There are a lot of things pagans value. Most of them are the same universal values everyone appreciates, like kindness, personal responsibility, and community. One that seems to be unique to paganism, at least among Western religions, is reciprocity.
Reciprocity means a mutual positive exchange. It means rewarding kindness and respect with more of the same. It means that all parties involved in a relationship benefit from the relationship in some way.
This is similar to, but not quite the same as, fairness. When you strive for fairness, or justice, or any other similar concept, everyone gets what they deserve based on their actions. If you act like a jerk, you lose favor or get excluded from the group.
Reciprocity is a similar concept, but it has the added connotation of working toward positive relationships. When the word “reciprocity” is used in social psychology or in politics, it almost always refers to an exchange that benefits both parties. This desire for mutual benefit is a big part of pagan philosophy, especially in how pagans interact with their gods.
Pagans don’t worship their gods just because the gods exist, or because they feel a moral obligation to. Pagan worship is a relationship — and like any relationship, it is based on reciprocity.
You probably already practice reciprocity in your interpersonal relationships without even realizing it. If you want someone to be your friend you treat them well, pay attention to their needs, and respect their autonomy. In exchange, you get quality time with a person you like, a fulfilling emotional connection, and help when you need it.
Building relationships with pagan gods works much the same way. The focus is on the connection, rather than on what the gods can do for you or vice versa.
That’s not to say that pagans are casual about their worship of the gods. The gods are ancient, wise, and incredibly powerful, and all of that deserves respect. Pagans approach their gods with a sense of awe and humility, just like practitioners of any other religion. The difference lies in the belief among pagans that the gods also benefit from relationships with humans. We need the gods but, likewise, the gods need worshipers.
This is part of the reason offerings form the backbone of most pagan worship. Offerings “feed” the gods, giving them a metaphyiscal boost. (I’ve heard some pagans call them “energy snacks.”) These small gifts are a great, friendly way to get a god’s attention. After all, who doesn’t like presents?
It’s important to remember that offerings aren’t just payment for divine favors. Many pagans (myself included) have fallen into the trap of only making offerings or saying prayers when they need something from the gods. That’s no way to maintain a healthy relationship! We all have friends who only contact us when they need a favor — and most of us are annoyed and fed up with these people. Why would we assume that the gods are any different?
Reciprocity doesn’t just mean making an offering before you ask for something. It’s an ongoing commitment to a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship. Regular offerings and prayers are a great way to outwardly demonstrate this commitment.
How often “regular” offerings are depends on the pagan. Some pagans offer to their gods every day. Others only make offerings on major holidays or festivals. Once you begin working with deities, you’ll get a feel for how often you need to offer to your gods.
In general, it’s polite to make an offering when you first introduce yourself to a god or goddess. Don’t ask for anything at this point — think of the offering as a “getting to know you” gift. From there, continue making regular offerings for as long as you work closely with that god. You should also make an offering any time you ask for a big blessing or favor. (More on offerings in a future post.)
Offerings are an important part of practicing reciprocity, but they aren’t the only part. Reciprocity also requires you to uphold shared values.
For example, if you have a friend who can’t stand liars, and they find out you’ve been lying to them, you probably won’t stay friends for long. Likewise, if you want to keep a good relationship with a god, you need to value the things they value and live in a way they can approve of.
If you abhor violence and confrontation, it may be difficult for you to maintain reciprocal relationships with warlike deities like Ishtar or the Morrigan. On the other hand, if you are the kind of person who thrives on confrontation, a relationship with these deities may be natural for you. This is why I cannot stress enough how important it is to choose gods who share your core values. Like any relationship, you need some common ground to build a strong foundation.
(When we talk about specific pagan paths in future posts, we’ll talk more about their gods and what those gods ask of their followers. We’ll also talk about the difference between a religion that challenges your assumptions and a religion that violates your core values.)
This may seem complicated, but here’s the basics: reciprocity means that both parties benefit from a relationship. If you take one thing from this post, let it be this: pagan worship is a mutually beneficial partnership, not one-sided servitude.
- Wicca for Beginners by Thea Sabin
- The Way of Fire and Ice by Ryan Smith
- Where the Hawthorn Grows by Morgan Daimler
- Temple of the Cosmos by Jeremy Naydler
- A Practical Guide to Irish Spirituality by Lora O’Brien
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