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LIBATION is one of the oldest and perhaps least understood religious rituals, the sacrificial pouring out of liquid. Its primary importance seems to lie in the act of pouring, because the liquids that are poured out (wine, milk, honey, water, oil, and in some cases even blood) and the places where this is done (on the ground, into chasms, upon the altar, over the sacrificial victim, into a sacrificial bowl) vary and change. Libation can be traced back as far as the Bronze Age by means of libation pitchers and bowls discovered in excavations or depicted in stone reliefs and vase paintings or on gems, seals, and rings. The ritual is found in almost every culture and geographical area, but the kinds of libations and their performance, place in the cult, relations to other rituals, sacrificial materials, and possible meanings and functions differ from one religion to another and even within the same religion.

In spite of a wealth of evidence, many of the basic problems have remained unsolved. The information about Greek religion is extraordinarily complicated, but the situation may have been just as confusing in other religions where data have not been as fully preserved. Further, in this regard there is a remarkable degree of similarity between religions that otherwise have little connection, as for instance the sacrificial rites of Classical Greece and the Priestly tradition of the Old Testament.

Name and Terminology

The word libation is derived from the Latin libatio ("sacrificial offering of drink"). The word is connected with the Greek noun loibē ("libation") and the verb leibō ("to pour out a libation"), used since Homer. More common than these poetic terms, however, are the synonyms spendō, spondē (Hittite, shipand-; Latin, spondeo; German, spenden; English, spend ) and cheō, choē. The word-field points to an Indo-European religious ritual with the wider range of social and legal functions.


The meaning of the libation offering can vary as much as the way it was performed. It is not known for certain what the original meaning of the ritual was, if, in fact, there was only one original meaning. Perhaps the original meaning or meanings are still found among the many seemingly secondary applications and developments. The ritual itself, being rather simple and of no great interest, may have attracted what appeared to be deeper interpretations and connections with other rituals. In these matters history may provide some clues.

The most ancient sources treat libations as separate gift offerings, and this is probably what they originally were. In Babylonian and Assyrian religion, it was primarily the king's office to offer libations to the gods. Libations were part of the meals presented to the gods on altar tables, around which the divinities gathered eagerly. In purifications and magic, however, the purpose of libations was different. The ancient Egyptian sources provide a similar picture, so that the common performances of the ritual may not have changed much over the centuries down to the Greco-Egyptian period, when libations are found in all their variety in the Greek Magical Papyri. These sources show libations of wine, honey, milk, water, and oil as standard features of most religious rites, either separately or in connection with other ceremonies. Originally they seem to have been separate from animal sacrifices, with which they were often later connected. If at the beginning libations were gift offerings, they were most likely understood as gifts to the deity in return for benefits received. By the seemingly wasteful giving up of some vital resources, libations constituted fundamental acts of recognition and gratitude as well as hope for future benefits. Thus they were part of the communication with the divine sphere of life through the exchange of gifts. This may also explain why the gods themselves are often shown offering libations.

Greek Religion

Libations were common as early as the Minoan-Mycenaean period (c. 2000 bce). Gems often depict sacrificial scenes with libation pitchers and offering tables laden with bread and fruit. While these pictures generally separate such gift offerings from animal sacrifices, there is at least one noted exception: the Hagia Triada sarcophagus from the late Minoan period (c. 1500 bce; Long, 1974). Here one scene shows a procession of women and men carrying buckets of liquid; the first person, a priestess, is pouring her bucket into a krater (mixing bowl). This scene probably depicts the mixing of wine and water as preparation for the libation. In another scene altars are shown in a tree sanctuary. A priestess officiates before one of these altars, on which stand a libation pitcher and a basket of bread and fruit. Behind this altar, however, appears a table bearing a newly slaughtered bull, his blood flowing from his throat into a vessel on the floor. The data provided by these pictures suggest that later Greek sacrifice dates back to this Archaic period, when the originally separate gift offerings had already become associated with animal sacrifice.

