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. The Greek word on which his name is based (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).
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.
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.
Copyright Arthur George 2020.