From these early tablets and archaeological finds Mesopotamians drank beer through straws either sunk deep into large clay amphorae or from mugs with side ‘straws’ that taking the cloudy liquid from the bottom of the vessel. This beer was unfiltered so the straws were a way of avoiding the grainy detritus of the brewing process.
the Code of Hammurabi a Babylonian code of 282 laws, mostly to do with contracts, engraved on a stone stele in 1754 BCE – and one of the world’s first recorded legal codes – included not only laws regulating beer and beer parlours, but also the Hymn to Ninkasi, a celebration of the Babylonian goddess of beer.
Cuneiform writing began as an inventory of wages and taxes. The symbol for beer appears frequently alongside the symbols for livestock, grain, and textiles, the priests keeping records and noting surplus that thy could consume or trade for other goods and services. By handing out rations of bread and beer the priests could control the economy, paying for the construction of public buildings and irrigation systems. Citizens were subjugated to a life of toil but in return they had the security of numbers and a guaranteed supply of food. Rival city states with a priestly class controlling the economy, all under the will of a local God set the precedent for later Greek city-states.
Beer and bread were the foundation of the Mesopotamian economy. Uruk was the largest city in Mesopotamia in 3000 BCE with a population of about 50,000 and by 2000 BCE almost all the citizens of Mesopotamia were living in city states. But after this Egyptian cities like Memphis and Thebes would support larger populations. Grain was the single major source of sustenance consumed both as solid and liquid, beer and bread. Rich in vitamin B drinking beer would have compensated for the probable reduction in meat consumption in cities.
The world’s first writing was Sumerian cuneiform pictograms as wage and tax ledgers as lists of names associated with the daily temple ration of ‘beer and bread for one day’ although this was often supplemented with chickpeas, lentils and beans, onions and turnips, with occasional meats and fish.
Standage gives us a revealing translation of a section of the world’s first literary masterpiece and epic tale, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh written in about 2700 BCE as a legend that would be absorbed by the later Akkadians and Babylonians, at the dawn of a tradition leading to Greek Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Roman Virgil’s Aeneid, Celtic Beowulf, English Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Wagner’s Ring Cycle up to today’s Lord of the Rings and The Matrix.
This extract, told from the perspective of the city-dwellers, describes the civilizing of an outsider. A wild naked man from the wilderness, Enkidu, is introduced to the sophisticated and civilized manners of a shepherd’s village by a young woman:
They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him;
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young women spoke to Enkidu, saying:
‘Eat the food Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land’
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer – seven jugs! – and became expansive and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water,
And rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human.
Clearly, to be civilized it is necessary to be familiar with the manners and rituals associated with the consumption of bread and beer. Table manners have a long history.
Various present-day drinking rituals have probably come down to us from these times including the clinking of glasses, symbolically uniting them into a single shared liquid and container; the raising of glasses of magical intoxicating liquid, a gift from the Gods, when making a toast.