And just in time for the holidays, a little history of the wine god Dionysus!

by Kerry Hoeschen


"The people of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine"

                                      -Thucydides, ancient Greek historian


Best estimates for the beginning of the production of wine indicate that naturally fermented wild grapes may have been imbibed by our ancestors as early as 8000 BCE.  That's right, before we figured out how to domesticate chickens, before the Egyptian civilization, when our world population was about 5 million- we figured out that fermented grapes are awesome. Over the next thousand years agriculture would develop steadily, the first known production of wine in Greece occurred around 4500 BCE and it appears increasingly certain that domestication of the grapevine began around 3500 BCE.


Wine had a tremendous impact on Greece. It was widely produced, traded and exported. It had constant mythological and ritual purposes. There were games created around it, one of which involved throwing the lees at a target. It was a critical component of Greek symposia, gatherings of intellectuals to debate philosophical topics. And while lacking the technology to effectively age wine, a greater premium was put on aged wines.


Hence the clear and evident need of a god whose existence was based on the grape harvest. Enter Dionysus, known as Bacchus to the Romans.


Dionysus was the god of the wine, agriculture, fertility in nature, epiphany and was the patron god of Greek theater. He was the only Pantheon god to be born of a mortal woman, thanks to his lustful father Zeus, and was raised in the forest by mountain nymphs. Upon reaching adulthood, he claimed his rights as a god and cults were formed in his honor; those who denied him were destroyed.


Four Athenian Dionysian festivals were held annually which included copious amounts of wine drinking, on-going theatrical performances and festivities of all manner. Anthesteria (festival of flowers) is the best known of these and celebrates the maturing of wine from the previous vintage. For 3 days all Athenians, slaves and women included, participated in the celebration. Each day had it's purpose. The first day, casks were opened and all the household drank liberally, rooms, drinking vessels and people were all decorated with flowers. Day two was a festive celebration during which people dressed up and visited. There were "drink-off" competitions and all libations were shared liberally with the deceased. The third day was a festival of the dead, not unlike Day of the Dead celebrations in Latin America.


Dionysus was seen as a liberator, whose bounty encouraged self-awareness and a lack of self-consciousness. He was viewed as a having a dual nature, a mercurial god, whose rage was as potent as his wine. When transformed by the Romans to Bacchus a few interesting and important changes were made to his repertoire.


Bacchanalia, rites in honor of Bacchus, spread from the Greek isles to southern Italy. Initially they were only attended by women, but as lascivious reports of the ongoings trickled back to the community, men got their admittance. According to Roman historian Livy, the rituals became steeped in licentiousness and became outlawed by the Senate in 186 BCE when some groups of worshippers began to take a political slant. Livy argues that the Senate took moves to crush the cult because women held leadership roles.


Bacchus and Dionysus retain a strange relevance to us and speak to a sort of historical continuity in perception of wine. Wine was put to both ritualistic and celebratory uses, but the dual nature of the god warned of the impact of excess.  


Finding ourselves in the midst of the holidays and, most likely a little heavier on the wine intake than usual, it seems like an appropriate time to give a little dance to Dionysus and embrace some merry-making.

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