Ancient Thrace, the Motherland of Wine Culture
Author: Oleg Cherne
Where does one start learning about wine? If we try to answer this question, we eventually end up in the context of a unique culture, where many things are still unclear. A culture that can be learned about through both rational and irrational approaches.
Initially, wine was a mystery, so it is logical to begin our journey into the world of wine from the mysterious and ancient land of Thrace. From the works of Homer, Herodotus and other historians of Ancient Greece, we know that the Thracians were skilled warriors and excellent farmers; they built great castles and towers, and their wine was the stuff of legends. The Thracians treated wine as a beverage to the fullest meaning of this word — a liquid that nurtures the spirit and body. Their attitude towards wine became the basis for high wine culture, and formed a unique approach to winemaking and learning about wine.
The process of learning about wine culture is, undoubtedly, one of the most interesting things someone in the modern world can do. This process gave birth to wine philosophy, which is an attempt to analyze human nature itself through consuming wine, or the rises and falls of the conscience.
Thracian culture is one of the world’s oldest winemaking cultures, and carried over a lot to wine production itself, as well as to social life through wine. It is indeed quite interesting to take a look at the experiments the mysterious Thracians conducted with their spirits.
We do not know for sure how wine became associated with the heavens, but if our earthly existence provided us with this divine drink, the connection must be real. It is believed that the god of wine first appeared in Thrace. This god was Zagreus, who was later recorded as Dionysus.
One of the largest countries in Europe in the 5th century BC after the battle between the Scythians and the Persians, was the one founded between the Adriatic and Black seas by the Thracian tribe of Odrysians led by king Teres I. Evidence of this can be found in the works of Athenian historian Thucydides (5th century BC). The heirs of Teres Sparadokos and Sitalces, as well as their descendants up to Cotys I, only served to spread the influence of the kingdom. Back then, the territory of Thrace expanded out from the mouth of the Danube to the shores of the Aegean Sea and Sea of Marmara.
Later, the Odrysian dynasty spread the influence of the Thracian and cult of Dionysus even further, far beyond the borders of Thracia. First and foremost, among the Greeks. Even during the period of complete decay, which is considered to have ended by the year 45, during the rule of emperor Claudius, this culture settled well in this region, especially in areas close to Rome, where the cult of Dionysus happened to transform in a special way.
However, in the area between the Balkans and Aegean Sea, the cult of Dionysus persisted for many years after that. The traces of its influence can be found even today in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, Greece and Italy, or countries where Thracian culture was spread the most intensely.
The highlight of this list is, of course, Bulgaria. Here people still worship Zagreus, the Thracian god of wine. Here he was associated only with winemaking, and not fertility, as he used to be before when each god had more than one «function.» According to the myths, the Earth devoured Zagreus, but Zeus saved his heart and gave him a second life, this time calling him Dionysus.
Winemaking and ecstatic cults of Europe
Dionysism is an original teaching professed by the Thracians, which became the first organized religion worshipping the sun god Sabazios. It also includes Orphism, which is based on the art of ecstatic living. According to its canon, people can become immortal and continue their lives in the constellation of Hyads. But apart from all this space stuff, the teachings had more understandable aspects as well. One of the most important and understandable for us is their concept of wine breathing (enjoying the aroma of wine). Before drinking wine, the Thracians prepared themselves and studied its fragrance. This ritual may have been connected to body cleansing, similar to incense fuming. It is believed that a Eumolpus brought this procedure to the kings of Thrace; the Roman historian Pliny the Elder also wrote about it.
One interesting aspect of Dionysism is its wine dances, which originally came from winemaking. Historically, they proceed from the act of crushing grapes with your feet. While extracting grape juice this way, the Thracians created an original dance. The process of grape crushing was considered very special, and at first only women could participate. They were believed to connect the totem power of the place with the power of the vine. The Thracians, just as some other ancient tribes, believed that certain places possessed powerful sources of energy.
