The beer brewing activities and the Mesopotamian political agenda (3rd mil. BC).



Some calendars bear the mark of brewing techniques and celebrate some brewing ingredients. In that of Lagaš, one month appoints the month of eating barley, another the month of eating malt. These names have inherited the title of the festivals devoted to the goddess Nanše and to the god Ningirsu or Lugalurubar. The full name of one month reads for example Month of the feast of eating malt for the goddess Nanše. It is the ninth in the lagashite year, approximately November/December in our modern calendar[1].

In the country  of  Lagaš, three cities thrive approximately 20 km far away from each others : Girsu in the northwest, location of royal residences, Lagaš itself in the center and Nigin in the south. The feast of eating malt for Nanše  lasts 6-7 days during which the queen leaves Girsu-city in procession to go to Lagaš on the 2nd day, to Nigin on the 3rd day, the main sanctuary of the goddess Nanše. She is honored with tiaras, necklaces, animal sacrifices and various offerings of beer, flour, oil and dates. The 4th and 5th days are busied with a return trip to "the dike-where-we-eat fish". New benefits for participants : more than 8.5 liters of strong beer, 85 cl of oil, dates, cheese with dry raisins and a bunch of fish. On the 6th and 7th days, the procession goes back to Girsu through the city of Lagaš. This route and the scheduling of visits conceal some religious and political meanings that escapes us. During the festival of eating malt for Ningirsu, the king takes almost the same way, but this time visits URU-KUG, the "holy city" on the outskirts of Lagaš.

In both cases, the offerings are nearly identical. We know them thanks to the accounting clay tablets on which the scribes carefully record what enters in the Royal stores and what goes out. A standard recording formula is for example : x pots (17 liters) of beer, a certain amount of flour, 1.7 liters of oil, idem for dates, idem for a cheese-raisins-wheat mixture. The amounts are proportionate to the rank of each deity. If the quantity of beer-pots is divided by two, the other offerings are correspondingly reduced.

These offerings are distributed to the participants after being symbolically offered and consumed by the deities or their sacred attributes (emblems). Two kinds of beer are offered, one called "strong" and the other "brown". The table below follows the chronology of events over 6 days (from top to bottom and left to right)[2].


Feast of eating the malt for the goddess Nanše, 6th year of Lugalanda reign (˜ 2300 BC). Offerings of his wife Baranamtara. (JSB = jar of strong beer, JBB = jar of beer).
The beer are libated to gods or goddess (Inanna, Nanše, Enki ...), to specific places (canal, places for libation) or to sacred emblems (cart/waggon).

1st day

½ JSB + ½ PBB to Enki of Giguna

1 JSB + 1 JBB to Absumah

1 JSB + 1 JBB to Ninšubur

4th day

1 JSB + 1 JBB to Ambar-canal

1 JSB + 1 JBB to Ningirsu of Ninegara

½ JSB + ½ JBB to Ninur

½ JSB + ½ JBB to Ašnan

2 JSB + 3 JBB for Nanše

1 JSB + 1 JBB to Inanna of Ibgal

1 JSB + 1 JBB to Nin-DAR

½ JSB + ½ JBB to Nindub

½ JSB + ½ JBB to Ibkuku

5th day

1 JSB + 1 JBB to Nanše of Šapada

1 JSB + 1 JBB to Nin-MUŠ-bar

½ JSB + ½ JBB to EŠ-irnum

½ JSB + ½ JBB to Inanna

1 JSB + 1 JBB for Nanše

1 JSB + 1 JBB to the place of libations at Lagaš

½  JSB + ½ JBB to Dumuzi'absu

½ JSB + ½ JBB to the "Free Place"

½ JSB + ½ JBB to Gatumdu

1 JSB + 1 JBB for the cart

2nd day, no beer offered

1 JSB + 1 JBB to Hendursag

1 JSB + 1 JBB to Šulutul in Emah

½ JSB + ½ JBB  Lugal-URUxKAR

6th day

3rd day

½ JSB + ½ JBB to HE-tur

1 JSB + 1 JBB to Mesan-DU

½ JSB + ½ JBB in the place of libation at Nigin

[1 JSB and 1 JBB] (erasure)  probably written  1 JSB + 1 JBB

2 JSB + 3 JBB for Nanše


½ JSB + ½ JBB to Šulutul of the Sacred Place






TOTAL of  the 6 recorded days

27 jars of strong beer

29 jars of brown beer

The offerings of beer during the Queen's pilgrimage.



