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Dionysus, Rewilding & The Invention Of Wine
The interesting parallels between the god of the vine and the domestication of the grape
The line between domestic and wild often seems more visible from the other side, a feeling of loss and restriction of freedom. Amongst the various Greek deities, Dionysus stands out for this feeling or sentiment of a ‘foreign madness’, a divine intrusion into the mundane, bringing revelry and disorder. In Nietzsche’s work The Birth of Tragedy, he associates the Dionysian with this instinct to escape the dreariness of settled and squalid existence. It seems an essential component of a ‘rewilding’ vision that one is already tame, but looking for an exit, chafing at the bit. Myths have real foundations, in my opinion, regardless of whether they emerge from historical fact or as psychological impulses peculiar to the characteristics of a people. Dionysus is the god of wine, and wine is a product of domestication. In a strange way the discovery of wild grapes and their fermentation is a story which mirrors the academic debates over Dionysus himself - did wine come from outside of Greece, or was there a local tradition of wild grape wine? Did Dionysus appear in Greece as a foreigner, or was he too an invention of that world. And what of the orgiastic rituals and madness which accompanied him - did that cult invent something new, or were they mimicking something much older than themselves, a half-forgotten whisper of the wilderness?
Making Wine and Growing Grapes
Where to begin with a topic as vast as this? The wild grape - Vitis vinifera sylvestris. Humans have eaten this plant since the Palaeolithic, as one of the many freely available fruiting vines and edible species, but it wasn’t until the Neolithic that something approaching controlled management appears in the record. Legions of archaeologists, botanists, plant geneticists and viticulturalists have tried and failed to understand exactly when and where the Vitus vine was first domesticated. Not only is distinguishing a wild grape seed from a domestic one an extreme test of patience, but there is no genetic boundary between wild and tame. Introgressions and admixtures between wild, feral and cultivated varieties have occurred countless times, both by accident and deliberately, and on top of this we aren’t sure if there was just one point of domestication, or multiple independent points. As one research paper summarises:
Whether the grapevine was domesticated only once, or whether some varieties were domesticated independently, is a mystery hotly debated and different scenarios are proposed. The main hypothesis defined as the “Noah hypothesis”, so named in honour of the biblical patriarch who planted the first vineyard on Mount Ararat after the flood, proposes that grapevine domestication processes took place in a well-defined restricted area (Single-origin model). In addition, a multiple-origin hypothesis that provides for the foundation of independent lineages originating from wild progenitors spread some place along the entire distribution range has been proposed (Multi-origin model).
Viticulture lore for the past few decades has placed the single origin of grape domestication somewhere between the Black Sea and Iran, the Transcaucasian belt, and Georgia is often tauted as the centre of this event. But other work suggests that secondary, parallel or independent domestication events occurred elsewhere, especially in Greece and her sphere of influence.
If grape domestication is one problem, the next to tackle is when and where wine production first occurred. Logically one can make wine from wild grapes, and people still do. Simply crushing the fruit and leaving it in a vessel to spontaneously ferment is enough. Therefore domestication and vinification need two separate explanations.
The fermentation of grapes produces complex flavour molecules, including malic, pyruvic, succinic and tartaric acids. These, in particular the latter, can now be extracted from sherds of pottery, pointing to wine production on Neolithic sites. At Dikili Tash, a large settlement in east Greek Macedonia, chemical evidence for wine making points back to 4,500 BC. Grape pips and grape vine charcoal (associated with pruning and vine management) also appear during the early and middle Greek Neolithic, suggesting that intensive viticulture was developing and the skills being passed along through generations. Similar chemical analysis of potsherds points to wine production in southern Armenia around 4,000 BC. Most likely these represent wild grape cultivation and use - grape pips are fairly unreliable as markers of domestication, but a ‘proto-domesticated’ grape is not unreasonable.
Pine resin seems to appear throughout the Neolithic as an additive to wine, perhaps stemming from its use as a preservative or waterproofing agent, and people found the taste pleasant. Retsina, wine with pine resin, is still produced in Greece today. Beer, mead and wine, along with other alcoholic beverages emerged across the Old World between the middle Neolithic and the Iron Age. Sumerian cereal beer, Egyptian barley wine, Bell Beaker vessels full of mead and flavoured with lime blossom and meadowsweet, Iberian drinks containing nightshade alkaloids, and the use of opium, cannabis and other intoxicants all start to flourish throughout Europe and the wider Eurasian zone. The bizarre ‘Nordic Grog’ is a case of mixing the local with the foreign:
In general, Nordic peoples preferred a hybrid beverage or ‘grog,’ in which many ingredients were fermented together, including locally available honey, local fruit (e.g., bog cranberry, and lingonberry) and cereals (wheat, rye, and/or barley), and sometimes grape wine imported from farther south in Europe. Local herbs/spices, such as bog myrtle, yarrow and juniper, and birch tree resin rounded out the concoction and provide the earliest chemical attestations for their use in Nordic fermented beverages.
