Eagle and Ratatosk

February 28, 2014

More to come in a few weeks on cuisine in Mesopotamia: food and the dead, feasting with the gods and a few other topics. A diversion this week for something too wonderful to pass up.

I don’t know if people remember the essay I wrote on Ratatosk, the Red Scoundrel for Return to Mago blog. In Germanic lore Ratatosk scampers up and down the world tree carrying insults between Nidhogg, the serpent-dragon who nibbles the roots of the tree, and a giant eagle (unnamed as far as we know) who lives in the top branches. Anyway, I found a photo of it! This really is happening, still.

More Drinking in Mesopotamia

February 21, 2014

Another record of beer sale. Photo Babelstone.
Another record of beer sale. Photo Babelstone.

The Sumerians already had the technology of brewing beer when they arrived in Mesopotamia from unknown parts. Dedicated beer drinkers though they were, the Sumerians did not invent the process of fermenting grain and their words related to this process come from an unknown culture. The brew was drunk communally from a large vessel with straws. Mesopotamians consumed beer with food and on its own, and also used beer in cooking and in medicine. Some households made their own beer, but breweries also delivered to houses. Brewing was originally a woman’s occupation, although over time there was encroachment by men into this area. Women owned and managed the taverns.

In some ways the taverns of Mesopotamia were like those of today only more so. They were places for gossip and wasting time. Sexual activity often accompanied the drinking, including prostitution and homosexual activity, which is graphically portrayed in pictures. The euphoric effects of alcohol were as much a purpose of drinking in the tavern as the camaraderie, although scholars do not believe that habitual drunkenness was a feature of Mesopotamian life, partly because the drink was not very potent. Rulers looked on the taverns with distaste. It was not the prostitution, homosexuality, or inebriation they objected to – Mesopotamians held no judgment about these things – but the potential public houses presented for political intrigue. There also seems to have been a general disapproval of people habitually indulging in idle gatherings during the afternoons. Priestesses were forbidden to enter the taverns, perhaps because sexual relations with men were not allowed in some priestess roles.

The subject of drinking often arises in myth. In his epic search for eternal life, Gilgamesh encounters a female tavern owner who urges him to abandon his quest.

until the end, enjoy your life,
spend it in happiness, not despair.
Savor your food, make each of your days
a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,
wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean,
let music and dancing fill your house,
love the child who holds you by the hand,
and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
That is the best way for a man to live.

The scene sets out starkly the choice humans face of pursuing grand ambitions which may bring frustration and unfulfillment versus the abandonment of dreams for temporal pleasures.


Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Bottero, Jean.The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Mitchell, Stephen.Gilgamesh: A new English version. New York: Free Press, 2004.

Beer drinking scene from a cylindrical seal, circa 2600 B.C.E.
Beer drinking scene from a cylindrical seal, circa 2600 B.C.E.

Drinking in Mesopotamia

February 14, 2014

Barley field. Photo Daniel Schwen.
Barley field. Photo Daniel Schwen.
I don’t know if other priestesses begin to notice a pattern in the goddesses they are attracted to in the various pantheons. With a few exceptions, I seem to gravitate toward the young mother goddesses rather than the crone goddesses, although I respect and acknowledge the crone’s power. A friend of mine seems to like goddesses that are associated with pigs, and she was surprised when I pointed that out. Recently I’ve become aware of another idiosyncrasy in my goddess studies: my unconscious attraction to goddesses who like beer.

The Mesopotamians loved their beer. They even had a beer goddess, Ninkasi, and all the gods were enthusiastic beer drinkers. (Ninkasi is one of the eight children of Ninhursaga and Enki mentioned in my book Invoking Animal Magic.) The god Enki, known for his often generous and sometimes erratic behavior, gives the gifts of civilization to Inanna while in an expansive drunken mood. (He regrets this when he sobers up.)

Even the Egyptians, who also loved their beer, used wine as well as beer in religious and funerary rites, and pharaohs devoted time and attention to grape cultivation and wine making. In northern Mesopotamia rich men also cultivated grapes, and wine was imported, but nowhere did the fermented grape surpass the fermented grain (though it seems Ninkasi presided over both). Descriptors of beer quality, type, and manufacture rival those in other Mediterranean cultures for wine. The Greeks deplored the Mesopotamian’s fidelity to beer as an unfortunate flaw in an otherwise civilized culture.

