It probably hasn’t escaped the notice of many of my readers that much of my recent research and reading focuses on the classical Hermetic stuff. As a general rule of thumb, I like using the best-available dating of the Emerald Tablet from the Kitāb Sirr al-Ḫalīqa (“Book of the Secrets of Creation”) as a cut-off, so sometime around the 6th or 7th century CE; that which is written before this is what I consider “classical Hermeticism”, and after this “post-classical Hermeticism” (ranging from medieval to Renaissance to modern, depending on the time period and geographic origin of a given text). I like dividing these texts up in this way because, at least in western Europe prior to Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum in the 15th century, this cut-off date roughly corresponds to a shift in the overall focus of Hermetic texts. While there was always a heavy practical/technical component involved in Hermeticism at all points in time, there was a much stronger and more pronounced mystical and theosophical (or, more traditionally, philosophical/theoretical) bent to many such texts, as evidenced by the Corpus Hermeticum, the Armenian Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpios, the Latin Asclepius or Perfect Sermon, and the like. After this point, however—roughly coinciding with the Roman Empire’s closing of pagan temples in the 4th and 5th centuries—much of the mystical stuff seemed to have faded into the background, and the more practical and magical stuff was not only left but was also drastically expanded, with the more mystical components no longer being provided by Greco-Egyptian religiosity but by Christianity and Islam.
However, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any further mystical or religious elements in post-classical Hermeticism. On the contrary, there’s plenty of it to be found, albeit in a diminished and somewhat preserved state. In a number of grimoires, magical manuals, and historical records written, we see reference to particular practices that don’t cleanly fit as merely magical or occult, but rather descriptions of things that would be classified more as worship. I find this to be super fascinating because, outside of a small handful of things from classical Hermetic texts, we don’t have a big notion of what actual worship would have been like for a Hermeticist as a Hermeticist, rather than as someone participating in general Greco-Egyptian or Hellenistic temple cult more generally. For instance, turning to a few of the classical texts, we see a few ideas:
- CH I.29—30: nighttime (pre-sleep?) prayers
- CH XIII.15: face east for morning/sunrise prayers and south for evening/sunset prayers
- AH 41: face west for evening/sunset prayers and east for morning/sunrise prayers, no use of incense when praying to God, prayers are followed by a ritual embrace and ritual vegetarian/bloodless meal
And…well, without reading in between the lines of the rest of the classical Hermetic texts too much (e.g. does CH IV suggest a ritual baptism?), that’s about all we get.
As can be seen just now, I like using abbreviations to refer to particular Hermetic texts, like CH for Corpus Hermeticum, AH for the Latin Asclepius, DH for the Armenian Definitions, and so forth. I have compiled a whole index of Hermetic texts and references for the benefit of the Hermetic House of Life Discord server, where I list all the abbreviations for the major texts based on our current state of Hermetic scholarship. The numbering of the CH and AH is pretty well-known across many modern texts, while the SH (Hermetic fragments and excerpts from the Anthology of John of Stobi, aka Stobaeus) numbering is based on that originally given in Walter Scott’s four-volume Hermetica series in the first part of the 20th century. However, there’s also the FH and TH texts—though “texts” might be a bit of a stretch. These stand for “Hermetic Fragments” and “Hermetic Testimonies”, the former being smaller quotes or excerpts preserved in other authors, the latter being accounts of or about Hermēs Trismegistos and Hermeticism. M. David Litwa’s Hermetica II contains an abundant wealth of FH and TH texts, and introduces them accordingly:
When approaching the Hermetic fragments, one must distinguish between a direct citation, a paraphrase, the employment of Hermetic ideas, and the mere naming of Hermes Thrice Great. In this section (FH), I strive to print only direct citations or paraphrases of Hermes Thrice Great. Moreover, I favor passages that do not appear elsewhere in Hermetic literature. Thus citations of CH and Ascl. by later authors are not included. Those interested in authors who employ Hermetic ideas or who refer in passing to Hermes should proceed to the Testimonies concerning Hermes Thrice Great (TH).
