Biblical Grape Reverence
We have seen that the Bible is full of grape and wine references, indicating the plant and beverage’s importance to Jews and others of the region. The vineyard and winepress were valuable parts of Israelite culture, especially in the rest of the Tanakh beyond the Torah. The Hebrew word for “wine,” יין yayin, appears 140 times in the Old Testament, while תירוש tiyrowsh or tirosh, representing “new wine,” can be found in 38 instances. The New Testament uses the Greek word for “wine,” οἶνος oinos, 33 times, while “wineskins” or ἀσκός askos appears in a dozen instances.
The NT also contains 23 references to “vineyard,” ἀμπελών ampelōn, while “vine” (ἄμπελος ampelos) occurs nine times, the same word used to describe both Jesus (Jn 15:1, 5) and Bacchus’s love interest Ampelos. This term ἄμπελος ampelos is employed for “vine” in the Septuagint of Deuteronomy 8:8, which lists the “seven species” ( שבעת המינים Shiv'at HaMinim) of “sacred fruits and grains” abundant in the Promised Land:
…a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey…
The Hebrew word here for “vine” is גפן gephen.
Israel as Vine
Gephen also refers figuratively to the “vine of Israel,”1284 including at Psalm 80:9 to describe the nation itself, as the “vine out of Egypt.” This psalm demonstrates Yahweh’s role as a “vineyarder” or “vinedresser,” as he is called in the NT (Jn 15:1); in other words, a vine god like Dionysus. Gephen is used metaphorically likewise at Isaiah 34:4 to describe the “stars fading at Jehovah's judgment” as “leaves [that] fall from the vine.” At Hosea 10:1, we read that “Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit,” using gephen in the Hebrew and ampelos in the LXX.
As part of this ancient Jewish vine/wine reverence, Judges 9:13 names the libation as the drink that “cheers gods and men.” In a list of divine gifts provided by Yahweh, Psalm 104:15 praises the “wine to gladden the heart of man.”
Noah, the Vintner
In Genesis 9:20–27, the biblical patriarch Noah is deemed “the first tiller of the soil” and depicted as enjoying his wine, thus serving as the legendary original cultivator and vintner. In an episode that sounds very Bacchic, Noah becomes drunk and naked, exposing himself to his sons. This myth is used to explain the tradition of black slavery, as the patriarch curses his son Ham, father of Canaan and progenitor of the Hamite race, for informing his brothers about Noah’s indiscretion.
Fig. 77. Cornelis Cort, The Mocking of Noah, c. 1560. Engraving (The Story of Noah, pl. 6)
This biblical story involving Noah disinheriting his grandson Canaan “seems to represent an origin legend concerning the ancient discovery of the cultivation of grapes around 4000 BCE in the area of Ararat, which is associated with Noah.” Hence, in the Bible the Israelite wine god is raised above that of the Canaanites.
To reiterate, the earlier Ugaritic wine cult is evidenced in KTU 1.114, in which the gods are said to eat and drink, consuming wine “until sate, vintage until inebriated.” The Ugaritic text “Tale of Aqhat” (KTU 1.17–19) may provide a precedent for the Noah-Ham curse, in that it highlights the behavior of a loyal son as “taking my hand when I am drunk, supporting me when sated with wine.”
The parallels between Bacchus and Noah have been obvious enough that the two have been identified with each other over the ages. In this regard, Vossius posited a possible lineage from Noah to Dionysus, when referring to homines eruditi or certain “erudite men,” discussing the origin of the name Bacchus:
Volunt enim ex ,נח Noach, esse Noachus, hinc Nachus, inde Bachus, tum Bacchus.
They wish for out of [Noah], Noach, to be Noachus, hence Nachus, from there Bachus, and Bacchus.
Again, the drunkenness and lewd impression of the Noah story resemble the popular Bacchic orgies, outlawed in Roman times. This Dionysian celebration is evident also in the drunken revelry during the Jewish festival of Purim, during which a “drinking party” or mishteh, reminiscent of a marzeah, is held to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews from the Persian Empire.
As was the case with the personified Staphylos, Semites evidently also anthropomorphized the grape bunch, as a figure biblically called “Eshcol” ( ' אשכל Eshkol or “cluster”):
In pre-Israelite traditions Eshcol (Grape Cluster) appears to be the god of grapes or wine (Gen. 14:13). Eshcol in later Biblical testament was absorbed into El elyon, the chief Canaanite/Israelite deity who becomes in one manifestation a wine god.
