Watering the Wine

In ancient Hellas and Rome, wine was always watered. Anyone who regularly drank unwatered wine was considered a horrible drunk, and drastic measures might be taken to cure them. In Rome, that might include putting eels in their wine pitcher to make them think they were hallucinating from the wine.

Alcohol was, rightly, considered a powerful drug -- Plutarch referred to it as such, and mentions prayers that "the use of the drug be harmless and healthful or saving of them" (Questiones Conviviales, 3.7.1) -- and while most people drank it daily, it was always well-watered. I remember my Latin teacher in high school telling us that at Roman feasts, they diced to see how much water would be added, and the highest possible ratio was 1:1, while everyday wine was more like 1:10. I also remember her suggesting that the grapes in Italy and Greece had hallucinogenic mold growing on them, and that the hallucinogen remained in the beverage, although I have never seen this mentioned elsewhere.

Modern people would do well to think of alcohol as the powerful drug it is, and remember how much it can affect the body and mind. Damage to liver and brain cells, impairment of judgement and motor control, all the things familiar from middle school health classes, but also much more. Something many people are not aware of is that alcohol can have very serious effects on people with mood disorders, making depressions far worse. Indeed, people with these disorders often self-medicate with alcohol, because the high comes as such a relief, but then the resultant crash and longer-term effects send them back to the bottle, creating a destructive cycle and engendering a dependence that can swiftly become alcoholism. Because what you really need when you already have a mood disorder is an addiction that actively makes it worse!

This, by the way, is why I drink both little and rarely. Even when I worked as a cook, in the middle of a crew that drank hard every night, I would have one drink maybe three nights a week, often just as an analgesic, because damn my feet hurt. And that's the most intake I'd had in years. Now I drink a single drink maybe two or three times a month, and every other month or so have two or three glasses of wine (about 8-15oz, depending on how many and how heavy I pour) as part of Bacchic worship. Perhaps once a year, I'll have a bit more than that.

In ritual these days, I always water the wine -- even though I much prefer the taste unwatered, although it's much better with sweeter wines -- usually 1:1 or 1:2 ratios. It's become a part of the ritual for me, as I come to understand Dionysos and his sacred ecstasy better. The water nourishes the wine, and spreads it out. It protects my body from the hard hit that alcohol gives it, lengthens the slow slide into the altered state and cushioning me thereby, keeping me hydrated, letting me drink more constantly over two or three hours while not actually increasing the amount. It's also part of the mystery of the wine. Water cleanses and purifies us, sustains our bodies and souls, keeps us alive. It represents the nymphai who served as Dionysos' nursemaids and nourished him and kept him alive. This is actually attested to by Athenaios, referencing Phanodemos, in the Deipnosophistai. He says that even at Anthesteria (one of the great festivals of Dionysos), on the first day, Pithoigia, when the jars of new wine was opened, the wine was mixed before it was drunk for the first time, and that "therefore the streams were called Nymphs and Nurses of Dionysos because mixed-in water increases the wine."

It is an alchemical, transformative action to water the wine, blessing it and making it ready for consumption, so that it will transform the drinker in turn. It is part of the consecration of the wine to Dionysos, the setting-aside of it as being for his purposes and to be drunk in his service and worship, and commemorating his history and upbringing in the wilds, when the nymphs nursed him on honey and water (and the mead they made from them).

That's my understanding, from both experience and research, and so it's my practice, but of course not everyone shares that. Which is fine by me; I build my practice as it suits me, based more on experience and what fits my needs and my gods' demands than on any research. My practice is my own, and is not really part of any tradition. That's kind of the point, as far as I'm concerned.

It baffles me, though, that the practice does not appear to be common among Hellenic reconstructionists, despite how well-attested to it is for both everyday and ritual use. As I understand it, the point of reconstructionism -- any reconstructionism -- is to have a practice as close as possible to that of the source culture, and to research and piece together the evidence in order to make it as accurate as possible, to accept the ancients' beliefs as much as possible. Some people have UPGs or experiences that tell them the gods they work with, and particularly Dionysos, to whom wine is sacred, don't really care, which is fine by me. Others, though, seem to choose not to mix wine simply because they don't like the taste.

There's a tendency for recons to pooh-pooh and even actively denigrate Wiccans and other neopagans for picking and choosing what traditions they keep and discard, for not recognizing the innate truth of ancient symbol systems, and the necessity of keeping to a single symbol system, and not mixing them. From within that context, why would anyone discard such a simple, yet integral, act as mixing the wine? And when they do, how does that make the way they choose their practices different from how Wiccans and neopagans do, other than as a matter of degree?

