Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Grapevine (Vitis vinifera L.) Symbolism in the Ancient Euro-Mediterranean Cultures

, Volume 70, Issue 2, pp 190–197

  1. 1.Department of ArchaeologySimon Fraser UniversityBurnabyCanada
  2. 2.Department of ScienceUniversity of Roma TreRomeItaly
Notes on Economic Plants
DOI: 10.1007/s12231-016-9347-x
Cite this article as:
Savo, V., Kumbaric, A. & Caneva, G. Econ Bot (2016) 70: 190. doi:10.1007/s12231-016-9347-x
Interpreting plant symbolism in archaeological artifacts can help us better understand human-environment relationships (Caneva et al. 2014; Day 2013). In the past, representations of plants and, more generally, natural elements were not only decorative or chosen for aesthetic reasons, but they often had a precise symbolic aim. We argue that in the past people were able to understand these symbolic meanings thanks to their deep connection to and understanding of their environments (Caneva 2010; Caneva et al. 2014).
The grapevine (Vitis vinifera L.) is a cultural keystone species in many Euro-Mediterranean cultures (McGovern 2003). This species was associated with divinities, connected to specific rituals, and frequently represented in artifacts in many ancient cultures (e.g., Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures) (Kumbaric and Caneva 2014). In this paper, we explore interpretations of the grapevine symbol in Euro-Mediterranean artifacts to understand better how people in the past see and relate to nature. Here we show that both shape and uses of the grapevine are key to interpreting its symbolism. The ritual and religious uses of the grapes can be connected with its symbolic interpretation as the blood of the earth and life force.
The wild grapevine (Vitis vinifera L., Vitaceae) is a liana. Its natural habitats include riverbanks, deciduous, and semi-deciduous forests (Arroyo-Garcia et al. 2006; Terral et al. 2010; Zohary and Hopf 2000). There are about 60 interfertile wild Vitis species, and their distribution includes Asia, North America, and Europe (Terral et al. 2010; This et al. 2006; Wan et al. 2013). The grapevine is also cultivated, and to date, research has established that there are approximately 10,000 grapevine cultivars (This et al. 2006). Numerous paleo-botanical, taxonomical, and agronomical studies show that even in the past there were different morphotypes/varieties (Arroyo-Garcia et al. 2006; Manen et al. 2003; Núñez and Walker 1989).
Since ancient times, people have cultivated and expanded the natural geographical distribution of Vitis vinifera (Figueiral et al. 2010; Núñez and Walker 1989). In the Caucasian region, which is probably the area of origin of the plant (Jackson 2000; McGovern 2003; Myles et al. 2011), it was likely cultivated and domesticated for the first time about seven to nine millennia ago (McGovern et al. 1996a, b; Myles et al. 2011; Zohary and Hopf 2000). From that region, ancient civilizations have spread grapevines to the Euro-Mediterranean and other Euro-Asiatic regions (Terral et al. 2010; Unwin 1991). In those regions, many cultures learned about its cultivation or winemaking (Branigan 1970; Guasch-Jane et al. 2006; Janick 2007; McGovern 2003; McGovern et al. 1996a).
Grape and grapevine are widely represented in mural paintings, mosaics, and sculptures (Gago et al. 2009; Kumbaric and Caneva 2014). In this paper, we explore the potential explanations and interpretations of the grapevine symbol in Euro-Mediterranean artifacts to better understand plant-human relationships in the past. The aim of this paper is to explore how the morphological features and uses of grape, grapevine, and wine within ancient cultures, through the representation of this plant, could explain the meaning of the grapevine as a symbol and its frequent appearances in historical artifacts. The interpretation of the grapevine symbolism is possible because the representation of plants in the past was not only decorative (Caneva 2010; Caneva et al. 2014).


