Women and the Sacred Invention of Beer

“Blessed is the mother who gives birth to a brewer” – Czech Saying

Beer is one of the world’s oldest drinks. Evidence of early beer brewing has been confirmed by discoveries in modern-day Iran in the Sumerian settlement of Godin Tepe, which suggests that beer production dates back probably beyond 3500-3100 BC. A Tepe Gawra stamp seal from 4000 BC near Mosul, Iraq, depicts two figures drinking together, suggesting that for thousands of years people have been drinking socially. It is such an ancient beverage that The Kalevala, an epic compilation of Finnish and Karelian folklore ranging from 1000 BC to the 17th century AD, tells us no only the story of the creation of Earth and humanity but also the creation of beer and its first fermentation. The Code of Hammurabi from Babylon, mankind’s oldest existing set of laws, sets fair prices for beer and specified harsh penalties for bars and brewers. For example, a brewer who diluted his beer could be drowned in his own vat and a tavern owner who overcharged patrons could be put to death. This shows how much beer was valued in ancient society. It is therefore only natural to conclude that beer also played a part in ancient mythology and religions.

File:Storage of Wine and Beer, Tomb of Nebamun MET 30.4.233 EGDP013021.jpg
Storage of Wine and Beer, Tomb of Nebamun, circa 1479 –1458 BC.

 “He was a wise man who invented beer.” – Plato

Plato, clever man though he was, was mistaken. The inventor of beer was not a man, but a woman. Or, to be more precise, a group of women. Beer plays a prominent role in many of the Sumerian myths. Ninkasi, the daughter of the chief Sumerian god Enki, was born from “sparkling fresh water” and said to be created to satisfy desires and sate hearts. The first nearly complete text is a tablet known as The Hymn to Ninkasi (written in 1800 BC but presumed to be much older) contains both a praise to the goddess of beer and a recipe for brewing. The hymn instructs readers and listeners to handle the dough with a shovel; mix with sweet aromatics, honey, and grains; soak the malt in a jar, and filter it in the vat. The end result was said to be a beer comparable to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, bringing life and enlightenment to all those who drank it. The first brewers were female, likely to be priestesses of Ninkasi, and early on women became brewers of beer in their homes. Kaiser Wilhelm, the last king of Prussia said, “Give me a woman who loves beer and I will conquer the world.” A woman did love beer, she invented it.

Ashnan, the goddess of grain fields in Sumeria, was a very old deity who appeared in the Early Dynastic period (2900-2350 BC). She and her brother Lahar, the god of cattle, were created by Enlil to provide food for the gods. One day, when they had too much to drink and could not serve as they should, Enlil decided to create humans to serve the gods.

File:Stèle Mercenaire syrien 18ème dynastie Neues Museum 26042018 1.jpg
Stela depicting a Syrian mercenary drinking beer. Egyptian New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, Aménophis IV. 

“Beer . . . a high and mighty liquor.” — Julius Caesar

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest piece of written literature known to man, dating somewhere between the years of 2750 and 2500 BC. It tells the story of a feral half-giant named Enkidu who was raised by wild animals and guided toward civilization by a prostitute named Shamhat. Tablet II in the epic associates beer with evolution.

Due to his upbringing, Enkidu has no experience in the ways of man and is unaware of how to accept an offering of bread and beer when they are put in front of him. Shamhat explains that eating bread is what humans do for survival while drinking beer is the accepted custom of the land. After Enkidu ate the food and drank seven pitchers of the beer, his face glowed and he became human. He shaved his matted hair and acquired proper clothing. This evolution from primitive creature to humanity is symbolic of the relationship Sumerians ascribed to beer, the creation of mankind, and man’s movement towards civilization.

stele with the code of Hammurabi
Stele of Hammurabi between circa 1793 and circa 1751 BC

“The mouth of a perfectly happy man is filled with beer.” – Ancient Egyptian Wisdom, 2200 BC.

