Posts Tagged ‘Rome’
Have you ever walked into the other room and forgotten why you went in? Or been in the middle of a presentation for work or school and forgotten your next line? Though modern science has investigated and standardized the human information processing system that encompasses remembrance and recall, the concept of Memory and its importance was recognized very early on in human culture.
Without memory, much of everyday human interaction is meaningless. We operate within a system of recognized social queues and norms, and we cooperate best with those people and sub-systems which are most familiar to us. We all recognize that green means go and red means stop. And we know to trust our family and friends rather than the random stranger lurking on the street. We know these things, because they are embedded as part of our memories. We build up our knowledge base cumulatively utilizing memory. And thus, any new creations and inspirations can be tied into our ability to do this. The anthropologists of the past several decades have worked to formalize our understanding of this concept (Tomasello, etc). But it was recognized long ago, most famously by the ancient Greeks who cast memory into the personified form of the goddess Mnemosyne, and the bright ideas built off of memory became her inspirational daughters, the Muses.
Mnemosyne was a Titaness, one of the many deities representative of the earlier pantheon of the Indo-European Greek mainland which was supplanted by the more famous Olympians. Legend has it that for nine passionate nights, Zeus was allowed to forget about his troubles and stress as new divine ruler of the world by remaining in the arms of Mnemosyne. And from their union, nine months later, the nine Muses were born at the oracular springs of Pieria. These sacred waters were probably a prophetic pilgrimage site for those seeking to gain the favor of Mnemosyne and the ability to either remember or to forget. Mnemosyne holds sway over both of these qualities. She is said to control the River Lethe and subsidiary waters in the Underworld which grant forgetfulness of one’s previous life or continued remembrance of it into the next.
But she was not just honored for otherworldly role, but for the power she could imbue in her adherents in the mainstream world. Kings and politicians particularly sought her favor. And as the mother of the nine Muses, she was constantly evoked alongside her daughters. Indeed, it is likely that the Muses themselves were all initially aspects of Mnemosyne herself, which over time, became divisible and separated out as distinct deities of their own. When Homer so evocatively calls upon The Muse at the start of his Odyssey (“Sing to me of the man, Muse, that man of twists and turns drive time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy…Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus, start from where you will –sing for our time too”) it is likely early versions referenced Mnemosyne as a conglomeration of all the innnovative aspects which later became attributed out to her children. The oral nature of Homer’s work entails additions and alterations along the way. The singular general term ‘Muse’ as opposed to naming one of the specific deities, most likely Clio, Muse of History, implies higher levels of generalization or else a different entity than that which classical audiences would have assumed. The phrase ‘daughter of Zeus,’ though included in modern translations, is representative of a later alteration or addition to the text from periods whereby the relationship between Zeus and the Muses is more formalized. It may initially have said nothing of Zeus whatsoever, or else specified a different relationship to him.
The cosmology of Mnemosyne and her creative kiddies is most explicitly outlined in Hesoid’s Theogony or ‘Birth of the Gods:’
“(ll. 36-52) Come thou, let us begin with the Muses who gladden
the great spirit of their father Zeus in Olympus with their
songs, telling of things that are and that shall be and that were
aforetime with consenting voice. Unwearying flows the sweet
sound from their lips, and the house of their father Zeus the
loud-thunderer is glad at the lily-like voice of the goddesses as
it spread abroad, and the peaks of snowy Olympus resound, and the
homes of the immortals. And they uttering their immortal voice,
celebrate in song first of all the reverend race of the gods from
the beginning, those whom Earth and wide Heaven begot, and the
gods sprung of these, givers of good things. Then, next, the
goddesses sing of Zeus, the father of gods and men, as they begin
and end their strain, how much he is the most excellent among the
gods and supreme in power. And again, they chant the race of men
and strong giants, and gladden the heart of Zeus within Olympus,
– the Olympian Muses, daughters of Zeus the aegis-holder.