Beer was made from fermented grains, usually barley. According to Jean Bottero:

Although necessarily different from our beer, it was still essentially made from a base of various grains, first germinated and malted in damp conditions and then, once malting was completed, heated in water into which various aromatic products had been added. (Hops were unknown in that area, but dodder [probably a red vegetable dye–HMR] was used, and many other flavoring agents as well.) Then the mash was left to ferment.

The resulting brew was not very high in alcohol content, and was often further diluted with water, but it nonetheless produced in expansive feeling. Here is an excerpt from a drinking song, translated by Jeremy Black:

Receipt written for beer delivery by scribe Ur-Amma. Photo Tom L. Lee.
Receipt written for beer delivery by scribe Ur-Amma. Photo Tom L. Lee.

In the troughs made with bur grass, there is sweet beer. I will have the cupbearers, the boys and the brewers stand by. As I spin around the lake of beer, while feeling wonderful, feeling wonderful, while drinking beer, in a blissful mood, while drinking alcohol and feeling exhilarated, with joy in the heart and a contented liver — my heart is a heart filled with joy! I clothe my contented liver in a garment fit for a queen! The heart of Inana is happy once again; the heart of Inana is happy once again!

We are not done drinking in Mesopotamia. Next week more libations will be poured.


Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Ebeling, J., Flückiger-Hawker, E., Robson, E., Taylor, J., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/), Oxford 1998–2006.

Bottero, Jean. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Hornsey, Ian Spencer. A History of Beer and Brewing. Cambridge, UK: Royal Chemistry Society, 2003.

Cooking in Mesopotamia

February 7, 2014

What was cooking and eating like in Mesopotamia? Last week’s post gave some idea of the range of ingredients used by Mesopotamian chefs. It is not surprising that food in Mesopotamia was heavily spiced, given the evidence that even hunter-gatherers seasoned their food. What is interesting is the variety and sophistication of the cooking techniques.

Meat was typically braised over a large open fire to seal in the juices, then deboned, trimmed of gristle, and cut into smaller pieces. It was then transferred to a large clay pot to simmer in broth and vegetables over a stove, somewhat like we would do with a crockpot. Regulated high heat cooking was done in a smaller metal pan. There are many descriptions for grain dishes cooked in broth and animal fat. Unleavened bread would be flattened and cooked quickly on hot clay surfaces or in ceramic cooking molds. Bread was leavened with beer or some other fermented mixture and baked in a dome oven. Over 200 varieties of bread are mentioned, many of which resemble cakes or pastries. Various shells and baskets made of bread were used as serving containers for meat. Salt was sometimes used for curing meat or fish. Fish might also be cut in thin pieces and dried. Fruits and vegetables might be dried in the sun or in slow ovens devised for this purpose. Since there was a ready supply of heat and sunshine, I wonder if cooks might have had a source of solar cooking, but this is not mentioned in any of my books. While trees were sparse in most of the region, particularly in the south, there was enough scrub vegetation for charcoal, which was produced for cooking.

Fermented dairy products, surprisingly, were unknown, but milk had to be quickly processed in that hot climate. Milk products were usually consumed as cream, buttermilk, or cheese. Butter was clarified.

Culinary records that survive emphasize cleanliness of hands and utensils and the need to wash certain ingredients thoroughly. None of the recommendations on hygienic food preparation are as complex as Jewish dietary laws, but there are indications that cleanliness was a concern. Pork was consumed (as was shellfish), but pigs are described as unclean in their habits, needing special care in raising. There are no explicit food taboos, although it seems that eating dogs or horses would not have occurred to anyone. (Europeans ate both.) There were strictures against eating certain foods on certain days or times of the year, and it is unclear whether this was for religious or other reasons.

The table of the gods will be discussed in another section, but it is worth noting here that foods for the divine epicure were prepared simply. Meat was roasted; bread was basic. It seems that conservatism was the basis for this, the texts mentioning that foods for the gods are prepared according to the old ways. This is interesting to me because Pagans today offer old-fashioned libations to the Goddess: wine, mead, beer, water or fruit juice. It would not occur to me to offer her a cola, and I doubt anyone has ever given her a highball.

Speaking of libations, next week’s post will talk about drinking in Mesopotamia.

Source: The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, by Jean Bottero (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan), University of Chicago Press, 2004.