural!) by which we cultivate and sustain our relationships to the many specific, individual divine persons (again plural!) whom we know as the Gods. All the theorizing in the world is only ever a supplement to those (inevitably diverse, because they’re plural!) living practices. And so at the end of the day, if our theories cannot account for stable and effective practices which cultivate and sustain our reverent relationships with the Holy Powers, so much the worse for the theories. Nonetheless, theory can sometimes give warnings, wave red flags, or simply raise questions which serve as an invitation for us, as individuals and in our religious communities, to come to a deeper, richer, more precise, more nuanced understanding of what we do, and of why we do it—all of which, at its best, can be a gift to the community. Moreover, it’s one of the roles of the philosopher and the theologian to bring forward accounts (theories, logoi), that resonate with, support, and encourage appropriate and effective cultus. It’s my sincere hope that the present essay can make a useful contribution in these regards.

Two Iamblichean Theses

In approaching these questions, I’m inclined to begin with two significant and profound theses from Iamblichus, in his treatise On the Mysteries (De Mysteriis).

First, Iamblichus tells us that the Gods, insofar as they are truly Gods, require nothing from us, in the sense that these higher beings, who are the source of all good things here in our material world, who are cause and origin of all that we have, even of our very lives—such divine beings could not possibly depend upon us for anything, in any way. I’ve explored this thesis, as a tool for the discernment of spirits, in a prior post.

As a corollary to this, we can add that Gods are not in any way swayed or made to change, on account of our offerings. For Iamblichus, to suggest that the Gods could be influenced or manipulated in such a way would be the height of impiety. If the Gods are already perfect (literally, “complete,” needing nothing), then our offerings cannot change them for the better. Any change in their nature, status, or behavior would then have to be a change for the worse. And do we really want to suggest that we can manipulate the Gods in such a direction? Iamblichus certainly did not.

If Iamblichus is correct about this, it raises some obvious questions: Why then do we make sacrifices and offerings to the Gods? What effect could such offerings have, if the Gods truly need nothing from us, and are not swayed by our offerings? Iamblichus’ answer is that the function of sacrifice or offering to the Gods is not to change the Gods, but to change ourselves. Specifically, the act of offering to the Gods brings us closer to them, to whom we are giving the offering. This is the second critical thesis.

On the one hand, the second thesis is needed, in order to make sense of sacrifice in the context of the first thesis. But we should not, in my opinion, see the second thesis as merely a post hoc rationalization for the practice. Rather, the claim that the function of sacrifice is to change us, bringing us closer to the Gods to whom we make our offerings, seems to be one instance of a much more general pattern: across all areas of life, we draw closer to those on whom we focus our attention, and to those to whom we reach out. Or as the old axiom puts it, what you contemplate, you imitate. Along with whatever other functions they have, physical offerings—hymns, candles, incense, food, etc.—help us to strength our contemplative focus, such that by attending more fully to the Gods, by engaging as much of our embodied nature as possible in our devotions, we are drawn near to them that much more powerfully and completely.

Of course, those of us who are Platonists can follow Iamblichus even further, to note that specific objects by their own natures have a connection with the particular God in whose series they stand, and so serve by that nature to attune the worshiper with that particular God. But while that strengthens the case, I think that the general point about the function of sacrifice can stand on its own, even if we don’t accept the Iamblichean account of procession and divine series.

So, we have two critical theses:

  • (1) The Gods require nothing from us, and are not swayed by our sacrifices.
  • (2) Sacrifices function by bringing those who offer them closer to those who receive them.

What follows from these theses?

Given (2), it makes sense to give offerings only to those beings whom we want to be around. Giving an offering to some being whom we want to ward away (which is etymologically at the root of apotropaic) would be counterproductive.

Given (1), it’s especially problematic to make offerings to anyone who would be swayed or influenced by the offering, since by this principle, any such being is neither a God, nor any other sort of being higher than ourselves in a divine series. Thus, any being who would be swayed or influenced by an offering is, for that very reason, not worthy of receiving our sacrifice. And in making such a sacrifice, we would be lowering ourselves, not elevating ourselves.

These two concerns, then, are enough to state my misgivings with the style of “apotropaic offerings” set out at the beginning of this essay. In the next sections, I’d like to consider two alternative modes of apotropaic practice and more general cultus, which seem to be more consistent with the Iamblichean theses and their consequences.

Offerings to Protective Deities

There is another kind of offering which seems highly appropriate and worthwhile: offerings made to protective deities; that is, to the “apotropaic” Gods who defend us, as individuals and in community, by warding off various evils, threats, and harms. I have no concerns whatsoever with such offerings, provided that we make the critical distinction between making offerings to the protective Gods (good!) and making offerings to the beings we want to be protected from (bad!).

