Monolithos Wine Dimensions: June 2017
The exact moment in history when wine was discovered is unknown. Much about the earliest history of wine is hidden in the darkness of time, but archaeology and analytic chemistry have shed light on some of its origins. Wine was likely developed by accident from grapes collected for consumption, and most probably it was discovered, rather than invented. The oldest-known winery was found in the “Areni-1” cave in Vayots Dzor, Armenia. Dated to 4,100 BC, the site contained a wine press, fermentation vats, jars and cups.
There is also archaeological evidence that winemaking in Cyprus may have existed 6000 years ago. Indeed, in 2005, a team of archaeologists concluded that some Chalcolithic wine jars provided conclusive proof that the first wines in the Mediterranean region were produced on the island.
Wine was not simply appreciated in ancient times, it also appeared proximately in most religions of the time. A symbol of fertility, immortality and divinity, wine was the favoured drink of choice across the ancient Near East and Mediterranean. The Egyptians, for example, associated several gods with wine as early as 4,000 BC. Hathor, the Egyptian’s patron god of wine, was duly honoured on a monthly “Day of Intoxication”. Wine is mentioned frequently in biblical scriptures, and was used for everyday purposes in cooking and medicine.
The Greeks hailed Dionysus as the giver of all good gifts and identified him as the patron of wine, and many festivities were held in his honour. A popular event was the grand celebration known as “Dionysia” that took place in Athens every March. The remarkable theatre of Dionysus located below the Parthenon is a clear testament to the strong influence of this god in the everyday life of the ancient Greeks, who loved to organize intellectual gatherings called “symposia” where they would eat and talk about predetermined philosophical subjects while drinking wine.
In classical Rome (up to 500 AD), viticulture and winemaking was spread all over Europe, along with their empire. The Romans, meanwhile, believed that wine was bestowed upon the human race by Jupiter, the great god of air, light and heat. Nearly all Roman religious festivals coincided with important phases of the grape-growing and wine-producing agricultural cycle.
So why has wine, which over the centuries was sanctioned by specific religions, spread and attracted so many followers? Is it a holy beverage with immense powers, reserved for holy and special occasions? Or is it a destructive agent, a substance to be avoided at all costs?
The consumption of alcohol has existed in human society since time immemorial. Probably all societies, at least in historically-recorded times, have had members who have used alcohol, which has been a common source of relaxation, intoxication or inebriation. In modern society, all types of alcoholic beverages are freely available in the world market. Most societies have placed some restraints or restrictions on the use of alcohol because of the dangers arising from its over-use. Some groups, particularly of a religious nature, have tried to ban alcohol altogether and have made it into a sin to consume it at all, although some members within these groups have continued to use alcohol anyway.
Historical and sociological evidence show that in ancient Mediterranean culture, wine wasn’t a luxury – it was a staple way of life, drunk by people of all classes and all ages. For this reason, it’s no surprise that Hebrew scripture depicts wine as a sign of God’s blessing (Genesis 27:28, Deuteronomy 7:13, Amos 9:24). God requires the Israelites to bring wine to the altar as a sacrifice (Exodus 29:40) and tells people to enjoy wine during the festivals (Deuteronomy 14:26). In addition to divinity, the importance of wine can be seen with Bible passages threatening barren vines if the word of God is disobeyed.
Wine plays a significant role in the Jewish tradition. It is considered a holy drink, the only drink over which a prayer is said. Passages in the Hebrew Bible associate wine with the divine. Wine can be found in various rituals still practised today. During the Jewish festival of Passover, Rabbinic obligations exist where men and women consume four cups of wine. Furthermore, specific Jewish dietary laws require that wine be produced a certain way. These are known as kosher wines and must be produced by Sabbath observant Jews. In the production of kosher wines, all components must conform to religious rules and regulations.
Wine in early Christianity enjoyed strong acceptance and its popularity was strengthened with the expansion of Christianity. The Church promoted the use of wine. The Christian New Testament reports that Jesus’ first public miracle occurred at the wedding at Cana, where he turned water into wine. Holy Communion is a major component of Christianity and most Christian denominations still to this day utilize sacramental wine in Church services in which consecrated bread and wine are consumed as the body and blood of Christ or as symbols of Christ’s body and blood. At the Last Supper, Jesus shared bread and wine with his followers, explained the forgiveness of sins and requested that the rituals of the supper be continued in his memory.
For centuries, priests and monks preserved and propagated the skills of winemaking as they supplied sacramental wine to worshipers in the Old and New Worlds. The viticulture and viniculture advanced, thanks to the husbandry of Church monasteries across the continent, which gave rise to some of the finest vineyards in Europe. The Benedictine monks, for example, became one of Europe’s largest wine producers with vineyards in France’s Champagne, Burgundy, and Bordeaux regions, as well as in the Rheingau and Franconia regions of Germany.
