The Vine and Wine
“From being relatively unimportant, the deities of wine and the vine gradually came to the forefront of religious consciousness, as symbols concerned with rebirth and the life hereafter….
“…Jewish ritual reflects a number of symbolic themes connected with wine and the vine that are similar to those of other religions in south-west Asia during the first and second millennia BC. The Old Testament thus provides us with much evidence concerning both the general distribution of viticulture within the lands neighbouring Israel and Judah, and also the symbolic significance of wine and the vine, much of which was later to be incorporated into Christian religion....
“...when men are sent by Moses at God’s command to explore Canaan in the Book of Numbers [13:23, 26] they specifically cut off a vine branch bearing a cluster of grapes which they bring back to the Israelites together with pomegranates and figs.”
Dr. Tim Unwin, Wine & the Vine (79, 82)
“Wine was from early times a proverbial part of the richness of the promised land, and it naturally appears to have been an important aspect of the life of Jews at all periods after they came into Canaan. So it was one of the first fruits and tithes which must be offered, and it was used with a great many of the sacrifices of the Temple.”
Dr. Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (129)
“The Old and New Testaments use the words wine 280 times, vine 49 times, vineyard 72 times, cup 49 times and winepress at least 15 times... The Old Testament commonly uses words like tirosh (new wine) and yayin (fermented wine) respectively to describe wine.”
Dr. Randall Heskett and Joel Butler, Divine Vintage (17)
IN THE MYTH of Dionysus there exists heavy emphasis on the grapevine, viticulture, viniculture and wine. One of the reasons the god’s cult extended so thoroughly around the known world of the time is precisely because of the popularity of grapes and wine, which spread widely east and west, taking with them the cult of the wine deity, by whatever name. Included in this vast viticultural and vinicultural heritage were the Israelites and Jews.
The grapevine’s hardiness and ability to sprout shoots that intertwine with objects have made it a very popular plant and motif in literature and art. The plant’s fruits have been praised as gifts from the gods, particularly the intoxicating fermented product, which gladdens the human heart and reduces sorrow. The sun as the glorious grower of the vine and righteous ripener of the grape was extolled as the godhead behind the divine plant, and Dionysus was the embodiment of both solar power and foliage, while his blood was the juice and wine.
In numerous places in antiquity, the vine and its products were considered sacred, and wine was viewed as a “potent medicine” that renews youth, deemed so by Plato (Laws 2.666b):
…when a man has reached the age of forty, he may join in the convivial gatherings and invoke Dionysus, above all other gods, inviting his presence at the rite (which is also the recreation) of the elders, which he bestowed on mankind as a medicine potent against the crabbedness of old age, that thereby we men may renew our youth, and that, through forgetfulness of care, the temper of our souls.
The grape and wine have been so important to life in the Mediterranean that Plato devoted considerably more space to these subjects in his Laws.
A wine cult of this manner and magnitude would have instant devotees and would connect far-flung peoples all around the Mediterranean and beyond, as we know in reality did occur.
To reiterate, viticulture and viniculture date back thousands of years in various places, such as Armenia, Georgia, Persia and Turkey. At Çatalhöyük in Turkey, as another example, evidence of grape seeds and possible winemaking has been found from a civilization dating to 7500–5700 BCE. Wine expert Dr. Robert E. McGovern calls the libation the “sine qua non of any Anatolian beverage,” discussing its usage among the Sumerians, Hittites and others in the Near East.
Regarding the origin of wine-making, Dr. Michael Poe states:
There is still considerable speculation about where “vitis vinifera” or the wine grape first originated. Some think it started south of the Caucasus and south of the Caspian sea; others believe [it originated] in Egypt and traveled into the Middle East. According to William Younger in his book, Gods, Men and Wine, “It is in Egypt where we must go for our fullest knowledge of man’s early and deliberate growing of wine.” Plutarch said that he was told that Osiris was the first to drink wine and to teach men how to plant the vine.