Fig. 78. Israelite spies bringing back huge grape cluster from Canaan. (Treasures of the Bible)
Although overtly the verses in Genesis 14 appear to represent historical Amorites, combined with Numbers 13:23–24, as follows, the figure of Eshcol seems to have been originally an Amorite wine god:
And they came to the Valley of Eshcol, and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them; they brought also some pomegranates and figs. That place was called the Valley of Eshcol, because of the cluster which the men of Israel cut down from there.
Concerning Eshcol/Eshkol, Lemche remarks that this term is “generally reckoned a personification of the valley of Eshkol close to Hebron, and visited by Moses’ spies (Numb 13:23) who brought back a cluster of grapes from the Valley of Eshkol that could only be transported by two grown-up men.”
The bearing of the grape clusters on a pole in procession sounds very Dionysian, and, as noted, the theme of retrieving grapes from a “promised land” can be found in the Bacchic myth, representing the fertility of spring.
Fig. 79. Rev. grape bunch between two grape leaves; obv. head of Dionysus (not shown), c. 530 BCE. Silver coin, Naxos, Greece
Here we see how important the grapevine was to the early Israelites, as well as the existence of several Semitic wine gods in the relevant region. In this regard, Heskett and Butler surmise that Eshcol was absorbed into the El Elyon wine cult, significant because the Israelites also worshipped this latter god, as their “Most High.”
Melchizedek or ‘Righteous Molech’
At Genesis 14:18 appears the story of Melchizedek, biblical king of Salem and high priest of El Elohim, known for his communion of bread and wine. It is after the order of Melchizedek that Jesus is made to be a high priest forever repeatedly in the epistle to the Hebrews. Like his disciple Christ at the Last Supper, Melchizedek brings out bread and wine, this time in order to bless Abram/Abraham (Gen 14:19). Here it should be recalled that “Abram” appears to be an anthropomorphization of the Indian god Brahm or Brahma, thus subordinated under Melchizedek and El Elohim.
Fig. 80. Charles Foster, Offering to Molech, 1897. (Bible Pictures and What They Teach)
“Melchizedek” often is rendered “my king is Sedek,” but it could also be translated “Righteous Molech,” a remnant, perhaps, of Israelite adherence to the Ammonite god Molech. In this instance, the “ruler” of Salem would be Molech, now dominated by El Elohim. This suggestion of the theonym “Molech” as intended in various verses, rather than the noun “king,” is validated by Acts 7:43, which renders the “king” at Amos 5:25–27 as the god’s name, Μολὸχ Moloch, instead of the noun connoting a monarch.
Demonstrating the intensity of biblical respect for wine, at Genesis 49:11, purportedly written by Moses, we find the following bizarre scripture regarding the coming messiah:
Binding his foal to the vine and his ass’s colt to the choice vine, he washes his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes; his eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk.
This verse concerns the expected ruler of Israel, the savior who will take the scepter from Judah, the reigning tribe of the time. This passage is viewed as one of the many “messianic scriptures” supposedly predicting Jesus Christ but in reality serving as “blueprints,” used midrashically or allegorically by Jewish scribes to create the Christ character. But, why would Israel be ruled by a besotted winebibber? In Genesis 49, the grape and wine are so important that this attribute is listed first in the characteristics of the anticipated messiah in this passage.
Blood of the Grape/Messiah
In this Genesis passage and at Deuteronomy 32:14, wine is called the “blood of the grape,” while, as we have seen, it is also the blood of Jesus (Mt 26:28), who is viewed as the “stem/sprout/shoot/root of Jesse” (Rom 15:12), evidently referring to the grapevine. Hence, we can see that wine is central to both messianic Judaism and Christianity, and that, in significant part, Jesus is a rehash of the vine and wine god Dionysus, whose blood also was that of the grape. In this same regard, we find the typical solar-fertility significance of
wine in Egypt, including as the “blood of Osiris.”
One of the earlier deities possibly perceived as this oenophilic savior was the solar-fertility god Tammuz, originally the Sumerian Dumuzi. Like Dionysus, Tammuz was a “dying and rising” solar-fertility figure whose resurrection was celebrated in spring. This Semitic deity also appears to be a form of the vine/wine god in significant part, having taken the role of his sister, as noted, celebrated in later times also as the god of fall harvest.