(ll. 53-74) Them in Pieria did Mnemosyne (Memory), who reigns
over the hills of Eleuther, bear of union with the father, the
son of Cronos, a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow. For
nine nights did wise Zeus lie with her, entering her holy bed
remote from the immortals. And when a year was passed and the
seasons came round as the months waned, and many days were
accomplished, she bare nine daughters, all of one mind, whose
hearts are set upon song and their spirit free from care, a
little way from the topmost peak of snowy Olympus. There are
their bright dancing-places and beautiful homes, and beside them
the Graces and Himerus (Desire) live in delight. And they,
uttering through their lips a lovely voice, sing the laws of all
and the goodly ways of the immortals, uttering their lovely
voice. Then went they to Olympus, delighting in their sweet
voice, with heavenly song, and the dark earth resounded about
them as they chanted, and a lovely sound rose up beneath their
feet as they went to their father. And he was reigning in
heaven, himself holding the lightning and glowing thunderbolt,
when he had overcome by might his father Cronos; and he
distributed fairly to the immortals their portions and declared
(ll. 75-103) These things, then, the Muses sang who dwell on
Olympus, nine daughters begotten by great Zeus, Cleio and
Euterpe, Thaleia, Melpomene and Terpsichore, and Erato and
Polyhymnia and Urania and Calliope (3), who is the chiefest of
them all, for she attends on worshipful princes: whomsoever of
heaven-nourished princes the daughters of great Zeus honour, and
behold him at his birth, they pour sweet dew upon his tongue, and
from his lips flow gracious words. All the people look towards
him while he settles causes with true judgements: and he,
speaking surely, would soon make wise end even of a great
quarrel; for therefore are there princes wise in heart, because
when the people are being misguided in their assembly, they set
right the matter again with ease, persuading them with gentle
words. And when he passes through a gathering, they greet him as
a god with gentle reverence, and he is conspicuous amongst the
assembled: such is the holy gift of the Muses to men. For it is
through the Muses and far-shooting Apollo that there are singers
and harpers upon the earth; but princes are of Zeus, and happy is
he whom the Muses love: sweet flows speech from his mouth. For
though a man have sorrow and grief in his newly-troubled soul and
live in dread because his heart is distressed, yet, when a
singer, the servant of the Muses, chants the glorious deeds of
men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympus, at once he
forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all; but
the gifts of the goddesses soon turn him away from these.
(ll. 104-115) Hail, children of Zeus! Grant lovely song and
celebrate the holy race of the deathless gods who are for ever,
those that were born of Earth and starry Heaven and gloomy Night
and them that briny Sea did rear. Tell how at the first gods and
earth came to be, and rivers, and the boundless sea with its
raging swell, and the gleaming stars, and the wide heaven above,
and the gods who were born of them, givers of good things, and
how they divided their wealth, and how they shared their honours
amongst them, and also how at the first they took many-folded
Olympus. These things declare to me from the beginning, ye Muses
who dwell in the house of Olympus, and tell me which of them
first came to be.”
Though Mnemosyne’s magickal powers were not preserved, her divinatory nature and her control over knowledge, remembrance, and the transitioning soul entitle her a role as a goddess for witches. Knowledge is power. And knowledge is created by Memory, which is ruled over by Mnemosyne.
As the United States collectively pauses to celebrate the memory of those we have lost in times of battle, it is fitting that we also celebrate our own ability to remember them. And perhaps wonder what lives they have moved on to now, and what memories they will retain of their former glory.
If you want to learn more about mythical and historical figures like Mnemosyne and delve into the deeper more fabulously magickal realms of the Witches of Antiquity, now is your chance! The Sacred Mists newest class, History of Witches in the Western World , is now open for enrollment. Created and taught by yours truly, the class utilizes the mythical, literary, and historical biographies of witch-figures to explore the history and anthropology of magick from prehistory through to the last century. I hope to see you around its digital hallowed halls!
Initial Image is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lamp of Memory or Mnemosyne. Completed in 1877, the canvas’ frame is inscribed with the phrase “Thou fill’st from the winged chalice of the soul/ Thy lamp, O Memory, fire-winged to its goal.”
Garlic and superstition have gone hand in hand for millennia. A tasty, natural curative –garlic’s power as a magickal protective charm and as a potent remedy has remained strong from ancient times through to the present day.
