A Tipsy Hero–wine-drinking in the Odyssey

Posted on February 18th, 2009 by

In connection with the previous post on feasting with good food and friends, here’s an article on wine-drinking in the Odyssey from the New York Times:

A student in one of my English classes recently asked about the endless references to drinking wine in “The Odyssey.” The question, which had nothing to do with my lesson, was a good one. Wine has a constant presence in the epic poem, whose most famous image is probably Homer’s evocation of the “wine-dark sea” that Odysseus sails in search of his native Ithaka. Sometimes it is mere tonic on an impossibly long journey home from the Trojan War, but on occasion wine is more powerful than the sword, as when Odysseus escapes from the Cyclops by getting him drunk. Homer may have been blind, but his taste buds were alive to wine, and he reserved his richest adjectives for it: heady, mellow, ruddy, shining, glowing, seasoned, hearty, honeyed, glistening, heart-warming, and, of course, irresistible.

But my student’s question did engender a lively, if brief, conversation. Someone thought that it was unseemly for a hero to drink, while others figured that with his sights set on home, Odysseus didn’t have much time to nurse a hangover. There would be time for wine to flow, they argued.

I wasn’t quite satisfied, and the question continued to bother me until, days later, I found a passage in “The Odyssey” that succinctly captures the complexity of the Greek attitude towards alcohol. Odysseus is speaking to a sympathetic swineherd, and though he is in disguise, the words have the unmistakable ring of honesty:

[I]t is the wine that leads me on, the wild wine
that sets the wisest man to sing at the top of his lungs,
laugh like a fool – it drives the man to dancing…it even
tempts him to blurt out stories better never told.

After two decades away from home, there must have been so much to say, so many bottled-up tales of friends lost and battles won. Somebody get the poor guy another round.



  1. Anthony Gambles says:

    This observation brought so much light to my extended research project. I was wondering if you could also display the page number; I’m having some trouble locating that quote.

  2. yurie says:

    It looks like they used the Fagles translation of the Odyssey (p. 316), around 14.525 ff.

  3. Cat says:

    Great article, thanks for sharing! I’m currently wondering about the “mixing” part of the wine references. What did they mix, exactly? Does the word “mix” literally mean mix, or does it mean “pour” or “procure”? I’m hoping there’s some kind of single-serve Kool-Aid-style wine packet that I can put into my water bottle, shake, and have a great day!