So popular was Tammuz that a Hebrew summer month remains named after him, from the Babylonian god-name for June and July, corresponding to the zodiacal sign of Cancer. This summer month is appropriate for a solar deity and a perfect time for the growth of the grapevine and the ripening of the fruit. Following the summer solstice, the month Tammuz was a traditional time of mourning in the Babylonian culture because of the decline towards winter, with the increasingly intense summer heat, which kills flora and fauna, and causes drought.
The god’s death and lamentation recorded in the biblical book of Ezekiel (8:14) occurred in the fall with the harvest, per Rabbi Pinchas Frankel:
The “Tammuz” cult involved the symbolic death of Tammuz. The death of this god was initially symbolic of the grain being turned into wine or beer for the new wineskins. The wine was put into jars and stored underground... When the tanks ran dry, the gods of wine and beer failed, and they had to be aroused or resurrected with wine and music, to restore the harvest. This religion began in Babylonia, was adopted throughout the world, and even by the Jews...
Here once more is a theme found within the Dionysian religion at Athens, with an evident origin elsewhere. The reverence of and familiarity with a wine god and vintage ritual by the Jews in Ezekiel’s era (c. 622–570 BCE) is apparent from this Tammuz worship.
The Law and Wine
The other books of the Torah/Pentateuch—again, all supposedly written by Moses—have a very different perspective of wine than the giddy, messianic drunkenness of Genesis, indicating these texts were composed by diverse hands. Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy take a much dimmer view of wine than does Genesis, exhorting followers to abstain from its consumption, including and especially the “separated” priests called Nazarites (Num 6:3).
One would think that if the coming messiah were to be wine-drenched, there would be more focus on this sacred beverage in the rest of the Pentateuch, particularly if one person, Moses, wrote it. Yet, Exodus mentions wine by name only once (29:40), as a libation for the sacred lamb sacrificed morning and evening, in the instructions to Moses (and Aaron) on how to commit the massive slaughter of bulls, sheep and other animals for which the Jewish ritual is known.
These sacrifice directions represent a mere pittance of the enormous amount of detailed instructions from Yahweh to these patriarchs that were simply “lost,” to be found centuries later by Josiah’s priest Hilkiah, the possible author of them in the first place. Again, since these rituals were so important to Yahweh, in all their tedious and bloody details, compelled upon the chosen over a period of 40 years in the harsh desert, one wonders where the Lord was during these several centuries when his painstaking instructions were carelessly “lost” and his sacrifices were not being done properly.
Uzziah and Hezekiah
Despite the supposed importance of the law and its restrictions regarding wine, we find evidence of the libation’s continued significance in Israelite life. Regarding the so-called LMLK jar-handle seals from Judea, discussed below, Rainey evinces that they are stamps indicating “special brands of produce from royal farms,” the produce in question here being wine. In specific, these wine jar seals would belong to the vineyards of the Judean king Uzziah (8th cent. BCE), which Rainey concludes were in the hill country.
Along with these vineyards are Uzziah’s great-grandson Hezekiah’s wineries, whence in the late seventh to early sixth centuries BCE the king sent shipments of wine, apparently, to Arad in Israel. If these vineyards were part of the “house of Jesse,” we can fathom what the “shoot” or “sprout” of Jesse predicted at Isaiah 11:1—said to be the expected, wine-soaked messiah— would represent, giving the savior a viticultural significance.
Wine Chambers and Banqueting House/Temple
In an apparent religious ritual also indicating the drink’s sacredness to the Israelites, the “house of Yahweh” or Jerusalem temple contained chambers into which people were led in order to be given wine (Jer 35:2). This same “banqueting house” may be referred to in the erotic biblical book Song of Songs/Solomon (2:4): “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.” The relevant phrase here is בית יין bayith yayin, this latter word generally denoting “wine.” The LXX styles this chamber οἶκος τοῦ οἴνου oikos tou oinou or “house of wine,” the word oikos also connoting “temple,” as does the Hebrew bayith. Thus, the lover is brought into the “temple of wine,” in a text held sacred by hundreds of millions worldwide.
It is clear that wine remained central to Jewish religion, which means that its producers were important, wealthy and influential, intertwined with a powerful priesthood.
