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On Iranians, Drinking Wine, and Cultural Stereotyping

by Touraj Daryaee, Tehran Bureau

Foreign fantasies of excess versus a tradition of moderation.

From archaeological excavations that suggest northwest Iran was one of the earliest places where wine was produced -- more than 6,000 years ago -- to the tale of medieval French knights bringing grapes from the city of Shiraz, where the great Persian poet Hafez lived and wrote about his love of drink, there are many historical associations between wine and the land of Iran. In more recent times, Chateau Sardasht is still remembered by those who lived in Iran before the 1979 Revolution. Nowadays, visitors to Napa Valley can view the Persopolitan-looking Darioush Winery, one of California's leading vintners.

But there are other, more fanciful observations that inform the Western notion that Iranian culture was veritably drowning itself in wine in antiquity. Athenaeus, a Greek author who wrote about all things related to food, mentions that the Achaemenid king Darius the Great had the following inscription on his tomb: "I was able to drink a great deal of wine and to bear it well." Such an inscription is nowhere to be found. A similar picture is painted of Xerxes the Great in the biblical Book of Esther (1:10), where we read that the "heart of the king was merry with wine." Some commentators have suggested that the Achaemenid ruler was drunk when he ordered the beautiful young girls brought before him, so he could choose a new queen.

The fifth century BCE historian Herodotus claimed not only that the Persians were very fond of wine, but that they routinely made important decisions while drunk on it. According to Herodotus, the day after such a drunken deliberation, the Persians would reconsider their decision and if they still approved, adopt it. This is, to put it mildly, a highly unlikely image of a group of people who were able to carve out one of the largest empires in antiquity and sustain it for two centuries. Are we to think that they just got lucky over and over again when they were drunk out of their minds? This is certainly the view that the Greeks promoted and Iranian irrationality remains a topos in Western culture. A striking recent example comes in the 2009 movie by Bill Maher, Religulous, in which as soon as Iranians are mentioned, there is a scene of a party and people drinking alcohol out of the bottle in a frenzy.

But if one looks at the internal Iranian evidence, for example Zoroastrian texts, a new image of the importance of wine in classical Iran emerges. The most interesting of these texts is one called The Spirit of Wisdom from the sixth century CE. One chapter discusses how wine can bring one's good and bad dispositions, and argues that those who drink it in moderation benefit in enhanced awareness and intellectual facility: "this that is forgotten will be remembered and goodness will take place in thought and it will increase the sight of the eye and hearing of the ear and the speech of the tongue, and doing work and managing will proceed faster." Relative temperance, however, is emphasized. "But anyone who drinks wine must be conscious to drink in moderation, since through moderate drinking of wine this much goodness will come to him, because food will be digested and kindle fire [of the body], and increase intelligence and the mind and seed and blood, and reject torment."

The key here appears to be the Iranian notion of "moderation," a concept that exists in the Greek world as well, but it is somehow overlooked by the Greeks when they turn to look at Iran. As the classical Iranians saw it, drinking wine in moderation made one more attentive and mentally keen. This idea is not so alien to us in the modern world, but it was simply not associated with the Iranians when they were being observed from outside. So it appears quite plausible that the classical Iranians made important decisions while drinking wine, and then just to make sure that they had not exceeded moderation, weighed their decisions again the next day. This is a picture drastically different from the familiar one that was painted from afar. Ethnic stereotyping has a long history, not least when it comes to Iran.

Dr. Touraj Daryaee is a history professor at the University of California, Irvine.  

Related Links:  That Sweet Iranian Spirit | Breaking the Stereotypes of Persia and Iran 
Via Tehran Bureau
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