The methods used in this paper are divided into three parts: gathering data on archaeological images with plant representations, identification of grapevine representations, and interpretation of symbolic meanings. The methods employed in the first step are already described in Kumbaric and Caneva (2014). However, our study is based on observations as well as graphic and photographic documentation of grapevine representations on different artifacts in the Euro-Mediterranean area. The most detailed documentation covers objects, monuments, and artifacts in Rome (Italy). In Rome, we visited museums (including those in the Vatican) and archaeological sites to photograph artifacts bearing plant representations. We also searched for plant representations on archaeological artifacts in other museums in Europe (e.g., Pergamum in Berlin, Louvre in Paris, İstanbul Archaeological Museum, and different collections in Iraklion, Athens), in Africa (Cairo and Alexandria collections), and in North America (New York Metropolitan Museum). We also consulted virtual museum websites and thematic photo galleries (e.g., Dec Arch, The Web Gallery of Art, Wikimedia Commons) to enlarge the documentation of important collections we could not visit.
The identification and isolation of Vitis representations (generally plant parts such as leaves or fruits) from the collected phyto-iconographic material mostly follows a methodology described in Caneva (2010). The identification of Vitis elements was based on the morphological characteristics of the plant, comparing the represented elements with the same plant parts in nature. We used several on-line virtual herbaria (e.g., The Kew Herbarium Catalogue, The New York Botanical Garden Virtual Herbarium, The Flora of Israel online, Image archive of vascular plants [Dryades Project]).
The interpretation of the symbolic meaning of the plant representations follows the methods described in Caneva et al. (2014). We consulted archaeological and historical literature, especially classic authors, such as Pliny the Elder (Naturalis Historia), Dioscorides (De Materia Medica), Virgil (Aeneid), Lucretius (De Rerum Natura), Horace (Odes), and Vitruvius (De Architectura).

Results and Discussion

Symbolism: Associative Criteria

People in the past associated a symbolic value to several plants (Caneva 2010; Caneva et al. 2014; Kandeler and Ullrich 2009; Yılmaz et al. 2013). Here, we explore how the symbolic value of the grapevine (Vitis vinifera) was derived from its uses, but also from its morphological and phenological characteristics. In Table 1 we show that the most important features for understanding the grapevine symbolic value were shape, color, seeds, sweetness, morphological changes over time, and habitus of the plant (woody, climbing, deciduous). Color, fragrance, consistency, stimulating effects (well-being, ecstasy, and drunkenness) were instead the main features of the fermented grape juice—wine.
Table 1
Features of grapevine and wine connected to symbolic meanings
Symbolic Meaning
Round shaped and fleshy fruits, large number of varieties and cultivars
Abundance, fertility, richness
Seasonal dimorphism
Rebirth, regeneration, cycles of life
Processing of grape to make wine
Wine as sap of life, as a gift from gods (connection with divinity)
Grapevine morphological features evoke specific symbolic meanings (Table 1). The single fruit is round-shaped, fleshy, and bears more than one seed; these characteristics are linked to ideas of richness, fertility, and prosperity. The plant is without leaves in the winter and seems dead, but then, during its vegetative period, it comes back to life. This phenomenon is associated with ideas of life and death, rebirth, and regeneration. The primary symbolic meaning of the grapevine is indeed linked to notions of life and vitality.
Wine, both its effects and the wine-making process, represents an important element in understanding the grapevine symbolism (Unwin 1991). The fact that grape juice can change into wine was considered an incredible transformation process and was connected to the idea of metamorphosis, such as that connected to a passage from life to death. The color of wine was associated with the color of blood, sap of life, and, in many Mediterranean cultures, the grapevine originated from the blood of humans who have fought the gods (McGovern 2003). Moreover, the inebriating effects of wine were used to obtain a closer connection with divinities through the release of one’s inhibitions and the equating of that release to a sense of being near a deity (Stanislawski 1975). For example, in the Cretan cult of fertility, wine was used to obtain a sacral communion with gods (Stanislawski 1975).

Symbolism of Vitis in Ancient Cultures and Religions in the Mediterranean

The symbolic interpretation using the above-mentioned associative criteria is supported by the fact that the grapevine had a similar meaning in various ancient Euro-Mediterranean cultures. The importance of Vitis vinifera in the everyday life and religion of Egyptians, Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans is well known (McGovern 2003; McGovern et al. 1996a; Yılmaz et al. 2013). In each of these cultures, the grapevine was associated with a particular deity, starting from the ancient Great Mother of the first Mediterranean civilizations. At that time, the Great Mother was the primary goddess and was connected to ideas of fertility and earth’s fecundity (Stanislawski 1975). Then, in Egypt, the grapevine was associated with Osiris, the god of the afterlife, but also of agriculture (for this reason his face is represented in green) (Guasch-Jane et al. 2006; Okon 2012). The association of the grapevine with the Greek god Dionysus, who was the god of wine and of the sap that each spring rises from the earth to bring nature back to life, is well known. There are several different versions of the myth of Dionysus, but all the versions share the same fact: that he was killed, chopped into pieces, and then brought back to life (similarly to the myth of Osiris) (Okon 2012). This myth can probably be seen as a metaphor of the wine-making process during which grape is crushed and transformed into wine. Dionysus was then adopted by Romans and Etruscans and referred to as Bacchus and Fufluns, respectively. Roman representations usually depict him as a young man, while in the Greek myths he was bearded or older. However, they shared a very similar symbolism.
The pagan Mystery rites were at the basis of the worship of this god form/archetype in several cultures (Stanislawski 1975; Taylor-Perry 2003). In some of these celebrations, wine was consumed to gain a closer connection to the divinity. In the beginning, the Dionysian Mysteries were private and then became more public, but women always had a central role in this cult for their association with Mother Earth (Stanislawski 1975).