It is difficult to understand the relationship between libations and the special blood sacrifices performed in funerary rites for heroes (see Pindar, Olympian Odes 1.90, with the technical expression haimakouria, "a fill of blood"; Homer, Iliad 23.34; Plutarch, Aristides 21). Whether these blood rites are to be regarded as different from libations, or in some instances as adaptations to libations, is far from clear.

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. Animal sacrifice had libations as part of its preliminary sacrifice (as in Aristophanes' The Peace 431435) and used libation as well in its conclusion, when wine was poured into the fire that consumed the remains of the victim. Wine drinking at symposiums involved libations by all participants, together with invocations and prayers. Concern for protection and a safe return is evident in libations made just prior to sea voyages (Thucydides, 6.32.12; Pindar, Pythian Odes 4.193200) and battle (Iliad 16.220252). Libations in connection with legal agreements had a different meaning, signifying the entering into obligation. The more magically oriented libations for the dead, of which there are literary accounts, were again different, but their specific role and function, despite ancient attempts at explanation, remain somewhat ambiguous (e.g., the epithet gapotos, "to be drunk up by Earth," in Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers 97, 164, and The Persians 621). A reflection of popular beliefs is found in Lucian's remark (On Funerals 9) that the souls of the dead receive nourishment from libation. Libations of oil, another very old custom, develop more in a magical direction: Anointing stones and funerary stelae was customary in much of the ancient world.

Whatever the original purpose of water libations may have been, they were later understood mostly in terms of purification. This is true especially of the ablution of hands (chernips ) at the beginning of the offering ceremonies. Yet water libations were also performed at tombs by putting the water on them or pouring it into them. Mythology may have provided secondary explanations: They are bathwater (loutra ) from the underworld (Sophocles, Electra 84.434) or a fresh drink for the thirsty dead (cf. Luke 16:24). The origins of water-carrying festivals (hudrophoria ), which existed since ancient times, were different still, the purpose perhaps originally being purification. Yet another water ritual found its way into the mysteries of Eleusis, when at their conclusion two jugs were filled and then overturned, one toward the east and the other toward the west. This probably happened while the initiates shouted "Hue kue," telling the heavens, "Rain!" and the earth, "Conceive!"

Israelite Religion

Israelite libations, as known from the Hebrew scriptures and the Mishnah (Suk. 4.9), were remarkably similar in appearance to ancient Greek rituals. Similar too are some of the ambiguities, such as the role of blood in relation to libations (see McCarthy, 1973; Kedar-Kopfstein, 1978). The formation of the composite sacrifice in the Priestly texts can be compared to the formation of the Greek sacrifice. No attempt is made in the Hebrew scriptures to explain the purpose of the libations. If reasons are given, they apply as caricatures of foreign religions and express sarcasm (Is. 1:11; Ps. 50:13). Together with other parts of the sacrificial cult, libation was taken over from the Canaanites. The root of the term designating libation (nsk ) also occurs in Ugaritic and Phoenician-Punic. Direct takeover of a foreign ritual including libations is reported in connection with King Ahaz's imitation of the royal cult of Damascus (2 Kgs. 16:1018) and in Artaxerxes' decree to Ezra (Ezr. 7:17). The sharp polemics by the prophets also reflect the non-Israelite origin of libations (Jer. 7:18, 19:13, 32:29; Ez. 20:28; Dt. 32:38; Ps. 16:4). Texts dealing with libations mention them either alone (Gn. 28:18, 35:14; Jer. 7:18, 19:13, 32:29, 44:1719, 44:25; Ez. 20:28; Ps. 16:4) or in connection with the minhah, the gift offering of cereals (Jl. 1:9, 1:13, 2:14; Is. 57:6). The Priestly legislation shows the combination of minhah ("gift offering") and nesekh ("libation") with the burnt offering (ʿolah ) (Lv. 23:13, 23:18, 23:37; Nm. 6:15, 6:17, 15:10, 28:731, 29:39), as do the morning and evening offerings in Exodus 29:4041. References to libation utensils confirm what is known from excavations (Ex. 25:29, 30:9; Nm. 4:7; 1 Chr. 29:21; 2 Chr. 29:35). Anointing of stones with oil was perhaps traditional at Bethel (Gn. 28:18, 35:14); water libations are also mentioned (1 Sm. 7:1; 2 Sm. 23:16; 1 Chr. 11:18). The notion of wine symbolizing blood is late (Sir. 50:15).

