Ancient Hellas is one of the oldest and most important wine-producing civilizations, with evidence of production dating back 6,500 years. Because of the climate, soil and the native vine stocks of the Hellenic islands, ancient Hellenic wine was of great quality. It was a major trade good throughout Europe, and was grown throughout the Hellenic nation--in what is now modern day Italy, Iberia, Sicily, and the south of France. People as far away as modern-day Austria and Russia, as well as many other ancient societies--like the Etruscans, the Phoenicians, the Celts, the Scythians and the Romans--were influenced to some extent by the ancient Hellenic wine making business and culture.

Ancient Hellenic wine was sweet and aromatic. One form--called Retsina--includes pine resin and has a very special, although acquired, taste. In ancient Hellas, the resin was only added to the wine because the lid of the amphorae were sealed with it, but modern Retsina has the resin added to it directly. The range of ancient Hellenic wine was broad; from inky black to dark red, red, light red, or white. It was never drunk undiluted; the ancient Hellens considered the drinking of undiluted wine to be barbaric.

Drinking was usually done by men at a symposion (συμπόσιον). A symposiarch (συμποσίαρχος), a wine-mixer, was put in charge of mixing the wine. He made sure to keep an eye on the intoxication levels of those attending and adjusted the mix accordingly. Mixing was done in a krater (κρατήρ). The name comes from the word 'kerannmi': 'to mix'. Sources state that the best mix--depending on the wine, of course--was one part wine to about three or four parts water, but a dilution of 1/20 appears in the writings of Hómēros. In the wintertime, wine was diluted with pristine snow for a cleaner taste.

The art of winemaking was not perfected in ancient Hellenic times. The quality of the wine was variable; there were wines which stayed fresh for at least a decade, but a lot of wines turned moldy very fast. Most of the wines lasted around a year. Because the wines were drunk soon after they were made, most wines gave the drinker a pretty severe headache in the morning. This was another reason the wine was diluted.

As drinking water was often stagnant, wine was also used to purify it, and mask the taste. All men, women and children drank water which had some wine added to it. Wine was believed to be a healer--and it is--so everyone drank it, sometimes more when they were sick.

Wine was rarely drunk during dinner, but only after. Drunkenness was frowned upon, and three small kylix' of diluted wine was often all that was allowed for a grown man. In general, that is less undiluted wine than a single standard wineglass of modern time. Around 375 BC, the Hellenic comic poet Eubulus’, in his play 'Semele or Dionysos', made Dionysos state:

"Three bowlfuls only for the wise I measure,
The first to Health, second to Love and Pleasure,
Third Sleep--this those believed to know what's what
Go home to bed after; the fourth is not
Our own but outrage's, the fifth uproar's,
The sixth is mixed for serenading whores,
The seventh for two black eyes, eigth for a writh,
Ninth for the blues, tenth for a raving-fit
So bad you're outlawed. Thus one little cup
Too often filled can trip the drinker up."

The etiquette of the symposium required that when the first krater of wine was served, a libation was made to Zeus (or the Agathós Daímōn) and the Olympian gods. Heroes received a libation from the second krater served, and Zeus Teleios--the Finisher--(or Hermes) from the third, which was supposed to be the last. Plato, in his 'Symposium', addresses the proper place of wine in relation to the worship of the Theoi:

"Socrates took his place on the couch, and supped with the rest; and then libations were offered, and after a hymn had been sung to the god, and there had been the usual ceremonies, they were about to commence drinking."

As a Hellenist, I tend to ponder the details. It's clear that these types of regular household libations were done with mixed wine. In the Odysseia, Echeneus states:

"Come, Alcinous, it is not right and proper that a stranger should sit there in the ashes of the hearth, while we all hold back awaiting your lead. Raise the stranger to his feet, and seat him on a silver-embossed chair, and let the heralds mix the wine, so that we may pour libations to Zeus as well, who hurls the lightning and follows the footsteps of holy suppliants."

Yet, what about the more formal rituals? In 'A Companion to Archaic Greece' by Kurt A. Raaflaub and Hans van Wees, it is mentioned that unmixed wine is reserved for the Theoi, yet A. Henrichs states (p. 47):

"...Greeks shaped a 'negative' (part of a) ritual by a reversal of normal practices. Other means would be the absence of wreaths; libations of unmixed wine, water or oil instead of mixed wine; or the dark colour and/or holocaust of the sacrificial victim instead of a sacrifice ending in a banquet."

This seems to indicate that rituals and sacrifices to the Ouranic deities and/or positive occasions were performed with mixed wine, while Khthonic deities and/or negative occasions were performed with unmixed wine. This view is supported by Hómēros who writes Circe advising Odysseus how to perform a libation to the dead:

"Draw near then, as I bid you, hero, and dig a trench two feet square, then pour a libation all around to the dead, first of milk and honey, then of sweet wine, thirdly of water, sprinkled with white barley meal. "

When Odysseus does as he is told, nowhere is it mentioned that the wine is mixed. It is simply offered up as sacrifice, straight out of the jug. It makes sense that a khoe should be unmixed; same as with a holókaustos, all of the sacrifice--in its purest form--should be offered. Taking Henrichs' theory about reversed rituals--something also discussed in Harrison's 'Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion'--it would then seem that libations within Ouranic festivals were performed with mixed wine.

One can not write about wine in ancient Hellas and not mention the Theos of Wine Himself: Dionysos. Throughout the year, four major festivals are dedicated to Him, and one in particular was full of wine. The Anthesteria was held annually for three days, the eleventh to thirteenth of the month of Anthesterion. The festival centered around the celebration of the maturing of the wine stored at the previous vintage, whose pithoi were now ceremoniously opened, and the beginning of spring. The three days of the feast were called Pithoigia (after πίθοι 'storage jars'), Choes (χοαί 'libations') and Chytroi (χύτροι 'pots').

On the first day, the pithoi were brought to the city and opened in the temple of Dionysos. On the second day, all temples were closed, except that of Dionysos. Social order broke down on this day--as slaves were permitted to celebrate alongside everyone else--and there was a drinking contest in the afternoon where three liters of wine were drunk in complete silence. Whomever finished first, won. On day three, everyone joined in a procession to the temple of Dionysos, where the festival ended with the wicker burning of a huge phallus. The slaves were also told to go home, as 'the Anthesteria had ended'.

All in all, wine was a social, religious, and economic highlight of Hellenic society. I'm not a big wine drinker, as it's usually too strong for me, and I don't drink alcohol outside of ritual anyway. Yet, I have tried diluted wine, and the more watered down it is, the more I like it. I get why the ancient Hellens were looking forward to their symposions so much; wine, women and good music. What was not to like?

Image source: kylix