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Wine, Religion and Culture

The cultivation of the vine, the creation of wine from the grape and the effects of wine-drinking on the human organism have always inspired a sense of awe in humanity, and this is why they have been associated with the divine. In the ancient world the god associated with wine was Dionysus, a rural deity who was worshipped particularly in Macedonia and Thrace, where the twelve principal gods of Greek mythology were not venerated with the same enthusiasm as in southern Greece.

Depictions of Dionysous in ancient mosaics

One of the myths has it that Dionysus was born on Mt. Pangaion and lived there, worshipped by the Edonians, a Thracian tribe. According to another myth Semele dwelled on the slopes of Mt. Vermion, where she gave birth to Silenus, who was later captured by Midas.

In certain areas of Macedonia and of Thrace Dionysus was represented in earlier times in the form of an animal, the relic of a totemic habit of thought. His cult was particularly strong in Pangaio and Kissos, together with the Maenads, who are referred to as Klodones and Mimallones. The cult of the Maenads survived into later times in Macedonia, until the end of the ancient world, and some aspects of their rites were adopted in the theatre. The troupe of Maenads, very popular in Macedonia, consisted of women, while the leader of the chorus was a man, who wore cothornos (buskins), krokoton (saffron-coloured frock) and mitra (headband) — the original, in other words, of the figure of Dionysus in women’s clothes, in contrast to the other regions of Greece where the prevalent image was that of the phallic Dionysus. At the performances and festivals large quantities of wine were consumed. The same occurred at the Bacchanalian orgies, which were also very popular in Macedonia. The cult of Dionysus survived into Hellenistic times, especially at Pella, and into the Roman period and the early years of the Byzantine Empire, particularly at Amphipolis.

At Lagadas, a few kilometres outside Thessaloniki, refugees from the coastal regions of eastern Thrace and the Black Sea still celebrate a festival on 21 May, the name day of Constantine and Eleni, which is known as the anastenaria. It is a tradition with roots in the Bacchanalian orgies of antiquity. The occasion involves reckless consumption of wine and walking with bare feet on glowing coals, two activities inseparably linked to the cult of the god Dionysus in Thrace.

In the Christian religion God is presented as the keeper of a vineyard and the church as his vine. In the rite of the Holy Communion the faithful drink wine in representation of the blood of the Lord. The Orthodox Church has made St. Tryphon guardian saint of vines and vineyard workers, thereby assimilating extremely ancient beliefs concerning vegetation and fertility. This saint had for centuries been extremely well-known and venerated in the vine-growing regions of Macedonia. However, the settlement in Macedonia after 1924 of Greeks from eastern Romylia, eastern Thrace and the Black Sea region led to an increased reverence for the saint and the annual observance of traditions associated with him.

St. Tryfon, the guardian saint of
vineyard workers and vines

In many parts of Macedonia St. Tryphon is commemorated even today in celebrations of great solemnity and splendour. At Goumenissa the festival known as Kourbani is held on 1st February.

Blessing of the sacrificial meat during the Kourbani festival

A male calf is sacrificed and cooked. The priest blesses the meat, which is then distributed among the members of the community, who wash down the meat with large quantities of wine. We encounter a variation of the same custom at Trilofos and Stenimachos, close to Naoussa. At Gefyra, a village outside Thessaloniki, on the eve of the feast day of St. Tryphon the villagers feast on wine, and then on the feast day itself they carry the icon of the saint in procession and the priest says prayers over platters of kollyva — a preparation of boiled wheat distributed at funerals and memorial services. They also prepare kollyva on the feast day of St. Tryphon at Anchialos and Mesimvria, while the vine growers cast holy water on their vines.

The feast day of St. Tryphon is not the only traditional occasion in Macedonia associated with wine. Their origins are lost in the mists of time, but almost all of them have been observed without interruption up until the present day. Wine, companion in joy and grief, accompanies all the important moments in a man’s life, as well as forming part of his ordinary daily round. Wine has been — and still is — considered an essential adjunct to birth, baptism, betrothal, marriage and death. But every day of man’s life wine has accompanied the food on his table, especially to add savour to the meat dishes prepared on cold winter days.

Raki barels at Mount Athos

Wine is invariably present, too, at the local festivities and customs of Macedonia. At Amyntaio and Xyno Nero, even today, on the eve of the feast day of St. Barbara the villagers light great bonfires and make merry with music and abundant supplies of local wine. In the region of Naoussa on the day before Christmas Eve the local people light big fires for the occasion they know as the Kolde, which is followed by revelry with wine and tsipouro. In western and eastern Macedonia the traditional carnival festivities which take place at the beginning of January, the Ragoutsaria, the Momogeroi, etc., are always accompanied during the night hours by much consumption of wine.

As the modern world turns back to its traditions in search of its roots, the link between wine and culture is becoming ever stronger. All the festivities and revivals of popular customs involve the drinking of wine. The wine museums which have been established in Naoussa, Rapsani and Amyntaio are seeking to show the historical role of wine in our lives in the region of Macedonia; visits to wineries are intended to transform the image of wine from a simple consumer product to a decisive element in our cultural identity.

A video clip of traditional wine production practices is available here... (QuickTime required)