Pious Pouring: Making Libations to the Gods in the Modern Day

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by Robin Artisson (Kouros)

Copyright © 2007 by Kouros

One of the greatest signs of piety and devotion we can make for the Gods in the modern day is the ritual of Libation.

Libation, or the pouring out of liquids to the Gods, is one of the oldest forms of devotion known to mankind. Unlike the sacrifice of animals, which is very costly and time-consuming (though very important to the religious life of the Ancients) libations can be done today by an individual or a group in no time at all. Despite their short length, they are still as old and traditional as blood sacrifices. They are also well attested to in the surviving sources we have and if done properly they are very moving, meaningful moments of communion and prayer with the Gods.

One of the oldest sources we have for libations is found in Homer’s Iliad. In this passage, which most experts agree represents a Homeric or Bronze Age ritual form, the great hero Achilles makes a libation to his patron God, Zeus. Before I analyze the libation form, let us read the passage from Robert Fagles’ excellent translation of The Iliad:

But Achilles strode back to his shelter now
and opened the lid of the princely inlaid sea chest
that glistening-footed Thetis stowed in his ship to carry,
filled to the brim with war-shirts, windproof cloaks
and heavy fleecy rugs. And there it rested…
his handsome, well-wrought cup. No other man
would drink the shining wine from its glowing depths,
nor would Achilles pour the wine to any other God,
none but Father Zeus. Lifting it from the chest
he purified it with sulfur crystals first
then rinsed it out with water running clear,
washed his hands and filled it bright with wine.
And then, taking a stand before his lodge, he prayed,
pouring the wine to earth and scanning the high skies
and the God who loves the lightning never missed a word:

“King Zeus- Pelasgian Zeus, lord of Dodona’s holy shrine,
dwelling far away, brooding over Dodona’s bitter winters!
Your prophets dwelling round you, Zeus, the Selli
sleeping along the ground with unwashed feet…
If you honored me last time and heard my prayer
and rained destruction down on all Achaea’s ranks,
now, once more, I beg you, bring my prayer to pass!
I myself hold out on shore with the beached ships here
but I send my comrade forth to war with troops of Myrmidons-
Launch glory along with him, high lord of thunder, Zeus!
Fill his heart with courage… let him come back to me
and our fast fleet unharmed, with all my armor around him
all our comrades fighting round my friend!”

So Achilles prayed
and Zeus in all his wisdom heard those prayers.
One prayer the Father granted, the other he denied:
Patroclus would drive the onslaught off the ships-
that much Zeus granted, true,
but denied him safe and sound return from battle.
Once Achilles had poured the wine and prayed to Zeus,
he returned to his shelter, stowed the cup in the chest
then took his stand outside, his spirit yearning still…

-Iliad, Book 16, 261-302

The Prayer of Achilles and the Power of Zeus and Fate

This powerful passage deserves some exegesis. Achilles had a cup that he reserved only for libations, a “well-wrought cup” which no one but the Gods (and presumably Achilles himself) ever drank from. The sea-goddess Thetis had given Achilles the chest in which he kept this cup, along with the other things he’d need while on campaign. Thetis was believed to be Achilles’ mother, marking him (like most Homeric Heroes) as being of divine parentage. Of course, as Hans Gunther writes in his ‘Religious Attitudes of the Indo-Europeans’, the Indo-European peoples (especially the Greeks) believed that human beings could share in divine qualities and indeed, there was something potentially divine about each person; thus, a hero could be described as “God-like”.

The great courage and deeds of Heroes were seen as evidence of the divinity shining forth from them and to an extent, their great deeds were explained by their closeness to the divine. The Hero in Indo-European traditions is often accorded divine parentage and is nearly always seen as a “hero” precisely because they were able to transcend the limits of common mortals by doing deeds that propel them into a divine or semi-divine realm. Heracles, for instance, was able to not only match the strength of the Titan Atlas, but was able to succeed at the supreme act of a Hero: he was able to cross the boundary between this world and the worlds beyond, as when he entered Hades and returned.

