It may seem hard to believe, but back in the day, religion, baby making, and booze were a holy triumvirate. It’s tough for our brains to grasp, structured as they are by a Judeo-Christian and then a post-Enlightenment scientific worldview. We’re trained from toddlerhood to compartmentalize the state, religion, and sexual reproduction into silos that are never meant to mix. But in our not-so-distant past as humans, you’ll find a hedonic mass of buzzed people worshipping gods who were too busy helping people make booze and babies to bother with the whole guiding principles and proper way to live thing. Indeed, back in ye olden times, booze, babies, and the capricious creators of earth were not just interconnected; they were downright symbiotic. And beer anthropology (yes, that’s a field) can prove it.
Alan Duane Eames (1947-2007), an anthropologist dubbed the “Indiana Jones of Beer,” devoted his professional life to ferreting out the roots of beer culture and the manner in which it reflected and influenced larger societal patterns. In his quest, he visited 44 countries, discovered hieroglyphics about beer while crawling through tombs in Egypt, and trekked extensively through the Amazon on a quest for a particularly delicious and elusive tribal black beer.
He also discovered what many consider to be the oldest ad for beer — a stone tablet dated to 4000 B.C. depicting a headless woman with large breasts holding beer. The tagline ran, “Drink Elba, the beer with the heart of a lion.” (File that campaign under: Some things never change). Eames came to the refreshingly irreverent conclusion that women in ancient societies were integral to the beer-brewing process.
Not only was beer most frequently a gift from a female goddess across the world, but women were often responsible for the brewing process itself. Eames found that in the Amazon, virgin women were responsible for starting the brewing process by masticating grains and depositing them into a big pot, where they’d form a saliva-flecked mass and ferment. Doesn’t that whet your appetite?
If not — too bad! Today, many contemporary brewers, weary of the basic building blocks of beer — hops, barley, yeast and water — are cribbing notes from Eames and other beer anthropologists’ notebooks to create ye ancient pagan brews, minus the spit (more on that, later). To be fair, there were plenty of dudes in the ancient pantheon of holy-rolling beer and wine enthusiasts. Let’s toast a few of our favorites:
Ninkasi (yes, also a brewery, see below) first popped up as the goddess of beer in Sumerian culture. She’s also evidence that beer brewing in the Mesopotamian region, which is modern-day Iran, dates back to 3500 B.C. One of eight children, her father was the King of Uruk and her mother was the high priestess of the temple of Ishtar and the goddess of fertility. Like many popular figures in ancient cultures, Ninkasi eludes categorization. She is the brewer of beer and the beer itself, a goddess made to satisfy desire, heal wounds, and “sate the heart.” Ninkasi was discovered through the Hymn to Ninkasi, a poem written on clay tablets around 1800 B.C., among some of the oldest writings ever found. The Hymn is a beautiful piece of writing, but it also doubles as a recipe, which features grapes, bappir (a type of grain) and honey, and is meant to be followed by the women in the house who did the brewing. “Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics, Ninkasi, you are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,” the hymn reads. “Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date] – honey, You are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven.”
Dionysus (aka Bacchus)
Dionysus, one of the key gods in Greek mythology, is the son of a union between Zeus and a mortal woman named Semele. He is the god of wine and the god of intoxication. But Dionysus is also the god of fertility, harvest, ritual madness, and religious ecstasy. Special D is a perennial fan favorite — who can resist a guy who carries a fennel staff tipped with a pine cone and travels with a procession of wild women and bearded satyrs? But in addition to blurring contemporary lines between fun, law, disorder, and farming, Dionysus veers between the macho and the femme. Worshipped as early as 1500 B.C. by Mycenean Greeks, he evolved over generations from a mature male into an androgynous, highly sensuous youth who represents outsiders and the unexpected. Festivals cropped up around the cult of Dionysus and have been credited as a major inspiration in the development of Greek theater.