By way of example, consider the way that, among his many other gifts and titles, Apollon is very often invoked as a protector. This is reflected in a very general way in the title Alexikakos, “the one who wards off evil.” But it also shows up in more specific epithets like Smintheus, “slayer of mice.” This latter offers a useful illustration of the more general principle.

When I moved into a new house last fall, I inherited a serious mouse problem. The ductwork was such that the little rodents had free reign of the entire place, and a pantry with open shelves gave them plenty of tempting targets for their depredations. All in all, it was a situation that really helped me to appreciate how important a gift the “Slayer of Mice” can offer us, and I was not shy about invoking Apollon’s help in that guise. But the critical point is: I left offerings for Apollon, but not for the mice. In fact, I went to some lengths to be sure that nothing I did would attract the mice in any way: not to my kitchen or pantry, not to my living space, not even to the backyard or any other part of the property. Thankfully, that was enough; I didn’t even need to resort to mousetraps, though I was prepared to do some of my own slaying of mice by that means, if it came to it. Beyond invoking the help of a divine patron and protector, all I needed to do was to ensure that I was not “offering” anything that might draw myself and the mice closer to each other. The mice went away, and they stayed away for the remainder of the time that I lived in that house.

It seems to me that this is just one application of the general principle: make offerings to those you want to have around, not to those you want to be rid of. And I see no reason why the same principle should not also hold in the case of evil, malign, or harmful beings who happen not to be physically incarnate in the way the mice were.

Offerings “To All the Gods”

Another well-attested practice of polytheisms both ancient and modern is making a sacrifice or offering “to all the Gods,” where this is sometimes understood as a way of making such that no divine person who is worthy of such an offering is left out. Yet I would suggest that such practice should not be understood as warding off some evil, harm, wrath, or anger. And they should certainly not be seen as a means to keep any of the Gods away from us or our communities in any way. Rather, we really do want to acknowledge and honor all of the Gods, since all (genuine) Gods are good, and are worthy of our reverence.

This is even quite consistent with giving pride of place in our worship to one or several of the Gods more than the others. Here, I’m reminded of a truly delightful votive inscription, cited by H.S. Versnel in his sprawling study, Coping with the Gods (pp. 504–505). In Versnel’s translation, the inscription reads, “We pray to all the Gods, but mostly to Dionysos.” (πρὸς πάντας τοὺς θεοὺς μάλιστα δὲ πρὸς τὸν Διόνυσον.) This is simultaneously to focus on a particular God as the center of a community’s cultus, and to genuinely honor and acknowledge all the (other) Gods as being worthy of our worship, and indeed to welcome all of them in an appropriate manner. None of the recipients of the offering are being “warded off” or kept away. I see nothing in this manner of offering that would be appropriately called “apotropaic,” and such an offering could be made at the very site where Dionysos (for example) is being worshiped.

Conclusion

I hope that these reflections on sacrifice, offering, and warding off malign forces, are useful to others, and that they might be the start of a thoughtful conversation within our (virtual) communities, in the spirit of theology and philosophy which strengthen and deepen our devotion, through pious reflection and discussion. That is certainly the spirit in which I offer them.

And for my own part, I’d welcome the chance to hear more from those in other religious, theological, and philosophical traditions, to help me further my own understanding.

8 thoughts on “Apotropaic Offerings?

  1. Very interesting points, thank you for adding to the discussion! I’m guessing the blog post you mentioned might have been mine, since I haven’t seen any other recent posts (on WordPress, at least) regarding this topic.

    I completely agree with you –and Iamblichus — that “the Gods, insofar as they are truly Gods, require nothing from us, in the sense that these higher beings, who are the source of all good things here in our material world.” I would *never* even contemplate providing an apotropaic offering to a god, nor would almost anyone within my spiritual tradition (ADF) where this practice is used, and in hindsight I probably didn’t make that clear in my post!

    I think where our paths diverge is your comment of “any being who would be swayed or influenced by an offering is, for that very reason, not worthy of receiving our sacrifice.” In my practice, I do think that there are entities that are “below” gods (but are also not human) that are worthy of my deep respect, just not necessarily my friendship or worship. The biggest example that comes to mind here is the Good Neighbors (“Fairies”) of Irish folklore. There’s a wonderful diversity of beliefs and practices here, but one common viewpoint is that the Gentry are due a portion of one’s crops (or cream, cattle, etc.) and if those dues are not paid, then misfortune can fall upon that person/family/community. I leave cream out for them on certain holidays, for that reason, but I do not “worship” them. (For more on this subject, Morgan Daimler is an excellent authority.) For a non-spiritual example, I have family members who I do not get along with and don’t want a real relationship with, but I still want them to survive and be happy (“I want you to eat, just not at my table,” as the saying goes) so I still financially support them in small ways.