Worried about vampires? No problem. Carry some garlic and decorate your doors and windows with it. The use of garlic to protect against these pop culture prevalent denizens of the night is perhaps the most ubiquitous use of the aromatic bulb known today.
But its usage as a form of apotropaic or warding magick is far more ancient. The ancient Egyptians would utilize it to protect the sanctity of contracts and oaths. Medieval miners would carry it down to the mines with them to ward against evil spirits like the invisible and mischevious German kobolds. The pungent odor and easily portable bulb and cloves of the garlic plant ( allium sativum) made and, indeed, still make it, an ideal charm against evil in all of its multiple forms. Its Sanskrit name Rasona or Lasuona actually means ‘Slayer of Monsters.’ But not all of the monsters it protected against were of the fiendish variety. More often then not, it was the monstrous interior medical ills that garlic was utilized to protect against.
The second century AD Roman physician Galen of Pergamon labeled garlic as a ‘theriac’ or antidote which eventually translated into its widespread usage in imperial Roman medicine as a universal panacea or curative. In Ayurvedic medicine, one of the earliest ongoing systems of homeopathic curatives, garlic was utilized as an aphrodisiac, stimulant, and charm against virulent diseases like smallpox. Indeed, the sulfur and selenium components within the garlic bulb which presumably originated as a defense mechanism against hungry predatory animals result in garlic’s scientifically recognized properties as a valuable antiseptic, which does indeed aid in protecting against bacteria, inflammation, and viruses. Recent studies indicate that the consumption of garlic may help prevent against certain types of cancer. Garlic was recognized early on for its curative powers, but we are only just exploring the tip of the iceberg of what its wonderful biological magick can do for our own biological systems.
Biomagick aside, my particular favorite fact in the litany of garlic’s history (some of which is included above and others of which you will encounter in Sacred Mists fabulous Herbalist Course ) relates to its ritual usage. Garlic was once the primary offering to the great Greek goddess of magick herself: the mighty Hekate. The third century BCE philosopher Theophrastus recorded in his botanical texts Enquiry into Plants and On the Causes of Plants how garlic would be offered at crossroads and in front of the three-faced statues dedicated to Hekate found at such places.
SO the next time you throw a bit of delicious garlic into your cooking, take a second to speculate about the long legacy of interaction between garlic and humankind. For at least five thousand years men and women have consumed this tasty plant and utilized it in their magico-medicine practices. It is a tradition of tastiness and superstition predating biological scientific fact, one which you are continuing by adding it into your daily diet.
Is your city a god or goddess?
One of my favorite things about the socio-political phrase ‘the separation of church and state’ is that it does not include pagan concepts when it separates out ‘church.’ Organized monotheistic religion is automatically cast as a bias for political motivations, while the more spiritual ethos like those practiced here are allowed a place at the table. Political iconography is full of pagan and esoteric occult elements which subtly play on the psyche of the masses to promote ideas of community and nationalism.
Just take a look at the statue of Liberty. She’s not just a pretty lady wearing a tiara and holding up a torch. She is a sculpture of the Roman goddess of Liberty. And yet she is not a museum statue, or a remnant of a bygone age. She is actively worshipped as a symbol of welcome for the huddled masses searching for the promised land of the American Dream. And for those already in the United States she is a perpetual guarding symbol of the democratic spirit she so poignantly embodies. Overall, she was an entirely apropos gift from the republic of France to the United States: the first government of the modern era to successfully practice democracy (the only previous working variant having been in 5th century BCE Athens).
The Statue of Liberty wears a stylized toga comparable to those of Republican Rome (an antique civilization the France of the past three centuries has actively idealized). She carries a tablet of laws (the political variant of the moral Ten Commandmants) and a torch of enlightenment. But most intriguing of all ~ is her crown. Her crown hearkens back to ancient traditions of city-goddesses, where the deity most associated with the city (or the personification of the city itself) would wear a divine mural crown symbolic of the city’s walls or battlements. From the creation of the first cities there has been an implicit identification of the city as an anthropomorphic divine figure ~ a protector of man analogous to the city battlements she wears on her crown. The most prominent iconographic depiction of this centers on the ancient Near East, where the Tyche city- of the Phoenician coast reigned supreme. She was a symbol of the town’s prosperity and linked to the well-being of their inhabitants, the various Tyches could be counted on to guard the fortune of her denizens.
