Holy Spirits (of the alcoholic kind)

Holy Spirits (of the alcoholic kind) February 11, 2016

Drinking Bacchus. Guido Reni [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
From “Drinking Bacchus.” Guido Reni [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The UK Pagan community is divided over English Heritage’s plans to ban alcohol at Stonehenge during the Summer Solstice due to problems caused drunken revellers, including damage to the stones. While some Pagans welcome the move, believing that it will help to protect this most sacred site, other Pagans are upset that because of a minority of troublemakers all Pagans will be denied alcohol – even for ritual use.

Offering of sake (rice wine) to Shinto deities. Public domain.
Offering of sake (rice wine) to Shinto deities. Public domain, via Wikimedia commons

The debate got me thinking about the relationship between spirits and spirituality. In both Paganism and Shinto, alcohol is treated in a liberal and positive light. Wine, ale, cider and mead crop up regularly in Pagan rituals – as an offering to the Gods, as part of the simple feast following a ritual, and of course for pleasure and socialisation. In Shinto too, sake (rice wine) is a standard offering to the kami (deities), and consuming alcohol is an integral part of Japanese festivals great and small. In neither religion is inebriation, provided it occurs at the appropriate time and place and doesn’t go too extreme, particularly frowned upon; in both religions a little drunkeness can actually help you to connect with the mysterious world of the deities. Alcohol forms a deep part of the culture and national identity of Britain and Japan, to the extent that places where alcohol is consumed have become iconic symbols of our countries – Britain has pubs, and Japan has izakaya, pub-like eateries where drinking alcohol is usually the central activity.

I would say that I drink in very healthy moderation but as a Brit and a Shinto-Pagan, I find the idea of teetotalism unappealing. It would take away so much from my social and spiritual life. I’ve therefore tended to look at followers of religions and lifestyles that do require teetotalism, such as Muslims, with something like pity – they’re missing out!, I’ve thought.

But then I met a Muslim who gave me an insight as to why some religions may see alcohol as taboo – aside from the social and health problems it causes.

This Muslim was a work colleague, and one evening I asked him to pour out some wine at the end of an event for the guests. But he politely told me that as a Muslim, he felt very uncomfortable doing this. I didn’t realise this at the time, but in his religion, he’s not just forbidden to drink alcohol – he can’t even touch it. This got me really interested in his lifestyle, as it seemed to me to be such a challenge to live in Britain and have zero contact with alcohol. So I asked him, does this mean Muslims can’t wear perfume and cologne?

That’s where his response surprised me. He said that where alcohol hasn’t been designed to be drunk, it’s perfectly OK – so it’s fine for him to wear cologne or use medicinal alcohol for sterilisation, but not to touch a bottle that contains wine.

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