As indicated by his Egyptian equivalent as the god of wine, the notion that Dionysus was “born” in Egypt suggests that it was believed organized winemaking originated in that nation, which in fact does have a long history of viniculture, again dating to at least pre-dynastic times, around 3200 BCE.
While beer was the beverage for commoners in Egypt and elsewhere, the elite preferred wine, a status symbol. Hence, we can see that viniculture and wealth go hand in hand and that the wine god would be of special importance to the rulers, whose views would influence the masses extensively, including and especially about religion.
Ancient Egyptian vineyards possessed fascinating names, such as “Vineyard Ways of Horus” and “Horus on the Height of Heaven,” this latter designation evidently dating to at least the First Dynasty, some 5,000 years ago. This heavenly Horus vineyard remained in production into the common era, until 300 AD/CE. Wine thus stayed very popular in Egypt for thousands of years, treated as an important spiritual and physical medicine, as well as a central focus in parties with dancing and music.
Fig. 75. Egyptian grape cultivation and wine production, c. 1500 BCE. Tomb painting from Thebes, Egypt
Wine’s religious significance and prominence in Egypt are indicated by the fact that “Rameses III lists 513 vineyards belonging to the temple of AmonRa.” Such skilled wine production was a significant economic factor as well, and entire communities depended upon it.
Summarizing the Egyptian wine cultus, Iain Gately states:
The annual rise of the Nile was associated with Osiris, god of the dead, of life, of vegetable regeneration, and of wine. In the dynastic era, Egypt had become a producer as well as an importer of irp [wine]. It remained an elite beverage; hence its protection by the most important deity in the Egyptian pantheon. After a fashion, Osiris and wine were made for one another. According to legend, he had died and been reborn, and the vine was a natural example of renewal— every winter it withered back to its roots, every spring it put forth new shoots. The end and resurrection of Osiris were celebrated over the Oag festival, immediately preceding that of the Drunkenness of Hathor. For the duration of its festivities, Osiris was known as “the lord of irp through the inundation,” and the hieroglyphics [sic] that constitute the event’s name show three wine jars on a table, with a fourth being offered by a human hand. In the latter stages of the dynastic era, the worship of Osiris, and consumption of wine, became even more closely intertwined. His devotees, after prayers and rituals, would eat bread and drink wine in the belief that these were the transubstantiated flesh and blood of their divinity.
Wine, as befits its status as a luxury with divine associations, was manufactured with much more sophisticated methods and with a great deal more care than any other agricultural product.
As can be seen, there are several mythical motifs and traditions in the Osirian religion that were reproduced within Christianity, including death and resurrection, as the “true vine” (Jn 15:1) and “root of Jesse” (Rom 15:12). Also striking here is that the wine and bread serve as a sacrament and a sacred communion representing the blood and body of the god, as in the later Christian tradition.
Wine was so important that pharaohs were buried with their favorite wine chalices, as evidenced by the grave goods of Tutankhamun, which also included “twenty-six wine jars, containing vintages up to thirty-six years old, produced by fifteen different winemakers.” Many other tombs contained numerous wine amphorae and, possibly, sacred chalices, these latter likely stolen long ago. Here could be one source of the mythical “Holy Grail” stories.
Near Eastern Trade
Much of the wine imported into Egypt came from the Levant, as far back as the days of the first Egyptian king, called “Scorpion” (c. 3150 BCE?). This commerce continued for millennia, as “Phoenician kings of Ugarit and Tyre organized trading ventures to Egypt in which oil, wine and copper figured prominently.”
Thus, Semitic regions of the time also were engaged in viticulture and viniculture, along with their attendant sacred cult. Indeed, the Ugaritic writings discuss wine many times, including as a libation of the gods, as in the texts El’s Divine Feast and the Epic of Kirta or Legend of Keret/Krt, previously discussed. The Ugaritic wine rituals included what Canadian theologian Dr. Daniel Timmer calls “the Rites of the Vintage,” discovered in a library at the home of the high priest and “the fullest Ugaritic ritual found to date.”