Achilles is the ultimate example of the “pure” Indo-European hero: true to his Dorian heritage, he only prayed to Zeus, the shining sky-father and lord of thunder and lightning. He is a son of those Zeus-worshipping Indo-European peoples who came into Hellas or Greece in waves after the collapse of the Mycenaean culture and brought their rather warlike and fertile Gods who all managed to inter-marry with native Goddesses, yielding the rich mythology of the Greeks that we all know and love.

Most of you will already know the story of Achilles and Patroclus in the Trojan War: Patroclus was doomed to die fighting prince Hector of Troy, after Achilles sends him out to fight in his place, wearing his armor. Patroclus’ death would motivate Achilles to savage acts of revenge against Hector and reveal the dark side of Achilles’ character – his rage and his hubris. It is refreshing indeed that the Indo-European peoples did not shy away from according character flaws to their heroes and this says a good deal about their realistic outlooks on life and their acceptance of the tragic nature of human existence. Some may call that cynical; I call it realistic and healthy.

Zeus hears all prayers; his great Godly “Metis” or wisdom allows him this power. He hears Achilles’ prayers, “never missing a word”. However, Zeus is in this case limited in what he can allow by Fate itself. He grants Patroclus great glory in battle, and even the power to drive away the attacking Trojans, but he cannot allow Patroclus to return home alive. Zeus, Father of All and most powerful of the Olympian Gods, measures the outcome of the battle between Patroclus and Hector on his Golden Scales and awards the victory to that fighter who has it apportioned to him by Fate.

The strange powers of the Moirai or the Fates certainly represent a pre-Hellenic and even pre-Homeric religious complex that became mixed in with the invading religions of migrating peoples. Where one might imagine that Zeus was seen by his followers as all-powerful, ruling the universe alone with his scales and his thunder-weapon, these powerful female powers (such as the Fates) represent an older, more native strand of spirituality.

In all of Greece’s long history, the power of great Goddesses who were sometimes given the role of Fate-deciders (Aphrodite is sometimes called “the oldest Moira”) never waned in the face of the rise of the masculine divinities that we know so well, like Zeus. Zeus himself, despite his supreme position in the pantheon, stood in “awe” of the great and ancient Goddess Night, whose daughter, Asteria, was the mother of Hekate. Hekate herself always had a relationship to the power of the Fates, (as seen in the PGM) and Zeus “revered her above all goddesses” and accorded her a share of Land, Sea, Sky, the Heavens, and the Underworld. The Fates themselves were forced to become the “daughters” of Zeus, and yet maintained their power to decide even the destinies of the Gods.

From top to bottom we can see the blending of earlier, pre-Olympian Goddesses and Fateful figures with the pantheons of incoming peoples and never do these older, darker powers fully lose their authority.

For Achilles, as for most people in the ancient world, the subject of Fate and the Fates was always indistinct and weird, impossible to fathom in the truest sense. The Fates were likely not prayed to as other Goddesses were, (at least not in Greece after a certain point) but it is clear that sorceresses and other magic-using people prayed to Hekate in her role as a Fate, and to the Fates themselves to make their magical will and their curses come to pass. These traditions of witchcraft and sorcery come from a very ancient time, a pre-Olympian and even pre-Homeric time. Apuleius, in his fine novel “The Golden Ass”, gives direct evidence that Isis was worshipped as a “Great Mother” type Goddess in the Roman world and even accorded the power of “weaver of Fate and the destines of all men and Gods”, and a deliveress from hard or dark Fate.

