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 http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/10/31/joseph-campbell-on-the-roots-of-halloween.html (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.

Posted in Mythology | 3 Comments

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 the spies of Moses returning from Canaan with the huge cluster of grapes (Num 13:23). Christians claimed that the cluster on the pole prefigured Christ’s crucifixion on a pole (rose), which naturally led to conceiving of Christ as a grape cluster being crushed. 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. And finally, in myths and rituals wine was often equated with blood.

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)

Posted in Mythology | 3 Comments

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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The Mythology of Wine II: Ancient Canaan and Old Testament Israel

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.”

4 Grape Cluster of Moses' Spies

Depiction of the spies bringing back the grape cluster from Canaan, with Moses seated on the right listening to their report. The mythical nature of the story is reflected in the claim that the single cluster was so large it had to be carried by two men (Num 13:23), and also by their report that giants lived in the land (Num 13:33).

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.


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”).

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The Mythology of Wine – A First Sip

Now that I’m living in California wine country, farming my own grapevines, and making my own wine, I’ve taken a special interest in the mythology associated with vineyards, wine, and wine deities. It is fascinating material that deserves to become more widely known, so as this year’s harvest approaches I’ll be writing a few posts about it. In this first post I’ll cover some general concepts of the mythology of wine, and in subsequent posts I’ll dive more deeply and specifically into wine mythology in the ancient Near East (especially Israel in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament), Egypt, and in ancient Greece.

The Origins of Viniculture and its Effects on Wine Mythology

The first evidence of winemaking comes from the Caucasus, Zagros, and Taurus mountains in what is now parts of Georgia, Armenia, Northwestern Iran, and Southeastern Turkey around 7,000 BCE, and the vine was first domesticated by around 4,000 BCE (McGovern 2009, pp. 14-15; Heskett and Butler, pp. 8, 17, 19). From there it spread into Mesopotamia and western Anatolia, and then into Canaan, Egypt, Crete, Cyprus, and what is now Greece. Phoenician and Greek traders and colonists then brought it to the rest of the Mediterranean world and the Black Sea (OCW, pp. 526-30). In each location, wine deities took root, along with wine mythology. The domestication of grapevines led to cloning and hence vines that were genetically stable and which produced higher sugar, and therefore higher alcohol in the wine and the greater “magical” effect that led to myths (Heskett and Butler, pp. 7-8). Grapevines need a period of true dormancy to grow best, meaning that viniculture thrived best where there was a winter, as in the highlands of Canaan, Crete, Anatolia, and parts of what is now Greece and Macedonia. So naturally that’s where the most important wine mythology emerged.

It is important to understand that in the ancient world wine was not a luxury for wealthy people but a necessity and staple for the population at large. Bread and wine were the basic elements of food and drink. Ancient Romans, for example, drank about a liter of wine daily; similarly, in ancient Israel the prescribed wine offering to Yahweh was about a quart (Exodus 29:40 – ¼ of a hin). Wine had this key role for health reasons, because much water was not potable in hot climates, being full of microbes and other contaminants. But wine, due to its alcohol, had no such drawbacks. Mixing wine into water would reduce the health risks. For this reason, ancient armies protected themselves against disease and destruction by mixing wine with the unreliable water supplies that they came upon when campaigning. Wine also had medical (curative) applications. Thus, the author of 1 Timothy advised, “No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (5:23).

Because wine was such a necessity for everyone, it naturally had a large impact on the culture, including its religion and mythology, and which gave rise to metaphorical and symbolic uses. Vineyards and wine marked higher civilization and cultural achievement. The abundance of vineyards and wine was a mark of prosperity, which was attributed to divine blessing and favor. In America, when all people are prosperous we say there is a “chicken in every pot,” but in ancient Israel the equivalent was each person being “under his vine and fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4; Zechariah 3:10).

Why Wine Became Mythological and Important in Religious Rituals

The discovery of wine was accidental. Fermentation happens naturally and spontaneously without human effort because the yeasts that ferment the sugar are present on the skin of the grape. So wine is most easily made by crushing the grapes so the yeast could mix with the sweet juice.

For many centuries, however, people didn’t understand this process. People were unaware of yeasts and did not know how fermentation worked. They knew only that this seemingly magical process worked best with grapes, although wine could be made also from other fruit such as dates, while beer could be made from cereals. Grapes work best (produce higher alcohol) because they are sweeter than other fruits and grains, but ancient people didn’t understand the why of this either.

My 2017 Syrah Bottle Photo

I’ve named the 2017 vintage of my own wine after a mythical theme, the Greek Horae, agricultural goddesses who were said to dance their way through the seasons. Hence the provisional title of my next book, about the mythology underlying our seasonal holidays, is The Dance of the Horae. I’ve named my backyard vineyard, from which I’ll start making wine next year, Mythic Vineyard.

