Beer, agrarian rites, fertility cults in Mesopotamia.
Made from cereals or starchy tubers, the beer partakes in rituals that punctuate the annual agricultural cycle, the celebrations of fertility, and the prayers to the benevolent spirits of vegetation. In this exciting question of its history, the beer plays a dual role. The beverage is a tangible evidence of actual fertility (that of grain or tubers harvested during the year) and in the same time a symbol of collective joy, of a reactivated sociability (beer = drunkness). No beer without the starch given by a generous Nature, no social sharing of this agricultural abundance without its specific fermented vehicle, we mean beer.
The fertility must be restored each year.
Stemming from the germinating powers of earth and grain, beer is the offering beverage to the agrarian deities. This deities control the actual growing of plants, the renewal of vegetation each year, in fact the overall abundance in the country. To worship them, beer is poured as a libation on the ground, on altars or betyles. The grain came out from the soil and returns to it in a liquid and fermented form. The common thread goes from the dead grain to the sprouted grain, from the regenerated malt to the fermented beverage. From grain to malt, from malt to beer brewed each year, from this beer to the promise of future harvests next year. The brewing of the beer simulates the largest cycle of the nature : resurgent (in spring), generous and fruiting (in summer), delightful (in fall) and asleep (winter).
The beer inspired propitiatory rites performed at each step of the farming cycle : preparation/awakening the soil, plowing/planting the seeds, harvesting, grains storage which ends the welding in the agricultural year.
Magical fermentations and overflowing drunkness.
The fermented beverage drawn from the grains (or the tubers) is the promise of new overabundance and drunkenness. The granaries are full. Beer flows. Its bubbling echoes the collective joy that human want to share. A second theme overrides the original theme and that of grain abundance. According to the agricultural or astral calendars, the community celebrates the late year and the advent of the new one. This transition from a 'dead' year to a new or 'young' one is seen as a rebirth, literally. The dead meet the living. The annual celebration seems to leave the agricultural meaning for a cosmic speculation. This is not the case. The very actual festivities are celebrated side by side for millennia, combining the agrarian joy and the celebration of the dead. Each time, beer materializes these two connections : a link between all the living themselves (annual festivity of the first fruits) and a sometimes dangerous relation between living and dead (funeral banquets with all the dead of the past).
Strictly speaking, we must dissociate these two faces of the cyclical celebrations : the typically agrarian feasts and the funeral rites. As a rule of thumb, each one involves some special beer brewing with an appropriate way of beer drinking beside specific rituals.
We must also not confuse this unique annual event (new year) with the series of rituals and the strictly agrarian offerings made by farmers for praying their local deities to foster the growing of the planted seeds (cereals) or the buried stems (tubers).
These agrarian rituals and these great collective celebrations have left the mental universe of the modern times "agro-fed" whose motto is : "What I eat now does neither depend on my work nor my efforts to feed me, nor my agricultural success. All is provided by the agro-industrial business." Everything is different in traditional agrarian societies. Someone eat and drink this year what was grown in the previous year by himself and his community. The collective survival on tomorrow depends on the current agricultural success today. In that vital logic, beer reveals its importance both material and social. Its historical role is obviously broader and fundamental than in modern times which have reduced beer to its refreshing function. The industrial and post-industrial beer has become a soda with more or less alcohol.
Our examples of agrarian rites belong to the Sumerian civilization 5000 years ago and the peoples of the Inca Empire 500 years ago. But the choice could go towards Europa, Africa or Asia. All traditional societies, past or present, offer such examples. Few coming articles by Beer-Studies will enrich this fascinating file.