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Flavors of Italy

The Mythology of Wine: Why, Where, When

Myths, legends and sayings about wine and their origin

We Italians like to eat, everybody knows. We like to think, dream and talk about food while eating food. The same goes for wine. We worship it, we adore it, as unconscious sons of very ancient, mythological legacies, which are almost lost in legend. It’s said a chi non piace il vino, il Signore faccia mancar l’acqua (for those who don’t like wine, the Lord will take away water) and we take this proverb seriously. Orazio himself stated nessuna poesia scritta da bevitori d’acqua può piacere o vivere a lungo (no poem written by water drinkers can be liked or live long). Not to mention Baudelaire, maybe the most illustrious of viveur, suspected those who refused the pleasure of a nice glass guilty of hiding secrets. Considering that the French say l’acqua è per i birbanti, il diluvio lo provò (water is for scamps, the Great Flood proved it), God, at some point, had to forgive us because many of the biblical characters end up happily getting drunk without fear of celestial punishments.

But the king of drunkenness is Dioniso, considered by Greek and Roman mythology – in the latter case he becomes Bacco, from the Latin bacchius, in turn from the Greek bàkchos which translates as “to make a mess, to make noise”, so “baccano” and “baccanale” – the wine and viticulture deus maximus. Disliked at first by all his other divine relatives, with his unpleasant appearance and dirty behaviors, he teaches men the art of winemaking and this is not good, no! because vino pazzo che suole spingere anche l’uomo molto saggio a intonare una canzone, e a ridere di gusto, e lo manda su a danzare, e lascia sfuggire qualche parola che era meglio tacere (Oh, crazy wine that pushes even the wisest man to sing a song, and to laugh heartily, and leads him to dance, and lets some words, that were better left untold, go). All the fun for men therefore, a bit like the story of Prometeo, poor man who dared to give us fire and is now condemned to torment for eternity. Maybe.

However Dioniso, clever boy, in the end wins affection: the legend tells that one day the Gods arrive in Napoli and, struck by the beauty of the place, decide to take a picnic on Vesuvio. The inhabitants, to pay homage to these illustrious guests, stuff them with tasty, salty, peppery food, as good tradizione napoletana wants. This is cool, but at some point the Gods are terribly thirsty and this is when that crafty Dioniso enters the scene: he waters everything with his famous vino and and they like it so much likes it so so much to his relatives, that he is forgiven and reinstated as a member of the Olympus club. That food, so tasty, so salty and so peppery, was nothing more than a mountain of taralli sugna e pepe, and this is why the proverb goes finire a tarallucci e vino (end with taralli and wine) – end on a good note.

Therefore Dioniso, born as demigod, son of Zeus and the human Semele, is promoted to divinity in all respects thanks to this brilliant invention.

But where does the myth of Dioniso and his love for wine come from? It seems that, while traveling, Dioniso heard of a beautiful girl abandoned on an island and decided to save her. This girl was none other than the famous Arianna, princess of Crete, the same Arianna who helped Theseus escape alive from the labyrinth of the Minotauro by giving him a wool ball (the proverbial “filo di Arianna”). After the escape the two fled, but Theseus inexplicably decided to abandon her on the island of Naxos, this makes us think that a part of the myth has been lost. For this reason, when we say piantare in asso (a saying that means to walk out on someone / something) we make a mistake: the correct form is piantare in Nasso. At a certain point, Dioniso made his grand entrance on the island, married Arianna, who became his wife and paredra, and found a plant he had never seen: the vine.

Intrigued, he decided to take and keep some branches: during the journey it grew, blooming into beautiful bunches of grapes. Once squeezed by chance, Dioniso invented wine as it’s known today, as a drink. In this case, once again luck was on his side: ha avuto la botte piena, ma anche la moglie ubriaca, or not? (he had his cake and his wife was drunk too).

From Ancient Greece then, on the tables and altars where wine was elected nectar of the Gods, the cultivation of vines expanded throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, starting from Sicily. 

Actually, the wine consumed in those days wouldn’t be familiar to us: it was quite sweet, alcoholic and quickly spoiled. It was the Romans, subsequently, to refine its conservation techniques and to understand its economic value.