As a result, ancient peoples thought this spontaneous process was magical in nature, and that divine forces or beings were responsible for it. People took note of two separate transformations, both of which were considered divine, and spawned wine symbolism and mythology. The first was the transformation of grape juice into wine, and the second was the alteration in our consciousness when we drink it (BoS, p. 174). Grapevines and grapes were held to have a divine quality and a divine force within them, and therefore a wine deity had to be behind it all. Consequently, the change in consciousness that occurred when people drank wine also was thought to be an irruption of the divine. When people, in a departure from their routine existence, were under wine’s effect, they were experiencing union with the divine and the wine deity. Wine itself came to symbolize the presence of a pneuma; a spirit or god dwelt within it (Jung, CW 14: 387). Naturally, in some ancient cultures wine was thought to be the drink of the gods, and so people offered it to them.

The divine force in wine was thought to have many aspects. First and foremost, it epitomized the life force. (The fact that the best wine comes from grapes grown in difficult soils makes this association stronger.) As such, wine became associated with the renewal of life, rebirth, resurrection, the afterlife, and immortality. To the ancients, this seemed to be evidenced by the red juice of grapes, which became associated with blood, the blood of life. This helps explain why wine was offered in sacrifices alongside the slaughter of animals, and in some cases wine offerings eventually replaced animal sacrifices (Biedermann, p. 383). This likewise explains why wine was associated with Christ and Dionysus, as I will detail in future posts.

The consciousness associated with wine was thought to be of a higher kind. While bread symbolized the physical side of subsistence, wine symbolized the spiritual. (We still call alcoholic beverages “spirits.”) Wine was spiritual in nature in the fullest sense of the word, and was associated with higher knowledge (Jung CW 11:383-84). As a result, wine came to symbolize also the psychological conditions of its production, the human virtues which make civilization possible (Jung CW 11:384). Thus, in ancient Greece the epitome of civilized philosophical discussion was the symposium, where drinking wine was de rigueur.

While wine represented the advancement of civilization, ancient writers rightly warned against drunkenness and excess, as in the biblical story of Noah’s drunkenness (Genesis 9:20-25). Drinking wine carried with it a responsibility, which if mishandled is considered barbaric (Heskett and Butler, pp. 9-10). Wine thus served as a test of the ancient Greek ideal of moderation. This was illustrated in the myth of the Lapiths and the Centaurs. In the story, Pirithous, King of the Lapiths (a legendary people of Thessaly), invited neighboring Centaurs (who generally represented primitive, barbaric life) to his wedding. The Lapiths were moderate and civilized, but the Centaurs (who being uncivilized were not used to wine) got drunk and out of control and attempted to rape the bride and other guests, both male and female. This resulted in a battle known as the Centauromachy in which the Lapiths defeated the Centaurs and sent them back into the wilderness, thus reaffirming the boundary between civilized life and barbarism.

Lapiths and Centaurs

Depiction of the battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs, in which the Lapiths wielded metal spears and the Centaurs sticks and stones, highlighting the contrast between civilized life and barbarism. Appropriately, the depiction is on a krater, the Greek vessel used to water down wine, thus reminding people of the need for moderation. Attica, 450-30 BCE, now at the Louvre.

Against the above background, in my next post I’ll cover wine mythology in the Ancient Near East.


Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons & the Meanings behind Them. New York: Meridian (1994).

Chevalier, Jean, and Gheerbrant, Alain. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. London: Penguin (1996) (cited as “DoS”).

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

Jung, Carl. Mysterium Coniunctionis, Collected Works of C.G. Jung, vol. 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1970) (cited as “CW 14” plus paragraph number).

–––––. Psychology and Religion: West and East, Collected Works of C.G. Jung, vol. 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1969) (cited as “CW 11” plus paragraph number).

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).

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

Ronnberg, Ami. The Book of Symbols. Cologne, Germany: Taschen (2010) (cited as “BoS”).

© Arthur George 2018

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Gnosticism and Modern Spirituality: A Mythological and Depth Psychological Approach

Gnosticism has enjoyed a certain romantic vogue in our culture as a road to spirituality ever since the publication of the Nag Hammadi codices, and even more so since the publication of Carl Jung’s Red Book, which includes his “Seven Sermons to the Dead” featuring the Gnostic Basilides as a figure, together with Jung’s comments on them (Jung 2009). Part of this modern appeal is a result of some misimpressions about the ancient Gnostics in comparison to Jung’s own position and that of depth psychology generally (see Segal, pp. 43-52). Still, the authentic ancient Gnostic myth does have much to offer us in our spirituality today. This post examines the ancient Gnostic myth, contrasts it with some aspects of the position of depth psychology, and outlines genuine parallels with depth psychology which show how ancient Gnosticism can still be inspirational in our own spiritual life.

