(This article was originally published for The Thiasos of the Starry Bull, on The Boukoleon, 4/9/14)
Thanks to a couple thousand years of aggressive monotheistic faiths, Dionysus has been plenty demonised. As Sannion points out here (dead link), he is often shown as being hedonist, evil, chaotic, drunk, excessive and fat in popular culture. This identity is by no means diminishing either. I have personally been attacked by members of the public for depicting Dionysus in art, even had people attempt to destroy our artwork and threaten to assault us because of our ‘satanic pictures’. However this is not solely a Christian thing, even some pagans deny Dionysus respect.
The fact that Dionysus is attributed to wine is often the cause of these allegations. Wine and alcohol is seen as a recreational drug, associated with Saturday night binge drinking and waking up in the morning with a terrible headache and embarrassing facebook comments or worst photos. But what did wine mean to the ancients? Of all things why did they have a god of wine?
We are in an age of decadence, if we want something all we have to do is go to the supermarket. Even free clean water can be found in most cities via drinking taps. We wash ourselves with clean water, we even dispose of our waste with drinkable water. In most western countries it is there for our use. However in ancient times it was not and the water that was available was often polluted or infected with parasites.
The production of wine begun with the rise of civilisation around 7,000 years ago with some of the oldest industrial sites ever discovered found in the middle east dating to around 4,100 BC, (the Areni-1 winery, discovered in 2007.) Wine was necessary for urban civilisation as it enabled large quantities of people to survive in a polluted environment. It made water safe to drink. Being a social drug it also brought the communities together. Apart from drinking in groups, wine would have been made in groups. In Greece there were community ceremonies and festivals to celebrate the different stages of wine production with each festival usually coinciding with different seasonal changes. So wine not only helped keep the population healthy but also brought it together as a community. In relation to Dionysian cults, wine and mead were more than likely used for ecstatic spiritual purposes – these cults transcended the community celebration as it brought people closer to god through mysteries and initiation.
Then there is trade. Has anyone ever wondered why Dionysus is often depicted on a ship? Apart from the myth of the Tyrrhenian pirates, Dionysus was depicted in ancient festivals on a ship that was wheeled through Athens. He also has strong ties with the sea, using it as a refuge in the myth of Lykourgos. Wine was a commodity and encouraged trade, it unified nations to cooperate and allowed growth in wealth and also health. Greece being a naval nation, wine was transported via ships. Apart from trade however, wine also enabled sailors to travel further distances without water supplies going off. Wine was a means of hydration in the hot sun of the Aegean.
Also another note: scurvy was a documented disease by Hippocrates (460 – c. 370 BC). It is caused by a lack of vitamin C. A disease that was cured in ancient times by the Greeks by using, among other things, wine. The cure of scurvy was lost to more contemporary explorers like the English and Spanish and it caused devastating impediments in their exploration of new lands. Wine drunk by sailors in classical times prevented this and again allowed greater time spent on the seas.
While I’m certain that ancient people enjoyed alcohol as much as we do today, wine was far more than getting drunk and making a fool of oneself at the end of the week. It was a substance that allowed us to grow and develop throughout the world. It brought friendships together, increased wealth and living standards, encouraged industrialism, trade and alliances. Even classical philosophers praise it for allowing them to think freely. It is a sacred liquid that connects us with ourselves, nature and the divine with Dionysus ruling over its holy epiphanies. Like Dionysus, wine should not be abused, it is the cup of life and the cup of death, but we should not never forgot or dismiss it’s sacredness.