Special Developments

Some religions and cultures have developed special forms of libation offerings, several of which should be mentioned. The Iranian cult of haoma goes back to great antiquity. This drink of immortality was encountered by Zarathushtra (Zoroaster, c. 600 bce), who attacked it. Its later revival suggests that he reformed the ritual and thus continued it. The haoma cult corresponds to the Vedic cult of soma. Soma is at once a deity and the plant from which the juice comes that, when pressed and then mixed with water and milk, makes the soma drink. This drink is offered to the gods, but it is also consumed by the people during feasts and conveys immortality (gveda 8:48).

Ancient Chinese religion developed the festival of Shidian ("pouring a drink offering"). The cult seems to have its origin in ancestral worship and is connected with the veneration of Confucius and his pupil Yen Hui. It consisted of a sacrifice and a banquet. During the Ming dynasty (13681644), the Shidian ritual was greatly expanded along with the Confucius cult.

The sacrifice of the legendary first emperor, Jimmu, in Shintō religion is also interesting because of its antiquity. The offering includes the essential means for life, food, and drink and is followed by a feast. Ceremonial beer-drinking rituals were conducted by the Vikings of Scandinavia. The drykkeoffer was a sumptuous beer party with three ceremonial cups of mead offered to Óðinn (Odin), Þórr (Thor), and Freyja. The three offerings have a curious parallel in Greek sacrifice, but beer-drinking rituals are found elsewhere as well, as for instance in Southeast Asia.

For different reasons, several major religions have discontinued libations altogether. Buddhist religion is opposed to external sacrifices in principle. Jewish religion was compelled to abandon its sacrificial ritual, and with it libations, because of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 ce. Christianity has no room for libations in its cult. It uses water in baptism; sees in wine the blood of Christ, the sacramental drink of the Eucharist (substituted in some instances by milk or honey), which is offered not to but by the deity, and certainly must not be spilled; and uses oil for sacramental anointing. Islam has no sacrifices in the proper sense of the term. The pre-Islamic libations of milk, predominant among the Arabs, were discontinued, but in some quarters those offerings persist.


No scholarly investigation exists that takes adequate account of the libations in the various religions, nor do most encyclopedias include a separate article on this important ritual. The following bibliography lists items that summarize the evidence of specific religions, provide surveys, or contain bibliographies.

Asmussen, Jes P., and Jørgen Laessøe, eds. Handbuch der Religionsgeschichte. 2 vols. Göttingen, 19711975. Sections on the various religions give attention to libations; see the index, s.v. Opfer (Trink-, Libations- ).

Bonnet, Hans, ed. Reallexikon der ägyptischen Religionsge-schichte. 2d ed. Berlin, 1952. See pages 424426, s.v. Libation. Surveys the evidence in Egyptian religion; includes a useful bibliography.

Borghouts, J. F. "Libation." In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, vol. 3. Wiesbaden, 1980. Presents evidence for Egyptian religion on the basis of current research.

Burkert, Walter. Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. Berkeley, Calif., 1983. Basic study of Greek sacrificial rituals and their prehistory.

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Cambridge, Mass., 1985. Best account of the current state of research on Greek religion, with sections on libation. Contains a wealth of bibliographical, textual, and archaeological references.

Gill, David. "Trapezomata: A Neglected Aspect of Greek Sacrifice." Harvard Theological Review 67 (1974): 117137. Discusses Greek gift offerings set up for the gods on tables.