The Gnostic Myth

The Gnostic myth is a fascinating and complicated combination of Hebrew Bible material used for the plot, and an adaptation of Greek Platonic philosophy used for its ideas, teachings which Gnostics claimed Christ embodies and make him our savior. Several Gnostic texts contain differing versions of the Gnostic creation myth, but the most central and earliest one that we know of is the one told in The Secret Book (or Apocryphon) of John, dating to the first half of the 2nd century CE. It seems to have been very popular since we have 4 complete copies of it in Coptic and since the heresiologist Irenaeus relied on it in describing Gnosticism in his Against Heresies (ca. 182-88 CE). The Secret Book purports to describe an encounter between Christ and John the Evangelist, the author of the canonical Gospel of John. In it, Christ, well after his resurrection and ascension, visits earth again to give John gnosis, as contained in the Gnostic myth. By conveying this truth to John, who will then relate it to the other apostles, and they to other people, Christ is functioning as humankind’s savior. That is, Christ is the savior not because he died for our sins on the cross (which the Gnostics hardly talked about), but by teaching us the most essential religious truths.

According to the myth, in the beginning there was only a single god called the Invisible Spirit (“God”), who is indefinable and unknowable. At some point he had a first thought, which was about himself since at that point there was nothing else to think about. This thought was called Forethought (also the Barbelo), which amounted to God’s self-knowledge and was an image of him. At this point, God came to be thought of as masculine and Forethought as feminine.

Forethought then proceeded to create 4 aeons, which were further aspects of God representing other thoughts or categories of mind (namely: Prior Acquaintance, Incorruptibility, Eternal Life, and Truth). Each aeon was thought of as a balanced male-female pair, and was created by Forethought with the consent of God, meaning that these creations represented his will. God and Forethought also created a being viewed as their son, the Self-Originate, who was the divine Christ. With God’s consent, Christ then created 4 Luminaries, each in charge of 3 more male-female aeons plus divine forms of 4 future prominent future humans (Adam, Seth) and groups of humans (Seth’s descendants (Gnostics), and repentant humans). The aggregate of the aeons, the Luminaries, Christ, and divine humans was called the Pleroma in Greek, usually translated as the Fullness or the Entirety, and represented God in all his aspects.

Then the female half of the aeon Wisdom (Sophia) decided to create without the consent of God or her male half. The result was a defective divine being. Mortified and ashamed, she threw it out of the Pleroma and named it Yaldabaoth. In due course, Sophia repented and was restored to the Pleroma. For his part, Yaldabaoth created a group of subordinate rulers as well as the material universe.


Yaldabaoth was said to have the body of a snake, the head of a lion, and eyes that blazed like lightning.

When he was excluded from the Pleroma, Yaldabaoth took with him an amount of power (or spirit) from Sophia, and therefore from the Pleroma, which had to be restored. Sophia and Forethought now plotted to get it back in order to restore the Pleroma to balance. Once that happened, they would destroy Yaldabaoth and all his creations. So they tricked Yaldabaoth into creating Adam in the image of the divine Adam and breathing his spirit into Adam, thus losing it himself. Adam was now greater than Yaldabaoth. Adam and subsequent humans thus consisted of body and psyche on the one hand and spirit (sometimes called the “divine spark”) on the other. If humans become aware of their true spiritual essence (achieve gnosis), then when their bodies die their immortal spirit will rejoin the Pleroma. When a critical mass of humans does this, the Pleroma will be restored.

The myth then details a long cosmic struggle in which Yaldabaoth tries to keep humans ignorant of their spiritual essence, while Sophia and Forethought help them to rediscover it. Eventually, they have the divine Christ incarnate as Jesus, who teaches people to rediscover this and who thus becomes our savior.

Gnostic Rituals

The Gnostic rituals included several initiatory steps, including baptism, Chrism (anointing), Eucharist, Redemption, and the Bridal Chamber (see the Gospel of Philip, in Barnstone and Meyer, pp. 298, 304, 318). They also read aloud sacred texts, chanted vowel sounds, and sang uplifting hymns. Some texts were in the form of apocalypses, such as Zostrianos (Layton, pp. 121-40), where a traveler journeyed up through the chain of being in the Pleroma and reported back on what he saw. Many of the hymns similarly tell about the chain of creations in the Pleroma and appear designed to provide the singers with an approximate experience of journeying through the Pleroma. Some of the texts read like typical descriptions of mystical experiences, such as in The Foreigner (Layton pp. 145).

