The Myth of Wine

The Myth of Wine - by Simone Beta

If we are to believe the words of Karl Ottfried Müller, the German philologist who, at the beginning of the 19th century, after placing classic mythology in its historical context, claimed that ancient myths were an essential offshoot of the human experience, the numerous tales the Greeks dedicated to wine cannot but confirm such a hypothesis.

These pages provide a brief overview of some of these fascinating stories. Told by different authors in different epochs, they show how the discovery and spread of wine - while consistently placed in that remote past when the gods of Olympus acted on Earth (i.e. the time of myth) - were, in truth, closely bound to the multiform activities of the Greeks during their long history.

Let us begin with a legend in which the main protagonist is Heracles (the Roman Hercules), a story that helps us understand what wine meant to the ancients.

Apollodorus, the author of the Bibliotheca, the richest repertory of mythology to be written in Greek, narrates that Heracles, before facing the fourth of his Twelve Labours (the capture of the Erymanthian Boar) visited the centaur Pholus, son of Silenus, who invited him to supper. While the centaur served the hero cooked meat, he himself ate it raw. When Heracles asked him for some wine, Pholus replied that he had a jar he shared with the other Centaurs, but did not dare open it. Heracles told him not to be afraid. Persuaded by the hero’s words, Pholus decided to open the wine jar.

Apollodorus’ tale then proceeds by illustrating the consequences of this decision: the arrival of armed Centaurs in front of Pholus’ cave after being attracted by the smell of the wine; the ensuing battle between Heracles and these monstrous creatures (Centaurs were half men, half horse); the flight of the Centaurs, defeated by the hero’s divine strength (he was son of Zeus).

This tale has two elements, little known yet heavy with meaning, which deserve closer attention.

The first concerns the different ways the meat was consumed - cooked in one case, raw in the other - and is indicative of the cultural void separating Heracles from the Centaurs (figures only partially human: for example they speak and possess the faculty of reason, but not entirely). It is the same void that separates the life of men, who cook food to make it more flavoursome and digestible, from that of animals, who do not (because they cannot).

The second element is, then, the wine. Pholus is the keeper of the wine jar, but neither opens it nor drinks it: the wine does not belong to the world of the Centaurs as it is not a spontaneous produce of the Earth but requires, in order to be enjoyed, a complex production process. Wine, like the habit of cooking meat, is a sign of civilisation.

Yet our story does not end here. In the chapters of the fourth book of his Bibliotheca historica, dedicated to the vicissitudes of Heracles, Diodorus Siculus, a writer born near Enna (Sicily) in the early 1st century BC, adds two valuable details to this picture.

The first is the origin of this wine: Diodorus tells us that Pholus’ wine wasn’t just any wine: the jar guarded so carefully by the centaur was, in fact, a gift from Dionysus, the god of wine himself, in person, who had entrusted it to him four generations beforehand with the caveat that it should only be opened should Heracles reach that very place. Thus, to keep it as secure as possible and prevent it being drunk (and this is the second detail of interest to us), Pholus buries it underground.

Let us leave the first detail aside for a moment and focus on the second. This is no negligible aspect: wine, the outcome of the working of a spontaneously earth-born fruit, is rejected by those unable to appreciate it and put back in the very place from whence it had came (the earth).

The centaur thus falls truly half-way between man and beast, between his human and equine sides: being unable to bridge the gap separating a primitive existence from a civilised one, he eats his meat raw (as do animals) and rejects the gift of wine. How? By immediately returning it to the ‘sender’, that is, by burying it in the ground from which it had so miraculously sprung.

The Centaurs are unable to appreciate the wine because they are not fully human, because they lack the human qualities which allow a full understanding of the essence of the beverage and, therefore, protection against its perils. Every time the Centaurs encounter the wine, in fact, things turn out badly for them: in the story just told, the mere perfume released from Pholus’ jar literally drives them out of their minds, causing them to start a war with Heracles that can only result in their defeat; in another more famous story, wine is again the causal element in a clash involving the Centaurs.