    In general, apotropaic offerings make up a pretty minuscule part of my practice, and only occur in an ADF setting; it’s absent from my Kemetic practice, where if I’m dealing with something dangerous or need help, I ask the gods for help, since I believe that all gods are good. (Which, again, is not something that all polytheists believe.)

    Theology and our different interpretations of it is always fascinating stuff, one of the reasons why I love having a platform like WordPress!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Guilty as charged. It was in fact your post that first got me thinking about this, though my reflections went beyond just what you had written there. I didn’t include a link, since I didn’t want it to seem as if I was attacking your practice, or your post. I’m in fact really grateful to you for sharing!

      So especially given that, thank you for taking this post in the constructive spirit that it was intended!

      I think there’s something really helpful in the distinction you make here between respect and worship. Perhaps there’s a parallel distinction between offerings (in a more general sense) and sacrifices (which are reserved for those we worship). But I’ll need to think more on this.

      I also appreciate the analogy of difficult family members, which puts these practices in a somewhat more confortable light for me. I’ll admit that the first analogy that came into my own mind was paying “protection money” to the mob… which is not nearly so favorable!

      Thanks again for adding to the conversation!

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  2. This is a great post! I agree with the basics of what you have said here, although I have made apotropaic offerings and they are a part of my occasional practice. First, some of these offerings come from folk customs, like offerings of porridge topped with butter to the tomte on December 24 that is still practiced in Nordic countries. As far as I have seen, a lot of modern pagan practice will blend some of these persisting folk elements with apotropaic practices when in fact these are actually survivals of household worship elements.

    Second, if I recall correctly, there is some place for material daimones to be disruptive, not because they are evil, but because of exactly what you said about coming into contact with them based on behavior/offerings. The daimones are doing exactly what is good for them to do, and the human being is just being impacted, much like how a geyser is not evil and yet can be destructive (deadly) to a person who approaches it. Some of the Chaldean Oracle fragments focus on Hekate as the one who drives these daimones (again, if I recall correctly), and the Goddess possesses both the power to drive on and turn away those material daimones. I do wonder what those purifications and other rituals were like.

    Last, since my early 20s, I have worshipped the Eumenides, who exact justice on behalf of the restless dead and who ensure that severe crimes do not go unpunished. Historically, they were offered many-humped cakes (in one of the Orphic texts) as an apotropaic offering. The crucial thing with the Eumenides that took me a while to “unlock” (as it were) comes from what Hermias wrote about levels of purification in the commentary/lecture notes of listening to Syrianus talk about the Phaedrus, where Hermias discusses levels of purification and souls being attracted to lives that provide the cathartic things that the soul itself needs. For some of us, I think that the worship of deities who are both punishing and apotropaic (like them) can be a purification, and this was a very profound moment in my personal practice; I also learned near that time that another Orphic text relates the Erinyes to Apollon, which also makes sense from a purificatory standpoint. That said, if the Erinyes have their crosshairs on someone, all the offerings in the world will not make a difference to them, and there’s significant importance to ensuring that one is pure when giving them offerings — I do a full purification ritual before sacrificing to them on 27 Anthesterion, for example. I think this fits neatly in as a supplement to your heading on offerings to protective deities.

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    1. Thank you!

      With regard to the kind of apotropaic practices you mention in your first paragraph (and perhaps some of those that Atefwepwawet mentions as well), I wonder if some of these offerings might be better classified as “maintaining right relationship with all the others,” rather than as apotropaic in the strict sense. I mean yes, if we fail to maintain good relationships bad things will probably happen, but it might be possible to see some of these offerings as more akin to the class of “honoring all the Gods” that I mentioned in the post. And something similar might also apply to the material daimones. Maybe.

      I’m going to need to give a lot more reflection and attention to the Eumenides… not least because your comment was the second time they came up in an internet conversation yesterday! I really appreciate the ways you have continued to share some insights into your worship of them, both here and on your blog.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I would classify them as “right relationship” insofar as they are restorative practices; perhaps it is best to view them similarly to (again, Hermias’ Phaedrus commentary) the differences between Socrates, Homer, and Stesichorus when/if they caught the overstep that they had made about divine matters.

        Thank you so much! I’m happy that the posts I’ve written on the Eumenides have been helpful.

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  3. I’ve never thought about making an apotropaic offering, which now you mention it, does seem counter intuitive. I can imagine warding against a ‘disruptive being’ or making an offering to a protector but not to them. My guess is a possible result might be they became more disruptive if given offerings. As suggested by your mouse analogy which is a nice parallel. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    Liked by 1 person

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