The importance of the rite is evident from the number of deities (nearly thirty) and sacrifices (about 180) that it involves.
The festival takes place in the month of Rišyn...meaning “first” or “best” wine [riš yn]), “roughly the last lunar month before the fall equinox... The beginning of the text dictates that a representative cluster of grapes be cut from its vine to serve as, or alongside, a peace offering for El. Subsequently the king is ritually purified, proclaims the festival from his throne, then goes to the temple where he sets up booths for various deities on the roof.
As we can see, there are several themes here that sound very biblical, including the fall festival like the Feast of Tabernacles, which features both the tabernacles/booths and vintage. It is also evident that wine and the grape harvest were highly important to the Ugaritians, whose high god El was the same as that of the Israelites. Indeed, the peace offering of the grape cluster to El reminds one again of the spies carrying Canaan’s grapes to Moses.
Centuries before the male Dionysus dominated the Mediterranean, the wine goddess was a feature of ancient religion, including in Egypt:
Wine was considered a particularly special offering to any of the ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses. But it was Renentet (also called Ernutet or Renen-utet) the goddess of plenty and harvests who invariably had a small shrine near the wine press and vat, as well as on the spout where the juice flows from the vat to the receiving tank.… The goddess Hathor (Het-hor) was, among other things, the goddess of wine and intoxication.
Here we see that Hathor is joined by the goddess Renenutet as symbolizing wine and its effects.
Another vine and wine goddess was the Sumerian Geštinanna/Geštinana or Ngeshtin-ana. Her name means “heavenly grapevine,” “vine of heaven” or, literally, “wine/vine of the heavens/the god An,” demonstrating the sacredness of this plant thousands of years ago.
The daughter of Enki and the Sumerian mountain-mother goddess Ninhursag, Ngeshtin-ana was the sister of Dumuzi, the revivifying solar and fertility god who is rescued out of the underworld by Inanna/Inana, the Sumerian equivalent of Aphrodite/ Venus. As the later Semitic god Tammuz, Dumuzi took over the role of his Sumerian sister, Geshtinanna, to become the fall harvest deity associated with the vine and wine. Possibly identified with Ngeshtin-ana was another Sumerian wine goddess called Ama-geštin or “Mother Wine/Vine.”
Vine as Tree of Life
Depictions of grapevines from antiquity indicate the plant was perceived also as the Tree of Life:
The Tree of Life was probably originally the grapevine; the two syllables of the Sumerian word for “grapevine,” GESHTIN, mean “tree” and “life.” For the grapevine as the Tree of Life in religious imagery, we may also recall Christ’s words, “I am the vine, ye are the branches” (St John 15:5).
Tree of Life traditions can be found around the world, including in the Americas, and this mythical motif has been fundamental to humanity for many thousands of years. The portrayal of the mythical Christ as the “vine,” as was said previously of Bacchus, is noteworthy also.
The spread of wine from Egypt’s fertile regions such as the Nile Delta to other places, including nearby Crete, may explain in part the Dionysian “out of Egypt” motif. The cultivation of wine in northern Greece possibly dates to at least 4500 BCE, an indication that the wine god/dess, by whatever name, may have been revered in that region by that time. Many of the Dionysian myths take place in the area, such as the tale of Bacchus and the Thracians. Because of viniculture’s long history near the Black Sea, it has been surmised also that the Thracians introduced viniculture into Egypt initially, from where it may have proliferated afterwards to other regions, including southern Greece, as on Crete.
Because of his longevity and the diffusion of Greek culture, religion and language, it is to Bacchus’s myth that we will turn again for characteristics of
the wine cultus. It is likely that many of these attributes and traditions could be found scattered around the eastern Mediterranean for hundreds to thousands of years before the wine deity became known by the Dionysian monikers and peculiarities.
