Mašdaria as gifts of bread and beer in Mesopotamia (3rd to 2nd millenia BC).


Priests and brewers are not the only ones providing the royal table with barley and beer for the merrymaking on occasion of land festival. A part of the population offers also the mašdaria to the palace and shrines. The Mašdaria are gifts-in-kind which consist of beer, bread and animals. The sanga-priests collect all these offerings, register them before their redistribution. So says the popular piety, assuming these "gifts" are spontaneous. Mašdaria means literally "kid brought". Originally, each one subjected to the palace had to to offer it a kid, a kind of tithe collected by the palace or a share in the collective offerings during the early time of the Sumerian religion.

In the mid 25th century BC, its acceptance is growing. The mašdaria embrace most land products (grains, fruits, vegetables, wood), the breeding products (sheep, birds, milk, yogurt) and fishing. Key fact, the ingredients of beer are very often listed : various types of beer, beer-breads of many sizes, malt, roasted barley. The most common set of "offerings" called mašdaria are : bread, beer, date, oil and flour. These gifts-in-kind are replacement or substitution readily available for everybody. They are proportionate to the social status of the donor in Lagaš society, from farmers, herders, fishermen and loggers up to leaders, priests and administrators, and even the foremen.

The occasions for mašdaria consumption are various : large collective festivals, annual religious celebrations, worship of the dead, birth of a daughter of the princess or even herding. The  celebrations of the cycle of barley are included in these major events, judging by the volume and nature of offerings among which bread and beer keep the largest share. The mašdaria establish a flow of offerings converging towards the palace and stored by it, waiting to be presented and sacrificed to the gods by the prince or princess of one city-state. In return, the palace distributes beer and bread at community meals or festive rituals. This reciprocal movement celebrates and embodies the opulence and fertility of the country. Archaeology has found in the palaces architecture of the third millennium large rooms and courtyards, the likely theater of those festivities.

According to some clay tablets from the city of Isin, we know that baskets filled with cakes where offered in the middle of granaries, in the fifth month of the year, when the fresh barley was conveyed to the stores in the city[1]. Just like the fermented beverage, pastries celebrate the collective joy aroused by the new crop.

The continuity of agricultural rites of the cycle of barley during third and second millennia is striking, as well as the central role of beer. For the festival of sowing attested in the cities-state of Umma and Girsu during the Ur III period (2112-2004 BC), beer is given to the crews of laborers for ritual libations of beer, kaš-dé-a = "poured beer " . Set up by the palace, the delivery of beer to laborers shows that the core political institution is directly involved in these rituals incorporated into its management.

Echoing this custom, the Song of the Plowing Oxen is the story of a Farmer - divine or royal - who should urge an ox to draw the plow. He receives in dreaming the visit of gods of agriculture. They showed him how to convince the animal. The ox finally accepts its yoke. As an expected result, everything ends happily at the beer-tavern where one pays homage to the goddess Inanna, a deity of war and love who also patronizes the tavern and the social sharing of beer between humans, especially between genders.

This song concludes " in the beer house, the joy of drinking, Inanna [...] a place of rest, [her heart] is happy again [2]. This literary composition shows that the relationship between cultivation of barley and religious celebration with beer floods all levels of Mesopotamian society. This song was probably written for (and by ?) the king Lipit-Ištar (r. 1934-1924 BC).



[1] G. Th. Ferwerda 1985, A Contribution to the Early Isin Craft Archive : 21.

[2] Miguel Civil 1976, The Song of the Plowing Oxen (Festschrift KRAMER) : 89.

15/01/2012  Christian Berger