Exploring the Libation Ritual in Greek and Roman Myth
By Sean Froyd
Libation, said to be one of the “least understood rituals in mythology” by the Encyclopedia of Religion, is prevalent in the myths of the Greeks and Romans. Many cultures have made use of the ritual, but to understand the ritual requires a solid base of evidence. The Greek and Roman cultures have left us that in the form of their myths. Can anything be learned about the libation ritual from looking at this art?
Libation is commonly made up of a one or a combination of different liquids, examples often being water, wine, and oil. These liquids are poured out onto the ground in the ritual. There are also several different times where the ritual is enacted such as at religious ceremonies, at certain meals, and at funerals and rites for the dead.
The myths will allow a foundation for exploring the ritual. It is within these that the culture stored not only the act of libation, but perhaps as well the reasoning behind it. Using examples from the Homeric poems, the plays of the tragedians, and the epic of Virgil, will allow an exploration of how the libations were used. Then, with that knowledge, looking at the prevalent liquids in the ritual might give an understanding why they were poured out onto the ground.
Libations in Homeric Epic
The epics of Homer have numerous times where libations are used. A couple of examples from the Odyssey to begin with. The first example comes from book eleven, when Odysseus must traverse to the underworld to speak with Tiresias. He begins by pouring out libations of three kinds for the shades. Odysseus, having dug the trench, “poured libation about it for all the dead,/first of honey mixture, and then of sweet wine, and the third one of water”(11.26-27). He does this before he sacrifices to the dead, to preface the ceremony.
It is in the hall of the Phaeacians when libations are mentioned in a different context than rites for the dead. Odysseus had arrived in the hall of the king, Alcinoos, and applied for hospitality. First Echeneus, eldest member of the court, followed by Alcinoos himself, called out for wine for libation. Using the same phrase, they both call out so they “may pour a libation/ to bolt-hurling Zeus, who protects pious suppliants” (Echeneus-7.164-65, and Alcinoos-7.180-81). This seems to suggest that libations are used to gain the attention of the gods. Examples from Homer’s other epic, the Iliad, are in similar circumstances.
In book 16 of the Iliad, Achilles prays to Zeus for two things, the winning of the battle and the safe return of Patroklos. He pours libation in the form of wine first, and then asks for these favors. It says, “When Achilleus had poured the wine and prayed to Zeus father” (16.253), and it seems to support the view of libations to gain the attention of the gods so that prayers may be made to them. Not just the main gods, seemingly, but other supernatural powers were also called in this way. For instance the north and west winds, Boreas and Zephyros, were called after libations to blow so that the flames at Patroklos’ pyre would rise. As Homer describes it, “He stood apart from the pyre and made his prayer to the two winds/Boreas and Zephyros, north wind and west, and promised them splendid/offerings, and much outpouring from a golden goblet entreated them” (23.194-96). These are representative samples of how libations were used throughout the two Homeric epics. How are libations portrayed in the time of the tragedies?
Libations in Tragedy
Libations in Homeric epics tend towards supplication to the gods, pouring out liquid before and amongst prayers, though in the case of Odysseus and the dead, it was poured for the shades’ benefits. The benefit for the dead is the theme that is brought up most forcefully in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. This theme is most prevalent in The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides.
Firstly, in The Libation Bearers, as clued in from the title of the play one would assume that it has much to do with the ritual act. And so it does, but it focuses on libations for the funeral aspect instead of the gods. Orestes notices the women coming towards the graves, bearing the libations to the tomb where he is. As he speaks to his dead father, “Or perhaps they come to honour you, my father, bearing cups to soothe and still the dead” (16-17). Orestes is correct, and the chorus tells of the libations they bear to calm the angry dead. “The proud dead stir under earth, they rage against the ones who took their lives’ the gifts, the empty gifts, she hopes will ward them off”(44-47). Clytemnestra has ordered the libations to be poured in response to the rage of her murdered husband Agamemnon.