The importation of grape wine from southern or central Europe as early as ca. 1100 BC, again chemically attested here for the first time... It also points to an active trading network across Europe as early as the Bronze Age in which amber might have been the principle good exchanged for wine. The presence of pine resin in the beverages likely derives from the imported wine, added as a preservative for its long journey northward.
Alcohol, and intoxicating plants in general, were clearly big business and of major social importance. Linear B texts listing wine exports are well documented, and the association between wine consumption and cultic activities in the palaces of Pylos and Knossos have been discussed for over a century in the literature. What does seem to shift however, in the move from a more communal Neolithic culture to the early Bronze Age, is the rise of a warrior class which focused on violence, feasting and alcohol. In a 2012 paper, Feasting and the consuming body in Bronze Age Crete and Early Iron Age Cyprus, researchers observe:
It is in the Bronze Age that alcohol acquired an immense power and role in social interaction. Within the Bronze Age, however, we observe a significant diversity. Consumption of alcohol, most probably wine, was a major factor in the rituals of commensality… Day and Wilson have argued from their work at Knossos that within the EBA we see a shift from a mode of communal consumption, where people used to pass round drinking vessels such as the chalice, to forms of communal individualism, with the adoption of the smaller individual drinking vessels such as goblets and cups
Wine in particular came to acquire a prestige which other drinks did not. Throughout the Near East Bronze Age, wine was the drink of elites, listed on Linear B tablets along with meat, cheese and honey. It was the drink of banquets, feasts and those who did not work the land or toil for their daily bread. It seems likely that later Greeks adopted the social custom of diluting wine with water, in part to distinguish themselves from other barbaric peoples who engaged in similar bouts of competitive drinking.
Enter Dionysus - Thrace & Crete
Dionysus is one of the most elusive deities of the Classical world, and tracking down hints of his origins is like walking into quicksand. Much has been made of the psychological and religious qualities of his cult, and how this might point towards his genesis. From William Cassidy’s 1991 paper, Dionysos, Ecstasy, and The Forbidden:
The myths of Dionysos present him as a god in conflict with the ruling values of the polis. The maenadic ritual complex, whether civic or private, is closely attached to these myths; the priority of one form of expression or the other need not concern us…
Thus the Dionysiac freedom is an intolerable outrage to the king, who represents not the wisdom of the Greek cultural system, but a one-sided and all too common perversion of it…
In the topsy-turvy realm of Dionysos, excess becomes balance. These qualities of paradox and reversal lie at the heart of the Dionysiac world. In the myths, those who oppose Dionysos on the law-and-order platform set the stage for their own lynching. The theme of opposition to Dionysos cannot be connected to a specific period of Greek history; indeed the opposition seems rather to be a collective matter, both psychological and social, which is directed at aristocratic and "male" attitudes that reject the democratic and "female" unruliness of the god's cult.
The oft-repeated claim that Dionysian values were in conflict with Greek social orthodoxy appears in all sorts of tropes, including Dionysus’ disdain for beer drinking. Famously Lycurgus of Thrace banned the Dionysian cult, chopped down his vines and refused to drink his wine. His punishments were cruel and suitably Bacchic. But if Dionysus was a foreign god, and his ways were hostile to the civilised Greeks, where did he come from?
One possibility comes to us from Soviet archaeology, and while I highly doubt the conclusions, there are nonetheless some interesting arguments here. Around 4,000 BC on the shores of the Black Sea, there was a crossroads culture situated between the Danube and the Dniester Rivers - the Usatove or Usatovo. These people were likely a Cucuteni-Trypillia derived farming society who had been partially overrun by early steppe herders, but still preserved something of their culture. In 1980 the Russian archaeologist Evgenii Yarovoi excavated an Usatovo burial site near the village of Purcari. Within tumulus 1/21 he apparently uncovered the skeleton of a man who was easily 7ft tall (215cm), who possessed a healed traumatic thigh wound. The grave itself was furnished with many high status and cultic objects, including a wooden staff, unusual ceramics, sacrificed animals, rare metal tools and weapons and evidence of feasting. The ceramics were found to contain wormwood, tarragon, thistle, barley and teasel pollen. In the opinion of one researcher, Henry Shephard, this is the origin of the Dionysus cult - the limping giant matches the depiction of Zeus bearing Dionysus from his thigh; the wooden staff matches the thyrsus of Dionysus and also bears the older name for the Dniester River, the Tiras; the wine and feasting match the orgiastic cultic activity. Its all a little too neatly wrapped up for my liking, but maybe others will find it persuasive. Certainly Thrace and perhaps further north have long been connected to Dionysus, not least through the Balto-Slavic origins of Semele, the mother of Dionysus in some stories.
