Easter Mythology: The Resurrection Accounts as Shaped by Greco-Roman Myths

In a prior Easter-related post I wrote that “dying and rising” gods don’t provide a good mythological model for the resurrection story of Christ. Rather, I mentioned that Greco-Roman myths provide a better inspiration and template, but I did not elaborate on that then. So here goes.

We must remember that St. Paul and the evangelists in the Gospels were writing for a particular audience. These writers were all living and evangelizing in Greco-Roman cities in the Mediterranean world, and their audience of church members and potential converts came mainly from such cities. Especially after the Jewish War (66-70 CE), in which Jerusalem was destroyed and its Jewish-Christian assembly was dispersed, Christianity focused on the gentile world. This audience spoke Greek (and in the West Latin) and was steeped in classical myths and legends. Paul and the evangelists had to communicate in a way that was most understandable to them. So they wrote in Greek, and, as we shall see, utilized common Greco-Roman mythological motifs that the audience would recognize, containing the right signals. In order to make their case for Christ persuasive, they had to hit the hot buttons. As a result, Christ was given the traits and actions of a Greco-Roman hero or god (Litwa; MacDonald; Miller).

For purposes of the resurrection story, it helped that classical myths and legends were rife with stories of miraculous happenings during and after the death of iconic Greco-Roman figures (e.g., Heracles, Romulus). In one way or another, they were portrayed as being deified upon death. This was thought to be a fitting epilogue to the glorious life of someone who had performed great deeds and brought great benefits to the people. The audiences did not necessarily believe that these stories of apotheosis were true, nor were they asked to believe in their historicity. Rather, the motif was an archetypal protocol. Indeed, Plutarch, who did not believe them, called them “fables” (27.4), from which the modern New Testament scholar Richard Miller adopted the term “translation fables,” because the bodies were “translated” into a divine form, and explicitly or implicitly up to heaven. (Miller).

Much as the hero motif and the related “birth of the hero” motif contain standardized elements, so did the classical translation fables. In analyzing 77 examples of such fables, Richard Miller identified 15 common elements often present in them (Miller, p. 35). These include:

  • The translation rectifying an injustice, undoing a tragic loss, or vindicating the person
  • A vanished or missing body
  • A post-translation appearance by the translated individual, particularly on a road, before one or more eyewitnesses
  • A post-translation didactic speech by the translated individual
  • An ascension, often by winds or into the clouds

We see these elements in Christ’s story. He was executed as an innocent man, and his resurrection vindicated him. His tomb was found empty and the body was nowhere to be found. Then he appeared to the disciples, when he provided further teachings and instructions. And finally he ascended into a cloud (Acts 1:9).

In addition to such standard elements, scholars have found links to classical stories in other details. For example, the cup which Jesus refers to in the garden of Gethsemane and from which he must figuratively drink (Mt 26:39; Mk. 14:36; Lk 22:42; Jn 18:11b) could be based on Socrates’ willingness to drink his cup of hemlock, which had become proverbial (Miller, p. 162; see Keener, p. 1084). While some commentators argue that the cup alludes to writings of Hebrew Bible prophets or to psalms, that approach fails to recognize that any such allusions would have been lost on the gentile audience.

Noel Coypel Apotheosis of Hercules

The apotheosis of Heracles above, together with that of Romulus, served as a model for the many other translation fables in the Greco-Roman world. Painting by Noel Coypel (1700).

It is not feasible to cover here even a portion of the many classical translation fables, so for purposes of comparison I have selected just one, that of Romulus, because, with the possible exception of Heracles’s apotheosis, Romulus was the quintessential example in the archetypal translation tradition, and was the figure most familiar and dear to Romans. He was conceived when Mars slept with a vestal virgin and thus was the son of a god, and whereas Romulus founded the kingdom of Rome, Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God. According to the story of Romulus’s death, once he had put Rome on firm foundations, his father, the god Mars, decided that it was time to take him back into heaven. So one day when Romulus was reviewing his troops on the Field of Mars, he disappeared. Some people apparently thought that some senators killed him, tore him up, and spirited away the body parts, but a myth also arose that Mars had raised him up. Just in relation to Easter events we find at least the following parallels:

  • Like Jesus (as the Word) in the Gospel of John, Romulus was preexistent and divine, came from the divine realm to incarnate for a specific earthly mission, and returned to heaven (Litwa, p. 166).
  • As Romulus was dying on the Field of Mars, clouds came, the sun disappeared and the sky went dark, and thunder clapped (Plutarch, 27.6-7; Ovid, Fasti, 4:492-96); he disappeared in a mist or cloud (Livy, 1.16). When Jesus was dying, darkness came over the land, and at the moment of his death the earth shook (Mt 27:45, 51). He ascended to heaven in a cloud (Acts 1:9).
  • When Romulus died, his body (and clothing) disappeared and people wondered what had happened. After Jesus died, his body could not be found in the tomb, and people apparently suspected that the disciples had stolen it. So Matthew countered that notion by having Pilate station guards at the tomb (27:63-66). After the body nevertheless disappeared, the guards were bribed to claim that the disciples stole it while they were asleep (Mt 28:12:13).
  • After Romulus disappeared and his body could not be found, the confused people hurried away from the Field of Mars (Plutarch, 27.7-8). This aspect of the event was so famous and important that, according to some ancient accounts, the day was celebrated as a holiday annually throughout the Roman world as the day of “The People’s Flight” (Poplifugia), thus ensconcing Romulus’s ascension as the quintessential resurrection story in the Roman world. The original ending of Mark, where the women fled the tomb upon discovering that the body was missing, may be modeled on this tradition, thus also implying that Jesus was taken up.
  • The people concluded that Romulus had become a god and ascended to heaven, and began to worship him (Plutarch, 27.7-8; Ovid, Metamorphoses, 14.808-28; Litwa, p. 168). This parallels Jesus’s resurrection and ascension, and subsequent worship of him (e.g., Mt. 28:17; Luke 24:45-53; Acts 1:1-8). In both cases there are eyewitnesses to the ascension (see immediately below).
  • After the death of Romulus, his intimate friend Julius Proculus reported that while traveling on the road he had seen Romulus coming toward him. When he asks Romulus what had happened, Romulus replies, “It was the pleasure of the gods, O Proculus, from whom I came, that I should be with mankind only a short time, and that after founding a city destined to be the greatest on earth for empire and glory, I should dwell again in heaven. . . . And I will be your propitious deity, [called] Quirinus” (Plutarch, 28.1-3). As noted, sightings of resurrected humans, particularly on a road, were a common feature in such Greco-Roman translation fables. This recalls the encounter of two disciples with the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-49), as well as St. Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Christ on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3-19).
  • Romulus offers Proculus (and Rome generally) parting advice and instructions (Plutarch, 28.2; Ovid, Fasti, 2:505-09). This parallels the parting instructions that the resurrected Christ gave to his disciples (Mk 16:14-18; Mt 28:18-20; Jn 20:21). Both Romulus and Christ rose to heaven after giving their instructions (Acts 1:9).
  • In both cases, their admirers recognized his divinity after his death and resurrection, calling him the son of God (Litwa, pp. 164, 166-67) (of Mars in Romulus’s case (Livy, 1:16)). In Mark (15:39) and Matthew (27:54) even the Roman centurion testified to this.
  • Both Romulus and Christ were resurrected and immortalized bodily (corporeally). This was a useful parallel because the Christians taught that the resurrected Christ existed in bodily as well as spiritual form, whereas the Greeks in general thought that the soul is immaterial and that an immortal exists only as spirit after death.

Interestingly, after relating the story of Romulus’s death and translation, Plutarch raises doubts about its historicity because it appears to parallel similar stories that were told about various Greek men and women who disappeared upon dying, including Alcmene (mother of Heracles), Aristeas of Proconnesus, and Cleomedes of Astypaleia; in other words, because the story was following familiar mythological motifs (28:4-6). The Church father Tertullian also noted that both Romulus and Jesus reportedly were taken up to heaven in a cloud, but argued that this was “far more certain” to have occurred Christ’s case than in that of Romulus (21.23).

The Romans began regarding some of their emperors (the better ones) as divine. Sometimes emperors were considered divine while still alive, but more commonly they were deified after their death; sometimes they claimed divine ancestry. In this capacity, the emperor was called the “Son of God”; Augustus put this title on coinage bearing his image.

This practice of deifying emperors presented a challenge for Christians. When Christ’s followers decided that he was the divine Son of God, this placed Christ in direct competition with the emperors. For Christians, Christ rather than any emperor was the divine Son of God, and this competition shaped how Christians packaged their myth. As Bart Ehrman observed, Christians were elevating Christ to divinity “under the influence and in dialogue with the environment in which they lived” (p. 49). Christ had to be portrayed as greater than any emperor. One consequence was that the moment when he became divine was pushed back further and further in time. Instead of becoming divine upon his resurrection as seems to have been the case initially (Rom 1:4; Acts 13:33), the moment when he became divine was pushed back to his baptism, then to his conception in Mary’s womb, and finally to even before the creation when he was a divinity in heaven (Jn 1:1-3). No emperor was able to make such a grand claim.

The use of the Greco-Roman model in telling the resurrection story does not necessarily mean that the mere event of the resurrection was invented out of whole cloth by writers from the gentile world many years after Jesus’s death. Nobody in the gentile world outside Palestine would have heard or cared about the provincial peasant Jesus unless a strong tradition about him had already evolved in Jesus’s homeland, which despite the tradition of Jesus as a teacher ultimately seems to have been centered on belief in his resurrection. Paul had heard the resurrection story only a few years after Jesus’s death, when he was persecuting members of the Jesus movement. Most New Testament scholars think that belief in the resurrection most likely originated among Jesus’s followers, who were illiterate and not well versed in classical culture, and spread from there. The building blocks in the telling of the story as we have it, however, do follow the classical template.


Diodorus of Halicarnassus, Roman Histories.

Ehrman, Bart. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne (2014).

Keener, Craig. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, Michigan (2003).

Litwa, M. David. Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014).

Livy, History of Rome.

MacDonald, Dennis. Mythologizing Jesus: From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield (2015).

Miller, Richard. Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity. New York: Routledge (2015).

Ovid, Fasti.

Ovid, Metamorphoses.

Plutarch, Romulus.

Shapiro, H.A. “’Hêrôs Theos’: The Death and Apotheosis of Herakles,” The Classical World 77:7-18 (1983).

Smith, Jonathan. Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1990).

Tertullian, Apology.

Posted in Mythology | 3 Comments

My New Article Just Published

Some time ago the Joseph Campbell Foundation asked me to write a short article for its MythBlast series, on the occasion of celebrating Joseph Campbell’s birthday this month. The article was just published yesterday. It is entitled The Mythology of Celebration, and it discusses the mythology underlying our seasonal holidays and how we can celebrate them more meaningfully and spiritually by understanding and participating in the myths underlying them. See it here. The article is something of a preview of my upcoming book called The Dance of the Horae: The Mythology of our Seasonal Holidays.


