We Wiccans and pagans practice symbolic sacrifice with the cakes-and-ale portion of our rituals, much as Christians do when they take Communion to represent the body and blood of Christ. Symbolic sacrifice draws us together into a circle with our gods, who give to us constantly through the cycle of life. We receive and acknowledge as we consume the cakes and ale. We give back a portion of the cakes and ale to our gods when we return it to nature. They receive and are well pleased by our appreciation.
Our ancestors understood this when they practiced blood sacrifice. They wanted to give back to the gods the best portion of the harvest. The strongest ram. The perfect sheaf of wheat. Even the bravest and most handsome man, who would to serve as king for a year and a day and then allow his own blood to soak the earth. We should not feel ashamed of our ancestors for their ritual killing; they were worshipping in the best way they knew how. Now that we know a better way, we can still feel the comforting echo of their presence as we practice symbolic sacrifice. So how do we modern Wiccans and pagans do this while managing to connect with our gods and our ancestors?
What to Sacrifice? Cakes and ale can represent the body and blood of the Lord who gives of himself at Samhain to ensure next year’s harvest, or the essence of Mother Earth. The symbolic sacrifice is most powerful when you can infuse it with the energy of your own creation. Best of all is if you live on a farm and can actually grow the wheat and barley to make the cakes and ale. Better than nothing is if you swing by the gas station the night of your sabbat to pick up a six-pack of beer and a bag of oatmeal cookies. A good compromise is to use store-bought ingredients to create your own cakes and beverage, which does not have to be alcohol.
You can also bake bread or gingerbread into the shape of a man or a ram or a horse and decorate it to commemorate the sacrifices of our ancestors. You can tie flowers, twigs, and herbs into symbolic shapes such as a poppet or even just a wreath to represent the Lord, the Lady, oneself, one’s shadow self, the past year, et cetera. These offerings can serve as the centerpiece of a ritual and then be taken outside and returned to nature.
How to Sacrifice? The most common practice is to hold your ritual indoors. Upon conclusion, you take a portion of cakes and ale out to your back yard. You put the cakes on your outdoor altar, or on a flat stone, or at the base of a tree. You pour the ale on an open patch of dirt. If you are lucky enough to live near moving water such as the ocean or a stream, you can drop the cakes and ale in the water the way our Celtic ancestors drowned their kings in the bog. Or you could suspend the cake / plant offerings from bits of twine tied to tree branches the way our Norse ancestors used to hang and bleed game during the Midwinter blót.
Alternately, you could throw your offerings into an outdoor fire, but you might have to fuss with getting a bonfire permit from the local authorities as well as attracting inquisitive neighbors. You could make your sacrifice indoors by feeding a portion of cake and ale to the fire in your fireplace. Keep the offerings small (say, a few teaspoons of your beverage) to reduce the mess. Be very careful about burning an herbal or flower arrangement in your indoor fireplace unless you know that the leaves are non-toxic. Keep the offering small so you don’t end up with huge billowing clouds of plant smoke filling up an unventilated room.
What if you live in an apartment with no back yard and no fireplace? You could separate out a tiny bit of cake and a few drops of the beverage, which you burn in a heat-proof dish. If you have a balcony, you can set out a bit of cake (perhaps on a potted plant altar), which the birds will carry away. For cleanliness, make your beverage of choice water, which can be set on your balcony to evaporate or poured on your plant. Do not use juice or alcohol because its sugar content will attract ants and fungus to your plant.
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