The Cult of Dionysus

Grape Leaves

by Sofi Thanhauser

Grape Leaves

Nina Carelli

There is something particularly precious about the color of tender new leaves. The emotional opposite of wintersky grey, new-leaf green is a color whose ardor seems intensified by its innate transience. Here it is one day, glorious in its soft, lambent naivety, and there goes the next—gone to the smug summer green of a glossy full-grown leaf. And as any grazing animal will tell you, tender young leaves are better eating than tough, mature ones.

So if you want to make stuffed grape leaves, a signature of many cuisines in the neighborhood of the former Ottoman Empire, you are going to want to get picking.

Grape leaves should be harvested, according to year-rounder Armen Hanijan, just at their peak—as they come into full size but before they toughen. “Once a year in spring, my mother would go out and pick young grape leaves,” recalls Mr. Hanijan, who grew up in Rosell, New Jersey, the son of two Armenian immigrants who had met as neighbors in Turkey. “She would put them in brine and they would last the whole year.”

Tender young grape leaves evoke a kind of eternal spring—a transcendent tenderness that time (and brining) doesn’t destroy, as the leaf also has deep significances in myth. For the ancient Greeks, it was a token of the rebirth of the god Dionysus, god of the vine.

Well known but ill understood among us moderns, Dionysus was, like Christ, a resurrected god. Like the grapevine itself, he died in the winter and was reborn in spring. He was, also like Christ, a suffering god. He died by being torn to pieces—in some stories by Titans, in other accounts because of Hera’s orders.

But Dionysus, unlike Christ, was not a messenger of love. As the god of wine and intoxication, Dionysus is a two-faced god, one who contains a mighty paradox. On the one hand he is a joyful friend to man, helping them forget their cares and be filled with joy. On the other hand, he is a cruel killer, who unleashes the most unnatural, painful, and appalling kinds of destruction.

Take poor Agave, the Theban woman whom Dionysus caused to rip off the head of her own son, Pentheus, believing she had killed a lion.

The five-day festival of Dionysus, held at the time when the grape vine began to put forth new branches, was one of the most important celebrations in the religious calendar of ancient Greece, and its central event was the performance of plays. Many of the great tragedies and comedies that still survive today were written for the play-writing competitions at the festival of Dionysus.

The writers, actors, singers, and audience members present at the play were taking part in a religious tradition. Dionysus had a significance not only as the god of intoxication, but of divine inspiration itself. In fact some of his devotees did not drink wine at all. If drinking is one way to transcend individual problems, the theatre is another.

Tender young grape leaves, token of this dualistic God, joyous and violent, can speak to us of an unfathomable resilience, the endless reiteration of tenderness in spite of all the savagery that the human drama entails.