Achilles, the savage and skilled hero of the Greeks, coming from a later time than any primitive matriarchy, prays to the God his people believe to be in charge of the Cosmos – Zeus. He has no recourse to feminine spirits that may control destiny. This attitude is a common one in male-dominated religious thinking. We see that the ancient Hebrews and Christians both applauded their own singular male God as being beholden to no Fate and to no stars – the break with the ancient traditions of Fate is a common and needful one for masculine-oriented monotheisms. The earlier power of “Mother Fate” must be divorced or overcome to achieve the new types of consciousness demanded by masculine-oriented monotheistic thinking. Of course, Achilles is no monotheist; he believes in the other Gods, but only chooses to pray to one, Zeus of Dodona.

This would seem to be proto-monotheistic behavior: Achilles only prays to one very powerful masculine deity. In the figure of Zeus, we see a figure who isn’t so distantly removed from the “one God” that will arise thousands of years later. One thing is for certain: to cast off the power of earlier Goddesses and to replace the power of Fate with rather egocentric notions of “free will” is not a path to wisdom. But then, humans are not always the wisest of creatures, and that too, is Fate.

Dodona was a shrine in northern Greece where Zeus had many sacred oak trees. He had a staff of oracles, called Selli (whom Achilles mentions in his prayer) who apparently went bare-footed among his sacred trees and listened to the wind coursing through the branches to hear messages from Zeus. The “Zeus of Dodona” would appear to be the role/aspect of Zeus that Achilles calls upon, and this would seem to imply that his own family or clan may have had connections to northern Greece, in this case the region of Epirus.

One must remember that Homer was writing about a legendary war that had taken place many centuries before he wrote the tale down. Whatever ancient religious beliefs Achilles himself kept, the Greeks of Homer’s age had come to think differently, as “pure” Indo-European religious elements came to permeate and mix with native elements. As I mentioned, the Greeks never failed to believe in the powers of Fate, alongside that of the Gods, and they never failed to believe that even the Gods were beholden to Fate.

This would naturally cause some theological and religious conflicts for most people in the modern day, but the ancients seemed to have no trouble fitting Gods and Goddesses from earlier times in with Gods and Goddesses of later times and continuing to accord them their own glories and powers separately, even if it would seem to not make sense to most of us today. Some writers – including Homer – seem to be attempting to “blend” the power of the Gods with the power of Fate in such a way that people can understand how the two work in accord, but the extent to which he succeeds is up to the individual to decide. This is the nature of polytheistic, organic, evolving religions; it gives people many diverse options for who to pray to, and what to believe, which can suit them at many times in their lives.

The belief that the Gods had great power to change things or affect the outcomes of things did not conflict with the idea of Fate to the ancients; Fate allotted the Gods a great portion of power and immortality, and allotted to mortals the privilege of calling upon the Gods for help through prayer, libation, and sacrifice. A belief in Fate does not exempt a mortal from the duty of prayer, nor does it stop the mortal from hoping for good outcomes, from fearing bad ones, or praying for help.

Indeed, mortal emotions, feelings, religious urges, and prayers are themselves Fated things – we have no choice but to experience them and express them, and it is furthermore a fact that our own prayers may be the fateful things that in turn motivate Gods to help us, thus fulfilling Fate. Therefore, our own devotions, at any time, could be the difference between a good outcome and a bad one; whatever the case, all people have felt the need to pray and hope, despite (and paradoxically because of) the mystery of Necessity.

In the modern day we may say that we pray because we need or desire some outcome, but in reality, we pray or pour libations because these things are part of who we are and what we do as human beings. We do them because our feelings, fears and desires exist, and because Gods exist who have great powers and who work in necessary conjunction with events in the human world. Human prayers, libations and sacrifices are, in the final analysis, our mortal way of religiously participating with the unfolding of Fate and the universe. This is why they are so sacred.

At all times, the rituals of worship and demonstrations of piety could not be abandoned; these agreed-upon rituals and rites bound clan, household and society together, and regardless of what a person’s own personal beliefs were, the Gods had to be honored properly. That was the definition of piety – to do correctly and reverently according to custom. Piety had little to do with what a person thought and more to do with what a person did.

