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Homer and Wine

By the 8th and 7th centuries BC, when the written works of Hesiod and the Homeric bards began to appear, wine had thoroughly permeated Greek culture and become a ubiquitous feature – a dietary staple, preferable to water, drunk at any time of day or night, with or without food. Greeks had learned to cut their wine with water, Hesiod advocated a dilution of three parts water to one part wine while Alcaeus of Mytilene called for a stronger mixture of two to one. A favorite epithet in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey is wine-dark, used, for example, in reference to the sea or the color of oxen. “Pramnian” wine, too, is often mentioned – as a general term for good dark wines. The existence of many types of wines is implied by Homer’s description Laertes, Odysseus’s father, whose vineyard is said to include over 50 different grape varieties. A knowledge of sun-dried grapes for sweeter, more intense “raisin” or “straw” wine is also attested, not only by Homer but also Hesiod who cites the sun-dried “Cypriot Manna” grape, perhaps the precursor of the Commandaria type. At Troy, Agamemnon’s stock of wine, brought over by traders from Lemnos, came from Thrace.

The qualities of wine, both good and bad, are illustrated in Homeric epic when Hecabe, Hector’s mother advises him to offer libations and reinvigorate himself with wine. Odysseus likewise suggests that Greek warriors fortify themselves and bolster their courage by taking their fill of food and wine before battle, while, in ordinary civilian life, agricultural field workers are depicted on Achilles’ shield as receiving a cup of honey-sweet wine at the end of every plowed row.

Nevertheless, wine’s powerful effects are also acknowledged when Hector subsequently demurs. Odysseus cautions that wine can lead even the wisest men to frivolous behavior, such as excessive laughter, dancing and speaking out of turn. When, in disguise, he requests a turn at stringing the great bow at the last dinner with Penelope’s suitors, they perceive him as drunk and remind him of the rude party antics exhibited by the Centaurs at the Lapith wedding – an iconic mythological example of wine-induced, uncivilized, socially unacceptable behavior that later shows up in the decorative southern metopes of the Parthenon.

The power of unmixed wine is demonstrated by Odysseus, when he tricks the Cyclops Polyphemus with such reckless imbibing, after which the wily traveler and his men finally escape from the giant’s cave. At other times, wine was employed as an ingredient in mixed potations. Homer’s scenes of elite feasting and drinking illuminate the close connection between these activities and military and political power – with the best meat, exquisite wine and seats of special honor at banquets being selectively offered as privileges of elevated social status. Characteristic of such gatherings were finely crafted and decorated banqueting equipment, exemplified by Homer through Nestor’s golden, two- handled drinking cup.

Wine and drinking paraphernalia were considered appropriate high-status gifts for foreign guests and other visitors. Odysseus receives a silver mixing bowl and a dozen containers of unmixed sweet wine from a priest of Apollo, while his son Telemachus is presented with a drinking cup and a krater by Spart’s king Menelaus.

Source: John Leonard,The Mists of Time, Greece is Wine, 2016 Issue