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Biblical bottles: Balthasar to Melchizedek

Balthasar – 12 litres/16 bottles
Used in: Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy

Balthasar sees the writing on the wall in this famous interpretation of the Biblical tale by Rembrandt

This bottle size is sometimes thought to be named after one of the Magi, Balthasar of Babylon, who presented his gift of Myrrh to the infant Christ in Bethlehem.

Rather more likely, however, is that it is named after the regent of Babylon of the same name – the son of the last king of that ancient city before it fell to Cyrus the Great and the Persians in 539 BC.

Belshazzar or Balthasar seems a more likely candidate as his story fits far more neatly into the, somewhat, historical progression through the Old Testament that the bottle names take.

This is slightly flawed as, as we shall see, the larger bottle sizes are in fact going to largely take us back in time but nonetheless he fits better into the litany of kings we have generally seen so far.

Furthermore, along with Nebuchadnezzar, Balthasar forms a neat double act in much the same way as Jeroboam and Rehoboam do.

There is another reason too and that is there is a very clear link in the Bible between Balthasar and wine – in a sinful and gluttonous sense of course. And 16 bottles is nothing if not a little gluttonous.

The Book of Daniel lays out the scene nicely: “Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand.

Belshazzar, whiles he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; that the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, might drink therein.

Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God which was at Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, drank in them.

They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.”

Balthasar and the Babylonians are committing a great many sins in this scene, hubris and blasphemy among them, profaning the holy artefacts of the Hebrews, the temple treasures, by having their concubines and whores drink wine from them as if they were common vessels while praising their heathen gods. They condemn themselves through their impiousness.

Famously, while the revel is going on, a mysterious and unseen hand appears and writes a message on the walls of the palace dining room.

Filled with terror Balthasar orders his wise men to translate the strange words but they could not – the reason for this is not explained but it may be because the script was Aramaic/Hebrew rather than cuneiform.

Balthasar’s queen however has the bright idea to call up Daniel to see if he can interpret the words, which, indeed, he can (lending further heft to the idea it was written in Aramaic/Hebrew not cuneiform).

The words, he says, are: “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin”. Daniel takes up the story again: “This is the interpretation of the thing: Mene; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.

“Tekel; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.

“Peres; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.”

For Balthasar the writing was really on the wall in more ways than one, indeed he was apparently killed that very night and Babylon falls to “Darius the Median”.

Once again, as with so much in the Bible, one can question the entire episode, safe in the knowledge that the whole thing was retroactively slotted in to give greater heft to the story and scripture and is largely intended as allegory. There are other errors too such as the fact that Balthasar was not the son of Nebuchadnezzar nor the last king of Babylon. He was the son of Nabonidus who, in fact, was the last king of that great Mesopotamian civilisation. Nabonidus though was in exile from about 550 BC, according to Babylonian texts he disappeared to a desert oasis for many years for reasons that are unclear and Balthasar became regent or ‘crown prince’ in his absence.

Nonetheless, there is no denying that in several respects the Bible narrative once again strays close to what we now know to be historical fact. Balthasar was in Babylon at the time of its capture and it appears he was deposed and killed by an invading army of Persians under Cyrus in 539 BC. The fall of Babylon as foretold by Daniel.

Babylon became the new centre of what was soon to be the Achaemenid Persian Empire and Cyrus, famously, releases the Jews from bondage in Babylon and allows them to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem and its temple, an act for which he is ever remembered in Jewish tradition as Cyrus the Great.

Read more: Biblical bottles: Jeroboam to Salmanazar

Nebuchadnezzar – 15 litres/20 bottles
Used in: Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy

An artist’s impression of the Ishtar gate in Babylon built by Nebuchadnezzar II

Nebuchadnezzar II looms large in Biblical and Jewish tradition as the great Babylonian tyrant who comes ravishing down from the north to conquer Jerusalem and take the Hebrews into captivity in a Godless land.

He famously dreamt of a man made of various metals (interpreted by the prophet Daniel as representing different empires, many yet to come) and went mad for a while and ate grass like an ox.

Again, these, like so much in the Bible, are stories to be taken with a pinch of salt but Nebuchadnezzar, a real, historical figure, had more concrete achievements to his name such as the building of the beautiful blue walls of Babylon with its Ishtar Gate, inlaid with golden lions, bulls and flowers and, though again it is disputed, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon one of the Seven Wonders of the World and built to cheer up one of his homesick wives.

He also destroyed the Kingdom of Judah and took its people into servitude.

Just as the Assyrians had formed a new empire in the 10th century BC after a rocky end to the Bronze Age, so Babylon rose again from near obscurity sometime in the 7th century.

