After Vasco de Gama had rounded the Horn of Africa, but before he made it to India, his caravels stopped in at Mozambique. The sailors were sick, supplies were running low… they probably would not have made it.
The trouble was he couldn’t very well tell the Sultan he was off to India to put Muslims to the sword and take their lands. So he lied. He pretended he was a Muslim and that he was on a diplomatic mission. Diplomatic missions come laden with tributes for local rulers and the Sultan knew it. De Gama scrounged up some silverware from his own table, threw in some remaining ship supplies and a few swords and declared it a gift from the king of Portugal. (Emergency gifting. We’ve all been there.)
The Sultan grew suspicious. Portugal was clearly a shit place if this is what their king offers. What would they possibly have to trade with Mozambique? Soon after, de Gama fled in his ships. The offering was not accepted.
Offerings are serious business. As far back in the written record that we can see, rulers prized themselves on the tributes they gave and received. The presence of obsidian traded all the way from Southern Iran to Eastern Turkey at Göbekli Tepe suggests that ‘trade’ and ‘spirits’ have always gone hand in hand. The first ritual may well have been a dance, but the first pact was an extradimensional trade agreement.
Even today, the same rules apply. London Zoo owed most of its drawcard animals -giraffes, elephants, big cats- to tributes given by Victoria’s vassals. In fact, the current Queen is old enough to have received large, live animals as gifts. She also excels at the giving of offerings. The previous Pope received one of Thomas More’s diaries as a gift from the Queen during his visit. Which sounds nice until you realise her predecessor was the one who killed him. The subtext of ‘keep your hands off of my Anglicans’ was obvious at an elite level. (He’d been pushing the whole ‘cross the Tiber’ thing as a result of the debate around gay marriage.)
I think about these things as a result of Jason’s recent post about offering disposal, and then I get all nostalgic. Here is an incomplete list of places I have left spirit offerings.
- A ruined Roman fort on a snowy hilltop
- A sacred Micronesian waterfall
- the Thames
- the Tiber
- the Seine
- the East River
- the Po River
- A foxhole in my backyard
- A toilet cubicle in my workplace
- Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris (many cemeteries, many churches, one catacomb)
- A Fijian reef
- My old primary school
- Multiple Neolithic tombs
- Urban crossroads
- Bushland crossroads
- Off the side of a ferry in the Inner Hebrides
- Campo di Fiori in Rome
- A ruined Templar church
- The Victoria Bus Station in London
- A pile of urine-soaked garbage at a Soho crossroad
- The top of the Shard
- Among the roots of a tree growing out the top of a medieval tower in Tuscany
- Left on the baked earth of the desert floor
- An abandoned mental hospital
- A campfire (of sorts)
- The lip of a volcano
- A sea cave
- Inside a sunken Japanese WWII ship
- The misshapen crossroad in front of the Bank of England
- Wall Street
- The hill used as the film location for Edoras
- Fraz Josef glacier
- Loch Ness
- The carpark at Crowley’s death place
- On top of a plague pit
I’ve been at this awhile and I fully appreciate that is not the case for many people. Perhaps that is why I find the notion of asking questions about ‘correct’ offerings mildly amusing. Perhaps it is because I cut my teeth on this stuff on the other side of the world in a time before these internets. An oak leaf wreath, you say? Too fucking bad. Have some acacia.
Jason’s correct regarding the taboo around eating spirit food -and there may be an interpretive model for why below- but he’s doubly right when he says he “did not become a Sorcerer to live in fear of doing something minor that pisses off the spirits. You shouldn’t either.” If you asked Queen Elizabeth what sort of offerings you should use -okay, she wouldn’t answer- but she should say “whatever they would like. Whatever presses the advantage.” And if you asked Vasco de Gama the answer would be “oh fuck! Offerings? Whatever we have to hand that is the least shit.”
And they’d all be right.
For reasons that are too convoluted to go into, my most common altar offerings are Norwegian akvavit and spring water, poured into tiny Chinese tea cups. (Also incense, candles, blah blah blah.) But here’s another incomplete list of previous offerings from my trip down memory lane.
- Burned poems
- Food made by nuns
- Booze made by monks
- My own blood
- Deliberately cooked Levantine and Eastern Med meals
- Stones painted with sigils
- Chinese death money
- Wood ash
- Coconut milk fresh from a coconut
- Sigilised versions of offering prayers (‘A thousand loaves of bread, a thousand jugs of beer’)
- Detritus leftover from a food market
- The remains of insects killed in ritual
- Stones from one place brought to another
- River water poured into a different river
- Visualised offerings
- Candles lit inside the nearest available church
- Chinese lanterns
- Grapevine cuttings
- Costume jewellery
- Holy water
- Sodcasted music from my phone’s speaker
- The opportunity to skinride during sex or on drugs at a dance party
- Pretty much any type of booze at one stage or another
There are others that probably skirt the bounds of legality for which I will plead the Fifth. But you get the idea.
An idea you probably shouldn’t get is the notion that ‘as long as you put in some effort’ then that’s what counts. Yeah, maybe for your dead grandmother. But markets don’t reward effort. They reward scarcity, uniqueness. Often these correlate with effort but sometimes they don’t. So the ‘value’ in preparing food for the spirits is not in the effort as much as the uniqueness of having that activity performed for them. You are not charging for labour. You are selling an end result of that labour. The economic difference is very important to grasp.
When a cattle-herding people sacrifices a bull to their spirits, the actual effort is minimal. Value is located in the scarcity of the object that is being removed from the local economy. As previously stated, the spirits are fascinated when we deny ourselves something. Just as the rulers of Punt must have been fascinated by all the bling Hatshepsut denied herself by giving to them on her trading mission.
The value exchange in the metaphoric troll market works both ways, of course. In Josh Cutchin’s well-researched, predictably-concluded A Trojan Feast: The Food and Drink Offerings of Aliens, Faeries and Sasquatch, the ‘purpose’ behind the taboo-laden food of the spirits is one of consciousness manipulation. ‘Getting trapped in the faery realm’ correlates nicely with the ‘lost time’ experienced by UFO abductees and the consumption of their food and drink features prominently in both categories of encounter. The connection is strengthened. These may not strictly be offerings (as far as we know) but they are certainly close enough to the concept to draw hypotheses from. (And it seems to me that the taboo around eating food offerings that have ‘become the property of the spirits’ is correlated.)
Sometimes we fail to consider that a very large minority -perhaps even a slim majority- of the world’s population today engages in regular spirit offerings, and that the entirety of mankind for basically its entire existence has done so. This tells us several things.
Firstly, just as in a real market, there are myriad permutations of exchange, of swapping, of trade… so much so that there really are no hard and fast rules. Even Jason’s taboo about not eating food set aside for the spirits -with which I concur- can technically be discarded as long as you are prepared to weather the consequences. (But like… don’t. This stuff is unpredictable enough as it is.)
Secondly, there is a little-considered, peculiar advantage to working with the spirits of the western tradition. In the secular west, almost no one engages in spirit offerings anymore. This can do wonders for the value/scarcity of any of your hypothetical offerings. If magic is getting their attention, then offer something good and you may have their undivided attention.
Inevitably, there is really only one way to get this right and that is to learn by doing. Troll market forces will dictate what is acceptable, what is occasionally popular, what is perennially popular, whether competing traders offer better terms, whether you have run afoul of particular market trading rules and what you have to pack and take home at the end of the day.
So pitch that stall and have it.