It was recently written, or suggested, that people who eat every offering that they give to the gods are essentially stealing off of their plate, or to quote directly:
you can share a meal with the deities, but you don’t eat off their plate, just as you wouldn’t eat off of a friend’s plate, because it’s rude.I would go further and say that it is like eating from the plate of royalty. You’d be kicked out of Buckingham Palace for trying that at the Queen’s dinner–“Hey, Liz, you gonna eat that?”
However, the Kemetic and ancient Egyptian mindset doesn’t view offerings like this at all. Which made me realize that while I do have a basic guide on what you can offer, I haven’t ever written in-depth about the Kemetic offering formula and why we revert our offerings as we do. Since there seems to be a misunderstanding about how offerings were handled for Kemetics (I cite this post directly because the last line does mention Egypt), I’d like to address how offerings were handled in antiquity, and in modern times.
Offerings in Antiquity: How did the temple procure ritual offerings?
In order to really get how offerings worked within the temple structure of ancient Egypt, we have to consider how the temples themselves operated in antiquity. The temples were part of the state. They were essentially government buildings that served as treasuries and administrative hubs for the king. In a way, temples were the lifeblood of Egypt because they housed all of the important “stuff” for a particular region or city. Fueling these temples (and the offering tables therein, as well as the staff that made them run) were taxes that were collected from the populace as well as rent that was paid to the temple by people who lived on temple grounds and worked the land (Kemp, 191). Egypt didn’t have any form of currency as we know it (such as minted coins or paper notes), and so workers were often paid in beer, bread, and grains for their services, and those items were traded and bartered for other items as needed. When you’d pay your percentage or rent to the temple for working the land, you’d be trading in your grain, not a stack of money. These taxes would then be redistributed back to the populace at large as rations (Kemp, 111).
In addition to taxation, people would sometimes donate goods or resources to the local temples as a token of good will to the gods that resided there. Some examples of this might include mineral resources (the ability to mine for certain ores in certain locations), flax fields to help make the linen garments used in the temple, animal herds, or fishing and hunting rights. In later periods, people would pay for votive offerings or construct stela as a means to placate a god or to remove some type of bad luck from their life, and almost every single king modified the largest temples with new pylons and reliefs in hopes of being blessed by the gods. Alternatively, you could be rewarded to look after things that would be offered to the temple and it’s gods (or king, who is a demi-god). For example:
A royal butler named Nefer-peret … was by a special decree of the king put in charge of four Palestinian cows, two Egyptian cows, one bull and a bronze bucket (presumably for carrying milk). … The cattle were, however, to be ‘offered’ to the mortuary temple of Tuthmosis III, i.e. this temple was their real owner. … Thus Nefer-peret would go on tending his little herd, obliged to deliver to the king’s mortuary temple a quota of offspring and milk, and allowed to keep the rest for himself. (Kemp, 191)
Most of these things- taxation and donation – provided the basis for the offering cycle that existed within ancient Egypt and consisted of a variety of things, and were submitted to the temple in a variety of ways.
Once the offerings made their way into the temple precinct, they were prepared in a fashion that was compliant as per the ritual taboo of the era and region and were offered to the gods of the temples.
By the ‘Reversion of offerings’ the offerings actually presented to the god were first taken before any statues of lesser cults, and then finally divided amongst the priests and temple staff. (Kemp, 193)
So in short the offerings were collected from the people by the state through various means, or offerings were donated by the upper crust of society. These items were cataloged and stockpiled (temples often kept stockpiles of food for famine years) and were redistributed as both a form of currency and as offerings to the gods that reside in the temple. Once the offerings have been offered to the gods- the priesthood and staff would partake of the offerings as a meal.
Food brings us and the Netjeru into contact with the mysterious, creative powers of life. The offering of food, therefore, represents far more than a lovely gesture of generosity toward the Netjeru. It represents in a material way the renewal of life. (Reidy, 221)
Offerings in Antiquity: In what ways were offerings given to the gods?
While it may seem like offering to the gods was fairly straightforward and simple, in truth- there were many ways in which the gods received offerings within temple precincts. The standard offering protocol is as such:
- Offerings are prepared by temple staff and brought to the ritual location.
- Offerings are given to the NTR in question, as prescribed in the ritual.
- Offerings are left for the proscribed amount of time (usually the duration of the rest of the ritual) before being reverted back to the temple staff through a process called Reversion of Offerings and Removing the Foot. Typically, a few token offerings are left in the shrine for the god in question. According to Reidy, it is the bread offering that stays behind.
