Everything You Need to Know About the Libation Ceremony

Libation Ceremony

Photo by From Parris with Love 

Many couples take time out of their wedding ceremony to acknowledge those who have passed. One way to do so is with a libation ceremony. Libation ceremonies often occur during Black or African wedding ceremonies as a way to honor and celebrate the couple’s heritage and ancestors.

What Is the Libation Ceremony?

The libation ceremony is a ritual of pouring a liquid as an offering to a spirit, deity, or soul of a person who is deceased. This can happen during casual social settings or big milestone moments, such as weddings.

Here, officiant Kim Kirkley teaches us more about the tradition, the meaning behind the liquids, and how it is integrated into weddings.

Meet the Expert

Kim Kirkley, Esq., of Our Elegant Ceremony is a nationally-acclaimed officiant/life-cycle celebrant, TEDx speaker, and author. She has officiated several weddings that featured a libations ceremony.

The History and Meaning of the Libation Ceremony

The libation ceremony goes back to ancient times. Various versions of this ritual existed all over the world, including in Egypt, Israel, Greece, Rome, Asia, and South America. In these cultures, the recurring theme is honoring the Earth, holy figures, and those that have passed. The libation ceremony often occurred when spirits were being served and were usually accompanied by a prayer.

Libation ceremonies play a large role in African societies, especially the Yoruba and Igbo cultures. Ancestors are an important part of these societies and are invited to participate in all public functions. Libation ceremonies are a call for Gods and ancestors to attend these events. 

In the modern United States, libation ceremonies take different forms. Sometimes they occur amongst friends for those that have passed. In popular culture, it is often referenced as “pouring one out for the homies” using malt liquor. A formal version of the libation ceremony is a part of some Black and African weddings to celebrate the couple's culture and to honor loved ones that have passed.

Libation Ceremony FAQs

What happens during the libation ceremony?

A prayer or speech is said to honor the elders while the libation is being poured. “During the libation, we honor the wisdom, love, and legacy of our ancestors and esteemed living elders,” says Kirkley. “At its heart, we invite the ancestors and their wisdom to guide the couple as they create their own marriage and legacy.”

When does this happen during the wedding ceremony?

According to Kirkley, the libation ceremony should happen at the beginning of the ceremony. After asking the elders who are present to begin the wedding ceremony, the libation ceremony is conducted. “It shows our reverence for those who came before us and invites their energy to be part of the establishment of the marriage,” she explains.

What liquids are used for the libations ceremony?

Several different liquids are used, including water, liquor, and wine. According to Kirkley, some couples use spirits that are significant to them. 

What do the liquids represent?

Each type of liquid has a different meaning and couples often choose the liquid they use by the theme they want to convey during the ceremony. “Since our bodies are mostly water and water covers most of the earth, we usually use water to symbolize the purity and sanctity of life,” says Kirkley. “However, some couples and cultures prefer to use liquor for the libation believing it to be a potent elixir capable of rousing, cementing, and protecting life. Wine is seen as a bridge between water and hard liquor and invokes camaraderie and friendship between the seen and unseen worlds.”

Where are the liquids poured?

There are various places where the liquid may be poured. If the wedding is outdoors, the liquid is poured on the Earth. If indoors, a live plant is typically used. Sometimes the liquid is poured in the four cardinal directions.

What is the significance of where is it poured?

According to Kirkley, the Earth represents where we come from and where we return. A living plant symbolizes life and our ties to the Earth. When the liquid is poured in the cardinal directions, it acknowledges the different qualities of each of these directions and ensures the entire Earth is covered.

What culture is this most prominent in? 

The libation ceremony is prominent amongst Black and African people. However, many other cultures use libations to toast to those who passed, usually during the reception.

Why is the libations ceremony important to the Black community?

Some Black couples may know they have ties to African cultures where this ritual is prominent, like the Yoruba or Igbo culture, while others do not. “African American couples may not be able to claim a specific lineage,” says Kirkley. “We don’t know if our ancestors were Yoruba, Igbo, or some other nation of people, but we do know that our ancestors persevered through the barbed wire of anti-Black racism and created ‘a way out of no way’ for us to live these modern lives that are often beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams. We feel a sense of gratitude for the sacrifices of our ancestors and a libation ceremony is an ideal way to amplify a Black couple’s gratefulness.”

Has the libations ceremony become more popular over the years?

Kirkley believes it is becoming more popular. In the past, she had to introduce the idea to couples, but now couples are discovering it on their own. Kirkley attributes this to people learning about more wedding ideas and traditions.

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