Wine has been at the heart of sacred ritual ever since humans had the ability to raise a glass. Libation rituals, or symbolic wine offerings, were at the very center of the religious practices of the ancient societies of Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Rome among others. During these offerings, wine was poured onto something of religious significance, like an altar, the earth, or a particularly important celebrant’s devout throat.
In ancient Egypt, libations were made during sacred occasions. Wine was poured into a shallow libation bowl, called a patera (the paten – small bread plate – used in the Christian Eucharist comes from this word). The shallow bowl had a little bellybutton-shaped reservoir at its base that caught the good stuff. Some of the wine was poured onto the ground as an offering, some of the wine was drunk by the celebrant.
The Ancient Greeks had a more regular daily practice. The pouring of wine, usually accompanied by prayer, was the simplest and most common religious practice. The most pious performed libations night and day and before meals. Ancient Greek Symposiums were essentially social sanctioned wine parties. The word symposium means “to drink together” and that is exactly what they did. From the first bowl of wine, libations were made to Zeus, the ruler of the Olympian gods. From the second bowl, libations were made to heroes, from the third libations to Hermes, and down the line – there were many, many gods to honor. This is what Wikipedia gives us on Symposium:
A symposium would be overseen by a “symposiarch” who would decide how strong the wine for the evening would be, depending on whether serious discussions or merely sensual indulgence were in the offing. The Greeks and Romans customarily served their wine mixed with water, as the drinking of pure wine was considered a habit of uncivilized peoples. The wine was drawn from a krater, a large jar designed to be carried by two men, and served from pitchers (oenochoe). Certain formalities were observed, most important among which were libations, the pouring of a small amount of wine in honour of various deities or the mourned dead.
The symposium was the center stage for the popular god Dionysus, god of the grape harvest, wine, and ecstasy. Bacchus to the Romans, Dionysus was the protector of the enslaved and disenfranchised. Intoxicatingrituals in his honor were thought to bring celebrants back to their natural state of liberation. These rites, based on a seasonal theme of death and rebirth, evolved over time from drunken orgies to more spiritual observances centered on the preservation of the soul. Sound familiar?
Wine is integral to the Eucharist, the Christian ceremony commemorating the Last Supper when bread and wine were consecrated and consumed. In to the Gospel’s Last Supper (a Passover Seder), Jesus urges his apostles to share bread and wine: “Do this in remembrance of me.” The sacramental wine symbolizes the blood of Christ, though in some traditions the wine actually becomes the blood through transubstantiation.
In the Jewish tradition, wine symbolizes redemption – especially during Passover. This festival of celebration and remembrance commemorates God’s liberation of the Jews from slavery in ancient Egypt. God brought ten plagues upon the Egyptians, these plagues are remembered in the Seder with ten droplets of wine, dripped from the pinky finger to the dinner plate. Four cups of wine are consumed during the meal in recognition of the four expressions of redemption: the cup of sanctification; the cup of judgment; the cup of redemption; and the fourth is the cup of the kingdom.
Though the modern religious rituals like Easter and Passover look much more staid, they may have some distant foundational connections to the Dionysian frenzies of Grecco-Roman times. But whether you’re Christian, Jewish, or just a fan of Bacchus, the spring holidays are the perfect time to raise your glass.