There never was and probably will never be a culture that integrated beer into their religion like the Egyptians. They consumed beer as part of the temple rituals and they offered beer up to the gods as a sacrifice. The Egyptians had gods for each and every stage of the brewing process. There were so many gods it was hard to keep them apart. The Egyptians believed that Isis, the deity of nature gave beer to mankind. They also believed that Hathor, the goddess of joy, invented the processes of brewing. They also had Menquet, “the goddess who makes beer” and her inscription was on the temple of Dendra. In Egypt it was all about beer. Beer was revered so highly as a holy substance that a god was necessary for each act of a human connected to the process. To give you an idea as to how important beer was in the Egyptian world there was one Egyptian myth that credits beer with saving all of mankind. This is the story: Ra, the sun god was being plotted against by mankind and he dispatched the goddess, Hathor to defeat his human enemies, however, later Ra recalled the fierce wrath of Hathor and so he took pity on mankind. Ra brewed up a huge amount of beer, likely over seven thousand jars and he dyed it red to spread over all the vast fields where it would reflect like a mirror. Hathor passed by the fields on her bloody mission and stopped to see her reflection. She then stooped down and drank some of the beer. She became intoxicated from the red beer and forgot her intentions and thus mankind was spared.
Let us put the mythology away and understand that Egyptians made one of the most important contributions to beer in history. They were the very first to explore the health benefits of the brewed concoctions. They came up with over seven hundred prescriptions that include beer as a medicine in the Ebers Papyrus. (The Ebers Papyrus, also known as Papyrus Ebers, is an Egyptian medical papyrus dating to c. 1550 BC. Among the oldest and most important medical papyri of ancient Egypt, it was purchased at Luxor, (Thebes) in the winter of 1873–74 by Georg Ebers. It is currently kept at the library of the University of Leipzig, in Germany.) It was so important that barley brew was seen as early as 3000 BC in the ‘Book of the Dead’ because it was necessary in order to get to the afterlife. This is precisely why beer vats were found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs by archeologists.
One interesting point to make is that beer was not drank from a glass. It was drank from a large vat through a reed. Cups and glasses were inventions developed much later. So when men drank beer they brushed a heavy layer of floating grain mash aside, pushed the straw down into the vat and began drawing the lower liquid up through the reed. I’ll bet that was some thick and bitter stout.
The fascination of the Egyptians over beer came to shape the course of western brewing. The Egyptians taught brewing techniques to the Greeks who in turn taught it to the Romans. Herodotus, the Greek historian wrote a detailed treatise on beer in 460 BC and the value of beer as part of a healthy life was lectured by Sophocles, the father of theater. The Romans captured the brewing skills and passed them on through the course of western civilization. By the first century there were over two hundred types of beer being brewed throughout Europe. The Romans believed that beer gave them strength and energy. Beer was drank by the soldiers before battle and the Roman athletes put it down by the gallons. This could be the reason the Latin word for beer is cerevisium, which means “strength.”
The Christian influence:
The brewing of beer also existed in the British Isles long before the Romans had it. It is not recorded how it made its way there but this is important to remember as I will be addressing the production of beer in Ireland.
It is very interesting the arrival of Christianity and the Christian influence over the empire with its controversies regarding alcohol never diminished the Romans love of beer. For early Christians, the consumption of alcohol was not an issue and drunkenness was the sin, as taught by the apostles. Beer and wine, when used in moderation were welcomed by the early Christians and were used as a part of daily life. Christians did oppose the drunkenness and immorality that came from excess consumption. Historians have noted that the positive Christian perspective actually encouraged the brewing. It was as much as sanctioning the temperate love of beer and welcoming in the beer as alternative to high alcohol drinks.
Beer was a big part of life as Christians captured the Roman world with their ideals and carried the Gospel to non-Roman lands. As an example, St. Patrick introduced the Christian Gospel to the pagan land of Ireland back around the turn of the century. Mescan, who was St. Patrick’s personal brewmaster was always at his side. So yes, beer did play a role in winning Ireland for Christ.
Another way we see the importance of beer to medieval Christians is how many patron Saints of beer are celebrated by the Catholic Church. Right at the top of the list is St. Arnold who said, “From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer cam into the world.” St. Bartholomew was the patron saint of mead drinkers. Mead drink is fermented with honey. St. Brigid was a famous Irish saint form a leper colony and he asked God to turn bathwater into beer so the lepers could taste the brew. Apparently God did so, according to the Catholic Church and that is why Brigid received his sainthood. St. Columbanus came upon a pagan gathering that was about to sacrifice a keg of beer to the gods. Columbanus preached and the result is that the idol god was sacrificed instead and the beer was revered and thanks given to God before consumption. All of these saints and their stories are part of the medieval worldview.
When the Roman Empire was born beer was there. The Emperor Charlemagne loved his beer and insisted the quality and availability be improved throughout his domain. St. Gall, Charlemagne’s chief brewer is known throughout history for his ministry among beer-loving Celts.
The church gradually became the primary brewer and wholesaler of beer in society because of Charlemagne’s reforms and the eager work of the monasteries throughout the Christian world.
Join me next time for more on the Christian beer influence and the Monks brewery’s in the monasteries.
God bless your day,