However, in ancient times, this was not the only way that gods could receive offerings. You see, the Egyptians liked to plan for fallow times- times when food was scarce, or when the temple grounds might be flooded and no one could enter into the holy precincts. So in order to counteract these potential pitfalls, they created workarounds through the use of heka to ensure that their gods received their offerings.
The temple walls which surrounded the kar shrine that enclosed the deity’s icon were more than just reliefs carved into stone. The temple walls actually underwent the same Opening of the Mouth ceremony that the god’s icon did- the very same ceremony that allows a deity to inhabit their icon.
For the ancient Egyptians these representations were far more than beautiful and inspiring images. Once consecrated and “enlivened” through sacred rites, these depictions became tangible, material vehicles for the eternal and magical re-enactment of those sacred acts of worship. Referred to as “houses of millions of years”, the temples were designed to guarantee the perpetual worship of the gods and goddesses as well as deifies humans. (Reidy, 4).
So even if the priesthood failed to actually show up and give the god their offerings that day- the heka-laced walls ensured that the rituals would go on without them. And these heka-laced temple walls were certainly showing the ideal of what offerings could entail. According to Meeks, the gods actually subsisted off of much less:
When one observes the representations, in the temple reliefs, of the mounds of food piled up as offerings to the Gods, or when one peruses the lists and enumerations of the extremely varied foodstuffs intended for Them, one tends to imagine that the Gods reveled in lavish, sumptuous feasts liberally supplied with meat and drink. But this was not at all the case. The copious meals offered to the Gods by men and ultimately eaten by the priests contrasted sharply with the eating habits that prevailed in the Divine world. The Gods avoided excess; as a rule, Their meals were frugal . . . Bread and fresh water were the usual fare. (Meeks, 63)
The ancients also had offering tables that served as a catch-all in a pinch or famine. These tables were often flat slabs of stone that had a water catch and spout on one end, and had offerings and offering formulas such as “An offering in which the King makes” carved into them. Once these tables were enlivened, you could pour water over the top of the table, and collect that water as it runs down the spout on the side. Then, you’d drink the water that you collected.
Why drink the water?
Because it’s a shared meal with your gods. The Egyptians were all about sharing their meals with the gods.
Offerings in the Modern Era
Offerings in modern Kemeticism have changed drastically, and yet are still very similar in many ways. The range of foods that are offered have increased dramatically- for better or worse- as our ability to choose new and different foods items has increased, and the amount of food offered to the gods has completely dropped of in comparison to ancient times.
However, it’s not all bad.
Food offerings are still generally given to the gods, left out for a certain amount of time, and then consumed by the practitioner. Because we no longer have a state run temple staff, we can no longer afford to give hundreds or thousands of loaves of bread to the gods every morning and every evening- however, we do the best we can, and in many ways that does include daily, or at least weekly offerings. Additionally, many of us have turned to using heka laced food replicas to offer the gods for when our time runs short. You can call it a slight nod to the heka-laced walls and offering tables of yesteryear.
Offerings in the modern era have expanded to being more than just food or stela as well. People are now offering writing, time, art projects, volunteer services and other actions to their gods, and I think that’s a great thing. Offerings needn’t be looked at as just food and drink- there are many ways to sustain the gods through sustaining the Kemetic community, as well as the human community that we all live in. In the post I cited at the top, it is mentioned that offerings are often seen as a sacrifice to the gods- and sacrifices can be made in more than just food. Time, effort, and personal growth are all other ways we can give to the gods.
For myself personally, my gods don’t want me to worry about offering food to them every day. They want me to put my time and effort into working on community projects and astral work instead. I think its important to understand that with offerings, its not always about what we want to give the gods- its about what the gods want from us. And in the modern era, it seems that the gods are interested in activities just as much as food- if not more so.
I think a large part of why this is the case can be found in the way that modern Kemetics are approaching Kemeticism. Due to our shifted worldview and lack of ability to completely understand and know how Egyptians viewed the world, we are having to make due with educated guesses and attempts to embody what makes Kemeticism Kemeticism- which is the concept of ma’at. For many modern Kemetics, the buck stops at embodying ma’at in our daily actions and lives. It is said that the gods live off of ma’at, and so to do ma’at, to cause ma’at, to live within ma’at is plenty offering of itself.
