5 O’CLOCK SOMEWHERE
Here’s Why We Offer Spirits for the Spirits
“Pour out a little liquor” and other thoughts on libation as a cultural practice.
By October 31st you’ll see any number of online posts about spooky cocktails, skull-shaped ice cubes, festive punchbowl presentations involving dry ice — the usual Halloween cocktail fare. This year, let’s go a little deeper. We’re in the season of All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day, and the Day of the Dead, a time when we visit cemeteries to remember our loved ones and celebrate their lives. This is a time to consider alcohol as more than just a beverage — consider what it means as a spirit and to the spirits.
The first time I witnessed the ritual of someone pouring out spirits for those we miss, it was my mother. From the moment a bottle of alcohol was cracked open in our household, or she had a freshly-made drink in her hand, she’d dash out a little to the ground, and explain — “that’s for the spirits.” This practice of pouring some out for our ancestors has deep roots in a collective history from across the Diaspora. It’s known as libation or a libation ceremony in many cultures, upheld as a tradition and religious offering from the time of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Israel. The practice of offering spirits to the saints or spirits is upheld in the Caribbean, the Americas, Africa, and Asian cultures. Around the world, people pour some out for their loved ones in formal and informal rituals on graves or at wedding ceremonies, or drinks are offered as a symbol, sacrifice or tribute on an altar or ofrenda.
When it comes to pouring out some for those we’ve lost, in my seen experience it’s pretty much been whatever came to hand, whatever the person offering the tribute may have been sipping on at the time. But what do the spirits prefer? Is there a particular libation that should traditionally be offered? That may depend on the spirit, on where or how they lived.
“The tradition in Trinidad is that when you open a new bottle of any kind of spirituous liquor, you give the first drink to those who are not here to physically have a drink themselves. It starts with just throwing some liquid from the bottle out onto the floor or into the air. This comes out of West African and Central African…