The magic of fermentation among Mesoptamians and Hittites.



The phenomena which come with beer fermentation have struck the imagination of ancient peoples : tumultuous bubbling, release of a heavy and deadly gas, strong heat of the liquid, foaming beer, soft quiet of the fermented beer, intoxicating beverage, beige and fatty dregs. Beer is alive.

All this happens spontaneously. The man is silent, fearful and helpless. The woman is silent, patient and accomplice. The bulbous vat of foaming and hot beer has inspired some womanly parallel, either anatomical, physiological or imaginary. It excludes in all cases the male participation or understanding.

The mesopotamian and hittite worlds have left us remarkable texts that testify to this magical perception of the beer fermentation, of the malt germination,  and of the beer-bread preparation. The powerful symbolisms that are associated with these technical brewing gestures have also been translated into the social life of these peoples.

Other illustrations drawn from the worlds of India, China and Africa expand this theme that transcends cultures of antiquity. Beer-studies will further put them online. The pages below give few examples from mesopotamian and hittite civilizations.

The first page refers to the special status of the fermentation vat into the worship of Mesopotamian temples. The beer fermentation demonstrates the power and authority of the gods. A beer vessel is a receptacle of the divine mystery. As beer is also the main beverage offered to the gods, the fermenting vat becomes an almost sacred object set up in the heart of shrines where beer is especially brewed for this purpose.

The second page talks about particular qualities and special powers of that fermentation vat. Wherever beer is brewed, the fermentation vat becomes a powerful magical tool. In Mesopotamia, the taverns make the beer that is sold on the premises. The fermentation vat thrones inside the tavenr in right place. Victims of witchcraft or holders of any contamination dangerous to living beings can go to a tavern and touch the fermentation vat. Its magical powers will deliver the victim of its evils, provided that a strict ritual is followed, whose directions are described by cuneiform tablets.

The third page shows that the fermentation of the beer has also a dark side for the inhabitants of Mesopotamia. The mysterious and almost divine demonstration given by the alcoholic fermentation, positive and beneficial, is associated with birth, procreation and regeneration. But the beer fermentation is also synonymous with decay. The Mesopotamian sayings, wisdom literature,  prayers told that leaven, old beer and dregs are the signs of putrefaction and death. The beer leaven, a power of life which generates the intoxicating beer, is a power of death and morbid decay as well. This ambivalence of leaven has struck the Mesopotamian thought, also sensitive to dual and cyclical phenomena belonging to the political and religious spheres : rise or decline of cities, power or destruction of kingdoms, favor or curse from the gods, agricultural prosperity or misery, and so on.

The fourth page. On the northern borders of the great Mesopotamian plain, the power of the Hittite empire in Anatolia is primarily based on its military force. Like every empires in antiquity, the Hittites use mercenaries coming from everywhere to rent their arms, provided that they take an oath to serve the ruling family. The long text of the oath required of soldiers gives the details of curses and punishment for those who betray. Most of the analogies are inspired by brewing techniques to describe the fate promised to traitors. Putrefying flesh like rotten leaven, lack of offspring as sterile malt, ground bones like beer bread crushed before brewing. Besides the meaning of these comparisons, a borrowing made at the world of beer for the wording of an oath is significant. The oath is sworn by a disparate band of soldiers coming from the four corners of the Hittite empire. This shows that beer, brewing ingredients and techniques were part of the common culture of the  Anatolian peoples during the second millennium BC. As in Mesopotamia, the fermentation of beer and the mysterious nature of leaven are seen as some deeply ambivalent outward signs, the phenomena of life and death, a source of joy (drunkenness) and disaster (putrefaction).


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15/01/2012  Christian Berger