The earliest evidence of brewing beer goes back to the ancient Sumerian civilization. Ninkasi was the goddess of beer and one of the most worshiped deities.
Drinking a cold beer on a Friday after a long week of work is one my favorite pleasures in life, and I bet it is as well for many of you out there. Every time I get to savor one I can only think this is a real gift from the gods, and according to Sumerian mythology, it actually is, though not precisely of the gods in general, but a particular goddess who gave us the greatest gift ever. That goddess is Ninkasi, who along with her sacred priestess and brewers developed what would become one of the most common and popular beverages in history: our precious beer.
The origin of beer goes like this. Ninhursag, the Sumerian goddess of the mountains, was married to Enki (god of water, knowledge, and creation). However, as it happens in most mythologies, Enki was kind of a player, who had sex with everyone (even his own daughters). One day, Uttu, one of his daughters (who he had with another of his daughters), appeared before Ninhursag claiming she was pregnant. Tired of her husband’s infidelities and behavior, Ninhursag decides to take the semen from Uttu’s womb and plant it on the earth. Soon eight different plants with fruits appear in the riverbanks. One good day, Enki notices these strange plants and decides to have a bite of each fruit, which ends up getting him impregnated from his own seed. This causes him terrible swelling in eight different parts of his body. The pain was so terrible that Enki was on the brink of death. Desperate to heal her husband, Ninhursag takes some of Enki’s semen and implants it into her body to give birth to eight healing gods to cure each of his ailments. One of them was, of course, Ninkasi who healed her father’s mouth.
The literal translation of Ninkasi is “the woman who fills the mouth,” but she became for ancient Sumerian mythology the goddess of beer and alcohol in general. There’s a famous hymn for Ninkasi scribbled on a clay tablet that dates back to 1800 BCE. In it, she’s praised for giving humanity the gift of beer, not only because it was used to get drunk as we use it mainly now, but also because the beer had so many properties that were essential for the population in Mesopotamia. In addition, the hymn is actually an instruction guide for brewing beer adorned with poetic elements. Now, though the tablet is relatively recent, it’s believed that the hymn and the invention of the first beer dates back to thousands of years before it.
There’s evidence of beer brewing in Mesopotamia since 3500 BCE in the town of Godin Tepe (in modern Iran). In the 1990s, a group of archaeologists discovered a jar containing traces of beer and wine. Fermentation had been discovered for a while now by our prehistoric ancestors, and it was commonly believed that beer had been invented by accident, just like fermentation. However, archaeological studies have shown that early Sumerians had a very meticulous process of grain cultivation, specifically for the brewing of beer.
As we mentioned before, beer became an essential need in the Sumerian diet, for two main reasons. The first one was the rich nutritious properties it had, which made it a key element in the diet of the lower classes. The second reason was that it was much healthier than regular water, which was often polluted with human and animal waste. Since the water used for brewing was boiled, it killed many of the bacteria living in the canals. Besides that, it’s known that these ancient civilizations were well aware of how fermentation did that sterilization process as well, so beer was really clean and healthy to drink. Moreover, straws were also invented and developed by this civilization, mainly so they could drink this beverage. They were really long, so people could drink from the long vases used for beer and avoid the sediment on the bottom (though the beer was cautiously filtered, some of it would sit in the bottom).
As you might have seen, a lot of things in Sumerian culture centered around beer. There were lots of songs, poems, myths, stories, and artworks created about it, and although in many of these it's common to see drunkenness as a negative trait, it was always blamed on the person's self-control, never the beer itself. The reason was that it was highly praised as a healing substance, not only because of the mythological story about it, but also because of the nutrients we talked about before.
Perhaps what calls my attention the most about the invention of the beer is the fact that it was originated by women. Forget the great story of Ninhursag and Ninkasi: in real, historical terms, it all goes back to women as well. Ninkasi was a highly worshipped deity (we can see why), and as such, it had a long tradition of women priestesses who developed her craft for us mortals. Only women could hold that important position, and these clergy groups were, in fact, the ones that brewed the beer, at least at the early stages before it was commercialized and men took over the process, as it has happened with many things in history.
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