Listen to hip-hop music and you’ll probably hear mentions of libations being poured out to honor dead friends and family. Early 1990s genre pioneers such as Tupac Shakur all the way down to contemporary artists like Kayne West reference it frequently in their lyrics. However, you may be surprised to learn that “pouring one out” is a practice almost as old as written history itself.
Possible Roots in Africa?
The earliest known documentation for the practice of pouring out libations comes from ancient Egypt. For example, the divine mother goddess Isis was often depicted pouring out weekly drink offerings for her dead husband Osiris. Professor Jan Assmann also discusses libations as a sacrament in his 2011 book, Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt, speculating that some offerings may have been in gratitude to Osiris for allowing the Nile to flood its banks and providing fertile land for farming. Some ancient Egyptian situlas, or libation vessels, have survived to modern times. One example is a situla from the 14th century B.C.E. crafted from faience, a type of brilliant blue ceramic common to the region. The vessel is currently on display at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.
Meanwhile, Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah adds that the custom can be found all over the African continent in the 2006 book, The Eloquence of the Scribes: A Memoir on the Sources and Resources of African Literature. Kimani Nehusi, an African American studies professor at Temple University, cites Armah multiple times in an African Holocaust piece while discussing the Egyptian roots of the practice. Nehusi divulges Armah’s theory that it may have originated from myths about the goddess Hathor’s wrath against humankind being quelled when she was given large quantities of red beer.
Libations in Ancient and Modern Times
Besides in ancient Egypt and the rest of Africa, the practice of pouring libations became commonplace throughout the Middle East, Asia, and North America. Both the Greeks and the Romans performed these rites during worship, sometimes as a component of animal sacrifices. References to the tradition can also be found in the Hebrew Tanakh, including stories of the patriarch Jacob pouring out both spirits and oil as part of his offerings.
Today, the custom is observed all over the world in several religions. There are too many instances to name, but a few examples include the following:
- Offerings of water, milk, yogurt, ghee, or honey in Hindu temples
- The Japanese Shinto custom of “miki,” or sake poured to venerate nature spirits or the deceased
- Rice wine or tea spilled onto altars to honor deities or ancestors in China
- The South American Quechua tradition of spilling drinks onto the ground to honor Mother Earth
Canadian Neopagans and practitioners of traditional African faiths also continue their own versions of this tradition. Patheos blogger John Beckett mentions it briefly as a sacred act within a larger context of sacrifices. In this case, some modern pagans see it as giving up the chance to consume a drink and offering it to deities or ancestors instead. In his African Holocaust article, Nehusi reveals that the practice is commonplace among followers of Vodou, Candomblé, and other African forms of spirituality, with each orisha or loa being given his or her favourite food or alcoholic drink as an offering.
Let the Gods and Ancestors Drink
Pouring libations for spirits, divine entities, and forebears is a tradition that’s thousands of years old. Over the centuries, it’s been interpreted and applied within different contexts for each religion and culture. From its origins in Africa to modern religious practices all over the world, deliberately spilling out libations to honor deities and the dead is an innately human custom that shows no signs of fading away.