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.