Differences with Depth Psychology

From the myth, several differences between the approaches of ancient Gnosticism and depth psychology become apparent. These include:

  • The Gnostics had a complicated metaphysics that extended into the makeup of our selves. Depth psychology has no metaphysics, and the part of us to be “rediscovered” is simply the unconscious, nothing metaphysical about it.
  • The Gnostics were dualists who rejected the earthly world; thus, the spirit was not supposed to integrate with body and psyche. Depth psychology is not dualist, does not reject the world, and calls for integration (individuation) of the Self, which has its biological aspects.
  • The Gnostics believed in immortality of the spirit and in reincarnation; depth psychology takes no position on these ideas, but generally considers them unnecessary.
  • Some Gnostics appear to have believed in predestination for an elect (themselves); again, depth psychology does not get into this notion, which falls outside its approach and thus is unnecessary.
  • The Gnostic religious experience had a strong intellectual/knowledge component and relied on the Gnostic myth and ritual, whereas depth psychology has no myth or ritual and focuses on experiencing material from the unconscious, including what we call the “divine” or “God” (according to Jung mainly from the Self (or “God”) archetype). It is thus also apparent that Jung himself cannot fairly be called a Gnostic. While he was inspired by Gnosticism (as seen, e.g., in the Red Book) and saw parallels between it and the processes of the psyche (much as he did with alchemy and the alchemists), the theoretical basis of depth psychology is quite different, as explained above.

Parallels with Depth Psychology that Can Help in Modern Spirituality

A number of parallels exist between Gnosticism and depth psychology that can help us enhance our spiritual lives. These include:

  •  In both Gnosticism and depth psychology we seek to discover (or rediscover) who we really are. The Gnostics stressed the need to reconnect with our inner selves, with spirit. We see this in Sophia’s repentance and reacceptance into the Pleroma, in the apocalypses, and in the inner journey depicted in The Foreigner. According to depth psychology, it is the unconscious that is largely ignored (and suppressed/repressed) by our ego consciousness and needs to become conscious and therefore known. Depth psychology holds that the unconscious is indeed the source of what we term “the divine” or “God,” and that the individuation process will integrate this into our psyche and ourselves.
  • In Gnosticism, at our real center is the divine spirit or spark. According to Jung, at the center of our psyche is the Self archetype, also called the God archetype because psychologically it is indistinguishable from “God.” It provides a window into our psyche, and a door to into spiritual practice.
  • The Gnostics believed that symbols and images reflect a higher reality and could be used to access the truth about ourselves (e.g., Gospel of Philip, in Barnstone and Meyer, p. 297). Depth psychology likewise considers symbols important, in this case because they emerge from the unconscious and can tell us a lot about our psyche, so we should work with them.
  • Depth psychology holds that creation myths are really about the emergence of ego consciousness in humanity (Franz, p. 5), typically depicting the emergence of distinctions, order, multiplicity and opposites (all products of ego consciousness) from formless chaos (representative of the unconscious). The Gnostic myth reflects this too: In the beginning was only an undefined, vague, deity, and then thoughts emerged reflecting categories of mind, and finally the material world with its distinctions. Yaldabaoth was ego consciousness run rampant.
  • The Gnostics held that Christ incarnated in Jesus in order to teach humanity the truth about ourselves, and was a savior in this sense. According to Jung, Christ is a symbol of the Self (Jung 1969). Most importantly from the psychological perspective, the incarnation in Jesus symbolizes the bridging of ego consciousness and the unconscious. Further, Christ is a mediating figure who also symbolizes the operation of the Self as it individuates. Here his birth as the Divine Child, his Passion, and his Resurrection are also important symbols, respectively of the potential for individuation, of the suffering of the ego during individuation, and of the resulting individuation.


Despite the differences between ancient Gnosticism and the approach of depth psychology which we must remain aware of, Gnosticism can still symbolize and convey much of what should transpire within us in order to lead to a more spiritual life. It is therefore a rewarding exercise to read the Gnostic myth and the other Gnostic texts.


Barnstone, William and Marvin Meyer, eds. 2009. The Gnostic Bible, rev. ed. Boston: Shambhala.

Franz, Marie-Louise von. 1995. Creation Myths, rev. ed. Boston: Shambhala.

Hoeller, Stephan. 2002. Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books.

______. 1982. The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books.

Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion. Boston: Beacon Press.

Jung, Carl. 2009. The Red Book. New York: W.W. Norton.

______. 1969. “Christ, a Symbol of the Self,” in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, 2nd ed., Collected Works of C.G. Jung, vol. 9.2. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Layton, Bentley, ed. and trans. 1987. The Gnostic Scriptures. New York: Doubleday.

Rudolph, Kurt. 1987. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Segal, Robert, ed. 1992. The Gnostic Jung. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

© Arthur George 2018

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The Nature of Religious Truth: A Mythological and Depth Psychological Perspective – Class February 16-18, 2018

Over the weekend of February 16 (Friday evening) through 18 (Sunday morning) at the Krotona Institute in Ojai, California, I’ll be giving a class entitled The Nature of Religious Truth: A Mythological and Depth Psychological Perspective. The cost is minimal ($50). I would love to see my friends there and have interesting conversations! See program description on Krotona’s website.