Even though we the reading audience know that Patroclus is doomed, fated to die at Troy (along with Achilles) Achilles himself, not knowing Fate, is only left to do what any brave hero must do – make prayers for the best possible outcome and face his duty and danger with a sense of heroic resolve.

As a warrior and a hero, it really isn’t Achilles’ concern what some weird power like “Fate” may have in store. He knows that if he is brave regardless of what Fate weaves, he will be remembered with glory for all time as we can see, he has been.

We can never “go back in fictional time” and see what might have happened if Achilles had not prayed and poured libation; perhaps in that “alternate” Fateful timeline, Patroclus may have failed to save the Greek ships and died. There is no going back in time to see what might have been; what happened is what happened, and cannot be changed. We simply must remind ourselves that Achilles’ offering and prayer must of necessity had an impact on all events that were to follow, as great Zeus heard him and responded.

However Fate was weaving, Achilles, in keeping with the finest tradition of the Indo-European peoples, was brave. A quote from Geibel is appropriate here:

“If there’s anything more powerful than Fate,
Then it’s courage, which bears Fate unshaken.”

The Libation Ritual Form

Libations are done following a simple formula – I call it the “Three P’s” formula. The three P’s arePurification, Pouring, and Prayer.

We can see all three of these simple but powerful religious acts in Achilles’ libation – he begins by cleaning and purifying both the vessel of the libation, and his own hands. No ritual act should be performed without the participants being cleansed in some manner. The Greeks had an idea that “only the pure could be in the company of the pure” and the Gods themselves, whom they approached in sacrifice and libation, were pure. Human beings had to ritually purify themselves to assure that their prayers and intentions could go among the immortal Gods.

The next thing Achilles does is fill the cup and stand before his lodge, hold up his cup, look to the skies (the realm of Zeus), and pour his libation. This is the “pouring” part of the libation. The Gods are given their portion, which can be some or all of the contents of the cup. At symposiums or meals, the Gods were traditionally only given a small splash or tiny pouring of wine, after which the drinkers drank their fill. This is another aspect of the “first fruits” offering that the ancients commonly gave to the Gods. Achilles seems to have poured out his entire cup for Zeus which is fitting considering his need is so great.

Finally comes the prayer that accompanies the libation. Achilles’ prayer follows a standard form that is found in nearly all Classical literature.

Achilles begins by invoking his God, and calling upon the God with many names, attributes, and epithets. Zeus, in the prayer of Achilles, is called “King” and “Pelasgian” – that is, God of the ancient Pelasgian people. Zeus is called “Lord of Dodona’s holy shrine”, or “Dodonan Zeus”. He is also called “high lord of thunder”. This establishes a connection between the one praying and the one to whom the prayers are offered. Achilles also describes the Selli prophets that “dwell around” Zeus and even describes them as barefooted or with unwashed feet. This all establishes both Zeus’ glory and his connection with this world.

Achilles then proceeds to remind Zeus of the last time Zeus heard and granted one of his prayers – this was quite a common thing in ancient prayers. For those of us in the modern day the practice becomes evidence of a thriving religious life. Achilles praises Zeus, essentially, for his previous favors. Achilles continues by describing his needs to Zeus and asking for Zeus’ aid.

Achilles’ prayer follows a “threefold pattern” – he calls upon Zeus with multiple epithets, verbalizes a time or times when the God has aided him before, and then describes his need and makes his petition. This is what Homer records, though in other places, prayer-formulas have a fourth portion – a promise to the God to perform some further sacrifices, honors, or libations if they aid the person praying. Of course, if the prayer is answered, the person is bound to do as he vowed and the consequences for failing to fulfill such a vow could be very grim.

In modern prayers if a God or Goddess has never aided you before (to your knowledge) one can refer to recorded times in the Myths when that being has helped a mortal or a being who prayed to them.

