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.”
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.
Note: My new book, The Mythology of Wine, has now been published. It contains much more interesting information about wine mythology in the ancient world and early Christian Europe.
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”).