Sistine Chapel Creation of Man

Among other things, the class will trace the history of the God-image (as Jung conceived of that) in our Judeo-Christian culture and how that relates to our Self and spiritual life.

On the following Tuesday evening, the 20th, I’ll also be giving a lecture at Krotona on Gnosticism and to what extent its original concepts can be applied in present-day spiritual life.

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May Day Myth and Ritual: The Virgin Mary as the May Queen

Since May 1 lies about halfway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice, our ancestors considered it a good time to mark the transition into summer. Indeed, in most of medieval northern Europe, which observed the Celtic calendar, May 1 was considered the beginning of summer, hence for example the Beltane festival. At the same time, importantly, May Day falls within the 50-day Easter liturgical season. As noted in my May Day post of April 29, 2015, about the goddess traditions of May Day, the Virgin Mary too is venerated on May Day, but I did not elaborate in that post. Now I will, detailing the mythology, ritual, and archetypal psychology behind the “Crowning of Mary” ritual.

Goddess Mythology and May Day

The Goddess of the festival that became May Day goes back to ancient times, in Anatolia, Greece, and Rome. The Roman Empire is important here because it took over much of Europe and the British Isles. Its mythology, associated rituals, and holidays spread there and were assimilated into local religion, mythology, holidays, and customs.

The Greeks held an annual spring festival for Rhea, the Titaness who was considered the mother of the first gods, including several Olympians, and thus was the great Mother called Queen of Heaven. We don’t know much about her festival, but she became identified with the Phrygian goddess Cybele, whose mythology and spring festival is well known from after she entered Rome, to which we can now turn.

Cybele and her son-lover Attis, a dying and rising god, were at the center of the Roman Hilaria festival (from Greek hilareia/hilaria (“rejoicing”) and Latin hilaris (“cheerful”), held between the vernal equinox and April 1. In this festival, a pine tree (that of Attis) was cut and stripped of its branches, wrapped in linen like a mummy and decorated with violets (Cybele’s flower, because in the myth violets were said to have sprung from the blood of Attis). It was then brought before Cybele’s temple on wagons in what resembled a funeral cortege, since Attis was “dead” inside the tree. This was followed by days of frenzied grief and mourning (including scourging) known as the “blood days,” when the tree was symbolically buried in a “tomb.” Attis then resurrected (rose out of the tree) on the day of Hilaria and was reunited with Cybele, symbolizing spring. The tree was then erected before Cybele’s temple, and the people celebrated around it (a “hilarious” celebration). This has obvious parallels with the Maypole and May Day celebrations.

The second of these holidays was the Floralia, named after Flora (Greek Chloris), goddess of flowers and spring. When she married Zephryos, the West Wind, as a wedding gift he filled her fields (her dowry in the marriage) with a flower garden, the flowers in which were said to spring from the wounds of Attis and Adonis. Zephyros, as the West Wind, brings the spring rains that grow the flowers. They had a son, Karpos (“fruit” or “crop’). Flora/Chloris became the goddess having jurisdiction over flowers, which she spread (by spreading their seeds) all over the earth, which until then was monochrome. More generally she became goddess of spring. In Rome, in the late 3rd century BCE a festival was instituted in her honor that lasted from April 28 to May 2. It included theater, a sacrifice to Flora, a procession in which a statue of Flora was carried, as well as competitive events and other spectacles at the Circus Maximus. One of these involved releasing captured hares and goats (both noted for their fertility) into the Circus, and scattering beans, vetches, and lupins (all fertility symbols) into the crowd. The celebrants wore multi-colored clothing symbolizing flowers and spring, as later was customary on May Day in Europe.

May Day also took on Christian trimmings. In Germany, on May Day Eve (April 30), called Hexennacht (”Witches Night”), famously dramatized by Goethe in Faust, witches were said to gather on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, to foment their evil plans. After the advent of Christianity, the witches were said to meet with the Devil. Their plans were then foiled through apotropaic May Day rituals. Eventually that Eve became known instead as Walpurgis Night, named after the abbess St. Walpurga (ca. 710-778), who is said to have been instrumental in bringing Christianity to Germany in the 8th century. Most importantly, the Catholic Church developed its May Day “Crowning of Mary” ritual. To understand how Mary’s ritual fits in, we must first summarize May Day rituals in general.

