Ancient Wine Legends – A Brief History Note*

Modern technology and carbon-dating have helped us prove that wine from cultivated grapes was being made in what is now modern-day Georgia, in the Caucasus Mountains around 6,000 B.C. There are also reports of wine remains in Armenia, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and China which claim to be older than those found in Georgia – though there is some confusion over whether it is grape, rice, date, or honey wine. Regardless of the birthplace of wine, it is commonly agreed that because women were involved in the gathering of berries, grapes, and other crops that it was most likely a woman who picked some grapes and placed them in a pottery container in a cool dark corner. When she remembered to check the container a few weeks later, she found a fermented beverage that had a delightful flavor and a pleasant inebriating effect. Thus wine was born.

From Persia, there is an ancient legend documented in the Epic of Gilgamish that supports a woman discovering wine. She was a member of the harem in the palace of King Jamshid, and she suffered from severe migraine headaches. One day the king found that a jar containing his favorite grapes had a strange smell and was foaming. Alarmed he ordered that it be set aside as unsafe to eat. When the woman heard of this, she decided to drink from the container in an effort to end her life with the poison inside. Instead she found the taste of the beverage very delightful. Furthermore, it cured her headache and put her in a joyful mood. When she told King Jamshid, he tasted the “wine” as well and then ordered that more should be made and shared with the whole court.

It was from this same part of the world, in the Sumerian Empire in what is modern-day Iraq, that the most ancient goddess of wine is first mentioned. Her name was Gestin and she was being worshiped as early as 3000 BC. Gestin, which translates as wine, vine, and/or grape, is also mentioned in the ancient Indus manuscript, the Rig Veda. Experts believe that it is quite reasonable that the first gods of wine were women, because the oldest deities were female agriculture goddesses of the earth and fertility. Gestin was most likely born from this agriculture base and over the centuries came to represent wine.

Later, in 1500 BC, we find mention of another wine goddess, Paget, in the same part of the world. The clay tablets refer to her as working in the vineyard and helping to make wine.

Then around 300 to 400 BC as wine became more prominent in Sumeria, a new wine goddess, Siduri, is described as living near the city of Ur. She is reported as welcoming the hero in the Epic of Gilgamish to a garden with the tree of life which is hung with ruby red fruit with tendrils. Siduri is referred to as the Maker of Wine.

Across the deserts in Egypt the wine goddess Renen-utet is mentioned on hieroglyphic tablets as blessing the wine as early as 1300 BC. Interestingly she is known as both a wine and snake goddess. She usually had a small shrine near the wine press and often her figure would appear on the spout where the grape juice flowed into the receiving tank. She is sometimes joined by Ernutet, the Egyptian goddess of plenty, in blessing the grape harvest.

It wasn’t until around 500 BC that records mention Dionysus, the Greek wine god, who is so well known to modern wine buffs.  Even more famous is the Roman version of Dionysus, Bacchus, who rose to eminence around 200 BC as the Greek Empire was fading.  Other wine gods included Osiris from Egypt and I-Ti from China.

So what are the implications of these ancient legends and wine deities?  Why have so many civilizations in the past identified goddesses and gods to link with wine?  Was this the early precursor to wine as part of a religious ceremony as still depicted in some religions today?  There are those who say that wine in moderation is not only good for health, but also for introspection and collegial conversation.  Perhaps we need to remember the lessons of wine history and seek guidance from another ancient deity, the Goddess of Delphi, who cautioned “everything in moderation.”

*A longer version of this article was originally published in Wayward Tendrils Quarterly (Vol 18, No. 2, April 2008), Liz Thach, Ph.D. 

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5 Responses to Ancient Wine Legends – A Brief History Note*

  1. Yigit KESKIN says:

    Dear Dr. Liz Thach,

    Thank you for your interesting article. I would like to remind to readers that there is also one legend about Prophet Noah and wine which it is
    “Prophet Noah and Wine
    Noah started living at the skirts of Mount Ararat(Nowadays, is known as Ağrı Mountain in Eastern Turkey) after the Great Flood. One day he realized that his goats were turning back very merry from grazing. He follows the animals and takes out the plant they eat from the soil. He plants it somewhere near the ship to tend the plant. Seeing Noah so happy makes the Satan jealous and he immediately makes the plant dry. Noah gets very sad and sick upon this. Satan feels for him and decides to do something. He tells Noah that the seed of the plant should be cut open and blood of seven animals should be poured on it. Noah immediately does as he is told and sacrifices a lion, tiger, magpie, rooster, dog, fox and a bear. After a year the plant revives again.” (this article was taken from http://eng.lawines.com.tr/WineCulture/TheHistoryofWine.aspx)

    Thanks in advance..

  2. Bob Henry says:

    From Bob Henry ( WineMarketingMaven@gmail.com ) in Los Angeles:

    From the Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (Saturday, December 11, 2004, Page A28):

    “Hints of 9,000-Year-Old Wine is Unearthed in China”

    [Link: http://articles.latimes.com/2004/dec/11/science/sci-wine11%5D

    From Reuters News Service

    Neolithic people in China may have been the first in the world to make wine, according to scientists who have found the earliest evidence of winemaking from pottery shards dating from 7000 BC in northern China.