The Horae were originally Greek deities tied to the vegetative seasonal cycle, which itself was known as The Dance of the Horae. The Horae were said to dance their way through the course of the seasons. Painting by Edward John Poynter, Horae Serenae (1894).

Posted in Mythology | 1 Comment

Mythology of Wine Lecture, March 13, 2019

Readers of this blog will recall that I wrote five posts late last year about the mythology of wine (listed below the flyer). Now on March 13, 2019, at 5:30 p.m., at Carr Winery in Santa Ynez, California, I’ll be giving a talk about the mythology of wine that will include but go beyond what was in my earlier blog posts. And you may also enjoy Carr wine during the event! I look forward to seeing some of you there!

Carr Winery talk flyer

The Mythology of Wine – A First Sip

The Mythology of Wine II: Ancient Canaan and Old Testament Israel

The Mythology of Wine III: Ancient Egypt

The Mythology of Wine IV: Ancient Greece

The Mythology of Wine V: Wine in the Mythology of Christ

Posted in Mythology | Leave a comment

Christmas Mythology VI: Myth, Our Self, and the Divine Child

Our Christmas holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus the Divine Child. The Divine Child is an archetypal figure in myth and psychology, for good reason. If we tend to him properly, he can help integrate our psyches and enhance our spirituality. The Christmas holiday prompts us to do so. There is no better Christmas gift to ourselves.

From the mythological, psychological, and spiritual perspectives, the birth, life, and teachings of Jesus together with his suffering and resurrection can be understood as representing the integration of our total psyche (the “Self”, capitalized), specifically the integration of the unconscious part of our psyche with the conscious part (the “self,” not capitalized) (Jung  1969a, pp. 36-71). Carl Jung called this integration process “individuation,” which results in a person reaching a higher level of consciousness and self-awareness, and being more advanced spiritually. As a symbol of the Self, Christ represents both the dynamic process of individuation as well as the result, the more integrated Self. This endeavor can be considered “religious” in nature because at the deepest level of our collective (transpersonal) unconscious lies an archetype of unity and totality that Jung calls the “God-image,” which is the deepest source of our numinous experiences of “divinity,” and the integration process draws upon it (see Edinger 1996a). Numinous experiences have a lasting emotional impact on us and drive much of our thinking and behavior, including in the individuation process. This happens in everyone, atheists included, and it is the realm that mystics from various religious and non-religious traditions access during their sacred experiences, including in some forms of meditation.

The Holy Spirit and the Incarnation

In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Christmas story begins when Mary becomes pregnant, known as the incarnation. In these Gospels, Jesus was both human and divine at his creation in the womb. In both accounts, this happened through the action of the Holy Spirit. Thus, in order to understand the incarnation (and so too the Christmas event) from a mytho-psychological perspective, we first must understand the Holy Spirit from that perspective.

The Holy Spirit is a creative divine force or energy that acts as a mediating agent between God and the cosmos, especially humans. In the New Testament, Jesus is both conceived and baptized through the Holy Spirit. He performs his miracles through it (e.g., Mt 12:28; Lk 11:20; Acts 10:38), and confers it upon his disciples when commissioning them to preach and perform healings (Mt 10:1, 20; 28:16-20; Lk 9:1-2). It descends upon the disciples at Pentecost, which enables them to proclaim the gospel, including in many foreign tongues (Acts 2:1-13). St. Paul spread the gospel through it, and he said that it dwells within Christians, who can then live as Christs (e.g., Rom 8:9-11). The Spirit was intended to have a continuing effect and provide ongoing guidance, in the form of the Paraclete (Jn 14:16-17, 26) (Jung 1969a, pp. 88-89). The Spirit has a deifying effect, which is noticeable to others. This was exemplified when Paul and Barnabas, who carried the Spirit, were mistaken for gods (Zeus and Hermes). Those who saw them remarked, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men” (Acts 14:11).

In psychological terms, the Holy Spirit is the psychic energy (libido) that brings “divine” archetypal unconscious content into consciousness. Technically it is not the substantive unconscious content itself, but is the carrier of varied contents from various archetypes; yet the contents and the psychic energy hit consciousness together, so the two are inseparable and “operationally they are synonymous” (Corbett 1996, p. 15). It is literally felt somatically, in the body, indeed an incarnation. The result is an overwhelming numinous emotional experience. When this content and spirit incarnate, they take on a personally meaningful quality that psychologists call “soul.” Soul has a lasting effect on ego consciousness and also grows over time as new content is integrated, which is why the Christian myth can speak of the Paraclete. On the other hand, to the extent a person fails to integrate archetypal unconscious content, he or she is said to suffer a loss (or lack) of soul. This is characterized by a lack of energy and motivation, listlessness, and often some degree of depression, because one’s ego consciousness has no inspiration or inner guide.

More technically, these archetypal contents and spirit form the core of complexes that structure our personality (Corbett 1996, p. 60). This means that what we know as the “divine” forms the structure of our minds, and hence also the character of what we think of as the external world. In particular, when an archetype is felt strongly, to ego consciousness it feels like something “other,” as if it is from the external world, when actually it is external only to ego consciousness. Hence the appearance of external divine beings, including the God-man. When we perceive the “Holy Spirit” as something external affecting someone else, we are projecting this psychic energy onto heroic figures (Jesus, Paul), often using solar imagery. Idealized people are seen as the carriers (or even the source) of spirit, and of divinity itself (Corbett 1996, pp. 150-51). This gets us to the Divine Child figure, to be considered shortly below.

Divine Child in Manger and Adoration of the Magi

Nativity scenes typically show signs of the presence of divinity (halos, angels, the star and light from it). The magi represent the recognition and acceptance of the Divine Child; so do the angels, from the heavenly perspective. The donkey and ox are humble animals who serve people, and so represent the humbleness of the ego needed in order to accept the Divine Child and achieve integration. Lambs and oxes are also sacrificial animals, so Christ was considered a sacrificial lamb. The ego must sacrifice part of itself to achieve integration.

While in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels Christ’s incarnation was literalized as a one-time historical event, mythologically and psychologically the implication is that incarnation can occur in any and all of us. St. Paul’s teachings come close to this. Further, we see other versions of such incarnation in various mythic and religious traditions, which suggests that the process of incarnation of the “divine” is an archetypal psychic process. Thus, in ancient Egypt the king was the god Horus born to a mortal woman, and in India Vishnu incarnated at times of need, while a Bodhisattva incarnates in order to liberate humanity (Corbett 1996, p. 128). The archetypal nature of the Christ story is also evidenced by Christianity’s spread and acceptance in the many cultures of the Mediterranean. As Jung put it, “Christ would never have made the impression he did on his followers if he had not expressed something that was alive and at work in their unconscious. Christianity itself would never have spread through the pagan world with such astonishing rapidity had its ideas not found an analogous psychic readiness to receive them” (Jung 1969b, p. 441). As a result, Christians were able to live more spiritually integrated lives.

More specifically from the mythological standpoint, the incarnation of Jesus was considered a kind of second creation. The first creation marked the emergence of ego consciousness, through which we are able to see opposites, as seen by Adam and Eve gaining the “knowledge of good and evil” in the Eden myth. Jesus was seen as the second Adam (Rom 5:12-14; 1 Cor 15:21-22, 45). Jesus as the second Adam works mythologically because he represents a yet higher, more integrated consciousness, and therefore also a more developed and differentiated God-image. His birth through incarnation of the divine marks the dawn of this higher consciousness, quite literally a spiritual birth; he is thus available as a symbol of the Self. With that understanding, we can now consider the meaning of Jesus exemplifying the Divine Child.

            The Birth of Jesus and the Divine Child Motif                                              

The archetypal figure of the “Divine Child” has great importance in myth and psychology. The child archetype is an emanation from the collective unconscious (Jung 1959b), meaning that “divine” child figures arise from it, in miraculous births (Jung 1959b, p. 161 n. 21). A child represents the “potential future” (Jung 1959b, p. 164). Within us, the Divine Child represents “the preconscious, childhood aspect of the collective psyche” (Jung 1959b, p. 161), meaning content of the collective unconscious that is not yet integrated with ego consciousness. The Divine Child is a “symbol of unity” to be born from the tension of opposites (Jung 1969a, p. 31), thus giving hope of change for the better. Hence he is a savior figure who promises to provoke integration and redeem us.

But the Divine Child does more than represent potential: His coming actually initiates the individuation process because of the incarnation. The Divine Child is a numinous symbol resulting from this moment, representing the wholeness that can achieved from it. Since in this moment humans feel the divine, it is only natural that it will be mythologized, historicized, and celebrated through a sacred holiday.

When unconscious content rises up, it needs to be recognized and accepted by ego consciousness in order to be integrated and embodied as soul. Thus, when the Divine Child appears he must be recognized, accepted, and adored. In the Christmas story, we see this process at work in the accounts of the adorations of the magi and the shepherds, as well as the chorus of angels (Corbett 1996, p. 149). This also appears to be happening when the fetus John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb just as the pregnant Mary appears before John’s mother Elizabeth (Lk 1:41).

When confronted with such powerful unconscious material, ego consciousness will suffer. When the Divine Child appears, inevitably he will clash with “the establishment” of our ego consciousness – the Pharisees, scribes, priesthood, and Romans of our self – which will oppose and reject him in order to preserve the status quo (i.e., the ego’s dominant position). This is why in the “birth of the hero” mythological motif the special child is abandoned back to nature (i.e., back to the unconscious), often to be brought up by animals or otherwise in primitive conditions. This same process is reflected in the story of Herod and the massacre of the innocents and the flight to Egypt. Herod, the reigning King of the Jews, fears Jesus as a threat to his kingship; he and the Romans are ego consciousness running rampant. Such is the precariousness of individuation. But the nature of culture heroes is to overcome this opposition in order to bring benefits to humankind, including higher consciousness.  Accordingly, the child-hero inevitably breaks free and evolves toward independence, and so in the “birth of the hero” motif he is often described as gaining in wisdom and accomplishing extraordinary deeds at a young age, like Jesus.

It is the Divine Child figure in particular who can accomplish this because in a young child the ego is only budding, not yet dominant, and so is still more integrated with the unconscious; the opposites are not yet sharply contrasted. Being in such a state, a child appropriately represents not merely the potential for wholeness of the Self, but also the way to achieve this. He is well-suited for the task because he is carried by powerful numinous spirit (psychic energy) yet is less threatening that much other archetypal content.