During the feast to celebrate Pirithous’ marriage with Hippodamia, in fact, one of them, Eurizione, his mind clouded by an excess of wine, had tried to abduct the bride; the groom’s entire tribe, the Lapiths, together with the hero Theseus, Pirithous’ best friend, react to this attempted rape by throwing themselves against Eurizione and the other Centaurs. The ensuing battle (referred to as the ‘Centauromachy’ and depicted on the metopes of the Parthenon, now in the British Museum in London, and on the western face of the temple of Zeus at Olympia) ended just as it had with the brawl triggered by the opening of Pholus’ wine jar: with the defeat of the Centaurs.

The episode had become proverbial: the phrase “the wine also blinded the centaur” was cited as a warning every time someone over-indulged in wine. We hear it first from Antinous, the leader of the Proci - one of the suitors of Penelope - in Homer’s Odyssey, when the poem’s protagonist (disguised as a beggar) asks to take part in a test of archery: in reminding him that “the wine had also blinded the centaur”, Antinous warns Odysseus against attempting a feat that is beyond him (i.e. the typical overconfidence of the drunk, whose sense of judgement is clouded by wine).

And it is again in the Odyssey that we find the most famous example of the risks run by those who drink wine to excess: the story of the cyclops Polyphemus, Poseidon’s son, who drinks a strong, undiluted wine offered by Odysseus, falls asleep, becomes vulnerable, and is blinded.

The Cyclopes differ little from the Centaurs. Not entirely human (with gigantic bodies and a single eye) they, like the centaurs, live at the margins of civilisation and once again wine is unknown to them. In Cyclops by Euripides we read that these monsters only drink milk; they have no idea what wine is as they grow nothing, not even vines. They have no concept of non-spontaneous things: why should they go to the trouble of working the grapes if they can be eaten just as they are?

The two stories also have something else in common: just like Polyphemus’ wine, Pholus’ was a gift. Homer tells us, in fact, that the jar containing that ‘divine beverage’ with its sweet bouquet, had been given to Ithaca’s hero by Maron, a priest of Apollo’s whose life had been saved by Odysseus; since Maron was a descendent of Dionysus, it’s easy to imagine where he had obtained the jar. And so, just as the perfume of the wine given to Pholus proved to be overpowering (it was perceptible even some distance away), so too did the strength of Maron’s wine (which, as Homer himself clarified, could only be drunk safely after mixing it with at least twenty times as much water!).

Wine is once again, then, directly or indirectly, god-given, and may only be drunk without consequence by those endowed with the full faculty of reason (and not by half-human beings such as Centaurs and Cyclopes). Yet these are not the only stories that tell us how Dionysus, in giving wine to men, also warned them of the risks run by the over-indulgent.

A passage written by Hyginus, the other great ancient mythologist (this time Latin) and author of two renowned collections of myths, the Fabulae and De Astronomia, tells us how wine was invented:

“When Father Liber (the Latin name for Dionysus) went out to visit men in order to demonstrate the sweetness and pleasantness of his fruit, he came to the generous hospitality of Icarius and his daughter Erigone. To them he gave a skin full of wine as a gift and bade them spread the use of it in all the other lands. Loading a wagon, Icarius with his daughter Erigone (and a dog, Maera) came to shepherds in the land of Attica, and showed them the kind of sweetness wine had. The shepherds, made drunk by drinking immoderately, collapsed, and thinking that Icarius had given them some bad medicine, killed him with clubs. The dog Maera, howling over the body of the slain Icarius, showed Erigone where her father lay unburied. When she came there, she committed suicide by hanging herself from the tree over her father’s body. Because of this, Father Liber afflicted the daughters of the Athenians with alike punishment (death by hanging). They demanded an oracular response from Apollo concerning these mysterious suicides, and he told them they had neglected the deaths of Icarius and Erigone. At this reply they exacted punishment from the shepherds, and in honour of Erigone instituted a festival called ‘Aiora’ (swing), decreeing that through the grape-harvest they should pour libations to Icarius and Erigone. By the will of the gods they were put among the stars. Erigone is the sign Virgo whom we call Justice; Icarius is called Arcturus, and the dog Maera is Canicula”.

