Okay so right up front I need to say I have an odd duck relationship with alcohol in the religious and spiritual context. Firstly, as I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in the Methodist Church which is known for its abstinence from alcohol, gambling and similar ‘sinful’ influences. A strong aversion to gambling is the main thing I have taken away from it all but I also have a preference for separating alcohol from solitary ritual practice.
That’s not to say I don’t drink; I do, and I actually started quite young (under the watchful eye of my parents) and learnt very early on about drinking responsibly and knowing my limits. But for me drinking was and is something done socially and not in your ritual room all on your own. There are some benefits to the use of alcohol in ritual, which I will cover in this post, but I believe that the greatest benefits come from being in a group.
One of the main reasons that Pagans are so attached to alcohol in their rituals has to do with historical presidence. The many cultures which preceeded Christianity around the world had a much more relaxed relationship with alcohol, particularly as it often represented the safest source of liquid to drink. The Egyptians, for example, we’re paid in beer and the Anglo-Saxons and later on Norman drank beer at breakfast lunch and dinner but at varying strength, some of which were much weaker than modern beers today.
You can read more about alcohol and the ancients here but as a broad statement; of those cultures and civilizations that had an ongoing relationship with alcohol public disorder and drunkenness were rare, in part because the really hard stuff only came out when it was time for rituals, ceremonies and really good keggers.
Egypt – Festival of Opet
The Festival of Opet was a yearly celebration in Thebes (modern day Luxor) which celebrated the Theban Triad of Amun, Mut and their Child Khonsu. In addition to the procession, ritual cleansing and rededication of the cult statues offerings of meat, bread and beer made to the temple were rationed out to the general populous who took full advantage of the boon. Drunkenness was a hallmark of the Opet Festival, particularly during prosperous reigns, and a way of connecting with the God’s at this most holy time when the Cult Statues walked amongst them, making it easier for their prayers to be heard.
The Bacchic Cults
The Greeks and Romans were famed for their production, and consumption, of Wine and the God of Wine was none other than Dionysis or Baccus as the Romans knew him. Dionysis stood at the centre of the Dionysian Mysteries, a cult which used various methods to create a transe state of liberation in order to engage with the mysteries of the God. The lowering of the inhibitions was key and prefered methods were music, dance and plenty of wine. The cult appealed to all levels of society and both sexes and even though it was considered a negative influence by those in power it continued into the Roman era, albeit heavily controlled, in the form of Bacchanalia.
Gift of the God’s
The Norsemen had a very strong relationship with alcohol. Mead, a popular alcoholic drink brewed from honey, was brewed first by Odin to seal the peace between the Æsir and the Vanir and therefore it was the tipple of choice for all discerning Norseman. Once served the men would toast their friends and family, the Ancestors and God’s, and any oath uttered with mead in hand was considered sacred. The other use the Norse had for alcohol was for the inducement of the beserker rage. Although the consumption of Amanita muscaria, an hallucinogenic mushroom, was probably the prefered method getting absolutely plastered was also an option. The utter fury of the Beserker ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berserker) was akin to a transformation into an animal form with the Best, Wolf and Boar and created a transcendental state in which weapons and injury were of no hindrance to them.
These historical examples, particularly the latter two, loom very large in the psyche of Christianity and it’s opinion of alcohol and paganism. The decadence and apparent violence and barbarism are anathema to Christianity and this echoes in the way society today defines and responds to drunken behaviour. This certainly doesn’t work in the favour of the Witch but when has that ever stopped us?
The Mindspace of Alcohol
Alcohol has a strange interaction with the brain. It’s depressive effects, and ability to enhance existing depression, is well known but so is its ability to highten a sense of euphoria and lowered inhibitions and it is this effect that is often sought out by Witches. Some mediums find it easier to connect with Spirit under the influence of alcohol and it is not unknown for alcohol to become a crutch, and for some a problem.
Quite often mediumship which involves alcohol is branded ‘lazy’ which, I feel, is both unfair and risks excluding people who genuinely want and need help with addiction. It absolutely should not be used in isolation or in preference above other techniques but in the right circumstances, such as the rituals outlined above, it can be very appropriate. The difference is that the alcohol we drink now is far stronger than what our ancestors used to communicate with their God’s.
The Due of the Dead
The other reason that alcoholic beverages features prominently in witchcraft is because it is associated with both the Mighty and Beloved dead as an offering. The ancient Greeks, for example, would offer wine to the restless dead and there are many other traditions (witchcraft or otherwise) which lists alcohol as a preferred offering for the Dead. We’re sp used to raising a glass to someone’s memory or pouring our a libation to them that it is often an intrinsic part of ancestor worship and Witchcraft practices of modern Witches.
