Wine Gods Beyond Dionysius and Bacchus

We are all familiar with some of the most famous wine gods in world history. The most notable amongst these is Dionysius, the Greek god of wine and excess, and his Roman equivalent Bacchus. Dionysius and Bacchus had major cults throughout the Mediterranean world for a period of nearly a thousand years between the sixth century BC and the end of the Roman Empire. But there were a great many other gods of viticulture in other religious traditions. Here we explore some of the most prominent ones.

Dozens of Wine Deities

There were dozens of wine deities existent in ancient times, during a period when polytheism, the belief in multiple gods, was much more commonplace than monotheism, the belief in a sole, all-powerful god. These ranged across a span of thousands of years, from the people of Ancient Egypt, who worshipped wine gods as early as they were building the Great Pyramid Complex at Giza nearly five millennia ago, to the Mayas and Aztecs of Central America, who were still worshipping gods of intoxication and revelry within their pantheons as recently as a few hundred years ago, long after European and Eurasian societies had largely ceased to be polytheistic.

Wine Gods in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia

No sooner had major civilizations begun to emerge across the Fertile Crescent, the region running from Egypt in an arc northeast through the Levant to eastern Turkey and into Iraq and Iran than gods to agriculture, viticulture and brewing also began to appear. There were several in Egypt from the Old Kingdom period onwards, the age in which the Giza Pyramid Temple Complex was constructed in the mid-third millennium BC.

One of the most prominent and ancient of these was Shezmu, the god of ointments, perfume, and wine. Ointments and perfumes were associated with funerary rituals in Egypt and it seems relatively clear that red wine was already being used as a symbolic substitute for blood in death rituals over 2,500 years before the two became tied to each other in Christian worship. Moreover, Shezmu was a god of festivities, dancing, and singing, indicating this Egyptian deity was already linking wine and religious festivals long before Dionysius became the example par excellence of alcohol excess and religious ecstasy in the mid-first millennium BC. [1]

There were Egyptian deities who later came to be patrons of wine as well, notably Bes and Beset, a male and female divine duo who were gods of the household and many things within it, like wine. Their cult survived into the later stages of Egyptian history and during Roman times even spread across the Mediterranean as far west as the Balearic Islands.

To the northeast in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) wine deities of a kind had emerged by the late third millennium BC. We know of these from the character of Siduri in the great Sumerian epic poem The Epic of Gilgamesh. In this Siduri was an alewife of sorts, however, her character was later deemed to be synonymous with other Mesopotamia deities, notably Ninkasi, a goddess of brewing and fermentation. Curiously, though, a wine god or goddess who was directly the patron of viticulture did not emerge here in the same way which they would amongst the Greeks and Romans in later times. [3]

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Ancient China

Viticulture had emerged in China independent of developments far to the west along the Fertile Crescent as early as the fourth millennium BC, though much of this involved the production of rice wine, as opposed to grape wine. A number of Chinese wine deities appeared in tandem, though it is unclear if some of these were considered to be actual deities, demigods, or mortals mentioned as interacting with the gods.

One of these was Du Kang, a figure who is mentioned in Chinese mythology as being largely responsible for the invention of alcoholic beverages. He was probably perceived as being human, but was deified in death and became the patron of winemakers in China and later in Japan as well. Indeed a modern Chinese wine brand carries his name.

However, the most prominent Chinese wine deity was Yidi. He was a divine entity who was supposed to have created the first alcoholic beverages, wine included, for presentation as a gift to the emperor, Yu the Great, around 2100 BC. This tale obviously clashes with that of Du Kang and there are competing narratives of this kind within Chinese mythology. Yet within Daoism Yidi is more likely to be credited as being the god of wine. [4]

Who Were the Other Greek and Roman Gods of Wines?

Even back in the Mediterranean world, as the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age, there were other deities amongst the Greeks and Romans other than Dionysius and Bacchus. For instance, Acratopotes was a minor deity worshipped in Attica who was noted as a drinker of unmixed wine. Silenus was one of the satyrs who was said to be a tutor of Dionysius, thus being a major influence on the drunken revelry with which the more well-known Greek wine god was associated.

Amongst the Romans, there was one god who was an even more significant wine god than Bacchus for hundreds of years. This was Liber Pater, literally meaning ‘the Free Father’, a wine god whose position within Roman religion predated that of Bacchus. As early as 493 BC a festival was held in the city in honor of this god of viticulture and several prominent temples were built there for him in succeeding centuries. However, as Greek culture spread to Rome in the course of the third and second centuries BC, Bacchus, the Roman equivalent of Dionysius, emerged as the more prominent god of wine, replacing Liber Pater in this role. [5]

Sucellus: The Celtic God of Wine

While many polytheistic belief systems involved the worship of multiple gods and goddesses of wine, one was clearly associated with viticulture in the Celtic tradition. This was Sucellus, a god who was especially revered amongst the Celts of Gaul (modern-day France) and parts of Hispania (Spain) and Lusitania (Portugal) in pre-Roman and Roman times. Such was the association between Sucellus and alcohol that he was often depicted either carrying a libation cup for drinking wine or dragging a beer barrel.

