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).

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One Response to The Mythology of Wine III: Ancient Egypt

  1. Pingback: The Mythology of Wine IV: Ancient Greece | Mythology Matters

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