Wise Men Go Home
Wine was the beverage of choice in Ancient Greece. It was cheap, plentiful usually mixed with water and drunk at every meal. Even children got a thimble full in their cup.
The Greeks believed in wine’s medicinal benefits, and it’s use as a social lubricant. But they also incorporated it in their lives in more profound and powerful ways.
The historian Thucydides states, “the peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine."
There was no god of the olive, but Dionysus the god of the vine was everywhere in Greece, from all night woodland celebrations and intellectual drinking parties to the world’s first drama festivals.
Joining wine to music and dancing in nighttime revelries, followers of Dionysus cast off all inhibitions and went into passionate frenzies, banging tambourines and drums, running and howling through the woods, seeking a direct union with their god. Things sometimes got out of hand. A band of Dionysus followers, lost in revelry, were not to be trifled with.
The Greeks in Athens also invented Drama-tragedy, comedy, and satire - to worship this wild haired god of wine. Plays were part highbrow stimulation, competitive contest, and rowdy entertainment. Perhaps they were also meant to channel some of the energy of these frenzied rustic celebrations. It is certainly where they sprang from. What resulted was great art and a new art form. You can be sure the wine flowed at every springtime festival starting around 530 BCE and extending almost thousand years.
But there were limits.
Time and again moderation is praised, and drunkenness mocked, the only exception being the wayward, wild eyed followers of the wine god.
Maybe because the Greeks knew the passionate side of life and wine so well, they recognized that only self-control, would prevent them from descending into chaos.
Dancing and shouting in the woods to drums and tambourines, is not like watching a seven day, sunup to sundown line up of the most brilliant playwrights, in the most brilliant city in Greece.
Who would want to sit nodding in a drunken stupor during a performance, and miss wrestling with tragic life problems and the release of a great communal catharsis at the climax of the show, or miss snickering and grinning knowingly at the biting satire aimed directly at all the important people in the city, sitting in the front row? Why give up laughing and howling uproariously at the bawdy, irreverent humor of a comedic masterpiece, for a dopey wine induced sleep, on hard stone benches in the hot sun?
What would you answer when someone asked for the rest of the year, “Did you feel it?” or “What did you think?” “I was too drunk to notice?”
When all night reveries and drama performances were not happening, there was still plenty to drink in Athens.
A symposium, that most intellectual of dinner parties, where guests reclined on couches and talked about ideas after the meal, was at heart, a drinking affair. The host stipulated how much wine to add into the mixing bowl, depending how he wanted the night to go. A little bit loosened the tongue, too much and the night might take any one of several turns. Great conversation was not one of them.
A night of light entertainment, silliness or excess was one thing, and sometimes enjoyed around a beautifully painted mixing bowl, filled with more wine than water, but when the brilliant people showed up - Pericles, Sophocles, Aspasia, the smartest woman in Athens - you might be looking for another kind of party.
In Plato’s dialogue The Symposium, the group decides the wine would be kept to a minimum. Some of the guests had taken too much the night before, and who would want to fall asleep or act silly, when you could listen to Socrates grill some of the guests.
Even though he shows up halfway through dinner – he has been standing in a trance on a porch next door - and he claims to know nothing and not up to the task of speaking, after all the fine speeches he has heard; Socrates launches into an imagined dialogue on love, taking us to “the endless sea of beauty” where we reap “the golden harvest of the love of wisdom”
Not a bad tradeoff, for a little less wine in the mixing bowl.
Somehow, the Greeks knew how to tolerate excess, without being engulfed by it, and still produce some of the greatest works of art in human history.
What about our own approach ?
Today ,alcohol is present in almost every culture on earth. Even places that officially ban it, have a thriving underground market. In many countries, it’s embedded into the fabric of life so deeply, that it’s present at all major occasions, from celebrating a person’s entry into the world, to their last nightcap.
But are any of its ancient connections still alive?
Although there are no statues of Dionysus on Broadway -only overpriced drinks, sold at intermission during the shows - and there is no communal bowl of chianti on the head table at an academic symposium, wine and it’s descendants are often present to accompany live music and dancing, a distant echo of the days of the wine god and his woodland followers.
From jug band music and Chicago blues to guitar jam sessions around the campfire, a friendly social scene which includes music makers and a little something to drink, has always been part of our cultural landscape. And you don’t have to be good at it; just show up and join in.
But as electronics and technology have become more pervasive, many people have stopped making music for themselves and become passive recipients, rather than active doers. The drinking remains, but not the social music making and celebration, which was the real point of it all.
Have we spent all our cultural capital inventing jazz and blues, rock n' roll and great folk poets--with nothing left but jello shots, late night brawls, and binge drinking alone?
What cultural ingredients did the Greeks mix into their wine that we lack, that led down the path to joyous feasting, great art and
brilliant conversation? It seems it’s not really the wine, but what we surround it with that’s important.
But still, size matters.
Socrates tells us if we drink too much, our minds and our bodies go reeling and we are incapable of making any sense at all.
Drama, Homer and Mythology tell the same tale.
Raise a Toast : Dionysus on How to Drink
In a fragment from a lost play by Eubulos, a 4th century BC Athenian playwright, Dionysus himself describes the proper and improper approach:
For sensible men I prepare only three kraters:
The fourth krater is not mine any more - it belongs to bad behavior;
The fifth is for shouting;
The sixth is for rudeness and insults;
The seventh is for fights;
The eighth is for breaking the furniture;
The ninth is for depression;
The tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.
In the Odyssey Homer tells us the Cyclops, alone and brutal in his cave, is the model of barbaric behavior, not just because he terrorizes Odysseus and his men and eats his guests, or because “he has no meetings, no old ways, doesn’t plow the ground or sail a ship and lives alone, rough with his wife and child” but because Odysseus can so easily fool him. To be drunk enough to pass out unconscious and have your eye poked out by a trickster, doesn’t make you sympathetic, it makes you a fool. When he comes crashing down, the Cyclops lands not on a warm soft bed, but a cold stone floor, a hard reality, but a true one. He is everything the Greeks rightly despised.
Finally, in a myth about the beginning of wine, the gods give us the same message.
When Dionysus planted grapes for mankind to make wine, he dropped the seeds in the carcass of three animals, a bird, a lion, and a donkey. When you drink a little, you fly like a bird. Drink a little more and you roar like a lion. Drink too much and you ask like a jackass.