Written by Albena Stoyanova. Albena Stoyanova is a tourism professional with an interest in wine, food and festivals. She enjoys the stories behind good wine and is a sustainable tourism supporter. She resides in Plovdiv – the European Capital of Culture 2019. This article is based on the book ‘Thracians and Wine’ by Ivan Marazov.
Have you visited Bulgaria? Or do you have Bulgarian friends who have shared with you their delicious traditional food? Are you impressed by Bulgarian meals, wines, traditional dances and the hospitality shown by local people? We, Bulgarians, live in the land of Thracians and, as their heirs, know how to feast and appreciate wine – the drink of Gods.
The Thracians were mysterious people living on a wide area from the Southern Carpathian up to the Aegean Sea and Northwestern Asia Minor during the Bronze Age. Homer was the first to mention them in his famous work ‘The Iliad’, where it was mentioned that [Thracian] warriors from these lands had come to help Troy during the Trojan War. In a preserved fragment, Arian writes that this territory was initially called Perke, which means rocky peak. Later it was named Thrake after a nymph who was claimed to have been “skilled in magic spells and herbs, capable of eliminating pain on one hand, and on the other – of causing it. In the book The Thracians, Fol (2015) writes that Arian’s words reflect the conviction of ancient people in Southeastern Europe that the Thracians were deeply religious and that they were capable – like real magicians – of making the gods fulfill their will.
Wine was a sacred drink. A beverage that played an important role to the Thracians throughout their lives. No event in personal or social life was possible without it. As a divine beverage, it was used not only in rituals and prophecies but in feasts as well. First of all, the feast had an important social role – it was a place for communication between the king and his dignitaries and important negotiations were held during feasts. In addition, it was a venue for gift exchange and a scene for spectacles.
Fresco scenes from burial sites provide information about the feast and the way of drinking wine in Thrace. For example, a fresco from the Kazanlak Thracian Tomb reveals a picture where the dynast holds a phiale (wine drinking vessel) in hand while the wine servant pours the drink into it. The Aleksandrovo Thracian tomb illustrates the ruler who gets a huge horn full of wine from a young wine waiter after finishing a hunting trip.
Wright, J. (2004 ) writes in A Survey of Evidence for Feasting in Mycenaean Society that among the rare written sources about feasting in Thrace is Xenophon’s description of the feast given by King Seuthes II (424BC – 407BC), during which the Thracian ruler shared bread and meat, thus asserting his alliance with the Greek army led by Xenophon.
To better understand the way of the feast, we will follow the detailed explanations by witnesses at the Xenophon feast with King Seuthes II and writers to inform you about the way of feasting in Seuthes II palace and the various stages of the feast:
The visit started with a hug and toast. As Xenophon came into Seuthes residence “at first they embraced each other and, following the Thracian custom of taking horns full of wine, drunk a toast to one another”. This welcoming has the ritual meaning of overcoming the barrier of “guest” and “host”. It represented the sacred norm in archaic society – the one of hospitability.
The weapons were kept outside of the hall. The feast was considered a peaceful and serene event, where friendship began. At the same time, moments of violence or even death could be present to dramatize the peacemaking role of this sacred celebration. The ideal rhythm of life in the ancient aristocracy was for men to spend the day in war but to feast at night. An example of moments of death is the bow shooting of two of the servants of the Thracian Kotys I when they failed to answer his question as to whether the goddess Athena was in his bedroom already.
The guests’ seating arrangement was an important element for conducting the feast. The place of each participant was strictly regulated by King Seuthes himself and was based on the participant’s role in social hierarchy. The king’s most trusted people sat the closest to him. Only men were allowed to join the event. The feast was considered a high-class social celebration and the guests were chosen among “the most notable from the Thracians, military leaders and centurions’ envoys from the towns”. King Seuthes’ guests were invited only from the crust of local society as well as from representatives of the Greek higher strata. The foreign guests were not only invited to share the food, drinks and hospitability of the ruler but they also received his promise of becoming his “table-companions” and “brothers”.
Then the guests were seated in a circle in armchairs in contrast to Ancient Greece where they laid on special beds.
The food distribution was according to the ruler’s perception of the guest’s status in the social hierarchy. As Xenophon writes: “as Seuthes took the loaves of bread which were in front of him, then broke them into pieces and threw them amidst the guests as he pleased. And with the meat he did the same, leaving to himself only the quantity necessary for him to eat”. Each feast was a means of communication with the gods. That is why the meat served there was considered a sacrifice.
Peace achieved during the feast. The enmity became consent there.
A “King’s table-companion” was a privilege given to a man allowed to enter Seuthes’ premises and to be noted as an especially deserved guest to have the right to be invited to sit at the king’s table. The preparation led to great material difficulties for the guest. To be lavish was a sign of greatness, especially for the ruler.
The gift exchange was something typical for the archaic feast. The ritual carried out every time was followed by the same sacred activity of wine drinking. The one who gives the present takes a horn full of wine, gives a toast and presents the gift to the ruler. Examples of gifts, which Seuthes received, are horses, clothes for his wife, a slave, a carpet and a precious cup. It is remarkable that in Thrace, the king was obliged to present even more valuable gift to the guest. The generosity is a duty of the great ruler. In this way, Seuthes showed his wealth and proved the prosperity of his state and his people. The gift exchange was also considered a symbolic ritual to make people “brothers.”
Musicians. No feast could be jolly without rhythms. Actually, the musicians wereof great importance to the banquet held by the king. Their songs praised the exploits of the heroes. Xenophon tells that even Seuthes himself stood up and started to dance military dances mimicking movements that looked as if he was protecting himself from an arrow.
Jesters. At the end of feast, the jesters came into the hall. They entertained the guests performing different acrobatics. Typical for their jokes was the temporary social role exchange. For example, it was allowed to make jokes with king Seuthes.
We have mentioned Thracian wine a few times. Here arises the question – what was its taste, what color did it have and what about its aroma?
What was the taste, look and aroma of Thracian wine?
The answer comes from the book A Companion to Ancient Thrace, where Valeva (2015) writes that a modern analysis of archaeological data (namely wine residue in an amphora from Zlatinitsa) about the type of wine Thracians used to drink was carried out. The result is that the wine was red, dry and strong with a slightly fruity flavor; it was made from wild grapes with resin added to prevent it from turning into vinegar.
If you would like to tour and taste wine made in valley of the Thracian Kings, learn about Bulgarian and Thracian history and have an extraordinary experience, do not hesitate to contact Bulgaria Wine Tours (www.bulgariawinetours.com) or e-mail at email@example.com.