May crowning3

May Day Rituals

May Day rituals began with apotropaic bonfires on May Day eve, as described in my post of May 1, 2015. Then during the night youths of both sexes would go into the forest and gather flowers to be made into garlands for May Day decorations, and also procure a tree trunk to be used for the Maypole, which was erected in town the next morning. In the morning the youths would go house-to-house around town, singing songs and decorating the outside of houses and thorn bushes with the flowers that they had gathered. (Thorns represent suffering (cf. Christ’s crown of thorns) and thus winter; covering them with flowers represents the end of the suffering of winter.) Sometimes they also carried a doll or a small statue of the May Queen. The festivities around the Maypole later in the day typically included a mock contest where the May Queen defeats the Queen of Winter and marries the May King, a Green Man figure covered with foliage. Then the pair would be crowned, followed by dancing and singing around the Maypole.

May Day and the Crowning of Mary Ritual

In the Catholic Church’s liturgical year the entire month of May became devoted to the veneration of the Virgin Mary. The high point has always been the ritual known as “The Crowning of Mary,” said to have been instituted by St. Philip Neri in 16th century Italy, after which it quickly gained widespread grass-roots popularity. This ritual is usually performed on May Day, but alternatively on another early day of the month including Mother’s Day (always the second Sunday of May), and remains popular in Catholic congregations today. Ever since its inception, the ritual has involved a group of young boys and girls proceeding to a statue of Mary and placing a crown of flowers on her head to the accompaniment of singing. After Mary is crowned, a litany is sung or recited in which she is praised and called the Queen of Earth, Queen of Heaven, and Queen of the Universe, among other titles and epithets. (Order; Marian Year) (In the ritual in some places there is also a figure of her son Christ, who also is crowned.) Some Marian hymns also call her the “Queen of May.” In light of these traditions, in 1954 Pope Pius XII officially proclaimed the Queenship of Mary. To be sure, no official Catholic Church documents ever deem Mary quite divine, but the actual popular veneration of her tells a different story. It is not possible to detail the full scope of Mary veneration and Mariology here, so I’ll focus on just the May Day example.

In Catholic thinking, Mary is called Queen “because she is the perfect follower of Christ, who is the absolute crown of creation. She is the Mother of the Son of God, who is the messianic King. . . . Thus, in an eminent way, she won the ‘crown of righteousness’ ‘the crown of life,’ ‘the crown of glory’ promised to those who follow Christ.” (quoted from Order) Indeed, the crown symbolizes such things in New Testament scripture (Jas 1:12 (“crown of life”); 2 Tim 4:8 (“crown of righteousness”); 1 Pet 5:4 (“crown of glory”); Rev 2:10 (“crown of life”); see also Rev 12:1 (“a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars”). Thus, in Christian art Mary was sometimes depicted with a regal crown as early as the 4th century CE. The flowers in her crown are said to represent Mary’s virtues, and the ritual is held in spring because she brought life into the world. Venerating Mary in May also makes sense to Christians because much of May falls within the 50-day Easter season ending with Pentecost –the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and other followers of Christ – and Mary was with the apostles waiting for the Spirit to descend (Acts 1:12-14).

As a matter of psychology and religious history, however, the May crowning ritual emerged organically as one of popular devotion on the date of more traditional May Day celebrations, to which the Church reacted with formal declarations in order to more formally Christianize and legitimize it. This ritual also has non-Christian roots in traditional May Day mythology, floral rituals of spring, goddess veneration, and the crowning of the May Queen described above. In particular, psychologically speaking, in part it is a later iteration of the perennial early-May goddess traditions in which elements of the mother archetype are expressed in terms of the fertility and fruitfulness of springtime in full swing (see Jung, pp. 81-82), which accounts for why this ritual and the Mary figure in general have stood the test of time: She touches something deep inside our psyche. Calling Mary “our mother” reflects an instinctive and universal identification with her as an archetypal figure, even though it is inevitably difficult for us to consciously articulate the particulars of what this epithet means. Mary is in all of us, which is to say she is important and deserves our attention, whatever one’s religious position. Interestingly, the Catholic manual Book of Blessings, in explaining why the veneration of images of Mary and other Christian figures is not idolatry, states that such images are venerated “because the honor shown them is directed to the prototypes that they represent.” Well, there we have it.

Sources and Bibliography

Ad Caeli Reginam, Encyclical of Pope Pius XII on Proclaiming the Queenship of Mary. Available on the Vatican website at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_11101954_ad-caeli-reginam.html

Jung, Carl. “Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype,” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Collected Works, Collected Works vol. 9.1, pp. 73-110.

National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Order of Crowning an Image of the Blessed Virgin Mary (here cited as “Order”), part of the aforementioned Book of Blessings.

National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Celebrating the Marian Year (here cited as “Marian Year”).