Sucellus

Sucellus

Because the Celts were not known for viticulture prior to the conquest of their territories by the Romans but were rather a beer-drinking culture, it is assumed that the association with Sucellus with wine and viticulture was a feature of his cult which was introduced following the Roman conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar in the mid-first century BC. With the Romans came wine and the need for a wine deity. The Celts of Roman Gaul adapted Sucellus accordingly. Interestingly, there is evidence that the cult of Sucellus was particularly strong in the region of the Aedui, a Celtic tribe in Gaul whose lands lay around the Burgundy region. This would suggest this part of France quickly developed a reputation for the quality of its wines following Roman colonization. [6]

The Ancient Mayans and Aztecs – Acan, Cacoch, and Ometochtli

These patterns were not just observable in the Old World. Although wine made from grape juice was virtually unheard of in the Americas prior to the arrival of the first Europeans in 1492, the Mayans, Aztecs, and others did have alcoholic drinks of varying kinds. The Mayans, for instance, drank balché, a beverage made from a specific type of bark soaked in honey and water and then fermented. Similarly, the Aztecs drank pulque, an alcoholic beverage made from the sap of the maguey plant.

Deities whose cults were specifically centered on the consumption of these beverages emerged accordingly. Two deities in particular stand out amongst the Mayans. These were Acan and Cacoch, who were synonymous with balché and who were said to be drinking buddies in Mayan mythology.

For the Aztecs, the main such god was Ometochtli, who was specifically viewed as a patron of pulque and the maguey plant. By the fifteenth century, when the Aztec Empire was at its height, a complex cult had emerged around Ometochtli, one which involved religious ceremonies in which pulque was drunk. These seem to have mirrored in many ways the Eleusinian Mysteries associated with Dionysius amongst the ancient Greeks and point to the manner in which the deities which emerged surrounding the consumption of liquid intoxicants in the Americas in ancient times were closely reflective of those which pertained to wine gods back in the Old World. [7]

Conclusion: The Gods of Wine

All in all, we are often overly limited in our view of the ancient gods and goddesses of wine when we overly focus on Dionysius and Bacchus. While these were the most celebrated of the ancient Greek and Roman viticulture deities, there were many others even within the Greek and Roman pantheons. These ranged throughout most of the dominant religious systems of ancient times, from Pharaonic Egypt and Ancient Mesopotamia to China and the Maya and Aztecs of Central America. What is most striking about these is the homogeneity of belief, with societies that had little to no contact with each other developing similar ideas about how viticulture was worshipped and the actions of the gods and goddesses with acted as patrons thereof.

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On This Day

17 March 493 BC – On this day in 493 BC, the first religious festival in honor of Liber Pater was held in Rome. This relatively unknown Roman god today was a patron of viticulture and wine, as well as male fertility and freedom. His name literally translates as ‘the Free Father’, supposing that consumption of wine freed the individual from inhibitions. The festival was first held in 493 BC to consecrate the new public temples at Rome in honor of the deities Ceres, Liber Pater, and Libera and was declared by Aulus Postumius some years earlier when he was the dictator of Rome and had conquered the Latins at the Battle of Lake Regillus. Later Liber Pater’s role as a god of viticulture and wine was superseded amongst the Romans by Bacchus, which in turn represented the transfer of the cult of Dionysius from the Greek Eastern Mediterranean to Rome.

17 January 395 – On this in 395 Emperor Theodosius, who had ruled much of the Roman Empire since 379, died. He is known for many things, notably having waged a highly successful war against the Goths, a Eurasian nomadic people who had invaded the Balkans. As such he is known as Theodosius the Great. However, this name is as much owing to his decision to enact a series of persecutory laws against the Christians of the empire from 381 onwards. These effectively crushed the old Greek and Roman polytheistic religions as they were practiced across the Mediterranean. With the local cults of the old gods were shut down and their adherents persecuted. One of the less well-known aspects of this was that it destroyed the cults of the old wine gods across the Roman world, not just the more famous ones such as Dionysius and Bacchus, but also those of Liber Pater, Ceres, and others. As a result, the extensive wine festivals which were held to celebrate these gods were dispensed with as a new conservatism entered into European religious life.

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References

[1] George Hart, The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses (London, 2005), pp. 146–147. [2] Joseph Leibovitch, ‘Gods of Agriculture and Welfare in Ancient Egypt’, in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2 (April, 1953), pp. 73–113. [3] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/221/the-mesopotamian-pantheon/ [accessed 30/8/22]. [4] Mu-Chou Poo, ‘The Use and Abuse of Wine in Ancient China’, in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 42, No. 2 (1999), pp. 123–151. [5] J. Linderski, ‘Libiis or Libens? A Note on a New Dedication to Liber Pater from Dacia’, in Latomus, T.34, Fasc. 1 (January – Mars, 1975), pp. 209–211; ‘Liber Pater’, in Pierre Grimal, The Dictionary of Classical Mythology (London, 1996). [6] F. M. Heichelheim and J. E. Housman, ‘Sucellus and Nantosuelta in Mediaeval Celtic Mythology’, in L’Antiquité Classique, T.17 (1948), pp. 305–316. [7] Mary Miller and Karl Taube, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion (London, 1993). [8] Jan Assmann, ‘Monotheism and Polytheism’, in Sarah Iles Johnston (ed.), Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide (Harvard, 2004), pp. 17–31. [9] John Frederick Drinkwater, ‘Celts’, in Simon Hornblower, Anthony Spaworth and Ether Eidinow (ed.), The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Fourth Edition, Oxford, 2012), p. 295.

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