21 October 2015

On Offerings and Sacrifice

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationships with the deities and spirits that I work with on a regular basis.  I’m always looking for ways to strengthen and be more authentic in my relationships with my allies.  During this time of the year the walls between the mundane and metaphysical parts of reality are thin and I feel a lot closer to my non-corporeal allies, making it easier than usual to do workings with them.  That makes this time of year a great one for doing a working specifically designed to strengthen those relationships.  One of the easiest traditional way to improve a relationship with a metaphysical being of any kind (deity, spirit, ancestor, fae, etc.) is to give them some kind of offering or sacrifice.

An intricate handmade candle makes for a decent offering.

Let’s take a moment to think about what exactly offerings and sacrifices really are.  Some sources might use the terms offering and sacrifice interchangeably – as they are both something that you give to a being as a gesture of appreciation, supplication, or appeasement.  However, I find a crucial distinction between them – what they mean to you as the person giving them.  The way I look at it, an offering is something you give a being that you know they want.  One traditionally offers things like incense, favorite foods, flowers, energy, attention, etc.; things that tradition or gnosis tells us that the being we’re making offerings to wants from us.  An offering doesn’t really have to mean anything to you personally, it just has to be pleasing to the one you’re offering it to.  A sacrifice is something that is meaningful to the one doing the sacrifice that is being given up in a way that it takes away from the sacrificer in favor of the one being sacrificed to.  You do this as a sign or devotion or respect; essentially putting the needs ot the recipient above your own.  For example, if I, as a non-smoker, make an offering of tobacco to Baron Samedi (something that he is known to enjoy) I am offering him the tobacco and sacrificing the money used to purchase it.  However, if I were a smoker and was giving the Baron some of my favorite tobacco I would be both offering and sacrificing the tobacco itself – as the Baron wants it and I am giving up my own use of it.  Basically, an offering is something you give because the receiver wants it and a sacrifice is something that you’re giving up in order to show how important the one being sacrificed is to you.

Different beings and different types of beings often have preferences for the offerings and sacrifices they receive.  Some entities want offerings and don’t seem to have much of an opinion on whether they involve a sacrifice.  In my experience, ancestors and many fae appreciate offerings but don’t really care whether a sacrifice is involved in procuring them.  Other entities place great importance on sacrifice, sometimes to the point where the amount of sacrifice is more important than the suitability of what’s being sacrificed.  For example, some deities or spirits enjoy when a supplicant makes a vow of austerity (e.g. I will forgo consuming alcohol for a month) because of the devotion this shows, even though it doesn’t really give anything concrete to them.  This is most common with deities that demand explicit showings of devotion and spirits that want you to abstain from something for your own good.

In the past I’ve given a lot of offerings but haven’t really made many sacrifices.  Sure, I buy high quality incense to offer and go out of my way to get the good rum for the Baron, but I honestly don’t see that as much of a sacrifice.  The only time I really feel like I’m giving something up is when I offer really good food.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for the many allies that have helped and continue to help me and I feel like they deserve more from me than a bit of incense and burned beeswax.  Most traditional offerings are things that everyday people had around the house, that they used on a regular basis, and that those without excess income would miss: food, alcohol, herbs and spices, etc.  In my comfortable suburban existence giving up a bite of food or a pinch of dried herbs doesn’t really feel like a sacrifice.  I don’t really drink, so I could pour out a whole bottle of liquor without much pause (unless it was super expensive).  I have a fair number of little luxuries in my life: fine food, high quality tea and treats, electronics, toys, etc., that might make a more authentic sacrifice than more traditional offerings.  I particularly enjoy having a cup of fine tea and a sweet in the afternoon, so sharing that would be much more of a sacrifice to me than a shot of tequila.  Another good sacrifice would be putting my phone and iPad on my altar for an hour or two and not touching them or my computer (I have a media addiction.  This should shock no one.).  Of course, if I were to ask for a big favor the sacrifice would have to be larger and more meaningful.  For everyday offerings, something small should suffice.

