Greek wine - ( Image by Dr. Blog )

Even though Phoenicians were recorded the first to have brought vines to the western Mediterranean, the Greeks were undoubtedly the ones who first exported it as an element of divinity.

And most probably they started in Italy, then moving into Sicily, France, Northern Africa and Spain (1000-950 BC). As Greek myths recall, some seventeen generations before the Trojan War, Oenotrus was born, perhaps the youngest of the sons of Lycaon (King of the Wolves). Being dissatisfied with his portion of his father's land, he left Arcadia (situated at the centre of Peloponnesus) and along with brother Peucetius migrated to Italy, where the land Oenotria (today's Italy) was called after him. He was disciple of King Oenos after whom he was named and supposedly brought vines and winemaking techniques into the Italian Peninsula.

Many scholars insist that the name 'Italy' derives from 'vit' (eit, in ancient Greek), vitis and the root 'al' (alere, nourish) from where 'vitalia' would be the region of vines.

The Greeks were the people who brought to Europe the essence of culture, myths and knowledge from both Asia and Africa’s Mediterranean coast. Most certainly Persians, Phoenicians and Egyptians knew vine cultivation and winemaking way before the Greeks made contact to them. All these pre-Greek cultures had incorporated wine into their every day life as well as myths. As Greeks campaigned into their territories the art of vine growing and winemaking was added to their cultural wealth and gradually impregnated their common life and mythology.

The belated incorporation of wine to their habits explains as to why wine was allocated to a god that was considered of ‘lesser’ importance in the beginning (though not later) and one of the most recent entries to the Olympus, Dionysus, and not to the old goddess of the earth’s fertility, the mother of corn, Demeter.

The story of Dionysus

Dionysus, the god of vine-growing and wine-making, was son of Zeus and Semele, daughter of the Theban king Cadmus. Following the advice of the jealous Hera Semele asked her lover to appear in his majesty. The supreme god of Olympus appeared before the princess surrounded with glittering lightnings. Semele, caught by the fire, gave birth to a son and died. Zeus put the baby into his hip where he grew and got stronger before he was born once again. Hermes, the messenger of gods, took the baby to nymphs to be brought up. When Dionysus grew older he travelled round the Earth, granting vines to people and teaching them vine-growing.

Once during his pilgrimage pirates caught Dionysus and wanted to sell him as a slave. But Dionysus set the ivy to entwine their oars and tackle and the vines to twine the mast. The apparitions of wild animals appeared on the desk after that and the pirates threw themselves into the sea and were turned into the dolphins. On the island Naxos Dionysus met his beloved Ariadne, daughter of the king of Crete, deserted by Theseus. She became the wife of the god and his priestess. Dionysus’s old wise teacher Silenus and the goatlike Pan, the patron of forests and pastures, were his inseparable companions. In the suite of Dionysus were also satyrs and maenads (after libation they went into ecstasies and rushed in a stormy dance), snow leopards, tigers, panthers and goats.

To honour the god of fertility of nature, vegetation, vine-growing and wine-making ancient Greeks held festivals known as Dionysia (Bacchanalia in Rome). Performances, representing scenes from the myths about wonderful birth of Dionysus, his travelling and his appearance in Greece, were held during the Dionysia in Athens. Religious rites devoted to Dionysus gave birth to the ancient Greek tragedy (tragoedia - Greek “song of the goats”, i.e. satyrs - the goatlike companions of Dionysus).

In Attica the Great or Town Dionysia were devoted to this god. They consisted in solemn processions in his honour, competitions of tragic and comic poets and choruses that performed dithyrambs. New comedies, also dedicated to Dionysus, were performed during the Lenea. The Small or Rural Dionysia represented repetitions of the plays, performed in towns.

