A Brief History of Wine and Religion

Updated by Jim Deckebach

Pouring Wine imageThroughout history, the relationship between wine and religion has been a varied one. While some religions, such as Islam and Buddhism, expressly forbid its use, there are a number of faiths in which wine plays an important role.

The recorded use of wine in religious ceremonies dates back at least 6,000 years to when it was used in Egypt by pharaohs and other important individuals. The use of wine was also associated with the worship of certain gods in ancient civilizations. This included Renenutet, the Egyptian goddess of the harvest, who was also, by default, responsible for the growth of grapes and for wine. Egyptian winemakers would place shrines dedicated to her next to wine presses in order to more easily present their wine as offerings. The Egyptian goddess Hathor was also associated with the drinking of wine. Devotees of Hathor would perform rituals that included singing, music, and consuming wine, particularly during the "Day of Intoxication," which occurred every month.

The Greek god Dionysus, who was considered a god of wine and theater, was celebrated in religious ceremonies such as the Oschophoria, or the festival of wine-making. During this festival, young men would carry vine branches and dress in women's robes as they traveled from the sanctuary of Dionysus to the Temple of Athena Skiras. In Rome, where wine production and religious festivals also frequently went hand in hand, Dionysus was known as the god called Bacchus. In worship of Bacchus, Romans participated in celebrations in which drinking of wine to the point of intoxication was normal.

Early cultures eventually made way for other religions that also included the consumption and use of wine in their practices, such as Christianity. Wine is noted in many places in the Bible, including in reference to festivals, the liberation of Lot, and Noah, who planted a vineyard following the flood. In the New Testament, it is said that Jesus turned water into wine. Wine plays a big role in Christian ritual as well, either literally or symbolically; in the ritual of Communion, it represents the blood of Jesus, according to the story of the Last Supper.

Although drunkenness was condemned by both Jesus and St. Paul, wine was considered a creation of God, so its use was approved of in moderation. After the fall of the ancient civilizations, Christianity was largely responsible for continuing the production of wine; during the Dark Ages, it was monks who continued to cultivate grapevines and also produced and stored wine in monasteries.

Wine bottle, glass and booksIn Judaism, the wine was historically given a blessing and was included as a part of sacrifices. According to Jewish law, wine is also blessed for the Sabbath and for festivals. It became and continues to be an important part of Jewish celebrations such as weddings and religious holidays. Four cups of wine are drunk during the Passover seder, and wine is also used when celebrating Simchat Torah and Purim. As in Christianity, the excessive consumption of wine is discouraged and frowned upon.

In Hinduism, many monks take a vow not to consume wine or alcohol in general, but there is no total ban on wine. In Tantra, wine is considered one of the five elements of Earth and is used as a religious offering or imbibed during some religious rituals. Ayurveda is the medical aspect of Hinduism, and it accepts the use of alcohol for medical purposes, such as in herbal wines. Like other faiths, Hinduism discourages alcoholism and alcohol abuse.

Alcohol has not always been popular with certain religious communities in the United States. During the 1830s, a movement arose among Protestant churches that saw drinking as evil. This became a key part of the temperance movement, in which Protestant churches joined forces with women's rights organizations and anti-slavery advocates to limit the use of alcohol. Eventually, it became a movement to outlaw wine consumption and alcohol use entirely, and their efforts led to the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919. During Prohibition, which lasted until 1933, the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol were banned. The making and use of wine for religious services, however, was allowed. In order to produce sacramental or kosher wine, wineries needed to have a permit and meet certain requirements. The proprietor was responsible for making sure that the wine was used for ceremonies and other religious purposes only. It is widely believed that religion helped to keep some wineries in business during this period.

For more information on the history of religion and wine, read the following resources:


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