A is for Alcohol: wine and mead

Though I am getting started late, after much consideration, I have decided to jump in and do this “pagan blog project” thingy…not in any official sense but because hey why not..it would be a fun way to organize my thoughts to follow through in this pattern. So here we go.

A is for alcohol…A for Apollon was my first instincual choice but I talk about him *constantly* so I decided that to make it a bit more work on my part I should go in another direction. So then A is for alcohol.

I have spoken before of the symbolism of the wine when it comes to Dionysos…in fact I have spoken of it *at length* so I will just gloss over that part when I come to it. Needless to say though that alcohol in various forms has played a significant part in European and Mediterannean religions in general. While wine tends to have a history of superior sacredness is most of the ancient Mediterannean it doesn’t detract from the fact that spirituality through alcohol has also been anciently linked in other parts of Europe to mead brewed from fermented honey…a practice that has also been carried out in Hellas though not possessing the distinguished place that wine has…perhaps attributed to its dark bloodish hue as the “purple wine” which associates it with the highest of divinities. That said, I do think though that when we have the contest of Aristaios against Dionysos in regarding libations, we can see a history of mead being a pleasurable offering to the Olympians because how else is honey to be libated in its raw state. Raw honey is fairly thick and while tasty is not a very convenient substance of libation. I would suggest that considering that there is a mead that is common to Hellas it more likely that this offering of Aristaios, the son of Apollon, would have been the fermented form of honey…mead. This would place it in an even contest squaring off against the offerings of wine from Dionysos. This would also make sense agriculturally in which honey, as both a wild and domestic product, probably has a more ancient providence as an available resource than the cultivated vineyard. And both substances are viably connected with spirituality and the soul in both their fermented and raw forms. This then gives us the *golden* honey of the bees (golden being in itself a signifier of divinity for which it was not uncommon to gild with gold images of the gods) which is fermented into an equally golden..though sometimes reddish, elixir as mead, and the grape vine and cluster that produces the wine. There can have even be said to be some mild connection between them as Dionysos has been associated in icons as a kind of bee himself. But this makes a kind of sense too when we consider some mythic sources that have a daughter of Aristiaos, a girl named Melissa (the bee) as a nursemaid for Dionysos. In such a manner Dionysos was suckled on the substance of the bees as if he were an immature bee himself. For which we can also take another leap and say that the first alcohol substance that Dionysos drank from was the mead of Aristaios.

The domestication of bees is the art directly attributed to Aristaios, the shepherd of the bees…specifically the bees of the Muses. He plays a role towards the bees like that which Apollon plays for the muses, he is essentially the ringleader. That he is called the shepherd Apollon we can infer that his providence as shepherd is related to the domain and function of Apollon. Essentially Apollon is the leader of the muses, the leader of the bees (for which it makes sense that his own oracle is also refered to as a bee) and Aristaios is the domesticator of these in relation to his father’s domain, in which he makes the gifts of the bees more accessible to human kind by the art of horticulture. If the bees are related to muses, and the arts of the muses specifically, we can the bees as more specifically the children of the titanide Mnemosyne. By which the practice of the thyiade nymphs from whom bee divination was said to have been is specifically tapping into the well of Menmosyne…the memory (arguably nonlinear) of the world. As such it can be said that mead is a fermintation that is directly associated with the divine essence earth.

That the gods, while delighting in both, found the wine of Dionysos more pleasing seems to be a matter of very slight division when we compare the two substances. After all both are alcoholic substances which, to remind you from my previous posts, serve to elevate through a sense of euphoria in simulation of the blessedness of divine existance and allows a kind of temporary connection with the gods in moderation. So we must then divide among the few differences.
Source: Wine and mead have to very different sources. Mead is by and large an animal byproduct because it comes from honey. Though this originates in nectar gathered from flowers, much of it also comes from the internal processing of this nectar by the bees to make it into a food source for their hives. It therefore requires an “animal” intermediary between the raw substance and the honey which can be fermented. Of course there ways to make artificial honey from boiling flowers with sugar but when compared to honey it is quite inferior in color and flavor….and I don’t really think it can truly be called honey in any case. Some might say though that this extra processing can be what makes mead a more valuable substance.
Wine on the other hand is a vineyard plant, and the fermintation comes directly from the grapes. It cannot be comparable with beer, which is grown from grains, because this is a substance which comes directly from the fruit of the plant and part of a painstaking cycle in which flowers need to be fertilized (the marriage of essences) in order for the blossom to bear the necessary fruits. This process can of course be considered very reflective of the initiations preserved in pompeii in which the initiate is addressed as a kind of bride. The fruit, the summation of the flower’s being, can only be accomplishd via the marriage of essences, just as life takes a husband and wife to propigate a new life…however we cannot consider the fruit a new distinct life from the flower which makes it symbolism all the more poignant. It is a rebirth of the self. Therefore wine itself is the transformation (via fermentation) of this higher self. The wine itself then has an arguably great symbolic presence when it is offered, as it may be more aligned with the offering of one’s soul and being.

Honey (and mead) has a very mellow and beautiful golden color which seems to connect by that virtue to some identity of the divine. As such it can be representative of the divine world in general. This possibly explains why honey is such a popular offering to chthonic deities, nymphs etc.
Wine is red/purplish in hue (taking the white wines etc out of consideration for a moment) and in its character represents blood, but also can represent royalty as this reddish-purple hue was a popular fabric die for those of royal lineage. Therefore we can say that wine is “royal blood”. It is the highest essence of the greatest gods (Zeus specifically via Dionysos). As such its color can also be representative of the essence of life (in all its various forms) in general.

In the end the symbolic merit of the wine prooves superior to that of the honey/mead, and Dionysos wins over Aristaios. But in response Aristaios became the first to mix the two substances. This can take the form of honeyed-wine (in which honey is mixed with wine) or honey wine (in which, from my understanding, honey is part of the fermentation process). It is for this reason that I prefer to give honeyed wine as an offering to Apollon on his most sacred of days, particularly the mulled wine (which is made with honey and various spices) for Apollon Noumenios and the household gods on the Noumenia.

However, regardless of what offering is given, it is clear that alcohol plays a significant role, but this doesn’t excuse excessiveness either. By knowing that alcohol is in part a holy susbtance it charges us to use it responsibily too and place it back in the realm of the sacred. The gods loved symposiums, and so I don’t look down at sharing a social drink with friends at a gathering or anything of the kind, but I do feel that this is different than the casual drinking just for the sake of drinking, and doing this excessively, and calling that spirituality.

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.