The drink of immortality: mulled wine, witches, sacraments, mushrooms, and archaeochemistry

Many people have enjoyed a glass of mulled wine at some point or another. The addition of different ingredients to heated wine in order to change its taste profile is a longstanding tradition that stretches back to the second century, according to the Wikipedia page on mulled wine. However, a study of different ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean plant traditions reveals an even more complicated and interesting history of such practices.

As it turns out, before mulled wine became fashionable in Rome, mixing wine with other ingredients had long been the province of priestesses, traditional healers, and physicians. Some of the plants, herbs, and spices added to ancient wine were intended to have a medicinal effect or to increase the potency of the drink.

In the present day, our understanding of history has developed to the point where one is able to trace, roughly, the various ethnobotanical1 traditions that have existed over time, and how the particular one we have today in the West came to dominate. Perhaps most surprisingly, our societal positions surrounding intoxication are a lot more arbitrary than we think… and our wine is a lot less “fun”, too.

The mulled wine we know & love

Usually reserved for the colder months in Western countries, mulled wine is a mixture of spices, spirits, and fruits simmered in a bottle of (red) wine. From Delish.com:

  • 1 (750-ml.) bottle red wine
  • 1 orange, sliced into rounds, plus more for garnish
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 3 cinnamon sticks, plus more for garnish
  • 3 star anise
  • 1/4 c. honey
  • 1/2 c. brandy

When the wine is gently simmered with the citrus and spices, it becomes infused with the new flavours and the concoction takes on a life of its own. Although this is a popular recipe on a mainstream website, those who get invited to lots of holiday gatherings may find that everyone’s recipe is unique, and that some recipes even run in the family.

The subtle folklore that surrounds mulled wine and its creation provides a tiny window into the world of plant knowledge. Anything made with a plant, whether it be a recipe, a traditional medicine, a tea, a beer, or a wine, has a highly personal quality. Someone learned it from their parents, who learned it from their parents (who might have learned it from a book), and so on.

Competing visions of wine

Today, we have well-defined “official” standards of what wine is and isn’t. As I will discuss, there are rules and folklore surrounding the grapes, geography, and production processes around wine, as well as many stringent requirements around taste profile.

We also have unofficial “rules” around when and how wine can be served: someone serving up mulled wine in the summertime would receive sidelong glances from everyone else drinking a wine spritzer, and New Years Eve calls for champagne, not merlot.

Modern Wine: Character, Fidelity, Class, Celebration

Perhaps it is best to start with some contemporary wine aesthetic, which is prevalent amongst the upper-middle-class “bougie” crowd in my area of southern Ontario. It’s the wine culture I know best, given I grew up around it.

How is wine experienced and consumed in Ontario? Luckily, the culture is fairly homogenous due to a government monopoly on distribution. Therefore, given that marketers work hard to tailor their messaging to the preferences of their target demographic (trust me, it was my day job), a look at the website of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario can reveal a lot about wine culture by virtue of its structure and what information it prioritizes.

Things I spy with my marketer’s eye: seasonality (spring wines occupy the header, at time of writing), temporality (occasions and gifts), vintages (aged, rare, expensive wines), and lots of words in French and Italian. What gives?

Well, the most important thing to know about wine is that the primary ingredient has always been fermented grape juice. Aside from preservatives or additives in some cases, what we drink – especially today – is the fruit of the vine. We can see this exemplified in various official standards, such as these three stipulations from the VQA Ontario Wine Appellation Authority2:

  • Wine must be made from 100% fresh Ontario grown grapes — no concentrates are permitted – Grapes used must meet a quality standard for each variety (measured by natural sugar content in the ripe grapes)
  • No water can be added in the winemaking process
  • All finished wines are evaluated by an expert taste panel and a laboratory analysis and must meet minimum quality standards before release

Not just any wine can be designated a “VQA” wine: it must meet exacting standards relating to geography, crop quality, production process, and final product quality. Furthermore, the VQA Ontario website has a list of grapes that are eligible to become VQA-labelled wines, and aside from natural additives from the production process (such as yeast to support fermentation), no herbs or spices can be added if the wine is to achieve a VQA designation.