Women were also the first brewers in Egypt which led to the close relationship between beer and the households. Beer was thought to be healthier than drinking water and was consumed by Egyptians of all ages. The role of the goddesses in the making of beer was also important. Like women dividing their tasks at home, there was more than one goddess associated with beer in ancient Egypt. Although the Egyptian goddess of beer was Tenenet, beer was also closely associated with the goddess Hathor. Tenenet was also the goddess of childbirth and was invoked as the protector of the uterus for pregnant women. Therefore, Tenenet was viewed as somewhat embodying what was considered the tasks for women which were childbearing, as well as bread and beer-making.

Egyptian wooden model of beer making in ancient Egypt

Hathor is said to be the mother of the pharaoh and, as befitting her role as the goddess of motherhood, is often depicted in a nurturing role, suckling the pharaoh when he was a child. However, Hathor had a darker side and could take on the persona of Sekhmet, the goddess of war. Known for her uncontrollable rage, Sekhmet was sent forth by the Sun god Ra to destroy evildoers. When she could no longer suppress her lust for blood, Sekhmet conspired to slaughter all of humanity. Ra thwarted Sekhmet’s plot by ordering his high priest to prepare 7,000 jars of beer mixed with red ochre and scatter them all over the land. While storming through Egypt in preparation for the massacre of mankind, Sekhmet discovered the red beer and immediately drank every drop, believing it to be blood. Her thirst quenched, Sekhmet drunkenly staggered away, unable to fulfill her plan, and slept peacefully until she eventually went back to being Hathor. Thus, according to Egyptian mythology, beer is the savior of the human race.

During the construction of the pyramid complex at Giza, the workers received four loaves of bread and around five liters of beer a day.  Bread and beer, therefore, became a symbol of wealth. There is also some evidence that beer was offered to the gods and used in the acts of worship. Participants in the festivals of Sekhmet and Hathor would get very drunk as part of their worship.

Manet, Edouard - La Serveuse de Bocks (The Waitress), 1879.jpg
 “La Serveuse de Bocks” (The Waitress) by Edouard Menot, 1879

“On victory, you deserve beer, in defeat, you need it.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, in sorrow from having lost her daughter Persephone, Demeter would not eat or drink. When served red wine by Metaneira, she refuses it but orders instead that a special drink be made for her as a sacral drink by mixing barley meal with water and pennyroyal, which added hallucinogenic properties to this drink— giving us an ancient example of the phrase “drinking your sorrows away.” But the image of beer as a drink for the gods somewhat shifted in the Hellenic period, at least in the eyes of some modern historians. The Greeks favored wine over beer and considered beer an inferior drink of barbarians. Thus the way that beer is explicitly mentioned by Greeks, that is as a drink of foreigners and secondary to wine, reinforces the idea that the Greeks did not normally make or drink beer. But a large segment of the ancient Greek population would have drunk beer. Although they purposefully constructed an image of themselves based on an ideal diet in opposition to that of others (foreigners and “barbarians”), the ancient Greek diet would not have been so different from anyone else’s as they also had barley to make beer and that most of their neighbors drank this beverage— particularly since it was viewed as nutritious and useful as a means of purifying water and storing cereal.

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Ceres by Osmar Schindler, between 1900 and 1903

In his works, Homer does not mention beer. However, as the focus of his work was on glorifying a heroic past, this may explain why there are no references to Homeric heroes eating vegetables or fish because any food other than roasted red meat was somehow considered inappropriate to their dignity. It is possible, then, that beer-drinking Homeric heroes might be considered undignified. Aeschylus, in his play The Suppliants, supports this as he characterizes Egyptian beer drinkers as “unmanly” – evidently still associating beer with women. Aristotle, in his treatise On Drunkenness, claimed that “men who are intoxicated with wine fall down face first, whereas those who have drunk barley beer lie stretched out on their backs— for wine makes one top-heavy, while beer stupefies”.

“Do not cease to drink beer, to eat, to intoxicate thyself, to make love, and to celebrate the good days.” – Ancient Egyptian Credo

File:Demeter rejoiced, for her daughter was by her side.jpg
“Demeter rejoiced, for her daughter was by her side”, by Walter Crane (1845 – 1915)

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