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A libation is a ritual pouring of a liquid as an offering to a god or spirit or in memory of those who have died. It was common in many religions of antiquity and continues to be offered in various cultures today.
Various substances have been used for libations, most commonly 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 libation could be poured onto something of religious significance or into the earth.
Libation was a central and vital aspect of ancient Greek religion, and one of the simplest and most common forms of religious practice. It is one of the basic religious acts that define piety in ancient Greece, dating back to the Bronze Age and even prehistoric Greece. Libations were a part of daily life, and the pious might perform them every day in the morning and evening, as well as to begin meals. A libation most often consisted of mixed wine and water, but could also be unmixed wine, honey, oil, water, or milk.
The form of libation called spondē is typically the ritualized pouring of wine from a jug or bowl held in the hand. The most common ritual was to pour the liquid from an oinochoē (wine jug) into a phiale, a shallow bowl designed for the purpose. After wine was poured from the phiale, the remainder of the contents was drunk by the celebrant. A libation is poured any time wine is to be drunk, a practice that is recorded as early as the Homeric epics. The etiquette of the symposium required that when the first bowl (krater) of wine was served, a libation was made to Zeus and the Olympian gods. Heroes received a libation from the second krater served, and "Zeus the Finisher" (Zeus Teleios) from the third, which was supposed to be the last. An alternative was to offer a libation from the first bowl to the Agathos Daimon and from the third bowl to Hermes. An individual at the symposium could also make an invocation of and libation to a god of his choice.
In conducting animal sacrifice, wine is poured onto the victim as part of its ritual slaughter and preparation, and then afterwards onto the ash and flames. This scene is commonly depicted in Greek art, which also often shows sacrificers or the gods themselves holding the phiale.
The Greek verb spendō (σπένδω), "pour a libation," also "conclude a pact," derives from the Indo-European root *spend-, "make an offering, perform a rite, engage oneself by a ritual act." The noun is spondē or spondai, "libation." In the middle voice, the verb means "enter into an agreement," in the sense that the gods are called to guarantee an action. Blood sacrifice was performed to begin a war; spondai marked the conclusion of hostilities, and is often thus used in the sense of "armistice, treaty." The formula "We the polis have made libation" was a declaration of peace or the "Truce of God," which was observed also when the various city-states came together for the Panhellenic Games, the Olympic Games, or the festivals of the Eleusinian Mysteries: this form of libation is "bloodless, gentle, irrevocable, and final."
Libations poured onto the earth are meant for the dead and for the chthonic gods. In the Book of the Dead in the Odyssey, Odysseus digs an offering pit around which he pours in order honey, wine and water. For the form of libation called choē (from IE *gheu-, Greek cheuma, χεῦμα, "that which is poured"), a larger vessel is tipped over and emptied onto the ground for the chthonic gods, who may also receive spondai. Heroes, who were divinized mortals, might receive blood libations if they had participated in the bloodshed of war, as for instance Brasidas the Spartan. In rituals of caring for the dead at their tombs, libations would include milk and honey.
The Libation Bearers is the English title of the center tragedy from the Orestes Trilogy of Aeschylus, in reference to the offerings Electra brings to the tomb of her dead father Agamemnon. Sophocles gives one of the most detailed descriptions of libation in Greek literature in Oedipus at Colonus, performed as atonement in the grove of the Eumenides:
First, water is fetched from a freshly flowing spring; cauldrons which stand in the sanctuary are garlanded with wool and filled with water and honey; turning towards the east, the sacrificer tips the vessels towards the west; the olive branches which he has been holding in his hand he now strews on the ground at the place where the earth has drunk in the libation; and with a silent prayer he departs, not looking back.
The English word "libation" derives from the Latin libatio, an act of pouring, from the verb libare, "to taste, sip; pour out, make a libation" (Indo-European root *leib-, "pour, make a libation"). In ancient Roman religion, the libation was an act of worship in the form of a liquid offering, most often unmixed wine and perfumed oil. The Roman god Liber Pater ("Father Liber"), later identified with the Greek Dionysus or Bacchus, was the divinity of libamina, "libations," and liba, sacrificial cakes drizzled with honey.
