Of wine and war
Party time in ancient Iran
April 28, 2005
The Shahnameh is replete with scenes of kings and heroes in the
company of wine. In one episode, for example, Esfandiyar feasted
on kabob and wine (may) before going into battle against Arjasb.
In another story, Rostam and Esfandiyar partook of wine prior to
riding into Zabol. What made Ferdowsi’s rendition of such
scenes remarkable is that even centuries of Islamic strictures
could not efface the visceral connection of the Iranian with wine.
I have been told that on the occasion of Norouz, the New Year,
some Iranians turn their spread of seven articles beginning with
the letter “s” or haft-syn to a haft-shyn so they can
include sharab (present-day word for wine). The haft-syn folk include
in their setting serkeh (vinegar). Either way, we are talking about
red grape juice
at different stages of fermentation.
My fascination with the place of wine in ancient Iranian rituals
owes its origin to the description of a Persian custom given by
the Greek historian Herodotus (d. ca. 425 BC). In Book I:133 (Histories,
edition), he recounted how Persians, who were settled in southwest
Iran, considered any weighty matter once when sober and again when
under the influence of wine, or vice versa. If the decision were
the same both times, they acted on it. Somehow, I cannot help but
believe that wine was the agent that promoted frank and uninhibited
discussion -- as is embodied in the maxim “in vino veritas” (in
wine is truth) that originated with Alcaeus in about 600 BC.
The Medes, another Iranian people, who were settled in west-central
Iran long before the arrival of the Persians, knew wine for its
incapacitating qualities. During the reign of Sargon of Assyria
(ruled: 722-705 BC), the Saka, an Iranian-speaking group of horsemen
from southern Russia pushed past Darband on the Caspian Sea and
established a capital some seventy-five miles south of Lake Urumia,
at present-day Sakkiz.
When the Median king Kyakhares (Cyaxares)
was busy sacking the Assyrian capital at Nineveh, in 612 BC,
the Saka invaded Media and, according to Herodotus (I:103-104),
the Median army and took control of the kingdom. If the Medes
regained their country in 584 BC was in part by the grace of wine.
to Herodotus (I:106), Kyakhares invited the greater part of the
Saka to a banquet, and made them drunk with wine, after which
they were all massacred.
The Saka’s obvious susceptibility to wine was shared by
another group of nomads, the Massagatae, who inhabited the area
east of the Caspian Sea. We know this from the account of the war
that Cyrus II the Great (ruled: 550-529 BC) waged against the Massagatae
and their queen, Tomyris. According to the stratagem deployed by
Cyrus, as described by Herodotus (I:207-212), a sumptuous banquet
of sheep was spread with wine cups filled full of the noble liquor.
A small Persian force that was left to guard it was overcome by
the queens’ son and his troops. They feasted on the banquet
and then fell asleep. Cyrus’s main army then descended on
the Massagatae, slaughtering many and took many more prisoner.
To seek the release of her son, the queen sent a message to
Cyrus and in it she reminded the Mede, as she called him, that
won the victory unfairly, as it had been the grape-juice that
had ensnared her son. As she described it, the grape-juice when
made one mad, as swallowed down it brought up to lips bold and
wicked words; it was poison, she said.
The Saka were among the multitudes that comprised the Achaemenian
Empire. One of their entities was called Saka Homavarka (also written
Haumavarga). The earliest reference to them appeared in the inscriptions
of Darius I the Great (ruled: 522-486 BC) at Susa (DSe: 24). The
Saka Homavarka were so called because they consumed “homa.” The
term “varka” or “varga” represented an
ingestion function such as drinking, eating or inhalation -- conveniently ‘taking’ or
broadly ‘consuming.’ According to J.M. Cook, the late
Iranist Ilya Gershevitch was content with leaving it at “consuming.”
According to the Avestan glossary, homa or hom was
a plant with medicinal and spiritual properties
and some have suggested that it was made from a mushroom that grew
north of the Oxus River (Jona Lendering in Scythians/Sacae on www.livius.org).
The “hom” of the Avesta has been associated with the “soma” of
Hindu rituals. On the hallucinogenic qualities of both, see David
L. Spess, Soma: The Divine Hallucinogen (Rochester, Vermont: Park
Street Press, 2000). Regardless, on the basis of Avesta’s
description of the item, I am inclined to believe that “hom” was
grape-wine. I found this conclusion on two
bases: The description of hom in the Avesta and the role
of wine in Saka rituals.
In the Avesta there is an entire sacred hymn called The Hom Yasht,
in which Yasna 10 speaks of hom’s properties: it vanishes
waste and foulness (sec. 7), it heals and is health-bringing (sec.
7 and 8), it is a toxicant and stirring (sec. 8), it is an exhilarant
(sec. 14), it “makes the poor man’s thoughts as great
as any of the richest whatsoever” (sec. 13), it grows in
mountainous (sec. 3, 4, 11 and 12), it is a liquor (sec. 12), it
is liquid (sec.17), it is juice (sec. 5), and it is a “drink
mixed with milk” (sec. 13).
The Saka were intimately familiar with wine. For one thing, they
had lost their mastery of Media to the fog of wine and, for another
thing, wine figured in their rituals and ceremonies. According
to Herodotus, among their cherished possessions was a drinking
cup (IV:5). Once a year those who slew in combat partook from a
bowl of wine (IV:66). In an oath ceremony, the parties to an oath
partook wine from a bowl that contained drops of the parties’ blood
According to the late Tamara Talbot
Rice, an authority on the Scythians (what the Europeans call the
Saka), when the greater
part of the Saka were expelled from Media by Kyakhares in 584 BC
many remained behind to train the Median cavalry. I believe, they
probably acquired their designation “homavarka” at
that time as takers of wine.
I cannot escape the irony that ultimately the monumental evidence
of the Achaemenian civilization that was Parsa (Persepolis, to
the Greeks) was consumed in 330 BC, as some believe, in the flames
ignited by passions stirred by wine.
Guive Mirfendereski practices law in Massachusetts (JD, Boston College Law
School, 1988). His latest book is A
Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea: Treaties, Diaries, and Other Stories (New
York and London: Palgrave 2001)