Representation of Grape, Grapevine, and Wine in Ancient Cultures

The grapevine is a widely recurrent species in ancient representations (sculptures, relief, frescoes, and mosaics) in the Mediterranean area. This plant was second only to the acanthus (Acanthus mollis L.), which was the dominant plant in artifacts of the Hellenistic-Roman culture, and to the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.), dominant in artifacts of the Middle Eastern culture (Kumbaric and Caneva 2014). Its representation in archaeological artifacts supports their previously cited symbolic meanings.
Here, we present some examples of the symbolic use of the grapevine. In Egypt, the grapevine was largely cultivated since the fourth millennium B.C.E., when it was probably introduced from Mesopotamia (Stanislawski 1975). Representations of grapevine, grapes, and winemaking were common on tomb walls since the Old Kingdom Period (2575–2150 B.C.E.) (Guasch-Jane et al. 2006), as for example in the Tomb of Sennefer (also called “the Tomb of the Vineyards”) (Fig. 1a-b). In Egypt, wine had a significant ritual meaning since it was offered to dead people for their journey to the afterlife, and it is cited in the Pyramid Texts among the funerary offerings (Poo 1995). This is because the grapevine was associated with Osiris, the god of death and afterlife, but it was also used to wish for a resurrection and to symbolize rebirth. The wine was generally red-colored, and this can be connected to the symbolic rebirth from death and associated with the blood of Osiris and its resurrection (Guasch-Jane et al. 2006).
Fig. 1
Grapevine as a symbol of life force. a-b Tomb of Sennefer (Tomb of the Vineyards) (about 1439–1413 B.C.E.) (from Wikimedia Commons); c Sarcophagus with garlands, heroes, and scenes of sacrifices (140–150 C.E.), National Roman Museum–Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome (photo by A. Kumbaric); d Hellenistic sarcophagus (part.) (2nd–3rd century C.E.) (from Wikimedia Commons).
In the Hebraic culture, it is possible to find several mentions of the grapevine, and representations of the plant occur in several artifacts, especially mosaics (such as those in Hanita, Israel) (Barasch 1974; Ovadiah 1969). Both wild and cultivated grapevines are mentioned in the Bible, and the grapevine is recognized as one of its most important plants (Janick 2007; Moldenke 1954). The Bible is also rich in allusions to wine growing and wine-making practices. The invention of wine is attributed to Noah (Moldenke 1954), whose birthplace was Georgia, a likely place for the origin of Vitis vinifera. Planting grapevines for brewing wine was among the primary actions he wanted to take after the flood, in addition to thanking God. The connection with the new life concept here is clear.
In the Etruscan culture, the grapevine held similar symbolic meanings as in the Egyptian and other Mediterranean cultures. Etruscans used to depict bunches of grapes in the frescoes on the walls of the several tombs as an augural message for rebirth and joyful life in the afterlife. Two examples of grapevine representations can be found in Central Italy in the tombs Tomba dell’Orco (4th century B.C.E.) or the Tomba dei Leopardi (5th century B.C.E.), where people are depicted drinking wine during a banquet (Brandt et al. 2014).
Grapevine representations had similar symbolic meanings in the Greek and Roman cultures. Grapes were very common on funeral reliefs of tombs or on sarcophagi as offerings to take on the journey towards afterlife and as a wish to find a new life after death. Often sarcophagi were decorated with fleshy fruits, especially grapes, symbolizing a source of life also in death (Fig. 1c-d). In Pompeii (Southern Italy), even when the grapevine seems to be represented for its food uses, as it is possible to observe in some frescos of banquet halls (e.g., House of Julia Felix, and the House of the Sibyl), its representation is overall symbolic, suggesting ideas of abundance and prosperity. With the same meaning, it is also depicted in the frescoes in the House of the Vettii (Pompeii), where winged infants mimic their elders by acting as winemakers and wine sellers.
Grapevine and grape representations were very common in the Greek-Roman culture. For example, the inclusion of grapes in garlands, festoons, and cornucopias enhanced the symbolism of richness and abundance (Fig. 1c-d). It is possible to count hundreds of examples of cornucopias with grapes, such as in the statues of the Tiber (2nd century C.E., Louvre Museum, Paris) or Nile (1st century B.C.E., Vatican Museum, Rome) rivers, where the personification of the river holds a cornucopia, filled with bunches of grapes. The rivers give richness and prosperity to the earth, allowing for the cultivation of crops, including the grapevine. The same symbolic meaning could be found in the Fortuna statue (Roman reproduction of the original Greek statue of the 4th century B.C.E., Vatican Museum). Fortuna (which means luckiness) holds a cornucopia full of grapes as a symbol of prosperity and richness, which enhances the significance of the statue itself.
In the Roman culture, grapevine representations were also used to express political ideas, through the associated divinity and symbolism, as for example in the Ara Pacis (9 B.C.E., Rome, Italy). In this monument, consecrated by the Roman Senate to celebrate the peace established after Augustus’s victories, the symbols of laurel (Laurus nobilis L.) and grapevine (or ivy) were used to express two opposing ideologies (Zanker 1990). Laurel and grapevine were associated respectively with Augustus and Marcus Antonius and, through their tutelary gods, respectively with Apollo and Dionysus. The first god represents the arts and order, the second one the vital force and inebriation. Many archaeologists note that these plants were used in representations as a sort of propaganda (Caneva 2010). The dominance of Apollonian elements in the Ara Pacis underlines the defeat of Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra and symbolizes the birth of a new era based on peace and order of the new-born Augustus’s Empire.

