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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, generously hoped, explores the role of beer and wine in early Near East mythology.

It is estimated that people knew about brewing beer as early as 6000 BC, with ample documentary evidence of common use of fermented barely beverages in Sumer. One of the most ancient records of beer in Mesopotamia is part of a hymn to Ninkasi, the patron goddess of grain and protector of brews.

Brewers indeed! Brewing was actually done by women as it was once regarded as a mere culinary task, not so different from baking bread. Moreover, given the cereals available at the time, it is most likely that wheat and barley beer provided better nutrition than most types of bread at the time. 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…The first evidence of beer in Egypt dates back to the predynastic period (5500 to 3100 BC).

Although we don’t know who brewed it first, it is clear that beer appeared very early in the history of civilization. The most puzzling thing is that records of the past decades suggest it preceded agriculture.

Remains at Gobleki Tepe (Turkey) and Jiahu (China) suggest that ritual drinking occurred long before the advent of agriculture, which suggests to many archaeologists that humans first settled for religious purposes and then later for economic reasons. In fact, the religious rationale does not exclude the imperative of food security: it would have been necessary to provide an adequate infrastructure to feed large festive gatherings, especially considering that they took place several times a year: If you need to keep coming back to the same location, why not make yourself a little more comfortable?

We start getting a much clearer picture of ancient brewing in Egypt: Ancient Egyptians just loved keeping records. Another thing they were quite fonded 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’ changinga form of subsistence, was inevitably dependent on the floods and the will of the gods. Rain, storm and famine are the whims of the gods which require sacrifice and libation.

The relationship with the unfathomable forces of the world is transactional. In ancient times, one dones not simply ask for a divine favour: you have to give something in return. Beer libations are not merely an Egyptian phenomenon; people throughout the Near East, as in China and Peru, share their beer with the gods and ancestors. To irrigate the land, ensure the harvest, and avoid famine, one must pay homage to the all-powerful gods. “From the Neolithic period, around the fifth millennium BC, the appearance of food and alcoholic beverages among the funerary offerings will be consistent in the archaeological record”.

The “Pyramid Texts”, a set of texts considered to be the oldest known religious document, lists a number of beers, including a dark beer, an iron beer, a beer of the protector and a beer of truth, apparently drunk by the 12 gods who guarded the tomb of Osiris. The Ebers papyrus, another important source of ancient Egyptian documentation dating from about 1550 B.C., contains a list of about 700 home remedies for a wide range of ailments. Beer appears is described as a mean for healing ailments and relieving symptoms, either as a solution for aromatic plants or for its analgesic properties. Much like the way wine was used by means of pharmacon (or drug) to treat various illnesses in Ancient Greece.

To be sure, this is just spiritual business. Beer was a staple food for workers engaged in the construction of the pyramids of Giza. Every day, they would receive a ration of more than ten pints! With its low alcohol content, beer was a natural choice for feeding and watering workers toiling around the clock; it provides more nutrients than water, is more effective at preventing alcohol contamination, and adds a slight sense of intoxication without hindering the work. Win-win!

If Egypt is the gift of the Nile, beer is the gift of barley!

Egyptians were also eager for barley. They produced wheat loaves and used it for about fifteen types of beer. 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.)

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.

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.

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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