As mentioned and as was the case with the Greek son of God and the Egyptian savior, the blood of the grapes is also that of Jesus (Mt 26:27–29), and wine metaphors continue in the New Testament. Indeed, the Jewish competition with Babylon is evident from Revelation 14:8–11, which contrasts Babylon’s wine with the “wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation.” Regarding this passage, theologian Dr. Gregory K. Beale comments:
While the intoxicating effect of Babylon’s wine seemed strong, it is nothing in comparison to God’s wine. Babylon’s wine made the nations submissive to her will only temporarily. The effect will wear off at the end of time. Then the ungodly will become drunk with God’s wine, the effect of which will not be temporary. God’s wine will make the nations submissive to his judicial will forever...
Fig. 81. Engraved sterling silver kiddush cup (Dimitri)
Beyond the Bible, Jews to this day recite a berakhot or benediction for food and wine before meals: “Bless art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast created the fruit of the vine.” On the eve of the Jewish Sabbath and other holidays, a sanctification called kiddush/qiddush—the same word as qadesh, meaning “holy”—is said over a cup of wine before the meal. The cup used is a special chalice, often an engraved silver goblet, resembling the Holy Grail in significance. It is evident that wine has been very important within Judaism, as it had been in paganism, its bounty attributed to God.
Moreover, as one of the seven species of sacred fruits, the grape cluster carried by the two “spies” is a symbol for Israel itself, stylized in art as the logo of Israeli Ministry of Tourism (left), for example, or offered as bumper stickers and so on.
Summarizing the Jewish reverence for the grape, Dr. Tim Unwin states:
Considerable emphasis has been given here to the symbolism of wine and the vine in the Old Testament for two main reasons: first, it can be seen as reflecting several of the broader symbolic representations of wine and the vine in the ideologies of most of the religions in south-west Asia in the first and second millennia BC, and secondly, and more importantly, much of this symbolism was then taken over and developed in Christianity, which in time became the dominant ideology of societies in which wine was to be the most important alcoholic beverage. A second crucial ideological influence on these societies was that of Greece, and it is therefore to a discussion of the symbolism of the Greek god Dionysus, that this chapter now turns.
Indeed, and in this book as a whole, we have covered already the issue of Dionysus in significant detail. As it turns out, one could say that Moses is the Old Testament Dionysus, while Jesus is the NT version, adapted for the needs of the time.
Water to Wine
As another example, the water-to-wine miracle in the gospel story is not historical but mythical, found in the myths of other cultures. We have seen already several instances of Baal, Dionysus or the latter’s followers miraculously producing wine, often in great quantities. In another instance, Diodorus (3.66.2) says that “the Teians produced, as a proof of the birth of Dionysus among them, [the fact] that even to his time at a stated period there was in their city a fountain of wine, spontaneously flowing from the earth and of excellent fragrancy.”
One version of the miracle of “wine” from water can be found in Egypt, regarding the Nile flood, thousands of years before the common era:
The water to wine motif goes…at least as far back as the Old Kingdom of Egypt, and is related to myths about the inundation. Much like Lucian’s explanation of the Adonis river in Lebanon turning into “blood” every year, likewise the ancient Egyptians saw the reddish waters of the annual floods (caused by mountain sediment from melting snow)…as the gods turning its water into wine.
Again, this idea of bloody waters also resembles one of the 10 plagues of the Exodus. The river-flooding connotation evidently arose from the observations of the water-to-wine process of nature.
As stated in Christ in Egypt (292–293), at Pyramid Text 442:820a, Osiris— who was the “first to drink wine” and who taught mankind about the vine, according to Plutarch—is referred to as the “Lord of Wine in the…festival,” again evoking the wedding feast of Cana.
Concerning the water-to-wine miracle at John 2:3–9, Dr. Erich Neumann reminds us that Osiris was a wine god and that January 6th—one of Christ’s several birthdays, as well as the “Feast of Epiphany,” commemorating Jesus turning water into wine—“is also the anniversary of the water-wine transformation performed by Osiris.”
A relevant utterance occurs in the Pyramid Text of Unas/Unis/Wenis (W 143/PT 210:130c): “...the water of Unis is wine, like the Sun.” This last verse hints at the most obvious meaning behind the miracle of turning water into wine: To wit, the sun’s ripening of the grape on the vine and fermenting of the grape juice.