A lost person, for instance, may rightly pray to Athena to help them find their way home or to safety, and remind the great Goddess that “as she aided Odysseus on his dangerous voyage home”, so could she aid them. Also, from simply knowing what things the ancient Gods and Goddesses were often invoked for in the past, one can prayerfully remind them of their many great services to mankind. A businessman about to enter into a business negotiation could rightly address Hermes, saying “Hermes, if in the past you ever aided merchants who needed charm and persuasiveness, so aid me now…” A simple knowledge of myth and religion from the past can allow a discerning person to create authentic and traditional prayers for any need.

After pouring and praying, a modern person may drink whatever is left in the libation cup, (if anything). To me, this represents the “taking in” of the prayer that was just prayed, establishing a link with the prayerful person and the God or Gods, as well as symbolizing the “giving back” of the Gods, a sort of answer to the prayer. Prayerful communion is always a two-way affair, and drinking even a small portion (or half, or whatever) of the libation drives this home; our connection with the divine is not just “one way”. Of course, you can pour it all out and the event is just as sacred and strong.

Other Libations

When drinking at meals or parties, the first sip of any drink should be poured out for the Gods – this type of simple libation is attested to in the Iliad, the Odyssey, and in many other sources. It is a very simple practice – the cup is lifted, and dedicated “to the Gods” or to a particular God, Goddess, or the like, and then a sip is poured out, into a libation bowl, or onto bare ground.

When a group of people wish to share one cup to do a libation, I have always (following Burkert’s writing on the subject) shifted the order of the three P’s to purification, prayer, and pouring. The participants all purify themselves (washing with lustral water or chernips is the typical way) and then the cup is purified and filled with wine or whatever liquid will be used – oil, honey, and water are also recorded as being used. The first person takes the cup, devotes it to what God or Goddess is being given libation and prays. They then pass the full cup to the next person, who then does the same – all take turns praying with the cup, and when it is passed back to the first person who prayed, they pour it out, thus finishing the rite.

Bear in mind that libations are always poured either into a libation bowl, which is then later emptied onto the bare earth or given back to nature in some manner, or directly onto the ground or into a body of water. Greek sailors poured out whole jars of wine, from the sides of their ships before launch, praying to the Gods for luck in the voyage – a very strong form of libation.

Libations for the dead and the powers of the Underworld are the final form of libation that I do need to discuss because unlike other libations, the ancients never drank libations to the dead or the powers of the Underworld. There seems to have been an idea, an easily understandable idea, that the dead were “further removed” and finally, utterly removed from the land of the living and so there was a sense of finality in the offering, a sense of surrender to the inexorable Fate of death, that was lacking in other libations.

The dead are given the whole cup of drink, the entire libation, and the living do not drink with them. Also, whereas prayers were normally made with a clear voice or even a soft voice (for the Gods could hear either) the Gods of the Underworld and the powers of that place – including in some cases the dead – were uncanny and mysterious and could hear prayers spoken only in thoughts or in the heart. Burkert says that in some cases silent prayer was prescribed for the Underworldly powers.

The method of purifying before a libation to the dead was the same as any other, but the pouring was of a different kind – it was not a controlled pouring, such as in the regular libation, but a hard, fast pouring, spilling all of the liquid onto the earth. Sometimes this was done with a jar or free-standing jug that was simply tipped over or held upside down. The procession away from the graves or the place where such a libation for the dead was done was silent – often like the prayers – and the participants were not supposed to look back. Making a choe, an offering to the dead, comes very near to crossing that most sacred of all borders and divisions, the division between the mortal world and the world of the dead, and to look back would be to risk sacrilege and possibly madness or harm.

Burkert does mention that a Sponde, a regular drink-offering or libation, could be done for the Gods of the Underworld, but a Choe, a libation specifically to the dead and the Underworldly powers that attend them was handled differently, as I described above. There is an important distinction there.

Robin Artisson is a proponent of Traditional Paganism
and author of The Witching Way of the Hollow Hill
Contact Robin Artisson
Visit Scarespite, a site devoted to the Art of Traditional Witchcraft and Paganism.

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