Alcohol Use in Ancient Cultures..


This guy liked to drink

Alcohol Use in Ancient Cultures

The word alcohol conjures up a plethora of images of gatherings, weddings, dancing and joyous special occasions. For people living in America and around the world, alcohol is a cold reprieve after a hard day’s work. It is an elixir that can connect people and drive them apart. Alcohol is consumed during the Catholic Mass, and is used in celebrations such as a classic Irish Wake. In ancient times alcohol became a multipurpose phenomenon which was used for medicinal purposes as well as a nutritional food staple. It has been celebrated throughout history for its ability to arouse and disinhibit the mind. Alcohol has played a significant role in many cultures throughout history including the Neolithic Era, Ancient Egypt, and Ancient Greece.

Various kinds of alcohol such as wine and beer that is consumed today can be traced back thousands of years. Their origins stem from different parts of the world, beginning with the Neolithic Era. Alcohol use can be traced back to 10,000 B.C.

It has been documented that early cave dwellers drank the juices of mashed berries that had been exposed to airborne yeast. The discovery of late Stone Age beer jugs has established the fact that intentionally fermented beverages existed at least as early as the Neolithic period (ca. 10,000 B.C.). When they found that the juice produced pleasant feelings and reduced discomfort, they began to intentionally produce an alcoholic drink. (Smith and Stevens 4).

The use of mashed berries indicates that wine might have been the first alcoholic beverage ever consumed. Residue found in stone pots discovered by archeologists are believed to be the world’s oldest artifacts containing alcohol. Author Jean Kinney writes about the location of these artifacts in his book Loosening the Grip.

Imagine yourself at an archeology site in Clairvaux, high in the Swiss hills. Stone

pots found there, dating from the Old Stone Age, almost certainly contained a mild beer or wine. Over 10,000 years ago, the earliest humans probably discovered alcohol much as they did fire, as a gift of nature plus curiosity. If any watery mixture of sugars or starches, such as berries or barley or honey, is allowed to stand long enough in a warm place, alcohol will make itself. (1)

One thing that is not concrete about early alcohol consumption is which kind of alcohol came first. “No one knows what kind of liquor came first-wine, beer, or mead-but by the Neolithic Age it was everywhere,” (Kinney 1). Beer was a significant source of nutrition for people living during the ancient times from the Neolithic Ages of 10,000 B.C. to 8000 B.C. Michael Homan goes on to say that “beer was a dietary staple rich in carbohydrates, vitamins and proteins…alcohol killed many microorganisms, it was safer to drink than water.” (Homan 84). Beer had nutritional value and for the most part people drank because alcohol made them feel happy.

The act of producing and drinking alcohol would not remain in its primitive stages such as it did during the Neolithic to Paleolithic Ages. As the centuries passed, a small kingdom on the Nile River grew into one of the greatest civilizations the world has seen. Egypt would go on to invent dozens of different types of beer and wine. The Egyptians who lived from 3150 to 30 B.C. not only built the great Pyramids and other marvelous sites; they excelled in fermenting and producing alcohol. For the Egyptians, drinking became a status symbol. “Brewing dates from the beginning of civilization in ancient Egypt and alcoholic beverages were very important in that country,” (Hanson 21). The drinking of wine was of great importance and even people from the lower classes could enjoy themselves a beer.

Egypt was at the height of its power around 3100 B.C. The working class people of Egypt drank beer, known as hqt. Wine, which was referred to as irp was reserved for the upper class elites only. “Records of late fourth millennium B.C. Egypt, where First Dynasty kings, who were considered divine…had large wine cellars.”(Stanislawski 429). Paintings found in Egyptian tombs depict woman working in breweries. Evidence found in ancient scrolls states the slaves who were responsible for building the pyramids were given a ration of beer every day. The beer given to these hard working people was of high alcohol content. It is thought that they may have been drunk while building the pyramids, which may have helped them cope with the harsh life they lived. (Gately 6). Except for the slaves, there is little evidence to suggest that the Egyptians were heavy drinkers. To the contrary, it has been said that the people of ancient Egypt were light to moderate drinkers, much like the Greeks. Abel Monheim Asour writes, “The hallmark of Egyptian drinking is very low consumption. Alcohol was available most of the time, but demand was modest most of the time”(39). Like many other cultures around the world, the Egyptians liked to drink during special occasions. “These included the annual bash celebrating the Drunkenness of Hathor, goddess of fertility, motherhood, and the Milky Way,” (Gately 6). Iain Gately goes on to explain the importance of ceremonial occasions, which were inspired by mythology and the love of wine. He describes the Egyptians fascination with astrology which ties into the festival celebrating the Drunkenness of Hathor. During this event, the ancient Egyptians felt Hathor protected the stars, which was a river in the sky. They associated the sky with the Nile River and hence the yearly festival of the Nile began. (7).

The Egyptians and their love of wine brought about a zealous worship for Osiris, the god of Wine, the god of Afterlife and the underworld. Osiris was a beloved god whom the Egyptians held in the highest spiritual echelon. He was worshiped throughout all of Egypt and was believed to be so important that the Egyptians bestowed both beer and wine unto him. The people of Egypt thought their god Osiris was responsible for inventing beer, a beverage that was as important to everyday life as food. Wine and the worship of their god were prevalent in the cellars of wine presses, which depicted a god whose hieroglyph was a wine press. The Egyptians were proficient in their alcohol making and produced almost twenty varieties each of beer and wine. During the time period 3150-2350 B.C., alcohol was used for medicinal and nutritional purposes as well as for rituals and pleasure. (Hanson 21).