What I see here is a sense of fidelity, or loyalty, to the grape and the idea of the grape’s character. Adding water to the wine, or using poor-quality grapes, is seen as bad practice and isn’t said to result in “real wine”.

In the more detailed regulations, there are further stipulations about how the wine is tested and evaluated by the expert panel. A wine is especially evaluated by the species of the grapes that were used to make it (the VQA website lists dozens), and each grape has its own profile and character. Expert panels consist of people who have received training – and demonstrated their competence – in identifying specific grape profiles and appraising each proposed VQA wine by the type of wine it is “trying to be”.

Before taking a trip back in time, one final note: the reason that many wine-producing grapes have Italian or French names is a byproduct of the history of winemaking. In Roman times, grapes were grown even to the exclusion of grain, such was the Roman love for wine. In medieval Europe, the Benedictine monks owned vineyards in key territories that are now famous for wine, such as Champagne and Bordeaux.

Given that the varieties of grapes used to grow these wines have the oldest legacy, they are seen as the most “authentic”. As a result, certain kinds of grapes have been exported to different vineyards around the world as European-style winemaking spread.

There’s a lot more that goes into a wine label than meets the eye…

Ancient Wine: An Accidental Innovation?

Now that we’ve established what wine is like today, let’s take a look at what wine was like at the very beginning of winemaking:

“It has been hypothesized that early humans climbed trees to pick berries, liked their sugary flavor, and then began collecting them. After a few days with fermentation setting in, juice at the bottom of any container would begin producing low-alcohol wine. According to this theory, things changed around 10,000–8000 BC with the transition from a nomadic to a sedentism style of living, which led to agriculture and wine domestication.”

– “History of Wine” (Wikipedia)

This seems reasonable enough to me. Fermented anything (grapes, honey, Icelandic shark meat) has a markedly different taste from the base material, and in the case of alcohol the intoxicating effects can be almost immediately noticeable. Once an accidental discovery was made, the natural human trial-and-error process was underway.

According to the Wikipedia article on the history of wine, people have been making wine in China since 7000 BC, in Iran since 5000 BC, and in Sicily since 4000 BC. However, wine back then wasn’t necessarily the “pure” wine we are used to now. Some examples of ancient wine include:

  • Shedeh, an unknown Egyptian beverage somehow different from red wine
  • Retsina, wine flavoured with pine resin – first by accident, then by design
  • Other types of herbal wines from ancient Egypt

Ancient wine could be very acidic, and as a result chalk dust or other alkaline additives were used in the production process to alleviate that – something that might shock wine drinkers today. Additionally, people back then had no problem adding things into the mixture to suit their preferences, such as herbs, spices, honey, figs, pomegranates, or dates. There were no set standards, rules, or aesthetic surrounding winemaking at that time, although they were soon to develop.

It is also important to note, as I plan to discuss elsewhere on this blog, that ancient peoples had very different attitudes towards altered states of consciousness than we do today3. Intoxication from wine or beer was associated with religious or spiritual experience, and as such people (sometimes/often) saw it as beneficial or desirable. This doesn’t mean that ancient peoples were alcoholics per se, but rather that the consumption of such beverages would have been for both enjoyment and spiritual benefit.

Greco-Roman Wine: Revelry, Intoxication, Medicine

In ancient Greek and Roman cultures, wine was most often associated with Bacchus, the Roman god of agriculture, fertility, and wine, or Dionysus, the Greek god of agriculture, fertility, wine, and ecstasy. In both contexts, intoxication was a central goal of consumption.

The Romans were known for their military innovations and for their excesses – extravagant meals, extreme intoxication, gladiatorial combat, and so on. The Greeks are more generally known for their scholarly qualities. However, both had a somewhat similar relationship to wine, at least on the surface.

