“The mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer.” – Beer in Ancient Egypt

Fragments of an illustrated papyrus, showing animals engaged in human activities including a hippopotamus making beer, a cat waiting on a mouse, a lion making beer and a canine carrying grain. By British Museum (Purchased from Joseph Sams). [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0], via British Museum Online Collection

Fragments of an illustrated papyrus, showing animals engaged in human activities including a hippopotamus making beer, a cat waiting on a mouse, a lion making beer and a canine carrying grain. By British Museum (Purchased from Joseph Sams). [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0], via British Museum Online Collection

This is the second post of our two-part series on ‘Alcohol in Ancient Egypt’. You can check out our first post on wine in Ancient Egypt here.

If the ancient Egyptians were to have one thing right, it has to be the proverb above, found at the Dendera Temple Complex (the main temple for Hathor) on an inscription from 2200 BCE. Clearly alcohol was not lacking in variety as wine was not the only drink they consumed to get inebriated! As an alternative, the Egyptian also brewed their own beer.

Part of Dendera Temple complex in Egypt. By Bernard Gagnon (Own work). [CC BY-SA 3.0] via WikiMedia Commons

Part of Dendera Temple complex in Egypt. By Bernard Gagnon (Own work). [CC BY-SA 3.0] via WikiMedia Commons

However, do not think for a second that their brew was exactly the same as the one you cracked open last weekend! As a rule, the ancient Egyptians identified one brew from the other by their alcoholic strength, colour and dominant flavour, and their most favoured type was blood red!

The beer brewed by the Egyptians generally had an alcohol content of 3 to 6% and it was often made sweet, thick and full of nutrients. The most common brewing process started out at a bakery where a specific type of bread called cylletis was made. They would first crumble this bread into water and let this mix ferment with yeast from the bread. The resultant mixture was strained but the final product was still a coarse liquid that had chunks of bread floating in it.

Clay Tablet, complete; account of beer, found amongst other clay tablets detailing legal disputes over inheritance. By British Museum (From Sir Ernest A T Wallis Budge, 1891). [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0] via British Museum Online Collection

Clay Tablet, complete; account of beer, found amongst other clay tablets detailing legal disputes over inheritance. By British Museum (From Sir Ernest A T Wallis Budge, 1891). [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0] via British Museum Online Collection

It was also found that the ancient Egyptians even added dates, honey, herbs and spices to their beer! Unless macerated, the beer with the added ingredients had to be either filtered thoroughly to rid of the added ingredients or drunk through a straw. All of this highlight how innovative the ancient Egyptians were when using resources available to them.

In Egypt, beer was truly a force to be reckoned with: it affected the way society interacted and operated, was used in the workforce and functioned in religious rituals. Thus, a simple pint had a crucial role to play in defining the ancient civilisation.

Model Group, comprising of six figures engaged in brewing, baking and butchering. Found in Beni Hasan, an ancient Egyptian cemetery site. By British Museum, purchased from Frederick George Hilton Price. [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0] via British Museum Online Collection

Model Group, comprising of six figures engaged in brewing, baking and butchering. Found in Beni Hasan, an ancient Egyptian cemetery site. By British Museum, purchased from Frederick George Hilton Price. [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0] via British Museum Online Collection

Beer and Society

While wine was the beverage of choice of the affluent, beer was a staple item for the commoner. This was mostly due to the abundance of bread. Beer also had to be drunk as soon as it was made because it would have gone flat really quickly, so large quantities were readily and frequently available. A combination of these factors made it a drink that was consumed by the common majority.

Illustration of dancers entertaining the Pharaoh who sits on his throne on the right, while musicians play on the left, and an attendant serves him a drink. Used for Art Journal, April 1874 as a depiction of a pastime in Ancient Egypt. Print made by Charles William Sharpe, published by Virtue & Co in London. Purchased from John Grant. [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0] via British Museum Online Collection

Illustration of dancers entertaining the Pharaoh who sits on his throne on the right, while musicians play on the left, and an attendant serves him a drink. Used for Art Journal, April 1874 as a depiction of a pastime in Ancient Egypt. Print made by Charles William Sharpe, published by Virtue & Co in London. Purchased from John Grant. [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0] via British Museum Online Collection

Additionally, the act of drinking beer was closely related to singing and dancing, and men and women were able to interact freely amongst themselves in beer houses. This resulted in the close association of a beer-drinking culture to the mannerisms of the common class. As such, the upper class Egyptians rarely associated themselves with the beer houses, and the Greeks, who had later documented their impressions of the Egyptians, looked down on the Egyptians' drinking culture. Hence, beer was able to be a social affiliation or signifier in the ancient Egyptian community. It was also able to divide groups and created generalizations about certain groups.