The act and the reasoning behind the libations are best portrayed by Electra’s words, however. She pours the wine, and then prays to her father.
What kindness, what prayer can touch my father?
Shall I say I bring him love for love, a woman’s
love for a husband? My mother, love from her?
I’ve no taste for that, no words to say
as I run the honeyed oil on father’s tomb.
Or try the salute we often use at graves?
‘A wreath for a wreath. Now bring the givers
gifts to match’…(87-94)
Electra speaks of who had sent the libations to be poured over the tomb, her mother who murdered Agamemnon. What is interesting here, however, is the mention of an even return for the gifts for the dead. The libations are not only for the dead, but open a path of communication to help. Electra prays then to Hermes, the lord of the dead for her father to hear her. At the end of her prayer, she says “these are my prayers. Over them I pour libations” (154). This opens up the possibility that the libations here are used (as in the epics) as a necessary addition for prayers, in addition to the liquids being gifts for the dead.
In The Eumenides an interesting aspect of libations is brought up in the effort to placate the furies, as Clytemnestra had attempted to do for the shade of Agamemnon. The ghost of Clytemnestra is raging at the quiescent furies for not pursuing Orestes for murdering his blood kin, and for not remembering her for the libations she had sent to them. “And after all my libations…how you lapped/the honey, the sober offerings poured to soothe you” (110-111). So here we have an interesting combination of the gifts for the dead and the supplication of the otherworldly powers: libations were used as gifts for the furies, rather than gifts for the dead.
So, in the examples from the Greek myths, libations are used in a twofold function: the first as part of prayer to the other world of the gods; and the second to treat with the dead, either in prayer or placation. Does the Roman Aeneid paint a different picture?
Libations in the Aeneid
The great epic of Imperial Rome, the Aeneid, has its depictions of libations as well. Like those in the Iliad and the Odyssey, they are used to gain the attention of otherworld powers, be they departed relatives or gods.
In books 1 and 7, the libations are poured to the gods. After Dido calls upon the god to grant a day of happiness, she dumps her wine. Per Virgil, “her words were done. She offered her libation/, pouring her wine upon the boards” (1.1026-27). Aeneas later uses libations as well. In the spirit of supplication in book 7 before praying he says “Now let us pour our cups to Jupiter” (7.170). Both of these show the effect that spilling liquids has in order to gain the attention of the gods. However, Aeneas also pours libations to call up his father from the grave, in the spirit of Odysseus and Electra.
The difference of this funeral rite is the form of liquid, rather than oil, water, or wine, the libations poured here are wine, milk, and consecrated blood. Aeneas “pours a ritual libation/out on the ground: two pure bowls of wine and/two bowls of new milk, two of victims’ blood” (5.106-108). He does this in order to honor his father. There is a change in liquid here, but the reasons for this are not hinted at in the Aeneid, though it may correspond to Odysseus’ liquids: the honeyed liquid was not defined, and Odysseus shortly after the pouring of libations sacrificed animals, which parallel the cups of blood here.
So, what then the purpose of libations being used in different aspects here, yet called the same thing? Is there an overarching theme that can be found? It is here that The Encyclopedia of Religions helps us understand parts of the ceremony while leaving others tantalizingly empty of meaning. For the parts that it leaves open, other sources may help dispel confusion.
Libations in Society
According to the Encyclopedia of Religion, “while the gift offerings continued in Classical Greek religion, libations also made their way into a variety of other rituals and became a part of them”(5433). Indeed, as we have seen in the previous examples, the libation ritual has elements of what the Encyclopedia of Religions called libation’s origins as ‘gift offering’, especially when in The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides the libations are poured in order to quiet and soothe the dead. But what does the societal writings of the Greeks and Romans have to tell us about Libations outside of myth?
Some writings in the Greek society tell of libations poured out at symposiums. The Encyclopedia of Religions mentions that all participants of the symposiums were involved with the libations which were followed by prayers and invocations. Xenophanes tells that libations were poured with prayers and hymns. “Men of good cheer must first hymn the god with reverent words and pure speech, pouring libations and praying to be able to do right”(as quoted by P.E. Easterling in his essay “Greek Poetry and Greek Religion”, 40).
