Wednesday, October 27, 2004


The Thirsty Dead

A story in the San Francisco Chronicle by Meredith May opens with these words:
Earl "E.J." Jackson cracked open a Miller High Life and poured a dribble into the gutter before taking a swig. "That's for my dead homies," he said.
Although he might not have been aware of it, Mr. Jackson was following an ancient tradition. His action refutes the assertion of Walter Burkert in Greek Religion, tr. John Raffan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 70, that "The outpouring of liquids, libation, ... has now disappeared from our culture."

Lucian, On Mourning 9, after telling how the very good are rewarded after death and the very evil are punished, explains the rationale behind the custom of libation:
But those of the middle sort, and they are numerous, wander in the meadow without bodies, having become shadows and vanishing like smoke on contact with anything. They are nourished by the libations we pour and by burnt offerings over their tombs, so that if any one of them lacks a friend or relative above ground, that one ekes out an existence among the dead as a fasting and famished corpse.
The ancient Greeks for this reason were anxious to leave behind them heirs who would perform the customary rites for them. In a lawsuit involving a disputed inheritance, Isaeus 6.51 (tr. Edward Seymour Forster) says:
You have, therefore, gentlemen, to consider whether this woman's son ought to be heir to Philoctemon's property and go to the family tombs to offer libations and sacrifices, or my client, Philoctemon's sister's son, whom he himself adopted.
Other passages from ancient Greek literature give details about the liquids poured out to the thirsty dead. In Aeschylus' Persians 607-615 (tr. Herbert Weir Smyth) Atossa is trying to summon the spirit of her husband Darius from the dead:
'Tis for this reason that I have directed my course from the palace once again, without my chariot and my former pomp, and bring, as proptiatory libations for the father of my son, offerings that serve to soothe the dead, both white milk, sweet to drink, from an unblemished cow, and bright honey, distillation wrought from from blossoms by the bee, together with lustral water from a virgin spring; and this unmixed draught, the quickening juice of an ancient vine, its mother in the fields.
Compare the liquids that Odysseus pours out in order to raise the dead in the Nekyia (Homer, Odyssey 11.23-33, as Circe had commanded at 10.516-526, tr. Butcher and Lang):
There Perimedes and Eurylochus held the victims, but I drew my sharp sword from my thigh, and dug a pit, as it were a cubit in length and breadth, and about it poured a drink-offering to all the dead, first with mead and thereafter with sweet wine, and for the third time with water. And I sprinkled white meal thereon, and entreated with many prayers the strengthless heads of the dead, and promised that on my return to Ithaca I would offer in my halls a barren heifer, the best I had, and fill the pyre with treasure, and apart unto Teiresias alone sacrifice a black ram without spot, the fairest of my flock.
In Euripides' Iphigenia among the Taurians 157-166 (tr. David Kovacs), Iphigenia incorrectly thinks that her brother Orestes is dead, and so she pours out similar liquids to his ghost:
Cruel fate, you stripped me of my only brother and sent him to Hades! To him these libations, this mixing bowl for the dead, I shall pour upon the earth's expanse, the milk of young cows of the mountains, the wine libation of Bacchus, and honey made by the toil of tawny bees. All these are poured out to soothe the dead.
In some remains of ancient Greek tombs we even find clay pipes leading from the surface of the ground downward, to ensure that the libations reach their intended recipients. For more on this subject, see Robert Garland, The Greek Way of Death (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 113-115 (Drink offerings).

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