What gets lost in the history textbooks about Dionysian festivals and Roman vomitoriums (the existence of which is now a matter of debate) is that wine was seen as having healing or medicinal properties.

Although the precise nature of these discoveries has likely been lost to the sands of time, this attitude towards wine perhaps has to do with its intoxicating quality, or perhaps with some of the medicinal and quasi-medicinal properties of alcohol. Ancient healers would have likely picked up on the fact that this beverage was unique and could have potential benefits.

One way or another, the Greeks wrote extensively about the potential benefits of wine. Hippocrates, one of the most influential figures in Western medicine, considered wine to be an important part of a healthy diet, helpful for different issues such as pain during childbirth, as well as an appropriate base to mix other drugs into.

Dioscorides, considered by some to be the “father of drugs”, wrote extensively about wine in the first century and preserved a great deal of botanical knowledge in the process. Book 5 of his De Materia Medica is dedicated to “vines and wines”, with over fifty recipes for various types of wine-based remedies. Translators have found them to include:

  • Wine infused with wormwood, the hallucinogenic herb used in absinthe
  • Wine infused with sage, perhaps even the hallucinogenic salvia
  • Wine infused with the poisonous nightshade, used as an anaesthetic
  • Wine infused with betony, which can help with digestive problems

De Materia Medica is a treasure trove of pharmacological knowledge that is still influential today. However, in the Western world, a great deal of accumulated knowledge was effectively lost at the beginning of the dark ages – at least to all but the most learned of scholars. As a result, European wine culture began to move towards the standards and preferences we know and love today, save for the occasional enjoyment of mulled wine.

Jewish Wine: Shabbat, Seders, Frankincense & Myrrh

Within the ancient Greco-Roman world was a curious group of people, known then (and now) as Jews. They did not worship the pantheons of gods as the mainstream society did, nor did they involve themselves in the festivals or ritual observances of the day. Instead, they kept to their own ways, held by them to be a covenant between their people and a singular God, formless and almost-nameless.

Yet, despite the vast metaphysical and cultural differences they had with the Greco-Roman world, even the Jews enjoyed a special relationship with wine:

“Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, Sovereign of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.”

– From “The Blessing For The Wine”, translated Jewish Shabbat prayer

Wine is consumed at various times in the Jewish calendar, perhaps most notably on Shabbat (the weekly day of rest) and on Passover (the annual remembrance of the Exodus). It is considered a holy drink; the only drink over which a prayer is said.

Like every other type of food or drink in Judaism, wine is subject to rigorous production requirements. Kosher wine and its ingredients must be produced by Shabbat-observant Jews and kept free from specific contaminants. These contaminants, known as chametz and kitnios, comprise grain products, legumes, and other seeds (rice, corn, sunflower seeds).

However, this does not mean that other things cannot be mixed with wine within the confines of Jewish law. For example, the Talmud, a record of Jewish oral law as well as a central pillar of Jewish history and culture, approves the use of wine mixed with frankincense and myrrh to deaden the senses before surgery.

Based on my current understanding of Jewish wine culture, which is scant at best, it does not seem that the practice of mixing medicinal herbs with wine is still in widespread use today. Given that the Jews are known to have a highly traditional culture, it would stand to reason that if this practice was widespread then, it would still be the case today, especially given that “wine-plus” beverages have more of a kick. However, there are references in the Talmud to the practice, so it can at least be concluded that it is allowed in certain circumstances.

Christianity: Sacrament, Blood, Redemption

Perhaps the most famous cultural manifestation of wine in Western society is the Sacrament of Communion, also known as the Eucharist.

In this ritual, a small wafer or piece of bread is taken to symbolize (or become) the body of Jesus Christ, and the red wine symbolizes/becomes his blood. This is a complicated theological matter, and there is a lot of disagreement between denominations about the type of bread and wine that can be used in the Eucharist. I have even heard of a preacher substituting Coca-Cola and a chocolate bar in place of the traditional materials!