Dionysian Cult Extensions
Wherever cultivation of the grapevine spread, so too did the worship of the vine and wine deity, from remotest times by names unknown to us but accompanying the deification of this fruitful and utile plant. From Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Arabia and India to Macedonia and Greece as well as into the other parts of Europe, including the mysterious and secluded region of the Basques in the heart of European wine country, we find the worship of Osiris, Tammuz, Geshtinanna, IAUNuShUSh, Orotalt, Dusares, DI-WO-NI-SO-JO, Iacchos, Bacchus, Dionysus, Dian-nisi or Dunixi, dating back thousands of years. Anywhere the grapevine yielded its fruits, there would reside the god or goddess of revelry and intoxication, a religious cult to inspire endless devotees.
By whichever gender or name, this nature deity’s reverence was one of the most extensive in antiquity, as well as one of the most primordial. With this massive cultus there was a tremendous amount of wealth as well, including and especially in property, with temple estates, theaters, vineyards and wineries around the Mediterranean. As a major part of this bounty, temples of many different deities were used in antiquity as treasuries for large sums, considered to be safely under divine protection.
Blood and Resurrection
Since antiquity, grape juice and wine have been perceived as the “blood” of both the fruit itself and of the vine and wine deity. After it was pressed, the grape juice would flow into underground pots, depicted as the god “cultivated in the underworld.” Out of this tomb, Dionysus was said to reemerge during the festival of Anthesteria, in February, when “the urns were opened, and the god’s spirit was reborn as an infant.” The “graves of the dead released their spirits as well at this time, and for the three days of the festival, ghosts roamed abroad in Athens.”
This spooky theme is reminiscent of the oft-ignored gospel tale of saints rising out of their graves at Jesus’s crucifixion (Mt 27:50–52):
And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.
Jesus is depicted as resurrecting after three days (Mt 12:38–40), a type of rebirth, and the three-day period or triduum is noteworthy in the Bacchic tale as well. The triduum’s existence as a mythical solar and vinicultural motif, not as “history,” explains its presence in the gospel story.
Regarding this scenario of Bacchus in the underworld, Ruck remarks that “Dionysus is identical with the ‘liquid portion of the clustered grape’ which he ‘discovered’..., and it is only by sacrifice of himself that he can offer his gift of wine.”
In this same type of sacrifice, Matthew 26:27–28 refers to Jesus offering wine as his “blood of the new testament” (KJV):
And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave [it] to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
This atonement includes the god’s “death,” as his “body” is crushed through the wine press, rended into numerous pieces, producing his life-giving “blood.”
Concerning the sacredness of this act, Ruck further comments: “In the making of wine, the god’s experience was analogous to mankind’s journey toward redemption through the mouldering tomb.” The importance of these notions is reflected by their presence in the New Testament, with its “new Dionysus,” Jesus Christ.
In this regard, by the time of the common era, the Eleusinian mysteries and Bacchus worship were so important that Roman emperors such as Julius Caesar and other elite themselves were considered to be a “New Dionysus,” generally as a result of their initiation into the Bacchic mystical rites. This divine role, however, appears to be centuries older, as Alexander the Great too allegedly was an initiated “New Dionysus,” according to one ancient story, now considered by some to be “thoroughly discredited” but nonetheless related in antiquity by Greek philosopher Diogenes Laertius (c. 200–c. 250 AD/CE), for one.
Wine Epithets and Roles
Several of Dionysus’s many epithets revolve around the vine and wine, including, among others: Liber or “Free,” for the exhilarating freedom of wine; Sabasius (“Intoxication?”) and Torcularius (“Presser of Wine or Oil”), for his invention of the wine press. Mithra too was called Sabasius, as was Zeus. In Agamemnon (970), Aeschylus depicts Zeus, Dionysus’s father, as making wine from the “bitter grape”; thus, he too is a vintner god.
We have seen that the figure of Staphylus the grapevine or bunch of grapes is considered another of Dionysus’s lovers, as on the Greek island of Thasos, while in another myth he is the son of Bacchus and Ariadne, a nature worshipping theme, rather than a homoerotic and/or incestuous account concerning real people.
