For as long as I can recall, I have been fascinated by the concept of offering and offerings. One of my first writing pieces from third or fourth grade was titled “Death Wish”. It was about an indigenous man singled out to be the blood offering for a ceremony who is rescued at the last minute by a passer-by. My teacher gave me an A+ for the paper, which was several sheets longer than any other pupil’s.
I grapple with the power and place of offerings both practically and spiritually. There are offerings of money, asked for when one goes to church or other houses of worship. There is the cult of offering one’s own life to serve a nation or community. This is often associated with military or, perhaps, police service, but there are many ways that people offer their lives and health in the work they either choose or must engage in on a daily basis. These days, many health care workers of all types are offering their finely honed skills and knowledge at the potential risk of contracting Covid themselves. I watch the folks who come to clear out toxic materials from buildings and sites; even around here with our low level of racial diversity, I always note how many of these brave workers have darker skin. And the list goes on.
Yes, all these are offerings of a sort, and most important ones for the functioning of our current society and way of life. But the kind of offerings that most compel me – puzzle me, call to me, make me question what I was taught in school and by mainstream society – are offerings to non-human beings.
Whom may these non-human-beings be? It may be a mountain top or a flowing river or stream. It may be a sacred stone, placed in situ long ago by ancestors of time and place. It may be a wide-spreading and ancient tree, perhaps poised nearby a sweet and ever-flowing spring. It may be Mother Earth herself, or the suns and stars and moons of the cosmos. It may be the great mystery that lies at the center within and beyond all we know and understand.
In Cuba and Brazil, I unintentionally at first and later with, great interest, was part of ceremonies and rituals in the Ifa tradition of the African diaspora, where offering is always a part. To be initiated, offerings must be made, carefully selected through divination and sacralized through prayer and intention. To help balance energies, to heal, to empower, one would consult what offerings were asked for and by what orisha (deity). Also where to place them: under a tree, in the bush, at the four corners, or the cemetery perhaps. I started to see the street scenes around me in new ways, as I realized the many places where people had made offerings that may still reverberate energetically.
In the Ecuadorian Andes, during the years I was involved with an indigenous university, there was not a single event that did not begin with an offering to Pachamama, Mother Earth. These offerings were typically beautiful mandala-like compositions of flowers and fruits of all types in varying colors and shapes. Spirals were always a predominate design theme. When the offering was completed, one or two of the ceremonial leaders would quietly collect all the fruits and flowers and bury them.
“Our ceremonies are done so that half an hour later someone passing by would not even know there had one,” a yashak (Andean spiritual leader) once explained to me.
Reciprocity. This is one of the key concepts and practices in the Andean worldview, as well as in the worldview of most indigenous peoples everywhere – including most likely your own ancestors. Life is about giving and receiving, they would explain to me. In order to get something, you must first give. That is what keeps the balance.
One of my favorite books of late is by Native American author Linda Hogan. Called People of the Whale, the main story line is about a Native American man from the Pacific Northwest who joins the military and fights in Vietnam. One of the secondary characters is his daughter whom he engendered while in Vietnam living among the Hill people. This young girl becomes an orphan when her entire family is killed in a bombing. Ever resourceful, she finds herself at the doorstep of a flower shop and decides to make this her entire world. She begins by making it as beautiful as possible, sweeping it and caring for it lovingly day in and out. Gradually, the flower shop owners give her food, then shelter – eventually taking her in as a surrogate daughter. This now young woman found that the tight parameters of a tiny flower shop could become a sacred vessel of security and possibility.
Many are the examples of human-beings caretaking land, even small bits of it, with deep love and attention. This is, of course, the most important element of any offering: love and appreciation. Such locales feel rarified, benevolent, and somehow different than the ‘regular’ places and sites most of us spend our days and nights in.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
It just may be that one of the great gifts we are being offered now by the universe is the possibility to pay more attention to our own small spaces within which we dwell, to an extent that would have been difficult for many of us just a few months ago when we were so busy with the hustle and bustle of busy life and our movement in it.
What a wonderful time it is right now – whatever our circumstances may be in terms of jobs and family, sustenance, and hope – to make our own kind of offerings to the place where destiny has brought us. You don’t need much to make an offering to a non-human being or energy: a pinch of this, a bit of that or maybe, simply and most powerfully, your own heart-song expressed as only you can.