If an alien landed on Earth and observed a human stand up whilst holding a glass, followed by a room full of people all holding up their glasses and taking a sip in perfect unison amidst a chorus of shouts, he would surely wonder what these strange humans were doing. Yet, whether it’s at weddings, birthdays, retirement parties, housewarmings, or another occasion, most of us have experienced the toast at one point or another in our lives. Why do we have this interesting ritual of the toast?
The History of Toasting
It is likely that the precursor to toasts were libations. The act of libation is the ancient practice of offering a drink to a deity or god. Libation is a long-practiced ritual which has taken place since the days of Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and before. It is still practised today amongst certain religions, such as the offering of milk to idols in Hinduism, and the offering of wine to the Prophet Elijah during the Jewish festival of Passover.
In Ancient Greece, wine was a common offering. The devout devotee would rise to his feet holding a cup full of wine up towards the sky, whilst looking upwards, offering the contents of the cup to the gods that dwelt up above.
After offering the gods the honor of the first sip by holding the cup skywards, saying a few prayers, and pouring a bit of wine from the cup onto the ground (giving it to the Earth), he would then take a sip himself. The offering was sometimes given as an exchange: a libation for the granting of a wish or prayer.
The resemblance is very strong between this ancient libation practice and our toast practice today. We too hold up a glass towards the sky, saying a few words of blessings and good wishes and then take a sip. One of the most common words of a toast is “to your health!” or “to a long life!” which is reminiscent of a prayer that might have been said in exchange for a libation. So although we may not intend our toasts as a prayer sent heavenwards to God to grant our good wishes, it may well symbolize precisely this.
How the libation evolved from a religious ritual to the secular toast
It is unknown exactly how the shift from libation to toast occurred, but several factors may have contributed to this.
One such factor was when people stopped drinking from one common cup and began drinking from individual ones. When people no longer imbibed from the same vessel, camaraderie was reduced and an element of mistrust reared its head. Why would mistrust arise? Because after people began having individual cups, it became a popular murder weapon! In the realm of sneaky assassinations it was not uncommon for people to drop dead after drinking from a cup presented to them by an enemy. Poisonings were a practiced way to eliminate opponents in fields like politics in Ancient Greece and Rome.
The toast may have arisen as a gesture of good faith, to rebuild camaraderie and unity by having everyone join together at the same time in good wishes even if they were no longer drinking from the same cup. Furthermore the toast, often followed with the words “to your health” was an appropriate reassurance for people who feared that they may be drinking a poison-laced drink. Many inventions are often inspired by existing things. WHen new traditions arose using hte cup they may in all likelihood have borrowed inspiration from the existing libations’ format.
An extension of the toast: The Glass Clink
One aspect of toasting these days which wasn’t conducted by our earliest ancestors is the glass clink. The story behind this ritual is closely linked to the history of the toast.
Why do we clink glasses?
There are many theories for the origin of the glass clink, some of them more likely to be truer than others:
Theory 1: Clinking increases feelings of camaraderie
Much as the collective raising of glasses during the toast raises feelings of togetherness that compensate for the fact that we no longer drink from the same vessel, the clinking of glasses serves a similar purpose.
Theory 2: Clinking is a sign of agreement to the toast
Aside from calls of “hear hear!”, glass clinking is a way to demonstrate your agreement with the words of a toast.
Theory 3: Clinking as a non-verbal message that you trust that your drink is not spiked
As described, one of the dirty tactics used amongst some people, especially politicians in Ancient Greece and Rome, was to lace drinks with poison to eradicate their rivals. The clinking of the wine glasses may have arisen as a silent acknowledgement of trust in your host, expressing that you are certain they have not poisoned your drink.
Theory 4: Clinking is done to spill the drinks so that they mix between the glasses
The desire to mix wine between glasses is based on a vestige of the ancient paranoia that people may be lacing their enemies’ glasses with poison.
Although sometimes drinks do spill into each others glasses upon clinking them, most of us usually don’t smash our glasses together with enough gusto and force to splash our fellow clinkees, which makes this theory fall into doubt. In spite of the likelihood that this theory is false, it makes a good story and has been spread widely in folk lore.
Theory 5: Clinking sounds drive away evil spirits
Many traditions that involve the use of sound arise from the belief that evil spirits are afraid of loud noises. Traditions like ringing of church bells and shouting in the New Year arose to scare off such spirits. Some suggest that the clinking of glasses serves the same purpose, especially considering that people used to believe that it was evil spirits in the alcohol that made people behave drunkenly after drinking too much. By clinking glasses, they were theoretically trying to free the spirit from the drink, making it safe to drink.
Others say this theory is unlikely because the delicate clinking of glass is not loud enough to frighten off much, let alone a drink spirit.