At this time Nebuchadnezzar’s father, Nabopolassar, threw off three centuries of Assyrian rule and with his Median and Persian allies sacked Nineveh in roughly 612 BC.

The Babylonians went on to consume the Neo-Assyrian Empire, assimilating it and making it their own, which brought them into contact with the Kingdom of Judah, still preserving a fragile position as a quasi-autonomous client state.

In 601 BC Nebuchadnezzar made war on the Egyptians but his invasion was a failure. This led a number of his client states in Syria and the Levant to rebel, including the Kingdom of Judah.

Nebuchadnezzar put down these revolts, capturing Jerusalem for the first time in 597 BC. In that instance he contented himself with merely deposing the rebellious king, Jeconiah, and putting up a new, more compliant one, Zedekiah, in his place.

The incident is related not only in 2 Kings but also in Nebuchadnezzar’s own chronicle where it states: “In the seventh year [of Nebuchadnezzar, 598 BC] in the month Chislev [November/December] the king of Babylon assembled his army, and after he had invaded the land of Hatti [Syria and southern Anatolia so called after the ancient Hittites] he laid siege to the city of Judah. On the second day of the month of Adar [16 March] he conquered the city and took the king [Jeconiah] prisoner. He installed in his place a king [Zedekiah] of his own choice, and after he had received rich tribute, he sent forth to Babylon.”

Like Salmanazar in Israel before him, Nebuchadnezzar takes away some of the troublesome elite into captivity and is content to leave it at that.

Yet, 10 years later, Zedekiah also chances his arm with a rebellion, throwing in his lot with the Pharaoh Hophra. This time Nebuchadnezzar was not so benevolent. He invested Jerusalem and after a four month siege, according to 2 Kings, took it in 587 BC.

The wretched Zedekiah was captured and saw his sons executed in front of him before his eyes were put out. The greater part of the Judean nobility, their priests and craftsmen, perhaps some 10,000 people in all, were taken off to slavery in Babylon.

Nebuchadnezzar appointed a captain, Nebuzaradan, to destroy Jerusalem stone by stone, which he does and it is the end of the first great temple constructed by Solomon some 400-500 years before.

Interestingly though, it is stated very clearly in 2 Kings that Nabuzaradan: “Left of the poor of the land to be vinedressers and husbandmen,” to be watched over by the Babylonian governor, Gedaliah, we are told.

It is something of a hint as to the importance and spread of viticulture in the ancient Near East. Judah was to be a bread (and wine) basket province of the Babylonian Empire, its autonomy under the Davidic kings completely destroyed, never to be truly recovered. Future kings of Judah/Israel were only ever subjects to mightier empires; the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, Byzantines and Turks.

It gives added, even slightly prophetic, poignancy then to the words of Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion,” the kingdom that was and, seemingly, would never be again.

And the knowledge of what would be the fate of Babylon, at the hands of Cyrus, makes his acclamation by the Jews the more understandable, as it fits neatly with that psalmic lamentation’s closing lines: “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

“Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

Melchior or Solomon (in Champagne only) – 18 litres/24 bottles
Used in: Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. But did she exist? Did he?

Melchior, like Balthasar, is usually identified as one of the Magi, a Persian scholar according to later legend.

But Solomon is by far the most interesting figure – if only because he is far more likely to have existed while there is no reason to believe that Melchior did. The very idea there were three Magi is predicated on the ‘evidence’ that there were only three gifts given to the infant Jesus. But in the Syriac Christian tradition as many as 12 kings came to venerate the Christ child.

So let’s concentrate on Solomon. We have already been introduced to his son, Rehoboam, who before he was even crowned king had managed to sunder the kingdom of the Jews through his arrogance.

Yet the Kingdom of Israel Solomon is said to have inherited from his father, king David, was strong, rich and united.

The historicity of these early Israelite kings is still hotly debated but if we choose to take the Biblical narrative as holding even a kernel of truth, despite a lot of missing archaeological evidence, then Solomon is thought to have ruled between 970-931 BC.

Solomon was the second son of David and Bathsheba, the beautiful woman David had glimpsed while she bathed and fallen madly in lust with.

To hide the pregnancy that was the result of their infidelity, David ordered his commander, Joab, to put Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, in the thick of the fighting in the next battle and not to come to his aid. This happens and Uriah is killed. The prophet Nathan rebukes David for what is, effectively, murder and warns him that the “sword shall never leave your house”.

And, as the Bible might say, so it came to pass. David and Bathsheba’s baby dies in infancy and various other calamities befall his family culminating in the rebellion and death of his eldest son Absalom.