Osiris was not the only wine god of the ancient times. The Greeks who lived during the 3rd century B.C. and after also praised a god of wine. Much like the Egyptians that came before them, the Greeks worshiped a god whose name was Dionysus. The earliest stages of worshipping Dionysus produced a subcult which associated itself with the wine. There are comparisons to the olive with Athena, as well as plants, animals and other gods and goddesses. In these subcults, wine consumption was very important for it brought the individual closer to the deity. The effects wine had on cult members was pleasurable and the worshippers felt as though they were being transported closer to Dionysus. The Greek’s admiration and devotion to Dionysus created a religion that is shrouded in mythology. The origins of of the first cult was the belief in fertility and nature associated with the Great Earth Mother Goddess, also known as Gaia. The attention paid to Gaia was of great importance but could not compare to the fervor felt for Dionysus. His influence could be felt throughout all of Greece and would go on to change the economy of the country (Stanislawski 428). Gaia was loved by countless Greeks for her creation of the sky, ocean and hills.

Dionysus had devoted female followers called maenads. The word maenad means “mad woman” which is the Greek word for madness. These women exhibited a fanaticism towards their god and would run wild over mountains, roam the ancient Greek countryside, and attack any man who came into their path. They moved like birds across the landscape and would harm children and animals. These maenads were immune to fire, iron, and snakes (qtd. in Dodds, Bremmer 267). The ancient female cult would make sacrifices in the name of Dionysus and offer bountiful feasts to him in highly ritualistic ceremonies. The ancient maenads were completely devoted to him and would go on to worship him. Dionysus had enormous power over these women and would punish them and bring them to a place of enlightenment. He ordered them to dress in attire which he found proper, such as deer-skin hide and snakes as belts. They resided in forests and stayed away from cities. If they were provoked by an animal herder or farmer, the maenads would kill and dismember the animals (qtd. in Henrichs, Hedreen 49). The maenads lived a primal lifestyle and would go to great lengths to please their god.

Although the followers of Gaia would eventually go on to worship male gods such as Dionysus, the impact that Gaia had on the early Dionysus cults is important. Gaia had been around since prehistoric times and would influence the future followers of Dionysus with their acceptance of wine and the supernatural. (Stanislawski 427).

The influence of wine played a large role in Greek society. The Greeks loved their wine and found a way to dedicate festivals in honor of the grape. They dedicated their poetry to wine and much like the Egyptians they had many festivals celebrating their famous drink. There were “rustic fertility rites featuring choirs, dances and parades…”(Sournia 6). Although Greek culture embraced wine and incorporated it into their society, temperance did exist. The ancient philosopher Plato believed that rules were needed to curb excessive drinking habits. Plato wrote in one of his many texts his thoughts on drinking under the age of 18. He believed alcohol consumption should be taken in moderation but people over the age of 40 could drink as much as they liked.

Contemporary writers observed that the Greeks were among the most temperate of ancient peoples. This appears to result from their rules stressing moderate drinking, their praise of temperance, and their practice of diluting wine with water, and their avoidance of excess in general. An exception to this ideal of moderation was a cult of Dionysus, in which intoxication was believed to bring people closer to their deity. (Hanson 23).

The intellectual and philosophical ideas in Greece during the time of Plato created an environment in which sophisticated ideas were held in high regard. The elites of Greece respected Plato for his profound influence in matters concerning government and society. His views on alcohol were progressive and ahead of the time for ancient Greece. Plato’s influence on restricting alcohol to people eighteen and older was a wise one. Whether or not his writings had an effect on alcohol consumption in Greece is still being debated.

Since the creation of alcohol, whole societies have been changed because of its influence. Alcohol has weaved its way through time and different cultures, transforming the lives of the inhabitants of the Neolithic Era, Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece. Rituals and religions developed around drinking alcohol and some cults even worshipped it. Consumed by the slaves of Egypt and the philosophers of Athens, alcohol impacted all classes. Whether it was used for drinking, worshipping gods, or for convivial uses, alcohol has altered the course of countless lives around the world and throughout history.

Works Cited

Ashour, Monheim Abdel. “Drinking Patterns of Ancient Egypt.” Alcohol: The History of Drugs. Ed. Ann Manheimer. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2007. 39-48. Print.

Bremmer, Jan N. “Greek Maenadism Reconsidered.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 55

(1984): 267-286. JSTOR. Web. 26 April 2011.

Gately, Iain. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. New York, NY: Penguin Group Inc., 2008. Print.

Hanson, David J. “An Overview of Alcohol Use in Ancient history.” Alcohol: The History of Drugs. Ed. Ann Manheimer. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2007. 20-28. Print.

Hedreen, Guy. “Silens, Nymphs, and Maenads.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 114 (1994): 47-69.

JSTOR. Web. 27 April 2011.

Homan, Michael M., “Beer and Its Drinkers: An Ancient near Eastern Love Story.” Near Eastern Archaeology. 67 (2004): 84-95. Web. 08 April 2011.

Kinney, Jean. Loosening the Grip: A Hand book of Alcohol Information. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print.

Smith, Robert L. and Patricia Stevens. Substance Abuse Counseling: Theory and Practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc. 2009. Print.

Sourina, Charles-Jean. A History of Alcoholism. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1990. Print.

Stanislawski, Dan. “Dionysus Westward: Early Religion and the Economic Geography of Wine.” The Geographical Review 65:4 (1975): 427-444. JSTOR. Web. 29 March 2011.


4 thoughts on “Alcohol Use in Ancient Cultures..

    • I had to write a research paper in college about alcohol use in ancient cultures. It was an arduous process, but very interesting. I learned quite about about the important role alcohol played in cultures throughout history.

    • Gracias! Yes, alcohol has had a devastating effect on humankind in many ways. When I began studying for the research paper, I was intrigued by the history of alcohol in ancient cultures. It was used in many rituals and was a staple in the human diet for thousands of years. Very interesting stuff…

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