Vinum passum and Other Greek Delights

This weekend, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church of Raleigh, North Carolina hosted their annual Greek Festival at the North Carolina State Fair Grounds, an event which features the variety of food, drink, arts, crafts, music and dance of traditional Greek culture. I attended with a few friends and enjoyed a little piece “back in Greece” feeling. We luckily arrived just before they began featuring the music and traditional dancing of Crete! I did some shopping and found a few items that I wished I had gotten while in Crete this summer: an evil eye keychain, a set of komboloi (worry beads) for myself, and a bottle of raisin wine made in the style of production from Crete during the Roman period.

evil eye

The evil eye pendant is a tradition that spans over many areas of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East since ancient times. The first vestiges of the evil eye in Greece occur on drinking vessels from the 6th century BCE. The evil eye is used as an apotropaic device, intended to deflect harm from evil influences–kind of like a shield against bad luck.


Komboloi (or what we call “worry beads”) can also function as an apotropaic device, but many people just use them to pass the time. They’re a string of beads that are played with in a variety of ways, the most common of which that I saw while in Greece was by flicking one end of the string around the fingers of one hand, back and forth. I’m not really sure how far back in time their use goes, but I’ve heard that they began to be used originally by monks on Mount Athos.

vinum passum

Roussos Sweet Wine made from sun-dried grapes (Roman Crete style).

My most exciting purchase this afternoon was a bottle of sweet wine from Santorini. This wine is particularly special to me because of how it’s made: as the back of the bottle reads, the wine gets its sweetness through the method of sun-drying the grapes before fermentation. This method was also employed during the first century BCE in Crete, and was one of the major exports from the island after its occupation by the Roman Empire.

Several ancient authors mention the sweet raisin-wine from Crete (called vinum passum by the Romans and γλυκοσ by the Greeks). In his catalogue of wines, Martial writes that sweet wine from Knossos was suitable as an inexpensive gift, even if it was prestigious than more highly esteemed wines like Falernian:

           Gnosia Minoae genuit vindemia Cretae hoc tibi, quod mulsum pauperis esse solet. 

          The vineyard of Gnossus, in that Crete where Minos reigned, produced this for you; the honeyed wine of the poor man (Epigrams Book 13: 106).

Pliny the elder also mentions Cretan raisin-wine as the best of sweet wines not made with honey. Unlike honeyed wines, such as Scybelites and Aluntium produced in Galatia, Pliny writes that Cretan wine was made sweet by “the grapes being left on the vine longer than usual to ripen in the sun, or else being ripened in boiling oil,” after which they were gently beaten and pressed for their juice. The best of this category of wine, Pliny writes, comes from Crete (Natural History, Book 14: 11).

Antigone Marangou-Lerat has written extensively on the production and export of Cretan wine during the Roman period. Production of vinum passum was not only centered at Knossos, but evidence for its production has been found throughout the island. We know of three major classes of amphorae in which Cretan wine was transported, and these have been found at major Roman sites like Ostia and Pompeii.

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