See also my 2015 May Day posts:

The Mythology of May Day I: The Goddess of May Day

The Mythology of May Day II: The Bonfire Rituals of May Day Eve

The Mythology of May Day III: Maypoles and their Rituals

© Arthur George 2017

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Christ’s Resurrection and our Redemption: A Mytho-Psychological View of Easter

In the last of my Easter posts from last year about the mythological aspects of the holiday, I focused on the meaning of Christ’s resurrection in mytho-psychological terms and what this means for our own spirituality, concluding that our resurrection “is an internal affair.” This year I go at Easter from a somewhat different angle, focusing on the meaning of the “incarnation” and the resulting passion and resurrection of Christ in light of a more detailed historical evolutionary background showing how we and God got to the crossroads of Easter, so that we can better understand what this holiday can mean for us.

To get right to the point, from the mytho-psychological and spiritual perspectives, the life and teachings of Jesus together with his suffering and resurrection can be understood as portraying the integration of our total psyche (the “Self”), specifically the integration of the unconscious part of our psyche with the conscious part (ego consciousness, here called the “self” (uncapitalized)). (Corbett; Jung AJ) Carl Jung called this the “individuation” process, which results in a person reaching a higher level of consciousness and self-awareness, and being more advanced spiritually. Psychologically, this endeavor can be termed “religious” because at the deepest and most basic level of our collective (transpersonal) unconscious lies an archetype of unity and totality that Jung calls the “God” (or Self) archetype, which produces a “God-image” in ego consciousness that is comprehensible to us and is the closest we can get to comprehending God. The God archetype is the most fundamental source of our numinous experiences of “divinity” that 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 this unconscious realm that mystics from various religious and non-religious traditions access during their sacred experiences.

Jung held that there was a long historical period of evolution and preparation before ancient Mediterranean culture could reach the point where the Christ figure could emerge in myth to represent the individuation process and resonate with people’s psyches so that Christianity could emerge, become viable, and even dominate that culture. As Jung observed, “If ever anything had been historically prepared, and sustained and supported by the existing Weltanschauung, Christianity would be a classic example.” (Jung AJ, 687) It is important to outline these developments here.

The process actually begins with the creation of the cosmos as depicted in myths. Myths typically depict the creation as a process of formless, unordered chaos being transformed into order, resulting in differentiation, multiplicity, and opposites (dark/light, heaven/earth, god/human, good/evil, male/female, etc.). This motif is actually a reflection in myths of the evolution of human consciousness to a higher stage of being, i.e., to a developed ego consciousness (self) that enables us to make distinctions and see opposites. (Neumann, 2-38) As the psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz put it, such myths “describe not the origin of our cosmos, but the origin of man’s conscious awareness of the world.” (Franz, 5) This process of rising consciousness is evident in the biblical Garden of Eden creation myth in which Adam and Eve gained the “knowledge of good and evil,” meaning that they became able to distinguish opposites (good/evil, male/female, naked/clothed) and therefore were ready to function outside the Garden in civilization. (George & George, 83-84, 245-80) As Joseph Campbell put it, “The Garden is a metaphor for the following: our minds.” (Campbell, 50) We must bear this in mind when we see St. Paul and other early Christian writers describe Christ as the “second Adam” who symbolized a second transformation of human consciousness.

Jesus Exiting Tomb

At the end of the “incarnation” (integration) process symbolized by the Christ figure is light. According to saying 61 of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus taught, “I say that if one is integrated one will be filled with light, but if one is divided one will be filled with darkness.”


While humans were gaining in consciousness, however, Israel’s god Yahweh was temperamental, impulsive, and unpredictable. While sometimes loving and merciful, he was just as easily unjust and cruel and often changed his mind, reflecting a lack of self-awareness and a failure to consult his own omniscience. He violated many of the Ten Commandments. And he broke his Davidic Covenant in which he had promised that a descendant of David would forever be king over Israel; instead came the Babylonian captivity. Accordingly, Jung described Yahweh as “unconscious,” and specifically as having a dark, shadow side that was not integrated into his consciousness. He was not meaningfully aware of the opposites within him and they were not integrated, so he lacked control. Yahweh needed to better himself. Eventually many people grew tired of this and started to doubt Yahweh, because their own consciousness had outgrown that of their own god. Yet Yahweh needed humankind (its consciousness) to uphold his identity, to the point where he would need and want to share in being human. (Jung, AJ, 574) This represented our own restless unconscious seeking to make itself more conscious.

The turning point came when Yahweh let his shadow side (Satan) mistreat Job, who then protested Yahweh’s injustice, inflicting moral defeat on Yahweh from which he would never recover his old form. (Jung, AJ) His wisdom became personified as feminine Sophia, needed by Yahweh for self-reflection and to accommodate to some extent the feminine side of the psyche. (Jung AJ, 617) Also, in the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and 1 Enoch, Yahweh drew closer to humanity as his consciousness developed, being represented in each of these books by quaternity symbolism of the Self, and each of these books featured the “Son of Man” figure, an outgrowth of Yahweh embodying wisdom and righteousness, an intimation that Yahweh’s incarnation lies in the future (Jung AJ, 665-86); the gospels later would call Jesus the Son of Man. The figure of Satan became distanced from Yahweh, which mytho-psychologically speaking would inevitably require a counterpoising mythical figure of goodness, justice, and love. In short, Yahweh’s divine qualities were becoming differentiated, changing from an unconscious totality of all divinity into distinct conscious opposites represented by corresponding mythical figures.