As for the TH specifically:
The Hermetic testimonies printed here range from the late third century BCE until the fifteenth century CE. The authors quoted are Jewish, Phoenician, Hellenic, Christian, and Muslim. They all present different portraits of Hermes that cannot easily be reconciled. For example, the Jewish writer Artapanus identified Hermes with Moses the great culture hero. The Christian Athenagoras indicated that Hermes was a deified king like Alexander the Great. Iamblichus the Neoplatonic philosopher presented Hermes as a god. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, depicted him as an idolater and demonically inspired prophet. The Alexandrian philosopher Hermias presented Hermes as triply incarnated. The Muslim writer Abū Ma‘shar said that there were three different Hermeses. The first of these built the pyramids in Egypt; the second was a Babylonian scholar; and the third was an expert on poisons. According to the magical handbook the Picatrix, Hermes was the builder of a mystical, multi-colored city featuring a wondrous temple to the Sun and an array of animated statues.
Whatever their diversity of content, these testimonies show that Hermes the philosopher and culture hero was never far removed from Hermes the magus and master of esoteric lore. Hermes was the inventor of writing according to Philo of Byblos. Yet according to the same author, he used his magic spells to help Kronos defeat his enemies. Arnobius put Hermes in the company of Pythagoras and Plato. Yet the Peratic author linked Hermes with Ostanes and Zoroaster (called Zoroastris), the chief Persian magi. For the philosopher Iamblichus, Hermes was the great guide to theurgists. In turn, most Arabic writers viewed Hermes as an expert on astrology and alchemy. Such testimonies indicate that the constructed boundary between “philosophical” and “technical” Hermetic writings remains questionable.
Although the following testimonies are wide-ranging, they are hardly exhaustive. We do not trace the reception history of the Asclepius by Latin writers after Augustine, since this work has already been done. Moreover, some works attributed to Hermes – such as the Arabic Rebuke of the Soul – are too long to be included here and are available elsewhere. There are dozens more Arabic and medieval Latin sources that make mention of Hermes, often in passing. A great number of these are alchemical, astrological, and magical texts that somehow feature Hermes or are attributed to him. Even today, this material remains largely uncharted by scholars. A full and exhaustive record of Hermetic testimonies can only await new critical editions and studies of these materials.
In a sense, while we might consider texts like CH, AH, DH, and the like to be primary sources and the FH texts to be quasi-primary or secondary sources, the TH texts that Litwa gives are tertiary at best, if not outright stories about some variant or other of Hermēs rather than necessarily being Hermetic. As a case in point, Litwa opens up a few sources from the third to first centures BCE, like a quote from Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, written well before our usual dating of even the earliest CH texts. Likewise, there’s also stuff from medieval Arabic and Latin texts which show abundant Islamicization or Christianization of Hermēs Trismegistos, or other adaptations of this pagan prophet to a non-pagan cultural milieu. And yet, despite this, we still get some interesting accounts about what Hermēs and his followers (were thought to have) taught and practiced.
For instance, consider Litwa’s TH 37b, better known as book III, chapter 7 from the Picatrix:
The sages who made these prayers and sacrifices to the planets in mosques did all of the foregoing things. While the planet moved through eight degrees of heaven, they would sacrifice one animal, and similarly when it declined by another eight degrees they would offer another sacrifice. They say that Hermēs commanded them to do this in mosques or in their own churches. These sages say of the aforementioned Hermēs that he was the lord of the three flowers of things, that is, king, prophet, and sage. They require that no animal of two colors, nor black, nor having a broken bone nor a horn broken in any way, nor an injured eye, nor having any flaw in its body, be sacrificed in their mosques. When they behead an animal, they take out its liver at once. They examine it, and if they find any defect or spot in it, they say that the lord of that place has some notable impediment. They then cut up the liver and give it to one of the bystanders to eat.
