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.
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.