One of the longest spiritual practices I’ve maintained more-or-less continually, or at least kept around in one form or another, is that to the Greek gods. I have a shrine to a few of them in my temple, and though the form and shape of it has waxed and waned over the years, I’ve kept venerating and offering to them since I got started, pretty much. From my apartment after college where I had Hermēs in one corner of my bedroom and Asklepios against the wall, and after with Dionysos joining Asklepios; then moving into a house with my boyfriend and having an entire room for my spiritual stuff, with an elaborate set of glass shelves for the theoi, with separate spaces for Zeus and Aphroditē and Apollo and Hephaistos and even Hadēs at one point; now into the house I moved in with my now-husband and having another room set up with different qualities and things got downsized a bit. Hestia, of course, has been around in every house in one form or another, and Dionysos has gone from having an entire shrine dedicated and decorated to him to being…reduced in size but not in presence to a special contraption I set up just for him. All the same, throughout all these changes, I’ve still kept up my worship of the theoi.
My practices have changed somewhat between moves from house to house and temple to temple; for instance, in the last place where I lived, my temple room was across from the hallway bathroom and had a window outside, so it was trivial to dump offerings out or get water anytime I needed. Now, however, my temple is in a basement room with no easy access to either external ventilation or a sink or drain of any sort. This makes disposing of old offerings and libations a little different, and given the lack of ventilation and general light, it’s easy for libations set out to evaporate really quickly or get mold faster than I would’ve thought otherwise. That makes, for instance, the use of many small libation vessels for each theos I have enshrined a pain, because they all have to be hauled up the stairs to the kitchen to be emptied and washed then all hauled back downstairs, and so forth. Besides that, I used to open the window during ritual as a symbolic act as a means to “let the god in” and for incense offerings to reach the heavens, but I can’t do that at this point, so I have to adjust my processes for that.
As I’m getting back to my daily practice (and struggling to find out how to make things more efficient and effective while still making things count), I’ve also been digging through my notes to see what insights I had before, what my proposed methodologies or practices were, and how I managed to get by before and how I did things. I suppose that’s one benefit of blogging so much, because I found two such posts on my method of offering to the theoi, specifically within the context of Mathēsis, one post on general daily mathētic practices, the other on a specifically mathētic procedure to make offerings to the gods. The former is good for me to review anyway, because it’s something I need to get back on as well, either by reworking it to be less-than-daily or by incorporating it into my general daily practices, and because it recommends a regular, daily offering or invocation of the god of the day according to my Grammatēmerologion calendar. The latter is actually useful, because it documents one such way that an invocation and offering to a god might be done, whether associated with a particular day or otherwise, and whether it’s a grand offering or just a small quick invocation.
However, as I look back on this procedure, there are things that I really would feel more comfortable changing than keeping the same. (That’s one good benefit of writing my own blog; I get to make the claim that anything I write can be improved on later!) Between my own experiences and interactions with the theoi on their own terms and by bringing in other ideas that I’m comfortable with applying across the board, there are some things I’m getting into the habit of that I wouldn’t’ve considered before. For instance, while in the past I would often (but not always) make a perfunctory and preliminary offering to Hestia while also saying that it’s not strictly necessary, nowadays I’m definitely on the side of always making an offering to her to start with before any others, though I’m not entirely convinced that every offering must also conclude with another one to her, as well. Rather, I’m now in the habit of honoring Zeus in every offering, regardless whether he’s the focus of my prayers or not, due to his role as divine cosmic king who rules over the three realms; at first I had his name praised and made a perfunctory offering to him before any other god (besides Hestia), but after some conversation, I make him last. Or second-to-last, if Hestia gets a final offering as well.
So, let me draw out my process and my thinking. It is true that many of the theoi operate independently in some respects, but it is also true that they are all part of the same pantheon and part of the same cosmic schema. Just as you can’t remove a single number from the Decad and have it still remain the Decad, you can’t really remove a single theos from the theoi and have it remain the pantheon. However, not every individual theos needs to be worshipped at all times, but a few key ones that allow for worship to happen at all makes more sense. For that, the general order of invocation and offering that I use nowadays goes like this:
- Perfunctory initial offering to Hestia. Hestia should always get the first offering, because she’s the goddess of the hearth and home itself. Without her, we would have nowhere to live, build, or establish shrines; it is only by her support that we can make such offerings in our own homes, dwellings, and temples. If one is living in the wild and makes offerings in a pristine place untouched by civilization with offerings that are not the products of agriculture or animal husbandry, then I would make an argument that an offering to Hestia is not needed, but it would still be appreciated as she is still rightly the eldest of the first generation of the Olympian Theoi.
