After the Smoke Clears: how to dispose of your offerings
For the Greeks, being religious meant that you sacrificed. Every important event in life, from birth to adulthood to marriage and death, included sacrifices. Every festival, dramatic performance, sporting event, or political speech required a sacrifice before it could begin. Any time that you had a stroke of good luck, from having a successful harvest to finding a coin on the street, it was considered proper to give back a portion of it to the Gods. Even simple prayers were begun with a pinch of incense as an offering.
To refuse to take part in sacrifices, as mystical vegetarian groups like the Pythagoreans and some Orphics, and later the monolotrous Christians did, was to set oneself off as a marginal figure, to be barred from participating in the civic and cultural life of the community. When Christianity came to power and sought to dismantle its competitor, it began by attacking sacrifices. First, it passed laws forbidding animal sacrifice and the large public meals that always attended them. Then they went on to destroy the sacred temples and beautiful images of the Gods which adorned them, where the sacrifices were made. Finally, they even passed laws forbidding the lighting of incense, or dropping of coins and lanterns into sacred springs.
Why is sacrifice so important? Sacrifice is an embodied act representing a proper and pious relationship with the Gods. It is an acknowledgement of our dependent relationship with the powers of the earth and heaven: everything good that we have, comes through them. It is a desire to share what we have, with the community and with the Gods. It is an unflinching acceptance of the role of death in the midst of life. It is a way to maintain the ancient traditions.
There were three primary forms of sacrifice: thusia, blood or animal sacrifice, choai or spondai libations of milk, wine, or oil, and aparchai or dorai gift offerings including grain, first fruits, candles and lamps, and votive objects made out of clay or metals.
All of this you can learn from a multitude of books and websites on the subject. What is rarely discussed, however, is what is to be done with the objects once you’ve offered them to the Gods on your altar.
If you leave your offering in a holy place like a shrine or temple, or at a natural spot like a river, grove of trees, or spring, you needn’t worry about disposing of them. Either the animals, a temple steward, or the elements themselves will take care of it for you. Of course, if the God to whom you make your offering descends from Olympos to claim it, you won’t have to worry about disposal either. But it should go without saying that this eventuality is quite rare.
So what is the proper method of disposal? I mean, why can’t we just toss it in the garbage sack with our coffee grounds, hamburger wrappers, beer bottles, and used condoms?
First, it would show a profound disrespect to the divinity for whom it’s meant. Remember, an offering is a gift. And while the God has probably already taken the portion of the gift that they find pleasing (the mana or spiritual energy, or even the aroma of burning fat according to Homer), in a sense the gift is still connected to them, whether through symbolic association, actual ownership, or a form of divine contagion which comes from contact. Whatever is connected with the Gods is holy. And in Greek, the word holy – hagnos – literally means “set apart.” Holy things are not common things, and must be kept away from them. Contact with common things, especially if those things are associated with birth, death, blood, madness, or sex is miasma or a form of pollution. To avoid this pollution we always undergo purification before the start of a ritual, if only through the washing of hands in chernips or holy water. So, just tossing your offering in the trash when finished would completely undo its effect, possibly tick the God off, and certainly cause you to be guilty of ritual defilement.
Which is actually why we need to dispose of the offering in the first place. Simply leaving fruit and meat on your altar until it fully decomposes would defile the altar. It would look gross. It would smell. It would bring death and decay to a pristine place. And, it could attract unclean things like vermin, flies, and disease. Definitely not an environment suitable for Gods – except for certain Gods for whom such conditions are not only acceptable but desirable. Because polytheism is complex.
How long is an appropriate amount of time to leave an offering on your altar? This depends on a number of factors.
- What are you leaving? If it’s flowers or grain, or votive crafts, you can leave them there until they start to look ugly, or as long as you wish. In the case of votive crafts, like statues or bowls, these can become a permanent part of your shrine. Fruit and meat and milk and oil should probably be removed within a couple days. Certainly before it starts growing hair.
- Who is it being left for? Gods such as Zeus, Artemis, Apollon, and Athene are concerned with order, purity, and punctuality. They like their altars clean and well-organized. Dionysos, Demeter, Eris, and Hephaistos aren’t so concerned with such things, being Gods well-accustomed to the chaos and messiness that comes with wild creativity and earthiness. But, you also don’t want to disrespect them by being slovenly or forgetful.
