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.
The Thracians were a group of numerous Indo-European tribes who created a Thracian civilization and lived for millennia (from the middle of II BC – to VI AD) on a wide territory called Thrace stretching from the Carpathian Mountains to the Aegean Sea and Asia Minor. Their kings and priests believed in the immortality of the soul. In a preserved fragment from Arian, it is written that the Thracians were deeply religious and were capable – like real magicians – to make the gods fulfill their will.
Homer was the first author to write about Thracians in his famed piece of work The Iliad that mentions that Thracian warriors from these lands [of Thrace] had come to help the city of Troy in the Trojan war,
Thracians were able to extract gold and silver from the mountainous areas mainly in the Rhodopes Mountain in modern Bulgaria. Some of the most ancient gold mines on the Balkans with galleries longer than 500 meters still exist in the Eastern Rhodopes.
The Thracians processed the metal into finely crafted sets of vessels and pieces used for sacred wine rituals, soldier’s objects, golden masks etc. The skills of local artisans impress even today. They gave new shapes and artistic value to the objects; sculpting vessels with wonderful images from the Thracians lifestyle and myths.
Apart from silver and gold jewelry and items, these ancient people were famous for vine growing. Athenaeus writes that “Thrace and the neighboring lands were considered as lands with a sweet wine”. It was also mentioned that the wines produced in Thrace were famous all over ancient world. According to Homer, the Greek heroes drank wine, which Achaean ships carried every day on the wide sea from Thrace.
Wine accompanied the Thracians throughout their life. They celebrated the birth of a new family member with wine; and again with wine have sent their deceased to nothingness.
Wine was not only a drink; it was a sacred drink. It was initially used in rituals that connected man with the divine. The purpose of the sacred drink was to release the soul as it enters the body; it takes the place of God. That is why the sacred drink was a pledge in the battle between gods and demons – the one who owned it had the power over the knowledge e.g. over the past and the future of the world.
Hellenic authors describe the Thracians as drinkers and barbarians because they consumed non-diluted wine. At the time, the civilized way to drink wine was as a diluted beverage with water.
Only elderly Thracian men drank wine. The young men joined the clan with a wine ritual. Although typically a drink for men, wine was occasionally consumed by Thracian women as well. Plato once reproached that even “their women drank”. The presence of Thracian women in the feast was not allowed because the archaic society considered the woman’s place to be in the home, to be “inside”. “Outside” was the space belonging to men. A space that was considered dangerous for women and space where she did not belong. Women could pour and serve the wine to men but they were not permitted to drink with men, neither to participate in sacred wine ceremonies. Ancient authors inform us that the women did not know the rules of properly drinking wine and got drunk easily. Once intoxication happened, the entire societal structure was in danger of becoming chaotic because the roles and responsibilities of men and women were reversed.
Most of the treasures excavated on the territory of modern Bulgaria consist mainly of wine vessels. The images on them provide information about the wine rituals and feasts. Paintings depicting dancing people, scenes with Dionysus – the God of wine, sacred animals and floral decor have been found on these vessels. Today, we admire the skilled goldsmiths who shaped these objects with such an exceptional beauty. Moreover, the vessels reveal to us the richness of Thracian culture and the special meaning of wine in their lifestyle in this archaic society. Just imagine, in 4th century BC, the Thracians had about ten completely differently sized and shaped wine objects!