If I had to characterize Kirk S. Thomas' Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods in only two words, it would be: “accessibly profound.”

Don't be put off—as I initially was—by his bantering tone, hyper-colloquial diction, or home-spun analogies. This book speaks as an incisive work of contemporary pagan scholarship and philosophy, and (best of all) points the way forward for future pagan thought.

There can be no relationship without communication. How, then, do we communicate with the gods?

In Sacred Gifts, Thomas answers this question elegantly and authoritatively by beginning with a careful examination of ancestral precedent. From these specifics, he deduces the general principles of the divine economy.

I can hardly say how refreshing it is to see a pagan addressing pagan questions by examining pagan precedent. All too often, as contemporary pagan thinkers, we find ourselves looking back over our shoulders at our natal monotheisms, as if these were somehow normative in matters of religion. This is a mental habit that we simply must unlearn. Thomas cites Homer, the Irish epics, Brehon law, the Vedas, and Roman philosophers. He also quotes contemporary pagan thinkers such as John Michael Greer and Ceisiwr Serith. Goddess bless him, he never once (unlike so many other pagan writers) quotes Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, the Dalai Lama, or (worst of all) George Lucas. Here, as elsewhere, Thomas shows the way.

 

The problem here, of course, is that few (if any) of the ancient paganisms have survived sufficiently intact to provide a corpus of precedent of the necessary size. Thomas redresses this lack by casting his net widely: all of Eurostan (M. L. West's evocative term for the Indo-European diaspora) becomes a potential source of Received Tradition. While this approach may strike some as overly broad, it's difficult to argue with the quality of the resulting catch.

In Thomas' analysis—and it's difficult to disagree—the central principle of the divine economy is do ut des: literally, “I give that you give,” but perhaps better translated as “A gift for a gift.” Thomas unpacks the riches of this phrase with a wide-ranging discussion of hospitality, friendship, ritual purity and pollution, offerings, and sacrifice, both bloody and “unbloody.” He even devotes an entire section to a discussion of the much-vexed subject of human sacrifice: the evidence for and against, and possible rationales thereof. Now that's ballsy.

Sacred Gifts is at heart a practical book, its subject the theory and praxis of offering. That the gods exist, that they hear us, and that communication between them and us is possible are its unexamined premises. This is, nonetheless, a seriously thoughtful book. In the divine economy of reciprocity that is pagan religion (not to mention pagan society), the outer offering—the wine poured, the goat killed—is only half of the offering. Since (as the saying goes), the sacrifice bears the prayer, Thomas devotes several chapters to the process of making both the inner and the outer offering. Here he touches upon the inner workings of the priesthood that more often characterize temple worship than most ceremonial magic-derived models of ritual. One chapter deals with achieving the necessary inner focus to offer consciously; two more offer outlines for private offerings that follow the general pattern of ADF ritual. Thomas' offering formulas are models of concision and clarity. His general formula:

  1. Introduce yourself.

  2. Call on the god or spirit that you wish to speak with.

  3. Say what you want of him or her.

  4. Say what gift you offer.

  5. Ask the being to accept your offering.

     

As a standard outline for pagan prayer, this could hardly be bettered.

For those new to the offering-based model of pagan ritual, or for those familiar only with the standard Wiccan ritual model, these chapters will be invaluable. I question, however, the overall utility of the models that he cites for public (as distinguished from private, meditative) ritual. Frankly, a preliminary series of offerings to Earth, fire, water, and the Tree before one gets to the heart of the ritual are no more engaging than casting a circle and calling quarters. But maybe that's just me.

Reciprocity-based religion was once (so far as we can tell) nearly universal, but (in the West, at least) has since largely fallen into disuse. Thomas' analysis of the reason for this—the ever-widening gap between human and divine that one finds in Abrahamic religion—is not entirely satisfactory. 2000 years ago, institutional Judaism revolved around animal sacrifice. (Whether Temple Judaism and later Rabbinic Judaism are even the same religion is another question.) Thomas suggests that the ultimate source may be Zoroaster's opposition to the sacrifice-based paganism that preceded his reforms. This overlooks the fact that Zoroastrianism continues to be a sacrificial religion to this day: worshipers routinely bring sandalwood and incense to be offered at their Fire Temples (called, interestingly, Mihragans: “houses of Mithra”). Agree or disagree with Thomas' analysis, one must nonetheless credit him with raising the question in the first place.

I generally refrain from criticizing the production standards of self-published books or those from pagan presses. Since most big-house publishers wouldn't dream of printing such niche-market material, contending with sub-professional editorial values is the price that the reader must expect to pay (and, in fact, willingly pays) to have access to such books, produced, for the most part, by non-professional volunteers on a budget of love.

The pity is that here, as elsewhere, these necessarily-relaxed standards can annoy even the sympathetic reader to such an extent that they actually distract from the book's content. Sacred Gifts would benefit from the hand of a good editor. The choice of a 15-point font gives the book the appearance of a “large print” edition. On a micro-level, we see far too many infelicities of the it's for its and letch after for lecher after variety. Words (sometimes misspelled) written in the Greek alphabet lack accents, an odd oversight if precision is the point. A smaller type-face with wider margins and more space between text and footnotes—not to mention eliminating the overly-dark line of separation between them—would make the book both more beautiful and easier to read. The offset text in which long quotations are cited needs to be wider to accommodate line-length more readily.

These are quibbles. Sacred Gifts is a book with many gifts of its own to offer. Reading it will make you a better and more thoughtful pagan. It will improve your praxis by making you more aware of what you do and why you are doing it.

But, just as importantly, Thomas—because he does it so well himself—can teach us how to think in Pagan, premises and all, if only we will pay close attention to what he does and how he does it.

And if we want to become the pagans that our time needs us to be, that's something that we all need to learn.

Kirk S. Thomas, Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods (2015). ADF Publishing.