Dionysus Cult

Related to his cult and ceremonies, Dionysus was accompanied in his myths by a host of servants and followers, amongst which stands out the satyr, Silenus. Silenus, an old and cheerful drunkard, was the adviser and instructor of Dionysus having greatly contributed to the god’s achievements and fame. Satyrs were the horned attendants of Dionysus who afforded delight in connection with unrestrained dancing and singing. Silenus’ love of wine knew no limits and that is why, it has been said that King Midas could easily capture him, for he mixed wine to the water of a spring and Silenus, entranced, would not leave the place.

Because of this divine beverage’s power, experience established over time that wine, which may provide strength in both mind and body, was a blessing only to those who drank it with measure and that was why Dionysus has been also called the ‘health-giver’. Yet some support the theory that the god himself defined the limits of drinking, by advising only 3 bowls of wine: the 1st to Health, the 2nd to Love and Pleasure, and the 3rd to Sleep. As for the 4th bowl, this belongs to Violence up until the 10th, which leads to Madness and Hurling of the furniture. As we have spotted, the duality between benefits and dangers of wine has been present since the earliest of times. If we want to have an idea as to which extent wine was part of Greek life it suffices to mention a ‘sport’ that for centuries was one of their favourites: Kottabos. Basically it consisted in trying to hit a target (Kottabeion) with a few drops of wine from a large cup or pyx, without spilling the remainder of the wine. It was a very popular game played after meal at the symposium and players did the throwing reclined on divans. So popular it was that houses were built taking into account the space needed for playing the game. It just shows how important wine was at the symposium gatherings, which were essential in the development of knowledge and philosophy.

History facts

Greek Mythology tells us that the Carmanians, who lived in the Asian regions south of the Caspian Sea, opened the veins of the forehead and mixed the blood with their wine, believing that tasting each other’s blood mixed with the wine, was the highest proof of friendship. Wine, a divine beverage, was the gift of Dionysus, which some say was his same blood. In particular in ancient Greece, for example, red wine was drunk at the bacchanals by the devotees of the god Dionysus in a symbolic ritual of his blood. It is significant that red wine is the colour of blood and wine emerged as the principal symbol of Dionysus, representing also the fullness of life. During the spring festival, the drinking of wine was the most prominent feature, representing the very presence of the god.

As stated by Greek Historian Thucydides on the 5th century BC, ‘The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learnt to cultivate the olive and the vine.’ And wine’s divine role aided the expansion of the Mediterranean culture to Northern Europe and later, to the New World. Obviously the Greeks greatly contributed and though paradoxical as Dionysus might have been or is (who knows!), all good things in excess are harmful and especially if they have a divine nature. But if you drink moderately, you yourself can become a god or at least feel like one. Let’s take our glasses aloft and make a libation in Dionysus’s honour!

Homer, in the Odysseys’s II Book, mentions of how Telemachus, impelled by Athena, ordered his wet nurse, Eurycleia: ‘Mother, come draw off for me sweet wine in jars, the choicest next to that thou keepest mindful ever of that ill-fated one, Odysseus, of the seed of Zeus, if perchance he may come I know not whence, having avoided death and the fates. So fill twelve jars, and close each with its lid’. Revered wines he would then carry in his trip in search for his father. In the same way Euripides did make a profound praise of wine: ‘O Cyclops, son of the sea-god, come see what kind of divine drink this is that Greece provides from its vines, the gleaming cup of Dionysus.’ (Odysseus to Polyphemus. Euripides, Cyclops 415). Both Homer and Euripides seemed to be more contrary to the abuse of wine consumption, especially dramatic at the worshipping of Dionysus, than against the god or the product themselves: ‘And so hail to you, Dionysus, god of abundant clusters! Grant that we may come again rejoicing to this season, and from that season onwards for many a year’ (Homer, Homeric Hymn to Dionysus). These assertions constituted a sort of prolegomena of how wine was to become of uttermost importance in Ancient Greece.

Finally, the ancient Greeks can be credited with much: the elevation of wine to a deeply-rooted cultural phenomenon; an apparent technical mastery of wine production; and the development of a sophisticated and archetypal level of commerce, all of which have had a profound effect on Western notions of wine and culture.