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; a sacred covenants between the material and the spiritual worlds. It was common in many religions of antiquity and continues to be offered in various cultures today. The rituals vary from culture to culture according to context and purpose but the libation is always a spiritual act in which an exchange is made. Libations are usually poured to those beings that are somehow connected to us, whether through bloodlines, apprenticeship, legacy, love, friendship or through spiritual union. Libation is also given to the important elemental or living energies that make up the fiber of our universe, such as the rivers, forests or animal kingdom. At the start of any function, it is customary in African traditions to always remember the wisdom of ancestors in whose footprints we stand today. Various substances have been used for libations, most commonly wine or olive oil and in India, ghee.
In Shinto, which speaks to the indigenous spirituality of Japan and the Japanese people, it is a set of practices carried out diligently to establish a connection between present-day Japan and its ancient past. At a Shinto shrine, the practice of libation is done with a drink called miki, “The Liquor of the Gods” as well as with sake, a fermented drink. However at a household shrine, one may substitute with fresh water that can be changed every morning; and it is served in a white porcelain or metal cup without any decoration. 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 certain African cultures, the ritual of pouring libation is an essential ceremonial tradition and a way of paying 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 with an elder generally performing the ritual. Although water may be used, the drink is typically some traditional wine such as palm wine and the libation ritual is accompanied by an invitation and invocation to the ancestors and gods. The ceremony may have an officiate and an assistant. The officiator calls to the ancestors and gods to ask for the necessary blessing of the occasion.
He or she may also ask for blessings from the four cardinal points North, South, East, West and may ask members of the audience to call out to their ancestors; or ancestors of significant Africans of history. After each blessing, libation is poured with the response ‘ashe’, ‘amen’, ‘hiao’ or other African languages for ‘may it be.’
In Ancient Greece the term spondee (libation) is meant to be a type of sacrifice. Offers of various nutritious or precious liquids such as perfumes, wine, honey, milk, oil, juices of fruits are discharged to the gods on to an altar. Ancient Greek texts often mention libations; for example, 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 Cuba a widespread custom is to spill a drop or two of rum from one’s glass while saying ‘para los santos’, which means ‘for the saints’; while in Russia and surrounding countries, it is an old tradition to pour vodka onto the grave of the deceased.
Libation is important in the West and Central African societies, and has had a significant upsurge in the African-American community in the celebration of ‘kwanzaa’ and in contemporary incantation while pouring liquor to friends who have passed on. A group of friends or family members might gather at a gravesite and pass a drink from person to person. As each individual shares a prayer or loving word for the deceased, a small amount of liquor is poured over the grave. This is a libation ritual as well as ancestor veneration – another centrally important practice amongst Africans everywhere. Many Afro-Caribbeans who retained the vestiges of their heritage embrace African spirituality in the form of ‘Santeria’, ‘Lukumi’, ‘Vodun’ or ‘Palo Mayombe’. The initiates of these religious spiritual orders pour libations to their deities and ancestors in many rituals both public and private and priests often give these libations on a daily basis. Libations can also be given by leaving glasses of clear water, along with other items, for the recently departed. There are many more examples of how this custom has survived and transformed amongst Africans in the Western World.
As with almost all things African, the practice of pouring libation is not just symbolic but practical. It is believed that it restores the balance of energy between the living being and the non-corporeal. It represents our love and respect for those who have supported us; it is an act of nurturing, similar to the nurturing that they gave and still give to us. It is also believed that once we have honored the spirits thus, we have changed the energy in our lives to open the way for them to return blessings and favors to us. A gift for a gift; mercy for mercy; love for love.
By Ojiugo Nnenne