Wine dances comes from the very concept of winemaking, which is a very important detail, as it granted physical labor a qualitative aspect. Thus, the first instance of quality labor invented by humanity was winemaking. In ancient times, the quality of work determined the divine quality of the person. Whatever a person did connected him to the gods. So the Thracians created a link between ecstasy and labor, and the concept of «wine labor» presents physical work as an act of creation. The attitude to work also forms part of Dionysism, which is also a religious cult with its own language. And if there was a language, it must have had forms of expression as well. If the Thracians were the first to create writing, as many scientists believe, we can say that wine, the basis of the Dionysism, is also the root of writing. The Bulgarians, descendants of the Thracians, have the right to feel proud, as they in fact introduced the world to written language. Ancient written texts explaining these processes, not just naming them, were created near the Thracian town of Montana dated 5,000 BC.
The Thracian written language was based on the power of the seven planets. It was used to describe the process of winegrowing, and thus it explained the process of establishing a connection with god. Later, the work of the Thracians in this sphere became the basis of the great work of Cyril and Methodius.
The Cyrillic alphabet can indeed be referred to as the wine alphabet, which creates ecstatic sounds. According to Dionysism, only a language of ecstatic sounds can become the language of power. And according to the Thracians, when we drink wine, we are also drinking knowledge, power and bravery.
The cult of Dionysus is surrounded by multiple legends, but the most interesting detail is that the Thracians connected the cult of wine to the cult of immortality. This means that for them, wine gives you not just power and bravery, but also granted immortality. The particular wine the Thracians believed to have this ability remains a mystery, or even whether it was a wine at all. But the fact that Bulgaria has local sorts of grapes with a long history (autochtonous sorts like Mavrud, Pamid and Melnik), dating back to the times of Thrace, allows us to utilize the genetic memory of these grapes containing ancient knowledge about winemaking, even today. Or at the very least, we can dream about it. In addition, the Bulgarians also believe they have sorts that are even more ancient, and that grow around Thracian sanctuaries. One of these sanctuaries is called the Tears of Orpheus. As legend has it, this sanctuary is more than 3,000 years old.
Thracian culture has given us another original symbol from that time, the Thracian Rider, which embraces two concepts: motion and progress. These qualities, which are characteristic of Thracian culture, were honored by Homer in his ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey.’ The Thracian Rider is a symbol with even more ancient history, and can embody not only motion and progress, but also a teaching where wine has an important, if not the main, place in ecstatic living. The philosophy of this teaching is reflected in Orphism, the mystic teaching of Thrace associated with the mythic poet and singer Orpheus.
He was both the patriarch and spiritual leader at an early stage of development of Thracian culture. Later, there was another Orpheus, who lived in the Rhodope Mountains in south Bulgaria. That second Orpheus was the legendary poet and musician of Thrace. Legends say that his music had the power to move inanimate objects, and even resurrect the dead.
The cult of Orpheus demanded certain conditions for wine drinking. The Thracians knew: if you drink wine at a certain rhythm, it will create its own melody. And in this case, wine drinking becomes an ecstatic process. One has to know how to play with wine, and only then can one fully enjoy it.
The wine state, or ecstatic state, is a concept probably coined by the Thracians (who in fact advanced the knowledge of Etruscans about the laws of ecstatic living). Their rituals helped the Thracians enter the mystic state of the spirit. The followers of Orphism believed that the correct ecstasy allowed them to avoid the dual nature of the soul and eliminate the dark half of the spirit, filling their lives with the melody of harmony.
Any ecstatic state is a journey similar to that of Odysseus’. In fact, according to Homer, during his journey Odysseus drank wine that the Thracians had given him. The legendary Troy also got its power from the wine of Thrace, and yet another legend says that it was Thracian wine that Odysseus used to defeat the cyclops Polyphemus. We can actually say that Odysseus was the first traveler to gain fame thanks to Thracian wine.
