Channeling the Ancient

“Call me Dionysus,” my friend Matt proclaimed, adjusting his aviator sunglasses lower on his face.  Our friend Gus filled Matt’s coffee mug from one of many milk jugs of wine he had brought after his one-day stint bottling at a Walla Walla winery.  Matt’s statement forecasted a unique night of revelry that ensued, leaving me with what I consider an authentic association with the ancient Greek god.  Nietzsche described Dionysian intoxication as “nature overpowering man,” whereby a night of consuming naturally-fermented fruit juice resulted in unrestrained behavior akin to the acts of Dionysus’ followers, the kind of acts that got me kicked out of a bar for the first time.

It was the summer after taking a course in Ancient Theatre, a course where I studied the meaning of tragedy with a special focus on Dionysus, the supposed creator of wine in one of its most ancient forms.  To this day he evokes confusion within me, a figure at once wild and worshipped, capable of inspiring both happiness and madness.  It was through this lens that I began wondering about what wine meant to ancient cultures such as Egypt and Greece, a beverage that inspired both intellectual discourse and debauchery, sometimes simultaneously amongst its users.

In ancient Egypt, wine seems to have an association with the dead, the elite, and most notably gods.  Depicted in a red dress with cow horns, Hathor was the goddess of love, motherhood, and music among other things.  When she received word of the potential assassination of Upper Egypt Pharaoh Ra, she transformed into the hostile and vengeful war goddess Sekhmet.  It was through consuming wine and becoming drunk on the blood-colored liquid that her former, more kindly identity as Hathor reasserted its presence.  In the Festival of Drunkenness, communities came together and paid tribute to this tale of Hathor by becoming thoroughly intoxicated.

The goddess Hathor

I remain struck by this ceremonial homage to inebriation, something also common in Ancient Greece, where another festival called Anthesteria celebrated the beginning of a new vintage by dedicating the newly opened wine to Dionysus.  What intrigued me most, however, was the concept of a symposium, which literally means “drinking together.”  These most important of social gatherings between the Athenian elite began with a small feast before transitioning into heavy drinking of wine mixed with water and spices.  A symposiarchos would moderate the amount of wine consumed, determining the level of drunkenness on these all-night affairs, while flute-girls, or auletrides, provided musical and sexual entertainment.  The mixing of wine with water was a sign of class, while consuming undiluted wine was a habit associated with barbarians, believed by some Spartans to have caused the insanity and death of King Cleomenes.

“There it is,” says Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire, “right in the middle of the word intoxication, hidden in plain sight: toxic.  The bright line between food and poison might hold, but not the one between poison and desire.”  But what does this perennial desire for personal adulteration tell us about the way we treat wine versus the way our Greek and Egyptian brothers treated it?  The same desires and debates present themselves in different ways, whether it is how we drink in moderation or the use of bottles instead of two-handled clay amphorae vessels for storing the wine.

A scene depicting Dionysus with two satyrs on a Greek amphora used for storing and pouring wine

Over the years I found myself curious about how wine was consumed before the French redefined and codified our understanding of its use, and knew the topic would manifest itself amongst the earliest posts of this blog.  When I told my colleague Bianca about this post and how much time it was taking me, she responded “you could spend the rest of your life researching that.”  I chose an image of Dionysus as the icon for this blog to show my interest in digging deeply into unknown, intangible and at once fascinating concepts tied to wine.  His figure represents the quintessence of what we seek to understand, yet are eluded for the very reasons we desire it, the eternal mystery.