The sequence and type of offerings are strictly standardized. One could draw up similar tables for each major feasts held at that time under the authority of a Mesopotamian palace, for example :

- for the (feast-of) eating-barley-of-Ningirsu : total of beverages = 20½ jars of strong beer, 21½ jars of dark beer + 23,5 liters of date wine)

- for (feast-of) eating-malt-of-Ningirsu (23½ jars of strong beer, 24½  jars of dark beer + 26 liters of date wine)

- for the Square (agora ?) of the feast of Baba (18½ jars of strong beer, 15½ jars of dark beer + 1221 liters of date wine)

- for Feast-of Antasura, a temple consacred to Ningirsu (17 jars of strong beer, 17 jars of dark beer[3].


The standard capacity of the jar of beer (17 liters) leads to an average consumption of beer, during one of these ceremonials, of a mini-maxi volume of 315-400 liters for strong beer and 263-416 liters for dark beer. It is a large redistribution of beverage to the participants served after the gods. In this sense, the feast-of-eating-malt-of- Nanše reaches a peak with 459 liters of strong beer and 493 liters of dark beer provided for 6 days! This could seem a low consumption compared to modern habits. We must be reminded that this feast is but one among many others celebrated all along the year. It concerns the small territory of one city-state (Lagaš) among many states in the vast Mesopotamia. The beer as religious offering is redistributed to a restricted social group. This gives just a picture of the global amount of beer brewed and drank by all the inhabitants in Mesopotamia at that time.

During the month-of-eating-the-malt, some collective meals are provided at the palace. The guests are the priests of worship who have completed the weekly journey of ceremonials. They come from the various shrines of the Lagas country : 176 singers, 174 servants of worship, 68 of their children. Each adult receives 1 white bread, fish and 1 liter of beer, each child receives ½ "household bread" [4]. The malt does not appear among offerings, nor in the communal meals of the religious staff.

This month is still mentionned under the reign of King Su-Sin (2037-2029) in a distribution of relatively large amounts of regular and superior beer (204-234 liters) to different social groups[5]. At Girsu, the month of eating malt survives until the end of the third millennium as the fifth month of the year[6].

The religious feasts at Lagaš confirm the symbolic value that Sumerians have put on barley, malt, beer, bread, beer and their ritual or profane consumption. The ceremonials are part of the cycle of barley and its developments. Their agrarian character is obvious, as well as the link with the brewery.



[1] Yvonne Rosengarten 1960, Le Concept Sumérien de consommation dans la vie économique et religieuse : 251 sq.

[2] Gebhard Selz 1989, Die Altsumerischen Wirtschaftsurkunden der Eremitage zu Leningrad (Freiburger Altorientalische Studien 15,1) : 155-162 (Nik 23). The total for jars is right if the erasure of the 6th day is restored. Similar accountings for that feast : DP 53 and TSA 1 whose sum of beer jars balances between 24+26 and 27+29 beer jars (Or 28 pp. 26-55).

[3] Josef Bauer 1972, Altsumerische Wirtschaftstexte aus Lagash : AWL Fö 119, 5, 116, 74 et 94. One jar contains 20 sila, ie 16,84 liters (according to Fö 89 which  reads : 28 jars + 10 sila = 29 jars – 10 sila).

[4] Yvonne Rosengarten 1960, op. cit. : 173-181 (DP 159). This "household bread" could be a dried bread made for a long storing.

[5] Maurice Lambert 1968, Tablettes économiques de Lagash (Cahiers de la Société asiatique vol. XIX) : n°40. Beer jars given to palatial soldiers, to people from Nikri, to few cup-bearers.

[6] Kazuya Maekawa 1987, Collective Labor Service in Girsu-Lagash: the Pre-Sargonic and Ur III Periods, American Oriental Series 68, BM 15797 p. 66.

15/01/2012  Christian Berger