In the end as David lies dying Nathan and Bathsheba persuade him to make Solomon king ahead of another elder son, Adonijah.

Solomon’s early years are therefore quite brutal, as many such successions tend to be, with extensive purges in which, by various turns, Adonijah and David’s old general Joab all get the chop.

But Solomon is mostly remembered more positively, largely for his wisdom. The most famous example of this of course is The Judgment of Solomon; where he orders a baby to be cut in half to appease two claimant mothers before giving the child to the woman who offers to revoke her claim to the infant in return for its life on the grounds that no mother could bear to see her offspring harmed in any way.

Solomon falling into idolatry by the Dutch painter Willem de Poorter

He wrote the Song of Solomon, a pean to sexual love and intimacy, that, while once again in Jewish and Christian tradition is usually read as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel, has been commented positively upon even by certain modern feminists for its positive depiction of egalitarian relationships between men and women.

His most lasting legacy to his people though, according to tradition, was the building of the first great temple of Jerusalem, in which to house the Ark of the Covenant. A few years ago pottery was excavated from the area around Temple Mount dating to the traditional period of Solomon’s rule (970-931 BC). On the pottery was writing in what might be old Hebrew and which appears to show the Hebrew word for wine, ‘yayin. The professor in charge of the dig has suggested that it was once from a pot that contained wine for the slaves who were building the temple.

His wealth and wisdom were such that he attracted a visit from the enigmatic Queen of Sheba, who’s origin, motives and even existence has attracted a great deal of attention and legends despite her very existence being called into question.

Yet Solomon’s initial devotion to Yahweh was not destined to last. Polygamy, at least among kings, seems to have been relatively common among the Israelites of the time. Yet Solomon was clearly uncommonly polygamous, reputedly having 700 wives and 300 concubines. Many of his wives were foreign princesses, Moabites, Ammonites and Edomites, and we are told they were allowed to practice their own religions and in this way Solomon began a descent into idolatry.

1 Kings relates that: “his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.

“For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites.”

Solomon’s mounting sinfulness and idolatry angered Yahweh who promises to tear his kingdom apart. Coupled with the harsh taxes and labour demands he placed upon the 10 northern tribes to build new temples to false idols and to fund his lavish lifestyle and harem, the stage was set for the breaking apart of the Kingdom of Israel when his son Reheboam – son of Solomon and his Ammonite wife, Namaath, we are told – came to the throne.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” as Solomon supposedly announces in the opening line of Ecclesiastes.

Goliath – 27 litres/36 bottles
Used in: Champagne and Bordeaux

Carravagio’s typically dark take on David and Goliath, a subject he had painted before. The Biblical allegory of humility and faith overcoming pride (relayed in a Latin inscription on the sword) has become another allegory here. It was painted while Carravagio was on the run, wanted for murder. This painting was a gift for Cardinal Borghese who had the power to obtain a Papal pardon for the troubled artist. The head is a self-portrait and, as the art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon has suggested, perhaps it was a way for Carravagio to say: ‘You can have my head figuratively, if you let me keep it in reality’.

A suitably gigantic bottle size to match the infamous Philistine warrior whose very name is now a by-word for, well, incredibly large things.

It is a Biblical tale we are all familiar with. Goliath of Gath is the boastful, heathen warrior, girt round in bronze armour, with a weighty shield and enormous spear, the pole being as “thick as a weaver’s beam” and the head weighing (an oddly precise) “six shekels of iron”.

David meanwhile is the humble Jew whose only armour is his faith in the Lord his God. No prizes for guessing who wins and no prizes for guessing there’s an allegorical point to the story as much as any historical truth.

“Humilitas occidit superbiam” (‘humility kills pride’) as it was later put. Put your faith in God and you need fear naught, indeed as Psalm 144 hammers home the point: “Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.

“He is my loving God and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues peoples under me.”

On the other hand, again, while we might debate the historicity of the encounter in 1 Samuel: 17, it nonetheless contains many little kernels that smack of authenticity.

We have no reason to suppose there were not wars and battles between the Hebrews and the Philistines just as there were between the Israelites and their other Canaanite neighbours. Indeed, according to The Bible again it seems they were at war nearly all the time until the arrival of the Assyrians in the 8th century BC.

Furthermore, the way the confrontation is depicted is in a way that wouldn’t look out of place in Homer’s Iliad, it is clearly an age of heroic single combat and one that conforms to what we know of elements of ancient battles.

This in itself is entirely plausible. Ancient warfare in general was not dominated by multiple large set-piece battles where armies hammered away at each other. Indeed, up until the 18th century battles could be decidedly rare.