Anthropomorphization, or the transformation of a concept or inanimate object into something human, is something man and womankind intrinsically does to make these concepts or objects relatable. We do it in a myriad of different ways, both in ancient times and modern, often without even thinking anything of it. We name our cars. We treat our domesticated pets as human children. We even cast the gods in our own image, and then justify this by saying that we were cast in his or her image and that thus it is an infinite playback loop. By granting the space we live in, i.e. the nation, the city, the street, the house, etc a personhood, we make it easier for us to relate and understand the understandable.
Why does it rain? Because the weather god is sad. Humanity, even perceived humanity, implies an understanding of culture and emotion. In casting human forms on the divine, we cast them into a society which parallels and interacts with our own and therefore can be understood as a grand godly soap opera. It makes the big scary unknowable things about the universe fathomable while still retaining some elements of their mystical mysteries.
Creating these humanistic symbols also builds a community, who, if they have nothing else in common, at the very least possess this shared iconography. Just as sports teams has associated colors, team jerseys, and a mascot ~ so too can this team building psychology be applied at wider levels of society. The personified nation, be it in the form of the statue of Liberty or the likes of the Roman Empire’s Roma, acts as a visible totem for people to follow and share.
Gradients of civic divinity can be seen throughout modern society. From the goddesses on state seals to the magickal spells implicit in state, government, and even school models. The deification of space and of concepts is happening all around you.
And so, this week I ask you to look around your world and inquire into how many wonderful gods and goddesses may be going overlooked and in need of a bit of your attention. Is your city a god? Does your school have a patron goddess? What do you anthropomorphize and why? Why is it so important that humankind does this?
Laissez les bon temps rouler
Mardi Gras has come to mean many things in contemporary society: a celebration of excess, a sinful party, pure decadence prior to an austere period of fasting, etc.. But let us briefly look at it for what it really is: the closest mainstream celebration to those practiced in the ancient world.
By this I do not refer to what Mardi Gras may or may not stand for, I refer more directly to how it is celebrated. Be it the famous North American Mardi Gras of New Orleans, the wild Carnivale of Brazil, or one of the parties of continental Europe: the festivities center on a decorative parade featuring costumed, often masked participants who throw offerings out to the crowd. This format is echoed time and time again through history, though Mardi Gras and perhaps nominally the Thanksgiving Parades are modern societies closest remnants of it. The ancient cultures of Mesopotamia would parade their gods through the city in lavish displays which culminated in a large feast and concerts for the entire population. The Greeks and Romans would celebrate their religious holidays and military triumphs with decadent exhibits, veiled dancers, and costumed or masked participants.
The idea of the ‘mask’ is of particular anthropological and magickal significance in ancient and modern societies. The use of mask in ritual is believed to be one of the most ancient knowable elements of these long-forgotten and mysterious events. The painted masks, carved wooden masks, and animal hide masks of the documented hunter-gatherer societies of the past two hundred+ years are strong indicators of its ancient use. As are certain elements of Upper Paleolithic cave art, which depict mixtures of animal and man which could be masked ritual-goers. The psychology of the ‘mask’ is telling in this regard. The mask creates a concept of mystery, of anonymity. It makes the wearer something ‘Other’ than themselves. Be this the animals of the wild, a representative of something Divine, or merely something outside of known society –it creates a visual disparity which is somehow recognized at our most basest and primal level of understanding. This masked person is not the same as the unmasked person. And in that change we see something metaphysical.
The use of the mask in festivities has continued throughout the ages, from our primeval origins to the present day and its associations with Mardi Gras. Most notably, the idea of the mask is associated with the grand masquerade ball of continental Europe. These masquerades were often high society events celebrating anything from a noble’s birthday to the anniversary of the city and beyond. They, like modern Mardi Gras, were periods of relaxed social customs, particularly with regards to the role of the female in society. Unfortunately this has perhaps led to some negative connotations, at least for modern Mardi Gras, but such over-excess should not completely defame the permitted excess of the event.