Perhaps more fascinatingly, we can turn instead to TH 28, which Litwa draws from sections 7.8—10.19 of the Kitāb Muẖtār al-Ḥikam wa-Maḥāsin al-Kalim (“Compendium of Maxims and Aphorisms”, otherwise known as Dicts or Sayings of the Philosophers) by Abū al-Wafā’ Al-Mubaššir ibn Fātik:
He preached God’s judgment, belief in God’s unity, humankind’s worship (of God), and saving souls from punishment. He incited (people) to abstain piously from this world, to act justly, and to seek salvation in the next world. He commanded them to perform prayers that he stated for them in manners that he explained to them, and to fast on recognized days of each month, to undertake holy war against the enemies of the religion, and to give charity from (their) possessions and to assist the weak with it. He bound them with oaths of ritual purity from pollutants, menstruation, and touching the dead. He ordered them to forbid eating pig, donkey, camel, dog, and other foods. He forbade intoxication from every type of beverage, and stated this in the most severe terms.
He established many feasts for them at recognized times, and prayers and offerings in them. One (of these) is that of the entry of the sun into the beginnings (that is, the first degrees) of the signs of the zodiac. Another is that of the sightings of the new moon and that of the times of astrological conjunctions. And whenever the planets arrive at their houses and exaltations or are aspected with other planets, they make an offering. The offerings for what he prescribed include three things: incense, sacrificial animals, and wine. Of the first fruits of aromatic plants they offer roses. Of grains, they offer wheat and barley, of fruit, grapes, and of drink, wine.
We also see something similar to TH 28 in the following excerpt from the Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal (“Brief History of Nations”) by Gregory Bar Hebraeus, specifically the section “On the Three Hermēses”. Although this isn’t in Litwa’s Hermetica II (and thus lacks a TH number), Walter Scott provides a Latin translation of this bit in his fourth volume of his Hermetica series:
It is also handed down that the first Hermēs founded a hundred and eighty cities, the smallest of which is Ruhā (Edessa, Urfa); and that he prescribed to people the worship of God: fasting, prayers, alms, that they held feasts whenever the planets were in their own domicile in the descendant or in the ascendant as well as on each new moon and whenever the Sun entered any of the twelve signs; they would offer the first fruits of all crops and the best perfumes and wine; and he did not prohibit inebriation or illicit foods.
Based on all of these testimonies regarding Hermēs and Hermetic “religion”, such as it might have been considered by Islamic or Christian authors that well postdated the classical heyday of Hermeticism, we can still see clearly non-Islamic and non-Christian stuff going on. We get, for example, a set of feasts and celebrations to be done according to particular astrological phenomena:
- New moon (i.e. first sighting of the waxing crescent Moon after syzygy with the Sun)
- Sun ingresses into a new sign
- Planets ingress into their domiciles
- Planets arrive at their degrees of exaltations
- Planets arrive into conjunction with one another (and possibly other aspects)
For these feasts (in addition to the ones we know were observed classically even if not listed here, like the Sun ingressing into individual decans as opposed to general signs or the full Moon in addition to the new Moon), we also get notions of things given in offering sacrifice: incense/perfume, wine, flowers (especially roses), grains (especially barley and wheat), fruit (especially grapes), and sacrificial animals (with the conditions that they should be unblemished and healthy, of a single colors, and not black). We also see notions about ritual purity and prohibited foodstuffs and drinks, some of which might seem Islamic on the surface of them but which can reasonably be tied to historical prohibitions from Greco-Roman times for Egyptian priests.
And, of course, this is just limiting ourselves to just what Hermēs (was claimed to have) taught. If we expand our scope slightly, we can then also account for some of the accounts involving the Sabians of Harran, who took the Hermetic texts as their gospel in an attempt to become a People of the Book (given an identification of Hermēs Trismegistos with the quranic prophet Idris and thus the patriarch Enoch). If we turn back to Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal for a moment, we also see another section, “On the Practices of the Sabians”:
What is known about the sect of the Sabians among us is that their confession is exactly the same as the confession of the ancient Chaldaeans, their qiblah is the North Pole, and they diligently pursue the four intellectual virtues. It is also imposed on them to pray three times [a day]: first, a half-hour or less before sunrise, which is completed with eight bows when the sun is rising, each of which contains three prayers; secondly, a prayer finished at noon, when the sun begins to move downwards, and this consists of five kneelings, each of which contains three prayers; third, with a prayer similar to the second, to be finished when the sun sets.
