Exploring History: Ampelos, The Satyr of The Grapevine and the Story Behind Wine

By | 22 February 2024

The lover of Dionysos who gave his name to ampelography.


Stuart Walton

Stuart Walton on the Greek mythological figure of Ampelos, the lover of Dionysos who lends his name to the scientific study of grape varieties.

The deity disposing over wine in Greek mythology is Dionysos, a late Thracian import to the pantheon, who arrives blazing a trail of ecstatic frenzy. He is the ultimate shapeshifter, changing from antic youth to gnarled elder in a mere blink. What is less often remarked upon in the myth is that he was conventionally held to have had a love-life too, albeit a doomed one.

Dionysos’ beloved is a satyr named Ampelos, for whom the science of grape variety morphology and botany, ampelography, is named. In later periods, a satyr was commonly depicted as a hybrid creature – the upper half resembling a man, while the lower half was usually equated to a horse or, more often, a goat. This entity, adorned with horns and possessing a rather unattractive facial appearance, symbolized the physical desires associated with intoxication and sexual impropriety. Even when depicted as entirely human, his bestial impulses often overcame him.

Ampelos, the golden exception to this rule, wasn’t subject to such animalistic tendencies. In the Dionysiaca, a renowned late Greek epic penned by Nonnus of Panopolis in the 5th century AD and the most extensive complete work of Classical antiquity in existence, Ampelos is characterized in a manner typically reserved for divine favorites.

No telltale hint of maturity was visible on his yet-to-ripen face. Silky tufts of hair seemed to run free, cascading over his shimmering silver-draped shoulders, dancing to the tune of the gentle breeze that caressed them. An enchanting voice reminiscent of honey wafted from his rose-coloured lips. The essence of spring was evident in his every move. His silvery footprints caused the meadows to blush with roses, and the endearing gleam in his eyes was comparable to the soft brilliance of the full moon. [translated by W.H.D. Rouse, 1940]

An adolescent vision in silver and pink, then. Mention of the full moon, however, more than simply adding the Anacreontic sensual note, prefigures his ghastly fate, in at least one version of the story.

In his hubris, Ampelos hopped onto the back of a wild bull, mocking the full moon, personified by the goddess Selene, boasting that he was equally as stunning. Selene, outraged, dispatched a gadfly to agitate the bull, which, driven to insanity by its relentless biting, flung Ampelos and instantly gored him to death. Dionysos, in his sorrow, then converted the young corpse into a grapevine, his lover’s blood becoming the first wine. It’s important to note that the myth maintains the implication that the primary duty of all wine is to be red.

In the alternative version, recounted by Ovid (Fasti 3.407ff), the youth scales an elm tree to reach the fruit-laden vine branch Dionysos has hung there, but falls to his death. Subsequently, the penitent Dionysos hoists him into the skies and transforms him into the constellation Boötes (the herdsman). This is a somewhat less romantic narrative and one more loosely linked to the establishment of viticulture.

Ampelos vanished from the classical pantheon for many centuries, his short life a minor event in the numerous exploits of Dionysos himself and the forms of ritual dedicated to him. The young satyr only started to make a triumphant comeback to the mythical corpus with the first translations of the Dionysiaca in the 17th century, when he finds his way into the poetry of the German lyricist, Martin Opitz.

An oil painting from the 1790s by Irish artist Robert Fagan, currently in the collection of the National Trust’s Attingham Park in Shropshire, is a copy of a Roman frieze from around AD 50, which is now located in the Museo Nazionale in Napoli. The painting depicts a risqué scene, on the left, a strong steward holds a wine-jar, and on the right, a lightly cloaked maenad plays an aulos or double flute. In the middle, two male lovers pose provocatively in contrapposto poses, barely covered by their barely-there garments, each gripping a thyrsos rod, a symbol of Dionysus’ sexual power, one of them drapes his arm around his partner. Below, a child and a dog watch the besotted lovers, captivated.

In typical depictions in classical sculpture, the age difference between the pair is highlighted. This ranges from almost-grown Ampelos looking up at Dionysus in the marble duo exhibited in the Uffizi, Florence, to a more disturbing statue of a kneeling adolescent Ampelos clinging to Dionysus’ right leg in the same gallery. The youth of Ampelos is a lasting metaphor for a mythical creature destined to transform into a grapevine. Its yearly regeneration symbolizes, the most intoxicating elements known to humankind – love and wine.

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