The Latins in fact said vinum vita est (wine is life): it was used to celebrate victories in war and during propitiatory rites, wedding banquets, religious ceremonies, important funerals; it was usual to give wine to the winners of battles or special enterprises, people dined with wine discussing philosophy, politics, poetry or, looking at the other side, wine was considered guilty of murders, exterminations, passionate revenge, just think of Ulisse who made Polifemo drunk in order to knock out and deceive him and  the Proci to kill them all.

Isn’t it said that Bacco, tabacco e Venere riducono l’uomo in cenere? (Bacchus, tobacco and Venus reduce man to ashes).

Yes, because wine and women often go hand in hand.

Following Ulysses again, is Circe, one of his lovers and famous magician, who  offers to him and his crew sweet wine, suitably mixed with drugs, to stun them and turn them into pigs. And another of his old flames seemed to be a wine admirer: the nymph Calypso, queen of the Ogigia island where he remained as guest and prisoner for seven years, che si stendeva vigorosa con i suoi tralci intorno alla grotta profonda la vite domestica: era tutta carica di grappoli (an island that spread vigorously with its branches around to the deep cave, the domestic vine: it was full of bunches. Odissea V, 68-69).

Donna e vino ubriaca il grande e il piccolino (women and wine inebriate those great and little). And great, like Ulisse, was Oloferne too, beheaded by Giuditta after seeing him drunk with wine at a banquet.

Disrupting the ancient scriptures and other banquet histories, the Virgin Mary orders Jesus to turn water into wine at the wedding at Cana. Why? What does this very first miracle represent? Because wine, even in the Christian Catholic tradition, is a symbol  of life, prosperity, abundance and good omens. 

On the other hand, what is a wedding without wine?

An uncoordinated meeting of people who celebrate without the special guest.

Never prefer water! In Napoli, they say l’acqua fa male e ‘o vino fa cantà (water makes you feel bad, wine makes you sing) and if it really is not possible, if er vino nu lo reggi, l’uva magnatela a chicchi (if you can’t handle wine, you can eat just the grape). Roma docet.

The fate of those who succumb and become a slave to wine or women, or worse to both, is terrible, but what can we do about it? I said at the beginning, we are Italians, and the supreme Goethe said it too, despite not being Italian at all, he who understood something of beauty: una donna e un bicchiere di vino soddisfano ogni bisogno, chi non beve e non bacia è peggio che morto (a woman and a glass of wine satisfy everything, those who don’t drink and kiss are worse than dead).

We like to bask in pleasure, we love that dolce far niente of which we have become world ambassadors, often with a glass of wine in hand: the image of a Roman patrician on a triclinium with a bunch of grapes between his fingers seems to be direct representation of what we have inherited, of the traditions they have passed on to us.

Chi non beve in compagnia è un ladro o una spia (who doesn’t drink in company is either a thief or a spy). And we know it. Our tables can be set with all good things, but if there is no wine, and no friends, there is no fun, no poetry.

Are we or are we not, on the other hand, terra di santi, poeti e naviganti? (a land of saints, poets and sailors). But above all, of superstitious people: woe to the man who pours wine with the left hand, alla traditora, just like Giuda during l’ultima cena. But if some wine spills on the table, then ok, all right! because it’s a sign of good luck and is resolved with two naive drops behind the ears.

We have a proverb for anything, why should wine be missing? Popular sayings, refined verses of poets, ancient beliefs, modern myths, music, art, painting, how can we forget the wonderful “Bacco” by Caravaggio or the compositions that Baudelaire dedicated to it? È ora di ubriacarsi. Ubriacatevi, per non essere gli schiavi martirizzati dal tempo. Ubriacatevi in continuazione, di vino, di poesia, di virtù, come volete he said. (Time to get drunk. Get drunk, so as not to be the slaves martyred by time. Get drunk all the time, with wine, with poetry, with virtue, as you wish).

It will no longer be time to worship Gods on pagan altars as the Greeks or Romans did, but isn’t it the same when we put a bottle of wine on the table? An ancient, ancestral action about universal spoken language adventures, an action that unites, elevates the spirit and the mood and brings out the best and the worst, the dormant and the unspoken.

Because, after all, we all know it, like it or not: in vino veritas.

Amo sulla tavola, quando si conversa, la luce di una bottiglia di intelligente vino”. 

“I love the light of a clever bottle of wine, on the table, when talking”.

Pablo Neruda