Indo-European Language and Society

Chapter 2. The Libation


The liquid offering, such as is denoted in Greek by the verb spéndō, spéndomai and the noun spondḗ, is defined specifically as the “offering of security.” Every enterprise that involves a risk, such as a voyage, a warlike expedition, but also a pact or a peace treaty, is thus preceded by a spondḗ. The notion of an insurance against risk, of a guarantee, is also basic to the sense, which is solely juridical, of the Latin spondeo. Here the liquid offering has disappeared, but its function persists: filiam spondere is to give one’s daughter to wife (sponsa) by offering oneself as a guarantor of the union. As for respondere, this means “to reply that…” by “answering for …”
What is the “libation” which is defined once and for all by the correspondence of Gr. leíbō with Latin lībō, for it is neither khoḗ nor spondḗ? The group of Gr. leíbō expresses the notion of “oozing, trickling” and of “dripping”: leíbō ‘to sprinkle a few drops’ is thus opposed to khéo ‘to pour (in abundance)’. From a functional point of view, loibḗ seems to be in opposition to spondḗ in that it denotes an apotropaic rite as opposed to a propitiatory rite.
The baffling polysemy of Lat. lībāre ‘to make a libation, to taste, sip, take a portion of… , wear away, impair’, becomes intelligible if from the ancient sense “to pour a few drops” we posit the meaning “to deduct a very small part.”


I. Sponsio

A number of terms are associated with the “oath” and it seems logical to examine those which are attached to it by the nature of the institution. One rite accompanies the swearing of an oath or the conclusion of a pact: it is denoted by the Gr. spéndō ‘to make a libation’, Hittite šipant and išpant, i.e. spand-, of the same sense, and Latin spondere.
The three forms, which are evidently related, refer to notions which are not characterized in the same way. In Latin spondere is a legal term; in Hittite spand– designates a particular way of sacrificing; thus the idea of sacrifice is completely absent from the Latin word. The Greek spéndō associates the two meanings which Hittite and Latin give separately; it means both “to make a liquid offering” and “to conclude a pact.” The nominal derivative spondḗ, with the o-grade of the root, means “liquid offering,” but in the plural it means “agreement, truce, armistice.” In Greek we can best see the connection with the oath, when a spondḗ accompanies the swearing of the oath. This association explains how the verb in Greek was specialized, both in the active and in the middle, in the sense “to conclude a pact.” We may presume therefore that the primitive sense was that of a liquid offering which consecrated a pact.
Here we have a linguistic problem, for the fact that in both Greek and Latin spend– developed a political and juridical sense suggests that something prepared the way for this particular semantic development.
Now Greek spéndō is confined exclusively to the “libation,” although there is nothing which enables us to circumscribe the meaning more closely. If the verb implied that the libation was always made on the occasion of some agreement, the specialization of the sense would be a matter of course. But often there is no obvious implication of such an association. In the Odyssey the libation can be carried out without any relation to a pact. The suitors make a libation in the evening and there is nothing to suggest that it had anything to do with a pact or any ritual act. On many occasions Odysseus and his companions pour libations without any kind of agreement being involved. In general the mention of a spondḗ is not followed by any collective covenant. And yet Herodotus already frequently uses spéndomai and spondḗ in the sense “to conclude peace.” This contrast in usage is rather odd. The only way to solve the puzzle is to undertake a careful analysis of the oldest uses and, in the first place, the most significant Homeric examples.
In Iliad 2, 341; 4, 159 spondaì ákrētoi are mentioned in connection with the oath, while the parties to the proceedings grasp each other by the right hand. This is certainly of a ceremonial character; now these are the only Homeric examples of spondḗ and the use of the term implies precisely the conclusion of a pact.
In several examples spéndō accompanies a speech. In Il. 16, 227 Achilles addresses Zeùs Dōdōnaîos Pelasgikós: he washes his hands, and utters a prayer while making a libation of wine and looking up to heaven. It should be noted that he asks Zeus for the safe return of the companion whom he is sending into battle.
In 24, 287 it is the eve of a dangerous enterprise: Priam is going to ask the Achaeans for the return of his dead son. On the advice of his wife, he then makes a libation; he presents himself before the gods and addresses Zeus. His wife previously says to him: “Ask Zeus to send a favorable sign in the shape of an eagle which will appear on our right hand so that you can go in full certainty; then I will not oppose your going.” Then Priam in his turn says: “Grant me, Ο Zeus, the power to go to Achilles and give me a favorable sign in the form of an eagle which will show that I can go in all confidence among the Achaeans.”
Thus the libation accompanies a prayer which aims at obtaining security. It is at the moment of beginning a dangerous enterprise for oneself or for others that a liquid offering is poured to Zeus, an offering which should guarantee the interested party that he will return safe and sound. A confirmation of this is found in Herodotus (VII, 54). Xerxes makes a libation at the moment of invading Greece and asks the god that no misfortune should prevent him from invading Europe as a whole and from reaching its furthest confines. The idea is to forearm oneself against a danger with the aid of the gods.
These are exactly the conditions we observe in Homer, Od. 18, 151. Odysseus, still in disguise, is among the suitors. He is offered dinner. He pours a libation, and since Odysseus has just been mentioned, he warns the suitors: “It will be a misfortune for the man who stands in Odysseus’ way the day he returns; let us wish that this may happen to no one.” He prepares himself for the decisive combat to regain his home.
The aim is always to protect the one who is engaged in a difficult enterprise. The context often illuminates the use: thus in Od. 3, 334, at the moment of undertaking or continuing a dangerous voyage by sea, a libation is poured to Poseidon.
In the episode of the oxen of the Sun (12, 363) the companions of Odysseus, who are famished, come upon a herd which is protected by an interdiction: no man may slay these oxen. Now they have cut the throat of one and have roasted it; but before eating the flesh they pour a libation, with water in default of wine. They know that they have committed sacrilege; they try to appease the interested god. Elsewhere this purpose is stated in express terms as when Pisistratus welcomes Telemachus to his feast together with Athena in disguise:

Stranger, first pray to Poseidon, our king, for this is his festival at which you have just arrived. Pour libations; pray as is customary; afterwards you will give the cup to your friend so that he in his turn can offer some of this honey-sweet wine; he too must pray to the immortal gods, I think; have not all men the same need of the gods?
Od. 3, 43ff.

There follows the prayer of Athena to Poseidon, listing the favors desired. The same procedure vis-à-vis Poseidon is followed at the time when the guests prepare to go to bed (ibid. 3, 333; cf. 18, 425, etc.).

When Pindar says figuratively: (Olumpíōi) spéndein aoidaîs (Isthm. 6,9) ‘to make libations (to the Olympian) with songs’, it should be noted that the spondḗ is directed towards Zeus the Savior, Sōtêri Olumpíōi: it is therefore made to assure the victory of a great champion who is facing an ordeal.
The same conditions are found throughout literature, whether in prose or verse. The Greeks pour a libation and say prayers to Poseidon the Savior at the time when, after the naval disaster of the Persians, they want to return to Artemisium with all speed (Herodotus VII, 192). In the Orestes of Euripides (l. 1688) Apollo promises to Helen that she will have splendid future honors among men and “she will always receive libations”: she will share with the Dioscuri the function of protecting men from the perils of the sea, naútais medéousa thalássēs; it is to them that mariners return thanks when they escape from danger: henceforth Helen shall have this privilege which will bring her the spondaí of sailors.
It is therefore not probable that the verb spéndō in one passage of Herodotus has the sense of “to sprinkle” (IV, 187), as is generally supposed. The Libyans, says the historian, have a remedy when their children have convulsions: they save them by “sprinkling,” (epi)-speísantes, [1] them with the urine of a ram. It is difficult to see why the verb in this one use should not have the sense which it shows in all the other examples. This could also quite well be a rite performed to save someone from danger. Herodotus did not have to use the verb spéndō if he wanted to say “sprinkle.” More probably what we have here is a real “libation” performed to help the child through a difficult crisis.
In the Attic orators and in the subsequent history of the verb it no longer refers simply to a religious act but takes on a political significance. The middle spéndomai becomes the predominant form. If the active spéndō denotes the fact of using a libation to make the gods guarantors of something, the middle expresses the fact that the process affects the one who makes the libation or those between whom it is made. This is tantamount to saying “to take each other as mutual guarantors,” whence “to enter into a mutual engagement.” Herodotus thus could say: triḗkonta étea eirḗnēn spéndesthai ‘to conclude a peace for thirty years’ (VII, 148). This is a pact of mutual security which the contracting parties pledge themselves to respect: the sailor assures himself against the perils of the sea, and, in the case of a treaty, the parties assure themselves against the bad faith of the other, against possible violations. In the same way the Greeks could say spéndesthai têi presbeíāi ‘to give an embassy an assurance of safe conduct’ (Aeschines, Against Ctesiphon 63).
We can see how the political and legal sense develops from the religious sense. The play of the active and middle is also observable, but in a slightly different form, in the great law text of Gortyn (Crete), on the subject of the status of the woman: in the active epispéndein ‘to guarantee money’ to a woman; it is the father or the wife’s brother who guarantees her this sum against the risks of a divorce or a repudiation; in the middle epispéndesthai has the sense “to accept a guarantee.”
Many other texts could be found to support these indications. We have chosen those which bring out the proper sense of the verb and give an insight both into the religious sense and the political sense which is derived from it. Our conclusion will be that the etymological and religious sense of spondḗ is “an offering made to ensure security.”
Now in the same line of development we encounter the Latin word spondeo. This verb was specialized in legal terminology with the sense “to act as a guarantor in a legal case, to give a personal pledge on someone’s behalf, to post bail for.” It has become fixed in the terminology of marriage; this is what is implicit in the terms sponsus, sponsa ‘husband’, ‘wife’. We also know the formulas used in asking and giving in marriage. Plautus reproduces them (Trinummus 1157,1162): sponden (= spondesne) … tuam gnatam uxorem mihi? ‘do you pledge your daughter to me as wife?’ asks the suitor of the father of the girl. The latter replies: spondeo ‘I do so pledge’, and again: filiam tuam sponden mihi uxorem dari?—spondeo. Conversely, the father may ask of the young man “do you take this young woman in marriage?” and the reply is spondeo, “I pledge myself” (Aulus Gellius IV 4, 2). These notions continue in the legal developments of the sponsio. How does this specifically Roman idea fit in with what we have just learnt from a study of the Greek correspondents? The idea of a guarantee, a security is present in both languages. Just as in the Hellenic world the libation served to assure the security of the one who offered it, so in Rome security is involved, but it is of a legal kind which the sponsor guarantees in law. He is there to guarantee the judge, the opposing party, and the law against a possible loss: e.g. default by the defendant, etc. In marriage the sponsio is the security given by the father to the suitor, in respect of his daughter; it is what we still call an “engagement.”
Along with spondeo we must consider respondeo. The proper sense of respondeo and its relation to spondeo emerge clearly from a dialogue in Plautus (Captivi 899). The parasite Ergasilus brings Hegion a piece of good news: his son, who has disappeared for a long time, is about to return. Hegion promises Ergasilus to feed him his whole life long, if what he says is true. And the latter pledges himself in his turn:

898 … sponden tu istud?—Spondeo.
899 At ego tuum tibi advenisse filium respondeo.
“Is this a promise?”—“It is a promise.”/ “And I for my part promise you back that your son has arrived.”

This dialogue is constructed on a legal formula: a sponsio by one party and a re-sponsio by the other, forms of a guarantee which is henceforward mutual: “I guarantee you, in return, that your son has arrived.”

This exchange of guarantees (cf. the French expression répondre de ‘answer for …’) gives rise to the sense, already well established in Latin, “to reply.” Respondeo, responsum are used with reference to interpreters of the gods, priests, especially the haruspices, when in return for the offering a promise is given and security in return for a gift; this is the “response” of an oracle and a priest. This explains a legal use of the verb: respondere de iure ‘to give a legal consultation’. The jurist with his competence guarantees the value of the opinion which he gives.
We may adduce a parallel expression from Germanic: OE and-swaru ‘answer’, with which we may compare Gothic swaran ‘to swear, pronounce a solemn formula’; the Old English (and modern English) word is almost literally respondere.
In this way we can delimit, in the prehistory of Greek and Latin, the meaning of a highly important term of the religious vocabulary and the sense acquired by the root *spend– vis-à-vis other verbs which denoted the offering in general.
In Latin a large part of the primitive meaning has disappeared, but the essential core remains, and this is what determines on the one hand the legal concept of the sponsio and on the other its connection with the Greek concept of spondḗ.