As well, libations of water were used in the Eleusinian mysteries according to the Encyclopedia of Religions. At the end of the ceremony, there were two jugs filled with water and overturned one to the east and one to the west. The shouts accompanied this were asking the heavens to rain, while imploring the earth to conceive.
So, having all these examples, what can we know about the libation ritual?
The Meaning of Libation
According to the Encyclopedia of Religions, “the meaning of libation offering can vary as much as the way it was performed” (5433). It may help to break down the offering into the composite liquids used, and explore from there.
The Encyclopedia of Religions is the most helpful on water libations. It claims that water libations, whatever they may have been at the beginning, were later understood as purifiers. Water was poured for “ablution of hands” at the beginning of offering ceremonies. Also, as mentioned before, water was poured out at the end of the Eleusinian mysteries before the sky and the earth were entreated.
Oil libations were used, as seen above, at tombs and for the dead. We may make a parallel, though not definite by any means, that the ‘honeyed liquid’ of Odysseus was similar to the honeyed oil that Electra brought to her father’s grave or to the new milk that Aeneid offered to his father. The similarity is there, though as pointed out not definitive.
So oil was used in funerary rites, but also on marker and territorial stones according to both the Encyclopedia of Religion and Walter Burkert in his book Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual. Setting aside the funeral rite for the time being, exploring Burkert’s views on the marker stones may give some clues to the basis of use of oil.
Burkert points out that though the sacrificial aspect of pouring out the liquid as a sacrifice not to be regained is part of the libation, the way that oil leaves a mark is a possibility for the ceremony as well. “the communicative function of leaving marks, establishing centers or borders, especially in the case of pouring oil on stones, is not negligible”(42). He goes on to parallel the pouring of libations on stones to the way animals ‘mark’ their territory. He says “marking a territory by pouring out liquid is a ‘ritual’ behavior quite common in mammals, especially predators; we are all familiar with the dog’s behavior at the stone” (43). He then goes on to say that we have evolved this way: “in fact, divers[sic] species of mammals have evolved special glands for scent marking; cultural evolution has supplied man with utensils for similar functions” (42).
While Burkert’s points are a possibility, I believe the Greek words are indicative of the actual use for the oil. He speaks of its prevalence for the dead. He says “especially common in the cult of the dead; this may be explained by the idea that the dead are ‘thirsty’, though the Greeks preferred to speak about a ‘bath’” (42). That idea of a bath is an important one. When was oil, specifically scented oil per our examples from the mythology, used for humans? As Burkert quotes the Greeks’ own word: bathing.
This procedure is described in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s article on the “thermae” (buildings for public baths). The person going in for a bath was first coated in oil before indulging in rigorous exercise. After that, the oil was scraped from the body with a strigil, and the person would go into the swimming pool. The person was again anointed by oil, completing the bath. This description applies to the Romans, but is very similar to a process described for Greek athletes. Here we can see that the assumption that the dead are ‘thirsty’ is in error here, and the Greeks speaking of bathing may have been closer to the mark. The oil was a cleansing substance for the dead, and could be tied in with the use of water as a purification substance. As for pouring oil on the stone, it is possible that it was an act of ‘bathing’ the stone, in order to purify the marker or border.
Not only a cleansing substance, but it may have operated practically as well: to improve the smell of the tomb. This can be seen especially in the examples shown above. Honey has a very pungent aroma, and when mixed with oil, it would last longer than usual. Unfortunately, that is conjecture, not explicitly stated in any of the myths or sources.
What of wine libations? For explanation of this, we can look above at the funeral libation examples of the tragedians. Wine is poured out as a drink offering for the dead. So why the usage in beseeching the gods? Looking to the mythological origins of wine, Dionysius gave the gift of the vine to Oeneus (Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, 1.7-8). Since the drink was given by the gods, it may be seen as the method to gain their attention again for prayers, by offering it back. That would be a possible explanation for wine libation in Greek and Roman society.