There are fasts imposed on them: one of thirty days, the first day of which is the eighth of ‘Ādar (i.e. Hebrew Adar); also one of nine days, the first of which is the ninth of Kānūn I (i.e. Hebrew Kīslev); and one of seven days, the first of which is the eighth of Šubāṭ (i.e. Hebrew Šẹvat).
They invoke the stars and offer many sacrifices, from which they do not eat, but which are consumed by fire. They abstain from eating beans and garlic, and some also from wild beans, cabbage, kale, and lentils. Their sayings are near to the sayings of the philosophers; and they have the firmest arguments to prove the unity of God. They assert that the souls of transgressors are tortured for nine thousand ages, but then return to the mercy of God.
Based on these practices of the Sabians, we can also gather the following information:
- Prayer and worship practices
- Pray facing the north
- Prostration-based prayer practice not unlike the Islamic rak’ah, each prostration having three prayers
- Pray three times a day
- A half hour or less before sunrise with eight prostrations
- Just after noon (as the Sun begins to descend) with five prostrations
- Just before sunset (to be completed as the Sun sets) with five prostrations
- Animal sacrifices are burned whole without being eaten
- Thirty-day fast starting on the eighth day of Adar (roughly February or March)
- Nine-day fast starting on the ninth day of Kislev (roughly November or December)
- Seven-day fast starting on the eighth day of Shevat (roughly January or February)
- Prohibited foods
- All abstain from (cultivated) beans and garlic
- Some abstain from wild beans, cabbage, kale, and lentils
It’s in light of all of this that I think that, even if we have a dearth of classical evidence of Hermetic rites and processes of worship, I think we have plenty of post-classical stuff that we can extrapolate from and work with all the same. It might take a bit of sifting and reconfiguration, but as an attempt at (re)constructing a Hermetic practice based on available evidence, we have a surprising abundance of stuff to work with that makes sense for Hermetic stuff in general.
All of that is my introduction to talking specifically about shrine offerings. Yes, while the notion of Hermetic feasts or holidays is certainly important, we also learn plenty about what they offered for such practices, and it’s that specific idea that I’ve been considering lately. While I’m still settling on a firm notion of what a proper Hermetic shrine should consist of, at least for me (beyond, at least, the presence of a shrine lamp), I still want to take into account the notion of what sorts of offerings the above TH excerpts suggest, in tandem with my own experience of offerings and exposure to other approaches I’ve seen elsewhere, because offerings constitute a huge part of my own practice. Sure, in a Hermetic view, the big focus of it all is on God rather than the gods, and to God one should offer nothing except pure offerings of speech in silence—but that’s just for God, not the gods, who do reasonably get quite a lot more and whose importance should never be underestimated in supporting a Hermeticist’s work and way. And, while one could simply wing it and freestyle sets of offerings based on the above quite easily, I like having particular processes and protocols in place to give myself a formal foundation of practice.
