Having been a part of worldwide culture for so long, it should perhaps come as no surprise that wine has had a number of myths and legends spring up around it. What is interesting is that many of these legends actually do not come from the main wine producing countries of the modern age, such as Italy and France, but rather come from those ancient cultures that prospered many thousands of years ago.
We thought that it would be a little bit of fun for our readers to take a journey through some of the most interesting ancient myths and legends relating to wine. Who knows? There may just be a grain of truth hiding behind some of these stories.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a tome that finds it origins in ancient Persia, which is now Iraq, and it tells the story of how it was actually a woman who was credited with first discovering wine. The story goes that this particular lady was a member of the harem in the palace of King Jamshid. This poor woman was known to suffer from severe migraines, which plays a part in the later story.
One day, the king saw that a jar of his favoured grapes had developed a strange smell and started foaming. He immediately demanded that the grapes be set aside under the belief that they had become unsafe to eat and may even have been poisoned. Our nameless woman, upon hearing this, resolved to drink the “poison” in the hope that it would grant her a swift death.
Instead, she found that the concoction was very tasty and that it placed her in a very joyful mood. Upon hearing of this discovery, the king demanded that more be made and wine became widespread in Persia. As an interesting side-note, it is also claimed that the wine managed to cure our heroine of her migraines, which likely runs counter to the experiences of many people who have perhaps over-indulged in wine in the past.
Even a parable as old as that of Noah’s Ark has a link back to wine, making the story all the more remarkable. In some versions of the biblical story, Noah is believed to have made wine on Mount Ararat, inspired by events that occurred during his epic voyage.
The legend goes that there was a Billy Goat who, having somehow gained access to the Ark’s store of grapes and consumed its fill, decided to start running around biting other animals on the ship. Clearly intoxicated, it took quite a while for the goat to calm down, after which time Noah was struck with the inspiration needed to experiment with grapes to see what had caused the goat to act in the way that it did. One has to wonder what appealed to Noah so deeply about the goat’s behaviour that he had to set out to emulate it!
This led to him trying his hand at wine-making on Mount Ararat and the region is still known today from the high quality of the grapes that it produces for the wine and liquor markets. Interestingly, Armenia has a long history of winemaking itself, playing host to the oldest known winery in the Areni-1 cave in the Vayots Dzor Province. Dating back to approximately 4100 BC, the winery contains everything needed to craft basic wines, plus the fact that technology like fermentation vats and wine presses exist in the cave suggest that winemaking had existed in the country for even longer.
Gestin and Paget
It was actually the Sumerian Empire that first gave name to a deity specifically for wine, way back in 3000 BC. This is where the name of Gestin was first reported and many began worshipping her during this time. The name itself literally translates into either wine, vine or grape, making it apt, and it is mentioned in the famed Rig Veda, giving credibility to the age of the legend.
Interestingly, the fact that this deity was a woman also gives further credence to the claim, as many experts are quick to point out that the oldest gods were female and often related to agriculture, usually due to the association with fertility. Gestin likely rose from this trend, as did another goddess who came later.
Paget is perhaps a little less revered that Gestin, but she is another who inspired worship in the people of ancient Sumeria. A clay tablet dating back to 1500 BC makes mention of her, specifically mentioning how she worked in the vineyard to help make wine in what must be considered a more practical than expected role. Another goddess, named Siduri, also appeared around 400 BC, when wine became even more prominent in the Sumerian Empire.
While many view the Greeks as being one of the originators of wine, the truth is they were actually fairly late to the game, at least compared to many other ancient cultures, even if their influence was undeniable. This is perhaps why the Greek god of wine making, Dionysus, was actually depicted as a foreigner who came from far away.
The legend goes that Zeus, having a penchant for mortal lovers, began having an affair with a mortal princess called Semele, visiting her at night so she could not see him. Upon finding out about this, Hera persuaded Semele to convince Zeus to reveal himself, especially after discovering that the princess was pregnant.
Unfortunately, the big reveal led to Semele being burned to death by the lightening surrounding Zeus’ body, however, Zeus saved the baby, who would become Dionysus, by sewing him to his thigh.
Hera sent the Titans to kill Dionysus, ripping the foetus to shreds. Zeus, in his rage, destroyed the Titans with thunderbolts and managed to salvage the heart of his child, which he again sewed into his thigh, making Dionysus the twice-born.
Zeus took the child far away to be raised by a nymph, leading to the young demigod learning how to cultivate grapes as he grew older. He took the results to Hera, who struck him with madness in her jealous rage and forced him to travel the land. After being cured of his madness by the goddess Rhea, Dionysus continued his travels, teaching people how to cultivate wine and thus creating a following around himself. This led to him being revered by many as the god of wine, though his attempts to return to the land of his mother saw him being rejected again.