The parade and its associated pageantry were joyous occasions of community and a wide-spread appreciation of life and its good things. They could be adapted toward any specific religious event. And while the its modern primary incarnation as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday does indeed celebrate a very specific Christian ideology, the joy of life or joie de vivre of the event should not be diminished because of this doctrine. Any such celebration should be embraced by the Neo-pagan and Wiccan communities et al, for they are celebrations of the good things in life ~ a message that speaks to all.
Happy Mardi Gras everybody! Laissez les bon temps rouler!! (Let the good times roll!)
You may have made your New Year’s resolutions and started to pack away your Christmas tree; but the holidays aren’t quite over yet! There’s still Epiphany on January 6th, and more intriguingly Epiphany Eve, tonight on January 5th: a night of celebration and offering to an ancient goddess of magick in disguise.
Epiphany, seemingly a very Christian holiday, is generally celebrated as the anniversary of the night the Three Wise Men, a.k.a. the Magi, reached the end of their long journey following the Christmas star and arrived to meet the baby Jesus; infamous presents in hand. In and of itself, the holiday has more ancient precedents. For the story of the Magi did not originally belong to Christianity, but is a re-telling of a far older Persian myth regarding the birth of the god Mithras. Epiphany is therefore essentially a pagan holiday. But the Italians have made it even more magickal, adding on their own little witchy twist: Befana.
Befana is to January 5th what Santa Claus is to Christmas Eve: a well-wishing elemental spirit who delivers goodies and blessings to children and households who put out small offerings to her. But where Santa Claus likes his milk and cookies; Befana has more grown up tastes. She prefers a midnight snack of a little cup of wine and perhaps some appetizers: though I’m sure cookies would do in a pinch. She’s considered quite a wild figure and is meant to have a rather wicked sense of humor, so I’m sure she’d be happy to go with the flow. In return, Befana traditionally gifts her celebrants with candy, figs, dates, honey, and sometimes small gifts; often hiding them away in your socks rather like the Dutch Father Christmas. She also might give your house a quick sweep in her role as a sort of archetypal grandmother to all. Read the rest of this entry »
Wine has been a dietary staple of mankind for millennia upon millennia. Since the creation of the first ritual vessel over 9,000 years ago it has been possible for men and women to create a wine like substance of fermented fruit. Fruits gathered as ancient hominid nomads first roamed the valleys and mountains of the world, exploring its marvels and magick for the first time. And stored in the hopes of keeping the delicate treat for a harsher season: and voila ~ wine was born!
From these earliest times up to the modern day, wine has held a special place among the drinks of men. Sometimes merely a staple beverage, sometimes taken purely for its intoxicating powers, but more often than not, the popularity of wine has been due to its ritual significance in culture after culture that discovered this remarkable indulgence.
The Origins of Wine
Wine, as we most commonly know it today in aisle 17 of the supermarket, is made from fermented grapes. As such, it first appeared approximately 7,000 years ago in the mountains of the Middle East, specifically at two known archaeological sites: Shulaveri, the late Neolithic typesite of the Shulaveri-Shomu culture in Georgia and Hajji Firuz Tepe, a slightly later (5400-5000 BCE) Neolithic village in the Zagros mountains of Iran. The earliest grape presses, used to mass produce larger quantities of wine, date to the 3rd millennium, and have been found at sites in Turkey, northern Greece, and on the plains of central Mesopotamia. The domestication of the grape and widespread viniculture likewise appears to stem from this same timeframe.
Historically, viniculture spread out from the mountains of the Near East. And with the rise of complex cultures in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, wine gained an even greater foothold ~ burrowing its way into the meals and the sacred religious traditions of the peoples it came into wider contact with. Traditions we are aware of courtesy of ancient art, early texts, and of course, classical myth.