In Roman art, the libation is shown performed at an altar, mensa (sacrificial meal table), or tripod. It was the simplest form of sacrifice, and could be a sufficient offering by itself. The introductory rite (praefatio) to an animal sacrifice included an incense and wine libation onto a burning altar. Both emperors and divinities are frequently depicted, especially on coins, pouring libations. Scenes of libation commonly signify the quality of pietas, religious duty or reverence.
The libation was part of Roman funeral rites, and may have been the only sacrificial offering at humble funerals. Libations were poured in rituals of caring for the dead (see Parentalia and Caristia), and some tombs were equipped with tubes through which the offerings could be directed to the underground dead.
Milk was unusual as a libation at Rome, but was regularly offered to a few deities, particularly those of an archaic nature or those for whom it was a natural complement, such as Rumina, a goddess of birth and childrearing who promoted the flow of breast milk, and Cunina, a tutelary of the cradle. It was offered also to Mercurius Sobrius (the "sober" Mercury), whose cult is well attested in Roman Africa and may have been imported to the city of Rome by an African community.
In certain African cultures, the ritual of pouring libation is an essential ceremonial tradition and a way of giving homage to the ancestors. Ancestors are not only respected in such cultures, but also 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 typically 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 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 Burmese Buddhism, the water libation ceremony, called yay zet cha (ရေစက်ချ), which involves the ceremonial pouring of water from a vessel of water into a vase, drop by drop, concludes most Buddhist ceremonies, including donation celebrations, shinbyu, and feasts. This ceremonial libation is done to share the accrued merit with all other living beings in all 31 planes of existence. The ceremony has three primary prayers: the confession of faith, the pouring of water, and the sharing of merits. While the water is poured, a confession of faith, called the hsu taung imaya dhammanu (ဆုတောင်း ဣမာယ ဓမ္မာနု), is recited and led by the monks.
Then, the merit is distributed by the donors (called ahmya wei) by thrice saying the following:
(To all those who can hear), we share our merits with all beings
(Kya kya thahmya), ahmya ahmya ahmya yu daw mu gya ba gon law
((ကြားကြားသမျှ) အမျှ အမျှ အမျှ ယူတော်မူကြပါ ကုန်လော)
Afterward, in unison, the participants repeat thrice a declaration of affirmation: thadu (သာဓု, sadhu), Pali for "well done", akin to the Christian use of amen. Afterward, the libated water is poured on soil outside, to return the water to Vasudhara. The earth goddess Vasudhara is invoked to witness these meritorious deeds.
Prior to colonial rule, the water libation ceremony was also performed during the crowning of Burmese kings, as part of procedures written in the Raza Thewaka Dipani Kyan, a 1849 text that outlines proper conduct of Burmese kings.
Although the offering of water to Vasudhara may have pre-Buddhist roots, this ceremony is believed to have been started by King Bimbisara, who poured the libation of water, to share his merit with his ancestors who had become pretas.
This ceremony is also practiced at the end of Thai and Laotian Buddhist rituals to transfer merit, where it is called kruat nam (กรวดน้ำ) and yaat nam respectively.
In Chinese customs, rice wine or tea is poured in front of an altar or tombstone horizontally from right to left with both hands as an offering to gods and in honour of deceased. The offering is usually placed on the altar for a while before being offered in libation. In more elaborate ceremonies honouring deities, the libation may be done over the burning paper offerings; whereas for the deceased, the wine is only poured onto the ground.
In Shinto, the practice of libation and the drink offered is called Miki (神酒), lit. "The 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.
Shamanism among Siberian peoples exhibits the great diversity characteristic of shamanism in general. 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.
In Russia and surrounding countries it is an old tradition to pour vodka onto the grave of the deceased.
In the contemporary United States, there is a tradition of pouring libations of malt liquor from a forty before drinking, which is particularly associated with African American rappers. This is referred to as "tipping" to one's (dead) homies (friends), or "pouring one out". This is referenced in various songs, such as the 1993 "Gangsta Lean (This Is For My Homies)" by DRS ("I tip my 40 to your memory"), and sometimes accompanied by ritual expressions such as "One for me, and one for my homies." This is occasionally parodied, as in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999). This can also be seen in HBO's TV series Boardwalk Empire. Character James Darmody pours a drink out "to the lost," referencing both deceased WWI veterans, then later the show's own departed characters.
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