Dionysus, God of the Vine

Dionysus is often referred to as the God of Wine and, and such he is equated with the Roman Bacchus and the Etruscan Fuflans. Other commentators have pointed out the complex and composite nature of the Greek conception of Dionysus. They can show the parallels with other ‘annually dying vegetation’ gods of the Adonis and Tammuz type. There are also connections with other ‘orgiastic release’ cults, that may have used other intoxicants, such as mead, ivy leaves or hallucinogenic fungi, rather than wine. It was this orgiastic aspect of the Dionysus cult that lead to his association with drama. The Greeks sought in their tragedies, not merely entertainment, but an immersive, emotional experience that led to the cathartic release of social tensions.

Dionysos and a Panther Mosaic from Halicarnassus James Lloyd CC 3.0

Dionysos and a Panther
Mosaic from Halicarnassus
James Lloyd CC 3.0

If, however, we look at the Dionysus myths from the perspective of technological innovations, the ‘magic that worked’ it becomes clear that he is uniquely associated not so much with wine, as with the vine. The wild grapevine (Vitis vinifera subsp. silvestris) is native to upland areas of the Near East, in particular the area between the Caucasus mountains of  Armenia, the Taurus mountains of eastern Turkey and the Zagros mountains of Iran. Here is where the first true wines were probably made. Chemical analysis of neolithic jars from Hajji Firuz Tepe in northern Iran has shown that they were used to store wine in a kitchen area of a settlement dated to 5400 – 5000 B.C.E. The real technical innovation, however, was the domestication and reliable cultivation of the vine.

The wild vine is dioecious, that is, it has male and female flowers on separate plants. In order for fruit to be set, both must grow in proximity, so that insects can gather pollen from the male flowers and fertilise the females. If neolithic farmers had planted male vines they would get no fruit. If they planted female vines they would get a crop, but only if there were male vines nearby to provide pollen for fertilisation. However, a small percentage of of grapevines are naturally hermaphrodite and therefore self-fertile. Selecting and cultivating these vines would ensure the farmer had a good crop and one, moreover, that could be introduced into areas where the vine did not naturally grow. Propagating the vines vegetatively, by layering or grafting, would ensure that they bred true and continued to to produce hermaphrodite plants. And indeed today, the cultivated vine (Vitis vinifera subsp. vinifera) which is not only found all over the Mediterranean, but which man has introduced to all parts of the world with a similar climate, is a hermaphrodite, self-fertile plant.

A single cultivated grapevine flower.  The green petals  form a cap which hold the pollen bearing stamens over the central ovary, when the cap is shed the stamens spring out. Francis Renaud CC2.0 via Wikimedia

A single cultivated grapevine flower.
The green petals form a cap which hold the pollen bearing stamens over the central ovary, when the cap is shed the stamens spring out.
Francis Renaud CC 2.0 via Wikimedia

I assume, therefore, that the cult of Dionysus spread because of the ‘magic that worked’, the gift of the God that was the self-fertile grapevine. I see the priesthood and adherents of Dionysus, who introduced the grapevine to new regions, as acting rather like an ancient Monsanto – in order to get access to the new crop you had to buy into the whole package. In return they would probably have provided, not only the initial crop material, but  instructions and guidance for its cultivation. The followers of Dionysus would not have been without self-interest, they would certainly have expected a cut of the profits of the new crop, in terms of donations to the God and his priests. There was never an expectation, until very recent times, that technological advances should be made freely available to everyone. On the other hand they were not religious con men. what they were selling wasn’t snake-oil.

In pre-literate societies knowledge is often most easily passed on and preserved in the form of stories and narrative. There are a number of points in the myth of Dionysus where we can see correspondences between the story and the facts of vine cultivation. This is particularly true of the stories of the birth of Dionysus. Dionysus is said to be the son of Zeus and Semele, whom Zeus visited in secret. When jealous Hera heard of this she went in disguise to Semele and persuaded her to beg her secret lover to reveal his true nature. Zeus, having sworn to give Semele what she asked for, was therefore forced to reveal himself as the lightening and Semele was struck and burned away. She was already carrying Dionysus, however, and the half-divine child survived, though he was yet too young to be born. Zeus, therefore, had the infant sown into his thigh where Dionysus continued to grow until he was old enough to be birthed a second time.

Does this story refer to the secret self-fertilisation of the vine, which causes the grapes to swell without a male vine being required? Then, also, the domesticated vine is not reproduced by seed but by grafting, in which a piece of vine is cut from its parent and then bound into another vine – which can even be a male plant. Such stories would have allowed coded transmission of information about vine cultivation. If one had not paid ones’ dues as a member of the Dionysian vine cult one might hear the stories, but not be able to interpret them correctly.  Once the secrets of vine cultivation became common knowledge however, the stories would remain but might become altered or added to, in order to fit in with different ideas of the Gods.

Then there is the story of Lycurgus, a King of Thrace, and his son Dryas. Lycurgus opposed Dionysus and, like many others who denied the God, he was punished by being sent mad. He struck his own son Dryas down with an axe, in the belief he was pruning a vine. He proceeded to trim the corpse of nose, fingers, ears and toes before he was stopped and made to realise what he had done.  Some see this story as a simple metaphor for vine-pruning while others, noting that the name Dryas means oak, believe it includes references to ancient ‘king as Oak Tree’  sacrifices. However, it was not just vines that were pruned in ancient viticulture. Vines, rather than being grown on stakes as they are now, were typically trained up trees. Such trees, however, would have been severely pollarded and trimmed, both to keep them to a manageable size and to prevent their leaves from over-shading the ripening grapes.

Even in Roman times growing vines in such a manner was usual, as Cato describes:

“The trees should be trimmed as follows: The branches which you leave should spread out, should be cut straight up, and should not be left too thick. The vines should be well knotted1; and be especially careful not to bend them downward along any of the branches and not to tie them too tightly.” Cato, On Agriculture,XXXII

He also stresses the importance of the tree prunings, as fodder for sheep and cattle in the dry, Mediterranean summers, when the grass is shrivelled.

Thus, I believe, the story of Dryas refers to the pollarding of trees to provide support for cultivated vines. Perhaps, in Thrace, this did bring the vine growers into conflict with members of an older oak cult, for whom it was taboo to cut the sacred oaks in this manner?

It is not easy to determine exactly when this spread of the domesticated vine occurred. It has proved difficult to reliably distinguish wild from cultivated grape pips in archaeological contexts. Vinewood and grape residues from Lashish in Israel and Jericho and Numeira in the Jordan Valley, which are almost certainly from domesticated vines because the wild vine is not found there, have been dated to between 3400 and 3200 B.C.E.  However, the vine could also have been domesticated much earlier than this.  Certainly the vine seems to have been cultivated in the Aegean by this period, the Early Bronze Age, if the popularity of elaborate drinking and mixing vessels is anything to go by. Yet the form of the Dionysus myth, with the late-coming God being accepted as one of the twelve Olympians, only when Hestia, goddess of the hearth, steps down, suggests a memory of a time when Dionysus and his vine was unknown.

Dionysus with his followers

Dionysus with his followers


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