Friday was my late father's birthday. It got me thinking about the offerings for the dead, and related topics. I'd been considering writing about these things for awhile, so now is as good a time as ever.
In the Pagan community there is a lot of talk about honoring the dead and honoring ancestors. Growing up around NeoPaganism I saw a little talk here and there about such things, mostly how it was part of traditional Pagan cultures, but not as much about it as a living praxis. You'd see it a lot in movies with people involved in magic from Afro-Caribbean systems, and people connected to those traditions seemed to do it more. Having recently gotten involved in an organization with more of a reconstructionist influence I've gotten to finally experience some modern Pagan approaches to honoring the dead. I'm also seeing it more in the magical community as Afro-Carribean sorcery becomes popular amongst traditionalists and people explore the connections between Goetia and Necromancy. In my personal practice I explore a lot of Greek and Roman Necromancy in and of itself, and as part of my exploration of the mysteries, as well as it being a significant component of the witchcraft tradition I practice. Real traditional witchcraft is often hugely necromantic.
I don't see a lot of straight up necromancy being worked by people, regardless of tradition, and that's ok. It isn't and shouldn't be something that everyone does. I've noted that even amongst people drawing on the dead in conjunction with magic it's mostly just ancestor worship stuff.
Ancestor worship definitely has an important place in magic. The noble dead from our own bloodlines, or with whom we share other life connections, have a more personal sympathy with us than other spirits. The also have a more of a direct interest in us as individuals. Like all relationships though, the relationship with them has to be fostered. Our memories of them, actively engaged, help link them to this world. Honoring them with offerings and gifts help strengthen their link to us. Talking with them about the events of life draw them into engagement with life, ourselves, and with the world of the living. These engagements, these connections, help their agency in our world as well as help them understand how to guide and help us. It's a very communal sort of activity where we enter into a sharing relationship, a guest-host relationship, like we would with any other family members. It can also feel pretty good and fulfilling connecting in that way.
Necromany is pretty different. Necromany is more visceral and sorcerous. There is a relationship of offering and receiving in Necromancy just like in the more ancestor worship context. The way the relationship works and the nature of the offerings is different however. In necromancy we make offerings to the spirit to strengthen them and create vitality and substance in order to increase their power and their ability to work in the world. We stir and waken them and set them to operate in a particular task or to provide particular knowledge in exchange for the taste of power and life we are giving them. This is much more similar to the nature of an offering to a spirit or an offering associated with a pact in more conventional grimoiric sorcery. We may also at times make libations and offerings to the dead simply to strengthen them for when we call on them in the future.
Another element which is related but different is the offering being made in the context of offerings and prayers to other spirits. In ancestor worship we make an offering to the ancestors as part of our offerings to the spirits of our community or our tribe or family, but ultimately the focus is typically on the offerings and prayers made to the gods. The dead are there to share in the communion with the gods or perhaps to aid us in doing so. In Necromancy the chthonic gods are called upon to open up access to the dead, authorize their interaction, and strengthen the ability to connect with them, but in this case the chthonic gods partake of the offerings to the dead or are given their own offerings to facilitate a contact which is primarily with the dead.
So, what offerings do we make and how?
The offerings traditionally associated with necromancy are blood, lamb, wine, olive oil, honey, and milk. Coins are also needed as an offering to Charon in some instances. Sometimes bread or grain, or pomegranate seeds may come into play in connection with Persephone, or grapes in connection with Dionysos. But primarily, for the dead, we give blood, or we give wine, olive oil, honey, and milk.
I typically reserve blood and lamb for larger rituals. The lamb is offered to Hades and Persephone. They can be connected to using the Orphic Hymns. Along with them, Demeter, Hecate, Dionysos, Iris, and Hermes receive honor in these rites, along with Charon and Styx which are called upon more operantly. Styx sanctifies, empowers, and allows connection, Charon facilitates the connection and brings the appropriate spirits.
When we make the offerings they should be made in a liminal space. Liminal spaces include cross roads, property boundaries, town borders, grave yards, shores, or the edge of a wood. Twilight, midnight, and dawn are times which are liminal.
While typically offerings made to spirits are burned, this is less often the case in necromancy. Traditionally in Greek offerings, those offerings made to the Gods on Olympus are burned, and the remains of the offerings are left in the earth for the chthonic gods. In necromancy we're working on their turf and so it's more respectful to make the offering primarily in their manner, so offerings are poured into the earth, buried in a pit, or left beneath a tree. Some of the offerings may still be burnt, such as incenses, and the lamb. But the offerings to the dead themselves should not be. Hestia carries offerings burnt in the fire, and thus that is appropriate for the gods, where as offerings to the dead must cross via Charon.
Why do we offer the offerings we do? Blood is offered as it is food for the dead. Blood carries in it the force of life. Blood has its own special magic unlike that of most other materials. It is often the offering we see in mythology most typically when necromancy is depicted. When offering blood it is necessary that the magician be careful to ward off other spirits as the dead in general will be drawn to the blood.
The four libations are the more common and simple offering and may more easily be offered to a single spirit. The milk is for sustenance and substance. The honey for the sweetness of life and for sanctity. The wine is for joy and pleasure and stirring the “body” while the olive oil similarly reflects the force of life but with more to mental speed and the agility of developed action.
Once the libations are poured out and the dead are given time to absorb them they may be asked for knowledge or to perform some task. All in all it's pretty simple, but it does involve working with very visceral primal magical forces often in a close and intimate way.
I hope these thoughts were interesting and helpful, I'll post sometime soon about how one actually makes the offerings.