the cup of the gods

This post is inspired from a conversation from an interfaith community regarding a question about drunkeness on Olympos. Though my opinion wasn’t very popular among the general pagan community as far as I could see, I do think it was relevant when taken from the perspective of ancient Hellenic practices and myth. My point is a rather simple one…there is no drunken debauchery-frat party thing that can be or should be associated with the Olympians….because the Olympians don’t need wine. There are few instances where you see Olympians imbibing in wine in myth. One is when Hephaistos fell from Olympos, Dionysos guided him back (presumably wine was involved), and the most tell one in which wine was banned from Olympos because Dionysos made Aphrodite drunk on it and their union produced Priapus. Of course there is nothing wrong with Priapus in general, despite being rather a bit of a trouble maker in myths when it comes to spouses…and he was linked both to the worship of Dionysos and that of Apollon as in some regions Apollon held the epithet Priapos. Rather this speaks from a mythical setting, that wine itself is not part of Olympos…and this may have something to do with the nature of wine itself.

In an earlier post about Dionysos I spoke of how wine is a symbol of the divine essence, and that upon consuming wine a person temporarily was possessed with this essence (for lack of better words) which brought about a mind-altering experience that simulated a closeness to the divine state. That said, lesser gods and divine beings could reasonably enjoy it too in order to feel a temporary elevation to a higher state themselves (Olympus being the highest state which is probably why it is represented as a mountain…it is the summit of being for our world). Plato in his Phaedrus, when he is talking about the companies of the gods he illustrates that there are different levels of height to which different beings can achieve, and that certain beings can only go to so high, but only the chariot of the Olympians can travel all the way to Olympos. Similarly no one can go to Olympos without being brought there by the gods. I recall as a child watching an animated retelling of the story of Bellephron, and how shocked I had been when he decided to take it upon himself to travel, via Pegasus, to Olympos since he was irritated that for all his heroism that the gods had not invited him there. Pegasus represents the possibility of travel to Olympos, though Bellephron did not make it. But Pegasus belongs to the gods, not to mankind, and therefore afterward only journeyed as the gods directed. So in my long about manner this saying that there is a great distinction of the different heights…and the heighest of heights…Olympos. Therefore it is reasonable that wine, the substance of Dionysos..the hier of Zeus, would be enjoyed by non-Olympians (thus enjoyed by satyrs, and even the Erinyes were made drunk by Apollon in order to ease their furious intent and induce peaceful slumber), and especially enjoyed among mortals.

However, this altering substance is not necessary for Olympos. The Olympians infact are described as drinking ambrosia. So whereas wine represented the divine essence symbolically, the ambrosia is divine. When reading the homeric hymn to Apollon we read how instead of suckling from his mother that he was fed Ambrosia…by Themis I believe….and straight away leapt from his infant wrappings and golden chords that bound them. Even in the Iliad we can see ambrosia among the gods being treated similar to the wine among mortals, that it was shared among each other when gathered together, as when injured, Zeus gave Ares ambrosia to drink after his wounds were healed and Ares refrained anymore from the battle. That said the gods prefer wine as their offering from mortals typically, though this doesn’t seem to the case with most goddesses whereas wine as not offered or entered the ritual. The exception may be Aphrodite, who may also be alluded to by the myth of Dionysos getting her drunk on wine. There was also the ritual of Thesmophoria in which women gathered in secret together, with casks of wine (which Aristophanes refers to in his play Thesmophoriazuseia). But for the most part these are rare exceptions.

Of course this also echoes a practice of women often not being permitted to drink wine. I am guessing this has something to do with the receptivity of women. Recall reader that in another post I said that women are more easily engaged in entering a love relationship with the gods. Similarily the first followers of Dionysos were women, and his maenads nearly terrifying with their possession of divine madness. Men were supsicious and slower to embrace the god, which we see from Euripedes’ Bacchanalia, but once engaged they too enjoyed it passionately. Even so, the ancient Hellenes cut the wine with water, because raw wine was considered too dangerous as we can see from the myth of the introduction of the grapevine by Dionysos. But that the Olympians in general (perhaps the male half in any case) show a preference for wine among all other offerngs we can infer from the myth of the contest of Dionysos and Aristaios. Each made their offerings to the Olympians. Aristaios offered honey (also a symbol of immortality) from his bees, and Dionysos offered wine. The gods found the offering of Dionysos to be superior, but thereafter Aristaios was the first who took to combining the two substances together.

However, that the Olympians prefered the wine, doesn’t not necessarily mean that they are drinking it. The wine is offered into the fire…the essence..the vapors that rise…this is what the Olympian gods enjoy from our offerings. The smoke. Therefore they are only receiving a portion, perhaps the better portion, of the wine. When I pour wine as a libation into my oil warmer, it is like a delightful perfume wafting up. But this does not mean that the gods are up on Olympos getting drunk and partying. They exist in a state of bliss and happiness which wine can only echo imperfectly. They may enjoy the offering of the substance, but it doesn’t impact the state that they enjoy. However, this does not mean that they are existing in a constant state of soberiety either. They are in a bliss that doesn’t need alcohol, because they are in the heighest state. Description of the court at Olympos though are hardly boring displays, but filled with music, dance and joy as we can infer from the Homeric Hymn to Apollon. In the end we are unable to understand the perfect happiness of the state of the gods, but for a moment we can feel a little closer with a drop of wine.

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