To that end, while any given shrine should have a few basic necessities and other accouterment that facilitate worship and veneration (such as implements of prayer like bells or beads, books for reciting prayers or reading scripture, etc.), I would think that one should first get a set of dishes to make offerings with. Based on the excerpts above, we know that the big things offered were incense, wine, grains, fruit, and flowers, so we can use this as a basis for figuring out what sorts of dishes we’d need. My thoughts on this would be:
- Twelve dishes should be used for formal offerings:
- One tray (bowl, tripod, brazier, censer, thurible, boat, etc.) for incense offerings
- Three candle holders or oil lamps for light offerings
- Two vases for flower offerings
- Two cups for liquid offerings
- Two bowls for grain offerings
- Two plates for fruit offerings
- The dishes used may be reasonably small (e.g. shot glasses, rice/ice cream bowls, and bread/butter plates), especially for household or private practice where large offerings are not practical
- The dishes used should be made in a matching style or aesthetic
- The dishes used should be non-porous, water-safe, and corrosion-resistant
- The dishes used should be free of cracks, dents, chips, scratches, or other blemishes
- The dishes used may be repurposed from other mundane uses after thorough cleaning, if otherwise in good condition, but once used for shrine offerings should not otherwise be used for mundane purposes again
- Extra candle holders/oil lamps, cups, bowls, and plates may be obtained as replacements or for additional offerings beyond formal offerings
- Extra saucers or small plates may be used for candle holders to collect any wax that drips off them
- When not in use, the offering dishes should be safely kept in storage near the shrine
Knowing the types of offerings to be made and the dishes used for them, we can then consider a set of guidelines for what specific offerings to make, how to choose certain offerings, the order of preference when considering particular types of offerings, and what offerings might go well with what other offerings. Again, based on the above excerpts and my own experience in offerings with my own preferences I’ve developed:
- All dishes used to make offerings should be removed from shrine storage, rinsed with clean water, and completely dried before use
- Offerings may be made all at once before the formal start of a ritual, or may be offered one-by-one as a part of the ritual, but each individual type of offering (e.g. “wine” or “wine and water” as appropriate, but “flowers” generically instead of “one vase of flowers and another vase of flowers”) should be specifically enumerated and identified regardless
- Incense and light must always be offered, but after these, at least one other offering must be made
- The type of non-incense/non-light offering(s) can be one or more of liquids, grains, fruits, or flowers, according to availability and preference
- Keep to a symbolic but reasonable number of offering dishes (e.g. three, seven, ten, or twelve dishes, as appropriate to the offering and occasion)
- Three dishes are offered as a bare but common minimum
- Twelve dishes are offered as a rare maximum
- For more common or quotidian offerings, offering fewer dishes is acceptable and encouraged
- When offering incense:
- May be offered in self-igniting form (e.g. sticks) or loose form (e.g. resin grains or powders on top of charcoals), as desired
- Amount of incense may be done in an appropriate number (e.g. three sticks or three scoops of powder)
- Incense is ideally composed from odiferous substances appropriate to the offering
- Incense used for offering should be pleasant, or at the very least not harsh
- Any incense offered, regardless of the number of kinds or amount used, is all considered as one single offering (as it should all be offered on the one single dish)
- When offering light:
- At least one light in all cases, but:
- Only one light should be offered if only three dishes are being offered
- Two lights may be offered, if desired, if an offering is for an observance that occurs once a month or less and if one is offering more than three dishes
- Three lights should be reserved only for the largest and grandest/rarest of offerings
- If more than one light is offered, all such lights should be identical
- Any light offered should burn for at least thirty minutes but no longer than twelve hours
- If candles are used:
- They may always be white or undyed
- They may also be in a color appropriate to the offering
- They should not be artificially scented
- If oil lamps are used:
- They may be of any non-animal source appropriate to the offering (olive oil always being acceptable)
- They may also be of an animal source if rendered from the fat of appropriate animals previously sacrificed
- They should not be blended of multiple sources (e.g. no mixes of olive oil and sesame oil)
- They should not be artificially scented
