How ancient women invented beer

Mallory O'Meara 18 July 2022

From the ancient Sumerians to South Africa today, this extract is from Mallory O'Meara's page-turning feminist history of women drinking through the ages.

Life as a woman was pretty good in ancient Mesopotamia. It wasn’t a feminist utopia, but in most aspects of life, women usually had fairly equal status to men. Culturally, a woman’s role was primarily as a wife and mother, but women also engaged in trade and business.

From selling goods to food production, there were lots of female vendors and businesswomen on the streets. Ladies could also gain power as priestesses. There was no stigma around women doing sex work. Girls attended school (the same ones boys went to, run by priests or scribes) if they were royal or rich enough.

The industry where women ruled, though, was brewing. Women were in control of the production and distribution of both beer and wine, two very important goods. Beer, at the very beginning of its history, was a girl thing.

Read more: The women taking the brewing industry by storm

Between 6000 and 5000 BCE, the small agricultural settlements around the Fertile Crescent grew into villages and towns and cities. Culture rapidly developed in Mesopotamia, especially in Sumer, the region at the conflux of the Tigris and Euphrates (located in what is now Iraq). Sumer is the earliest known civilization, and it was active between about 4500 and 1900 BCE. Writing, art and brewing all blossomed there. There’s evidence that writing itself was invented to record and quantify the beer-making process. Once the Mesopotamians started developing crops to turn into booze, they needed a system to keep track of things. Maybe I should have dedicated my book to beer, the first alcoholic beverage with a historical record.

"Beer, at the very beginning of its history, was a girl thing"

The principal city of Sumer was Uruk. In Uruk, they really liked beer. Everyone drank it. Men, women, children, the elderly. Hold on a minute, though. What is beer? Beer is, in the simplest terms, any alcoholic beverage made from the brewing and fermentation of grain. Just like wine can be made with any kind of fruit, you can make beer with different kinds of cereal grains. Most beers today are brewed with barley—malted barley specifically. What the heck is malt? It’s grain that has been germinated and roasted. You can flavour the beer with stuff like herbs if you want, but that’s basically it.

A 15th century copy of Ptolemy's fourth Asian map, depicting the area known as the Fertile Crescent
A 15th-century copy of Ptolemy's fourth Asian map, depicting the area known as the Fertile Crescent. Image: Public domain, via National Library of Israel

Beer was one of the staple foodstuffs in early civilization for people of any class because it was a rather nourishing beverage. It was high in calories and carbohydrates for energy and contained small amounts of some vitamins and minerals like calcium and vitamin B6.

Since everyone drank beer (called kash), the women of Uruk brewed on a massive scale in order to produce enough of it. They made at least eight different styles of brew from barley, eight from wheat and three more from mixes of different grains. The Fertile Crescent wasn’t just where Mediterranean civilization and agriculture began, it was also where the business of large-scale alcohol production kicked off. This industry became a major force that shaped the world’s trade and economy—all fuelled by the labour of women.

"Consumption of alcohol became a principal way to communicate with dead ancestors and gods"

As the arts blossomed, they reflected the role of alcohol in society. Art from this time shows that booze became more than simply a part of everyone’s diet. Drinking started to figure significantly into culture and religion. Along with the biological imperatives associated with alcohol, its universal allure includes religious and social imperatives, as well. Surviving artifacts show that while beer was ubiquitous in everyday Mesopotamian society, it was also a key religious offering. In the ancient world, consumption of alcohol became a principal way to communicate with dead ancestors, gods, goddesses and spirits of all sorts.

tablet showing the goddess Ninkasi
Hymn to the prison goddess Nungal by a scribe accused of a capital offence. In the so-called Weidner god list, the beer goddess Ninkasi appears among chthonic deities alongside the prison goddess Nungal. Image: Public domain, via Daderot

When Mesopotamians wanted to celebrate beer itself, they did not dedicate their toasts to a god but rather a goddess. Her name was Ninkasi.

Ninkasi was a Sumerian deity, the goddess who ruled over beer. This divine being knew how to party. It was believed that beer was imbued with the spirit of Ninkasi herself. The elated buzz you feel after a few beers? (Or if you’re a lightweight drinker like me, halfway through your first glass?) That was thought to be the essence of Ninkasi. She knew how to party, but Ninkasi also knew how to work.

She ruled over the art of brewing, as well. Since beer was considered to be Ninkasi’s gift to humanity, it was brewed in temples as part of religious ceremonies. The first large-scale brewers in Sumer were the priestesses of Ninkasi. Women who worked at the temples were paid in beer, about two litres at a time.

"Since beer was considered to be Ninkasi’s gift to humanity, it was brewed in temples as part of religious ceremonies"

The most important legacy of Ninkasi is a hymn about her, sung by the women brewing the beer. The hymn was simultaneously a love letter to Ninkasi, a celebration of beer and a detailed guide containing instructions for every stage of the brewing process. Most people in Mesopotamia were not literate, so a catchy song was the best way for folks to remember and share the recipe for beer. Besides the brewers, people worshipping Ninkasi during festivals and religious rituals (and likely happily buzzed folks drinking their daily beers) sang the hymn. Here is part of the hymn, translated by Miguel Civil:

Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt in a jar…

You are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats…

Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the beer of the collector vat, It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.

Egyptian wooden model of beer making in ancient Egypt, located at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California.
Egyptian wooden model of beer making in ancient Egypt, located at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California. Image: GNU Free Documentation License, via E. Michael Smith Chiefio

The women began the brewing process by making twice-baked barley bread, known as bappir. They broke the bappir up into pieces and mixed it with honey and dates. This delicious-sounding mixture was then soaked with water and put into a container to ferment.

Once the fermentation process was over, the thick liquid was poured into a collector vat. Jars were then filled from these vats. The pouring of the beer being described as “the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates” means that it was thought to bring life to those who drank it.

Author MAllory O'Meara portrait
Author Mallory O'Meara

The world’s earliest known poet was a woman named Enheduanna. Born around 2286 BCE, she was a high priestess in the Sumerian city of Ur. Enheduanna wrote frequently about the city’s drinking habits and the religious rituals that involved toasting to the gods and goddesses. On clay tablets—or at least the 42 that survived—she wrote hymns in praise of all the gods and temples in Sumer, creating the world’s first literary collection.

Enheduanna’s work is the first signed piece of literature in all of history. She was also the first writer of any gender to use I in poetry and personally identify herself. Enheduanna probably celebrated all these literary accomplishments like many writers do today—with a toast.

So, both writing and poetry were created by beer-drinking women. They weren’t just shaping the way alcohol was made, women were shaping the way it became part of our culture.

Book cover of GIrly Drinks

Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol by Mallory O’Meara is out 28 July, 2022. From the ancient Sumerians to South Africa today, it's a page-turning feminist history of women drinking through the ages

Read more: The women taking the beer industry by storm

Read more: Know your craft beers from your ales

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