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Women of wine go way back in time

It’s been speculated by historians, anthropologists and archaeologists that wine was probably first discovered by a woman — likely by mistake when a container of grapes was left a bit too long, the grapes popped, and spontaneous fermentation began. What a delightful surprise.

The known history of wine goes back 9,000 years. What were 9,000-year-old wild grapes like? How many varietals naturally developed? Of course, it’s impossible to know, and sometimes when ancient wine jugs are found it’s difficult to tell whether it was grape, date or honey wine. However, ancient written texts do speak to the vine, or wine of the vine, which clarifies wine made from grapes, and that is our focus here.

March is Women’s History Month, and by tradition it generally focuses on the recent known history of (mostly) Western women. But because for much of Western written history women didn’t make it into the history books, we’re going to look far, far back to when women were revered as goddesses. And because goddesses were usually tied to agriculture and earthly rites, the earliest deities of wine appear to be women.

Although these goddesses are not well known, and most of their stories have been lost through time, we are lucky some of this information has followed through history.

Beginning in southern Mesopotamia, around 3000 BCE, Geštinanna was worshipped as the Sumerian goddess of agriculture, fertility and “heavenly grapevine.” Her name literally means “wine/vine of the heavens.” The oldest known wine deity, she was referred to as Mother of Vines. Centuries later she was referenced in Vedic writings (1500-1000 BCE) of the Rigveda.

The ancient poem “The Epic of Gilgamesh” introduces Siduri, Babylonian goddess of wine, merry-making and wisdom, as she welcomes the hero into a garden containing a tree of life. Hanging from this tree are curling vines encircling clusters of deep red fruit. Also referred to as the Maker of Wine, Siduri bestows advice to Gilgamesh interpreted by historians as the first expression of the concept carpe diem, meaning “seize the day.”

Around 1500 BCE, Babylonian wine goddess Paget is depicted on clay tablets in vineyards cultivating grapes, and after harvest, making wine.

Two hundred years later, Renen-utet, an Egyptian wine goddess, makes her appearance in hieroglyphs around 1300 BCE. Small shrines placed near wine presses ensured freshly pressed grapes had her blessing, and her image was carved into the spout used to flow the pressed grape juice to the fermenting jars as a further blessing.

Moving into the European wine deities, who are the most commonly known, we see a shift from the feminine to the masculine. These stories don’t start to appear until roughly 500 BCE — 2,500 years after the first depiction of Mesopotamian wine goddesses. However, there is a Greek goddess of wine and friendship between nations and countries that it seems a good time to resurrect.

Amphictyonis, also the surname of Demeter, the Greek goddess of harvest and agriculture, was the muse for the general council of Amphictyonians, a (male) “league of neighbors” who basically worked for peace. Amphictyonis also means “to toast an accomplishment.”

Last but not least we have the Greek goddesses known as Oenotropae, the women who change anything into wine.

Carpe diem!

Reach Paula Bandy at pbthegrapevine@gmail.com and connect with her on Instagram at @pbthroughthegrapevine.