Maybe what we can take from this argument is the following: Dionysus did not come from the Anatolian or Egyptian world, but rather from a combined farmer-steppe cosmology? This, in my opinion, accounts for the ‘rewilding’ aspect of his cult, the tension between the inside and out, the wild and civilised. But how can we test this? Are other versions available?
The Minoan civilisation is now known to have its roots in the Neolithic farming cultures of Europe, despite earlier generations arguing for a North African or another point of genesis. We know from Mycenean Linear B texts that Dionysus was important enough to have had his name inscribed for the ages, but did his cult predate the Myceneans on Crete? Minoan religion has fascinated scholars and artists for centuries, with frescoes of bull-leaping, goddess-like women and serpents. An unpublished report on finds from the temple of Anemospilia point to the presence of human sacrifice - a young man bound and trussed on a altar, with a bronze dagger close by and heavy blood discolouration on his bones. The remains of butchered and dismembered children at Knossos also point to the famous Minotaur story. The Eleusinian Mystery Cult has been argued to derive from Minoan agricultural rites, and philologist Karl Kerényi explicitly connected Dionysus with Cretan rituals:
The overall Dionysian impression made by Minoan art can be broken down into concrete elements which are present in the same combination only in the Dionysian religion of known, historic times. To the Greeks, Dionysus was pre-eiminently a wine god, a bull god and a god of women. A fourth element, the snake, was born by the bacchantes, as it was by less agitated goddesses or priestesses in the Minoan culture. Wine and bull, women and snakes even form special, lesser, ‘syndromes’ - to employ a medical expression deriving from the Greek physicians. They are the symptoms, as it were, of an acute Dionysian state which zoe created for itself. For Greek culture, this was the Dionysus myth; for the Minoan culture, before the arrival of the Greeks, it was the myth of a god called by another name…
If we approach one aspect of Dionysus, the motif of the ‘dying-and-rising’ god, we can see perhaps that there is a grain of truth to the older connection between Dionysus and the ‘Earth Mother’ cult. The Greek Demeter and Persephone, the Anatolian Cybele, the Minoan Rhea - these all appear to have their roots in the Çatalhöyük depiction of a plump female deity flanked by lionesses. As much as I shy away from connecting a Neolithic Anatolian figurine, separated by maybe 6,000 years from our point of focus, to the Minoan world - the temptation is strong. Phrygian and Hellenic agricultural festivals share many common features, and Dionysus, as the child of Persephone, is intimately connected to this widespread cosmology. The Minoan chthonic rituals, held in caves, and their golden rings and images of a Persephone-like woman, point to Crete as a stronghold of this agri-cult. Dionysus is often linked with the ‘divine child’, born on Crete, and who promotes not the childbirth and nursing side of women, but their ecstatic passionate madness. Sparagmos - the act of dismembering and then eating a person or animal in a wild frenzy - is part of the Dionysian and Orphic canon, with potential evidence coming from the sliced-up remains found at Knossos.
So, far from Dionysus emerging amongst steppe-herder-farmers on the Danube plains, we have here a totally different birthplace for the mad god. An island race, connected to the Anatolian, Egyptian and Greek worlds, incubating a long-lost Neolithic religion involving snake-haired women, human sacrifice, deities perishing like wheat stalks and rising again, sunlight pouring into caves and a magical child, all wound around with ivy, bulls and serpents.
The Greek Dionysus
In parallel to the story of grape and wine domestication, Dionysus has possible roots everywhere. But like the vine, we should also consider the possibility that he was the product of the Greeks themselves, refreshed and strengthened with impregnations from abroad. To build this argument we must first acknowledge that Dionysus was for the longest time considered a foreign deity, and the counter-evidence has been a long time in the making - more may yet be found. Beginning with his name, the theonym Dionysus is one of the most contested in the field, with -dio being easily connected to Zeus, but -nysus spawning dozens of theories. Mount Nysa, trees, nymphs, daughters, brides, sacred rivers, sons, magical children, wine and many more have been proposed, but it seems likely that his name pre-dates any Indo-European derivative. Leading from this, the earliest reference to Dionysus appears on Mycenean Linear B tablets, which is important. This indicates that Dionysus was an established deity prior to the Archaic and Classical Greek periods. According to Mycenologist Thomas G Palaima:
The Linear B tablets do not include detailed prescriptions for ritual practice that might illuminate the nature of Dionysiac worship during the formative prehistoric stage of Greek religion. However, when interpreted carefully using all the scholarly approaches that have been developed by Mycenologists during the last half-century, they establish that:
I. Dionysos was associated with Zeus and the sanctuary of Zeus in the region of Khania in western Crete . Both received offerings of honey.
2. The cult of Dionysos was widely enough known so that a central Cretan shepherd and an individual in service to the Pylian lawugeta.< were named after him….
