Posts Tagged ‘wine’
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