Populations were small at this time and in a kingdom like Israel there would be no such thing as a standing army. A king might keep a very few palace guards on some kind of payroll but the core of any army raised in time of war would be the warrior elite of the kingdom, the nobility, the king’s sons and nephews and so on, the men who could afford the best armour and weapons and were raised to conform to a martial ideal when the occasion required. All other soldiers, the levies, would be drawn from the land, which naturally took them away from their more usual occupations, tending their flocks, vines, olive groves and crops.

War was therefore inherently limited in scope for many of these smaller kingdoms and just one battle could be decisive.

Commanders were generally reluctant to commit to such a risky undertaking as a battle then and war was not total, indeed the very concept of warfare as we understand it, for territorial and material gain, was still developing and while the Pharaohs of Egypt had clashed on a grand scale with the Canaanites at Meggido and Hittites at Kadesh in the 15th and 13th centuries BC respectively, conflicts in the Bronze and early Iron Ages were as likely to be settled by an instance of single combat between opposing champions as an all-out clash.

So when 1 Samuel describes the armies of the Philistines and Israelites lining up to face one another across opposing hillsides in the Valley of Elah rather than getting stuck in straight away it sounds truthful. A demonstration of force and the threat of violence might sometimes just be enough to see off an enemy.

We are told they face each other like this for 40 days. Once more, whether that’s really 40 days or just an indication of the passing of time is open to debate. Forty is a figure that comes up as something of a trope in the Bible, such as the Hebrews wandering for 40 years in the desert. Yet armies would face off against each other for long periods without fighting. Sometimes, in fact, without ever fighting at all; the generals might consider the situation too unfavourable, their priests would divine bad omens, the weather might change etc.

In one Roman battle the antagonists marched out from their camps for three days in a row to face each other until, on the fourth day, the Roman commander switched his order of battle and sent his best troops against the weaker part of the enemy line to win the day.

This idea of equating David and Goliath’s encounter into something from Homeric combat is given an intriguing edge when we ask the question, ‘who were the Philistines?’ For some time now there has been a suggestion they were not native to the Levant but were perhaps one the ‘Sea Peoples’, those roving and rieving bands of displaced peoples who terrorised the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age collapse. They may be the people referred to in Egyptian inscriptions as the ‘Peleset’, who were then settled in southern Canaan by the Egyptians after their defeat by Ramses III in the 12th century BC or they may have arrived and settled there of their own accord.

Many of the theories surrounding the Sea Peoples centre on the idea that they were single tribes and occasional coalitions of people, generally from Anatolia and the Aegean, displaced by natural disasters – normally said to be catastrophic earthquakes – and resulting societal upheaval and famine. There may very well have been Mycenaeans from failed states among them and if so, if we take Homer’s depiction of heroic single combat as evidence of how those ancient Achaeans fought (potentially a tenuous leap in itself), might we not suppose that the Philistines would themselves value the ideal of single combat which was the way a true warrior should fight?

Is it possible then, if the Philistines really had an Aegean heritage, that Goliath is himself a sort of vestige of the great Mycenaean warrior kings, the ‘wanax‘, like Agamemnon, Achilles and Ajax, those sackers of cities, who stood proudly before Troy and challenged its heroes to come out and face them in the name of honour and glory? It’s an idea, nothing more. Single combat was not necessarily restricted to the ancient Achaeans after all and another, very strong theory is that the Philistines’ original homeland was Cyprus.

Quite who they were, Anatolian, Aegean or Cypriot, shall remain a mystery for quite some time no doubt and they appear to have more or less disappeared as a unified people by the 5th century BC. But archaeological excavations of Philistine towns (of which we in fact have rather more evidence than we do for an extensive empire ruled by King David) shows ample evidence of a culture where wine and beer production was widespread, sold extensively in dedicated shops and drunk by all strata of society.

Melchizedek or Midas – 30 litres/40 bottles
Used in: Champagne

The least common of all the great bottle sizes, indeed only the Champagne brand ‘Ace of Spades’ seems to use this utterly outlandish bottle size.

It usually makes an appearance in some tawdry nightclub where a crass big spender has decided to drop an obscene amount of cash in a vulgar display of wealth. Truly a scene worthy of Biblical idolatry and heathen worship of Baal or Moloch.

That aside, the two people behind the bottle name (Melchizedek is the more correct name though Midas perhaps easier to pronounce) are actually both quite interesting and have wine connections.

Melchizedek, the king of Salem, has a brief but starring role in Genesis when he comes to greet Abraham after the prophet’s victory over the four kings: Amphrael of Babylon, Arioch of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer of Elam and Tidal of Goiim.