3. A Cretan shepherd named after Dionysos on a tablet from Knossos might date to as early as ca . 1225 B.C.E . and an earlier tablet at Pylos (god or theophoric?) might date this early, but it definitely dates before the final destruction at Pylos in ca. 1200 B.C.E.
No longer can we deny Dionysos a Mycenaean pedigree. How and at what stages and from what sources , regions or cultures the various elements and characteristics of his later cult came to be are topics for historians of post-Mycenaean religion . But they must begin now with the Linear B evidence.
After names we have images. Dionysus may well be the oldest god in figurative art - Cycladic kraters from the end of the 7th century BC show Dionysus as an older bearded man, along with Hermes, Artemis, Apollo and Herakles, indicating his importance and status. The Attic vase painter Sophilos decorated a majestic dinos with a picture of Dionysus between 580-570 BC. As Cornelia Isler-Kerényi, daughter of aforementioned Karl Kerényi, notes in her work on Dionysian iconography:
The idea that Dionysos did not originally belong to that pantheon and was inserted into it against the will of the representatives of constituted order is solely due to the dominating influence exerted by the Euripidean and generally tragic image of Dionysos on 19th century classicists… Dionysos himself and the dancers are explicitly connected with wine. In addition, the dancers, like the proto-satyrs, are attributed to the wild sphere of the cosmos, the antithesis of the civilised world. Thus, wine is closely linked with the division of the cosmos into two parts, which is clearly felt to be fundamental: 'inside' and 'outside'; culture and nature. In fact, in these first images wine has opposite values that, however, paradoxically, do not seem to be mutually exclusive: in the krater it is a symbol of civic life; in the drinking-horn it is a symbol of a primitive phase; in the wine-skin, used for transporting wine, it is a symbol of the transition from 'outside' to 'inside
The point made here is that Dionysus may seem foreign to the highly cultured and patriarchal Greeks, both before and after the Dark Age period, but this actually tells us something very interesting about their religious and cultural life. To go back to Cassidy:
It is fruitless, given the frustrating silences of the ancient sources, to continue to attempt to establish that Dionysos was originally a deity foreign to Greece. He is as native as Zeus and Apollo, indeed his nature may be far more native to the Aegean world than that of his Greek father. As we find him, Dionysos is a Greek god; while his myths present him with foreign associations, and while he is clearly related to foreign deities and rituals of similar nature and perhaps even common origin, his form as we know it from Hellenic sources is Greek. His foreignness, as this paper has argued, is to aspects of Greek society, indeed the ruling aspects, but not to Greek culture as a whole
Nietzsche divides different civilisations into masculine and feminine types. The label is not meant as an attack, but rather he means to describe those cultures which have an instinct for receiving and creating culture, and those which seek to expand and broaden their own. To the Greek he labels feminine, their genius being to take up and incubate all those influences of the Bronze Age world - Thrace, Phrygia, Anatolia, Egypt. Dionysus looks, much like his liquor, to be a product of that Hellenic genius. His origins may be remote and elsewhere, but it took the Greeks to fully develop all those complex aspects of his nature into a powerful god.
Civilised Cities & Ecstatic Orgies
We’ve seen in the opinions of various scholars, the tension between the orthodox and conservative Greek polis and the crazed cultic behaviour of Dionysus’ acolytes. In particular Dionysus attracts women - literally drives them insane, inflames their passions and turns them over to madness. His portal is wine, and his most devoted followers leave the city and head into the wilderness, to cavort with satyrs, dangerous animals and spirits. Euripides and others describe or hint at all manner of deviant activities. Nursing baby animals at the breast, ripping apart a fawn or calf with their bare hands and eating it raw, perhaps even killing and eating humans; dressing in goatskins, drinking milk, honey and wine; handling snakes, ritualised dancing and forbidden sexual activities, amongst others. Male followers might cross-dress as women, an activity strongly associated with Dionysus himself. A Macedonian epithet calls him ‘Pseudanor’ - ‘false man’. The power of his maenads was immortalised in many stories, perhaps most famously when they ripped apart Orpheus and Pentheus, although for very different reasons.
None of this suggests though that Dionysus was a foreigner to Greek soil. On the contrary his personality and mythology are tightly bound to the fabric of their world. From his birth and parentage to his associations with Delphi and Apollo, his dismemberment by the Titans and resurrection, and his patronage to that most Greek of products - wine. His nature is transgressive and anarchic, he upturns the order and sows divine madness, but such was Greek reverence for all parts of the human experience that he was a vital god - dark, cruel, savage, intoxicating, chthonic, frenzied, barbaric and yet keeper of many essential mysteries. Much like the grape and the vine, he is a product of both the wild and the domesticated, and the resulting ferment is a temporary escape into a divine world.