To avoid going off at a tangent we shall have to leave aside further interesting aspects of this story (the origin of the festival of ‘Aiora’, celebrated during the third day of the Anthesteria, an Athenian festival associated with the opening of barrels containing the new wine, and the final catasterism or ‘placing among the stars’ of the protagonists) and focus on the matter of divine hospitality, also dealt with in the legend concerning the origin of the other element fundamental to the nutrition of the ancients.

Just as Demeter (Ceres for the Romans), the goddess of cereals, grants wheat (and therefore bread) to the young Triptolemus to thank his parents, Celeus and Metaneira, the sovereigns of Eleusis who provided her with hospitality as she roamed the world in search of her daughter Persephone (abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld), so Icarius’ welcoming gesture corresponds to the recompense of Dionysus, who gives man life (and thus wine).

Wine is therefore seen as a gift, a concept running through all Greek literature starting with the famous piece by Alcaeus; here, the poet from Lesbos, who lived between the 7th and 6th centuries BC, states that Dionysus, son of Zeus and Semele, had given men the wine lathikades (an adjective meaning “to make one forget suffering”).

However, since wine can be highly dangerous when drunk to excess (or, as Hyginus says, immoderatius), in granting it Dionysus also teaches men how to attenuate its strength. In the work Banquet of the Learned, composed by Egyptian writer Athenaeus in the 2nd century AD, we learn that the god taught the Athenian king Amphictyon, son of Deucalion (the man who saved humankind after the universal flood), to mix wine with water. This simple stratagem meant that men, who had previously drunk the wine pure and inevitably passed out, could now enjoy it and remain standing, a fact appreciated to the extent that Amphictyon, in order to thank the god, had an altar built in honour of ‘upright’ Dionysus in the Athenian temple dedicated to the Seasons (the divinities who caused the vine to grow).

Athenaeus attributes this tale to the Athenian historian Philicorus (4th-3rd century BC), while (again according to Athenaeus) it is said to be Philonides, a doctor born in Durazzo who lived in the 1st century BC, who tells the following story, which brings non other than Zeus, the king of gods, into the picture.

A storm caught a group of drinkers on the seashore by surprise. They scattered to seek shelter, leaving their pure wine in an open vessel on the beach; when the storm passed they returned to drink it, now mixed with the rainwater. Not only did it taste better, it was less inebriating. This is why, during drinking parties, the first cup was offered to Zeus, the god of rain, to thank him for having taught man to enjoy wine as safely as possible.

The concept of ‘moderation’ has always accompanied wine. It is not only these stories, which trace the rules for its use back to the gods, that tells us so. Similar views have been put forward by the poets, such as Theognis (6th-5th centuries BC), according to whom “those who exceed their measure of drink are no longer the masters of their own thoughts or minds”, and Panyassis (5th century BC), who writes that “wine destroys all the pains of men’s hearts when drunk in moderation, yet causes woe where drunk beyond measure”. Honestus (1st century AD) states that the “the right measure of every joy” consists of drinking wine without exceeding the limits established by human reason.

In the passage mentioned earlier, the same Alcaeus, after stating that wine was a gift from Dionysus, exhorts his companion, who had the task of mixing the wine, to pour him a cup containing two parts water to soften the strength of the one part wine – a mix the Greeks considered to be particularly moderate as it allowed numerous cups to be consumed without actually getting drunk.

As can be seen, the practices developed by man to regulate the consumption of wine (a drink that, on account of its special characteristics, was seen as supernatural) are confirmed, in retrospect, via the tool of mythology: not only did the gods grant man wine, trusting that his faculty of reason would allow him (unlike the Centaurs and Cyclopes) to produce it successfully through the cultivation of vines and the working of their fruits, they also taught him the proper way to drink it without running risks, by mixing it with water to soothe its strength.