When we factor in Dionysus’s solar nature, as the ripener of the grape and fermenter of the wine, these mythical motifs take on an astrotheological aspect: The sun “loves” and “nurtures” the grapevine, in order to produce ripe grapes, grape juice and wine.
In this regard, other characters by the name of Staphylus figure into other myths regarding Dionysus, as his cult spread around the Mediterranean and beyond. Other of Dionysus’s children possess oenophilic names, such as Oenopion or “wine drinker” and Euanthes or “well blooming.”
Elixir of Love
Euripides’s description of Dionysus includes that “he gives to mortals the vine that puts an end to grief,” stating that, without wine, “there is no longer Aphrodite or any other pleasant thing for man.” Appropriately one of Dionysus’s consorts, Venus or Aphrodite is the goddess of love, and the popular perception apparently was that it was wine which imbued the capacity for love, a gift from the gods as potent as any other.
Hence, we can see a major reason for the intense devotion to such a cult not only of revelry but also of love. Moreover, a medicine that drowns out sorrow is likewise powerful, especially in times and places when tragedy and misery have reigned for eons or strike on a regular basis.
The influence and importance of the vine and wine cult cannot be overemphasized, and anyone creating a competing religion would be compelled to deal with it, helping to explain the Mosaic connection, as well as the focus on wine in the New Testament. The NT wedding feast of Cana in John’s gospel, with its massive amounts of wine, sounds very Dionysian, and Bacchus’s myth also includes a sacred marriage or hierogamy, to his wife, Ariadne, a scene popularly depicted on vases. Since Dionysus is “the Kid,” this famous marital science may be reflected in the “wedding feast of the lamb” at Revelation 19:9. All that is wanting in the Cana story is an account of the guests reclining and flinging wine at the walls, as was a popular Greek custom.
This elixir of love needs a fitting container, and the concept of the “holy grail” or “sacred chalice” dates back thousands of years, long before the story was incorporated into the Christ myth. We have mentioned already the sacred wine chalices of Egyptian royalty. As a comparable example in Canaanite literature, in the text “Baal’s Drink” the Canaanite god is depicted as possessing a magnificent goblet or “holy cup” for wine, like the Holy Grail.
Baal also provides the other deities with “jars of wine,” a “thousand jars he drew of the wine,” a motif reflective also of the god’s gargantuan size. This myth resembles the much later Cana myth, with Jesus producing the absurd amount of some 130 to 180 gallons of wine miraculously produced from water, to serve an already half-drunk wedding party. In the Baal Cycle, the captive “Judge River” is depicted as honoring Baal the Conqueror by giving him food and drink:
...he put a cup in his hand,
a goblet in both his hands,
a large beaker, manifestly great,
a jar to astound a mortal,
a holy cup that women should not see,
a goblet that Asherah must not set her eye on;
he took a thousand jugs of wine,
he mixed ten thousand in the mixing bowl.
He arose, he sang a song;
there were cymbals in the minstrel’s hands...
Here we see an emphasis on a “holy chalice” and large amounts of wine, as well as a minstrel singing and playing cymbals, similar to the Bacchic, Mosaic and Christian myths. This myth has to do with natural cycles, not with the biographies of real people.
Sacred Drinking Banquet
These holy chalices would have been used in drinking banquets like those of Dionysus:
The marzēaḥ represents a type of drinking banquet dedicated to the gods, and it crossed many cultures throughout the Fertile Crescent; evidence of its celebration has been found in ancient Israel, Ugarit, Phoenicia and Babylonia, and it is featured in rabbinic literature. It originated in Ugarit, which was famous for its wine and supported a wine-god cult, and it was associated with Ugarit’s chief god, El, aspects of whom would later migrate west to Greece as Dionysus.