Thus, this motif represents significantly the natural process of water being turned into wine, as the vine draws in the former and creates the latter. The perceived orchestrator of this natural “miracle” has been the sun, which brings the life-giving rains, causes the seeds to germinate, creates photosynthesis, grows the vine, ripens the grapes and ferments the wine. In this regard, the deities who turn water to wine are significantly solar.
It is noteworthy that at the temple of Apollo at Corinth, Greece, there exists a hidden sluice used in antiquity by pagan priests to change water poured in one end to wine coming out the other. Concerning this device, Loeb’s Diodorus editor notes, “Archaeological evidence that a miraculous flow of wine was caused by the priests of a temple (of Dionysus?) of the fifth century B.C. in Corinth is presented by Campbell Bonner, ‘A Dionysiac Miracle at Corinth,’ Am. Journal of Archaeology, 33 (1929), 368‑75.” I was fortunate enough to see this sluice up close while participating in the American School of Classical Studies’ excavation at the site.
Ass and Foal
Fig. 82. Dionysus with kantharos or cup reclining on ass, c. 460–423 BCE. Coin from Macedonia, Schonwalter Collection
Another Bacchic connection occurs in the theme of the wine-drenched messiah riding an ass at Genesis 49:11, as Dionysus too is depicted as sitting on an ass, drunk. In consideration of all the parallels in this present work between Bacchus and Moses (and Jesus), it would be logical to suggest that the Genesis passage concerning the drunken messiah on an ass is straight out of Dionysian myth/literature.
In one myth, Dionysus leads the inebriated Hephaistos on an ass back to Mt. Olympus, the heavenly city, after the smith god had been tossed out by the goddess Hera. As we read in Pausanias (Guide to Greece 1.20.3):
One of the Greek legends is that Hephaestus, when he was born, was thrown down by Hera. In revenge he sent a gift of a golden chair with invisible fetters. When Hera sat down she was held fast, and Hephaestus refused to listen to any other of the gods save Dionysus—in him he reposed the fullest trust—and after making him drunk Dionysus brought him to heaven.
Here is a triumphal entry upon an ass into the heavenly city, much like that of Jesus entering Jerusalem upon “an ass and her foal,” a bizarre verse that makes sense as midrash of Genesis 49:11, which in turn appears to have been borrowed from Dionysian myth.
Significantly, an Ugaritic mug has a scene of El holding a cup, with an attendant about to pour the wine, behind whom is an “equid having the appearance or carriage of a colt or foal.”
Of course, in antiquity the ass would be a favored vehicle for drunken guests to return home after a sacred banquet. Hence, the hero or deity riding an ass might symbolize especially a wine cult.
This ass-and-foal motif may represent also the progression towards the fall ripening and harvest of the grapes, portended by the prominence in the constellation of Cancer of the two “autumnal stars” called by the Romans the Aselli or “Little Asses.” These Little Asses were said to “feed at the manger” of two other stars of the Crab constellation called the “Crib” or “Manger.” The sun in Cancer at the summer solstice, therefore, could be said to “ride in triumph into the city of peace on an ass and her foal.” This time of the year is the season when the grapes are ripening on the vine, approaching the triumphal harvest and vintage in the fall. This motif may explain the comparison of Jacob’s son Issachar to an ass as well.
As concerns when these motifs may have come into currency, certain constellations appear to have been devised several thousand years before the common era.
The Shoot of Jesse
A major aspect of the vine imagery occurs in the biblical emphasis upon the “shoot of Jesse,” previously noted, which has been interpreted to refer to the coming messiah and which clearly was used as a scriptural “blueprint” in the creation of the Christ character. The relevant messianic verse at Isaiah 11:1 states:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
In the Bible, Jesse is the father of King David, from whose house it was claimed the messiah would come; hence, the (conflicting) genealogies in Matthew and Luke. The Hebrew equivalent of “shoot” in this verse is חטר choter, defined by Strong’s (H2415) as “branch, twig, rod.” The Hebrew word translated here as “branch” is נצר netser, sharing the same root as “Nazarite” or “Nazarene.”
In the Hebrew of Isaiah 11:10, we read that the “root of Jesse” is also a “signal” or “ensign” to the people, using the same term נס nec or nissi, as in “Jehovahnissi.”
The LXX of Isaiah 11:1 is as follows:
καὶ ἐξελεύσεται ῥάβδος ἐκ τῆς ῥίζης Ιεσσαι καὶ ἄνθος ἐκ τῆς ῥίζης ἀναβήσεται The pertinent word here for “shoot,” “rod” or “sprout” is ῥάβδος rhabdos, while ῥίζα rhiza appears twice in this verse, rendered “stump” and “root.”