As an Abrahamic religion, Islam shares many of the same beliefs as Judaism and Christianity. It is, therefore, curious that alcohol consumption is prohibited in the Islamic religion. For Muslims, the Quran is the ultimate criterion for judging the true, ethical and moral way of life. It also specifies that, due to disruptions of drunken behaviour, wine – among other things – must be avoided. The Quran addresses the question of alcohol and the text makes clear that there is some good that comes from drinking, but that the potential for harm is greater. The Quran indicates to believers that they should not approach their prayers in a state of intoxication; this restriction severely curtails when one could potentially drink, given that Muslims are required to pray five times each day.
Asian cultures, too, associate wine with the spiritual, as seen in the large casks of sake located at Japanese Shinto shrines and the placement of wine on the ceremonial altars honouring the Chinese god of prosperity. The philosophical religion of Daoism in the Chinese tradition emphasizes living in harmony with Tao. The latter denotes the principle that is the source, pattern and substance of everything that exists. As a complex religion, Daoism's relationship with wine is also complex. At different points in the history of Daoism, the use of alcohol has been cherished and frowned upon. Mixed faith sects or specific alchemy schools may have their own restrictions. There is no prohibition against wine, beer or other alcohol in most sects. Through most of Chinese history, people consumed watered wine as a primary beverage. As with most old cultures, this was done both to reduce the risk of drinking contaminated water and to serve as a general health tonic. Today, wine is a standard offering at funeral services as well as the Jiao ritual. The Jiao ritual is a multi-day event where deities are presented wine as well as other offerings.
The teachings of Buddhism, practised in China, Japan, South East Asia as well as South Asia, expressly prohibit the consumption of alcohol, as it is contradictory to the goal of enlightenment. Some Buddhist disciplines have allowed the drinking of wine, namely the Tantric traditions found in Tibet. In Tantric Buddhism, wine is viewed as a tool of enlightenment. As with any religion, different regional customs and individual interpretation is observed. For example, in Sri Lanka, the consumption of wine and alcohol is tied with a higher social status and is therefore accepted.
Confucianism, developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC), suggests that wine must not be brought from unwholesome places, where it is made. This would mean that wine should be either homemade or purchased from places where its quality is secured. Confucius did not state the amount of wine to be consumed. He said that one could drink as much wine as he likes as long as it does not affect the stability of his mind. Confucius treated his diet with fastidious care and had set out detailed guidelines for food and diet in his teachings.
Wines are utilized in funerals and marriages. In funerals, wine is viewed as an offering to the earth as well as the deceased. Alcohol is also offered on ancestral altars and ancestral halls. At weddings, wine can be found in the wedding banquet. Wine stored at the time of the bride's birth is presented at her wedding. In Chinese tradition, wine is shared by the bride and groom in a special bridal cup.
India and its various religions share a long history with wine. Hinduism had originally viewed the consumption of wine as a mortal sin. This eventually changed as different standings within the caste system were allowed different policies concerning alcohol consumption. Eventually, only the highest Brahmin caste was prohibited from drinking wine. It should be noted that Indian wines were not made from grapes but from palm sap. Indian wines – also known as Toddy Palm Wine – are locally produced and consumed.
Hinduism is a spiritual tradition that is not based upon mere faith or belief, but upon an understanding of dharma, the natural laws behind the universe. So the question for Hindus is how does the use of alcohol fit in with its sense of dharma and how does it affect us. Alcohol is also part of the use of intoxicants and stimulants in general, not a separate item. Many monastic orders from India, both Hindu and non-Hindu, take various vows like celibacy. Refraining from alcohol is another such vow that most of these monks swear to.
Some Hindu Tantric groups, on the other hand, use alcohol in a sacred way, either as an offering to the deity or as taken individually during certain special rituals. Hindu merchants and aristocrats have historically used alcohol, and many continue to use alcohol today, without necessarily falling into alcoholism. There is no Hindu religious ban on the use of alcohol as there is in Islam, for example. Hinduism generally shies away from such absolute dos and don’ts and strives to deal with individual cases. Yet Hinduism recognizes that alcohol is a powerful substance that has dangers which should not be taken lightly.
As one of the first alcoholic beverages of modern human civilization, wine managed to infuse itself into almost every major religion of the world. Since of dawn of time, religions of Europe and the Middle East have slowly incorporated this “nectar of the gods” into their ceremonies, maintaining its popularity and survival throughout centuries and millennia's of human advancement. Major life cycle events such as birth, coming-of-age, marriage and death; important life-changes such as graduation or retirement – and even far less momentous shifts such as the daily transition from work to play – all require ritual endorsement. Wine, more than any other food or beverage, is intimately associated with religious experience and celebratory rituals.
That wine has a potential down side, no one, even those who drink it regularly, would dispute. Of course, interpretations of wine’s place in each religion have shifted over the course of centuries, and will likely continue to evolve, based on politics, culture and the religious figureheads of the day.