The processes of wine-making and brewing are ancient human practices. And I don’t mean ancient like “knights in shining armor, ancient” I mean, like, “dawn of humanity ancient.” You can find references to alcoholic beverages and drunkenness in older texts such as the Torah, and throughout Classical literature as well. There is a wide breadth of cross-cultural alcohol use in the ancient world, it is not limited to the Mediterranean and the Levant. Important Celtic peoples throughout greater Europe have been found to have been buried with elaborate “drinking equipment” such as ornamented drinking horns and Greek-style wine cauldrons. Further back in time, Paleolithic and Neolithic cave paintings (25,000 BCE — 8,000 BCE) from as far afield as modern day France, Spain, and India depict the harvesting of honey to make mead, and there are Bronze Age depictions of wine-making from Egyptian tombs and Greek Attic vase paintings.
In general, I think there are a couple of things we can surmise about ancient drinking: (1) People in the past made and drank fermented beverages because there were not always sources of clean water abundantly and readily available, and so it only seems as though they were drunkards, and (2) the beers, meads, and wines of the ancient world would probably not be to our taste, and may not have even been palatable to the tastes of the ancient people who drank them. The Greeks famously cut their wine with water and deemed anyone who drank it straight to be a “barbarian.” Later, the Romans infused their wine with various herbs, botanicals, and flowers—creating perhaps what we could call “proto-vermouth.” Scholars are unsure if this was done to simply improve the flavor of wines in bad growing seasons or in immaturely aged casks, or if there was a medicinal use for these products, perhaps in aiding digestion.
My thought is that it was most likely for “all of the above” reasons. First, there is no reason to believe that ancient people, especially Romans did not use advanced culinary techniques to improve flavors of food and drink. In fact, there are numerous sources which describe the richness of the Roman table. Check out A Taste of Ancient Rome by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, for example. Secondly, I think the mythology of vermouth—found in its taxonomic name—suggests that certain botanical elements were highly regarded as medicinal plants with spiritual/shamanic properties which if ingested via smoke inhalation, mastication, or infusion could imbue the consumer with visions, hallucinations, heightened sensitivity to “sacred or arcane knowledge,” astral travel, and at the very least protect oneself from evil and bad health. The natural world was full of magical possibilities for many ancient peoples.
The main botanical ingredient of most vermouths is wormwood—a bitter herbaceous plant in the sage family. Its Linnaean taxonomic name is Artemisia absinthium, which not only tells us that absinthe is made with this herb, but also that the Greek goddess Artemis is associated with it—something far more interesting to me as an anthropologist (despite my affection for well-made Sazeracs). The so-called “pagan” myths are filled with gods and goddesses, who are representations of localized nature, natural features, and seasonal cycles. To have a goddess figure associated so closely with a particular plant tells me that that plant was seen as magical and significant to ancient people.
Artemis (Roman: Diana) is the goddess of the hunt, of moonlight, and all mountains. She is the protector of herds, she is the goddess of childbirth (just after being born she assisted her mother as a midwife while she gave birth to her brother Apollo), and she was chaste—bitterly guarding her virginity. She is regarded by mythographer Robert Graves as an aspect of the much more ancient White Goddess as signified by the phases of the moon, of which Artemis represents the New Moon. She carries a silver bow—which when pulled back resembles the sliver of silvery moonlight associated with her particular lunar phase. She was worshiped in ancient times in many cultures, which points perhaps to a far earlier form of Goddess worship, and was iconographically related to a very ancient title of “Mistress of Animals.”
There is an air of mystery, seductiveness, bitterness and bite to many of the myths surrounding Artemis. One of the most famous tales is here recounted by Robert Graves in The Greek Myths (1960):
“On one occasion, Actaeon, son of Aristaeus, went hunting with a pack of fifty hounds. As he stood leaning against a rock near Orchomenus, he happened to see Artemis bathing in a stream not far off, and he stayed to watch. Lest he should afterwards dare boast to his companions that she had displayed herself naked in his presence, she instantly changed him into a stag and, with his own pack of fifty hounds, tore him to pieces.”
Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) itself embodies some of Artemis’ attributes. It can be found at higher elevations, in the hills and mountains which are the province of the goddess. And when carefully observed, one notices fine silver hairs growing on each little leaf of the plant—seemingly resembling silvery feathered arrows in a quiver. These hairs tend to make the plant stand out from others in the moonlight, as would be appropriate for a moon goddess don’t you think? Wormwood’s inherent bitterness makes it unpalatable for grazing animals, such as the herds Artemis is said to protect.
One can make the case, I think, that Bronze Age (or earlier) pastoralists probably discovered this plant and its attributes. It is said in a myth that while Artemis discovered wormwood, she entrusted its secrets to Chiron the wise centaur who used it to make medicine. Of all ancient professions, the shepherd would have spent the most time in nature, especially following the seasonal sprouting of wild grasses and grains, following the transhumance routes through hills and valleys up and down Diana’s mountains. They would have known of the medicinal properties of plants, and perhaps when viewed from afar, may have resembled humans with horse’s legs. Apuleius remarks:
“Of these worts that we name Artemisia, it is said that Diana did find them and delivered their powers and leechdom to Chiron the Centaur, who first from these Worts set forth a leechdom, and he named these worts from the name of Diana, Artemis, that is Artemisias.”
Shepherds would be able to recognize these herbs in low light while moving herds through mountain passes and foothills, and the bitterness of their flavor may have helped keep grazers on the path.
Diana’s wormwood is only one ingredient in vermouth, albeit the main one, and it’s worth noting that even a brief glimpse into this plant can offer us unique insight into the ancient world—a world inhabited by those who first began creating complex infusions of wine and spirits. How many cups have been sipped while hearing these old tales of the gods and men? The so-called pagan myths are often codified stories of human interaction with nature and with other people, and one can still see them referenced in the modern world—though they were probably understood quite differently by ancient readers and listeners than the way we relate to them today.
I find it interesting to explore the myth behind the ordinary, and studying vermouth and the botanicals used to make it allow us to engage in that sort of thing a little bit; I feel as though such study (as limited as this one is) can allow us to approach cuisine and spirits from a more informed perspective; it allows to become engaged with a deeper history and find, hopefully, a deeper appreciation of the seemingly mundane. Cheers!