This isn't so much criticism of recons as it is an attempt to understand, both how they think about their religion and practices and how they actually perform them. Both the doxis and the praxis. Because I don't get it. I don't get how they pick, how they decide which parts are important and integral, and which parts are incidental and discardable.

The story of Ikarios and his daughter Erigone, the family to who Dionysos first gave the knowledge of cultivation of the vine and the making of wine, the first viticulturist and oenologist, warns of the dangers of not watering wine. When Dionysos first came to Attica, it was only Ikarios who offered him hospitality, and in return, and possibly because he had fallen in love with Erigone, Dionysos gave him the grapevine and the knowledge to go with it. Ikarios, having made the first mortal wine, shared it with people around him, farmers and herders. They loved it, of course, and became very merry, dancing and playing a game of kicking an inflated bag around. They drank too much, though, not knowing to water the wine -- this is the crucial part, here -- and passed out. Their families found them, and, unable to wake them, thought that Ikarios had poised them. They killed him in vengeance. When Erigone, led to his body by her mournful dog Maera, found her father dead, she hanged herself in sorrow. Dionysos was angry that the family he had chosen to serve him and spread his blessing were treated this way, and in fury, he cursed the families of Attica. A madness spread among their young daughters who hanged themselves in trees. The people consulted the oracle of Apollo, and were told that they must appease Erigone to end this. They made a ritual of young girls swinging on ropes strung from trees, then, to mimic Erigone's body swinging from her tree, as propitiation. It worked, too.

Ikarios, Erigone, and even the dog Maera are set among the stars, as Bo├Âtes (for the wineskins, I think), Virgo (the Virgin), and Canis Minor (the brightest star in which is Procyon, which means "before the dog," because Canis Minor rises before Canis Major). The ritual of swinging, and of decorating trees with ribbons, dolls hanged by the neck, and cups, seems to be either associated with or part of the Anthesteria, although details seem to be thin on the ground, probably because it was done by young girls.

The warning seems very clear to me: Alcohol, on its own, is too powerful a drug, and it is too easy to be overcome by it. Watering it, extending it, makes it easier for us to judge how much we drink, to moderate and pace ourselves, to make sure we don't abuse this blessing from the god, and harm ourselves thereby, or harm others while under its influence.

We have so many problems with alcohol in the US these days, and I think it's well-demonstrated that part of the problem is that we restrict it to people 21 and over, not giving younger people the opportunity to learn to drink it carefully and wisely, and encouraging secret drinking while underage and bingeing once they reach 21. I think another part of the reason is that we do not treat it with respect, and ignore just how powerful it really is. We have devalued it, and dismissed the effect it has. The law considers it less dangerous than marijuana, although there's no proof of that. (Stoners do have a tendency to ignore the true power of that drug as well. We also, as a society, devalue the power of caffeine and tobacco. All of these have been considered sacred drugs by various cultures.)

I also find it telling that English frames mixing wine as "watering down," and inherently weakening, while Greek frames it as "increasing," which is truly much more accurate. Mixing water with wine does not eliminate any alcohol or effect of it, but it does spread it out, so that it can be better measured. We do the same when we put tiny amounts of fragrance into a neutral base, so that it can be applied in appropriate amounts, or when we add inactive extenders to pills, because the amount of drug is so small that if they were the only thing in the pills, they'd be too small. Many things are more useful when extended by a neutral agent. Why do we think that extending alcohol weakens it?

There's quite a stigma against diluting alcohol, actually, in certain circles, while everyone else basically ignores the idea. Mixed drinks are "girly drinks" if they contain fruit juice or other non-alcoholic ingredients, frozen drinks are "watered down," beer with lower alcohol content is "piss water" (although that phrase has other uses, too). Adding water, or even ice, to scotch or other whiskey, is laughable. Oenophiles are disdainful of the mere suggestion of watering wine, and claim that it is purism and love for the drink that causes them to, ignoring a thousand-year tradition, from the people who made wine great, of doing just that.

Why? Why is getting very drunk very fast valued above any other quality of the drink by so many? Why is the power of alcohol so dismissed? I know that most things once considered sacred have lost that aspect in the eyes of most people, and I can hardly expect them to hold to it, honestly. History has simply moved us past that point. Very well. But I do wish wine, and alcohol generally, was respected as the dangerous and powerful substance it is, and I wish that people understood that watering wine does not make it less so, but enables us to manage it so that we might better appreciate its effects, even if they cannot understand them as sacred.