Emerging from barbarianism ; The Ancient Greeks and Wine
Wine in Ancient Greece; why we owe it poetry, theatre, religion, language and love.
Plus – why you should never invite a centaur to a wedding.
If we were to take a map of all the great viticultural areas of Europe, many of them owe their origins to Greek settlers thousands of years earlier – including southern Italy, France and Spain
The Greeks used their knowledge of wine as a bargaining chip, exporting it to all corners of the Mediterranean. A shipwreck discovered in 2006 shows just such a mission. Dating from some 2,300 years ago it shows us how ancient sailors were willing to risk deep water and long journeys to bring the precious amphora full of wine over vast distances.
Some people have gone so far as to argue that the ancient love of wine is responsible for much of what we hold dear today. For instance, according to Jared Diamond one of the first examples of alphabetical language was on a Greek wine jug.
For me though, the economies of the wine trade and the vessels which transported it are only the mechanics of this early love affair with wine. What the Greeks really excelled in was creating a ‘culture’ surrounding wine. They managed to extoll the liquid beyond the norm – as we do today. If you’ve ever read a particularly prosaic, or even ponsey, tasting note ; then it’sthe Greeks you have to blame. Wines were being reviewed some seven hundreds years BC by the most famous poets of the day. Great lyricists such as Alcman would incorporate the names of famous wines into their work. Or some poets, such as Ion of Chinos would use wine as a way of conveying something otherworldly on to his readers.
To the mind of the Ancient Greek there was no civilisation without wine. Homer went so far as to say ‘wine is a magician, for it liberates the tongue and loosens good stories’. It was integral to all aspects of culture, religion and even conflict. Just the fact that it played a central role in poetry can tell you that – but there was also personifacations of wine in their God figures and mythical notions of how the vine came to be. It was also used as a cure for most ailments. The vine itself was said to come from the God’s – bourn of the blood of warriors. Or even it was a gift to humanity from the God Semele. I love how these blurred lines between reality and mysticism seem to converge around wine. In a world of unknown borders and distant horizons – why not sit back with a glass of wine and simply imagine what fantastical sights and beings could be out there?
One fascinating insight into the Greek mindset towards wine is in their mythology. If the enjoyment, romanticism and depiction of wine was a hallmark of cilivisation – then being unable to control yourself once you had began to drink it was pure barbarianism. The conflict of the two sides of wine was played out in the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. The Lapiths were a legendary tribe of Ancient Greeks who predated Bronze Age society. They were said to be a tribal people who lived in alongside the centaurs in Thessaly.
The King of the Lapiths, Pirithous, was to be wed and he decided to invite the centaurs to his wedding feast. The Lapiths served wine, as civilised men do, but alas the centaurs were not used to the drink. They became rowdy and violent – attempting to rape the bride and all the women and boys present. The ensuing battle was won by the Lapiths and the centaurs were thrown into the wild.
It’s hard to mistake the meaning of this tale. We owe much of our modern world to ideas that were wrought in Ancient Greece – those of philosophy, democracy and learning. The clear message here is that just like ideas, wine in the right hands can encourage creativity and transforms the world beyond the ordinary. But it also has the ability to corrupt. It fits the Greek mindset of those who belong within civilisations – and the rest, the barbarians. The vine coils itself around all aspects within the fold, laying down roots in poetry, prose and art and reaching up towards the giddy heights of religion. But at the end of the day – it is still an alcoholic drink which can make us act like gits – maybe not quite centaur at a wedding gits, but still pretty bad.