Although it could be argued that the Christian infrastructure played a crucial role in the development of wine culture, as in the case of Champagne and Bordeaux, I’m not sure that Christianity per se has added anything new to the culture of wine. In the case of the religion itself, the relationship to wine is primarily focused on its blessing and ritual consumption.

However, it is worth noting that the origin of the Eucharist lies in the “Last Supper”, an interaction that was said to occur between Jesus and his disciples shortly before his capture and crucifixion. Given that Jesus and his followers were (mostly) observant Jews, and that his execution took place around Passover, it is widely believed that the Last Supper was actually a Passover Seder. This places this event – and Christianity – within the larger context of Jewish wine culture, which allowed for the addition of herbs to wine. This becomes relevant in the last section of this article.

Herr brewmeister… frau brewmeister?

Up until this point, the focus of this article has been what wine is made of, or not made of. However, the production of wine cannot be discussed without discussing the producers of wine, as our knowledge of fermentation was discovered thousands of years ago and passed down through the generations. To put it simply: who made wine?

As it turns out, in the ancient and medieval worlds, women were the masters of fermentation. Whether in hunter-gatherer societies where men were out hunting big game, or in agricultural societies where men were out working the fields, the production of food – and particularly the management of difficult processes like brewing and winemaking – fell to women. Indeed, before Bacchus and Dionysus were ever conceived of or worshipped, it is believed that the ancient fertility goddesses were female, and that wine was well within their portfolio.

Despite being shut out of academic circles like their contemporaries Dioscorides and Hippocrates, women kept stores of botanical knowledge passed down to them from their ancestors. They carried this knowledge with them into the middle ages, where they were brewers, vintners, healers, and herbalists, responsible for mixing and administering the cures that Dioscorides and other men wrote about in the centuries previous.

Libraries Burned To Ashes

The “dark ages” were, well… dark. Things were chaotic and feudalistic, held together by the most slender of threads in the form of a vaguely Christian meta-narrative. People were highly superstitious, and women were not held in high esteem.

Like in ancient days, women in the middle ages were responsible for meal preparation and fermentation. Some of them even plied their wares to the public, as brewers or traditional healers. However, especially in the last four centuries of the middle ages, their status as keepers of secret knowledge brought these women under suspicion of witchcraft.

It is suspected that tens of thousands – if not over a hundred thousand – women were murdered in witch trials across Europe and North America. Since women were discouraged from reading and writing until fairly recently, the botanical knowledge held by those “witches”, some of which may have had roots stretching back hundreds or thousands of years, died with them.

Where brewing and fermentation were concerned, men rose to take the place of the women burned at the stake and have remained dominant in the industry ever since. Alongside the persecution of female healers and plantmasters, rigorous quality and purity standards for beer were enacted in various European countries, and since then many wine standards like the VQA appellation were developed as well. The “homegrown”, folkloristic aspects of fermentation were largely destroyed as a result.

The cumulative effects of time, greed, prejudice, and circumstance all conspired to make wine what we know it to be today – fermented juice of specific grapes, almost 100% pure, and mixed with select spices, fruits, and other ingredients on specific occasions only.

Death of a Tradition

The severing of our relationship with the natural world has been the subject of a great many books and articles, and I will not rehash the issue here. However, it bears note that one of the most under-appreciated effects of this intentional exodus from Eden is the loss of our relationship with the vibrant plant life that surrounds us.

For example, within a ten minutes’ walk of my house, I surely have access to a number of edible plants, among them pine needles, the humble dandelion, and many I am completely unaware of. Yet, even if I could find and identify these plants – which is a challenge in and of itself – I would have no idea how to use them, in what circumstances, or how to prepare them for human consumption. Whereas an ancient human, a “witch”, or a learned plantmaster might walk through a forest and see a buffet, all I see are trunks, leaves, and flowers.