- Wicks used to burn for candles or oil lamps should be of a natural, undyed fabric (e.g. cotton or linen)
- When offering flowers:
- If more than one vase is used for offering, all vases should have the same kinds of flowers
- Roses are most preferred before any other flower
- The flowers should be in a color and number appropriate to the offering
- It is best to use only fresh flowers, ideally cut immediately prior to offering
- If desired (especially for rare or special events), a fresh spray of evergreens may also be included behind the flowers, with fragrant and non-spiny evergreens (e.g. laurel, cinnamon, star anise) being most preferred
- When offering liquids:
- If making two liquid offerings in a single ritual, it is best to offer two different kinds of liquids
- Wine (i.e. any non-distilled fermented beverage not of an animal source) and/or clean cool water are preferred before other liquids (e.g. distilled liquor, tea, coffee, soda)
- For highly frequent offerings (especially daily), water is preferred before wine
- For less frequent offerings, wine is preferred before water
- Liquids which can turn moldy or sour (like fresh milk or non-fermented juice) should be offered sparingly, if at all
- Old or soured wine is discouraged from being offered
- Any liquid offered must be safe to drink (at least in moderation) for human consumption
- When offering grains:
- If making two grain offerings in a single ritual, it is best to offer two different kinds of grains
- Barley is most preferred
- Wheat is preferred second after barley and before other grains (e.g. oats, rice, millet)
- Grains may be cooked or uncooked before offering
- If cooked grains are offered, they should be freshly cooked, unsalted and unseasoned
- If uncooked grains are offered, it is best to use the first portion of a harvest or otherwise use grains that are not aged or stored for a long period of time
- If cooked or uncooked grain cannot be obtained, bread or another cooked non-bean staple food may be offered instead
- When offering fruits:
- If making two fruit offerings in a single ritual, it is best to offer two kinds of fruits
- Grapes are most preferred before any other fruit
- Any fruit offered should be sweet rather than sour or bitter
- It is best to use only fresh fruit, ideally obtained immediately prior to offering
- Fruit should be free of blemishes or injury
- Fruit should be gently washed before offering
- Fruit should not be cut up or sliced before offering
- If fresh fruit cannot be obtained, dried fruit or other prepared non-meat non-staple food (most preferably desserts) may be offered instead
Make a special note of the avoidance of beans and meat in the above offerings (under grain and fruit offerings, respectively). While one might reasonably avoid beans (fresh or dried) in general (especially given a longstanding Pythagorean avoidance of them), I also recognize that they are a staple food all the same for many people the whole world over; likewise, different kinds of meat may well be offered in sacrifice especially if an animal sacrifice is being performed and not offered as part of a holocaust. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that these things cannot be offered in a context of this sort of shrine offering, but rather, I suggest that they shouldn’t be offered as part of this particular formalized offering approach. Instead, dishes of beans or meat may be offered as additional offerings beyond the formal set of things to be offered, not as substitutes for them.
Similarly, note the deal with water and wine above. I have always made these two liquids a staple of my own offering practice for many years now, but I’ve gone back and forth on when and how much to offer of either. I recognize that, based on the TH excerpts above, even if wine was not consumed, it was certainly offered, with water being nowhere mentioned; however, I also consider water to be a universal offering, and not everyone is able to obtain wine or to use it in highly frequent offerings (like those on a daily or even weekly basis). Because of that, I generally prefer giving water primarily for frequent or low-key offerings, but wine becomes primary for high-key or less-frequent ones. Your mileage, as ever, may vary, and if you can afford to offer wine regularly, then please feel free to! Note that I use the term “wine” here generically to refer to any non-distilled fermented beverage, so that would include drinks like beer, sake, toddy, and the like, but not anything distilled like araq, whiskey, vodka, baijiu, or soju. For similar reasons as above with meat, I would also encourage not offering animal-derived liquids like milk, arkhi, kumis, or eggnog as part of the formal set of offerings, but may be offered beyond them. As for mead (non-distilled) or honey liqueur (distilled), however, I’ll leave that to one’s determination about whether it qualifies as an extraordinary or ordinary offering, since it is technically derived from animals (bees) but can be argued otherwise.