Evolution of the Grapevine Symbol

The use of the grapevine as a symbol of life, and of wine as a symbol of blood, has persisted in the Christian religion through millennia (Ferguson 2013) (Fig. 2a). In the gospel, we find explicit connection between the consecrated wine and the blood of Christ “for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26: 28–29). Grape and grapevine representations can, for example, be found in several inscriptions from catacombs, such as those of San Sebastiano (2nd century C.E., Rome, Italy) where birds are bearing grapes, and the grapevine was used to symbolize the connection with divinity. Grapevine and grapes are also widely represented in altars (e.g., Gago et al. 2009; Gago et al. 2014) and paintings (e.g., Dobrei et al. 2012; Drury 2002).
Fig. 2
Persistence and evolution of the grapevine symbolism. a Sarcophagus of Saint Drausinus (6th century C.E.), the Louvre Museum, Paris (from Wikimedia Commons); b-c Mshatta Façade (8th century C.E.), Pergamon Museum, Berlin (photo by G. Caneva).
In the Judaic culture, grapevine and wine also hold significant symbolic meanings (Wulkan 1998). The grapevine is used as a symbol of fertility, prosperity, transition, and well-being (Romanoff 1944; Wulkan 1998). Wine also bears symbolic meanings of connection with divinity, supporting the idea of a continuity of the symbolism of the grapevine across cultures (Goodenough 1957).
In the early Islamic art, we also find the persistence of grapevine representations to express ideas of fertility, abundance, richness, and prosperity. Wine was associated with blessings and joy, although drunkenness was frowned upon. We have a magnificent example of the grapevine symbolism in stone decorations on the walls of the Mschatta Fassade (Fig. 2b-c), built in the 8th century in the Jordan area, and now in the Islamic section of the Pergamum Museum in Berlin (Germany). In fact, even if in the Islamic culture the representation of nature is limited to stylized representations (due to religious reasons), in these long, carved surfaces of the Mschatta Fassade it is possible to observe repetitive and dominant elements of grapevines, which give rise to a complex animated world.


The grapevine is one of the most represented plants in artifacts belonging to Mediterranean cultures. These representations, however, are not mere decorations but were used to communicate messages through symbolic meanings. We showed how these symbolic meanings could be read using morphological and phenological characteristics of the grapevine. These meanings were easily read by people of ancient Mediterranean cultures because of the deeper understanding of natural phenomena in the past. Grapevine features can be used as a key to reading iconographic representations in the past, when many were illiterate but all were able to understand the powerful messages transmitted in images and symbols.


Authors are grateful to Ruth Joy (Simon Fraser University) for a first English revision. Authors are also grateful to Angelo Merante and Flavia Bartoli (University Roma Tre) for the editing of images.