Here we see that Ugarit was an important wine center with a wine cult, over a millennium before the common era, and that Dionysus picked up elements of El worship, the latter god evidently as El Elyon, the wine deity. This Semitic drinking banquet called mrzḥ, marziḫḥu, marzēaḥ or marzeah appears to be a very ancient religious festival that began possibly in Eblaite times or long before and continued into the first century BCE, revolving around the vine and wine deity or deities, including El, Shamash and Baal. In the text “El’s Divine Feast” (KTU 1.114) about his marzeah/marziḥ, the gods are depicted as becoming intoxicated with wine.
In his study Phoenician Solar Theology, Australian professor Dr. Joseph Azize contends that the marzeah or divine feast provides evidence of Semitic sun worship, sensible since the various deities to whom the festival and cult were dedicated are largely solar. An “institution known throughout the ancient Near East,” the marzeah also appears to be related to funeral celebrations and underworld mythology. Azize points out that the mrzḥ is associated especially with Shamash and must have possessed “some serious wealth.” He further states, “If traditional understandings of the mrzḥ are correct, this sodality would provide indirect evidence for an association between the sun (and the sun deity) with the realm of the dead.”
Biblical scriptures at Amos 6:4–7 describe these wine banquets, which were held also among Jews:
Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David invent for themselves instruments of music; who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first of those to go into exile, and the revelry of those who stretch themselves shall pass away.
Fig. 76. King David as Orpheus with harp and snake, 508 AD/CE. Synagogue mosaic from Gaza, Israel Museum
The Hebrew word here for “bowls” or “sacrificial bowls” is מזרק mizraq, defined also as a container specifically for wine, used to toss this liquid. Frequently employed in the Pentateuch and other OT texts to denote “pots” and “bowls,” this term mizraq in Amos 6 is surmised to be related to mrzḥ, which “revelry” is specifically mentioned at Amos 6:7 using the Hebrew term מרזח marzeach.
Strong’s defines מרזח marzeach as “cry, cry of joy, revelry” and “mourning cry...perhaps, feast cry.” This festival cry resembles the “Evoe!” of the Bacchantes, and the Jewish wine celebration appears to have been influenced by Greek customs and Orphic themes, including the reclining on beds while feasting, as well as harp-playing. In this regard, this verse in Amos 6 reflects the ancient portrayal of King David as Orpheus, as we discover in artwork as well.
Isaiah speaks of Yahweh’s desolation in which the “wine mourns, the vine languishes, all the merry-hearted sigh,” in an apparent description of a Bacchic-type marzeah destroyed.
7 The new wine dries up and the vine withers;
all the merrymakers groan.
8 The joyful timbrels are stilled,
the noise of the revelers has stopped,
the joyful harp is silent.
9 No longer do they drink wine with a song;
the beer is bitter to its drinkers. Isaiah 24:7–9
The importance of wine to the Canaanites was underscored by the discovery in of Israel’s oldest and largest known wine cellar, in a Canaanite palace dating to around 1700 BCE, at the site of Tel Kabri, near Akko. The palace itself contained “spectacular frescoes from the Aegean Islands,” demonstrating the connection to the winebibbing Minoan civilization. In the palace’s cellar were 40 wine jars that would have held about 500 gallons of the libation, enough to fill some 3,000 bottles. This site is surmised to be one of the locations where Canaanite rulers engaged in a marzeah banquet, while the wine may have tasted like the Greek retsina, following wine recipes like those discovered on cuneiform tablets at Mari.
By the time the Moses story was composed, wine and vine reverence, ritual and myth were pervasive, and it appears that the Israelites were aware of Dionysus in specific, perhaps reflected in the epithet YHWH-nisi, as well as the later reverence for Bacchus depicted in 2 Maccabees and by Plutarch, evidenced by at least one Dionysian mosaic in the house of prominent Jews, possibly vintners or wine distributors.
This indication is given further credence by the fact that wine continued to be valued well into the common era by pious Jews, such as famed Rabbi Maimonides (1135–1204 AD/CE), who compared the Mishnah to wine, demonstrating ongoing Jewish reverence for this libation. In this regard, wine is discussed numerous times throughout the Talmud, as possessing sacred attributes.