Accordingly, Jesus uses child imagery in his teachings. This is why Jesus says in Matthew 18:4 that “unless you change and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (likewise Mk 10:15; Lk 18:17; Gospel of Thomas 22, 46.2). Mark’s Gospel provides a larger narrative context for this metaphor of integration. The enacted “parable of the child amongst” in Mark 9:33-37 can be read according to this psychological framework. In verse 34 the disciples’ egos are driving their behavior, so they are seeking greatness and preeminence, which hinders their spiritual growth. So Jesus teaches them that if anyone would be first, he first must be last and be a humble servant. (In the ancient household, where this scene takes place, a child has the lowest status.) So as Jesus the God-man physically embraces a child in a house, he teaches that a person first must identify oneself with a child and in an important sense become mentally like one, with the ego having no pretensions to greatness. Psychologically, the story shows the need to tame ego consciousness by becoming like a child so that self-aware individuation can occur. This can establish a new pattern for human relationships that will leave no occasion for strife, which is what at the beginning of this story had been occurring among the disciples.

The goal of the individuation process in New Testament terms is the Kingdom of God. Psychologically speaking, this is the point where the Self has become integrated. This is why, for example, Jesus can say that there is no marriage in the Kingdom of God; instead people will exist there like angels in heaven (Mk 12:25). The opposites, in this marriage example the masculine and feminine principles, will have been resolved and integrated. The idea is similar in religions worldwide. In Hinduism, for example, the Divine Child Ganesha is born from the spirit of his father Shiva and part of the body (earth) of his mother Parvati. He is a unity not only of male and female, but also of spirit and matter, and of heaven and earth. As such, he represents the integration of opposites in the psyche and the path toward spiritual enlightenment (see generally Lilla 2016).

In summary, the conception and birth of the Divine Child represent the incarnation of the divine within ourselves. This birth is a spiritual birth, both his and potentially ours. This Child symbolizes potential for our future. Recognizing and accepting him, as the magi did, results in integration. Christians concretized this in terms of the future realization of the Kingdom of God, or salvation by going to heaven. Psychologically, however, this is an internal affair. Jesus himself spoke in such terms, telling the Pharisees that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:21). Similarly, in the Gospel of Thomas, he taught:

  • “When you give rise to that which is in you, what you have will save you” (Saying 70).
  • “The kingdom is within you. . . . When you know yourselves, . . . you will know that you are the sons of the living Father” (Saying 3).

Observing Christmas offers us the chance to focus on our own incarnation by celebrating the Divine Child. He is born not in a far-off place, but within ourselves. We each can have our individual way of “putting Christ back into Christmas.”

Sources and Bibliography      

Corbett, Lionel. The Religious Function of the Psyche. Routledge: New York (1996).

Edinger, Edward. The Christian Archetype: A Jungian Commentary on the Life of Christ. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books (1987).

———. The New God-Image: A Study of Jung’s Key Letters Concerning the Evolution of the Western God-Image. Wilmette, Illinois: Chiron Publications (1996) (cited as Edinger 1996a).

———. The Aion Lectures: Exploring the Self in C.G. Jung’s Aion. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books (1996) (cited as Edinger 1996b).

Freed, Edwin. The Stories of Jesus’ Birth: A Critical Introduction. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (2001).

Jung, Carl. “Concerning Rebirth,” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1959). Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 9.1, pp. 111-47 (cited as Jung 1959a).

———. “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1959). CW, vol. 9.1, pp.149-81 (cited as Jung 1959b).

———. Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self (1969). CW, vol. 9.2 (cited as Jung 1969a).

———. “Answer to Job,” in Psychology and Religion: West and East (1969). CW, vol. 11, pp. 355-470 (cited as Jung 1969b).

Lilla, Jenna. “Baby Ganesha: divine child as image of enlightenment” (2016). Blog post at https://jenniferlilla.wordpress.com/2016/04/09/baby-ganesha-divine-child-as-image-of-enlightenment/

Vermes, Geza. The Nativity: History and Legend. New York: Doubleday (2006).

Posted in Mythology | Leave a comment

Halloween and Samhain: Eves of Transformation

In a lecture about Halloween back in 1981, the mythologist Joseph Campbell remarked that this holiday “gives us a chance to exercise our imagination – to bring out . . . some of the structuring forms that underlie our spiritual life and which we may forget in our daily work.” As an example, he noted that the Halloween costume “talks to and evokes something deeply inside which is more permanent, which is archetypal, which is more eternal within us than the secular character that we represent in the world” (Campbell, Lecture). These comments reflect the influence of Carl Jung on Campbell’s thought. The psychology and mythology underlying Halloween indeed hold the potential for personal transformation. As it happens, a precursor to Halloween, the pre-Christian Celtic Samhain festival, likewise appears to have been a festival of transformation. So in order to appreciate what Halloween can mean for us it is helpful to look back at Samhain (the Celtic new year, pronounced sow-in), as well as the Catholic Allhallowtide (All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day – October 31-November 2).

Samhain as a Festival of Transformation

Getting to the bottom of Samhain can be tricky. In particular, we often hear that it was a festival about dead ancestors, partly to honor them but also to protect against them; also that it was to protect against “evil spirits.” While this might be true in part, actually there is no evidence for it, as is now recognized in the scholarly community (Hutton, p. 370; MacLeod, p. 174). Rather, that notion appears to be an anachronism, attributing to Samhain the later concepts behind All Souls’ Day (Rogers, p. 19). The actual idea behind pre-Christian Samhain appears to pertain to the living (Hutton, pp. 366, 370). Specifically, Samhain was meant to utilize the occasion of the new year to achieve the regeneration of individuals, their kings, and society, through interaction with the powers and beings of the Otherworld (Markale, p. 118). It was a festival of transformation, realized through myths and rituals concerning the Otherworld. Indeed, the action in most of the key Celtic myths took place on Samhain (Rogers, p. 20; Markale 1999, p. 165).

            The Otherworld

In order to understand Samhain, it is important understand Celts’ conception of the Otherworld. In the Celtic understanding, there were two realms of reality: (a) the surface world of the living, and (b) everything else, called the Otherworld. The Otherworld was just under surface of earth, on magical islands, bottoms of lakes, in the sea, and in far-away places on earth. It was close, not in the sky (“heaven”) (Monaghan, p. 371). There the normal order of the universe was suspended and somewhat dissolved, as in primordial, mythic time. It is this nullification of ordinary space and time which enables interaction between the two worlds (Markale 1999, p. 165). There were portals in and out of the Otherworld, especially the sidhe (fairy mounds). These were open on Samhain and Beltane, making the Otherworld and its beings accessible then.

The beings of the Otherworld were mostly former humans (whom that Gaels had replaced on the surface world as a result of a battle), but now supernatural and immortal. These beings, called the Tuatha Dé Danann (“people of [the goddess] Danu,” also known as faeries), looked like people, and had the same virtues and vices as regular humans (Markale 2000, p. 71). They were mostly helpful, not “evil spirits,” although some of them resented the Gaels who had conquered them (Markale 2000, p. 68). Generally, they watched over the surface world and endeavored to keep it balanced and harmonious, intervening when necessary to achieve this (Markale 2000, p. 36). For this reason they were often called the “Good People.” The grotesque supernatural figures that that came to symbolize Halloween emerged later as a result of rank superstition and Christian demonization of the Good People.

With this background, we can examine what were the three main rituals at pre-Christian Samhain (Markale 2000, pp. 19-31, 48):

  • The communal bonfire – fire as transformational agent
  • Feast – eating transformational food
  • Drinking to intoxication – transforming consciousness

               The Communal Bonfire

On Samhain evening, in Ireland all existing fires (including at home) were extinguished, and new ones lit. This marked the end of summer and the old year, and the beginning of the new. Of these fires, the communal bonfire was the most important, especially at the Samhain celebrations of kings, attended by prominent Druids and poets.

In light of the nature of the Otherworld described above, any notion that the bonfire was primarily aimed at scaring away evil spirits is anachronistic. Rather, the fire was considered an agent of transformation. We can see this from the fact that Samhain was the new year and therefore considering New Year’s mythology, from the mythology of fire in general, and from the Celtic myths concerning fire in particular.

As I wrote in an earlier post, New Year’s mythology and ritual is typically about transformation and renewal (e.g., Babylon). Both gods (e.g., Marduk) and humans (especially kings) go through this process on New Year’s. Generally, fire is a purging agent, eliminating the old and making way for, or creating, the new. Fire (“sulfur”) plays this role in alchemy too. In Celtic thinking, unlike in ancient Greece, fire was not one of four primary elements, but was an agent for transforming the other three (earth, air, water), which is to say it can transform us as well. Celtic myths about fire occurring on Samhain illustrate this.

One such example is known as The Intoxication of the Ulstermen, in which the hero Cuchulain (a proxy for his king) and his companions are at a feast on Samhain hosted by their enemies, the king and queen of Connaught. After they are filled with food and inebriated with drink, they are imprisoned in an iron house, and a fire is started around it with the intention of roasting them alive. Cuchulain’s companions blame him for their plight. But Cuchulain executes a powerful jump and breaks the structure, which enables them to escape. After that Connaught’s king is apologetic and hosts them at another feast in a wooden house, at which, challenged by his companions, Cuchulain executes yet another jump known as “the leap of the salmon,” in which he breaks through the roof of the house, proving that he is now better than ever. The lesson is clear: Cuchulain has emerged from the trial by fire in supreme shape and trusted by his men.

In another similar myth, a large, red-haired man and his wife, both from the Otherworld, arrive in King Matholwch’s kingdom of Ireland and begin to commit various offenses. To get rid of them, the King’s vassalscastt them inside an iron house that they had built, and fires are set around it to incinerate them. When it got too hot, the red-haired man gave the house a blow with his shoulder, casting it aside, he and his wife survived the ordeal. He learned his lesson about his bad behavior from the trial by fire, and was now gracious to the King, presenting him with a magic cauldron from the Otherworld which he had brought with him on his journey, which restores to life the dead that are placed within it. Which brings us to the feast . . . .                                                                                      

            Feasting on Transformational Food

At the Samhain feast the featured dish was pork (Markale 2000, p. 25). Why? Because pigs were associated with immortality. They lived in the Otherworld too, and were eaten by gods and the Tuatha to retain their immortality. This is reflected in myths about the Dagda and Manannán mac Lir, king of the Tuatha. Each had pigs which they would kill and serve to their guests at dinner, but the next morning the pigs were alive and well again. Thus, eating them was thought to put one in touch with the Otherworld, and would help one gain immortality (in the afterlife). The food was transformational.

Further, the pork was not roasted on fire but simmered (braised) in a cauldron. Cauldrons were important in Celtic mythology, as evidenced by the many Celtic cauldrons unearthed by archaeologists. They were thought to be magical: They gave supernatural knowledge and perception, revived the dead, and provided for people. Thus, the Dagda had a magic cauldron which satisfied everyone, forever filled with good things like a horn of plenty (Monaghan, p. 79). In the Tale of Talesin, the protagonist Gwion acquired supernatural knowledge from tasting 3 drops of a potion boiled in a cauldron, and also gained the power of transforming himself, called “shape-shifting” (Monaghan, pp. 438-39). And in the tales Branwen Daughter of Llyr, Peredur, and others, cauldrons revive the dead. Such renewal by a cauldron is apparently portrayed on the famous Gundestrup Cauldron (see illustration).

