Origins of Alcohol Part 2 – Ninkasi, Sumerian Goddess of Beer

(Also see Origins Part 1)

Our early story of alcohol takes us on a large jump 6000km to the west of Jiahu to what is now Iraq and Syria.  This area is called Mesopotamia (Greek for “land between rivers” referring to the Tigris and Euphrates) and is considered to be the cradle of western civilization.  Around 5,000 years ago, this region was inhabited by a people known as  the Sumerians.

Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia

The clay-tablet writings of the Sumerians are some of our earliest known examples of written language, providing the transition from logographic to phonological content.  Amongst these tablets, comes a hymn titled “A Hymn to Ninkasi”.  Ninkasi was a Sumerian goddess, born of sparkling fresh water and made to soothe the heart.  Amongst her many functions, she served as a goddess of alcohol and of brewing.

The poem is interesting for many reasons.  Firstly, it seems to effectively be a step-by-step recipe for making  beer.  I find it fantastic that one of our oldest written records in the world is a beer recipe; it really is central to human civilization.  It is interesting that such a recipe would be associated with a deity and that a scribe would take the time to chisel it into hard stone.  This suggests that alcohol played a central importance in the society and that this was a way to pass down the knowledge from generation to generation and venerate Ninkasi.  Secondly, the fact that the deity of alcohol is female suggests an important role for women in the society to take charge of the baking and brewing of the house.  The poem has been damaged, but multiple scholars have attempted to translate and re-create it.  The  version shown below is adapted from the Oxford Corpus of Sumerian Literature.

Hymn to Ninkasi


Born of the flowing water […]

Your father is Enki, the lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake (abzu).  Ninkasi, your father is Enki, the lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake (abzu).

It is you who handle the  dough, and with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics.  Ninkasi, it is you who handle the dough, and with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics (date-honey).

It is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain.  Ninkasi, it is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain.

It is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates. Ninkasi, it is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates.

It is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall. Ninkasi, it is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall.

It is you who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes.   Ninkasi, it is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes.

It is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine. Ninkasi, it is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine.

(1 line heavily damaged)
You […] the sweetwort to the vessel. Ninkasi, you […] the sweetwort to the vessel.

You place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat. Ninkasi, you place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat.

It is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of theTigris and the EuphratesNinkasi, it is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.


 The type of beer resulting from this type of recipe is unfiltered, which means that the Sumerians would likely have been drinking it with straws out of a large container, likely communally.  In fact, we see on Sumerian cylinders this type of arrangement. (Image from Peter Damerow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science).  Alcohol consumption was an activity to be enjoyed by the whole family or with friends and was a time for joy and relaxation.

Sumerian Drinking Straws
Sumerian Drinking Straws

Gradually, the Sumerian language was replaced by Akkadian around 2,000BCE but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred language all the way up to 100CE, possibly due to the influence of Sumerian hymns on alcohol production!

– D

(Featured image from Wikipedia)

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