Book Review: The Mythology of Wine, by Arthur George

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 01-25-2021

You don’t realize the extent to which wine has influenced humanity until you read a book like this. As things we consume go, perhaps only water has more significance to us, but it’s pretty close. Arthur George’s The Mythology of Wine outlines how wine has inspired our collective imagination through the ages, how it has shaped our mythology and, ultimately, our lives.

George begins with the biblical story of Noah and traces wine mythology through ancient Mesopotamia, Canaan, Israel, and Egypt; Greek and Roman civilizations; and into modern Europe. Wine and religious belief are the greatest of bedfellows, and appropriately much of George’s book is dedicated to wine in the Bible. While I take issue with some of George’s conclusions about biblical history and text, I’ll also say I’m grateful to now have a better grasp of where wine history sits within the context of the Bible.

The greatest value of this book is its comprehensive treatment of the mythology of Dionysus. I count myself among those who had reduced this complex god to a synonym for wine and revelry. As George shows, he was so much more than that; his mythology is “vast, complex, confusing, and often contradictory.”

Dionysus was at times associated with, among other things, vegetation, crops, the forest, the mountains, the sea, beer, mead, and honey. The association with beer is noteworthy because, as George tells us, in stark contrast to wine, beer was regarded as the drink of the uncivilized. A mythology full of contradictions, indeed.

In the book’s most interesting section, George draws parallels between Dionysus and Jesus Christ. He explains that both were associated with the transformation of water into wine, or vice versa. This has led some to theorize that Jesus’s water-into-wine miracle at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11) may have developed “as a competitive response to the cult of Dionysus,” whose presence loomed large at the time John was written. Further, George suggests that New Testament (specifically, the Gospel of John) vine/wine imagery may have been a rhetorically expedient tool used by early Christians to convey the Gospel in Dionysian terms, which were familiar to the people of that time.

With any work of nonfiction, I like to know the credentials of the author. I’d expect a book like this to be written by a university professor, but George is actually a career lawyer who pursues his passion for history and mythology on the side. That’s no demerit, as I truly believe that, rather than title, what matters is the depth and breadth of knowledge one possesses on a topic. George has also lectured extensively and presented at a range of conferences. You can check out his blog: Mythology Matters.

My Recommendation
George achieves a lot in this little book. I never realized how rich and nuanced wine mythology is. This is a great book for a quick intro on the topic, and for those (like me) interested in the intersections of world history, the Bible, and wine.

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