Gundestrup-cauldron-warriors and cauldron

Plate E of the Gundestrup Cauldron (ca. 1st century CE). On the bottom row, potentially in the underworld, is a series of dead or debilitated warriors proceeding toward a god and a cauldron on the left. The god dips them into the cauldron and they emerge not only alive, but promoted as horsemen. Between the rows is a horizontal tree with its roots at the cauldron, symbolizing life. One horseman (2nd from right) has a boar image on his helmet, and the 3 carnyx horns on the right also feature boars’ heads, perhaps alluding to immortality. So we have the pigs discussed above in relation to the feast. A dog, for the Celts symbolizing the promise of future life (dog images were common in Celtic graves), appears under the cauldron and thus serves as a threshold.


            Drinking to Intoxication

As I mentioned in a recent post on the mythology of wine, in ancient times, when how fermentation and intoxication worked was not understood, people thought that these phenomena were magical, that supernatural forces were at work. People thought that by becoming intoxicated they were getting in contact with and uniting with the divine. Gods were thought to drink intoxicating drinks. Mead was the drink of Celtic gods, and so was the most common beverage at Samhain. Naturally, the action of all Celtic myths featuring intoxication took place on Samhain (Monaghan, p. 407). For example, in the Intoxication of the Ulstermen discussed above, Cuchulain and his warriors went to their place of transformation only because they were drunk (they were supposed to go see a friendly king).

Christian Aspects of Transformation on this Occasion

The Catholic festivals of All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, and the liturgy on the evening of October 31 (All Saints’ Eve) were focused on the fate of dead souls rather than on the living. Nevertheless, these holidays were tied to the doctrine of the Communion of saints. This consists of the spiritual union of all members of the Christian church, living and dead (including in Purgatory), headed by Christ. The notion goes back to St. Paul, who said that in Christ Christians form a single body (Rom 12:4-13; 1 Cor 12). One enters the Communion when one is baptized. For our purposes, this doctrine is important because it breaks down barriers between earth and the supernatural realm (as Celts did, especially on Samhain), and implies a connection between the living and the dead. This too is transformative.

Celebrating Halloween as Transformative

At this point we can consider the psychological dimensions of Halloween that Joseph Campbell was pointing out, because they can make the holiday transformative.

The symbols of Halloween relate to realms beyond our everyday conscious life and world. In fact, they emerge from our unconscious, which is the realm of what feels sacred and holy. Ultimately, our psyche refuses to erect a permanent barrier between the profane and the sacred, between our world and the Otherworld (that of the unconscious). The unconscious will catch up with us sooner or later. The symbols and rituals of Halloween are a result of this process.

So on Halloween we should not only let this process take its course, but proactively facilitate it. Campbell liked to call this kind of approach being “transparent to the transcendent” (Campbell 2004, p. xvii). Our other holidays have become domesticated and institutionalized, whereas Halloween allows us freedom and creativity. Halloween is the only remaining major American holiday in which people, young and old, can celebrate by taking on alternative roles that exercise their imagination and potential for creative expression and fantasy. It is cathartic. It therefore can serve important mythological, creative, and psychological purposes.

Halloween helps enable people to act out their sublimated fantasies. It can help children come to terms with frightening images and characters in dreams, and likewise can help adults deal with nightmares (by confronting and making friends with nightmare characters). In our constrained lives, the rebellious, transgressive aspect of Halloween can be liberating. And it can help us deal with death. Although mocking death can be a willful defense against the unacceptable, merely making it visible is still one path to coming to terms with it, like with nightmare images. The Otherworld beings were once helpful, and we can make it so again. It’s not so hard, because they are already inside us. The veils are thinner than we realize. We can utilize Halloween to open them.

(Note: The above essay is based on parts of the chapter on Halloween in my upcoming book about the mythology underlying our seasonal holidays.)

Bibliography and Sources Cited

Campbell, Joseph. “Trick or Treat,” lecture delivered at Fountain Street Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, on October 25, 1981, available at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/10/31/joseph-campbell-on-the-roots-of-halloween.html (cited as “Lecture”).

———. Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation. Novato, California: New World Library (2004).

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1996). See Chapters 35-37 about Samhain, Allhallowtide, and Halloween.

MacCana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology. London: Hamlyn Publishing (1970). Classic work by a leading authority, with many illustrations.

Markale, Jean. 1999. The Druids: Celtic Priests of Nature. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International (1999).

———. The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions (2000). Speculative but insightful.

MacLeod, Sharon. Celtic Myth and Religion. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company (2012).                                                                                                                 

Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books (2008). Excellent resource with annotations for further research.

Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. New York: Oxford University Press (2002).

Rolleston, T.W. Celtic Myths and Legends. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications (1990). Reprint of 1917 book that still reads well.

Posted in Mythology | 2 Comments

The Mythology of Wine V: Wine in the Mythology of Christ

This post in my series on the mythology of wine covers the symbolism of wine, grapevines, and vineyards in relation to Christ.

Israel and Jesus as Grapevines

In an earlier post, I mentioned that in the Hebrew Bible Israel is often portrayed as a vineyard, with Yahweh being the vintner (e.g., Ps 80:14-15; Is 5:1-7). If the Israelites failed to obey the Law, the vineyard would degenerate and yield poor grapes (e.g., Jer 2:21; also Is 5:2). Prophets blamed Israel’s and Judah’s domination by Assyria and then Babylon to the people’s failure to obey the Law. When Judah fell to the Babylonians, the Jewish elite was exiled, the last Davidic king was dethroned and died in exile, and Judah ceased to exist. The “vineyard” was no more. After the exile, Jews lived in their former territory, now named the Persian (and subsequently Hellenistic Seleucid and then Roman) province of Judea.

As a result of such foreign domination and feelings of guilt, the Jews developed the notion of a future David who would save them from their plight, judge the wicked, and establish an ideal Jewish kingdom. Thus, Yahweh told the prophet Jeremiah that “I will cause a righteous branch of David to spring up, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved . . . .” (Jer 33:15-16). As messianic and apocalyptic expectations grew, the grapevine was viewed as the tree of the coming Messiah (e.g., 2 Baruch 39:7), and the vineyard symbolized the utopia to be established after judgment day. Spears would be turned into pruning hooks, and swords into plowshares; rather than make war, people would lounge under their grapevines and fig trees (Mic 4:3-4; Sir 3:10).

Jesus himself utilized this image of Israel as a vineyard in his Parable of the Tenants contained in all three Synoptic Gospels as well as the Gospel of Thomas. There a landowner planted a vineyard, leased it to tenants, and left the country. At harvest time, he twice sent representatives to collect the produce, but the tenants killed them. Finally he sent his son on his behalf, thinking that surely the tenants would respect him, but they killed him too. Jesus teaches that the owner will put the tenants to death and lease the vineyard to new tenants who will render to him the produce. In the parable, the original tenants were likened to the priests and Pharisees (Mt 21:45), and the murdered son was Jesus. He was foreseeing his own persecution and execution at their insistence (see Mt 21:33-46; Mk 12:1-12; Lk 20:9-19; Th 65:1-8, 66). (As the account was being told in the late in the 1st century and mainly outside Palestine, the new tenants were seen as the Gentiles.)

The above provides the background to why Jesus described himself as “the true vine” and his disciples as its branches (Jn 15:1-15). In the Gospel of John Jesus said, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (15:4). Those who abide in Jesus will abide in his and the Father’s love, and like the vine bear much fruit; those who do not will wither, do nothing, and vanish. Here the old notion of Israel as the vine and vineyard is now being applied to Jesus himself. This implies that being in the right relationship with God and achieving salvation is not a matter of being a member of ethnic Israel but rather requires being grafted to Christ. This means that the Christ movement and salvation are open to Gentiles; for John being a true Jew and a Christian are one and the same thing (Keener, pp. 991 & n. 37 with citations, 993). Later when Christianity developed, the Church, which provided the connection to Christ, portrayed itself as the vine, which was thought of as bearing much fruit (Ferguson, p. 40).

A prophecy of Isaiah said that a savior (described as a shoot or branch) would sprout out of the stump of Jesse (King David’s father), render judgment, and stand in glory before all peoples (11:1-10). Early Christians seized upon this passage as predicting the coming of Christ (e.g., Rom 15:12). This explains why later Matthew and Luke felt a need to provide a genealogy (family tree) of Jesus tracing him back to David and Jesse, and in Luke’s was all the way back to Adam (Mt 1:1-17; Lk 3:23-32). Was what became known as the “tree of Jesse” thought of as a grapevine? While Isaiah 11.1 uses Hebrew vocabulary which could (but not necessarily) apply to a grapevine, the passage needs to be read in the context of the preceding Chapter 10, which talks only of the felling of trees in the forests as part of the punishment of Israel (10:19, 33-34). Since Isaiah 11:1 is based on the result of the destruction described in Chapter 10, it probably does not primarily refer to grapevines as opposed to trees, although grapevines too would have been swept up in the general destruction. The vineyard metaphor (or even that of bearing fruit) is not being used here. Once we move into the period of messianism and apocalyptic literature, and eventually with Jesus as Messiah, however, the situation is different. Since the vine is viewed as the tree of the Messiah, and since Jesus the Messiah is the vine and the fruit of the tree of Jesse, it becomes clear that the grapevine is involved.

Turning Water Into Premium Wine

In the Gospel of John the first miracle of Jesus was when he turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana (Jn. 2:1-11), which “revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (2:11). But there is more to this than just proof of his identity and miraculous powers. Jesus’s wine itself made a favorable impression, for the steward (who was unaware that the wine had run out) remarked to the bridegroom, “Every man first serves the good wine, and when they [the guests] have become intoxicated the lesser wine; but you kept the good wine until now” (2:10). In Israel, as elsewhere to this day, old wine was considered superior to new wine, but now Jesus’s brand new wine was deemed superior. Jesus’s superiority as a vigneron symbolized the superiority of Jesus himself and his new message compared to the doctrines of the priests and Pharisees. Indeed, much as Jesus made that wine in water jars (ὑδρίαι) rather than wine amphorae, he also told his disciples, “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; … new wine is put into new wineskins” (Mk 2:22; also Mt 9:17; Lk 5:37-38). Here his new and better wine was a metaphor for his novel and superior teaching (new covenant), which he contrasted with the empty doctrines and practices of the Pharisees and the priesthood. Using new wineskins for new wine (which has not entirely finished fermenting) allows the wineskin to expand (whereas old ones would split), so the point here is that Jesus’s new teachings should expand among the people (see Nolland, p. 249). In a similar vein, in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well told in John 4:7-26, Jesus offers novel “living water” of salvation and eternal life, as opposed to the traditional water that the woman had been drinking, again a reference to his new and superior teachings.

