How different it is-the offering of meat or drink or sweet smells to your Gods as a loving sharing of the basics of life that is seen time and again in the old tales versus the tales of "sacrifice" from monotheistic ancient sources where it is meant purely to cause hardship to the "worshippers".  How horrible that difference is-from breaking bread together in order to strengthen bonds of love to painful punishment in order to strengthen chains of fear.  The Pagan Gods usually shared their offerings with their people, but the monotheistic god demanded all of it.  (One of the few exceptions to this was when someone acknowledged that they had offended a God, and then it was offered as recompense and a present to bring them back into a right relationship.  I suppose this makes some sense of the monotheistic god-he was always offended and demanded constant appeasing.)
     How emblematic of the monotheistic god's approach in general to his people-he not only wants no other Gods before him, he wants no other individuals before him.  Indeed, it seems to me that there are only two purposes for people to exist in the monotheistic worldview:  to praise god in an approved fashion and to force other people to praise him.  (There are branches of christian theology that quite bluntly aver this.  To them, "heaven" is going to be one neverending worship service.  Really.)
     But all of this really does follow from there only being one god.  If there is only one thing then there can be no variation-if the only color is blue, then there really isn't even "color".  Only of course we know there are other colors, but in the "monocolor" worldview they must be false, bad colors.  Indeed, it would distort the very idea and concept of color, as I think the monotheistic worldview distorts the idea of deity.  People can only construct those silly conundrums like "could God make a rock too heavy for Himself to lift?" if they've already swallowed some odd ideas of deity.
     One can see this horrific logic in Plato's writing where he avers that for something to be perfect it must be better than anything else.  He strongly asserts that there cannot be two things that are both perfect examples of anything-that, indeed, there is only one perfection and that it dwells in the realm of ideas and mentality. This makes sense if you, like Plato, believe there is only one god-a god that is separate from his creation, because that is where perfection can exist, not in this realm of shadows and flaws.  Since he equated perfection with being singular, then in his eyes there could only be  one god, one perfect shoe, one perfect teacher, one perfect city, ad infinitum (and ad absurdum).  I have seen people (Pagans!) lately saying that Plato wasn't really a monotheist because he believed in a prime cause that made a lesser deity create everything and then deities below that-but I think this is a sophist argument.  It merely makes him seem like a Roman Catholic prototype. 
     So what does this have to do with polytheistic paganism? 
     We must understand the differences between the monotheistic, atheistic, and polytheistic worldviews.  We have been living in a culture that is informed by the monotheistic and atheistic beliefs for so long that I think it's difficult for people to realize just how many of our ideas and assumptions are based on these alien and inhuman belief structures. 
One of these basic concepts is that of sacrifice and communion with the deities.    Sacrifice means to make holy.  It does not mean to punish or destroy.  It is not foolish, though foolish people may do it, as foolish people may do anything.  It is not based on the idea of punishment, although many may not understand this and think that reconciliation requires a punishment.  It is not any more wrong to forget the proper sacrifices to our Gods than it is to forget your loved one's birthday or your anniversary…hmmm.  In other words not a sin, per se, but who wants to be a jerk? 
     Actually, it can help a lot to think of our relationships to the Gods, in particular those Gods whom we are most close to, as very similar to our closest familial relationships.  Is it considered strange to give presents to our spouse?  Does it mean we fear him or that we are trying to placate him or bribe him?  Well then, why bother to give things to him?  Does our spouse need these presents to survive?  Will our spouse disappear and cease to exist if we deny him the accustomed presents?  (Only out of our lives, possibly!)  Then why?  Obviously because it is natural and right to give to those we love.  So when we aren't giving, it can only meant that we do not truly love.  Any person in any kind of a relationship knows this-or should.  We give to what and who we love like water flows downhill, it's not only natural, it's nearly impossible to stop.  And for various reasons, the more we give, the greater we feel and are aware of our love.    
     So, of course we give to the Gods-only when we do this, because they are Gods and so much greater than us, we call it sacrifice, because our giving makes the gift and us holy.  We are raised up closer to them by these presents, because in bringing us closer to the Gods, it must do so.  Just as when a child holds his parents hand, he is effectively made stronger.  And just as when a child runs away and spurns his parent, he not only returns to being just a child, but becomes a lesser child, since it's doubtful he's following any of the good advice he got from his parent, so it is with our relationship to the Gods.  When we leave them and neglect them, they do not cease to care for us, but they will not impose their wills on us.  The Gods do not need to punish us-usually just leaving us to our own devices is enough.  This does not mean that Humans are evil!  But we are forced to strive against evil, and since a wise person would want to be close to the Gods, that means there are a lot of less than wise people out there ill equipped to fight the battle.  
     So what is sacrifice?  Sacrifice is the outward gifts you make to those beings greater than you that show your love for them and your desire to stay in a close relationship with them.  Some of these gifts you may share with them, and some may be only for them. 
     How often should you give sacrifices?  As often as you feel like-but if you do not feel like it ever, then you need to reassess your relationship and see what needs adjusting, because in a healthy relationship you should feel like it.
     What if you don't feel like it, but you do love your Gods?  Then probably you are still dealing with some left over ideas about sacrifice.  It may help to think of them very much as presents, tokens of affection and honor.  Think out for yourself a regular time to give these gifts;  this is no more stilted or unnatural than expecting to have a regular date with anyone you care about and don't want to get lost in the busyness of life.  Hopefully, after a while you will feel more natural with this aspect of your relationship with your Gods.
      What of presents to land spirits and fairies, etc.?  Are they sacrifices?  No, they are not, because the landspirits et al. are not "greater" than us, just different.  When we leave presents for them, which is also quite natural and appropriate, it does bring us closer to them, but it does not have the effect of raising us up.  It is more the exchange of equals.
What is appropriate as a gift?  As with any loved one, think about what they might like.  You can also look to old tales or the culture in general for gift ideas.  Traditionally, from what I have seen, meat sacrifices have been the most set about with restrictions, whilst drink, grain, fruits, flowers, incense, and other goods are usually very open.  I am not entirely certain why this  is, but I have seen it across many different cultures. 