As Genesis relates: “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God.”

It is a brief scene but one that was considered extremely important to later monarchs as a symbol of victorious kingship.

Those who read db’s account of the Agincourt campaign may recall that Henry V while marching through Normandy after the capture of Harfleur stopped to ask for bread and wine at each town along the road.

This was not so much a practical way to replenish his supplies because each town would be incapable of providing enough to do so but it was designed instead as a symbolic gesture that each town recognised him as a victorious king, a new Abraham. Certainly when he returned to London from Agincourt in November, the citizens picked out this verse in particular as an allegory fit to honour the return of a conquering hero.

Then to Midas, the mythical king of Phrygia in Asia Minor and the only non-Bible related figure to lend his name to a large format bottle. As related in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, some Phrygian peasants found the satyr Silenus asleep in Midas’ rose garden where he had collapsed after a binge. Treating him hospitably for 10 days until Dionysus comes to fetch him, the god of wine gives him a wish by way of a thank you and Midas asked that whatever he touched be turned to gold.

His initial excitement with his new power quickly waned however when it became clear that it was more a curse than a blessing. His food and drink turned to gold before he could eat them and, most tragically of all, he even turned his own daughter into a golden statue when trying to comfort her. Dionysus releases him from his torment however, telling him to wash in the river Pactolus as well as all the things he had touched and wished to return to their natural state.

So it has something of a happy ending and, like the Bible, contains many a handy lesson about humility and being careful for what you wish for.

Midas is also the subject of another myth where, now understandably and heartily sick of wealth and splendour, he seeks the simpler pleasures in life. Yet while judging in a musical competition between the gods Pan and Apollo he chooses the rustic music of Pan’s pipes over the purer sound of Apollo’s lyre, at which the Olympian gives him ass’s ears. Poor Midas tries to hide his embarrassing secret and only his barber knows the truth. Sworn to secrecy he one day can bear it no longer, digs a hole in the ground and whispers into it: “King Midas has ass’s ears!”

A little later a bed of reeds grows up on the spot and as the wind rustles through them they waft the secret on the breeze to all within earshot.

So go the myths but, in fact, there really was a king Midas of Phrygia who we know from Greek and Assyrian sources ruled in the 8th century BC.

In the late 1950s a team from the University of Pennsylvania opened a chamber in the ‘Great Tumulus’ at Gordion in Turkey which was the heart of the Phrygian kingdom.

Inside was a royal burial, with the skeleton of a man, about five foot two inches tall and aged about 60 to 65 years old. Draped in richly decorated and coloured textiles, around him were

An artist’s impression of the funerary feast for king Gordius of Phrygia

an extraordinary array of precious artefacts; beautiful inlaid furniture made from box, juniper and walnut wood and hundreds of bronze jugs, bowls, pins and cups and the remains of a great feast that had been held in his honour before he had been interred in the mound.

The collection of drinking vessels found with him have generally been described as the greatest collection ever discovered at an Iron Age site. It was swiftly christened the ‘MM Tumulus’ or ‘Midas Mound’.

Did it really contain the king Midas? The team leader, Rodney Young, soon came to the conclusion that while the burial certainly dated to the time of king Midas it may in fact have been his father Gordius. Still, it was a spectacular find and one certainly marked by the ‘Midas touch’ as the famous king would have, without any doubt, overseen the burial proceedings. And there was a wine link too.

In the late 1990s Dr Patrick McGovern from the University of Pennsylvania was invited to use his chemical analysis techniques to determine what some of the organic residues found in many of the vessels might be.

Having put the residue through a whole gamut of micro-chemical techniques ranging from infrared spectrometry to gas and liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry, McGovern and his team came up with an answer.

The special drink enjoyed at the funerary feast was a strange mix of wine, barley beer and honey mead – a sort of ‘Phrygian grog’ of a type that was apparently popular across the Aegean and Asia Minor at this time.

It’s a mix to make modern wine and beer drinkers blanche a little but McGovern put the word out to the growing craft brewing business to see if anyone could come up with a modern equivalent. The call was taken up enthusiastically – with varying qualitative results – but the eventual winner was Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head whose concoction was called, appropriately enough, ‘Midas Touch’.

Still in production today, it was the first in what has become a series of ‘Ancient Ales’ the brewery has made in collaboration with McGovern.

The hybrid drink apparently has aromas and flavours of “honey, Muscat grapes [used in its creation], melon and biscuits.”

Surely, a far better homage to such an interesting character than an oversized bottle?

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