Wine in the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Eucharist

In the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches the disciples that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man [Jesus] and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink in my blood abide in me, and I in them” (6:53-56). In John this is not actually acted out at their last meal together , but in the Synoptic Gospels the Last Supper features wine as Christ’s blood and bread as his body. In Mark, at the supper Jesus says, holding the cup of wine, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mk 14:24-25; likewise Mt 26:28-29; Lk 22:18-20). Two points are important here. First, by saying that the wine is his blood, he is alluding to the traditional Israelite blood sacrifice described in Exodus 24:4-8, and so portraying his own imminent execution as a sacrifice, thus paving the road (anachronistically) to the doctrine of original sin. (The comparison of wine with blood derives from Genesis 49:11 and Deuteronomy 32:14 describing wine as the blood of grapes.) Second, here again we see the above-mentioned association of vines and wine with the utopian kingdom of God. Wine was to be a beverage in that kingdom. And Jesus was true to his word: When he was offered wine mixed with myrrh/gall while on the cross, he refused it (Mk 15:23; Mt. 27:34). In the famous Antioch Chalice (or lamp) from the 6th century CE, Christ is depicted as seated among grapevines, probably enthroned in the kingdom of God, himself perhaps the vine or its fruit (see illustration).

Antioch Chalice at Met2

The “Antioch Chalice” from 500-550 CE

At the crucifixion, Jesus was thought of not only as a sacrificial lamb, but also as a grape that was crushed, his blood being equated with wine. Accordingly, in Christian art the cross was sometimes portrayed as a grapevine. The idea here, again harking back to Isaiah 11:1, was that the dead tree of Israel (possibly too the Tree of Life, access to which (and hence the possibility of everlasting life) had been cut off by the transgression of Adam and Eve) has become green and is bearing fruit again because Christ has been grafted upon it and has revived it with his blood (see Ferguson, p. 39 and illustration below). In Baroque allegories the Lamb of God is often placed between thorns (representing crucifixion) and bunches of grapes.

grapevine cross

Christ on a grapevine cross, perhaps as a cluster of grapes. At the bottom are what appear to be the spies of Moses returning from Canaan with the huge cluster of grapes (Num 13:23), thus evoking the interesting comparisons between Jesus and Moses that appear in the Gospels. From the church door at the Castle of Velere, Sion, Switzerland, 13th century CE.

Early Christianity developed the sacrament of the Eucharist, with the ritual modeled on the Last Supper. The notion that the wine is literally Christ’s blood is ultimately derived from the tradition, described in an earlier post, that wine is a vital substance with divine properties and can connect a person with the divine. This sacrament also reflects traditional rituals found in many religions of consuming food symbolizing the body of a divinity in order to appropriate or at least temporarily experience his or her divine powers.

Sources and Bibliography

Ferguson, George. Signs & Symbols in Christian Art. London: Oxford University Press (1954).

Heskett, Randall, and Butler, Joel. Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age. New York: Palgrave MacMillan (2012).

Keener, Craig. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 2 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic (2003).

Nolland, John. Luke 1-9:20, World Biblical Commentary, vol. 35a. Dallas: World Books (1989).

McGovern, Patrick. Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture. Princeton: Princeton University Press (2003).

The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press (2010).

Robinson, Jancis, and Harding, Julia. The Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2015).

Ronnberg, Ami, ed. The Book of Symbols. Cologne, Germany: Taschen (2010).

© Arthur George 2018


Posted in Mythology | 1 Comment

The Mythology of Wine IV: Ancient Greece

When we think of the mythology of wine in ancient Greece, Dionysus immediately comes to mind, and rightly so. His mythology is vast, complicated, confusing, and often contradictory, and I cannot hope to do it justice here. So I will cover only the principal aspects relating to wine, together with enough background to put the wine theme into perspective.

It seems that Dionysus did not begin as a wine god, but only became that when viniculture took root in Greece. The archaeology indicates that viniculture came to Greece both from Egypt through Crete, and also from Canaan and Asia Minor through Thrace/Macedonia. Before the Greeks had wine, they drank and got intoxicated from fermented mead (from honey), as well as beer-like beverages from cereal grains. According to Robert Graves, they also had a spruce beer laced with ivy (p. 108). Dionysus was already associated with these other intoxicants before grape vines and wine came on the scene and became the dominant beverage in Greek culture. The fact that the winnowing fan and ivy are two of his symbols is part of this legacy.

The mythology of Dionysus ties him both to Crete and Thrace, where viniculture first developed near Greece, and eventually Thebes in Boeotia (whose king Cadmus was said to come from Canaan). Since he was established in Crete and Thrace and there already linked with other intoxicants, he was the deity who naturally became the wine god and grew in popularity in Greece proper together with the spread of viniculture there.

Evidence of Dionysus on the Greek mainland goes back as far as about 1200 BCE, in Mycenaean Linear B tablets from King Nestor’s palace in Pylos bearing his name (Burkert, p. 162; McGovern, p. 244). Another tablet from that site mentions a wine offering to Poseidon, while other tablets from there speak of taxes paid in-kind with wine from local vineyards. So viniculture and Dionysus were established at least in the Peloponnesus by that point in time.

According to the myths, it was Dionysus who introduced wine into Greece (and as far away as India). The ancient goddesses of agriculture (e.g., Demeter) remained associated with other crops such as grain, but were never linked to wine. Indeed, some aspects of the Dionysus mythology seem to have evolved in a patriarchal direction, as part of Zeus’s general rise and his appropriation of functions of goddesses. In the principal (but probably not earliest) myth of his birth, Dionysus is conceived when Zeus mates with the mortal woman Semele. Hera, Zeus’s jealous wife, then contrives to make the pregnant Semele demand to see Zeus in his full glory (like Hera does), and when he so reveals himself she is incinerated by his thunderbolt. But Zeus manages to save the fetus, sews it into his thigh, and brings it to term. This makes Dionysus a full god (rather than a demi-god and hero) thanks to Zeus, who is fully responsible for this “second” birth and thus more than just a normal father (cf. the birth of Athena from Zeus’s head), appropriating a function of a goddess/female. Some scholars argue that Semele was originally an earth goddess (her name meaning “earth” in Thracian; cf. zemlya in Russian) and that her status became reduced as the religion and pantheon grew more patriarchal (see Harrison, pp. 404-06; also discussion pro and con in Otto 60-71).

The myths of Dionysus thus tell of how his cult moved into various regions of Greece, and in the process provide some details about the rituals. His cult following was female, although he also had satyrs as everyday companions and assistants. This feminine aspect seems to be related to the myths in which Dionysus as a babe and youth was brought up on one or another Aegean island by women who served as his nurses. When he grew up, they became his devotees. His followers were called maenads (“the mad (or raving) ones”), who emulated his mythological nurses. These women would temporarily drop their everyday life and identity and retreat as a group (a revel rout called a thiasos) to the mountain forests. There they would experience the appearance and presence of Dionysus through various aspects of their collective ritual, which was secret with no men allowed. They drank wine, danced together, made music and song, and raised a general clamor. They were also said to catch animals, tear them limb from limb, and eat the flesh raw. This last ritual practice seems to be derived from a myth of the birth of Dionysus, in which Hera sent Titans to kill him. They tore him to pieces, which they devoured except his heart, from which he was reconstituted (resurrected). In the maenads’ ritual, they drank wine, which was his essence, while the pieces of flesh were thought of (by association) as his body. In this way they partook of Dionysus and felt his divinity. (Sound familiar?) The goal was to reach a state of “madness” (mania – yes, the source of our word) in which one could experience the god, a kind of rebirth, and generally have transformational epiphanies (Edinger, p. 145).


Vase painting of image of Dionysus on a column with maenads celebrating and dispensing wine.

The myths portray Dionysus’ cult as typically encountering resistance from the local rulers and priests (i.e., the male rulers), as well as from certain conservative women who refused to participate in his cult, but then he prevails against them. The most famous example of this is in The Bacchae by Euripides, in which King Pentheus of Thebes opposed Dionysus and ended up being torn to pieces by maenads including his own mother. Besides the mere fact that women dropped everything (including their men) to participate in the cult, the complaints and allegations were that they held drunken revelries and engaged in sexual license, meaning that they were being immoral. Most scholars believe, however, that sex was not part of the ritual (they are consistently portrayed as wearing long robes – see illustration above – and men were excluded), and that usually the drinking was not excessive; rather, the madness resulted more from the other aspects of the ritual (OCW, 235-36). While Greek men probably were in a position to have clamped down on their women if they really felt a need to do so, more likely, since Greek women led such cloistered lives, for the husbands it was useful to let their women blow off steam on this occasion.

Once the Dionysus cult became firmly established, it was celebrated in broader urban festivals such as the Anthesteria in Athens during February-March, which included the men. In that festival, Dionysus rode into town on a wheeled ship (since he was associated with the sea and Aegean islands), wine jars containing the most recent vintage of wine were opened and consumed, and Dionysus entered the house of the Archon Basilsus and claimed his wife and so too the kingship. The community was thus placed under his divine protection (Otto, pp. 83-84). The Dionysus cult, because of its character, became a creative force. Eventually, the rituals evolved into the genre of Greek tragedy. These plays were performed annually in Athens at the Greater Dionysia festival. In between the urban festival and the original maenad revel rout was the older Rural Dionysia celebrated in December-January, which was oriented toward fertility in the coming season. The main event was a procession featuring a phallus, bread and other offerings, and jars of wine. Then there were singing and dancing contests, including a chorus that performed dithyrambs (the signature songs of Dionysus), and skits. One can see how this evolved into the dramatic plays in the urban festival.

The symbols of Dionysus were mainly related to grape vines and wine, which is reflected in the mythology. In one myth, Minyas, the king of Boeotian Orchomenos, had three industrious daughters who scolded the other women who went to the hills to venerate Dionysus, and themselves stayed at home with their weaving. Dionysus then appeared to them as a maiden, telling them not to neglect his rites, but they did not obey. He then appeared to them as a bull, then a lion, and finally as a leopard. Ivy and grape vines grew over the daughters’ loom, and serpents nested in the baskets of wool. Realizing their offense and growing afraid, the sisters drew lots to decide which should sacrifice her child, whom they then tore to pieces. Wreathed with ivy, bindweed, and laurel, they roamed over the mountains until they metamorphosized into a bat, owl, and a crow (Ovid, lines 389-415; Kerenyi, pp. 260-61). In another myth, the young god was kidnapped by pirates, who planned to ransom him. But when he quickly shed his shackles, the helmsman recognized him as a god and urged the other sailors that he should be released. When the others paid no heed, grape vines with grape clusters grew over the mast and sails, as did ivy, and sweet smelling wine gurgled over the ship. Dionysus changed into a lion and caused a bear to appear as well. The crew jumped overboard and changed into dolphins, but Dionysus saved the helmsman for having recognized who he is (Homeric Hymn 7). In both myths, grape vines and wine appear as manifestations of the god’s power (that in nature), which is to say that the vines and wine have a divine power themselves.