But that’s not all! In addition to figuring out what offerings to make, we should also consider how to arrange them in the shrine. This is, admittedly, a really flexible thing in general, but in addition to how I like setting up my own shrines, I also like to take a hint and a bit of inspiration from the arrangements of Japanese Buddhist shrines, especially in household butsudan arrangements as exemplified here or here (both Shingon) or here (Jōdo Shinshū). This isn’t to merely ape or appropriate them, but to give an idea of a formal way of arranging fairly universal offerings that are specifically highlighted in those TH texts above in a way that makes sense, at least for myself
- The lights and incense tray should generally be placed in the center closest to the icon in the shrine, with other offerings placed in front of them slightly further away from the icon in the shrine or on the sides of these
- When placing lights:
- If one light is offered, it should be placed either directly in front of the incense tray, behind it on a slightly elevated surface, or to the right of it
- If two lights are offered, they should be placed on either side of the incense tray
- If three lights are offered, they should be placed in a row in front of the incense tray with one directly in front of it or behind it on a slightly elevated surface, and the other two on either side of the incense tray
- When placing flowers:
- If one vase is offered, it should be placed to the left, either to the left of the incense tray (if only one light is offered and placed on the right of the tray) or to the left of the offering area in general
- If two vases are offered, they should be placed on the outermost left and right of the offering area
- When placing liquids:
- If one cup is offered, it should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, either to the innermost left (opposite a single grain offering, if also present) or in the center (if a single grain offering is not present)
- If two cups are offered, they should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, to the innermost left and right
- When placing grains:
- If one bowl is offered, it should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, either to the innermost right (opposite a single liquid offering, if also present) or in the center (if a single liquid offering is not present)
- If two bowls are offered, they should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, to the inner left and right (but on the outside of liquid offerings, if also present)
- When placing fruit:
- If one plate is offered, it may be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, either to the left or right (but in balance with any other single offering, if also present)
- If two places are offered, they may be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, to the outer left and right (outside of the liquid/grain offerings but inside of the flowers, if any of those are also present)
Likewise, after having made offerings, we should also consider how to remove them once the ritual is done and after some time has elapsed:
- For incense offerings:
- Any incense should burn out on their own before the offering can be considered complete to be removed
- Incense ash may be tamped down in the tray to hold future offerings of incense, repurposed, or disposed
- Lights may be allowed to safely burn out on their own or be extinguished after a reasonable time, but they must go out or be put out before the offering can be considered complete to be removed
- For flower offerings:
- Flowers are to be removed upon wilting, though the water in the vases may be changed out once a day to preserve them as long as desired before they wilt
- Flowers may be consumed, repurposed, composted, or returned to nature
- For liquid offerings:
- Non-water liquids are to be removed within twenty-four hours and consumed, repurposed, or dumped onto dry earth
- Water is to be removed within a week and consumed, repurposed, or dumped onto dry earth
- For grain offerings:
- Cooked grains are to be removed within twelve hours and consumed, repurposed, composted, or scattered outside for animals
- Uncooked grains are to be removed within a week and either used for immediate cooking (i.e. not to be mixed with other grains back into storage) and consumption or repurposing, or scattered outside for animals
- Non-grain staple food is to be removed within twelve hours and consumed, repurposed, composted, or scattered outside for animals
- For fruit offerings:
- Fruit is to be removed within a week and consumed, repurposed, composted, or scattered outside for animals
- Non-fruit prepared food is to be removed within twelve hours and consumed, repurposed, composed, or scattered outside for animals
- All dishes used to make offerings should be thoroughly cleaned after each use, then put away safely into shrine storage
- Any method of disposal should be done respectfully
- Anything consumed may be done so by eating or drinking by the offerant/priest, their household/temple, or given freely as charity to others in need
- Anything repurposed may be done so by being used in baths, washes, medicine, incenses, oils, or other purposes as deemed appropriate by the offerant/priest
I’m something of a split mind when it comes to whether and how to make use of things offered after they’ve been offered. In one respect, things that are offered belong to the entity being offered to, and so aren’t for our use anymore; on the other hand, the act of us making an offering is often one of communion as well as sacrifice, in which we can share in the presence of a divine entity by means of the things we offer. As a rule, any offering that begins to mold, decompose, or “turn bad” in any way should be disposed of immediately (its essence and any possible use of the offering has basically been fully consumed by the entity being offered to, especially when such decomposition happens at an otherwise remarkable rare), but given a reasonable timeframe to allow things to be consumed, whatever is left may be shared so that nothing ever goes to waste in any sense. To that end, I’d leave it to an individual whether they give anything they offer fully away to the entity, or to give it and then partake in part of it themselves in any reasonable and respectful manner.