To reiterate, the New Testament epistle to the Romans (15:12) cites this passage from Isaiah referring to the “shoot,” “branch” and “root” of Jesse, which is Jesus:
and further Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, he who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles hope.”
In the NT Greek, the word for “root” is ῥίζα rhiza, the same term used in Isaiah.
The Magic Rod
Denoting “shoot, branch, rod, stick, wand, staff, scepter,” ῥάβδος rhabdos is employed at Exodus 4:20 as well, to describe what has been translated as the “rod of God.” As is evident, this imagery concerns foliage, especially that of the vine. The Hebrew equivalent for Aaron and Moses’s “rod,” “staff” or “wand” (Exod 7:9) is מטה matteh. Strong’s (H4294) defines matteh also as “tribe” and “branch,” the latter similar to the wand carried by Dionysus, the thyrsus. The Vulgate uses the Latin term virga, defined as “rod,” “wand,” “green stick,” “twig,” “stalk” and “sprout,” representing also a “branch of the ancestral tree.”
The word rhabdos is used a dozen times in the New Testament, defined as “rod, staff, scepter” and “stave.” Like the “thyrsos staves” of the wandering Bacchic maenads, this same object, the rhabdos, is the staff/stave each disciple may or may not take with him on his mission, in the contradictory biblical verses at Mark 6:8 and Luke 9:3.
Tirosh and Lulav
In this regard, Hesychius defined θύρσος thyrsos using the term rhabdos, thus equating the two. Theologian Rev. Dr. John P. Brown also sees a cognate of thyrsos in the Hebrew word for “(new?) wine,” תירוש tiyrowsh/tirosh, both possibly related to the name of the Asian Minor god “Tarhui of the vine.”
In addition, during the viticultural Feast of the Tabernacles the rabbis hold a green date palm branch called a לולב lulav, which was rendered thyrsos in Jewish writings in Greek. Hence, the Jewish lulav could be designated also as a rhabdos.
We have seen already the tale in The Odyssey where Hermes lulls and awakens with his rod. In The Iliad (24.343) too, Homer speaks of this son of God and messenger, who with his wand (ῥάβδος rhabdos) “lulls to sleep the eyes of whom he will.” The same basic story is told once more in The Odyssey (5.47), this time with the “Argus-slayer” flying to the nymph Calypso, while bearing “the wand with which he seals men’s eyes in sleep or wakes them just as he pleases…”
Fig. 83. Hermes with winged boots and caduceus, c. 480 BCE. Red figure lekythos, Metropolitan Museum, New York (David Liam Moran)
Homer uses the term several more times, in describing the magic wands of both Hermes and the witch Circe. In the Homeric Hymn 4 to Hermes, much is also made of the messenger god’s golden wand of riches, which Apollodorus (3.10.2) tells us was offered by the sun god to Hermes in exchange for the
latter’s shepherd’s pipe.
Like Homer, Apollodorus (Epit. E.7.15) employs the word rhabdos to describe the wand used by Circe to transform Odysseus’s men into animals: “And when they had drunk, she touched them with a wand and changed their shapes, and some she made wolves, and some swine, and some asses, and some lions.”
In the Hymn 4 to Hermes (4.528–540), Apollo—deemed in other texts to be the “savior”—vows an oath to the messenger god that sounds not unlike Yahweh establishing Moses’s divine mission:
And Apollo swear also: “Verily I will make you only to be an omen for the immortals and all alike, trusted and honored by my heart. Moreover, I will give you a splendid staff of riches and wealth: it is of gold, with three branches, and will keep you scatheless, accomplishing every task, whether of words or deeds that are good, which I claim to know through the utterance of Zeus. But as for sooth-saying, noble, heaven-born child, of which you ask, it is not lawful for you to learn it, nor for any other of the deathless gods: only the mind of Zeus knows that. I am pledged and have vowed and sworn a strong oath that no other of the eternal gods save I should know the wise-hearted counsel of Zeus. And do not you, my brother, bearer of the golden wand, bid me tell those decrees which all-seeing Zeus intends.
As we can see, Hermes carries Apollo’s magical staff, composed of gold with three branches, like a tree or vine. The Greek word for “staff” here is, appropriately, ῥάβδος rhabdos.