Since women were involved in bread-making, the brewing process was traditionally allocated to women too, although the process was not limited to them. This meant that they had either more responsibilities or more positions needed to be filled in order for efficient production to occur. In the ancient Egyptian society, it was not illegal for women to be involved in economic activities. This means that they could own property, claim wills, and even take up trade offers. When given jobs to make bread and brew beer, women could then act on these legal and economic rights, and they earned an income. This made their status in ancient Egyptian society equal to that of men. Hence, designating these jobs to women allowed them to have economic power and influence.

Limestone ostracon with 280-days attendance register for a workman, labelled 'Year 40' of Ramses II (19th Dynasty) on the top of the front side. Above most dates, the words or phrases in red indicate the reasons why this workman was absent from work that day. The reasons include 'being ill', 'attending to sick family members', 'embalming his son' and 'brewing beer'! By British Museum, excavated from Deir el-Medina. [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0] via British Museum Online Collection

Limestone ostracon with 280-days attendance register for a workman, labelled 'Year 40' of Ramses II (19th Dynasty) on the top of the front side. Above most dates, the words or phrases in red indicate the reasons why this workman was absent from work that day. The reasons include 'being ill', 'attending to sick family members', 'embalming his son' and 'brewing beer'! By British Museum, excavated from Deir el-Medina. [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0] via British Museum Online Collection

Beer in the Workforce

Beer in ancient Egypt was also a highly valued commodity: it was used to pay workers as part of their daily wages. This was evident during the building of the pyramids where each worker got a daily ration of four to five litres of beer. If not given their ration, there was a risk of revolt erupting amongst the workers. This was because they saw beer as a way to replenish the water lost through sweat, and the sugars in beer was an essential source of energy for them to get through the building process. Thus this was, at that time, their source of nutrition, refreshment and reward for all the hard work and effort they had put into building the pyramids.

Round-topped limestone stela of Qeh, which features a hieroglyphic text that is an offering formula asking for bread and beer, flesh and fowl, water, wine and milk on behalf of the owner of the stela, the Superintendent of the storehouse for the offerings of the God Amun, Qeh. By British Museum, purchased from Giovanni Anastasi. [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0] via British Museum Online Collection

Round-topped limestone stela of Qeh, which features a hieroglyphic text that is an offering formula asking for bread and beer, flesh and fowl, water, wine and milk on behalf of the owner of the stela, the Superintendent of the storehouse for the offerings of the God Amun, Qeh. By British Museum, purchased from Giovanni Anastasi. [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0] via British Museum Online Collection

Beer and Religion

As part of worship, a typical prayer would have asked for “bread and beer, beef and fowl, ointment and clothing, everything good and pure to the soul.” This would have been depicted on stelae (stone slabs inscribed with imagery or text) that were made for funerals or to commemorate someone. To the ancient Egyptians, this ensured that those who have passed on (or who they are praying for) would be supplied with food and drinks by the Gods, so that they would survive in the afterlife.

Relief at the Dendera Temple showing Traianus, Horus and Hathor. By Bernard Gagnon (Own work). [CC BY-SA 3.0] via WikiMedia Commons

Relief at the Dendera Temple showing Traianus, Horus and Hathor. By Bernard Gagnon (Own work). [CC BY-SA 3.0] via WikiMedia Commons

In the first month of the Egyptian year, the ancient Egyptians would celebrate the Feast of Drunkenness. It honoured the mythology of the sun-king falcon Ra who was annoyed at ungrateful humans and had sent Hathor (who transformed into Sekhmet) to consume everyone. Sekhmet grew to enjoy her task too much and this led Ra to feel guilty. Ra then used beer that was the colour of blood to quell Sekhmet’s appetite, and she was transformed back to Hathor.

This might explain why their most favoured type of beer is blood red – it was symbolic of Ra’s attempt to stop Sekhmet’s murders as well as Sekhmet’s transformation back to Hathor. Hence, the significant role beer plays in the intricate procedures in their religious rituals showed how they valued beer since they regarded it as important enough to include in their offerings.

A funerary model of a bakery and brewery, dated back to the 11th dynasty. Painted and gessoed wood, originally from Thebes. By Keith Schengili-Roberts (Own work). [CC BY-SA 2.5] via WikiMedia Commons

A funerary model of a bakery and brewery, dated back to the 11th dynasty. Painted and gessoed wood, originally from Thebes. By Keith Schengili-Roberts (Own work). [CC BY-SA 2.5] via WikiMedia Commons

Conclusion

For a simple alcoholic drink, beer played a definitive role in shaping ancient Egypt. It had a clear impact on society, religion and commerce. The ancient Egyptians would have been a completely different society without beer, and they recognised that. Beer was depicted on murals and hieroglyphic paintings which highlights how the ancient Egyptians placed the art of brewing in high esteem.

It is easy to deem what we experience in our daily lives as trivial. Throughout the world, there is little thought that goes into the production of food, and beer and wine are no exceptions. The simplicity of the ingredients and the ingenuity of people piecing together steps to the entire process are proof that people are able to be innovative with the resources they are provided with. So, the next time you enjoy your pint, consider how it has influenced not just you, but society as well.

ReferencES

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