- Perfunctory offering of wine to Dionysos. This step is sometimes skipped depending on what I’m offering. If I’m offering wine in this ceremony, and I’m either going to run out of an existing bottle or if I’m opening a new bottle of wine for any reason, I open it up here and pour a small amount for Dionysos, giving him thanks for his own sacrifices and allowing us to partake in his sacrifice of flesh and the grape which allows us to perform our own sacrifices. In many ways, Dionysos is the god of wine as well as the god in wine; by opening a new bottle and giving him the first pour, we recognize his presence and dedicate our sacrifices to his own.
- Perfunctory offering to Hermes. Hermēs is important to always recognize, and by calling on him, we ensure that our prayers can be heard by any and all the gods. Hermēs is the messenger of the gods, to be sure, but he’s also the messenger between gods and mankind; it’s by him that we come to know the will and desires of the gods, but it’s also by him that they come to know our prayers and supplications. Hermēs is, indeed, the god of prayer and ritual in general, just as Hestia can be said to be the goddess of shrines in general and Dionysos the god of sacrificing wine in general. Plus, this helps with the notion of “bringing the god in” for when I call upon the presence of a particular deity; before, I’d open the window as a formal “opening of the gate”, but since I don’t have a window anymore, this seems to suffice as well. It’d still be great to have a window or some other aperture, but I simply don’t have that option available to me.
- Main offering. This is where the actual invocation to the god begins. All their prayers and invocations and offerings and whatnot take place after all the initial offerings are made.
- Perfunctory concluding offering to Zeus. At the end of the ceremony, once the other offerings are made, Zeus should also always be honored, as the divine ruler of the cosmos, the father of gods and men, and the supreme king of all. In honoring Zeus who rules over the three domains of sky, sea, and land, we also honor all those who live within them, both mortal and immortal. This suffices not only to render tribute to the god of gods, but also to recognize the divinity of all the other gods who fall under Zeus’ domain.
- Other perfunctory concluding offerings. As Hestia is the first-born of Rhea and Kronos, she is also their last-born; she was born first from Rhea’s womb, and torn out last from Kronos’ belly. The Homeric Hymn to Hestia (#24) says that “without you mortals hold no banquet, where one does not duly pour sweet wine in offering to Hestia both first and last”. However, I don’t think that this sort of concluding offering is strictly needed after that of Zeus, but it can certainly be done; if it were, I think it would also be appropriate to honor both Hermēs and Hestia both for both their roles as divinities of prayer-speaking as well as that of shrine-keeping. In other words, after the main offering and offering to Zeus, we work backwards: if we start with Hestia and Hermēs, we end with Hermēs and Hestia. It’s something I’m still working out, admittedly.
This idea of a ritual process, going through multiple divinities in order to sacrifice to one, may seem needlessly complicated; I know I thought that at one point, and before, I’d just go to my Apollo shrine and do my thing and be done with it. That said, I think of my other traditions where there is absolutely an order to worship, where certain divinities must be honored before others; this idea works for the Greek gods, too. Plus, there are other examples of having such an order; consider the Hellenist reconstruction group Elaion and their ritual templates shared by Elani Temperance over at Baring the Aegis, where every ritual begins with a libation to Hestia, to Gaia, and to Themis before proceeding with the main event, and all of which conclude with a final offering to Hestia. This also makes sense: just as we honor Hestia for being the goddess of hearth and home and shrine, so too do we honor the Earth for supporting all that happens and to divine Law and Order for that which is proper that all might continue to be proper. Sure, it might seem easier to just make offerings to one god (and a lot less use of wine and oil and incense), but the more I think about it and the more I practice it, the more sense it makes to really go in for the process and proper sequencing of things in a formal offering.