- Where are you leaving it? If you can only manage a make-shift shrine in the middle of your one room college dorm, then you’ll probably want to take things down as quick as possible. On the other hand, if you’ve got a large bomos erected in the middle of your backyard, then you can probably leave them out there as long as you’d like or Nature allows.
- How frequently do you make offerings? If you follow a system such as the Athenian calendar, which has sacrifices for different Gods marked on most days, you won’t want to leave multiple sacrifices to different Gods on the same altar – especially if the Gods don’t necessarily have the most felicitous of relationships, e.g., Hera and Dionysos, or Aphrodite and Persephone. It is always a good idea to properly clean the altar before making a new sacrifice anyway.
You don’t want to be too quick in disposing of your offerings. Why go through all the trouble of performing a proper sacrifice if you’re going to clean things up in fifteen minutes? You want to leave the Gods time to do whatever it is they do with their offerings, after all. But you also don’t want to let it go too long. Anywhere from three hours to five days should be sufficient.
There are several principal methods for disposing of sacrifices. The first method is actually the most proper, ritually speaking. In fact, for the Greeks, the usual method of making the offering was to burn it on the altar, or in a special tripod for that purpose. Homeric heroes would burn huge haunches of beef, so that the aroma of fat and bone and special herbs would rise pleasingly to the Gods. Wheat, fruit, and other combustibles were also given to the Gods through this method.
If you can’t afford a huge open pit or a large bronze bowl to burn things on your altar, you can always use a fireplace (especially if it’s only used for ritual purposes) or a hibachi grill set up in the backyard or on the porch. You can even use a common stove or a lighter to dispose of smaller things – but I wouldn’t suggest using these for, say, a large thighbone wrapped in fat. It just takes way too long.
The next best method is burial. This is especially appropriate if your offering is being made to the Chthonioi or Underworld Gods, but can also be used for the Olympians. You can either bury things directly, or wrap them in a special cloth or paper bundle before interring them. I would recommend direct burial, as it leaves nothing between the gift and the All-nourishing Mother Earth – but there is a certain beauty to the bundle. As you dig the hole, and again when actually burying your objects, you should recite prayers. The prayer should be directed to the Earth and either the recipient of the sacrifice, if you are disposing of material intended for just one divinity, or else all the Gods if you’ve saved material from a number of sacrifices, or originally made the sacrifice to multiple Gods. If you have a backyard, you may wish to mark off a portion of it specifically for this purpose, and refrain from growing anything there, or even walking on the spot. Alternatively, you may wish to bury your offerings near a tree or large rock or other boundary marker. If you don’t have access to a backyard, you can take your offerings to another spot, such as a park or lonely roadside location and bury them there.
A final method would be to simply leave the offerings in a conspicuous spot to be found and used by scavengers. In ancient Greece, people would leave coins or bundles of clothes or objects like cups and statues at roadside markers. These things were called hermaions, or “gifts from Hermes” and were used by the needy. This method is especially effective for foodstuffs and votive objects, but can also be a means of disposing of ash from incense and candle nubs. These things should always be left with a quick prayer, and placed gently upon the ground. Remember, you’re not simply littering here, but disposing of something that was put to holy use. You can also hang objects from trees or rocks as a method of disposal.
What if you’re a busy urbanite, living in an apartment, with no access to fire or burial grounds, and little time for making pilgrimages to holy places for disposal, or are just rushed and can’t employ your normal methods? Is it ever okay to just throw the stuff away? Yes, but even then you shouldn’t just toss it out. Always make sure that the offerings are carefully segregated from the rest of the trash, in their own leak-proof container or bag. Disposal should be accompanied by the usual prayers, and should be as timely as possible. You don’t want your offerings to be sitting at the bottom of your trashcan under a pile of coffee grounds and eggshells for several days.
And that’s pretty much all you need to know. Remember to use your common sense, and let your understanding of the ritual laws of miasma guide you. If you’re ever in doubt about what to do, consult an authority on ritual matters, or contact the Gods directly through an oracle of some kind. This was one of the most common reasons for traveling to Delphi in antiquity, and shouldn’t be neglected today. After all, sacrifice is about maintaining a proper relationship with the Gods. Why not ask them directly what that relationship should be like?