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How to Pour a Proper Libation

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

I always say that you can't pour a proper libation if you're afraid of splashing your shoes.

It was Sparky T. Rabbit's Memorial. I had waded into the Mississippi up to my waist to release the death-ship with its garlanded standing picture, the flowers, the grave-gifts and the bowls of barley, ash, and ocher. As I pushed the ship out to catch the current, from the shore our friend Sirius poured out the grave-libation into the River. Because it was behind me, I couldn't see the libation being poured, but I could hear the voice of it as the wine kissed the water. I knew that Sirius was pouring out a full bottle of wine, but the pour just went on and on and on. I could have sworn that that bottle held three times the usual amount of wine.

And that's the right way to pour a libation.

Inexperienced libators tend to make two common mistakes.

The first is the timid pour. Outdoor version: I don't want to splash, I don't want to make a mess. So I'll just crouch down here to the ground and pour it out so that nobody can see it or hear it. Indoor version: I'll rest the lip of the bottle on the rim of the libation bowl so I don't splash the altar cloth. There, done, nice and tidy; nobody saw or heard a thing.

Wrong. Libation is conspicuous consumption. Better yet, it's conspicuous waste. Nobody would pour out a perfectly good bottle of wine without even tasting it. On the face of it, libation is an act of waste. This is what removes it from the ordinary and makes it a special act that draws in sacredness. Sacredness inheres in the non-ordinary.

Let us see the incomparable amber of that mead as it pours, twisting and catching the light, feeling the pang of regret that we ourselves will not taste it, making our prayers as it flows (for “the avenues of communication between ourselves and the gods are most open during the making of offerings”). When the poets speak of libations, they always call them “sparkling.” Let that flow catch the light of the gods as it rills out, beautiful.

And let us hear that rich, rippling, silken sound as it lands. This is the voice of the libation. A libation should speak, and our ears should hear it. This is a sacred hearing, a music. A proper libation should sing.

The other common libational error is the dump. Pour, splat, there: take it. Whew, that's done. The grudging, nasty pour.

No, no, no. It's foreplay, it's sex. You don't do it to get it over with: you do it to enjoy the process. Let us enjoy the sight, the sound, and the smell of it. Think slo-mo. That's how Sirius managed to fit three bottles of wine into one bottle's worth of pour.

(Of course, there's such a thing as a too slow a pour. Drip, drip, drip. Making the gods--or humans--wait is never a good idea, in my experience. )

And even: keep that flow nice and even. Not stuttering, not stop-and-start, not blurp, blurp, blurp: smooooth. There's art to pouring a beautiful libation. And we pray better when we pray beautifully.

So: stand up straight (but for gods' sakes, don't block the sight-lines), thrust out that arm like you mean it, and give us that long, slow, steady, smooth arc of beautiful, sparkling, sacred, conspicuous waste.

And that's how to pour a proper libation.



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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Gwion Raven
    Gwion Raven Wednesday, 03 September 2014

    Steven - I love this post!

    My grandmother makes a great show of pouring the tea from her big brown teapot from a great height. One can practically taste the tea before the cup is ever presented because the sound of the pour sets the salivary glands and imagination to work!

    So too with offerings and libations. I'm a fan of the "sustained" pour. I only knew Sparky T. Rabbit by his music and from the stories I've heard from mutual friends. Something about the pour lasting for quite some time seems very appropriate - and extra chorus perhaps!

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 04 September 2014

    Back when I was a wine waiter, we did exactly the same kind of pour for exactly the same reasons. The Wielder of the Brown Pot (a position of authority in my family too: Gwion, we must be related) knows whereof she speaks.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 04 September 2014

    "'Sustained' pour" is the perfect description. Thanks!

  • john stitely
    john stitely Wednesday, 03 September 2014

    Steve , you often have excellent advice on authentic ritual and pracitce. Your contribution on How to Pour a Libation” was no exception. The reminder to make the Libation a beautiful experience where the sense reinforce the worshipful intent was a useful correction for my ritual skills.
    I have a small criticism of the following:
    “Libation is conspicuous consumption. Better yet, it's conspicuous waste. Nobody would pour out a perfectly good bottle of wine without even tasting it. On the face of it, libation is an act of waste. This is what removes it from the ordinary and makes it a special act that draws in sacredness. Sacredness inheres in the non-ordinary. “
    I was raised to think of waste as a failure to be thankful or appreciative for what we have been given. As my pagan understanding has increased this still rings true. All that we have ultimately comes from the Earth and as the result of other natural processes are the province of various Gods which may be described by your lights. If we are grateful or appreciative for this bounty then waste must be heretical in the sense of being inconsistent with the valuing of the bounty which is available to us.
    When I first turned my mind to the question of votive offerings I tried to not go too easily to the Abrahamic / Christian answers which, to my “ear” tend to honour suffering more than joy. I asked myself this question. “What do we give to those who have given us everything?” Frankly this question was valuable for the humility that it generated. It also generated a conundrum. There is no bargaining or purchase with these items as they are irrelevant to he deities well being or happiness. Insofar as we waste and destroy we may injure them so what is the value of these offerings?
    Over time this caused me to reflect on gifts that seem pointless to me in terms of their intrinsic value. My cats will occasionally find something not entirely wholesome such as a dead mouse and bring it to me. Another cat who needed a bit of extra encouragement to use a cat box now still routinely goes to into the cat box when I am in the same room with him. More pleasant is when my grand children color or draw something, sometimes quite poorly from an artistic point of view, and present it to me as a gift. These are not gifts valued for their substance. They are gifts of the heart manifest in their actions
    These gifts gave me understanding. We give these gifts as tokens of appreciation to beings far beyond our comprehension It is common to say that intention is everything. Have rejected this as it implies that action is nothing or at least irrelevant. In every part of our lives our actions are the manifestations of what we intend and believe. Like the cat, we make offerings to the Gods of things that would please us. We intend to give and give what we think would be a kind gift.
    While Steven states, “Nobody would pour out a perfectly good bottle of wine without even tasting it.”, in fact we routinely give things such as a bottle of wine that we will not taste. This analysis also leaves me to understand that the gift is appropriate when it is sufficient for the giver. If it would bring us pleasure is is sufficient. Such an offering is both a proper devotion and a reflection on the appropriate humility before the divine.
    Going beyond my criticism I also find that offering the food I serve or the gifts I give to others as a sacrifice that enhances the life of others is also a useful sacrifice that gives pleasure to my self and honours the bounty I am blessed with.
    At last I need to reaffirm this criticism is intended as a contribution to creating pagan ritual ethos . My criticism focuses on two perhaps less than artful sentences in a valuable article from a person who has been instrumental in teaching me the need and value of ritual observance. I offer this criticism to one who has encouraged that our ritual life be evolved by public criticism and hope that this has offered positive alternative, and that I learned from , you, Steven.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 04 September 2014

    Thanks, John; a good, clear analysis as always. When I spoke of libations as "waste" I was thinking of how it must seem to an outsider looking in, but since I haven't made that clear in the way I've written it, there's no way I could expect anyone else to know it. And that's why the Goddess made peer review.

    Sitting on the front porch yesterday in our beautiful late-summer-with-just-a-soupcon-of fall weather, I was thinking about how libations function, inter alia, by short-circuiting our usual expectations. Generally the sight and sound of good drink falling onto the ground (e.g. spilt milk) is a bad thing, but in the case of a libation, it's a gateway to the sacred. Pretty sweet. Savvy folk, those ancestors.

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