As we saw generally and in the cases of Canaan/Israel and Egypt, wine in Greece, as represented by Dionysus, was thought to contain a divine transformational power. But unlike in Egypt, in Greece it had more to do with living one’s life than with death and resurrection from the dead, which raises the question of the psychology involved. In a subsequent post I will cover the depth psychology aspects of wine mythology with particular attention to Dionysian myth and ritual, but next time I will cover the wine mythology in the New Testament pertaining to Jesus.

Sources and Bibliography

Athanassakis, Apostolos, ed. and transl. The Homeric Hymns, 2nd ed. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press. (2004)

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1985).

Edinger, Edward. The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology. Boston: Shambhala (1994).

Euripides. The Bacchae, in Euripides, vol. 4 in Loeb Classical Library edition (2002).

Graves, Robert. 1960. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin.

Harrison, Jane. Prologomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1991 [1922]).

Heskett, Randall, and Butler, Joel. Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age. New York: Palgrave MacMillan (2012).

McGovern, Patrick. Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture. Princeton: Princeton University Press (2003).

Otto, Walter. Dionysus: Myth and Cult. Indiana University Press (1965).         

Ovid. Metamorphoses.

Robinson, Jancis, and Harding, Julia. The Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2015) (cited as “OCW”).

Kerenyi, Carl. The Gods of the Greeks. New York: Thames and Hudson (1951).

______. Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1976) (not cited).

Plutarch. Isis and Osiris, in Moralia, vol. 5 in Loeb Classical Library edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1936).

Wilson, Hanneke. Wine and Words in Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages. London: Duckworth (2003)

Posted in Mythology | 3 Comments

The Mythology of Wine III: Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt was not an ideal place for vineyards. Its alluvial soil along the Nile was too rich, the temperature was consistently too hot, and the vines couldn’t achieve proper dormancy. But as soon as Upper and Lower Egypt were united under kings in the late 4th millennium BCE, the royals and their officers quickly developed a taste for wine. How did they satisfy it, and what religious rituals and myths developed from their wine culture?

The Canaanite Background

The wine initially came from Canaan, the center of ancient Near Eastern winemaking, largely because, except for relatively brief interruptions, the Canaanite city-states were Egyptian clients subject to the Pharaoh, who posted garrisons of Egyptian soldiers there. (One thus wonders what the Exodus – a migration from Egypt into an Egyptian-controlled territory – would have been about, and how any Israelite conquest of Canaan could have transpired.) As a result, much of the Canaanite wine shipped to Egypt was in the form of taxes or tribute, although normal commercial trade also took place.

Soon enough, however, starting in the early 3rd millennium BCE and using imported Canaanite vintners, Egypt established its own wine industry, beginning with vineyards in the Nile delta and then spreading southward through the Fayum and on to Thebes (McGovern, p. 102). Canaanites contributed especially heavily to the development of Egypt’s wine industry during the Hyksos period (ca. 1670-1550 BCE) when Canaanites actually held power in the country. In that period more vineyards were planted in the Nile Delta area, wine trade with Canaan was expanded, and the standard “Canaanite” wine jar (amphora) was developed, all laying the basis for further progress in New Kingdom Egypt (McGovern, pp. 107-21). Egyptian art often depicted Canaanites as making the wine.

The involvement of Canaanites in developing the Egyptian wine industry seems to be echoed in the biblical tale of Joseph told in Genesis 39-40. Joseph’s brothers had sold him to a caravan of traders and he ended up in Egypt, where he was resold to an officer of the Pharaoh and became the overseer of his household. After the owner’s wife falsely accused Joseph of attempting to seduce her, he was thrown into prison. One of his fellow prisoners was the Pharaoh’s cupbearer, who had been arrested for unspecified reasons. In Egypt, the royal cupbearer managed the king’s wine supply and cellar, tasted the king’s wine for quality and to make sure it was not poisoned, and served it to the king. Joseph interpreted a dream of the cupbearer, predicting that he would soon be freed, which proved true, and he got his old job back. Sometime later, when the Pharaoh had a dream that could not be interpreted, the cupbearer recommended that Joseph be given a chance to do so. He aced it, explaining that it meant that Egypt would have 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine, so that Egypt should store provisions for the coming famine. The Pharaoh was so impressed that he made Joseph his chief minister, meaning that he was charged with building up the stores for the coming years of famine, including of course the stores of wine. So according to the story, both Joseph and Egypt itself were saved by a Somm!

Later, when Joseph’s father Jacob blessed him, he was called “a fruitful bough [or vine]” (Gen 49:22), probably in reference to a grapevine (Skinner, p. 530; Heskett and Butler, p. 42; see HALOT, definition 1.a of פֹּרָת); wine had earlier been part of Isaac’s blessing of Jacob (Gen 27:28).

Wine in Egyptian Religion, Myth, and Ritual

As occurred elsewhere, once wine culture was established in the economy and social customs, it made its way into religious ritual and myth. Wine’s benefits were traced back to the gods and goddesses; it was said to be their “divine efflux” (Poo, pp. 162-63). According to the Greek writer Diodorus Siculus, the Egyptians thought that Osiris was the inventor of viticulture and taught winemaking to the Egyptians (Bib. Hist. I.15.8). In another myth, the blood of those who fought against the gods commingled with the earth, from which sprang up the first vines (Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, para. 6). The fighting in question may have been that described in another myth known to us as The Destruction of Mankind, in which humans rebelled against the gods. In order to combat the rebels, the  sun god Re sent against them his daughter, the goddess Hathor in her terrible aspect as Sekhmet, who went on a bloody rampage against humankind, threatening to wipe us out. She was prevented from doing so because the people devised to make “red beer” which looked like blood, so she drank it to excess and fell into a drunken stupor. Thus chaos was turned back into the normal world order.

The deities were thought to drink wine, meaning that humans could placate and humor them by alcohol. Intoxication facilitated communing with them. Intoxication was also thought to break the barrier between life and death, making it possible to connect with dead ancestors; this also made wine important in funerary rituals and tomb art (Teeter, p. 71; Poo, p. 37). The deceased was thought to be rejuvenated through wine (Poo, p. 126). One ritual designed to achieve this was called the “opening of the mouth,” in which the mouth of a statue of the deceased was thought to be opened by wine, because only once the mouth was opened could he come back to life and enjoy the offering of the ritual (Poo, pp. 78, 162; see exemplary liturgies on pp. 72-74). After a king’s death, his principal beverage after joining the gods in the afterlife was wine (McGovern, p. 102).

Grapevines, which renew themselves each year, were symbolic of resurrection, so naturally they were associated with Osiris, whose own resurrection was symbolized by the grapevine; sometimes he was depicted receiving a grapevine (McGovern, p. 135). Egyptians thought that wine had within itself the secret of rebirth (Poo, p. 2). Osiris was called the “Lord of wine through the inundation” of the Nile (PT Utterance 577 (§ 1524) and “Lord of wine during the Wag festival” (PT Utterance 442 (§ 820)), a three-day event celebrated during first month of the inundation. This is because it was the inundation which facilitated the rebirth of the crops and other vegetation, which was thought to be a result of the resurrection of Osiris. This is what the Wag festival celebrated. Osiris’s resurrection was most prominently associated with the renewal of the grapevines (Poo, pp. 149-51). During the inundation the waters of the Nile turned reddish from minerals being carried downstream, which was associated with wine and blood.

Egyptian vines on trellis and wine press

Depiction of winemaking on tomb wall. On the right harvesting clusters from an overhead trellis. On the left workers tread grapes while holding onto ropes for stability. The juice pours out into a container to the right of the press. In the middle top are amphorae, the vessels in which wine was stored and transported. Tomb of the Egyptian official (astronomer, priest, and scribe) Nakht, Thebes, 18th Dynasty.

Egyptian tombs often included paintings of vineyards and winemaking, which give us insight into how Egyptians made wine. Vines were trained on overhead trellises, which were also depicted in the hieroglyph (determinative) for wine. At harvest, vintners treaded the grapes in wooden vats on a platform, from which the juice flowed out into containers. Then a secondary pressing was done, in which the skins were put into a long cloth sack hung either on a frame or between two poles, which was twisted like a wet towel to extract the remaining juice (see illustration).

Egyptian wine press tourniquet

The secondary pressing operation. After being tread in the first press, the grape skins were put into a cloth bag, which was twisted like a wet towel to extract the remaining juice.

When deceased kings were entombed, they were given copious amounts of wine to take with them into the afterlife. The oldest such tomb discovered so far is that of king Scorpion I of Dynasty 0, about 3150 BCE, and wine was featured in the tombs of such notables as Akhenaten and Tutankhamun. But sometimes, instead of using actual wine, representations of it were painted on the tomb walls, which were thought to achieve the same end (McGovern, p. 88). For the Egyptians this worked because the representation of something in art was thought to be a counterimage, an actual substitute for the object portrayed (cf. Teeter, p. 4).

The reign of the divine king was meant to ensure cosmic order (maat) on earth. When he died, the natural order was disrupted, and primeval chaos threatened. The period following his death was a liminal, dangerous time, meaning that rituals were needed to help restore maat. But even outside the funerary context, daily temple rituals and festivals to various deities were used to help maintain cosmic order and prevent chaos from arising. These rituals included wine offerings. One such ritual was to fill with wine a depression on the temple altar called the “Eye of Horus” (the term was also used to refer to the wine itself), which in this context referred to his eye that was injured in his mythical battle with Seth. The ritual represented filling back the eye with the blood which had bled out of it, which symbolized rejuvenation and the restoration of maat. (The ritual was also an act of sympathetic magic, designed to ensure a high yield in the vineyards (Poo, p. 85).) To the same end, an annual festival of Hathor at Dendera, known as “The Drunkenness of Hathor,” was held the day after the Wag festival during the inundation. Wine offerings were made to her for her to drink and so appease her, and the celebrants themselves got intoxicated. This appeasement was designed to prevent her violent, chaotic aspect from arising as in The Destruction of Mankind, and so maintain cosmic order, and civilization over untamed nature (Poo, p. 157).

Some such temple rituals involving wine focused more on ensuring peace and prosperity in this earthly world (Poo, p. 84). In response to the offerings, deities would endow vineyards to the king (Poo, p. 140). This was a way of granting him sovereignty over the earth. Correspondingly, this grant was sometimes paired with the deity overthrowing the enemies of the king (see also Shesmu discussed below), meaning that chaos was repelled and the maat was reestablished. The process was reciprocal, because the king’s having prosperous vineyards meant that he could offer wine to the deity.