Is there an overarching theme to the libation ceremony, some aspect that would explain the multitude of uses for libations? There are arguments that it is sacrificial, the pouring of these liquids out on the ground because they cannot be regained. There is an issue with that because though the libation ceremony is present with sacrificial acts, it is never explicitly that I’ve found referred to in and of itself as sacrificial in Greek and Roman myth. Libations have an aspect that is something else entirely than sacrifice, that can be inferred from the myths.. So what is that aspect, the reason for libation’s presence in so many different ceremonies may be found in Mircea Eliade’s concept of the Sacred and the Profane.
Libations: the Path to the Sacred
The sacred is defined as “reality of a wholly different order than ‘natural’ realities” (10). The profane would be everyday existence, the ‘natural’ order spoken of, where rocks are rocks, trees are trees, and tombs are tombs. The sacred, in other words, is the manifestation within those things of the other, something that cannot be seen in profane existence of everyday. As Eliade says, “the first possible definition of the sacred is that it is the opposite of the profane” (10).
Eliade says of the archaic person that their lives are on two different planes: the common everyday (profane), and on the plane of the gods (sacred). Eliade says “life is lived on a twofold plane; it takes its course as human existence and, at the same time, shares in a transhuman life, that of the cosmos or the gods” (167).
It is in the example of a door that will be most useful to parallel with the act of libation. There is a separation of the space of the sacred and the profane, and in Eliade’s example, the door is a solution to this separation. “The threshold, the door show the solution of continuity in space immediately and concretely” (24). It connects two different planes. Is the libation that different from the threshold in connecting the profane world of the Greek and roman to the sacred world of their gods?
Understanding this, what was one thing that the practitioner of the libations hoping to achieve? In funerary aspects, like Odysseus and Electra, the aim was to initiate contact with the dead. In the rites of the symposium and sacrifice, it was to initiate contact with the gods, to pray and implore them for favors. It was, in essence, to cross over from the profane existence to the sacred.
This possibly explains the usage of libations, but Eliade also notes that the archaic person wanted to be in the sacred. “The man of the archaic societies tends to live as much as possible in the sacred” (12). This might give insight to the branching out of the libation ritual into other aspects that the Encyclopedia of Religion mentioned.
As seen from the myths and literature given us by the ancient Greeks and Romans the libation ritual was widespread and actively practiced. The liquids varied as to the purpose of the libation, and there were numerous possible reasons why they were poured in myth.
Overarching though, acknowledging the libation ritual is acknowledging the way that the Greeks and Romans may have lived in their world. The libation ritual could be seen as a way in which humans could connect to the other worlds beyond theirs, or in Eliade’s words, the sacred. They could commune with the dead, those who had gone on to the next world; they could also commune with the gods or otherworld beings for gifts or favors. All that was required was the tipping of the liquid onto the ground in libation.
These conclusions, while not definitive, offer a meditation on why libations were practiced by the Greeks and Romans, and why this ritual may have been so prevalent and important.
Aeschylus. The Libation Bearers. The Oresteia. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1979. 173-226.
Aeschylus. The Eumenides. The Orestia. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1979. 227-277.
Apollodorus. The Library of Greek Mythology. Trans. by Robin Hard. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.
Burkert, Walter. Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
Easterling, P.E. “Greek Poetry and Greek Religion”. Greek Religion and Society. Ed. by P.E. Easterling and J.V. Muir. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. 34-49.
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Translated by Willard R. Trask. New York: Harcourt, 1987.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. by Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1951.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. and Ed. By Albert Cook. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1993. 1-268.
"Libation." Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. Vol. 8. 2nd ed.
Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 5432-5435. 15 vols. Gale Virtual
Reference Library. Thomson Gale. Pacifica Graduate Library. 12 January 2006.
"thermae." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 12 Jan. 2006. .
Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Berkeley: U of California P, 1971.
Posted by john at March 10, 2006 02:55 PM