    Previously, the oldest evidence of fermented beverages dated from 5400 BC and was found at the Neolithic site of Hajji Firuz Tepe in Iran.

    But in a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania said laboratory tests on pottery jars from the village of Jiahu in Henan province had shown traces of a mixed fermented drink of rice, honey and either grapes or hawthorn fruit.

    “This evidence appears to suggest that the Chinese developed fermented beverages even earlier than the Middle East, or perhaps at the same time,” McGovern told Reuters. “Maybe there were some indirect ties between the Middle East and Central Asia at that time in ancient civilization.”

    McGovern, a molecular archeologist at the university’s Museum of Archaelogy and Anthropology, also analyzed samples of 3,000-year-old wine from hermetically sealed bronze vessels found in Shang Dynasty burial tombs from the Yellow River Basin.

    The liquid was preserved because a thin layer of rust had sealed the bronze jars, he said.

    A small sample of the remains of the wine, a clear colorless liquid, gave off a faint aroma similar to nail polish remover or varnish. McGovern said when he first smelled the wine it was floral scented.

    One of the ancient jars contained a liquid that had traces of wormwood, suggesting the beverage might have been an early version of absinthe.

    • lizthach says:

      Dear Bob,

      You are correct in pointing out that China made wine earlier than Central Europe. However, I believe the science shows the Chinese wine was not made from grapes. However, I did visit the Xinjiang province in China 2 years ago and they started making wine from grapes in 300 B.C. Residue in Georgia confirms wine made from grapes in 6000 B.C.

      • Bob Henry says:

        Dear Liz,
        Thank you for your reply. Let me add a second, related article from The Times.
        Regards,
        Bob

        From the Los Angeles Times (Section Unknown)
        (January 11, 2011, Page Unknown):

        “Ancient winery found in Armenia;
        The 6,000-year-old winery in a cave in Armenia had all the necessary equipment, including a grape press, fermentation vats and storage jars. A UCLA-led research team believes the site produced wine for religious ceremonies associated with burials.”

        [Link: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jan/11/science/la-sci-ancient-winery-20110111%5D

        By Thomas H. Maugh II
        Times Staff Writer

        A UCLA-led team reported Monday that it had discovered a 6,000-year-old facility in an Armenian cave that contained everything necessary to produce wine from grapes, including a grape press, fermentation vats, storage jars, wine-soaked pottery shards and even a cup and drinking bowl.

        The ancient winery is at least 1,000 years older than any similar installation previously known, and it was found in the same cave where researchers in June announced the discovery of the world’s oldest leather shoe.

        The cave was abandoned when the roof caved in. All the organic material was preserved by a concrete-like layer of sheep dung that sealed everything in and prevented fungi from destroying the remains.

        “Because of this unique preservation, we find all of these previously unknown but imagined organic materials” from the Copper Age, including grape seeds, withered grape vines and remains of pressed grapes, said archaeologist Gregory Areshian of UCLA’s Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, the co-leader of the expedition. Details of the find were described in the January issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

        The wine press measured about 3 by 3 1/2 feet and was positioned to drain into a deep vat more than 2 feet deep. Similar to presses utilized as recently as the 19th century throughout Europe and in California, it was clearly meant to be used to smash the grape by foot. All around the top of the press, researchers found handfuls of grape seeds, remains of pressed grapes, grape must and desiccated vines. Botanists determined the species to be Vitis vinifera, the domesticated variety still used to make wine.

        The vat would have held 14 to 15 gallons and was covered by a dark gray residue that contained the plant pigment malvidin, which gives wine its red color and stains clothing and carpets.

        “The site is very important because it is so early and shows how advanced they already were,” said biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the research. “The fact that winemaking was already so well developed in 4000 BC suggests that the technology probably goes back much earlier.”

        The cave is in a canyon where the Lesser Caucasus Mountains approach the northern end of the Zagros mountain range, near Armenia’s southern border with Iran. Researchers do not yet know the identity of the people who lived in the region, but they clearly carried out extensive trade. Pottery shards from the cave came from as far away as central Iran and southern Asia, and most of the stone implements were made of obsidian from a source that was at least three days away on foot, even though a flint source was much nearer.

        The oldest previously known evidence of wine dates to about 5400 BC and was discovered at a site called Hajji Firuz in the northern Zagros mountains, where McGovern has found jars with traces of tartaric acid crystals, a chemical marker for wine. The oldest previous evidence of grape seeds and other organic materials dates to around 3150 BC and was found in the tomb of the Egyptian king Scorpion I. The oldest wine press is much younger, found in the West Bank and dating to about 1650 BC.

        Areshian said the team originally thought the cave was a habitat, but excavation over the summer indicated that it was a burial site. They now believe that production of wine in the cave was solely for religious ceremonies associated with burials and with honoring the dead.

        “This wine wasn’t used to unwind at the end of the day,” Areshian said. For that, they probably had separate winemaking facilities outside the cave.

        The research was sponsored by UCLA and the National Geographic Society.

        Write to thomas.maugh@latimes.com

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