A wise friend once gave me a word of warning; Know who you work with; particularly in ancestor worship. You may remember (insert name of long dead relative you may or may not have met) as loving the odd tipple but what if behind closed doors they were an abusive alcoholic? Will the offing of alcohol have a positive impact or a negative one? One possible out come, albeit worst case scenario, would be that your ancestor becomes agitated and starts to cause hassle in your life and home as they demand more of the same from you.
Whilst this is not a nice thing to think about your long dead relative it shows the necessity of carrying out research into your family history. That particular relative may actually be a good spiritual ally in the right circumstances but not those involving alcohol.
Image and Presentation
There is a standing tradition, since maybe the 1970’s, that Pagans and Pubs (just like Archaeologists and Pubs) are mutually exclusive. This stems partially because of the association outlined above but also because many moots (meaning of word with link) are held in pubs. There are a couple of reasons why this is the case. They offer a centalised and neutral location, the cost of rent for the room is usually low meaning charges to attendees can be nominal and the social environment inherent to anywhere that serves alcohol play all make pubs an attractive venue for moots.
Because this section is also about how we present ourselves I will say this; most moots I have attended have been generally well behaved. Things may have gotten a bit loud, especially during the social elements, as we connect with friends over a few bevvies but generally things have been very civilised. I’ve personally never witnessed any bar fights or disagreements that have descended past the verbal and I’m sure that every other pub moot around the country are just as civilised.
On the other hand I am very aware of open rituals, where alcohol has been involved, which have resulted in the actions of the few painting the rest of us in black tar and feathers. I am of course talking about my favourite whine, Summer (and Winter) Solstice at Stonehenge (link to mooc post). There was quite a bit of outrage sparked when a ban on alcohol at the Solstice Celebrations was announced a few years ago. All the usual suspects decried the interference of English Heritage and the ‘non – Pagan element’ of the celebrations. True, up to a point, that not all attendees identify as Pagan, or even as New Age Spiritualists but I disagree that they are the only people getting drunk, dropping litter or chipping and oiling stones.
Lets put aside for one moment the fact that these so – called authorities and representatives of the Pagan People are attempting to define labels for people who they have never interacted with, that’s a rant for another day. We shall concentrare instead on how they are blatantly dodging their moral responsibility to use their platform to not only decry the acts of desecration and actively work with English Heritage to address the issues generated by open access events. Walking out of a meeting because you don’t like being charged for parking or having an alcohol restriction (both reasonable responses to the issues facing the conservation efforts at Stonehenge) does not constitute as working with or for anyone. Stonehenge celebrations are, by necessity of scale, marshalled almost exclusively by volunteers, and there are harrowing tales both published and anacdotal about their experiences and the state of the Stones after open access. Why not issue a ‘call to arms’ (to borrow one favourite phrase totally ironicly) to those pagans who attend to constructively self police and regulate themselves or to engage and comply with the requests of the organisation charged with the protection and management of this historic site? I have never seem this reported anywhere though I hope that they are things said in areas of social media I have been banned from( as a result of previous disagreements about the relationship between paganism and archaeology / conservation). I hope but doubt is strong, as such things would be out of character in my option.
Open access may be a legal right but it is also a privilege, I just wish more people would treat it as such.
Rant Over. Back to the point.
I did some training recently which said it takes 12 highly positive interactions (on average) to cancel out a single negative. That stat may relate to customer service but the idea of a rate of ‘buy back’ of a positive relationship definitely fits here. Someone getting drunk and taking a wizz against the Stones is hardly going to help build a positive relationship, especially when the odds and history are stacked against us.
It’s all well and good to say alcohol is an important part of Paganism, citing all the reasons above, but if it’s use is causing problems in either in our own lives or our interactions with others then it’s time to readdress our use of it. Society has moved on passed pis sing in your temple being acceptable (Sorry, rant slipping through) and I would like to think Paganism has too.
So in closing and conclusion. Alcohol – a potentially useful spiritual and ritual tool which allows us to lower our inhibitions and connect with realms beyond our own BUT when inhibitions are too low the likelihood of doing things that wider society disapproves of increases . Don’t be one of the few whose actions ruin it for the rest of us.
If you are worried about the relationship you or a friend has with alcohol then please seek out advice and support. The search ‘alcohol dependancy services in (location)’ in Google should identify your local government funded services where you can access information and counselling services, usually for free or with financial support. As Pagans it can feel that peer support services are limited to Alcoholics Anonymous which is well known for its attachment to Abrahamic religion but there is another peer support group called UK SMART Recovery (Click here for USA Linkage). It’s approach to peer support lacks the religious elements of AA and I am aware of a number of pagans who have accesses the service and found the methods used relevant to them.