Mbaba Mwana Waresa
This Zulu goddess really knows how to have a good time. Like a fragment of a Timothy Leary-sponsored acid trip, Mbaba emerges as a psychedelic dream-child throwing rainbows and fun in her wake. Officially, Mbaba is a fertility goddess who rules over agriculture, rain, and beer, who teaches her devotees the art of farming and making beer. Zulus believe that when rainbows appear, it’s a signal from Mbaba to start drinking. Mbaba, daughter of the sky god Umvelinqangi, lives in the clouds in a round home made of rainbows, where she lives with her husband, a very lucky mortal she happened to fall in love with.
Medb, a.k.a. Maeve, The Fairy Queen
The Irish Queen of Connacht, Medb is a goddess of fertility, intoxication, justice, and death. What a gal! Her roots lay in the Irish legend “Tain Bo Cualinge,” or the “Cattle Raid of Cooley.” She allegedly ran faster than horses, favored wearing live birds and animals on her shoulders and arms, and slept with a number of kings who she then cast aside. While she prioritized her career for decades, Medb eventually married. Medb was the Earth itself, the force of water, the wind on mountains; also, the mountain. Her name is said to mean “she who intoxicates” and is related to the English word mead. Good times!
The Saints Come Marching In
As paganism waned and Christianity waxed, many of these regional gods and goddesses were replaced or supplanted by saints. Before the tenth century, when saints had to be officially canonized by the church, local saints would often be absorbed into the larger bureaucratic underpinnings of the church via an unofficial medieval-era “American Idol“- style popularity contest (this also helps explain the neat ancient god-saint transfer). One of the most beloved Irish saints is Brigid (457-525), a.k.a. Mary of the Gael. A well-rounded lady, she founded a monastery in Kildare known for its charity, worked in a leper colony where she turned water into beer, and miraculously turned dirty bathwater into beer for visiting priests. A poem attributed to Brigid begins thusly: “I should like a great lake of ale, for the King of the Kings. I should like the family of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal.”
I’ll have what she’s having. And so will modern day beer makers! Today, brewers seeking a way to flex their creative muscles while still hewing to tradition are turning to new anthropological discoveries and ancient gods for inspiration. Here are a few of the more #blessed experiments:
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery
One of the first in the field to start unearthing weird old recipes, these Delaware beer makers launched a collaboration with ancient beer expert Patrick McGovern in 1999. Dubbed Midas Touch, the 2,700-year-old recipe was cobbled together from molecular evidence found in a Turkish tomb believed to harbor — you guessed it — King Midas. The beer-wine-mead hybrid features honey, barley malt, white muscat grapes, and saffron. Since then, brewer Sam Calgione and McGovern have worked on an ongoing series of Ancient Ales.
Xingu Black Beer
In 1986, a group of women founded a company in an effort to recreate ancient beer styles. Naturally, they tapped the Indiana Jones of Beer for help. To be fair, they kind of had to: The president of the company, Amazon, Inc., was Anne Latchis, his wife at the time. He consulted records he had tracked down in the Amazon dating back to the 16th century, detailing that elusive black beer he kept hearing such wonderful things about. The recipe for the ale included roasted corn and manioc roots. Eames and the brewers came up with Xingu, a smooth, sweet dark beer. The label of the beer was created by artist Eric Green, depicting a map, a warrior, and, natch, anacondas. Thirty years later, Xingu Black Beer is still Brazil’s best-known international beer.
Ninkasi Brewing Company
The Eugene, Oregon brewery was named after the Sumerian goddess of fermentation. It was founded in 2006 on a few simple principles: Jamie Floyd and Nikos Ridge wanted to become the village brewers and provide a space for people to chill over a good beer. Their first batch of Total Domination IPA was made in a 17-hour brew day in leased space. By 2011 they were one of the fastest growing breweries in America and now, they rank as the 36th-largest craft brewer in the country – and they’re still independent.
The goddesses would be proud.