The cult of Dionysus, Bacchus or Liber (depending on whether we speak about Greek, Roman or Italic culture) developed the basis of wine culture, which became an entirely separate art in Roman society. This cult, undoubtedly, originated from Thracian culture. The first philosopher of the cult of wine was probably the Greek tragedian Euripides (approx. 480-406 BC). In his poem ‘The Bacchae,’ we can see a philosophic understanding of ecstasy, the same condition studied, commented on and honored by Virgil, Ovid, Augustine and many others.
Wine philosophy is based not only on the ecstatic feelings of people who drink wine, but also on the importance of wine itself as the propelling power behind ecstasy. We must not forget that winemaking is an agricultural activity, or in other words, a part of human life and philosophy. Publius Vergilius Maro (70-19 BC) wrote a lot about this idea in his works. Winemaking has close connections with various events, personalities, myths and ideologies, which is hinted at by the poet Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC – 18 AD) in his ‘Fasti’ (calendar).
Wine consumption culture as an indicator of awareness
A special place in wine philosophy is dedicated to the beverage’s negative aspects, which should not be avoided or silenced. One of the biggest unmaskers of the Bacchus cult was the great orator and Stoic philosopher Titus Livius, who lived between the old and new eras. He claimed that bacchanalias would eventually cause the fall of Rome. He was a true patriot of his country, who denounced the negative sides of the cult.
But his accusations would have been better addressed to the negative sides of human nature itself. The Bacchus cult, apart from developing the positive aspects of humanity, can also reveal some of its darker features as well. This makes wine a sort of «lie detector.» The fact that Titus Livius draws our attention to the indispensability of certain conditions for the cult to be healthy, is the most important point for philosophical analysis of his criticism.
It is undisputed that the contradictions inherent in wine reflect the contradictions in society. The cult of wine is essentially the cult of culture, and if it is disrupted, various negative consequences begin to appear. Despite the attitude of a culture to wine and winemaking, there are always people who want to control this cult or ban it. This leads us to think about the nature of power, which in turn causes us to reconsider our inner and outer nature.
We can see something like this in the works of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD, a saint in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy), who reconsidered all the cultural pillars of Roman society. One of the principal critics of Rome, he of course also had to cast a critical gaze on the cult of Dionysus as well. But despite all of his criticism, he also had to admit the importance of wine culture, which was, as we know, harmonically embraced by Christianity.
In order to evaluate or explore the nature of the wine cult correctly, one must analyze it, which is exactly what the Romans did under the influence of Thracian culture. In the end, they failed at this task, as the cult ultimately became a source of political conflict for them. It eventually splintered into three branches: one of them took on the characteristics of orgy, in another it was linked to political and religious power, and in the third it became a source of spiritual development and philosophical thought.
People today are quite different from the people of antiquity. The knowledge and experience of our ancestors today mostly causes arrogant reactions, laughter and even annoyance. But in their crazy hunt for pleasures, people have lost sight of themselves. Even though today we have the ability to make high quality wine, people still continue to drink poisonous beverages that get them stuck in the void between past and future. Unfortunately, the amount of low quality wine far surpasses the volume of high quality wine.
When studying the qualities of wine, the Thracians realized that bad wine and poor consumption habits could turn into weapons of mass destruction. Bad wine paralyses the human will and mind, which in fact happened to the legendary Thracian hero Spartacus, the gladiator who led the uprising of slaves in the Roman Empire (73-71 BC).
Spartacus was born in the Pyrenees, in the southeast of modern Bulgaria. The movement he led was not just against slavery, it was for the salvation of the spirit. When Spartacus and his friends first entered the training school, they were given piquette to drink. This was low quality watered wine given only to the slaves, while free men and women drank wine of higher quality.
Piquette was made from grape mush and skin, i.e. the leftovers of the winemaking process. And the stingy Romans mixed it afterwards with even more water. Drinking this wine was not just bad for health, it killed the human spirit as well, which for the people of antiquity was even worse than physical destruction, as it meant the destruction of the personality.
