2020. Can you believe it? Remember 2000? When the world as we knew it was going to end? Well, here it is 20 years later and, at least those of us reading this, are still here.
A TIME FOR RESOLUTIONS
And how many of us still make resolutions? I was never big on them myself, realizing at a young age how quickly they went downhill. Impossible, disliked, what was I thinking, and then forgotten. But, this year, the symmetry of the very number has inspired a new desire to honor the age old tradition. I’m going to keep it simple and easy. I will try 20 brand new wines to me. Only 20. So doable! So, basically, my resolution is to drink more wine!
Thinking about resolutions and all the kinds of wines I might try this year made me think of the many wines of many cultures. And that made me wonder how far back the culture of wine went. So, while not in any way comprehensive, I just poked around and thought we should get to know the favorite of the ancients…Dionysus.
THE GOD OF WINE
Oh you know Dionysus, that crazy Olympian god of pleasure, festivity, fertility, ritual madness, wild frenzy and, more to our point, grape cultivation and wine. He carried a thyrsos (a pinecone tipped staff) and a drinking cup and wore a crown of ivy. He was usually accompanied by a troop of satyrs and maenads, those wild female devotees all rock stars cultivate. And, although he is often presented today as a large, jovial drunk, being the god of wine and festivals and so on, this image was fostered principally among renaissance painters and then 19th century idealists. The Greeks and Romans (who called him Bacchus) portrayed another side of him. In their eyes, he was usually young and boyish, the god of chaos and excess, and the willful abandonment of the senses and madness. His cult was based on mystery and raptures of ecstasy. At their rites they were said to be driven into dangerous hallucinogenic states that gave them supernatural strength. Now, really, haven’t we all known that guy (or gal) in a late night bar? Yes.
A LITTLE DRAMATIC HISTORY
Dionysus was the son of Zeus and the mortal princess Semele of Thebes. The story goes that during Semele’s pregnancy Zeus’ jealous wife Hera tricked Semele into asking Zeus to appear before her in his full glory. Bound by oath, the god was forced to comply and Semele was consumed by the heat of his lightning bolts. But Zeus recovered their unborn child from her body, sewed him up in his own thigh, and carried him to term. Wow.
There was a lot more of this drama involved with his growing up. Euripides’ play, The Bacchae, is one good example. In it, Dionysus arrives in Thebes, home of his dead mother who, as you remember, was burnt to a crisp, when Zeus appeared to her in his true form. The city is ruled by his cousin Pentheus who constantly denies Dionysus’ parentage and says that they all knew Semele was a little soft in the head. So Dionysus gradually weaves a psychological web around Pentheus that makes him doubt his own sanity and infects the women of Thebes with his spell sending them up into the hills as maenads to indulge in Bacchic rites. Cultivating Pentheus’ curiosity, some of it overtly sexual, Dionysus persuades his cousin to spy on the women. While climbing a tree to get a better look he is spotted and torn limb from limb by the frenzied women, his own mother, Agave, among them. She carries her son’s head into town joyfully proclaiming they have killed a lion. Dionysus than lifts the spell and the play ends with Agave screaming in terror, clutching her son’s head and realizing the terrible thing she has done.
And let that be a suitable warning to drink in moderation.
ROOTED IN HISTORY
I guess my point here is that wine and other alcoholic drinks have been around forever. In my research I discovered very many gods and goddesses of drink throughout the ages in all different cultures across the globe. It has been used as a transformational substance in rituals from the Mayans to The Mass. And like all things, it has been, and still is, used for good and, well, not so good. Alcohol gives a charge to our normal lives. And, when used in moderation, hopefully, a good one. No ripping out beating hearts here. Just conviviality, conversation, comfort and appreciation.
Especially wine. It’s just so dang civilized.
Happy New Year.