Beer in Ancient Mythology: A Gift from the gods

Pierre-Olivier Bussières is the host of the “Le Temps d’une Bière” podcast, a journey through the history of alcohol, drugs, and myths.

Gods and Beers

🍺 🍻 Through the ages, many cultures have considered beer to be a gift from the gods, a divine essence, a sacred food, and much more! This brief article explores the role of beer and wine in early Near East mythology.

The Sumerians, a civilization that existed in Mesopotamia around 4000 BC, were some of the earliest known practitioners of brewing beer. They used fermented barley to make a type of beer that was commonly consumed by the population. The Sumerians were one of the first civilizations to develop a system of writing, and they left behind ample evidence of their beer-making practices in the form of cuneiform texts. One of the most famous examples of these texts is a hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of grain and beer. This hymn, which dates back to around 1800 BC, not only extols the virtues of Ninkasi but also provides a recipe for making beer. It is likely that the ancient Sumerians saw beer not just as a drink, but also as a sacred beverage with religious and cultural significance. As such, they had a highly developed brewing industry, with dedicated breweries and taverns. The beer of this time was also considered to be a staple food source, due to it being used as a form of ration as well as a drink.

It is important to note that Sumer is considered as the birthplace of civilization and their invention of beer and brewing is considered as one of their many advancements. Sumer civilization created concepts like city-state, taxation, time measurement, irrigation systems and a sophisticated writing system and their knowledge on beer making passed on to other cultures.

As a result, beer-making spread throughout ancient Mesopotamia and beyond, becoming an important aspect of cultures in Egypt, Greece, and Rome, among many others, and continues to be enjoyed by people around the world today.

No place for bro-wers

In many ancient societies, brewing beer was considered to be a domestic task and was typically done by women. This is because brewing was seen as a form of food preparation, similar to baking bread. In ancient Sumer, one of the earliest known civilizations, brewing was done using a special type of bread called “bapir,” which was used to inoculate the cereal mash used to make beer. Given the types of cereal grains available at the time, it is likely that wheat and barley beer provided better nutrition than most types of bread.

The brewing of beer in Ancient Sumer was considered an important task, not just for the nutrition but it also played an important role in their society and culture. Beer was a staple of everyday life, and it was also used as a form of currency and payment. Some officials were even paid their salary in beer. Brewers, mostly women, could take inspiration from Ninkasi, the goddess of brewing and beer, who was celebrated in hymns and songs and even had her own personal hymn which also served as a recipe for beer.

It is important to note that in many ancient civilizations, women played a major role in the brewing process, while men were typically responsible for growing the grains and hops used to make the beer. This division of labor was likely due to the perception that brewing was a domestic task, while farming was considered to be a more “masculine” activity. However, even though brewing was considered a domestic task, it was still an important and respected profession in ancient Sumer, and brewers were well respected members of their community.

Egyptians Innovations

Beer would soon spread to Egypt, where the brewing process would be refined under the guidance of the goddess Tenenet, whose watchful eye oversaw the brewing process…Ancient Egyptians just loved keeping records. Another thing they were quite fond of was beer. Wine was available in the Nile valley, but remained out of reach of the common man. Working class and farmers alike would drink to drink low-alcohol beer, spiked with local fruits, such as dates. Honey was a common addition, throughout the Near East. Beer was widely prepared in the homestead, yet again by women. As a nutrient, beer was also intimately linked to the Nile’s settlement and the seasons’ changing form of subsistence, which was inevitably dependent on the floods and the gods’ will. Rain, storm, and famine are the whims of the gods which require sacrifice and libation.

Like most inhabitants of the Middle East throughout Antiquity, Egyptians drank their beer through a straw, often made of reed. The beer of the time, unfiltered, had a texture close to soup.

The beers of Ancient Egypt and Ancient Sumer were quite different from one another, despite being produced in close proximity. The Ancient Egyptians primarily used emmer wheat and barley to make their beer. The brewing process was similar to that of Sumer, where the grain was soaked and germinated, then mashed and fermented to make the beer. Egyptian beer was typically lower in alcohol content and sweeter than Sumerian beer. Ancient Egyptian beer was considered a staple food and it was often consumed in large quantities by all classes of society. It was also used in religious rituals and offerings to the gods.