Meanwhile, in the everyday human world, by the time of Jesus people in Palestine were dominated by the Roman military and governmental machine on the one hand, and by a strict and dry Jewish legalism managed by an aloof and corrupt priesthood on the other. People were taxed by both, monetarily and spiritually. Both trends were manifestations of ego consciousness run rampant, to the point where too many people’s lives had lost touch with the unconscious psychic energy that is the source of spirituality (in Christianity symbolized and carried by the Holy Spirit) and ultimately with the archetypal God-image; consciousness and the unconscious had become dissociated. The result was what psychologists term a “loss of soul” (Jung AJ, 688; Jung CR, 213-14, 244-45), which is the initial reaction to the unconscious reaching out to make itself felt by ego consciousness. Hopefully the end result of the process would be the integration of the Self. In 1st century Palestine, this process manifested itself mythologically as Yahweh inserting himself into humanity, resulting in the mythical figure of the God-man.

Thus, as Jung observed, the Christ figure is a symbol of the Self. (Jung CSS) But we must be careful here. As Jung also recognized, Christ is not a “snapshot” of anyone’s entire Self at any point in time. The deity now having split into various aspects, the Christ of the gospels represented only light, consciousness, goodness, love, and justice, lacking both the feminine element and any dark side, elements carried by Mary (in part) and Satan respectively. Rather, Christ was a mediating figure who represented the Self as it goes through the dynamic process of the incarnation of “God” coming from the unconscious into consciousness, spirit into body, as the Self becomes integrated and a person individuates. (Corbett, 128-30; Jung AJ) While in Christian tradition Christ’s appearance was literalized as a one-time historical event, mythologically and psychologically the implication is that incarnation can occur in any and all of us. Indeed, we see other versions of incarnation in other 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 incarnated in order to liberate humanity. (Corbett, 128)

Take, for example, Jesus’s saying in Matthew 18:4, that “unless you change and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (likewise Mark 10:15; Luke 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 seeking greatness and preeminence are driving their behavior and hindering 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; also, in a young child the ego is not dominant and so is more integrated with the unconscious, so the child archetype represents the potential for wholeness of the Self.) So as Jesus the God-man visually 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. Being a good and humble servant means being faithful to one’s principal, which in this case is Jesus and ultimately God, who originates in the God-image. Psychologically, the story shows the need to tame ego consciousness by becoming like a child, which through incarnation enables the divine (God, unconscious content) to integrate with the self 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 inevitable consequence of unconscious content confronting ego consciousness in the integration (incarnation) process is suffering, suffering of our ego consciousness (the self) as it cedes some of its position of preeminence and is transformed by unconscious content. The old self is “crucified” and then, as it transforms, it is “resurrected” into higher level of consciousness, resulting in a more integrated and “redeemed” Self. Easter. Springtime.

May we all celebrate a fruitful and happy Easter!

Sources and Bibliography

Campbell, Joseph. Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor. Novato, California: New World Library (2001).

Corbett, Lionel. The Religious Function of the Psyche. Routledge: New York (1996).

Edinger, Edward. Ego and Archetype: Individuation and the Religious Function of the Psyche. Boston & London: Shambhala (1972, 1992).

1 Enoch, in Charlesworth, James, ed., The Old Testament Pseudapigrapha,vol. 1, pp. 5-89. Peabody, Massachusetts (1983).

Franz, Marie-Louise von. Creation Myths. Boston: Shambhala (rev. ed. 1995).

George, Arthur, and Elena George. The Mythology of Eden. Lanham, Maryland: Hamilton Books (2014).

Jung, Carl. “Christ, a Symbol of the Self,” in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Collected Works, vol. 9.2, paras. 68-126 (cited as “Jung CSS”). Cites to Jung in this and other works listed below are to the numbered paragraphs, not pages.

Jung. Carl. “Answer to Job,” in Psychology and Religion: West and East, Collected Works, vol. 11, paras. 553-758 (cited as “Jung AJ”). This essay is also available as a separate book published by Princeton University Press.

Jung, Carl. “On Resurrection,” in The Symbolic Life. Collected Works, vol. 18, paras. 1558-74 (cited as “Jung OR”).

Jung, Carl. “Concerning Rebirth,” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Collected Works, vol. 9.1, paras. 199-258 (cited as “Jung CR”).

Neumann, Erich. The Origins and History of Consciousness. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1954).

© Arthur George 2017.

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