Other deities besides Osiris, Horus, and Hathor were associated with wine, most notably the goddess Renenutet and the god Shesmu. Renenutet (meaning “the snake that nourishes”) was a cobra goddess, so she was thought to protect crops from rodents. She was important to vine growers, so shrines to her were erected in the vineyards. During harvest and pressing, offerings were made to her, and the workers sung hymns to her as they toiled. She was considered the patroness of winemaking (McGovern, p. 144).

Shesmu, however, was more specifically the god of the wine press; a hieroglyph for the aforementioned sack press also served as one hieroglyph for the god’s name. Old Kingdom texts mention a feast for him at which young men press grapes and sing to him (Remler, pp. 177-78). In one Pyramid Text, Shesmu brings wine to the deceased king to facilitate his becoming Osiris (Utterance 581 (§ 1552)). Shesmu came to be associated with blood because the pressed red grape juice was thought of as blood, so he was called “red of timbers” (those of the wine press vat) (CT § 179) and “the slaughterer” (CT § 123). He was responsible for punishing wrongdoers, including by capital punishment, for which purpose he used the wine pressing bag. He would tear the heads off of the culprits and throw them into the bag to squeeze out their blood to make wine (Remler, p. 177), a process depicted in some New Kingdom papyri (McGovern, p. 135) (see illustration below). In some cases Shesmu would even kill minor deities and cook and serve them to the deceased king, so that the king could absorb and acquire their magical powers (e.g., PT Utterances 273-274 (§ 403)). Similarly, Egyptians would offer wine as the blood of gods to other deities.

Shesmu jpg large

Papyrus showing the heads of wrongdoers which Shesmu has torn off being crushed in the bag press.

In the next post I will cover wine mythology in ancient Greece, which differs significantly from that in Egypt. For example, whereas in Egypt wine was used to appease the deities in order to reestablish and maintain cosmic order (maat), in the Greek cult of Dionysus wine was used to escape from the established order and achieve a form of “madness” that led to profound spiritual insights. This reflects a difference between the Egyptian and Greek mind that I will explore in the next post.


Faulkner, Raymond, ed. and trans. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press (cited as “PT”).

––––––, ed. and trans. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. Oxford: Aris & Phillips (1973) (cited as “CT”).

Heskett, Randall, and Butler, Joel. Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age. New York: Palgrave MacMillan (2012).

Koehler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, and Johann Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Translated and edited under the supervision of M.E.J. Richardson. 4 vols. Leiden: Brill, 1994-1999 (cited as “HALOT”).

Lutz, Henry. Viticulture and Brewing in the Ancient Orient. New York: Stechert (1922).

McGovern, Patrick. Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture. Princeton: Princeton University Press (2003).

Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, in Moralia, vol. 5, Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1936).

Poo, Mu-Chou. Wine and Wine Offering in the Religion of Ancient Egypt. New York: Routledge (1995).

Remler, Pat. Egyptian Mythology A to Z, 3rd ed. New York: Chelsea House (2010).

Robinson, Jancis, and Harding, Julia. The Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2015) (cited as “OCW”).

Skinner, John. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons (1910).

Teeter, Emily. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. New York: Cambridge University Press (2011).

Posted in Mythology, Wine Mythology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Mythology of Wine II: Ancient Canaan and Old Testament Israel

Ancient Canaan, much of which became biblical Israel, had the best conditions in the ancient Near East for producing wine.  The cool winters in the highlands put the vines into true dormancy, allowing them to develop better grapes during the growing season, and the soil too was nearly ideal.  So people there made what were regarded as the best and most prestigious wines, which were exported throughout the ancient Near East and Mediterranean. Because wine infused the entire culture, Canaan and Israel developed important wine mythology and associated rituals, which in turn influenced viniculture and wine mythology in Greece, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. This makes it important to cover Canaan and Israel before discussing wine mythology in these other places, which I will do in upcoming posts.

Wine, Mythology, and Ritual in Ancient Canaan

Viniculture entered the Holy Land from Anatolia and Mesopotamia by sometime in the 4th millenium BCE and spread rapidly; in turn, by the late 4th millenium Egyptian pharaohs were hiring Canaanite viticulturists and winemakers to build viniculture there (Heskett and Butler, p. 17). In the Egyptian legend known as The Tale of Sinuhe, dating from the 1800s BCE, Canaan was said to have “more wine than water” (lines 80-85). Wine culture was important in the leading Canaanite city-state of Ugarit (at its height ca. 1500-1200 BCE) and made its way into that culture’s myth and ritual. One sign of the high status of viticulture shortly before the rise of Israel comes from Judges 9:7-15, which recounts a story in which the various plants in the land hold a meeting where they elect and anoint the grapevine to reign over them all.

One important wine-related ritual meal, called the marzeah, was already being held in Canaan during Ugaritic times and continued into Roman times. In concept, the occasion was designed to communicate with dead ancestors and receive divine revelation, and involved venerating various Canaanite deities. The ritual centered around a leisurely meal with the best wine, apparently to lift the spirits of those contemplating the dead and death, and to serve as a link to the divinities. Apparently, however, the imbibing usually got excessive, at least according to the biblical prophets. As part of their polemic against the northern kingdom of Israel headquartered at Samaria, where the marzeah continued to be popular, the prophets attacked the marzeah and warned against participating in it (Is 28:7-8 & NOAB note to same; Jer 16:5-8 & NOAB notes to same; Amos 6:4-7 & NOAB note to v. 7). While the prophets were concerned about drunkenness, they were probably even more upset that the celebrants practiced occult arts and invoked deities other than Yahweh (McGovern 2003, pp. 228-30). In light of the marzeah’s mythical subject matter, we can expect that some myths were associated with it, but unfortunately none has come down to us which we know to be specifically connected with it.

The most important Canaanite wine ritual, however, was the Feast of the Ingathering, which was also the New Year’s festival. It was held in the autumn after the grape harvest once the new wine had been made. People celebrated it right in the vineyards over 7 days, for which purpose they built booths from fresh leafy branches symbolizing fertility to stay in for the duration of the festival, making them booths of life. While there were solemn rituals thanking the deities responsible for the crops, much of the festival was devoted to drinking wine and merrymaking, including feasting, singing, dancing, and promiscuous sex. As mentioned in my last post, the alteration in consciousness from wine was thought be a connection to the divine and a revelation of knowledge. A key ritual was the sacred marriage rite involving ritual intercourse in the booths, thought to bring fertility for the coming year. It is this festival which the Jerusalem priesthood later converted into the Feast of Booths, in which the booths were then said to represent the dwellings of the Hebrews in the wilderness of Sinai before they entered Canaan (George and George, pp. 162-63).

It was in Canaanite times that the Hebrew Bible tells us that Moses sent his spies into Canaan to reconnoiter the land at harvest time (i.e., the time of the Feast of the Ingathering) (see Num 13:1-29). They went to a region near Hebron called the Wadi Eshcol (Num 13:23). Eshcol means “grape” or “grape cluster”; some scholars believe that Eshcol is also the name of a Canaanite wine deity (Heskett and Butler, pp. 28-29). The spies returned with a huge cluster of grapes that had to be carried by two men, which demonstrated the fertility and desirability of the Promised Land. The word translated as “honey” (דְּבַשׁ) in the phrase “land of milk and honey” (Num 13:27) may actually refer to grape syrup (McGovern 2003, p. 212; Holladay, p. 68). Numerous sites in ancient Israel had viticultural names, for example Beth-Haccherem (בּית־הַכָּ֑רֶם) (Jer 6:1; Neh 3:14) in the Judean Hills, which means means “house of the vineyard.”

4 Grape Cluster of Moses' Spies

Depiction of the spies bringing back the grape cluster from Canaan, with Moses seated on the right listening to their report. The mythical nature of the story is reflected in the claim that the single cluster was so large it had to be carried by two men (Num 13:23), and also by their report that giants lived in the land (Num 13:33).

Wine Mythology in the Hebrew Bible

The grapevine was the first cultivated crop mentioned in the Hebrew Bible because of its great importance to the people and its mythical symbolism. In the myth of Noah’s flood, after Noah and his family disembarked from the ark, he made a sacrifice to Yahweh. This pleased Yahweh, who blessed Noah and his family and revoked the curse on the ground which he had imposed on humanity as punishment for the transgression in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:17-19; 8:21), which had made farming unproductive. (See also Gen 4:10-14, cursing the ground in relation to Cain.) Now Yahweh rendered the earth productive again, he consigned to Noah (meaning all humans) all plants, promised that the cycle of seedtime and harvest would never end, and commanded Noah to be fruitful. So Noah planted a vineyard, a symbol of fertility, prosperity, and blessing. But one day he drank too much wine, and his son Ham saw him as he lay naked and drunk in his tent. For this offense, Yahweh cursed Ham’s son Canaan, and by implication the land of Canaan and its inhabitants, which as described above had a wine culture and sometimes celebrated to excess while venerating pagan deities.

Speaking of the Garden of Eden myth, what was the forbidden fruit? My own educated guess is that the tree of knowledge of good and evil was a grapevine (which has a serpentine appearance), and that the fruit was the grape (George and George, pp. 167-70). It couldn’t have been an apple because apples were not grown in ancient Mesopotamia where the story took place; the idea that it was an apple arose only in medieval times in order to form a pun based on the Latin words for apple (malum) and evil (malus). The Hebrew word for fruit (perî) was regularly used to refer to grapes, including in the story of the spies mentioned above (in Num 13:27). The author of the Eden story, known as the Yahwist or J, was preoccupied with Canaanite bashing (including in the story of Noah’s drunkenness mentioned above), and so constructed the Eden myth partly in order to polemicize against Canaanite goddess worship and sacred tree and serpent veneration (see my earlier post on this). So the forbidden fruit being a grape fits this cultural and polemical context well. The effects of wine on consciousness were thought to provide higher knowledge and wisdom, which is exactly what Eve sought (Gen 3:6), and also to connect people with the divine, which was the effect that consuming the forbidden fruit actually had (Gen 3:5, 22 (“your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods”)). Accordingly, the apocryphal 3 Baruch (ca.) 3:6-4:17 identified the tree of knowledge of good and evil as a grapevine, because it was capable of such “trickery.” The Mishnah also says that this tree was a grapevine (BoS, p. 1068).

While the biblical authors were careful to criticize drunkenness, they generally portrayed vineyards, grapevines, and wine in a positive light, in part because of its symbolic potential. In the Hebrew Bible, the vineyard served as a motif to portray the relationship between Yahweh and his chosen people. Israel was portrayed as a vineyard established by Yahweh, who was the keeper of the vineyard and the vintner (e.g., Is 5:1-7; Ps 80:14-15). Yahweh himself was thought to drink wine. Thus Yahweh instructed Moses that wine shall be an obligatory offering to him (Exod 29:40; Lev 23:13; Num 15:5, all specifying ¼ of a hin, about a quart; see also Num 28:14). So, among other things, Yahweh was a wine god. Hence not surprisingly, over the entry doors to his Jerusalem Temple (the last one, built by Herod) was a golden relief of a grapevine with grape clusters (Josephus, Antiquities 15:395; Jewish War 5:210), and wine was kept in the Temple and drunk by the priests. In like fashion, in Christian times the vine and vineyard were allegorized to the Church, as it was regarded as the only means of facilitating man’s relationship to God (Ferguson, pp. 39-40).

