Religion and alcohol have a complicated relationship. While some strictly forbid the consumption of alcohol (most notably Islam and Mormonism), many other religions place it at the center of important rituals. Here, how alcohol is used by 11 major religions throughout the world, giving a whole new meaning to spirituality.
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For the majority of Christians (ultra-conservative denominations aside), red wine is the booze of choice, used as a spiritual symbol for the blood of Christ during holy communion. In different cultural sects of Christianity, alcohol plays an even bigger role. For instance, Christians in Mexico leave tequila and mezcal as offerings on Day of the Dead altars. And in the Eastern Orthodox faith, particularly in Russia, vodka is blessed by priests and imbibed at religious celebrations like Easter or poured onto the graves of loved ones.
Wine is used more elaborately in Jewish rituals, especially in the kiddush ceremony, which takes place during Shabbat—the Jewish Sabbath. The participants bless Kosher wine, and then the challah. Before everyone drinks, they toast by saying, “l’chayim,” which means “to life.” During Passover, families step up the vino, and individually bless four cups of wine at the family seder. They also quietly pour a fifth ceremonial cup of wine and leave it untouched for the duration of the meal. It is reserved for the prophet Elijah, who is said will arrive as a guest to herald the advent of the Messiah. It’s symbolic of future redemption—you cannot drink it now, but it is within reach.
In general, Buddhists tend to abstain from alcohol as they believe alcohol clouds the consciousness, making it difficult to achieve enlightenment. However, many Buddhists partake in what they call “mindful drinking,” which is essentially a loophole that justifies alcohol as a tool to clear the mind rather than confuse it. They view alcohol not as an escape, but an aid for relaxing their ego and focusing further on their intentions. Usually just a few sips will do the trick, as any more could obscure their awareness.
One of the most ancient rituals in Tibetan Buddhism is drinking from the kapala, which is a sacred sculpted cup made from the top of an actual human skull (ok, some people today use brass skulls, but the human ones are way more interesting). The skulls are carved and adorned with precious metals and jewels, then filled with alcoholic beverages, blood or dough cakes as offerings meant to appease wrathful deities. Drinking from the skull is reserved for only the most experienced of lamas, as it supposedly transfers the knowledge and karma of the skull’s former owner to the drinker.
Taoists (and certain sects of Buddhism) believe in the realm of hungry ghosts, which is a sort of purgatory for people who had violent or unhappy deaths, those who committed evils in their life, or ancestors that have been neglected by their living relatives. During the seventh month of the Chinese calendar, the gates of the realm are opened, and hungry ghosts roam the earth seeking retribution. To combat these vindictive hungry ghosts, Taoists hold a big feast during which gifts are offered to the ghosts to ward off bad luck. Families offer food, livestock, cakes, rice wine, beer and other alcohol to the ghosts, who are called to the table by a bell. People throw the goods in the air to distribute the ghosts in different directions, sending them back to their realm.
Hinduism shies away from strictly forbidding alcohol and instead asks people to consider how it will affect their personal religious goals and karmic actions. Many monks take vows of abstinence, but some Tantric groups use alcohol in various sacred ways. They may offer it to their deities or use it as a medicine for ritual healing. Wine in particular, along with other fermented juices, are common medicines in the ancient Hindu healing system of Ayurveda.
There is perhaps no religion that loves alcohol as much as the Japanese Shinto religion, which reveres sake as the most sacred of drinks—the “liquor of the gods.” The god of sake is also the god of rice and the harvest, so drinking sake is associated with a bountiful and blessed harvest. It’s a standard offering for all deities at Shinto shrines and an important part of agricultural rites, like the jichinsai ground purification ritual, during which sake is liberally poured onto construction sites. Some of the more intense rituals include a festival in Tonami, where people feed sake to carp in order to exorcise the waters of evil spirits (animal rights activists are not fans), and a winter festival during which young men drink incredible amounts of sake and defend a Shinto shrine against men wielding torches using nothing but pine branches.
Shamans serve as intermediaries between the human world and the spirit world, and claim to be capable of healing, divination and manipulating the elements. During seances, shamans often use alcohol and hallucinogens to help them quickly reach a state of ecstasy that gives them superhuman capabilities—like extreme pain tolerance and super-strength. One of the religion’s most booze-soaked rituals (literally) is the “enlivening of the drum.” During the ritual, the shaman pours beer onto the skin and wood of a new drum, which, according to Shamanism, inspires the deer and the tree from which the material came to reveal their life stories through the shaman.
This Haitian religion puts alcohol to good use, which is why you’ll often find Voodoo imagery in booze branding. Rum, in particular, is given as an offering to saints’ and ancestors’ souls, just like it is in the Cuban Santeria religion. But is also consumed to better allow the iwa spirits to enter the body, which fortify the drinker with the strength to overcome daily struggles.
Practiced primarily by Afro-Brazilians, Candomblé presents alcohol as an offering for its extremely picky gods. For example, Exú—the dangerous messenger who travels between the human world and the divine world—loves his cachaça. The sugar cane spirit must be offered to him in the temple, or he may become offended and lash out violently.
Paganism’s nature leaves it open to interpretation, and many choose to express their faith by drinking lots and lots of alcohol—which is why a large group of Pagans felt oppressed when alcohol was banned at Stonehenge during the Summer Solstice last year. Most ceremonies are filled with wine, ale and mead, especially those held by cults that worship the gods of wine and harvest, like Dionysus. One of the best booziest Pagan traditions is wassailing, which is, essentially, aggressive, alcohol-soaked Christmas caroling. Costumed revelers take to the streets to demand alcohol from the community, drink hot and spiced Wassail, sing, and toast the coming of spring.