Before we begin our exploration of the magickal history of wine, viniculture, and viticulture, there are three intriguing facts that bear remembering throughout the article: Firstly, that most wine in the ancient world was red wine according to modern chemical analyses of the remaining vessels that have been uncovered. Few samples of white wine have been found, the majority of which have come from the same source: none other than the famous King Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Secondly, that wine was typically consumed in a diluted format: mixed with water, other fruit juices, honey, etc. Ancient man would pretty much be appalled at the sheer strength of modern wine, which to their palate and alcoholic endurance would be entirely unsuitable. In other words, wine was not always drunk just to be, well, drunk, to use the other meaning of the word. Intoxication was not always what wine was consumed for. In a world where water wasn’t safe to drink alone, other things, like wine and beer substituted as the daily go-to drink when it was readily available. And when it was not readily available it was highly prized for its scarcity.
And thirdly, when archaeologists say they have found wine at a site, with the rare exception of some thick sludge at the bottom of an ancient amphorae; more often what they have found is the dried remnants of a wine compound on broken or whole vessels. Using complex and exciting modern technologies like infra-red spectrometry and liquid chromatography, scientists can identify the specific chemical compounds of what was once contained by vessels. In the case of wine, scientists are looking for large quantities of calcium salt from tartaric acid (something that occurs in such quantities only when grapes ferment) and some type of preservative signifying that what was held in the vessel was not simply just grape juice. In the case of Hajji Firuz Tepe’s wine, for instance, the resin of the terebinth tree, a natural preservative, was identified alongside calcium salt indicating that the grape juice was intentionally fermented to make wine.
Wine in Ancient Greece
Wine hit Greece and the islands of the Mediterranean circa 6,300 years ago as it flowed out of the Middle East. And it was the Greeks who would later import wine to Egypt and much later to their Greek colonies in Italy, and therefore eventually the Romans.
Greek religion is dominated by the idea of the cycle of life, death, and re-birth ~ of the flowing of the seasons from the bountiful spring through to the desiccated winter. And viniculture easily permeated this ever present interest in the magick of nature. Grapevines bud in the spring, burst forth their fruit in the summer and fall, and lie dormant in the winter, waiting until spring will wake them up again, drawing them forth from the afterlife. The Greek god of wine, Dionysus, was a dying god ~ who like his beloved grapes was ritually killed each winter only to be reborn in the spring.
A variety of wine rituals existed throughout ancient Greece, in its two precursor cultures the Minoan and the Mycenaean, as well as during the classical Greek period of the first millennium. Throughout the Minoan island empire, wine was a popular offering for their mysterious mother goddess Potnia ~ who required bloodless offerings unlike some of her divine counterparts and accepted wine as a suitable substitute in her rituals (she also, incidentally, accepted wool, cheese, honey, fennel, and coriander). Poseidon, a much older god than mainstream mythology gives him credit for, likewise favored wine as an offering ~ if statistical analyses of known offerings to him are correct. On the prehistoric mainland, where Mycenaean culture thrived, the Feast of New Wine (the me-tu-wo-ne-wo) was a popular ritual for the Mater Theia, an early mother goddess, rather than Dionysus, despite his already contemporary role as a dying god of wine. Feminist anthropologists suggest that this transfer of the normally male role was part and parcel of the fertility dynamic of the ‘new wine.’ Whether this ‘new wine’ was the first bud of the season in the vineyard or the first open bottle of the season (societal parallels would suggest the former) ~ posterity may never officially know, as the Pylos Text, our source for the Feast of New Wine is decidedly vague.
In classical Athens, the year was filled with festivals devoted to wine, vineyards, and their chthonic patron god Dionysus. In April, around what the Greeks considered their new year, was the Anethesteria~ the Festival of the Vine Flower: three days of celebrations in honor of the opening of the wine jugs from the previous successful crop. It also featured a sacred marriage between the god Dionysus (in the form of one of his priests) and a high ranking wife of local society ~ similar to the sacred marriage between the dying god and the goddess in several other earlier and contemporary Mediterranean cultures. Wine was celebrated likewise at each stage of its production. For the ancient Greeks it was not just the final product that was of importance, but the sacred site of the vineyard and the process whereby wine was created from the earth. The Greater Dionysia in late spring celebrated wine’s and Dionysus’ powers of inspiration and creative merriment with sexy parades through the city of the god’s image, theatrical performances, and yep, you guessed it ~ lots of wine drinking. The Lenaea festival in winter celebrated the birth of one of the forms of the god Dionysus in conjunction with the successful completion of the fermentation of the previous season’s wine. It, like the Dionysia, featured theatrical performances albeit of a much more somber, tragic nature. The Lesser Dionysia, meandering over the summer, took the Greater Dionysia on the road: brining the festival and its performances to the outlying villages. And the Argionia, another country festival, was part revelry and part Mystery Cult: re-enacting a mythic nighttime hunt for the god through the forest by his slightly drunken revelers.
