Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes


(Notes adapted from Wikipedia entry)

A libation (spondee in Greek) is a ritual pouring of a drink as an offering to a god.

It was common in the religions of antiquity, including Judaism: "And Jacob set up a Pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a Pillar of Stone; and he poured out a drink offering on it, and poured oil on it." (Genesis 35:14) . . .

The liquid that was used in libations varied; most commonly it was wine or olive oil . . . . The liquid was poured onto something of religious significance. The libation was very often poured on the ground itself, as an offering to the Earth.

In Ancient Greece the term "spondee" (libation) is meant as a type of sacrifice. The term includes all offers to the gods, [including] various nutritious or precious liquids, as perfumes, wine, honey, milk, oil, juices of fruits. . . .

Ancient Greek texts often mention libations. Euripides describes the dire consequences of failure to include certain gods in libations in The Bacchae, a theme common to many Greek tragedies. The use of a libation composed of barley, wine, honey and water to summon shades in Hades is also referred to in the Odyssey.


article on libation in Ancient Greek Literature

The Tipsy Hero
Alexander Nazaryan
New York Times, 30 January 2009

A student in one of my English classes recently asked about the endless references to drinking wine in “The Odyssey.” The question, which had nothing to do with my lesson, was a good one. Wine has a constant presence in the epic poem, whose most famous image is probably Homer’s evocation of the “wine-dark sea” that Odysseus sails in search of his native Ithaka. Sometimes it is mere tonic on an impossibly long journey home from the Trojan War, but on occasion wine is more powerful than the sword, as when Odysseus escapes from the Cyclops by getting him drunk. Homer may have been blind, but his taste buds were alive to wine, and he reserved his richest adjectives for it: heady, mellow, ruddy, shining, glowing, seasoned, hearty, honeyed, glistening, heart-warming, and, of course, irresistible.

How to wreck a symposium: have one too many bowls of wine and hit on Socrates.

Much of “The Odyssey,” with its endless feasting and fighting, reads like a James Bond escapade with wine bowls instead of martini glasses, but in the classroom lessons on heroic archetypes and dactylic hexameter prevail. After all, it is unlikely that any standardized test will ask about the intricate drinking rituals that permeated the culture of ancient Greece. But the breathtaking wine kraters in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the dialogues of Plato, the plays of Euripides, all attest to a longstanding relationship with alcohol.

The Greeks taught us plenty about philosophy, government and art. And we can learn from their drinking, too. They loved wine, yet knew that its consumption must be carefully controlled. The fermented grape was an exalted, mysterious object: the notion of “needing” to get drunk, of using alcohol to deaden the difficulties of being alive, would have seemed like the perversion of a passion enjoyed by gods and mortals alike.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t spend my free time offering libations to Dionysus, but I admire how open the Greeks were about the role of alcohol in their society (unsurprising, perhaps, for a people whose highest ideal was “the examined life”). In modern times, it seems we readily migrate to the extremes, either abusing alcohol or treating it as if it doesn’t exist, without acknowledging a healthy middle ground. As a constant conduit between the realms of adulthood and innocence, I find this particularly troublesome because too many young adults will discover drinking in a rowdy fraternity or a bar that doesn’t care much about whom it serves. Surely, there must be something for them between “Animal House” and the Anti-Saloon League.

It is unlikely that a modern-day Aristotle would ever find himself in the basement of Delta house playing beer pong to the sounds of Lynyrd Skynyrd (he might have also wondered why a house full of J. Crew-clad lacrosse players is called “Greek”). In his excellent Courtesans & Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, James Davidson describes the symposium, a “classic moderate drinking-party” common to the wealthier households of Athens, during which men of stature would engage in lively debate, with bowls of wine dispensed under the careful watch of a symposiarch (a sort of strict toastmaster). The most famous of these is described in Plato’s Symposium, where Socrates and his friends, still hung over from the previous night’s carousing, decide on an evening of light drinking. The temperance pays off: in the ensuing discussion, they summon an overarching vision of love that has endured in the Western imagination for more than two millennia.

But amidst their philosophical euphoria, there is a strong note of warning about moderation: the handsome youth Alcibiades “arrives in a state of high intoxication,” Davidson writes. He drunkenly tries to cozy up to the older Socrates, who has no patience for his prurient come-ons and intimations. Alcibiades is eventually subdued, but soon a group of boozy revelers bursts in. “There was noise everywhere, and everyone was made to start drinking in no particular order,” Plato dryly records. The drinking party comes to an unceremonious conclusion because love of drink overpowers love of truth.

Order had a counterpart in Greece, not merely in a disorganized happy-hour sort of debauchery, but a controlled ecstasy that allowed the Greeks to plumb the depths of intoxication without drowning in them. Today “irrational exuberance” means bankruptcies and foreclosures; for the Greeks, a measure of irrationality checked the rule of reason. When the world – remarkably similar to our own in its stresses and struggles – intruded too much on their inner selves, the Greeks sought refuge in what the classical scholar E.R. Dodds calls, in his seminal The Greeks and the Irrational, the “less conscious level of human experience.”

Wine provided that respite from rational thought, especially during the festivals for Dionysus that eventually gave rise to theatrical performance. “Dionysus offered freedom,” Dodds writes. “He was essentially a god of joy,” unlike the more reserved champion of reason Apollo. But the Greeks also understood that it was easy for the seductive ecstasy of drink to degenerate into ugly abuse. The playwright Euripides, in his Bacchae, describes a group of women who, under the spell of Dionysus, murder King Pentheus of Thebes by tearing apart his limbs. The dark side of consuming “fountains of wine” is on gruesome display.

None of this made it into my classroom. Maybe I was too frightened to tackle such a mature subject with such a young crowd; or maybe the English teacher’s customary obsession with covering every grammatical concept and literary term simply drove me to more practical shores. But my student’s question did engender a lively, if brief, conversation. Someone thought that it was unseemly for a hero to drink, while others figured that with his sights set on home, Odysseus didn’t have much time to nurse a hangover. There would be time for wine to flow, they argued.

I wasn’t quite satisfied, and the question continued to bother me until, days later, I found a passage in “The Odyssey” that succinctly captures the complexity of the Greek attitude towards alcohol. Odysseus is speaking to a sympathetic swineherd, and though he is in disguise, the words have the unmistakable ring of honesty:

[I]t is the wine that leads me on, the wild wine
that sets the wisest man to sing at the top of his lungs,
laugh like a fool – it drives the man to dancing…it even
tempts him to blurt out stories better never told.

After two decades away from home, there must have been so much to say, so many bottled-up tales of friends lost and battles won. Somebody get the poor guy another round.