     Some possibly interesting references on sacrifice and offerings:
The Milk Miracle--the Indian god, Ganesha,here was seen to physically take in a lot of milk all over the world in the course of a day or two.  Some online sites are 
here and here. There are others. 
     After checking out 268 references to sacrifice in the Bible, and finding 9 different Greek and Hebrew words that were translated that way, I hold by my opinion in the above article.  There is only one of the words that translates as "gift", minchah, and it is is also used to mean a forced gift or tribute from a conquered people.  I did note also that only the priests were allowed to partake of sacrifices;  indeed, the  thought of ordinary people sharing the sacrifice with their Gods was always mentioned as a specially horrible thing to the Judeo-Christian lot.  Indeed, in places it is implied that it can be known that "idols" must have been receiving the sacrifice because people were sharing the feast.  "Eidolothuton"-meat left over from a sacrifice and eaten by Heathens.  Strong's concordance.  I liked that one.  Mostly, however, sacrifice is seen as a means of blood atonement for sins.
     I will say that love is mentioned at times in reference to sacrifices, but I will hold by my opinion that it is not love as I know it.  It is most definitely supposed to be "love" based on fear, and to me that is not love.  Psalm 51.17  "…the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a heart broken and bruised…"
      Not to mention I'd forgotten just how many  times  killing pagan babies is mentioned.  This was very painful research.
     Islam's take on sacrifice falls closer to what most people would feel is a "new testament" take on sacrifice-that your dedicating your life and will to their god completely is the only appropriate and valid sacrifice.  Again, this is all based on a very different idea of sacrifice.  This is not relationship based, I feel, this is based on the idea that sacrifice establishes ownership of the sacrificer by that God.
     Actually I was struck by the "easterness" of some of the Islamic commentary I read on this.  "…They are able to transcend notions of self and false attachment to the material realm…"

     "First of all, then, show devotion to the Gods, not merely by doing sacrifice, but also by keeping your vows;  for the former is but evidence of material prosperity, whereas the latter is proof of a noble character."  Isocrates, letter to Demonicus

©2007 Oak Hedge