On the other hand, Sumerians had a more developed brewing industry and their beer was likely more potent than Egyptian beer and made from malted barley. Sumerian beer was not just a drink, but also had cultural and religious significance, and there is evidence of taverns and dedicated breweries to be found in their society. Sumer’s beer was also considered a staple food source, used as a form of ration. The production of beer in Sumer was also considered a highly advanced technique, it is even mentioned in the earliest records of their written language.

Egyptian also embraced beer as a medecine. The discovery of the Ebers papyrus also revealed a medical dimension: barley was used as a medicine against inflammations. Barley was even used to determine the sex of the unborn child. Pregnant women would urinate on barley grains; if the grain germinated the next day, the sex of the child would be female. ( A group of researchers recently validated this theory in the laboratory with 80% success.)

Among Egyptians, Osiris was associated with cereals and represented with ears of barley. They fashioned statuettes containing barley grains so that they could be watered and germinated. The birth of barley symbolized the resurrection of Osiris, killed by his brother Set. The first agrarian societies have almost always associated the renewal of the seasons with a divine image of death and return to the living. One of the most obvious examples is the case of Dionysus, whose vine also symbolizes the return to the living. Drinking a cup of wine metaphysically means becoming Dionysus and going beyond the human condition. In Egypt, beer was part of many ancient Egyptian festivals such as the Opet Festival and the Beautiful Wadi Festival. Heavy consumption was also common, often linked to communion with the gods, such as during the festivals of Bastet, Hathor and Sekhmet.

Beyond Beer and Bread : Sacred inebriation probably came before agriculture

Archaeological evidence from sites such as Gobleki Tepe in Turkey and Jiahu in China suggests that ritual drinking occurred long before the advent of agriculture, leading many archaeologists to believe that humans first settled in these areas for religious reasons, and later for economic reasons. However, it’s important to note that religious reasons and economic reasons are not mutually exclusive. It’s possible that religious rituals and ceremonies required large gatherings of people, which in turn required an adequate infrastructure to support and feed them. These large gatherings would have taken place multiple times a year, and thus, it makes sense that humans would have decided to settle in these locations permanently.

In ancient societies, the relationship with the divine was often transactional. To receive blessings and favors from the gods, offerings and sacrifices were made. Beer libations were not just an Egyptian phenomenon, but were also practiced in other parts of the world such as the Near East, China, and Peru. Beer was offered as a way to appease the gods and ensure the success of things like the harvest and irrigation. In fact, from the Neolithic period, around the fifth millennium BC, the appearance of food and alcoholic beverages among funerary offerings will be consistent in the archaeological record.

The ancient Egyptians had a rich history and culture of beer-making. The “Pyramid Texts,” considered to be the oldest known religious document, lists a number of different beers, including a dark beer, an iron beer, a beer of the protector, and a beer of truth, which were believed to have been consumed by the 12 gods who guarded the tomb of Osiris. The Ebers papyrus, another important source of ancient Egyptian documentation dating from around 1550 BC, contains a list of about 700 home remedies, including the use of beer to treat various ailments and relieve symptoms, much like the way wine was used in Ancient Greece.

Beer also played an important role in the construction of the pyramids of Giza. Workers were given a daily ration of more than ten pints of beer to help sustain them during the grueling construction process. Beer was a natural choice as it provided more nutrients than water and its low alcohol content helped to prevent alcohol contamination while also giving a slight sense of intoxication without hindering the work. All in all, beer played an important role in ancient societies, both in a spiritual and practical sense.

Therefore, mythology, agriculture and politics are intimately connected in Ancient Egypt. History does not reveal whether beer has been necessary for the advancement of civilization, but it does indicate an important influence in sometimes surprising ways: sacred offerings, medicine, money, nutrition, religion and economy have all been affected in one way or another by the fermentation of barley malt…

Pierre-Olivier Bussières

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