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The Feast of Unleavened Bread : When Drinking Is a Sacrament

April 04, 1993|GERALD ASHER | Asher is wine editor of Gourmet Magazine.

I'd chosen a small island with direct flights from Athens for a quiet week in the Aegean, imagining, I suppose, that it would be inaccessible to everyone in the world except me. Needless to say, the beaches were crowded by day, and by night the narrow white-washed alleys of the island's one small town throbbed with disco.

An Athenian friend of a friend told me of a few remote beaches in coves difficult to reach by land. Local fishing boats called on them, but none had a jetty or quay to receive the harbor craft I saw listing out of port every morning, crammed with tourists and tape players. She gave me directions to one I could reach on foot. "There's even a bar of sorts," she said.

Next morning, with book and beach-mat, I climbed a high ridge a mile or so behind the town, passed a herd of goats making what they could of the scrubby pasture on the far side, and then followed a barely visible track as it twisted down through coarse grass and rushed toward the sea. The ridge, curving behind me, extended down into the water, isolating a beach of fine sand. It was deserted except for a fisherman beating his catch of octopus on a rock, slapping them down, rubbing them against the rough surface and dashing a crock of seawater over them from time to time. I had no urge to take a closer look and settled at a distance to read and to sun myself.

What appeared to be a collection of flotsam was arranged against the side of the hill to give shade. Rickety posts sunk into the sand supported a canopy of reeds over a few wooden chairs and tables, bleached and partly rotted by sun and sea-spray. It was the bar, and after a while I went over and sat down at one of the tables. By then the octopus beater had left and I could hear nothing but the ripple of tranquil water. A small sail grazed the horizon, far away where sea and sky melded together in a blue haze.

A boy brought me some wine, pale golden and mildly resinated. Without my asking he also brought a few olives and a hunk of dense, slightly sour bread. A ray of sunlight, piercing the reeds overhead, was shattered by the wine glass. It was hot; I was drowsy. The distant sail was now at hand, and, once close enough, a man jumped down to swim and wade ashore. It could have been Dionysus himself, stepping from his raft, or Noah, released from his ark and relishing again the feel of sand between his toes.

*

I broke the bread and sipped my wine, thinking how richly they had sustained and shaped life around that sea. Most of us have been taught to show special respect for bread and wine; we shrink from throwing out bread even when it's stale, and the respect we have for wine is clear from the whole fuss we make about choosing it, buying it, serving it. We receive guests with bread and wine--but then the role of bread and wine in our lives is older than history. The Eucharist itself is rooted in the far more ancient belief that to eat bread and drink wine was to partake of the body of the corn god and the blood of the vine god. "The drinking of wine in the rites of a vine-god like Dionysus," wrote Sir James Frazer in "The Golden Bough," "is not an act of revelry, it is a solemn sacrament."

Sacrament or not, joining one with another to break bread and drink wine is the most basic act of community. Athenaeus, a 3rd-Century Greek writers,uggests that civilization began when men came together to eat food rather than fight over who would possess it. Describing how an early king had received a group of traveling companions, Athenaeus says, ". . . wine seems to possess a power that draws to friendship by lightly warming and fusing the soul. Hence they did not even ask their guests too soon who they were, but postponed that until later, as though they honored the mere act of hospitality, and not the individual and the personal in us."

As Greeks, they would have understood that the strangers moving among them could well have been gods. We are entertained by the ancients and their mythological gods, but the Greeks used myth and allegory, symbol and paradox to come to terms with truths too profound and too disturbing to be revealed, let alone understood, in any other way. They certainly grasped the meaning of their world better than we do ours.

Wine, in any case, was at the heart of their mythology and of their universe. It was symbolic of renewal, a metaphor for Dionysus and, therefore, for the cycle of death and rebirth, for the duality of being. Dionysus, born of a god and a mortal mother, drew heaven and earth together. Wine was man's portion of the divine, promising him life at its most intense.

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