II. Libatio

In the vocabulary of religious institutions there is a verb meaning “to offer a libation.” Like the Gr. spéndō and the Lat. spondeo it is confined to the two classical languages: Gr. leíbō, Lat. lībō.
The sense is perfectly clear, the uses constant, and the expressions themselves correspond exactly in Greek and Latin. The usual translation for the Greek verb leíbein is “to pour” in general, and, in Homer, exclusively of wine: leíbein oînon, cf. Latin libare vinum. Connected with the verb leíbō is the noun loibḗ ‘libation’, which stands in exactly the same relation to the verb as spondḗ does to spéndō.
The sense “to pour” is generally accepted because of certain non-religious uses: dákrua leíbein ‘shed tears’, an expression which is attested from Homer on, as well as leíbein oînon Dií ‘to make a libation of wine to Zeus’.
But on closer examination the sense does not appear quite as simple as this. Difficulties are encountered in the interpretation of the rite designated by the verb. If leíbein simply meant “to pour,” we should have to ask what is its relation to another verb which also has this meaning and also has a religious sense: khéō, with a corresponding noun khoḗ. We know the importance of this operation, especially in the funeral rite of pouring a khoḗ on the tomb. This verb *g’heu– is one of the best established items of the Indo-European vocabulary. It is represented in Indo-Iranian by Skt. hav– (ho-) ‘to make a liquid offering’, a central rite in Vedic ritual; the neuter hotra is the name for this offering, and the agent noun hotr̥– designates the person who offers it. In Iranian the terms correspond exactly: zav– ‘make an offering’, zaotar– ‘the person offering’ zaoθra– ‘the offering’. Armenian jawnem has the same meaning “make an offering, consecrate.”
This same root *g’heu-, with enlargement by a dental suffix, provides the Latin word fundo ‘pour’ and in Gothic giutan, German giessen ‘pour’. To judge by the wide dialectal spread and the constancy of meaning, we should also attribute to the Greek khéō the primary sense “to pour.” This means that leíbō cannot express the same idea, at least not in the same way and in the same circumstances.
Moreover Lat. libare has a number of other senses. It also means: to touch lightly; to taste (libare or delibare is used of bees gathering honey from flowers); to take a little from (a common use); to do harm to something (an object or a living creature). From among these different senses that we observe with the Latin libare it is difficult to see at first glance wherein its unity lies. But it is clear that they do not derive from the primary sense “to pour.” The pre-Latin history of the word is less simple than it seems. This is true even if, with the German etymologist Walde, we posit two different roots, one meaning “to pour” and the other “to tear (out), remove.” Without going so far, the recent etymological dictionaries underline the difficulty of positing a single meaning.
We must reconsider the comparison of the Greek and Latin uses, since there is no third language to which we can appeal in case of difficulty.
Besides leíbō there are in Greek some simple forms, used in a non-religious sense, the meaning of which is sufficiently clear to provide an assured basic meaning. This evidence has not been used.
First we have the root noun *lips, gen. libós, acc. líba ‘drop’, the isolated case forms of a noun which has become obsolete: mélitos líba ‘drop of honey’ (Apollonius Rhodius); eks ommátōn leíbousi líba (Aeschylus Eumenides 54), with an etymological figure: the tear is conceived of as a drop. Then we have a derived noun in –ad-, libás ‘dripping, pouring drop by drop’, whence ‘a spring’, ‘small stream’, ‘standing water that wells up’. From libás comes the diminutive libádion and a present tense libázesthai ‘run out in drops, trickle’. Finally we have the adverb leíbdēn ‘drop by drop’; and leíbēthron ‘a water conduit’.
We are therefore in a position to give a closer definition of leíbō: kómai leíbousi élaia (Callimachus) ‘the hair drips olive oil’; aphròs perì stóma leíbetai (Hesiod Shield 390) ‘the foam falls drop by drop from his mouth’; tḗkein kaì leíbein (Plato Republic 411b) ‘to melt and liquefy’.
We can now see that leíbō does not denote the continuous pouring of a liquid in large quantities, which is the precise sense of khéō. On the contrary, leíbō denotes “to pour out drop by drop”; a liquid drips from a container which can no longer hold it. The hidden spring does not “pour”; it allows the water to trickle out drop by drop. Similarly dákrua leíbein (frequent at the end of the verse in Homer) does not mean “to pour tears”; the tears escape “drop by drop.” Thus there is no need of any kind of sense transference to understand the expressions we have cited. The sense is apparent in Homer himself in an example which has escaped attention: Od. 7, 107 … othonéōn apoleíbetai hugròn élaion (to prevent the fragile threads of a cloth from breaking oil is applied to them and) “from the linen cloth the oil drips.”
In all the examples we have examined the sense of the verb is plain and obvious. It must also be applied to the religious expression oînon leíbein: here it means not “to pour” a wine that comes in large quantities from a cup but to allow the wine to drip.
The noun loibḗ must be interpreted in the same way. It figures only in the double expression: “to honor the god with the loibḗ and the knísē” (Il. 9, 500). Knísē denotes the fat which surrounds certain parts of the body of the victim as well as the burning of this fat and the odor which it gives off. The loibḗ will thus be the offering of the liquid, drop by drop.
