My wife and I have always been big believers in the use of alcohol during ritual. Not generally an excessive amount mind you, but at least a little bit here and there. Most of our rites begin and end with a shared cup of wine (or cider), and some of our Dionysian rituals call for much more than that (though never an amount that results in excessive drunkenness).
It’s not something I generally think about, it’s usually just something we do. But when a friend of mine asked me “why alcohol?” the other day it, I found myself wanting to articulate the “why” of it.
****I take alcohol abuse very seriously. My Mother is an alcoholic which is why we haven’t spoken in over thirty years. There is no drunk driving at, to, or from my house and I don’t like drunk people during ritual. That being said I do occasionally have a pint of cider or two before ritual sometimes. I think alcohol can be an effective ritual tool when used properly, but it’s also not a necessary one. Alcohol should only be used responsibly, and no one should ever feel coerced into drinking it.********
It’s a connection to the past. Our ancestors most likely used alcohol in their own rituals (and we know lots of groups that did without question). Some of this was simply because alcohol was far safer to drink than water, but there were other reasons too. Alcohol was a large part of many cultures, and wasn’t a taboo on the margins of society. Did you know that beer was one of the first forms of money in the ancient world?
The Ancient Greeks drank a lot of wine, and I worship a lot of Greek gods. I’m not a strict Re-constructionist, but if worked for Pan’s first followers it will probably work for me as well. This leads me to my next point.
It brings me closer to my gods. I can’t imagine worshipping Dionysus without a glass of wine or a shot of whisky, and that goes for several other deities as well. They drink in their myths, and they want me to be happy, so I have a sip of wine and leave them a libation as well. I think they’d rather have wine than a glass of tap water.
I’ve also always been a big believer in the idea of “like attracts like” so if I’m looking to draw down deity or invite a particular goddess or god to my ritual I should include things they like both inside of me and on my altar. This does not mean I have a six-pack of cider before ritual, just a drink, maybe two.
Alcohol has been alive in a way other beverages generally have not. Liquids are made alcoholic through the process of fermentation, which is a process that involves living things. Yeasts eat sugar and one of the by-products is alcohol (I’m not a chemist, I know it’s far more involved than that, but you get the idea), my ritual wine has gone through a process far more interesting than that of sparkling grape juice. I know that my cider isn’t really “alive” while I drink it, but it’s been alive, and I find that rather magickal.
As an intoxicating substance, alcohol has other potential benefits in ritual . . . .
It helps produce an altered state of consciousness. Human beings have been using altered states of consciousness in the pursuit of the spiritual for tens of thousands of years. Even something as simple as locking yourself in a pitch-black cave for 12 hours will produce an altered mental state. Alcohol does that far faster, and in a shorter period of time. Certainly alcohol and other intoxicants are not needed to produce an altered state of consciousness, but as long as something as used in a responsible and safe manner I think it’s fair game. Alcohol can fit that criteria.
But why enter an altered state of consciousness? I think the easy answer is that while we are in an altered state we are more open and susceptible to outside forces. Signs that we might have missed while completely sober are more readily apparent, and I think it’s often easier to achieve a state of religious ecstasy while in an altered state.
Alcohol often makes people feel happy, and happiness in ritual is generally a good thing. I think ritual in a lot of ways feeds on our emotions, and when our feelings are strong our rites are more powerful. If we are grieving or hurt that energy belongs in the circle so that it can be used and channeled towards more productive ends. However if all the energy you’ve got is “I had a crappy day at work” that’s not going to help anybody.
Alcohol has the ability to make people feel happier. If we need a little bit of freedom from the stresses of work or family life it can be useful. (And of course, there are other ways to achieve this without alcohol as well.) I know I’m a far more effective ritualist when I’m not stressed about book deadlines, and I’m not going to slur all over The Charge of the God because I had a dram of Scotch.
Alcohol can act like a truth serum. This is a quality of alcohol that has gotten a lot of people in trouble over the years (myself included-did you know that I really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, love my wife? I told her that very thing one very happy New Year’s Eve), but can be a positive when applied to ritual. Telling my coven-family that I love them, or untying my tongue while praising the gods has only been beneficial to me. I’m not always the best with emotional stuff, but if something helps to get it out, that can be a plus.
Alcohol can help turn off the over-thinking, over-analytical parts of our brains and open us up to new experiences, just like many other drugs and some mental disciplines. Can I enter an altered state without gin? Certainly, but sometimes I think using alcohol in such a way has its place in my life as a Witch. An it harm none, do what you will.