Wine in Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt had a love-hate relationship with wine. Given Egypt’s minimal capability to grow grapes, with only a few sections of Egypt (like the Nile Delta) capable of cultivating such a crop, most wine was imported into Egypt. Thus for much of ancient Egyptian history both local and foreign wines were considered elite, and were therefore used only for ritual purposes or drunk by the uber elite and royal family (who, along with the temples owned most of the vineyards); with the exception of festivals like that of Hathor in Bubastis, where it was common for all people to be given free wine courtesy of temple lands. With wider trade routes and greater technological expansion, by the middle of the first millennia BCE however, wine had spread from temple and elite consumption to the wider masses and was, of course, wildly popular.
Wine was a popular grave good among the wealthy echelons of Egyptian society because it was, of course, something they wanted to take with them to drink and be merry with in the afterlife. Most wine in ancient Egyptian society was red wine, which was known as irep. A sweetened red wine, used more often for ritual purposes and drunk by the Pharaoh was called shedeh. With the discovery of white wine in King Tut’s tomb it is believed that it, too, was popular in the religious efforts of Egyptian high society, particularly for ritual purposes and as a grave good. Prior to the discovery of white wine in King Tutankamun tomb, white wine was not believed to have been around in Egypt until the first century BC, when vineyards producing whites are mentioned near Alexandria by Roman authors. If white wine was around for the two thousand or so years prior to their written inclusion and only appear the once on behalf of King Tut, it would appear that it must have held a particularly elite role within Egyptian society, perhaps even being a sacred wine of the temples which was rarely released to even the highest stratum of society.
The similarity of appearance between red wine and blood in particular disturbed the Egyptians and added to its mythical power within their society. To drink it was to drink the blood of the earth. Early cults among the Delta, dedicated to deities later known more commonly as Osiris, Isis and Seti, most likely used wine in their ceremonies and offerings, believing their gods to be rather vampiric in nature and that the wine might stand in for human sacrifices (a concept Anne Rice explores rather marvelously as the origin myth for her literary Vampires). Wine continued to be an offering to the gods of the earth in later, brighter periods of Egyptian culture and was, particularly associated with the blessing of crops and, Catch-22 style ~vineyards.
In the Moralia the later Roman author Plutarch mentions a particularly intriguing period of Egyptian history circa 60 BCE when the superstition regarding wine as blood had become so fervent among the Egyptian people that even the royal family ceased its consumption, believing it to be not just the blood of the earth, but the blood of the enemies of the gods whose bodies had swallowed by the grave. Naughty blood nobody wanted to drink and have be a part of them.
Wine in Ancient Rome
Rome was ultimately responsible for the spread of wine throughout Europe, and in particular for bringing the grape to France~ the modern world capital of viticulture. Technological progress in wine production and a sound infrastructure meant that Rome could make large quantities of wine wherever they wandered. By the start of the Roman Empire in the first century AD, wine was a staple of the Mediterranean diet: from commoner to elite. They, like their preceding and contemporary cultures, were enamored of vino and incorporated it in offerings to their household gods, state deities, and ancestors. But they likewise were cautious of the effects of over-drinking and sought to curb ritual activities that encouraged drunkenness. The Greek god Dionysus was sometimes called Acratophorus ‘ the giver of unmixed wine’ for his patronage of drunkenness, the frenzy called the bakcheia , a term that lent itself to Dionysus’ Roman name Bacchus, and his principal Roman festival the Bacchanalia (sometimes also called the Liberalia, in honor of the local god of Rome Liber, a figure often very similar to Bacchus). In 186 BCE, one of the earliest extant decrees of the Roman Republic sought to restrain the traditional widespread merriment of the Bacchanalia, which typically consisted of a night and day of feasting and initiation rites conducted by women on the outskirts of Rome around March 16th and 17th. While curtailed for the next several hundred years, the prohibition against indulgence only solidified the festival and the god’s power among the Roman people, particularly women ~ who found freedom in Bacchus’ cult and were allowed to hold high ranking position within.