A window into what our botanical world used to look like is provided by Mark J. Plotkin’s book “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice”, which details his journey into the Amazon to learn traditional plant knowledge, discover compounds for new medicines, and preserve that knowledge for future generations:

“At the side of the trail, Koita pointed out a short bush with thick leaves of the deepest green. The color of the leaves constrasted sharply with the ruby-red berries growing at its base. Koita plucked two of the thin, waxy leaves, balled them up, and crushed them in his right hand. Then he opened his fist for me to smell the contents. The mashed leaves gave off an appealing gingerlike aroma.

As I knelt down to examine the plant, Koita explained, ‘This we call ko-noy-uh. We drink a tea of the leaves as a treatment for colds and sore throats’.”

– From “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice”, Mark J. Plotkin

Beyond being a fascinating look at indigenous life, and how precious botanical knowledge is accumulated and shared in these contexts more generally, Plotkin’s book chronicles the rapid loss of a culture in the span of a generation. Similar to how the burning of “witches” in Europe and the colonies destroyed a way of life in Europe centuries before, the allure of a modern lifestyle took young people away from traditional ways and left the shamans with nobody to teach4. In most cases, all we are left with are books and vague memories.

The “War On Drugs”

Aside from America’s brief experiment with prohibition, alcohol has almost always been elevated as a “desirable intoxicant” in every Western country. Although getting wasted is frowned-upon in most circumstances, the consumption of wine (and large quantities of it) is just something that “happens” on occasion, and unless it becomes a recurring theme in someone’s life, it’s not a societal issue.

Throughout the 1900’s, particularly in North America, the privileging of wine and tobacco over other plant-based intoxicants was aggressive and merciless. Cannabis, “magic mushrooms”, and other plant-based intoxicants were placed under the strictest of bans while wine continued to grow in popularity and stature.

Today, one would associate the consumption of wine with an upper-class sensibility, perhaps a signal of a refined taste. On the other hand, consumption of any hallucinogenic is the mark of a madman, an junkie, or a dropout. Given the complicated history of wine, which includes additives like wormwood, nightshade, and frankincense, this seems like a bit of an arbitrary distinction to make, and may not hold up for much longer.

The vine strikes back?

In recent years, people have become more aware of our tenuous link with the natural world, and the special roles that indigenous people and various keepers of ancient ways have played in maintaining it. In an ironic twist of fate, the internet – perhaps our most monumental technical achievement – has given birth to a thriving culture of plant enthusiasts.

In many ways, the access to a comprehensive window of the world given to us by the internet has inspired some people to reclaim plant knowledge that been lost, usually through excruciating trial-and-error. In my digital travels, I have encountered people growing their own chocolate, cannabis, salvia, psilocybin mushrooms, and more. In mainstream culture, one common expression of this desire/need to reconnect with nature is the stereotypical “plant moms”, who grow more benign plants like monstera and pothos.

But what does all this have to do with wine?

The Immortality Key: Archaeochemistry & Ancient Beverages

In his book “The Immortality Key”, classicist and lawyer Brian C. Muraresku makes a very bold allegation: that various Christian Eucharist ceremonies, and perhaps even the original Eucharist ceremony, involved wine mixed with psychoactive ingredients.

In support of his claim, Muraresku draws upon a startling array of circumstantial evidence that details the use of psychoactive plants in alcoholic beverages during the “early Christian” period of roughly 30-400AD:

  • The writings of Dioscorides, Hippocrates, and others.
  • The existence of the “Eleusinian Mysteries”, a secret ritual tied to Demeter and Persephone that was said to grant immortality to those who undertook it.
  • The slow propagation of various forms of the “mysteries” into private homes and throughout the Mediterranean.
  • The presence of ergot, a poisonous mushroom that also contains LSD, in beer-drinking vessels throughout the Greek Mediterranean, including at a temple dedicated to Demeter and Persephone.
  • Parallels between the Dionysus mythology and the story of Jesus as told in the Gospels, including the “water into wine” miracle in the Gospel of John – which was written specifically for a Greek audience.
  • The presence of the word “κοιμῶνται” (koimōntai) in 1 Corinthians 11:30 in context of the Eucharist, which is commonly translated as “falling asleep” but could also be understood to mean “dying” – which could be a reference to the effects of drinking something laced with too much ergot.
  • There seem to be a few rare references to people drugging the Eucharist wine in early Christian literature, but this was officially frowned upon.

