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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, Rawlinson’s 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), defeated 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. According 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 he had won the victory unfairly, as it had been the grape-juice that had ensnared her son. As she described it, the grape-juice when drunk 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 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 (IV:70).

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)

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