Tom Standage
A History of the World in Six Glasses

The recorded history of beer, and indeed of everything else, begins in Sumer, a region in southern Mesopotamia where writing first began to emerge around 3400 BCE. That beer drinking was seen as a hallmark of civilization by the Mesopotamians is particularly apparent in a passage from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world's first great literary work. Gilgamesh was a Sumerian king who ruled around 2700 BCE, and whose life story was subsequently embroidered into an elaborate myth by the Sumerians and their regional successors, the Akkadians and Babylonians. The story tells of Gilgamesh's adventures with his friend Enkidu, who starts off as a wild man running naked in the wilderness but is introduced to the ways of civilization by a young woman. She takes Enkidu to a shepherds' village, the first rung on the ladder toward the high culture of the city, where
They placed food in front of him,
they placed beer in front of him;
and of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke to Enkidu, saying:
'Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land.'
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer—seven jugs!—and became expansive and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water,
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human.
Enkidu's primitive nature is demonstrated by his lack of familiarity with bread and beer; but once he has consumed them, and then washed himself, he too becomes a human and is then ready to go to Uruk, the city ruled by Gilgamesh. The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human. Interestingly, this belief seems to echo beer's association with a settled, orderly lifestyle, rather than the haphazard existence of hunter-gatherers in prehistoric times.

The possibility of drunkenness seems to have done nothing; to undermine the equation of beer drinking with civilization. Most references to drunkenness in Mesopotamian literature are playful and humorous: Enkidu's initiation as a human, indeed, involved getting drunk and singing. Similarly, Sumerian myths depict the gods as very fallible, human characters who enjoy eating and drinking, and often drink too much. Their capricious behavior was blamed for the precarious and unpredictable nature of Sumerian life, in which harvests could fail and marauding armies could appear on the horizon at any moment. Sumerian religious ceremonies involved laying out a meal on a table in the temple before a divine image, followed by a banquet at which the consumption of food and drink by the priests and worshipers invoked the presence of the gods and the spirits of the dead. Beer was just as important in ancient Egyptian culture, where references to it go back almost as far. It is mentioned in documents from the third dynasty, which began in 2650 BCE, and several varieties of beer are mentioned in 'Pyramid Texts,' the funerary texts found inscribed in pyramids from the end of the fifth dynasty, around 2350 BCE, (The Egyptians developed their own form of writing shortly after the Sumerians, to record both mundane transactions and kingly exploits, bur whether ir was an independent development or inspired by Sumerian writing remains unclear.) One survey of Egyptian literature found that beer, the Egyptian word for which was hekt, was mentioned more rimes than any other foodstuff. As in Mesopotamia, beer was thought to have ancient and mythological origins, and it appears in prayers, myths, and legends.

One Egyptian tale even credits beer with saving humankind from destruction. Ra, the sun god, learned that humankind was plotting against him, and dispatched the goddess Hathor to exact punishment. But such was her ferocity that Ra feared there would soon be nobody left to worship him, and he took pity on humankind. He prepared a vast amount of beer—seven thousand Jars of it, in some versions of the story—dyed it red to resemble blood, and spread it over the fields, where it shone like a vast mirror. Hathor paused to admire her reflection and then stooped to drink some of the mixture. She became intoxicated, fell asleep, and forgot about her bloody mission. Humankind was saved, and Hathor became the goddess of beer and brewing. Versions of this story have been found inscribed in the tombs of Egyptian kings, including Tutankhamen, Seti I, and Ramses the Great.

In contrast to the Mesopotamians' relaxed attitude toward intoxication, however, a strong disapproval of drunkenness was expressed in the practice texts copied out by apprentice scribes in Egypt, many of which have survived in large quantities in rubbish mounds. One passage admonishes young scribes; 'Beer, it scareth men from thee, it sendeth thy soul to perdition. Thou art like a broken steering-oar in a ship, that is obedient on neither side.' Another example, from a collection of advice called 'The Wisdom of Ani,' gives a similar warning: 'Take not upon thyself to drink a jug of beer. Thou speakest, and an unintelligible utterance issueth from thy mouth.' Such scribal training texts, however, are unrepresentative of Egyptian values in general. They disapprove of almost everything except endless studying in order to pursue a career as a scribe. Other texts have titles such as 'Do Not Be a Soldier, Priest or Baker,' 'Do Not Be a Husbandman,' and 'Do Not Be a Charioteer.'

Mesopotamians and Egyptians alike saw beer as an ancient, god-given drink that underpinned their existence, formed part of their cultural and religious identity, and had great social importance. 'To make a beer hall' and 'to sit in the beer hall' were popular Egyptian expressions that meant 'to have a good time' or 'to carouse,' while the Sumerian expression a 'pouring of beer' referred to a banquet or celebratory feast, and formal visits by the king to high officials' homes to receive tribute were recorded as 'when the king drank beer at the house of so-and-so.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.