Athena also carries a rhabdos, as at Odyssey 13.429, in which the goddess magically turns the arriving hero into an old man, changing him back with the same wand later in the story (16.172), before returning him to a state of decrepitude (16.456).
These transformations are similar to the changing of staffs into serpents by Aaron, Moses and the pharaoh’s priests. If we are to allow Moses and his magic wand as “historical,” why should we not do likewise with Hermes, Circe, Apollo and Athena?
Diviners and Herbalists
The word rhabdos is used repeatedly also by Herodotus (4.67), to describe the “wands” or “rods” of “diviners”:
There are many diviners among the Scythians, who divine by means of many willow wands as I will show. They bring great bundles of wands, which they lay on the ground and unfasten, and utter their divinations as they lay the rods down one by one; and while still speaking, they gather up the rods once more and place them together again.
The laying of rods as a divining tool resembles the throwing of I Ching sticks, as done in China for thousands of years. The rhabdos as a willow wand is thus a tree branch or stick, like the thyrsus.
The thyrsus possesses medicinal properties as well, as explained by Ruck:
As I have shown in a recent study of the Eleusinian Mysteries, this sceptre of Dionysus takes on a particular meaning when we consider that such hollow stalks were customarily employed by herbalists in Greece to preserve the freshness of the wild plants they gathered...and that “ivy” or kissos (κίσσος), a plant sacred to Dionysus, was the sort of magical wild plant that would have been gathered in this manner, for it was reputed to be poisonous, with a deranging effect upon the mind.
Although it too was an intoxicant, ivy was used also in antiquity as a cure for hangover, as noted, explaining in significant part the herb’s importance to the Dionysian cult.
While the preferred wood for the staff or pole of the thyrsus carried by Dionysus and his Bacchantes appears to have been fennel, the cultic artifact at times was draped with not only ivy but also grape leaves, vines and grapes themselves. Ovid (Met. 3.662–664) calls the thyrsus “a spear enveloped in vine-leaves,” and theologian John Brown claims thyrsos as another name for “vine.” We are told by Nonnus (12.330ff) that the god also would turn his staff into a sickle in order to reap the grapes.
Moreover, in archaic vase paintings, the god is depicted as holding not only the thyrsus but also a sprouting grapevine, which entwines itself around the image. Here we can see a depiction of the all-important shoot or sprout, explaining its biblical significance as the coming messiah. In this regard, Aaron’s staff is depicted also as budding or sprouting (Num 17:8).
Fig. 84. Bacchus, born from Zeus’s thigh, holds a sprouting grapevine, c. 460 BCE. Museo Nazionale di Spina, Ferrara, Italy
Older depictions show Dionysus without the thyrsus but still holding a fruiting grapevine. The god’s birth is represented by a sprouting grapevine as well, always an indication that Bacchus is nearby. Hence, the sprout or shoot is a clear symbol of Dionysus, evidently adopted into Jewish and Christian theology for the purpose of incorporating this popular pagan motif.
The magical wand, staff or rod of Hermes, the famous winged caduceus (Gk: κηρύκειον kērukeion), has two snakes intertwined around it, like the sprouting shoot.
The Egyptians are depicted in the Bible as themselves possessing magical serpent staffs, and indeed we see that such rods were popular in the land of the Nile as well. In this regard, we find a staff dedicated to Osiris topped with a pine cone, much like the thyrsus, and wrapped with two snakes like the caduceus.
Fig. 85. Pinecone staff of Osiris, 1224 BCE. Egyptian Museum, Turin, Italy
The snake theme occurs on the staffs of other deities, lawgivers, healers and heroes, such as that of the Greek healing god Asclepius, which has a single snake wrapped around its central pole. This pagan motif can be found at Numbers 21:9, reflected in the Hebrew veneration of the ancient serpent god:
“Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass he lived.” Numbers 21:9
Fig. 86. Rod of Asclepius
Regarding this magical fetish, Merlin Stone says, “And in Jerusalem itself was the serpent of bronze, said to date back to the time of Moses and treasured as a sacred idol in the temple there until about 700 BC.”
