Beer in the Ancient World

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published on 02 March 2011

The intoxicant known in English as `beer' takes its name from the Latin `bibere' (by way of the German `bier') meaning `to drink' and the Spanish word for beer, cerveza' comes from the Latin word `cerevisia' for `of beer', giving some indication of the long span human beings have been enjoying the drink. Even so, beer brewing did not originate with the Romans but began thousands of years earlier. The first beer in the world was brewed by the ancient Chinese around the year 7000 BCE (known as kui). In the west, however, the process now recognized as beer brewing began in Mesopotamia at the Godin Tepe settlement now in modern-day Iran between 3500 - 3100 BCE. Evidence of beer manufacture has been confirmed between these dates but it is probable that the brewing of beer in Sumeria (southern Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq) was in practice much earlier. Some evidence has been interpreted, however, which sets the date of beer brewing at Godin Tepe as early as 10,000 BCE when agriculture first developed in the region. While some scholars have contended that beer preceded bread as a staple, it is more likely that beer was `discovered' through grains used for bread-making which fermented.

The people of ancient Mesopotamia enjoyed beer so much that it was a daily dietary staple. Paintings, poems, and myths depict both human beings and their gods enjoying beer which was consumed through a straw to filter out pieces of bread or herbs in the drink. The brew was thick, of the consistency of modern-day porridge, and the straw was invented by the Sumerians or the Babylonians, it is thought, specifically for the purpose of drinking beer. The famous poem Inanna and the God of Wisdom describes the two deities drinking beer together and the god of wisdom, Enki, becoming so drunk he gives away the sacred meh (laws of civilization) to Inanna (thought to symbolize the transfer of power from Eridu, the city of Enki, to Uruk, the city of Inanna). The Sumerian poem Hymn to Ninkasi is both a song of praise to the goddess of beer, Ninkasi, and a recipe for beer, first written down around 1800 BCE. In the Sumerian/Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero Enkidu becomes civilized through the ministrations of the temple harlot Shamhat who, among other things, teaches him to drink beer.

The Sumerians had many different words for beer from `sikaru' to `dida' to `ebir' (which meant `beer mug') and regarded the drink as a gift from the gods to promote human happiness and well being. The original brewers were women, the priestesses of Ninkasi, and women brewed beer regularly in the home as part of their preparation of meals. Beer was made from bippar (twice-baked barley bread) which was then fermented and beer brewing was always associated with baking. The famous Alulu beer receipt from the city of Ur in 2050 BCE, however, shows that beer brewing had become commercialized by that time. The tablet acknowledges receipt of 5 Silas of `the best beer' from the brewer Alulu (five Silas being approximately four and a half litres).

Under Babylonian rule, Mesopotamian beer production increased dramatically, became more commercialized, and laws were instituted concerning it as paragraphs 108-110 of the Code of Hammurabi make clear:

108
If a tavern-keeper (feminine) does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.

109
If conspirators meet in the house of a tavern-keeper, and these conspirators are not captured and delivered to the court, the tavern-keeper shall be put to death.

110
If a "sister of a god" open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.

Law 108 had to do with those tavern keepers who poured `short measures' of beer in return for cash instead of corn (which could be weighed and held to a measure) to cheat their customers; they would be drowned if caught doing so. Beer was commonly used in barter, not for cash sale and a daily ration of beer was provided for all citizens, the amount depending on one's social status. The second law concerns tavern keepers encouraging treason by allowing malcontents to gather in their establishment and the third law cited concerns women who were consecrated to, or were priestesses of, a certain deity opening a common drinking house or drinking in an already established tavern. The Babylonians had nothing against a priestess drinking beer (as, with the Sumerians, beer was considered a gift from the gods) but objected to one doing so in the same way as common women would.

The Babylonians brewed many different kinds of beer and classified them into twenty categories which recorded their various characteristics. Beer became a regular commodity in foreign trade, especially with Egypt, where it was very popular.

The Egyptian goddess of beer was Tenenit  (closely associated Meskhenet, goddess of childbirth and protector of the birthing house) whose name derives from tenemu, one of the Egyptian words for beer. The most popular beer in Egypt was Heqet (or Hecht) which was a honey-flavored brew and their word for beer in general was zytum. The workers at the Giza plateau received beer rations three times a day and beer was often used throughout Egypt as compensation for labor. The Egyptians believed that brewing was taught to human beings by the great god Osiris himself and in this, and other regards, they viewed beer in much the same way as the Mesopotamians did. As in Mesopotamia, women were the chief brewers at first and brewed in their homes, the beer initially had the same thick, porridge-like consistency, and was brewed in much the same way. Later, men took over the business of brewing and miniature carved figures found in the tomb of Meketre (Prime Minister to the pharaoh Mentuhotep II, 2050-2000 BCE) show an ancient brewery at work. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, describing the diorama, "The overseer with a baton sits inside the door. In the brewery two women grind flour, which another man works into dough. After a second man treads the dough into mash in a tall vat, it is put into tall crocks to ferment. After fermentation, it is poured off into round jugs with black clay stoppers."