Incidentally, the Romans were also very keen on the idea space having significant meaning and sacred symbolism, kind of like a Mediterranean feng shui. With regards to wine, they believed that a room for storing wine should be built with its doorway leading out to the north, because the north was not as subject to constant changes and cosmic turmoil which might disrupt the harmonious creation of good wine (Vitruvius, De Architectura 1.4.2).
The Rise and Fall (and the Rise again!) of Wine around the World
With the decline of the Roman Empire, the infrastructure which had encouraged the widespread production and trading of wine faltered. Western Europe descended into a brief bit of chaos known as the Dark Ages, and when it recovered, it had a new master: the Catholic Church. Fortunately for wine, the Catholic Church had early on incorporated wine into one of its most sacred ceremonies: the Eucharist aka Holy Communion. In this ritual, wine and bread/wafer cookies are consumed before a priest, representing the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ. It is a brief melding of the supplicant with his/her god. Intriguingly, just as the Egyptians and other cultures viewed wine as a metaphor for blood, so too does the modern world, where the Eucharist is still taken every Sunday by the Catholic Church’s resilient parishioners. It seems some perceptions of the world around us are too deeply ingrained to etch out: wine=blood being one of them. Lucky for wine though, because it was through the Church that wine survived the next thousand plus years and spread across the world. It was personally introduced to the Americas by no less than the Spanish conquistadors and their accompanying priests.
Today, wine is of course, one of the most popular alcoholic beverages on the market, merrily consumed by many a responsible adult of legal drinking age. But even in the secular modern world, the rituals of the grape lie lurking just around the corner.
In Eastern Europe for instance, there is the Trifon Zarezan quietly practiced every spring by Eastern Orthodox Communities. On February 1st, on the feast day of St. Trifon, grapevine branches are ritually trimmed to provide for new growth. The vineyards are blessed, and special bread is baked amidst lots of singing and merriment in anticipation of spring. St. Trifon is, by the way, the patron of wine-growers, wine-producers, and pub owners and is basically the modern, politically correct-local version of dear old Dionysus himself.
And on subtler levels, the vineyard too has come back into its own in the contemporary times. Once the site of blessings, rituals for growth and prosperity, and a site that connected the people to his gods; this connection with the natural world and with the movement of the cycles of the seasons so well respected in ancient times, was forgotten in the medieval period. Stodgy seeming monks and nuns controlled the vineyards of the dark Middle Ages, working to make the wine but not ritualizing the process of creation itself like the ancients did. Growing, and pressing, and preserving the grapes: but not enjoying the merriment that was to be had from the resulting product themselves. The rise of vineyards as a tourist destination is proof positive of a revitalized, maybe even subconscious, recognition of the sacred symbolism they represents. Life, death, rebirth. Merriment, inspiration, and the hard knocks of the hangover. Growing grapes and drinking wine is a microcosmic metaphor of life and living. The soil round the grapes absorbs the subtle flavors of its environment, the vines respond to the tending care of its keepers, and who knows, maybe the vineyards still provide a romping ground for the ancient gods themselves.
Honored through the ages for the natural magick it represents, wine and its vineyards are magickal elements woven into the everyday tapestry of life. Given this, it’s no wonder that Sacred Mists chose Napa Valley at its headquarters and as the location of its first real live store. Like the grapes growing in the valley, it too draws in the ambience of the marvelous and magickal nature surrounding it and people involved with it. The Shoppe opens tomorrow, Friday the 27th. Be there in person if you can. But if for whatever reason, you can only be there in spirit: then why not raise a glass of wine in toast of the Sacred Mists and of yourselves. And take a sip of a little bit of magick.
Berkowitx, M. 1996. World’s Earliest Wine Archaeology Vol. 49(5).
Burkert, W., 1985. Greek Religion Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
McGovern, P.E., 2003. Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Vergano, D., 2006. “White wine turns up in King Tutankhamun’s Tomb. USA Today