Concerning Moses’s rod and the snake-entwined caduceus, Dr. Frederick Turner from the University of Texas remarks:
The staff of Moses is said in ancient Jewish folk tradition to have been given to him by the angel Metatron, who is the messenger spirit between God and human beings. The staff was originally a branch of the Tree of Life, from which Metatron plucked it when the world was young. Sometimes the staff itself is called Metatron; like Ningizzida, the Mesopotamian messenger god, who is depicted alternatively as a caduceus or in human form with two snakes coming out of his shoulders, the god and his symbol are confused. Metatron’s rod is thus one version of the magic staff shared by many circum-Mediterranean and Asian religions, and is a direct analogue of the caduceus of Hermes/Mercury.
As we can see, the motif of a snake-entwined staff/rod goes back at least to the Mesopotamian messenger god, Ningizzida/Ningishzida, a forerunner of the Greek Hermes and Roman Mercury, who in turn are syncretized with the Egyptian Thoth and replicated in Metatron.
Metatron himself is equated with Yahweh in the apocryphal text 3 Enoch 13, in a sense placing his rod in the Jewish tribal god’s hands. In this regard, Moses and Yahweh are also equivalent, as they are in intertestamental literature making the “patriarch” a god.
Moreover, Moses and Aaron’s rods—essentially the same as the magical staffs of other deities and heroes—was a “branch of the Tree of Life,” which we have seen to be also the grapevine. This branch/rod was specified in antiquity likewise to have served as the “Life-giving Cross of Christ.”
Ugaritic and Egyptian Divine Staffs
The Ugaritic texts speak of a “gamlu-staff” in one divine epithet, “possessor of the gamlu-staff,” a motif often associated with gods and royalty. The Amorite god Amurru in particular was associated with the gamlu, significant in that Moses evidently is a remake of Amurru/Masu in part. Dr. Aicha Rahmouni states that there are “ample precedents for wooden staffs that serve as divine (or royal) symbols and also function as weapons.” She gives as an example the wooden shepherd’s staff “well attested as a divine and royal symbol” and which “serves as a magical weapon of the exorcist against witches…”
Serpents and vines are connected apparently for a number of reasons, including their shared ability to intertwine with objects, the snake in effect a “living vine.” Both the vine and serpent have the capacity to push through spaces where others cannot go, such as into mysterious “inner sanctums,” as witnesses of the mysteries. Moreover, the snake appears to be guarding the sacred plant’s roots as it thrives underground. The ancients also may have surmised that through their burrowing the serpents brought life to the soil, providing aeration and drainage.
The various mythical attributes discussed here have to do with nature worship, including and especially the reverence for the grapevine, the sun and fertility, the cult of which proliferated widely in remote antiquity. A further study of the spread of the grapevine, viticulture and viniculture would reveal much about the antiquity of the “Dionysian” cult in any given place, by whatever name.
It is evident that numerous religious and spiritual ideas have been diffused through viticulture and viniculture. These concepts include motifs found within both the Old and New Testaments. As we know, in the New Testament, wine is so important that it serves as Jesus’s blood and the holy communion libation.
With all this emphasis on wine, the Israelites could not have missed the cult and god that came with the grapevine, as they assuredly did not live in a vacuum and in fact were notorious for “whoring after” many other gods besides Yahweh for centuries. Indeed, the Jews’ anticipated messiah was to be wine-drenched, proving there were wine cultists among them—wealthy as they likely were—who decided to follow suit with their neighbors in having a vine and sun lawgiver as a national founder, evidently commissioning the composition of the Moses myth.
Fig. 87. Storm god Tarhunta holding grapes and vines, ‘in Dionysian fashion,’ while propitiated by the king of Tyana, c. 8th cent. BCE. Relief from Ivriz, Turkey, Archaeological Museum, Istanbul
Fig. 88. Bacchus holds a fruiting grapevine in his left hand and a wine jar in his right, facing his wife, Ariadne, or a nymph, c. 520–510 BCE. Amphora by the Andokides and Lysippides painters, Louvre Museum, Paris
Fig. 89. Dionysus holding a thyrsus and sprouting grapevine, c. 490–480 BCE. Kylix by Makron, Antikenmuseen, Berlin
Fig. 90. Giovanni Lanfranco, Moses and the Messengers from Canaan, carrying grapes, 1621–1624. Getty Center, Los Angeles, CA
Fig. 91. Hephaistos led back to heaven by Dionysos, riding an ass, c. 430 BCE. Attic Red Figure oinochoe, Metropolitan Museum, New York
The Great God Sun