Of course, all that above is just the general template, and templates change in certain circumstances. For instance, if I were to just make an offering to Hestia for Hestia’s own sake, I wouldn’t really bother with Hermēs or the other gods, because Hestia is already right there present in my home, so Hestia is one of the very few (perhaps the only) divinity I could just sacrifice directly to and not get the rest of the gang involved and not feel bad about it. In general, however, there’s always going to be a process, and there are certain rules to how that process might change in certain examples. Let’s consider a few examples, with the main event in bold text and anything unexpected in italics:
- Dionysos (if new bottle of wine), Hestia, Zeus
- Because Hestia is always first no matter what, she still comes first. However, as she’s immediately present and we’re already making an offering to her, we don’t need the messenger/interpreter presence of Hermēs. If a new bottle of wine is to be opened, a perfunctory offering to Dionysos should come first before Hestia, though this is really more a respect gesture than anything else. Likewise, Zeus can still be honored afterwards, but beyond Hestia and honoring the hearth itself that even the gods honor, there’s not too much that needs to be done.
- Hestia, Hermēs, Dionysos, Zeus, other conclusions
- Normally, we’d have a perfunctory offering to Dionysos before Hermēs if we’re opening a new bottle of wine. However, if I’m offering to Dionysos himself, I’d skip that stage and celebrate him entirely in his own part of the ceremony. Instead of being given just a token, perfunctory offering, he gets his own full thing going on. After Dionysos is honored, then we’d give a perfunctory offering to Zeus, and if desired, any other concluding offerings to e.g. Hermēs and Hestia.
- Hestia, Dionysos (if new bottle of wine), Hermēs, Zeus, other conclusions
- Pretty straightforward here; Hermēs takes his usual place after Dionysos (if needed) and before Zeus, but as there are no other gods to be worshiped, Hermēs himself becomes the focus. Instead of giving Hermēs a perfunctory offering, he gets a full offering here.
- Hestia, Dionysos (if new bottle of wine), Hermēs, Zeus, libation to all the gods, other conclusions
- Like with Hermēs, instead of just getting a perfunctory offering, Zeus himself is celebrated in full.
- However, remember that Zeus is normally celebrated in every ceremony to remind ourselves of his divine and cosmic importance, and by him, we can honor all the other gods and goddesses of the cosmos. However, if we’re worshiping and offering to Zeus as Zeus alone, then we’d need something to step in to formally recognize all the other entities of the cosmos, hence a separate step for the “libation to all the gods” after Zeus. This would be perfunctory, as the offering to Zeus any other time would be.
- Hestia, Dionysos (if new bottle of wine), Hermēs, Apollo, Zeus, other conclusions
- This is the basic template, using Apollo as the main offering. Nothing unexpected here.
- Hestia, Dionysos (if new bottle of wine), Hermēs, Apollo, Asklepios, Zeus, other conclusions
- This is essentially the basic template, with Asklepios as the main offering, but note how we’re also honoring Apollo immediately before him. This is because, as I reckon it, Asklepios is not sufficiently independent or major of a god in his own right. Sure, he can be offered to independently and on his own, but I find it more proper to recognize his father Apollo first. In other words, to use a royal metaphor, Asklepios is a noble in the royal court ruled by Apollo; as Apollo is the ruler of that court, he gets first honors, and then any
- A similar case would go for any other minor god that is clearly part of another god’s “court”, such as Hēbē under Hēra, Eros under Aphroditē, Tykhē under Zeus, Nikē under Athena, and so forth. Recognize the primary god of that court first with a perfunctory offering, then the minor god as the main offering.
Although the Greeks may not have conceived of their gods as belonging to “courts” per se, I think it’s still a useful classification of the minor gods and goddesses around central rulers who were more well-known. For instance, I would consider all the thalassic deities Triton, Nereus, and the Nereides and Naiadēs including Thetis to all belong to the court of Poseidon, who either is the father, husband, brother, or conquering usurper of the other gods. In sacrifice and myth, this may not really be true, but it’s a really useful way to organize “groups” of the theoi for the purposes of my Grammatēmerologion calendar, which assigns the letters of the Greek alphabet to the days of the lunar month, and by the letters, to individual signs of the Zodiac or other powers, which are associated the major gods of the Hellenic pantheon. For instance, in the Grammatēmerologion, the twenty-third day of the lunar month is given to the letter Tau. Tau is given to the zodiacal sign of Pisces, which is associated with the theos Poseidon; thus, it makes sense to cluster the worship of all the oceanic deities onto the day of Tau, just as all the deities associated with Hēra like Hēbē and Eileithyia are given to Hēra’s day of Sigma and so forth. If nothing else, honoring the “court ruler” of a minor god also counts as honoring the primary god of the same day that minor god would be worshiped on, which fulfills part of my daily mathētic practices.