The conclusion to be drawn from this evidence is that the operation denoted by leíbein was to pour, drop by drop. This is quite different from the lavish effusion (khoaí) made over tombs.
In Latin, if we only had the verb libare, it would not be easy to find the connection between the different senses which it presents. They are difficult to reconcile and they point in different directions. Fortunately there are two related forms which help to establish a connection with the Greek forms.
First we have the neuter substantive libum ‘sacrificial cake offered on the occasion of certain anniversaries and in certain ritual ceremonies’. Ovid Fasti III, 761 shows how libum could be connected with libare, in the circumstances of an offering to the Father, to the god Liber who loves honey: liboque infusa calenti candida mella damus ‘we give (to the father who has given us honey) honey poured over the hot libum’. This is the point we must seize on: the cake called libum is offered soaked in honey. We can therefore define the libum in a more precise way: it is “a cake, in so far as it is soaked with a liquid (such as honey).”
This is confirmed by the nominal form delibutus, the verbal adjective from delibuo (which is not attested), which is preserved in certain old phrases: delibuto capillo ‘with hair dripping with perfume’; delibutus gaudio (Terence Phormio, 856) ‘inundated with joy’, literally ‘streaming with joy’. The basic sense is therefore “steeped in a liquid which drips.”
If we keep within Latin and draw no conclusions for Latin on the basis of Greek, we find in this way a means of interpreting directly certain religious uses: libare melle, vino with a construction in the ablative, comparable to facere vino, victima ‘to perform the rite by means of wine, a victim’. Finally, in libare melle, vino, we have the exact equivalent of the Greek leíbein oînon. The sense is “to make by means of wine, honey, a libation which consists in pouring out the liquid drop by drop.”
Such is the point of departure for the strictly Latin history of the terms of this family. In order to follow the evolution in the various senses in which libare comes to be used, we must first establish correctly the primary meaning, which is not “to pour” but “to cause to drip,” that is “to offer a small quantity of the liquid which is allowed to drip from its container.”
This notion of the liquid offering, which was essential in the religious application of libare, libatio, etc., evolved in ordinary usage to that of “to take a small quantity of”: in Lucretius libare aequor ‘to take some sea water’ or with a metaphorical turn of phrase, delibata deum numina ‘divine power from which something has been taken away, which is diminished’. This is presumably the same as in the phrase truncum delibare: a yoke of oxen “tear away as they pass a part” of the bark of a tree. The verb can also be used with reference to food, according to a definition by a Latin grammarian: libare est aliquid leviter contingere ut si quis invitatus ad convivium vel potum perexiguum quiddam de esca vel potione sumatlibare is to touch something lightly, for example when someone who is invited to a meal or drinking party takes a small quantity of the food or drink’.
Such is the change which endowed libare with a new sense. At the beginning this meant to take a small quantity of a liquid offered to a divinity. Then it came to mean to take a portion (of food, for instance) and to “loot, plunder” just as the bees despoil the flowers.
The senses in which the Latin verb is used find their unity in relation to a primary sense which we can determine in Latin itself, in libum and delibuo. Now this is the same as that which emerges from the Greek uses of the corresponding verb. Thus an examination of the Latin evidence, after that provided by Greek, leads to precise results which bring the two traditions closer together.
A final point may be made even though it is not strictly linguistic. What was the purpose of the “libation”? What was the significance of this rite? This boils down to seeing in what circumstances leíbein is used. This verb does not alternate with spéndein. Let us consider in its context a Homeric use (Il. 7, 481). While the Achaeans were feasting in their camp, “Zeus pondered baneful designs against them and thundered dreadfully. Green fear seized them and they poured the wine from their cups upon the ground and no one dared to drink until he had poured a libation (leîpsai) to Zeus.”
The intention is clear: before drinking, a few drops poured as a libation may appease the angry god. What is concerned here is not an agreement to be reached, as we have seen in the case of spéndō, but wrath, the effect of which it is hoped to avert. The same idea comes out, as it were in parody, in the episode where Odysseus outwits Polyphemus (Od. 9,349). The Cyclops has devoured two of Odysseus’ companions; in order to disarm him Odysseus brings a skin of old wine: “Cyclops, drink this wine since you have partaken of human flesh, so that you may know the quality of the wine which our ship carried. I have brought you a loibḗ in case you should take pity and allow me to return to my home, but your fury knows no limits.” Odysseus by this loibḗ is trying to appease the fury of Polyphemus, in much the same way as the Greeks, in the above passage, were trying to soothe the anger of Zeus. The word loibḗ has its authentic and apt use.


[ back ] 1. The manuscripts give speísantes which Herwerden corrects into epispeísantes.