Divine inebriation, human dipsomania (Egypt and Sumer).

 

Examples abound of myths about beer and the fortunes or misfortunes that mankind receives from it. Beer is given or conceded to humans by generous gods, or on the contrary jealous of their divine drink, or by a legendary female brewer. As far as we can summarise and compare such a wealth of past stories and mythological tales, several themes stand out:

  • Beer is a blessing that has come among mankind with cultivated plants. The deity who donates the plants also teaches agriculture and the art of brewing beer. This primordial link between agriculture and beer brewing is stated by Amerindian mythologies (gift of maize, manioc and the beer that comes with it), Chinese or Japanese myths (millet or rice beer), certain African myths, etc.
  • the beer of humans is the image of the beer of gods. Man can offer to the gods the beer that he himself drinks. Humans and gods share the same fermented beverage, that is beer. The mythologies from ancient Mesopotamia offer the best example of this belief, as do the Scandinavian mythologies. Enlil, Enki, Odin or Thor drink the same beer as humans (see below).
  • The magical fermentation and the intoxication that beer induces in humans open a door to supernatural worlds and possible interactions, beneficial or evil, between the divine powers and the human world. This theme inspires many mythologies throughout the world.
  • the intoxication of the gods appeases their destructive fury. The art of brewing beer is a "charm" or trick of humans to capture or "domesticate" the power of the gods. The intoxication of the Egyptian goddess Sekmet/Hathor is one of the best example of that schema (see below) which can also be found in the Japanese mythology (a furious and destructive snake has been inebriated with sake, a rice beer).
  • Beer is a source of sociability. Savagery reigned among humans before the invention of beer, or before beer was given by a deity or an ancestor. Humans become civilised when they can share a pot of beer. Beer is a bridge between the wild and the civilised state of human communities. This theme inspires one of the episodes in the epic of King Gilgamesh and Enkidu-the-savage, beside Amerindian, Indo-European and Asian myths (Kojiki for Japan).
     

These various themes, which are sometimes complementary, do not have the same meaning or scope depending on whether they are developed by peoples with non-authoritarian social structures or by hierarchical and complex societies.

For the former, beer takes them from the wilderness to social life. It occurs in the human world thanks to the generosity or sacrifice of a male or female ancestor. Beer is the vehicle of the shaman or healer to reach the other side of the world. A few drops of beer are thrown to honour an ancestor or divine power before tasting a new brew. Nothing more. These beliefs and ritual ordinary practices belong to the so-called "tribal" or no-state societies. These myths abound in the Amazon and among Andean cultures, but also in Africa and Asia.

For the latter, the gift or the invention of beer legitimises a political power which is then responsible for redistributing this benefit among men. Beer offerings reinforce this political authority by allowing the king or the priest to officiate in a palace or a temple, and to arrogate for himself a privileged communication with the gods. The beer brewing becomes, after a long economic and social evolution, a material support for centralizing political powers of kingdom or empire kinds.This is the case of the strongly hierarchical societies which appeared during antiquity in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China. All of them gave rise to long lasting beer-making traditions. Some of them are several thousand years old.

Between these two extreme poles, multifaceted political and social structures have altered the role of the brewery and inspired the "historical inventions" of beer narrated by some mythologies.

 

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15/01/2012  Christian Berger