Graf, Fritz. "Milch, Honig und Wein: Zum Verständnis der Libation im griechischen Ritual." In Perennitas: Studi in onore di Angelo Brelich, pp. 209221. Rome, 1981. Important study of the complexities of the Greek ritual, especially with regard to the substances of milk, honey, and wine. Bibliographic references.

Hanell, Krister. "Trankopfer, Spenden, Libationen." In Real-Encyclopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, 2d series, vol. 6. Stuttgart, 1937. Collection of the evidence of libations in Greek religion.

Herrmann, Wolfram. "Götterspeise und Göttertrank in Ugarit und Israel." Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 72 (1960): 205216. Compares the evidence from Ugarit and the Old Testament.

Kedar-Kopfstein, Benjamin. "dam" (Blood). In the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 3. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1978. Deals with the evidence and literature on blood sacrifice in the ancient Near East and the Old Testament.

Latte, Kurt. Römische Religionsgeschichte. Munich, 1960. Summary of the evidence in Roman religion.

Long, Charlotte R. The Ayia Triadha Sarcophagus: A Study of Late Minoan and Mycenaean Funerary Practices and Beliefs. Göteborg, 1974. Investigation of the sacrificial scenes on the sarcophagus from Hagia Triada (Crete), with good photographic material.

McCarthy, Dennis J. "The Symbolism of Blood and Sacrifice." Journal of Biblical Literature 88 (1969): 166176.

McCarthy, Dennis J. "Further Notes on the Symbolism of Blood and Sacrifice." Journal of Biblical Literature 92 (1973): 205210. Discusses the evidence and possible meaning of blood sacrifice in the ancient Near East and Israel and in Greek religion.

Meuli, Karl. "Griechische Opferbräuche." In Phyllobolia für Peter von der Mühll zum 60. Geburtstag, edited by Olof Gigon and Karl Meuli, pp. 185288. Basel, 1946. Reprinted in Meuli's Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 2, edited by Thomas Gelzer (Basel, 1975). A seminal study.

Michel, Otto. "Spendomai, spendō." In the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 7. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1971. Surveys the evidence in the Old Testament, Judaism, and Christianity. Contains a rich bibliography, for which also see the supplement in Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, vol. 10, pt. 2 (Stuttgart, 1979).

Mitropoulou, Elpis. Libation Scenes with Oinochoe in Votive Reliefs. Athens, 1975. Collects evidence from the perspective of art history.

Nilsson, Martin P. The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and Its Survival in Greek Religion (1950). 2d rev. ed. New York, 1971. Especially important for the pictorial material.

Nilsson, Martin P. Geschichte der griechischen Religion. 3d ed. 2 vols. Munich, 19671974. A monumental work, especially important for bibliographical references.

Rendtorff, Rolf. Studien zur Geschichte des Opfers im alten Israel. Neukirchen-Vluyn, West Germany, 1967. The only modern critical study of the Old Testament traditions concerning libations. Contains a comprehensive bibliography.

Smith, W. Robertson. Lectures on the Religion of the Semites: The Fundamental Institutions (1889). 3d ed. New York, 1969. This nineteenth-century classic is still indispensable.

Stengel, Paul. Opferbräuche der Griechen. Leipzig, 1910. Basic study of the Greek sacrificial terminology and practices.

Stengel, Paul. Die griechischen Kultusaltertümer. 3d ed., rev. Munich, 1920. Standard work concerning Greek cultic practices. See pages 103105 on libations.

Wachsmuth, Dietrich. "Trankopfer." In Der Kleine Pauly, vol. 5, edited by Konrat Ziegler. Munich, 1975. Update of the articles by Krister Hanell and Ludwig Ziehen with additional references.

Wendel, Adolf. Das Opfer in der israelitischen Religion. Leipzig, 1927. A basic study that is still of value.

Ziehen, Ludwig. "Nephalia." In Real-Encyclopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, vol. 16. Stuttgart, 1935. Surveys wineless libations in Greek religion.

New Sources

Schechner, Richard, and Willa Appel, ed. By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual. New York, 1990.

Hans Dieter Betz (1987)

Revised Bibliography