Some of the finest chocolate you can get 'round these parts

I feel like one should find a balance with offerings and sacrifice.  It’s important to offer spirits/deities/etc. things that they want.  It’s also important to make a show of effort/sacrifice in the making of those offerings.  If the offerings your allies want are things that you want as well then they can easily be both offerings and sacrifices, but if they aren’t then you should go the extra mile to also offer something that is a sacrifice to you.  For me that means I’ll give the Baron his weekly shot of rum and pinch of tobacco while also sacrificing some dragonwell tea and a bit of organic fair trade dark chocolate or a macaron.  It also means that when I make offerings to the ancestors I’ll be sure to give them things I like or things that required my own effort to make, not just purchase (think baking cookies vs. buying them).  It doesn’t have to be a lot, and it doesn’t have to be every day, but adding a bit of real sacrifice to regular offerings makes them more meaningful and a lot less routine. 

07 October 2015

Santa Muerte and Cultural Appropriation

Possibly the most popular folk saint in Mexico, Santa Muerte is rapidly gaining popularity in the US.  As you might imagine, the spread of her popularity amongst non-Mexicans has brought up the issue of cultural appropriation. 

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of giving a lecture on Santa Muerte down at the Spooked in Seattle Metaphysical market.  I opened my lecture by clearly stating that while I am Latina, I am not Mexican and am in no way an authority on Santa Muerte.  The only leg up I've got on anybody else coming from the US is that I understand Spanish well enough to read primary sources on her.  I've been working with her on and off for about five years now and have been working with her heavily for the at least the last two.  I feel like I have a pretty good handle on how to work with her respectfully and without being culturally appropriative.  

Santa Muerte is a uniquely Mexican figure.  While her origin myths vary pretty substantially depending on who's doing the telling, they all agree that she is 100% indigenous to Mexico.  She is very much "of the people."  She is also the ultimate in egalitarianism - death comes to us all.  It is for this reason she has essentially become the patron of the marginalized, forgotten, and reviled.  She's a saint for working days.  For many of Mexico's underclasses she is the only sacred figure they feel they can come to in their times of need, the only one that will listen to them.  As you might imagine, Santa Muerte's followers sometimes feel rather possessive of her.

In many respects Santa Muerte belongs to the Mexican people, but that doesn't mean you have to be Mexican to work with her.  It does mean that you have to be extremely respectful of her cultural context.  Santa Muerte is a folk saint.  As such, much of her established liturgy is made of variants to traditional Catholic worship: rosaries, novenas, masses, etc.  If you're comfortable with Christian iconography you can go ahead and use the published prayers that you can easily find for her online (try SantaMuerte.org).  If Hail Marys and Our Fathers aren't really your thing (and boy howdy are they NOT my thing), you can probably find variants on the traditional prayers that will work for you.  If you understand Spanish I highly recommend performing any prayers/petitions/etc in Spanish. 

What I do not recommend is taking Santa Muerte out of her traditional context and plugging her into an existing Pagan framework.  If you do your homework before trying to work with Santa Muerte you will learn that she doesn't really work with others.  She likes to have her own altar, her own workings, and she likes things a certain way.  Just because other Death figures you may work with are partial to offerings of rotting meat does not mean such offerings are suitable for Santa Muerte. 

Further, do not - under ANY circumstances - syncretize Santa Muerte with other death spirits or deities.  While there are certainly mythological similarities between Santa Muerte, Hecate, Hel, and other underworld figures does not mean you can exchange them for one another.  Gods, spirits, saints, and other metaphysical personalities are unique beings and cannot simply be substituted for one another.  All such figures deserve the respect of you doing your homework on them and figuring out what they like and how they want you to work with them.  Don't be the horrible uncle that always gives you presents that your big sister would like because, "Hey you're both girls, so you must like the same things right?"  Don't be that guy.

If you want to work with Santa Muerte take the time to do your research beforehand.  Be respectful of the culture she comes from and the established liturgies and workings that are already in use.  Be sincere in your workings with her.  Don't make assumptions about her based on how similar figures from other pantheons would behave.  Treat her right and Santa Muerte will be an amazing ally.  Fuck around with her at your peril.