One day, consul Crassus and his escort visited the school of gladiators to watch the fights. Lentulus Batiatus, the owner of the estate, offered his wine to the guests. During this performance, the infamous uprising began, and the slaves quickly took over the entire school. And the first thing the slaves did after their victory was drink good wine. Even though many people reduce this event to something that resembles more a drinking spree, in Thracian culture drinking good wine meant sustaining your very body and spirit.
Structured wines of Thrace
But for now we shall leave behind these negative examples and turn our attentions to Homer, who described Thracian wine in the ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey.’ The great poet wrote about its composition, or rather, its structure. This is a very important characteristic in winemaking, which determines the character and potential of wine.
The Thracians believed there were three kinds of people on this Earth: those who drink young light wine, those who drink structured complex wine, and those who drink sweet wine. Most people are like young wines, tied to their place of origin. They are useful only in the places where they were born. Such people, like wine, are enchanted by the place where they came into this world, and cannot simply move away from home. Such people, whatever their age, have essential but undiscovered potential in them, born both by the cultural and social life of where they were born.
The same goes for young wine: it must be consumed only in the place where it was produced, or nothing good will come of it. Taken far away from its place of origin, young wine loses its positive qualities and powers, and becomes mad. This often occurs with young wine when it is taken away from its native place before it ages and accumulates power. This wine is believed to make a person sleepy, crazy and weak. Is it not true that there is something mystic, almost sacred, about this process? Young wine always corresponds to the natural cycles and qualities exuding from its place of origin. This is precisely when its positive, refreshing qualities full reveal themselves, and it can perform important social functions.
However, this is also true for aged wine, if the storage conditions were wrong. And there is nothing mysterious about it: if the microclimate inside the bottle is disturbed, the wine will die.
Drinks of today, just like people, are very different from the drinks of olden times. Today, as we mentioned above, good, high-quality wine is produced, but lots of wine today also contains preservatives and additives. However, even this bad quality wine has its own fans, or members of the third group the Thracians called «the undeveloped.»
Later, this story is retold in the legend of Saint Trifon Zarezan and the Virgin Mary. In fact, this is merely a version of an older story telling us about the birth of Dionysus. The version about the resemblance of the births of Dionysus and Jesus is worth a special mention. Some people claim that the names of Dionysus and Jesus are connected, and the circumstances of their births do indeed have a lot in common. Sure enough, this version also its share of opponents as well.
One of the most important aspects of perceiving wine for the Thracians was the association between wine and human blood. This original attitude to wine was later transferred to Christianity.
Winemaking traditions of modern Bulgaria
At the beginning of our era, thank to the Romans, Thracian rituals were dissolved into Christianity. Spartacus became the last important figure in Thracian history connected to wine. After that begins the history of Bulgaria. In the 7th century, Zagreus is finally displaced by the saint of wine Trifon Zarezan. The fact that he came to be worshiped indicates the influence of Thracian cults on Christianity. Indeed, Trifon is considered a saint in both catholic and orthodox churches. In the 7th century, a new cult of winemaking emerged in the northeast part of the Balkan Peninsula, and this time it was closely related to an individual named Trifon.
Naturally, modern Bulgarians adapted the traditions of winemaking from their ancestors, the ancient Thracians. The ancient rituals were transformed in people’s minds, and with time became associated with the celebration of the grape.
The holiday of winemaking is celebrated today in Bulgaria to honor the Christian priest Trifon. This man of faith was executed in Nicaea in 250. As the legend goes, either by mysterious coincidence or by God’s plan, on the day when martyr Trifon was executed, all the vineyards in Bulgaria were attacked by insects. The citizens turned to the saint to protect their land and especially the vineyards, and he miraculously fulfilled their petition. There are also other legends of Trifon, which say that he grew grapes as well.
