Dionysus, Bachus, and Liber are the names of the ancient Greek and Roman god of wine. This god embodied many of the qualities which Greeks and Romans saw in wine itself: life and death, nature and civilization, male and female. There were a lot of different gods in ancient Greek and Roman society, but people who enjoy wine today should take a second look at Dionysus, Bacchus, or Liber to ponder what this god meant to ancient civilizations and what he might still have to tell us about wine today.
The Greeks believed that Dionysus was a god of ambiguity. In Euripides’ phrasing, he was both most terrible and most gentle. He crossed boundaries, blending male with female, Greek with foreign, civic with the natural world. He was a god linked with the dead as well as the living. He also introduced the vine to Greece. This god of the natural world had the power to produce foods such as milk and honey spontaneously from rocks and plants, as Euripides describes in his Bacchae. He could also cause rivers to flow with wine rather than water.
The Romans worshipped Dionysus as Liber, or Bacchus, one of the cult titles of Dionysus. Bacchus was one of the Greek divinities introduced into Rome in the third century BC in order to preserve the city from the Carthaginians and other outside threats. But the god might also become a threat, and in 186 BC the Senate suppressed the female cult of the Bacchanalia in fear of anti-state conspiracy. These ambiguities are reflected in cult.
Source: Food in the Ancient World, by John M. Wilkins and Shaun Hill
Both the Greek cities on the Pelopenisan mainland as well as the Ionian region of Asia Minor celebrated a festival dedicated to the opening of new wine. Called the Anthesteria ("flower"), these festivals were held in the spring whereas contemporary new wine festivals are held in the fall. The Anthesteria celebrations were about much more than just opening new wine just as wine was about much more than jut having something to drink. The Anthesteria involved important political, religious, and cultural themes: they reinforced connections between the household and the larger polis, integrated new family members and citizens with established members, connected birth and life with death, and so forth.
Burkert (1985: 237) sets the scene: "At the sanctuary of Dionysos en limnais the Athenians used to mix the wine for the god from the jars which they transported along there, and then taste it themselves . . . Delighted with the mixture, they celebrated Dionysos with songs, danced, and invoked him as the Fair-flowering, the Dithyrambos, the Reveller and the Stormer."
This is how an Attic local historian [Phanodemus FGrHist 325 F 12, quoted by Athenaeus 11.465a] describes the beginning of the festival on the 11th Anthesterion: "The beginning of the new vintage, the first fruit offering, is set in the sanctuary which is only opened at sunset. The day is filled with preparations; the clay vessels are carted in from the small vineyards scattered throughout the countryside, small-holders, day-labourers, and slaves come into the city, and friends and strangers wait for nightfall outside the sanctuary. Then, as the jars are broken open, the god is honoured with the first libations."
On the second day, Choes, the wine jars were opened and men drank competitively from large jugs. Slaves and children also joined in, this being one of the rituals of incorporation for the young child into the family. There were also dark aspects to the second day, for the house and city were subject to invasion by the dead. There was also a further form of drinking, in which at a trumpet sound everyone drank an equal measure simultaneously, but in silence and each at an individual table. This was said to be in memory of the arrival in Athens of Orestes, with hands still polluted by the blood of his mother Clytemnestra.
Also on this day, the king archon, one of the chief magistrates of the city, who had organized the solitary drinking, gave his wife in sacred marriage to Dionysus at the god’s temple in the marshes, somewhere to the south of the acropolis. On the third day of the festival, Chutroi, or Pots, mixed grains were boiled with honey in the pots. Burkert (1985: 240) comments, ‘this is the most primitive cereal dish of the early farmers, older than the discovery of flour-milling and bread-baking; in funeral customs it has survived down to the present day’. Modern Greek kolyva offers an example of Burkert’s funerary mixture. The myth of the flood, according to Burkert, lies behind the primitive porridge. At the end of the day, the dead are invited to leave.
The complexity of these new wine festivals would be difficult to understate and underestimate. These are not simply parties to celebrate new wines and they aren't even just harvest festivals which celebrate the bounty of the fields. These festivals were based on and revolved around wine — you couldn't have replaced wine with another beverage like milk or fruit juice and still have the same effect — yet they also went well beyond the wine into other aspects of culture, society, religion, and politics.
Is there any other food or beverage that has anything close this kind of status in modern Western society?