I’ll take the monkey manure, thanks.

November 20, 2007

I swear, I’m not at all a religiously observant person, but in my half-assed study of the spirituality of wine, I came across a pretty interesting example of intercultural cross-pollination of wine fables that spans 700 years.

The Midrash are rabbinical commentaries on biblical stories and Talmudic law, the record of debates and inquisitions into the esoterica of the Jewish religion’s beliefs and literature. The Midrash Tanhuma were written beginning as early as the 5th until the 9th centuries. In a commentary on the story of Noah planting a vineyard after having landed his ark, the Rabbis place the dreaded Satan alongside him.

“Once while Noah was hard at work, breaking the ground on a vineyard, Satan drew near and inquired what he was doing, “What are you planting?”

Noah: “A vineyard.”

Satan: “And what may be the qualities of its fruit?”

Noah: “The fruit it bears is sweet, be it dry or moist. It yields wine that gladdens the heart of man.”

Satan: “Let us go into partnership in this business of planting a vineyard.”

Noah: “Agreed.”

Satan thereupon slaughtered a lamb and then in succession a lion, a pig, and a monkey, and fertilized the soil with each in turn. Thus Satan conveyed to Noah the qualities o wine. If a man drinks one glass, he is as meek as a lamb; if he drinks three of four glasses, the he behaves like a monkey, he dances around, sings, talks obscenely and does not know what he is doing; and if he becomes intoxicated, he resembles the pig.”

Much later in 1553, a man named Hans Sachs published a pamphlet in Nuremberg called “The four wondrous properties of wine and their effects.” He was a Meistersinger (considered the best), a poet, playwrite, and most importantly, a shoemaker.

Without a special pass that shows that I’m a real scholar, I’m unable to look at a copy of this book. I’m consoled with a small little translation
of the first paragraph made available by by the University of South Australia:

“One day I asked a doctor to tell me whence derives the power of wine to affect in four different ways whomever it overcomes so that his mood changes. The first he makes peaceful, benevolent, mild and kind. Others he arouses to anger, so that they storm and quarrel and rage. The third he makes crudely childish and shameless, while the fourth is led by the wine to fantasies and follies.

He said, I will tell you. The wise pagans describe how after the Flood had passed, Lord Noah began to plant vines before anything else. But the soil was unfruitful, so old Noah cleverly fertilized it with manure which he took from different animals, namely sheep, bears, pigs, and monkeys. With this he manured his vineyard all over, and when the wine was ready it had acquired the natures of the four animals, properties which it still possesses. Now God made all men of four elements, air, fire, water, and earth, as Philosophy confirms, and according to each man’s nature, so does wine affect him.”

So. Do you see why this is interesting? It’s basically the same story, without Satan, a bear instead of a lion, but basically the same exact story told 600 years later by a non-Jew in a different culture.  These are the little things that I love about wine (besides that it tastes good, gets me drunk, and has a lubricative effect on the undergarments of the fairer sex): that there is an elemental truth to it that forms linkages between languages and cultures.  There is a universality to wine that weaves itself through the history of mankind, and helps to make us humans something special.

I wonder, however, where a young vineyard manager might find himself some prime A, organic-certified monkey manure in Northern California.  I’ll check at Wal-Mart.  I hear they have everything.


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