The Mythology of Wine IV: Ancient Greece

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sources and Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ovid. Metamorphoses.

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

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

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

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

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

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2 Responses to The Mythology of Wine IV: Ancient Greece

  1. Johannes says:

    Excellent series, thank you!


  2. Pingback: The Mythology of Wine IV: Ancient Greece — Mythology Matters | Die Goldene Landschaft

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