One of the most interesting parts of “The Immortality Key” is its use of a relatively new discipline called archaeochemistry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the name, this field uses modern scientific techniques to determine the chemical compositions of various artifacts, including residue left inside drinking and fermentation vessels. This is how we know – definitively – that ancient Greeks were consuming ergot-laced beer, likely in temple-based scenarios.

Muraresku ties all of this information together into the following hypothesis, which I believe I have understood and paraphrased accurately:

  1. The use of ergot developed in ancient times and became instantiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
  2. The secret rites and edibles used in these Mysteries got leaked somehow, or otherwise spread across the Greek Mediterranean – even as far as Spain, and were incorporated into whatever beverage was on hand for maximum enlightenment.
  3. Jesus, who was described as a healer par excellence, incorporated a psychedelic component into the Last Supper in order to enlighten his disciples and help them achieve “eternal life”.
  4. This ritual then spread throughout early Christian communities, where it was later suppressed or discouraged by Paul and/or the official Church once it was formed.

Although I think that Muraresku can make a case for psychedelic Eucharists happening at some point in early Christian history, I believe that he is mistaken about the Last Supper for one important reason: it was a Passover seder. My current understanding is that nowhere in the extensive body of Jewish written or oral law are psychedelics mentioned, even when discussing other potential additives to wine. For these reasons, it seems highly unlikely that Jesus was a shroomer, especially on Passover.

Additionally, the reference to “death” in 1 Corinthians 11:30 is taken heavily out of context (it means spiritual death):

“Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have κοιμῶνται. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.”

– 1 Corinthians 11:28-31

That said, we are indeed left with the issue of the “rogue” Eucharists that may or may not have been taking place in the first few centuries following the birth of Christianity. If they did happen, can they be taken to be authentic expressions of faith, similar to self-mortification or other peculiar traditions?

Religious Rights to Psychedelic Rites

The rights of indigenous cultures to cleave to their ethnobotanical traditions should be beyond question in any civilized society. In my opinion, this holds even in “extreme” cases, such as providing psilocybin mushrooms to young children (which, given my experience, would be perfectly safe if both supervised by a shaman/elder/doctor and nurtured within a social context that allowed the child to make coherent meaning from their experience).

However, the history of mulled and mixed wine reveals some interesting complexities. Consider the following information, which I have covered in this article:

  • The consumption of mind-altering substances, such as alcohol, frankincense, myrrh, wormwood, salvia, nightshade, henbane, ergot, and psilocybin mushrooms is older than recorded time and a part of many indigenous cultures.
  • Three of the four cultures that form the core pillars of Western society – Greek, Roman, and Jewish – all advocate or allow for the use of mixed wines for specific (medicinal) purposes, and Greek culture used psychedelics in some circumstances.
  • The fourth pillar culture of Western society, Christianity, may have psychedelics in its history, particularly as part of its most holy rite. Although this was never “official”, and has yet to be definitively proven, these rituals would still arguably be viable expressions of faith that were a combination of pre-existing cultural conditions and a new religion.
  • To my knowledge, there is nothing in Jewish law (and therefore Christian law) that prohibits the addition of psychedelic substances to wine in order to increase its potency – although the responsible use of alcohol is emphasized in Judaism, as are the dangers of seeking supernatural visions or communing with spirits as some psychonauts may attempt to do.
  • We still mix herbs and spices in with wine, although the ingredients we use for mulled wine is largely determined by social custom and family tradition.

To me, it seems like there is a very interesting case to be made regarding the use of psychedelics in religious ceremony. The resulting interactions between religious freedom and government repression would be very interesting, to say the least, and could contribute to the dissolution of some very strict laws.