According to ancient traditions, on St. Trifon Day people prune vines to increase the fall harvest, which is how Trifon got the name Zarezan (meaning «the cut one»).
Ultimately, following the changes to the church calendar, the day of Trifon Zarezan started to be celebrated on February 1, but in many regions people continued to celebrate it on February 14. On this day, women in Bulgarian families start doing work around the house from the early morning: they cook chicken stuffed with rice, pour homemade wine into special wooden flasks called «buklitsa,» and then all of this along with homemade bread is put into a new woolen bag. Men then take this food and go to the vineyards, where the main celebration takes place.
The process of vine pruning resembles a sacred ritual: first men bless themselves with a cross and ask Trifon for his blessing and help, then each man takes a garden knife and cuts three vines from three different plants. The men bless themselves again and pour the wine they brought over the vines, and the election of the vineyard king officially begins. The elected king, with a chaplet of grape vines on his head and vine wreath on his neck, returns home in a wagon. But this wagon is dragged by the rest of the wine-growers! On the eve of spring and the beginning of the new labor year for farmers, all the village dwellers celebrate and relax as much as they can for the last time. The celebrations continue for three days.
This is how the Bulgarians keep their old traditions. But all this is nothing more than the human factor; and there is one that connected to the issue of the vine itself. More specifically, to one particular autochtonous variety of grape called Mavrud, which symbolizes the continuous flow of time. People claim that it carries a genetic link to ancient times. However, we must note that any high-quality vine can absorb genetic memories through its roots. But the wine from Mavrud carries information from the soil on which the culture of winemaking first came to be.
There is one interesting legend about Mavrud. In olden times, wine was a symbol of progress and quality, but not every person had the right to touch it. Yet this taboo made people want to test the forbidden fruit even more, as they did not understand the secret of wine and why it must belong only to the nobility. After that, they started making their own wine-like drinks that had nothing to do with real wine, and proceeded to get drunk on them.
In 803, Khan Krum ordered to tear up by the root all vineyards that were not under his control. Although Krum was the great master of the first Kingdom of Bulgaria, it was even hard for him to stop people from drinking this divine beverage. In order to avoid protests, he issued an order that prohibited people to leave their homes at night, from sunset to sunrise. And to intimidate citizens, a lion was let out to walk the streets at night. But not everyone was scared of the lion, and one young man, despite the ban, went to see his lover at night.
One day an agitated guard came running to the king and said:
— Oh great king! The lion is dead, someone snapped its neck! and he fell to his knees.
This news surprised the Khan and he ordered his men to find the murderer.
When the young man who had killed the lion was brought before the eyes of the king, he was astonished by his beauty and strength.
— What is your name, brave man? the Khan asked him.
— My name is Mavrud, he answered.
— Who raised you? the Khan asked in surprise.
— My mother, who nurtured me with her milk, bread and wine.
The Khan ordered to plant the same vines, which created the wine capable of producing such a strapping young man, and named it Mavrud in his honor. Ever since then the wine made from Mavrud has been appreciated by all connoisseurs of taste and strength. Those who drink Mavrud wine become part of the cult of Dionysus, as the information preserved in the soil is transferred to the wine made from the grapes that grow here.
About the author
Oleg Cherne is a researcher and popularizer of wine culture, and a journalist and publicist, who wrote many articles on the history and culture of consumption of high-quality alcoholic beverages. For 40 years he has been researching the ancient culture and traditions of people all over the world. He has visited more than 140 countries, organized and participated in expeditions to places of power in numerous parts of the planet, and is the author of multiple publications on the wine heritage of the greatest civilizations, and on the life and traditions of the world’s different peoples. Currently, he participates in the organization of educational and research expeditions, and continuously gives lectures and seminars in different cities all over the world. Author of the book «Immortality and the Sexual Syndrome,» «Wagon of Magic,» «Hey, You!,» and editor-in-chief of Alchemy magazine. He is also preparing a series of books on wine culture under the name Code de Vino.