So, when I say “perfunctory offering”, what exactly do I mean? Basically, a token offering, a nod, something I give just enough to recognize the divinity I’m making such an offering to. It’s really little more than a very quick pour of wine or clean water, no more than an ounce or a few drops, accompanied by a few words of honor and veneration, calling upon their aid. If I feel like it, I’ll recite the entire Orphic Hymn or one of the shorter Homeric Hymns to them, but in general, what I’ll say is something short, like:
Hestia, as you were first born of Rhea and last born of Kronos, so too do you receive the first offering and the last! Queen goddess of the hearth, without you we could not live nor could we offer to the gods. Right and proper it is to honor you first in all such rites.
Dionysos, roaring lord of reborn life, yours is the blood of the vine which we cut and rend that we might live and live well. As you spilled your blood that we might partake in it, I give you the first offering of this bottle that you might always be honored in every pour and spill.
Hermēs, you are the messenger of gods and men, to whom we all turn in all our rites. Hear my prayers, take these sacrifices, and carry them aloft to divine ears and immortal hands! May all the righteous ways of worship be opened for me and for the gods!
With that, I’ll pour out a bit of wine and olive oil out—not a lot, because it’s better to give a little so that we always have something to give, and if we’re going through the process, then we’ve already got a lot to give. From what I’ve been doing, it seems that a standard set of offerings will take around half a normal 750ml bottle of wine and maybe an ounce or two of olive oil. While before I was pouring straight from the wine bottle into individual vessels for each individual divinity, which was fine when I could more easily wash them or empty them without having to schlep them up and down stairs, I’m now in the habit of using a large white bowl I set before my entire Greek shrine, and pouring in libations into that from a smaller white bowl. That way, I can partake of the libation and give a toast to each of the gods as I offer, and I replicate the old practice of pouring a libation out on the ground itself. The bowl, of course, keeps it all contained instead of splashing everywhere, and is easier to carry up instead of four or six silver or glass chalices full of wine and oil.
Of course, all of the above—the process, the order, the perfunctory offerings versus the main offerings, the courts, etc.—only really count if I’m making an actual offering to the theoi. On days when I don’t, either because I don’t want to or don’t need to, there’s no need to go through all of that. Instead, a simple invocation will suffice. For instance, say that it’s the day of Gamma; Gamma is associated with Taurus, and thus with Aphroditē. If I’m going to make a full offering to Aphroditē that day, then yes, I’ll go through the process of Hestia, Dionysos, Hermēs, Aphroditē, Zeus, &c. However, if I’m not, whether because I’m too tired or don’t plan on doing an offering to Aphroditē that day, then I’d just call on her and give her a simple prayer; rather than giving her a main offering in the midst of a bunch of perfunctory offerings, I’d just give her a perfunctory (or bigger) invocation with no other process involved. In other words, if all I’m doing is verbally honoring and recognizing the god of the day, then there’s no sacrifice or offering, so the whole process of offering doesn’t apply. Easy, indeed, and if it’s all I need to get by for a daily practice, then all the better.
I’m sure, given enough time, this proposed method will continue to change. What is becoming clear to me is that it’s easier for me to bundle my already-existing Hellenic/Greek practices into my overall Mathēsis work, which is fine by me; the less I have to arrange as separate “practices”, especially when one directly comes from the other and is going to subsume it anyway, the better. By refocusing my Hellenic work into my Mathēsis work, I can better focus both together and synthesize them in a way that reduces stress and conflict while still being able to expand and expound on both. Plus, if this Mathēsis stuff is actually going to head in the direction I want it, having processes for this sort of thing are definitely a needed and beneficial organizing principle.