So, what about some example layouts?
Example offering layouts (list not intended to be exhaustive but only illustrative of different compositions):
- Three dishes: The simplest possible layout, consisting of the incense tray, one light, and some other offering that is neither incense or light. This could be a cup of wine/water/some other liquid, a bowl of barley/wheat/some other grain, a plate of grapes/oranges/some other fruit, or a vase of roses/carnations/some other flowers. The incense tray would be front and center, the candle would go to the right of the tray, and the other offering would go to the left of the tray. Easy.
- Five dishes: This is where we can easily change things up into a lot of different variations really quickly.
- For instance, one could make a five-dish non-edible offering consisting of incense, two lights, and two vases of flowers, arranged entirely symmetrically all in a row with the incense in the middle, the lights on either side of the tray, and the flowers on the far sides beyond the lights.
- One could instead make a varied offering consisting of incense, one light (placed behind and above the incense), a cup of wine (placed in front of the incense), a bowl of barley (placed on the right of the wine), and a vase of flowers (placed on the left of the wine).
- Seven dishes: Even more possibilities arise!
- We could try a symmetric layout of mixed offerings consisting of incense, two lights (placed on either side of the incense), one cup of wine and one bowl of barley (placed in front of the incense, liquid on the left and grain on the right), and two vases of flowers on the far left and right of the offering. Instead of grains or liquids, one might also offer a plate of grapes instead, placed accordingly.
- For a symmetric layout of two liquids and no grains, one would take the above layout and offer both wine and water, wine on the left and water on the right.
- For a symmetric layout of two grains and no liquids, one would take the above layout again and offer both barley and wheat berries, barley on the left and water on the right.
- One could instead make a varied offering consisting of incense in the middle, one light (placed behind and above the incense), a cup of wine and a cup of water (placed directly in front of the incense, wine on the left and water on the right), a bowl of barley (placed in the center in front of the two cups), a plate of grapes (placed to the right of the grains), and a vase of flowers (placed to the left of the grains).
- Ten dishes: Now we’re getting fancy, and we start getting into having a full spread showing off a full set of all kinds offerings. For this, the incense would be placed in the center as always, with a single light placed behind and above the incense. In front of the incense would be placed a cup of wine and a cup of water together (wine on the left and water on the right); to the left of the cups would go a bowl of barley and to the right a bowl of wheat. To the left of the barley would go a plate of grapes; to the right of the wheat would go a plate of some other fruit, like oranges. Outside of all of these, on the far left and right, would go the vases of flowers.
- Twelve dishes: Basically the same as ten dishes, except with the addition of two additional lights. These would go on either side of the incense tray, with the third remaining behind and above the incense tray or all three arranged in a row in front of it and behind the two cups of liquid. This would be the maximum formal offering, reserved only for the grandest or rarest of circumstances (like a solar new year or a rare astrological event).
Of course, there’s nothing saying you couldn’t offer more than just the above, like extra plates of food or drink, especially for making offerings for rarer events like the once-every-20-years Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Rather, I intend all of the above as a sort of template upon which one can arrange for making offerings of various scales and styles, covering all the necessary bases that make a sine qua non of Hermetic offerings (at least according to the Hermetic testimonies available to us). As for determining how many dishes to set out for an offering and how to gauge the specialness of any given event, well, that’s more a matter of practicality and availability; in general, I’m a fan of the Spartan and laconic notion of not being too extravagant too often so that one might always have something to offer, and let’s be honest, sometimes there’s just not a whole lot of need or reason to offer more than light, incense, and water. Still, when there is a need or reason to do so, at least I have a few guidelines to set things up for myself to keep myself in line without having to worry too much about the details on the fly.