Whether given at a wedding, a birthday or just before the clock strikes twelve this New Year’s Eve, the ritual of the toast can serve many purposes: as an act of remembering, as a look toward the future, as an exclamation of hope or as a means of courting divine favor before you take that first sip. Try out a few of these historic toasts as you usher in 2017.
A Toast To the Immortals: The pious ritual of raising a glass to honor a deity has ancient origins. In Book 4 of Homer’s Iliad, the Gods are laying about with Zeus in assembly drinking nectar from golden cups continually refilled by the goddess Hebe, the cupbearer to the Gods, and proposing toasts. For mortals, it was wine that was often used to fete the Gods within a highly ritualized event called the symposion–a word that comes from the Greek word sympinein (“to drink together”). In the evening, after the deipnon (meal) portion and before the formal symposium could begin, a number of Gods were toasted with a few drops of unmixed wine. One might propose a drink to one of a few Gods: “To the Good Spirit! To Zeus Soter! To Hygieia (Health)!”
Symposium scene: Side A of an Attic red-figure kalyx-krater attributed to Euphronios (510–500 BC, Munich, Antikensammlungen) (Image via Wikimedia and is in the Public Domain).
A Toast To The Saints: The practice of drinking to the divine or semi-divine held into Roman antiquity. Romans drank to the health of members of the imperial cult and to the Gods. Later, early Christians often raised a glass to celebrated saints and to deceased relatives while feasting in the catacombs. In medieval Germany, a vestige of this practice could still be seen in the competitive Minnetrinken (memorial toasts) offered to various saints at banquets. Particularly popular was the Johannesminne,the medieval toast to Saint John. This was common on St. John’s Day on June 24 and on December 27.
A Toast To Beautiful People: During the Greek symposium, the only women who joined in the fun were usually high status prostitutes called hetairai who were literate and often trained in poetry and music. A famous hetaira nicknamed Smikra (“the petite girl”) is reported on a ceramic drinking vessel toasting a beautiful Athenian aristocrat named Leagros, who lived around 535 to 465 BCE: “This one’s for you, Leagros!” Others simply toasted to his beauty: “Kalos!” (“[Leagros is] Handsome!”). This was likely all within the context of a Greek drinking game called kottabos, where one swung the handle of a drinking cup on their fingers and attempted to get the last bit of wine onto a saucer as they toasted someone.
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