The Mythology of Wine VI: Celebrating St. Tryphon on February 14

Most of us celebrate February 14 as Valentine’s Day, named after a saint who had little to do with romance. But another saint’s day also falls on February 14, that of St. Tryphon. He has a lot to do with wine, and wine with romance

As with many saints, we now know little about him, and his life is shrouded in myth and legend. He was born in the early 3rd century in city of Kampsade, Phrygia, now part of Turkey. His Greek name (Tryphē) means softness or delicacy, but his end was anything but. He found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time during the short-lived persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Decius. After having converted a Roman prefect, Tryphon was arrested and taken to Nicaea, where he was horribly tortured and beheaded with a sword in 250. His relics were initially taken back to his native  Kampsade, but eventually they found their way to Rome, except for his head, which is at the St. Tryphon Cathedral, in Kotor, Montenegro.

Tryphon’s earlier relations with Rome were more congenial, thanks to his reputation as a healer from an early age. According to legend, in 239 the emperor Gordianus III’s only daughter Gordijana became possessed by a demon, and none of the local doctors could cure her. Learning of Tryphon’s reputation for having healing powers, Gordianus sent for him. Upon arriving in Rome, he cured the girl. The emperor gave him a large reward, but he gave it all away to the poor on the trip home.

He is highly venerated in Orthodox Christianity, especially in Bulgaria and Macedonia, both winemaking regions. Among other things, he became the patron saint of winegrowers, and gardeners generally. He was said to have turned back a plague of locusts that were infesting the vineyards. As a result, thereafter he was thought to protect crops from pests. This role seems to have developed for him because the saint’s day falls at a time when farmers are getting ready for spring. Naturally, as in other cultures, religious rituals were held at this time of year to ensure the health of the crops and a bountiful harvest. In this respect, the cult rituals of St. Tryphon became a Christianized extension of the more ancient religious rituals relating to vineyards and wine. In the Balkans, these had involved Dionysus/Bacchus and the Thracian god Sabazius (who was identified with Dionysus).


St. Tryphon holding his pruning hook.

The rituals practiced on February 14 vary somewhat from place to place, but the one in Bulgaria is fairly typical. This is the time of year when the grapevines are pruned, so, among other ceremonies, a pruning ritual is conducted in the vineyard (often led by a priest) in which a few of the pruned canes are doused with wine; wine is also sprinkled on the vineyard itself. The ritual is supposed to give strength to the vines to recover from their winter dormancy. When the sap runs down from the cuts, this means that the saint has heard the people’s prayers, so the harvest will be rich. Accordingly, St. Tryphon became known as “The Pruner,” and he has often been depicted with a pruning hook in his hand (see illustration). At the end of the ceremony, a King of the Vineyard is selected and crowned with a wreath that makes him look like Dionysus. The villagers then return to the village and hold a feast featuring much wine drinking. This pruning ritual is still practiced today.

So when you are dining with your sweetheart on Valentine’s day, don’t forget to raise your wine glasses to that other saint. Perhaps he is responsible for how good the wine tastes and the enjoyment of your meal . . . and later romance.

Copyright Arthur George 2020.

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Upcoming Lecture on the Mythology of Christmas

On Wednesday, December 4, at 5:30 p.m., I’ll be giving a talk about the mythology underlying our Christmas story and customs at the Solvang Public Library. It’s fascinating stuff, based on my upcoming book about the mythology underlying our seasonal holidays. All within striking distance are invited!


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Speaking at Mythologium Conference August 2-4, Morro Bay, California

The Mythologium mythology conference is coming up on August 2-4 in lovely Morro Bay, California, at which I’ll be speaking on the topic of “The Depth Psychology Aspects of the Christian Myth.” Registration is on the conference website. We have a great lineup of speakers in a great location. Come join us!

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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 to their audiences in a way that was most understandable and persuasive to them in a familiar way. 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 accorded 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 (Miller). 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 carried up to heaven.

Much as the mythological 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, 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.

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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: Baker Academic (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.

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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).

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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

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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

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

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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.)

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Bibliography and Sources Cited

Campbell, Joseph. “Trick or Treat,” lecture delivered at Fountain Street Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, on October 25, 1981, available at (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.

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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


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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 the God’s 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 such occasions.

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)

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