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Libation scene, Greek red figure cup, c. 480 BC, Louvre

A libation (Σπονδή spondee in Greek) is a ritual pouring of a drink as an offering to a god. It was common in the religions of antiquity, including Judaism:

"And Jacob set up a Pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a Pillar of Stone; and he poured out a drink offering on it, and poured oil on it". (Genesis 35:14)

Isaiah uses libation as a metaphor when describing the end of the Suffering Servant figure who: "poured out his life unto death". (53:12) Christians see Jesus Christ as fulfilling this prophecy.

The liquid that was used in libations varied; most commonly it was wine or olive oil, and in India, ghee. The vessels used in the ritual, including the patera, often had a significant form which differentiated them from secular vessels. The liquid was poured onto something of religious significance. The libation was very often poured on the ground itself, as an offering to the Earth.

In Ancient Greece the term "spondee" (libation) is meant type of sacrifice. The term includes all offers to the gods, with discharge on to an altar, various nutritious or precious liquids, as perfumes, wine, honey, milk, oil, juices of fruits.

Ancient Greek texts often mention libations. Euripides describes the dire consequences of failure to include certain gods in libations in The Bacchae, a theme common to many Greek tragedies. The use of a libation composed of barley, wine, honey and water to summon shades in Hades is also referred to in the Odyssey.

In his Pneumatica, Hero of Alexandria described a mechanism for automating the process by using altar fires to force oil from the cups of two statues.

In Shinto, the practice of libation and the drink offered is called Miki (神酒), lit. "Liquor of the Gods". At a ceremony at a Shinto shrine, it is usually done with sake, but at a household shrine, one may substitute fresh water which can be changed every morning. It is served in a white porcelain or metal cup without any decoration.

Artemis and Apollo at omphalos (libation)

In the Quechua and Aymara cultures of the South American Andes, it is common to pour a small amount of one's beverage on the ground before drinking as an offering to the Pachamama, or Mother Earth. This especially holds true when drinking Chicha, an alcoholic beverage unique to this part of the world. The libation ritual is commonly called challa and is performed quite often, usually before meals and during celebrations.

In African culture, the ritual of pouring libation is an essential ceremonial tradition and a way of giving homage to the ancestors. In Africa, ancestors are not only respected, they are invited to participate in all public functions (as are also the gods). A prayer is offered in the form of libations, calling the ancestors to attend. The ritual is generally performed by an elder. Although water may be used, the drink is usually some traditional wine (e.g. palm wine), and the libation ritual is accompanied by an invitation (and invocation) to the ancestors and gods.

Libation is also commonly recognized as the break within the famous performance of Agbekor, a ritual dance performed in some West African cultures.

In Cuba a widespread custom is to spill a drop or two of rum from one's glass while saying "para los santos" (for the Saints). [1]

In Russia and surrounding countries it is an old tradition to pour vodka onto the grave of the deceased.

Shamanism shows great diversity,[2] even if we consider only shamanism among Siberian peoples. Among several peoples near the Altai Mountains, the new drum of a shaman must go through a special ritual. This is regarded as “enlivening the drum”: the tree and the deer who gave their wood and skin for the new drum narrate their whole lives and promise to the shaman that they will serve him. The ritual itself is a libation: beer is poured onto the skin and wood of the drum, and these materials “come to life” and speak with the voice of the shaman in the name of the tree and the deer. Among the Tubalar, moreover, the shaman imitates the voice of the animal, and its behaviour as well.[3]

The Celts (at least the Druids of Britain) used libations as offerings to their gods as well.

See also


  1. Soy del Caribe - Edición No.23 - Reportaje | El Ron de Cuba, con su toque de siglos
  2. Hoppál 2005: 15
  3. Eliade 2001: 164 (= Chpt 5 discussing the symbolics of shamanic drum and costume, the subsection about the drum)


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