Beer played an integral role in the very popular myth of the birth of the goddess Hathor. According to the tale (which has much in it which pre-dates the biblical tale of the Great Flood in Genesis) the god Ra, incensed at the evil and ingratitude of humanity, sends Sekhmet to earth to destroy his creation. He repents of his decision, however, as Sekhmet's blood lust grows with the destruction of every town and city. He has a great quantity of beer dyed red and dropped at the city of Dendera where Sekhmet, thinking it is a huge pool of blood, stops her rampage to drink. She gets drunk, falls asleep, and wakes as the goddess Hathor, the benevolent deity of, among other things,  music, laughter, the sky and, especially, gratitude. The association between gratitude, Hathor and beer, is highlighted by an inscription from 2200 BCE found at Dendera, Hathor's cult center: "The mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer." Beer was enjoyed so regularly among the Egyptians that Queen Cleopatra VII lost popularity toward the end of her reign more for implementing a tax on beer (the first ever) than for her wars with Rome which the beer tax went to help pay for (although she claimed the tax was to deter public drunkeness). As beer was often prescribed for medicinal purposes (there were over 100 remedies using beer) the tax was considered unjust.

Beer brewing traveled from Egypt to Greece (as we know from the Greek word for beer, zythos from the Egyptian zytum) but did not find the same receptive climate there. The Greeks favored strong wine over beer, as did the Romans after them, and both cultures considered beer a low-class drink of barbarians. The Greek general and writer Xenophon, in Book IV of his Anabasis, writes:

There were stores within of wheat and barley and vegetables, and wine made from barley in great big bowls; the grains of barley malt lay floating in the beverage up to the lip of the vessel, and reeds lay in them, some longer, some shorter, without joints; when you were thirsty you must take one of these into your mouth, and suck. The beverage without admixture of water was very strong, and of a delicious flavour to certain palates, but the taste must be acquired.

Clearly, beer was not to Xenophon's taste; nor was it any more popular with his countrymen. The playwright Sophocles, among others, also refers to beer somewhat unfavorably and recommends moderation in its use. The Roman historian, Tacitus, writing of the Germans, says, "To drink, the Teutons have a horrible brew fermented from barley or wheat, a brew which has only a very far removed similarity to wine" and the Emperor Julian composed a poem claiming the scent of wine was of nectar while the smell of beer was that of a goat. Even so, the Romans were brewing beer (cerevisia) quite early as evidenced by the tomb of a beer brewer and merchant (a Cerveserius) in ancient Treveris (modern day Trier). Excavations of the Roman military encampment on the Danube, Castra Regina (modern day Regensburg) have unearthed evidence of beer brewing on a significant scale shortly after the community was built in 179 CE by Marcus Aurelius.

The Germans were brewing beer (which they called ol, for `ale') as early as 800 BCE as is known from great quantities of beer jugs, still containing evidence of the beer, in a tomb in the Village of Kasendorf in northern Bavaria, near Kulmbach. That the practice continued into the Christian era is evidenced by further archaeological finds and the written record. Early on, as it had been in Mesopotamia and Egypt, the craft of the brewer was the provenance of women and the Hausfrau brewed her beer in the home to supplement the daily meals. In time, however, the craft was taken over by Christian monks, primarily, and brewing became an integral part of the Monastic life. The Kulmbacher Monchshof Kloster, a monastery founded in 1349 CE in Kulmbach, still produces their famous Schwartzbier, among other brews, today. In 1516 CE the German Reinheitsgebot (purity law) was instituted which regulated the ingredients which could legally be used in brewing beer (only water, barley, hops and, later, yeast) and, in so doing, continued the practice of legislation concerning beer which the Babylonians under Hammurabi had done some three thousand years earlier. The Germans, like those who preceeded them, also instituted a daily beer ration and considered beer a necessary staple of their diet.

From the Celtic lands (Germany through Britain, though which country brewed first is disputed) beer brewing spread, always following the same basic principles first instituted by the Sumerians: female brewers making beer in the home, use of fresh, hot water and fermented grains. The Finnish Saga of Kalewala (first written down in the 17th century CE from much older, pre-Christian, tales and consolidated in its present form in the 19th century) sings of the creation of beer at length (devoting more lines to the creation of beer than the creation of the world). The female brewer, Osmata, trying to make a great beer for a wedding feast, discovers the use of hops in brewing with the help of a bee she sends to gather the magical plant. The poem expresses an admiration for the effects of beer which any modern-day drinker would recognize:

Great indeed the reputation
Of the ancient beer of Kalew,
Said to make the feeble hardy,
Famed to dry the tears of women,
Famed to cheer the broken-hearted,
Make the aged young and supple,
Make the timid brave and mighty,
Make the brave men ever braver,
Fill the heart with joy and gladness,
Fill the mind with wisdom-sayings,
Fill the tongue with ancient legends,
Only makes the fool more foolish.

In the Finnish saga, as in the writings of the ancient Sumerians, beer was considered a magical brew from the gods endowing the drinker with health, peace of mind and happiness. This idea was cleverly phrased by the poet A.E. Houseman when he wrote, "Malt does more than Milton can to justify God's ways to man" (a reference to the English poet John Milton and his `Paradise Lost').  From ancient Sumeria to the present day, Houseman's claim would go undisputed among those who have enjoyed the drink of the gods.



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