Offerings, according to Englund, are part of a continuous exchange of energies that correspond to a holistic worldview, where everything in Creation is ecologically linked in a network of energies. The human being’s role and duty in this network is to contribute to its functioning by perpetuating ma’at. (Redford et al., 286) To dump an excess of expensive offerings on one’s altar, to buy for the Gods ornate icons and objects, is no substitute for engendering ma’at in the world. Acting in accordance with ma’at and giving the Gods one’s love are the most perfect and highest offerings one can give. Material wealth means nothing in the face of ma’at. To that end, even substitute offerings historically were, and still are, accepted by deities (and the ancestors). Citing Gertie Englund once again: Despite the superabundance of offerings, the material offering was not the essential thing. The act of devotion was more important than the material gift, as was attested by substitute offerings. Reciting the offering formula was an adequate substitute for the actual offering. Source
We went over what was offered, and how- but why do we consume the offerings?
Unfortunately most of the academics that we can pull from will describe how offerings were given to the gods, but they do little to go beyond that. For example we’ve got Naydler’s input on it:
An offering of food like this could be made to a spiritual being only because the food offered was perceived to have a spiritual as well as a physical substance. Everything in nature was but an image of its spiritual archetype; the difference between actual physical food and a painting of food is, according to this mentality, of little significance when regarded from the perspective of their shared spiritual essence. (Naydler, 137-138)
And we’ve got Sauneron’s input:
Obviously the food was not consumed by the divinity: only a part of his immaterial soul is present in his statue: the meal of the god took place therefore outside the limits of human perception: the spirit of the food passes into the divine spirit, without any apparent change in the offerings heaped on the altars… When the god, at the end of a fixed time would be satisfied – and with him the secondary divinities which surround him in his temple- the offerings would be placed on the altars of all of the statues of high ‘personages’ who had obtained the privilege of seeing their effigy in the sacred place, then they would return to the workshops to be divided up according to a set system, among the various priests of the temple. The divine personnel thus lived on the offerings consecrated to the god, contenting themselves with their material reality, after the divinity and the privileged dead would satisfy themselves with the symbolic ‘essence’. (Sauneron, 84-84)
But I think that Shafer says it best:
“The circular flow of life from god to king/Egypt to god and back again prevented the cosmos from winding down. Offerings were more than gift giving; they were reciprocal creation. … Most offerings symbolized and were a part of the self of god; most offerings also symbolized and were a part of the selves of the donor and the officiant. Offerings symbolized the donor and the donor’s desire to bridge the worlds of god and humankind. … But there must have been religious as well as socioeconomic meaning to partaking of god’s food, particularly since the food symbolized life, order, the self of god, and the selves of donor and officiant. Those Egyptians sharing in the food must have experienced a sense of privileged communion with god and king that shaped their ritualized bodies and enhanced their feelings of unity, efficacy, and power. (Shafer, 25)
While these writers don’t seem eager to draw huge parallels as to why the priests were allowed to eat the offerings, it’s generally regarded as thus: you are giving the gods the spiritual layer of food, and then you eat the food to nourish yourself. You share the meal together. The gods nourish us, and through them, we can not only reciprocate nourishment (thought the act of offering to the gods directly), but also nourish ourselves.
Another Kemetic summed it up quite well:
“In The Ancient Gods Speak – A Guide to Egyptian Religion, contributing scholar Gertie Englund makes an insightful observation on the subject of offerings in relation to the complex concept of ma’at. He explains to us that offerings are part of a continuous exchange of energies that correspond to a holistic worldview, where everything in Creation is ecologically linked in a network of energies. (Redford et al., 286) Both humans and Gods are part of this network of energies, and depend upon its functioning. The Gods need mortals, their refinement of natural resources, and their worship in order to properly live and rule to Their fullest extent. If the Gods default on Their end of the debt and cause mortals to be driven away from Them, They starve and languish. Similarly, we human beings require the works and boons of the Gods in order to live to our fullest extent and maintain some semblance of order within human society.” Source
So in short, it is standard procedure, both in antiquity and in the modern era, for Kemetics to eat offerings. Offerings were ingested by temple staff for a variety of reasons, most likely because Egypt had a reciprocal relationship with it’s gods- you help to take care of us, and we help to take care of you. It’s this relationship that fuels into the concept of ma’at and community. Everyone within the country “paid” into the storage and redistribution of food that was taken into the state via its temples. Everyone, ideally, took care of everyone else, and this includes the ritual eating of offerings.
- What to do with Food and Liquid Offerings by Upholding Ma’at
- Priesthood: Then and Now
- Kemetic Offering Guide
- Temple of the Cosmos by Jeremy Naydler
- Eternal Egypt by Richard Reidy
- Priests of Ancient Egypt by Serge Sauneron
- Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization by Barry Kemp
- Reading Egyptian Art by Richard Wilkinson
- Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods by Dimitri Meeks and Christine Favard-Meeks
- The Ancient Gods Speak – A Guide to Egyptian Religion by Redford
- Temples of Ancient Egypt by Shafer