On the blogby Alfred
November 20 2018

Greek & Roman mythology vines and wine

by Xavier Larkin-Doucet

Ancient Greece has always had a noticeably high influence in the etymology and the allusions used in the French and English languages, with a large portion of these expressions used daily. As an example, when we refer to “Draconian measures”, it is an allusion to a tyrant of the city of Athens during the archaic period (around 620 before J.-C.), a tyrant renowned for proclaiming very strict and particularly harsh laws. In the viticulture and winemaking world, these influences are also easily perceptible. Indeed, the usage of the word “nectar” by wine critics, often used to describe a particularly good wine, can in fact be translated from ancient Greek as “beverage of the Gods of Olympus”, a proof of this very strong influence of Greek mythology, Olympus referring to Mount Olympus in Greece (2917 meters high) that was depicted and thought of, in Ancient Greece, as the location of the palace where Gods held continuous and eternal celebrations and festivities.

If it is almost certain that, today, no historian truly believes that Mount Olympus was the home of the Greek Gods, it is crucial to be reminded that the Greek people truly believed in this mythology, albeit its very complex and often contrary elements. A striking example of this can be witnessed in the discovery of Mycenaean tablets written in Linear B (an archaic form of ancient Greek) in which the mention of the cult of a certain “Di-Wo-Ni-So-Jo” – Dionysus – proves that the cult of this God, and the practice of mythology in general, dates back to at least the recent Helladic period (1600 to 1200 before J.-C.), during the Age of Bronze (2700 to 1100 before J.-C.).

Dionysus: a divinity that became a symbol of “human nature”

Among all the characters and myths around wine, the most important is, without a surprise, Dionysus, God of wine, rhapsody, collectivity and death. After a tormented youth filled with surprising events, Dionysus – which would mean “two times born” according to certain etymological interpretations – leaves the heights of Mount Olympus to visit Greece, Egypt and Syria to propagate viticulture and the winemaking process to all the Mediterranean basin. Also related to the sentiment of euphoria, the cult of Dionysus found its way through the entirety of Greece, giving him a status as one of the most important gods of the Greek mythology.

As indicated by the historian Joël Schmidt in his Dictionnaire de la mythologie grecque et romaine, Dionysus was the symbol of the power of nature, the sap of the trees and vines that grow grapes, and the life of vegetation itself. Represented in artistic paintings as a young man, with vines and clusters of grapes, he is often surrounded by feminine characters named “nymphs”. His popularity and longevity in Greek history mainly reside in his “responsibilities” being wine, euphoria and death, as they are all elements that contribute to bring him much closer to the “human nature” than the other antique divinities. By also acting as a protector for the arts and theater, which are central elements of the Ancient Greek culture, and by the simple fact that he is linked to death (a concept that is usually non-existent for other Gods at they are usually considered eternal and immortal. These elements brought many adepts to worship him and to become followers of his cult, as he was the one God that felt closer, in a certain way, to the humans.

The myths related to the vine and the ambiguous effects of wine

The vine, according to the most popular legend, was a gift from Dionysus to king Oeneus. This legend was also home to a side story in which the shepherd of the king, Staphylos(which means “cluster” in Greek) had seen one of his goats very happy after eating grapes, which had gave him the idea to transform the liquid extracted from this fruit into wine. Other than these two myths, the vine and wine are found in many other legends and stories. On the historical side of things, the agriculture of wheat is considered just as important as viticulture as the first manifestation of what is often referred to by historians as the “agricultural civilization”.

Thus, the “nectar” that is wine would allow the Greeks to experience the joy and the euphoria that came with tasting a beverage of divine origin, a beverage that was now available for consumption to all. This positive aspect is also home to a more negative aspect of this gift given to humans by Dionysus that is very well summarized by Jacques Lacarrière, author of theDictionnaire amoureux de la mythologie(loose translation): “Everywhere he went, Dionysus would create tragedies and bloody deaths. No doubt that this myth exists to show the ambiguous power of wine and euphoria, by its capacity to elevate humans to divine levels, but also by its capacity to bring humans down to the level of voracious beasts”. Indeed, Ancient Greece is home to many myths and legends that involve Gods and humans in which terrible crimes and murders are committed under the influence (and sometimes intoxication) of wine.

What about Roman mythology?

Concerning the Roman mythology, which essentially rehashes the characters and the overall universe of the Greek mythology under new names, Bacchus(the roman equivalent to Dionysus) was not nearly as popular as his predecessor. As the God of wine, the vines, debauchery and licence, his role in the Roman mythology was very limited, even if the archaeological findings are proof of the undeniable importance of viticulture and wine in the Roman empire. The cult of Bacchus, which was home to a very low amount of initiates, was constantly under the eye of the Roman senate, as they were constantly trying to shut down the chaos that accompanied the various activities of these often intoxicated followers.

In short, the vine and wine are integral parts of the funding mythologies of our current society, with influences that are perceptible even in the wine industry where numerous elements originating from the Greek and Roman mythologies are adapted as product names, agencies, sommeliers or wine critics that often use terms that are heavily influenced etymologically by these myths and legends. Despite all these findings, one element has always transcended all these different societies and periods, from the Age of Bronze to our modern world: the joy and pleasure of enjoying a good bottle of wine. Winemaking methods are constantly evolving, with products constantly reaching unmatched excellence levels. In light of this, there is no doubt that the “adepts” of the “cult of wine” will undoubtedly become just as popular and long-lasting, if not more, than the followers of the extremely popular cult of Dionysus in Ancient Greek.

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References :
Jacques LACARRIÈRE. Dictionnaire amoureux de la mythologie.Paris, Plon, 2006, 555 pages.
Joël SCHMIDT. Dictionnaire de la mythologie grecque et romaine. Paris, Larousse, 2013, 280 pages.
M.-C. AMOURETTI et al. Le monde grec antique. 5eédition, Paris, Hachette supérieur, 2011, 351 pages. Collection « HU Histoire ».
Robert A. SEGAL. Mythologie en 30 secondes. Montréal, Hurtubise, 2012, 160 pages.
Robin HARD. The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology. 7eédition, London, Routledge, 2008, 776 pages.

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