Wine stories – part one

The end of summer is the beginning of vintage – and wine has a special place in European culture. Already in ancient times, this beverage played an important role in the beliefs of most religions, appearing during the rites associated with the worship of key deities responsible for important issues such as life, death, love and fertility. In ancient Greece, the main god of wine was Dionysus, in Rome – Bacchus, but also other deities such as Venus and Jupiter surrounded this noble drink with their protection.

There is no love without wine

The main official Greek holidays associated with Dionysus were the City Dionysia (celebrated in spring) and the Rural Dionysia (celebrated in winter) – during the latter fresh wine from the new year was opened. The Romans adopted Dionysus into their pantheon under the name of Bacchus – his worship replaced the ancient Italian cults of Liber, Libera and Ceres: deities of freedom, fertility, harvest and wine. These aspects – life, sexuality and liberation – were inseparably related to wine.

Of course, in this situation, it became natural to associate wine with goddess of love, Venus – as the Romans used to say: wine is the milk of Venus. Twice a year – in spring and at the end of summer – people in ancient Rome would celebrate Vinalia, that is the festival of wine. Its patrons were Jupiter and previously mentioned Venus who extended protection over wine for everyday use, which we would call today a table wine. A Roman comedian Terence in his popular work Eunuch recalled a proverb which later became particularly popular among modern lovers of antiquity: sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus, meaning “without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus turns freezes”. Ceres (Cerera) is the goddess of fertility who in this sentence personifies the crops of the earth, while Bacchus obviously refers to wine, and Venus – to love. In summary, without food and drink all affection turns cold.

“Aphrodite of Milos” – a plaster cast of an antique sculpture, 19th century,
Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków.
Digitalisation: RDW MIC, public domain

Wine and cruelty

The Greek Dionysus was not only the god of wine, but also a deity of nature, life and death. He was an extraordinarily important god, described as born twice, which alludes to the story of his death and return to life. Dionysus was said to be the son of Zeus and the mortal Semele. According to some myths, Dionysus was begotten by Zeus and Persephone, and after birth was killed (torn to pieces) by the titans, on the order of jealous Hera. Zeus was said to have retrieved only the heart from the child’s remains from which he “recreated” Dionysus, this time in the womb of Semele. Other myths say that Semele burnt when struck by a lightning while she was pregnant, because at her request Zeus appeared before her in his full majesty of the thunder god. Then he “completed bearing” Dionysus, by hiding the foetus in his thigh. Either way, the myths associated with Dionysus were brutal. It is difficult to say how bloody the rites of his worship were. As a matter of fact, the Dionysian mysteries are considered by researchers to be one of the most secret rituals – it is not known exactly how they looked.

Dionysus was thought to wander the world in the company of half-animal satyrs and crazy maenads. In ancient Rome, he was worshipped by the name of Bacchus, while maenads were also called Bacchantes.

“Dancing Satyr” – a plaster cast of an antique sculpture, 19th century, Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. Digitalisation: RDW MIC, public domain

The unbridled desires of satyrs

Have you ever wondered why in popular images the devil is a man with horns, a tail and hooves? This is because the Christian image of the devil evolved from the images of ancient satyrs: wild mythological human-animal creatures which were somewhat brutal and rampant, whose main characteristic feature was their uncontrollable sexual drive. Due to the presence of satyrs in the retinue of Dionysus, they were often shown with a cup of wine or a bunch of grapes in their hands, or with wreaths and bands made from grapevines.

The literary genre called satire derives its name from these creatures – its genesis lies in Greek comedies, in which the choir of satyrs could appear in a mentoring, moralising role (read also: “Showing humanity against this beast of the forest”). It seems that in many cases the literary role of a satyr can be compared to a court jester: it is a funny, grotesque and ugly figure, who, however, could show wisdom and shrewdness in his mockery, and also even have the courage to tell someone an inconvenient truth. This in turn fits well with the context of wine; as proverbs from many countries say, a drunk man usually tells the truth (Latin: In vino veritas – “there is truth in wine”).

Tapestry with Satyrs Holding Up a Cartouche with the Monogram of Sigismund Augustus, ca. 1555, Wawel Royal Castle – State Art Collection.
Digitalisation: RDW MIC, public domain


Women in ecstasy

Drunken satyrs in Dionysus’ retinue were accompanied by equally intoxicated maenads, i.e. crazy women. They engaged in ecstatic dances, and at the culmination of drunken frenzy they were said to grab an animal, tear it apart and, as part of a mystical feast, eat bloody bites raw, thereby embodying the power of Dionysus himself. In art maenads, or the Bacchantes, were portrayed as young women, often half-naked, writhing in a crazy dance – many of such depictions have been preserved on ancient Greek artefacts. In later European art, the greatest return of Bacchantes’ popularity took place in the 2nd half of the 14th century, when the artists were particularly eagerly looking for themes with an erotic undertone. A beautiful woman, baring herself in the madness of a drunken dance, represented unbridled drives which were of great interest to representatives of symbolism flourishing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the same time, a liberated but also cruel Bacchante (because these creatures were supposed to be brutal), perfectly fitted the stereotype of a dangerous and attractive femme fatale, a stereotype which kept recurring in many works of arts and literature at the turn of centuries.

Sculpture “Bacchante” by Teodor Rygier, 1887, National Museum in Kraków. Digitalisation: RDW MIC, public domain


A moral scandal in ancient Rome

Bacchantes is a term used not only for Bacchus’ mythical companions, but also for his worshippers. Roman celebrations in worship of Bacchus, like Greek counterparts honouring Dionysus, were shrouded in secret mystery. According to an account by the Roman historian Titus Livius, a scandal occurred in 186 BC, which resulted in mass arrests and deaths of many people. It began with rituals during Bacchanalia, which theoretically should be performed only by women, several times a year, during the day. Meanwhile, the priestess Paculla Annia decided to modify these rules: as a part of the worship of Bacchus, she began to organise night-time orgies with the participation of men and women (including her own sons!), as often as several times a month. During these meetings various sexual perversions were said to have taken place... The affair came to light when a courtesan Hispala Faecenia told the consul, Spurius Postumius Albinus, about secret practices. Eventually, the Roman Senate issued an act prohibiting Bachanalia (Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus). Which does not change the fact that in the preserved Roman sculptures from the centuries that followed we can repeatedly encounter the tangled naked bodies of Bacchus’ worshippers.

Christianity assigned to wine a completely different, sacred role – although some Old Testament stories with wine in the background are not free from scandalous notes either. But that is another story.

Elaborated by Magdalena Łanuszka, PhD
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland.


Magdalena Łanuszka, PhD – a graduate of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków with a PhD in the History of Art, a specialist in the Middle Ages. She has cooperated with various institutions: in the field of didactics (giving lectures at, among others, the Jagiellonian University, the Heritage Academy, numerous Universities of the Third Age), research work (including for the University of Glasgow, The Polish Academy of Learning), as well as in popularizing science (e.g. for the Polish National Archives, the National Institute of Museology and Protection of Collections, the National Library, Radio Kraków, and Tygodnik Powszechny). She is the coordinator of the project Art and Heritage in Central Europe at the International Cultural Centre in Kraków as well as the editor-in-chief of the local RIHA Journal. The author of a blog on looking for interesting facts related to art: