It was into a concoction based on cheese, fresh hon ey and Pramnian wine, that Circe poured the potion which was to turn Odysseus’s men into swine (Od. X. 635). In fact, Homer mentions the wine more than once, always indicating that it was mixed with grated cheese or barley: Plato, Aristophanes, Hippocrates, Diogenes Laertius and Athenaeus also describe or re fer to it. But common to them all, is the suggestion that the wine was almost never drunk pure or for refreshment, but was most often used medicinally for its highly nutritive qualities. What can such a wine have been like? Athenaeus of Naucratis, the connoisseur of all matters of the palate, describes Pramnian wine thus (Deipnosophistai, I.15): ‘it is a kind of wine that is neither sweet nor dense, but with a sharp and astringent and powerful taste’ He goes on to relate how Aristophanes was wont to say that the effete Athenians never took any pleasure either in hard and steadfast poets, or in Pramnian wine, or indeed in anything difficult which might ‘contract the stomach or cause a frown’. The wine was apparently ‘black’, was endowed with the ‘power to assuage anger’ and matured when left to stand, according to Hesychius of Alexandria. Eustathius, in his commentaries on Homer, says it was ‘not for quenching thirst, but rather for alleviating satiety’—perhaps somewhat like a modern digestif. Hippocrates and Galen speak of its therapeutic qualities, both for external application as an unction (Hippocrates) and for internal consumption (Galen). Much later, the French Jesuit missionary, Jacques-Paul Babin, again described the wine as ‘hard’, but added that the island had ‘the best winter grapes I ever encountered, being round and red, and growing between the rocks in such dangerous places that they are gathered with considerable hazard’. (The same Fr. Babin was astonished to note that the islanders of Ikaria rowed their boats naked, explaining to him that clothes were an impediment to them and wore out too quickly when rowing.)
It is hard to find anything today on Ikaria that corresponds to this impressive variety of qualities and descriptions: indeed it would be unusual for such a type of wine to have remained unchanged through out so many centuries. Interestingly, however, the use of a warm drink of red wine heated with barley in it can still be found in winter among the older rural inhabitants, both here and on Samos . It remains only to experiment with adding grated sheep’s cheese to find something that might possibly have seemed familiar to Odysseus.
Ikaria Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island group
The Pramnian wine.