For much of the past 25 years, the act of “pouring one out” has often been associated with the American hip-hop movement and the cultures and lifestyles associated with the musical genre. We’ve heard it in songs, watched it in film and tv, and chances are, most of us had participated in the act ourselves.
Despite the practice coming to prominence in the secular culture of American music, the act of offering libations (spiritual gifts to the gods in honor of lost leaders, family members, and friends) has its roots in cultures and religions dating back to the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and hundreds of other cultures throughout the millennia.
The practice of making a libation can be seen as far back as the rise of Ancient Egypt, where a liquid offering for the dead was typically water pulled from the Nile River. The act was even alluded to in the Book of Genesis: “Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him [God]… He poured out a drink offering on it and poured oil on it.”
Following the rise and fall of Ancient Egypt, the Ancient Greeks also used beverages while performing sacrifices as well as other rituals. Taking the basics of the Egyptian process and expounding upon them, the Ancient Greeks had two different methods for “pouring one out for their homies.”
These were called "spondai" and "choai." The former was a “controlled outpouring of a small amount of liquid” reserved for the Olympian gods, while the latter consisted of pouring out a libation entirely and was used for the gods of the underworld, the heroes, and the dead.”
The Ancient Greeks also started the process of honoring the dead by pouring out fermented beverages, but it wasn’t quite as sophisticated as an Italian Chianti or French Burgandy.
The Ancient Roman civilization used libations as a method of honoring gods as well as dead emperors entering the afterlife. Roman tombs were often made of massive stone sculptures resembling massive “reclining, dining figures.”
One of these tombs was designed so that “the mourner could actually pour a libation into the stone cup in the statue’s hand, and a hole in the bottom of the cup would ensure that the liquid made it to the actual human remains.”
In addition to the Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman religions and cultures, the act of offering libations played a role in countless other civilizations throughout the much of recorded history. Its traces can be found in such Asian cultures and religions as Burmese Buddhism, Hinduism, China, and Japan, as well as in Russia and Cuba, and even here in America.
The practice of “pouring one out for the homies” came to prominence in American hip-hop in the 1990’s when rappers began to release tracks memorialization of dead friends and family by “tipping" or "pouring one out.“
At the conclusion of her piece on the history of “pouring one out,” Emily Bell wrote: “For all its modern connotations, the practice of ritually pouring out liquid has survived millennia, weaving its way into various religious and cultural settings, at this point able to exist in a fairly secular context. Why the specific practice has had such historic and universal appeal is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s just that sharing a drink with the departed that makes them feel that much closer.”