A vineyard and wine from it was a symbol of Yahweh’s blessing (Gen 27:28; Deut 7:13), drinking wine was a sign of his favor (Eccl 9:7), and wine and grapes were cause for celebration and romance. Wine imagery became romanticized, especially in the Song of Solomon, which linked it to love, lovemaking, and fertility (7:12). Thus, the woman’s navel was like a rounded bowl with wine in it, her breasts were like grape clusters hanging on the vine, and her kisses were like the best wine that goes down smoothly (7:2, 8b-9). And the “house of wine” was where lovers meet in their mutual intoxication (from love, not necessarily the wine) (2:4 & NOAB note to same).

On the other hand, when the people sinned and broke their covenant with Yahweh, the vineyard was portrayed as having degenerated, yielding only wild, sour grapes (e.g., Jer 2:21). The winepress too was portrayed as a tool of Yahweh’s judgment and punishment, drawing the blood of the wicked who were crushed by it (Is 63:1-6; likewise in the New Testament: Rev 14:19-20).

Finally, the grapevine was connected with the coming Messiah and was said to be his tree, to which he was likened. More broadly, the vine symbolized the utopian kingdom after judgment day (Mic 4:4; Zech 3:10). It is this Hebrew Bible background which led to the New Testament material likening Jesus to the vine (Jn 15:1-11) and linking him to wine, as in the miracle at Cana (Jn. 2:1-11) and the Last Supper. I will cover that mythology in detail in an upcoming post.


Chevalier, Jean, and Gheerbrant, Alain. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. London: Penguin (1996) (cited as “DoS”).

Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. London: Oxford University Press (1961).

George, Arthur and George, Elena. The Mythology of Eden. Lanham, Maryland: Hamilton Books (2014).

Heskett, Randall, and Butler, Joel. Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age. New York: Palgrave MacMillan (2012).

Holladay, William. A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans (1988).

McGovern, Patrick. Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture. Princeton: Princeton University Press (2003).

 –––––. Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and other Alcoholic Beverages. Berkeley: University of California Press (2009).

The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press (2010) (cited as “NOAB”).

Robinson, Jancis, and Harding, Julia. The Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2015) (cited as “OCW”).

Ronnberg, Ami, ed. The Book of Symbols. Cologne, Germany: Taschen (2010) (cited as “BoS”).

Posted in Mythology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Mythology of Wine – A First Sip

Now that I’m living in California wine country, farming my own grapevines, and making my own wine, I’ve taken a special interest in the mythology associated with vineyards, wine, and wine deities. It is fascinating material that deserves to become more widely known, so as this year’s harvest approaches I’ll be writing a few posts about it. In this first post I’ll cover some general concepts of the mythology of wine, and in subsequent posts I’ll dive more deeply and specifically into wine mythology in the ancient Near East (especially Israel in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament), Egypt, and in ancient Greece.

The Origins of Viniculture and its Effects on Wine Mythology

The first evidence of winemaking comes from the Caucasus, Zagros, and Taurus mountains in what is now parts of Georgia, Armenia, Northwestern Iran, and Southeastern Turkey around 7,000 BCE, and the vine was first domesticated by around 4,000 BCE (McGovern 2009, pp. 14-15; Heskett and Butler, pp. 8, 17, 19). From there it spread into Mesopotamia and western Anatolia, and then into Canaan, Egypt, Crete, Cyprus, and what is now Greece. Phoenician and Greek traders and colonists then brought it to the rest of the Mediterranean world and the Black Sea (OCW, pp. 526-30). In each location, wine deities took root, along with wine mythology. The domestication of grapevines led to cloning and hence vines that were genetically stable and which produced higher sugar, and therefore higher alcohol in the wine and the greater “magical” effect that led to myths (Heskett and Butler, pp. 7-8). Grapevines need a period of true dormancy to grow best, meaning that viniculture thrived best where there was a winter, as in the highlands of Canaan, Crete, Anatolia, and parts of what is now Greece and Macedonia. So naturally that’s where the most important wine mythology emerged.

It is important to understand that in the ancient world wine was not a luxury for wealthy people but a necessity and staple for the population at large. Bread and wine were the basic elements of food and drink. Ancient Romans, for example, drank about a liter of wine daily; similarly, in ancient Israel the prescribed wine offering to Yahweh was about a quart (Exodus 29:40 – ¼ of a hin). Wine had this key role for health reasons, because much water was not potable in hot climates, being full of microbes and other contaminants. But wine, due to its alcohol, had no such drawbacks. Mixing wine into water would reduce the health risks. For this reason, ancient armies protected themselves against disease and destruction by mixing wine with the unreliable water supplies that they came upon when campaigning. Wine also had medical (curative) applications. Thus, the author of 1 Timothy advised, “No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (5:23).

Because wine was such a necessity for everyone, it naturally had a large impact on the culture, including its religion and mythology, and which gave rise to metaphorical and symbolic uses. Vineyards and wine marked higher civilization and cultural achievement. The abundance of vineyards and wine was a mark of prosperity, which was attributed to divine blessing and favor. In America, when all people are prosperous we say there is a “chicken in every pot,” but in ancient Israel the equivalent was each person being “under his vine and fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4; Zechariah 3:10).

Why Wine Became Mythological and Important in Religious Rituals

The discovery of wine was accidental. Fermentation happens naturally and spontaneously without human effort because the yeasts that ferment the sugar are present on the skin of the grape. So wine is most easily made by crushing the grapes so the yeast could mix with the sweet juice.

For many centuries, however, people didn’t understand this process. People were unaware of yeasts and did not know how fermentation worked. They knew only that this seemingly magical process worked best with grapes, although wine could be made also from other fruit such as dates, while beer could be made from cereals. Grapes work best (produce higher alcohol) because they are sweeter than other fruits and grains, but ancient people didn’t understand the why of this either.

My 2017 Syrah Bottle Photo

I’ve named the 2017 vintage of my own wine after a mythical theme, the Greek Horae, agricultural goddesses who were said to dance their way through the seasons. Hence the provisional title of my next book, about the mythology underlying our seasonal holidays, is The Dance of the Horae. I’ve named my backyard vineyard, from which I’ll start making wine next year, Mythic Vineyard.

As a result, ancient peoples thought this spontaneous process was magical in nature, and that divine forces or beings were responsible for it. People took note of two separate transformations, both of which were considered divine, and spawned wine symbolism and mythology. The first was the transformation of grape juice into wine, and the second was the alteration in our consciousness when we drink it (BoS, p. 174). Grapevines and grapes were held to have a divine quality and a divine force within them, and therefore a wine deity had to be behind it all. Consequently, the change in consciousness that occurred when people drank wine also was thought to be an irruption of the divine. When people, in a departure from their routine existence, were under wine’s effect, they were experiencing union with the divine and the wine deity. Wine itself came to symbolize the presence of a pneuma; a spirit or god dwelt within it (Jung, CW 14: 387). Naturally, in some ancient cultures wine was thought to be the drink of the gods, and so people offered it to them.

The divine force in wine was thought to have many aspects. First and foremost, it epitomized the life force. (The fact that the best wine comes from grapes grown in difficult soils makes this association stronger.) As such, wine became associated with the renewal of life, rebirth, resurrection, the afterlife, and immortality. To the ancients, this seemed to be evidenced by the red juice of grapes, which became associated with blood, the blood of life. This helps explain why wine was offered in sacrifices alongside the slaughter of animals, and in some cases wine offerings eventually replaced animal sacrifices (Biedermann, p. 383). This likewise explains why wine was associated with Christ and Dionysus, as I will detail in future posts.

The consciousness associated with wine was thought to be of a higher kind. While bread symbolized the physical side of subsistence, wine symbolized the spiritual. (We still call alcoholic beverages “spirits.”) Wine was spiritual in nature in the fullest sense of the word, and was associated with higher knowledge (Jung CW 11:383-84). As a result, wine came to symbolize also the psychological conditions of its production, the human virtues which make civilization possible (Jung CW 11:384). Thus, in ancient Greece the epitome of civilized philosophical discussion was the symposium, where drinking wine was de rigueur.

While wine represented the advancement of civilization, ancient writers rightly warned against drunkenness and excess, as in the biblical story of Noah’s drunkenness (Genesis 9:20-25). Drinking wine carried with it a responsibility, which if mishandled is considered barbaric (Heskett and Butler, pp. 9-10). Wine thus served as a test of the ancient Greek ideal of moderation. This was illustrated in the myth of the Lapiths and the Centaurs. In the story, Pirithous, King of the Lapiths (a legendary people of Thessaly), invited neighboring Centaurs (who generally represented primitive, barbaric life) to his wedding. The Lapiths were moderate and civilized, but the Centaurs (who being uncivilized were not used to wine) got drunk and out of control and attempted to rape the bride and other guests, both male and female. This resulted in a battle known as the Centauromachy in which the Lapiths defeated the Centaurs and sent them back into the wilderness, thus reaffirming the boundary between civilized life and barbarism.

Lapiths and Centaurs

Depiction of the battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs, in which the Lapiths wielded metal spears and the Centaurs sticks and stones, highlighting the contrast between civilized life and barbarism. Appropriately, the depiction is on a krater, the Greek vessel used to water down wine, thus reminding people of the need for moderation. Attica, 450-30 BCE, now at the Louvre.

Against the above background, in my next post I’ll cover wine mythology in the Ancient Near East.


Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons & the Meanings behind Them. New York: Meridian (1994).

Chevalier, Jean, and Gheerbrant, Alain. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. London: Penguin (1996) (cited as “DoS”).

Heskett, Randall, and Butler, Joel. Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age. New York: Palgrave MacMillan (2012).

Jung, Carl. Mysterium Coniunctionis, Collected Works of C.G. Jung, vol. 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1970) (cited as “CW 14” plus paragraph number).

–––––. Psychology and Religion: West and East, Collected Works of C.G. Jung, vol. 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1969) (cited as “CW 11” plus paragraph number).

McGovern, Patrick. Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture. Princeton: Princeton University Press (2003).

–––––. Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and other Alcoholic Beverages. Berkeley: University of California Press (2009).

Robinson, Jancis, ed. The Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2015) cited as OCW).

Ronnberg, Ami. The Book of Symbols. Cologne, Germany: Taschen (2010) (cited as “BoS”).

© Arthur George 2018

Posted in Mythology, Wine Mythology | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments