There’s a strange drinking tradition I encountered years ago while on vacation in rural areas of the Philippines. Locals would pour the first glass of alcohol from the first bottle to be opened during a drinking session and throw its contents on the ground, letting the alcohol wet the soil. When I asked what that was about, I was told it was an offering to the Devil — a rather odd tradition in a country where most people are Christian. A few months later, while exploring Spotify, I came across a track called “Pour Out a Little Liquor” by 2Pac that opens with the instruction “Pour out a little liquor for your homies.”
While these alcohol rituals may sound wasteful, the act of pouring one out — whether you do it for the Devil, your homies, or Dionysus — is an ancient tradition called “libation” that stretches back to early civilizations like ancient Egypt, which isn’t a surprise given that alcohol may be the reason why we started forming civilizations in the first place.
The Ancient Origins of Pouring Libations
While “libation” is commonly used today as a funny way of saying that you’ll be drinking, it originally strictly referred to drinks that are poured out as an offering to deities, spirits of the dead, and for similar spiritual reasons.
Libations in Mesopotamia
One of the earliest mentions of pouring one out comes from early Bronze Age Mesopotamia, according to a paper from the Proceedings of the 10th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East in Vienna back in 2016.
In it, author Dorota Lawecka explains that pouring liquids was a “vital part” of ancient Mesopotamian rituals. People used liquids such as beer, wine, oil, milk, and even water — which was the most common libation liquid, oddly enough, despite our associating the word with alcohol these days. To accommodate libation pourers, some shrines were built with a special groove that would direct liquids to the foot of an altar while other altars had designated spots for placing vessels that contained liquids for use in a libation.
Libations in Ancient Egypt
Libation pouring was also observed in ancient Egypt where weekly drink-offerings, that substituted the common water offering with milk, were made to deities such as Osiris and even cults that formed around regular mortals, as explained in an article published in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. The weekly libation was later brought to Graeco-Roman civilizations.
Libations in Ancient Greece
The ancient Greeks performed their libations similar to how the ancient Egyptians did. Yale University Press says that the Greeks would pour water but also wine, milk, oil, and honey during important banquets and public events. A politician taking an oath or a general going to war constituted an event in which a libation had to be made to the gods. If something had serious risk involved, the Greeks typically poured one out for the gods (via Center for Hellenic Studies).
At the time, though, the Greeks didn’t call it libation but spéndō which roughly meant “offering of security” but the word also had associations with terms related to law, specifically contracts. Varieties of the word had meanings in Latin and Hittite that seem to hint the libation as used for consecrating a pact, therefore sealing a deal before the gods.
It’s because of this entanglement between the ritual and legal meaning of the libation that the act of pouring one out is referenced in Greek literature. The epic poem The Iliad, Achilles makes a prayer to Zeus while pouring out wine for him. Achilles’s enemy, Priam, also performs a libation to Zeus later in the epic when he asks the god for a sign that would tell him he ought to face Achilles.
Libations in Ancient Rome
Libations were also made to gods in Ancient Rome, however the Romans had an innovative twist that mirrored the sentiments of the Victorians, who installed bells on graves to prevent the risk of burying someone alive, centuries before the latter group existed. According to Atlas Obscura, the ancient Romans installed tubes that drained into graves, allowing grieving loved ones to pour libations directly into their deceased family and friends’ burial spots.
The tubes were made with materials already used in household items such as terracotta, wood, tile, and lead. Once installed, the libation tubes could be used to pour one out for the homies and even give them a little snack in the afterlife. And if you think only wealthy Romans got this special libation tube treatment, think again. Anthropologist Dr. Tracy Prowse told Atlas Obscura that even Romans of lower socioeconomic rank had libation tubes on their graves.
Libations in Asia
Pouring one out may be often associated with Western ancient civilizations, but do recall at the start of this article, we mention an instance of the libation ritual existing in Asia, surviving to this day even if it appears to now be removed from its original context. Libation was commonly observed in early China during the Bronze Age when people created mounds especially dedicated to pouring one out, according to an article published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. These early Chinese libation pourers held not only spiritual influence but also political power as the era saw the beginning of idea of kings who served both spiritual and political roles. A lot of these roles, as expected, converged where alcohol is involved.
Further south, Hindus also observed and continue to observe, libation where they pour a mixture of water and milk over an image of a god and present it with flowers and food.
Pouring One Out For the Homies: The Modern Iterations of Libation Rituals
The New York Times reports that pouring one out for the homies, a phrase associated in the U.S. with African-American culture, as seen in references made by 2Pac to the ritual, has been observed by African-Americans in the South for generations. Just like in the Philippines’ version of pouring a libation, the first few drops of liquor are the ones offered up. Alternatively, the act of pouring one out in a libation may be called “tipping” to your long gone loved one, according to Beyond the Dash.
Outside of pouring libations as offerings to the dead, the libation survives in some Neo-pagan circles, particular those that follow the Hellenistic tradition and worship the Graeco-Roman gods. Again, the libation also still exists in India where Hindus pour milk and water for deities.
How to Pour One Out for the Homies
If you want to play homage to your loved ones by pouring one out, you can take a tip or two from DRS’ song “Gangsta Lean” where he says he first tips a “40 to your memory” before he takes a drink and thinks about the deceased and their coming reunion in the afterlife. Pretty simple, right? While pouring one out for the homies takes many forms, the only strict rule is that the libation has to happen first before anyone drinks the alcohol. Since pouring one out is meant to commemorate the deceased, it’s generally expected that you’ll do something in their memory — even if that’s just remembering the events of their life and the moments you spent together.
“Do not pour libations of sparkling wine to Zeus and other immortals at dawn with unwashed hands—they do not hear your prayers, but spit them back.”Hesiod Work and Days, 724–6
It gets a little complicated if you want to pour libations to gods. Returning to our example on Hellenism, a cleansing ritual must first be performed before making any spiritual gestures for the gods. The simple form of this ritual is khernips where miasma, that is spiritual dirt, is cleansed from the body by lighting an aromatic twig and adding the burnt twig to a basin of water which is then used to cleanse with. A more in-depth cleansing ritual called katharmos may be performed or, for greater convenience, a cleansing using only smoke from incense, typically frankincense and myrrh.
So there you have it: Pouring one out for the homies is way, way older than you’d think. Who would have thought of it? Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to pour libations to the algorithm gods to make sure you read this. If you personally practice some form of libation, let us know in the comments!