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Nin-kasi: Mesopotamian Goddess of Beer


Ceremonial drinking scene on a seal found in the "Great Death Pit" in the Royal Cemetery at Ur. In the top register, left, a man and a woman use straws to drink a liquid, probably beer, from a large jar on a stand between them. On the same level, right, sits a figure, likely female, raising a cup before a standing figure, possibly a servant. In the lower register, a woman plays a bull-headed lyre, in front of which two dwarves dance. On the far right, three women clap while dancing(?). On the far left, two women, perhaps with musical instruments, stand in front of a man with a staff. Lapis lazuli. Dated ca. 2550-2400 B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Aruz 2002: 109 #60c.

It is you who pour the filtered beer out of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ninkasi, it is you who pour out the filtered beer out of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
(Black, Cunningham, Robson, and Z├│lyomi 2004: 298)[1]

Unfortunately no identifiable depiction of Nin-kasi, the beer goddess, seems to have survived antiquity, but she must have been a very popular deity, if we judge from the many illustrations of beer drinkers that have come down to us from ancient Mesopotamia and from references to beer in its texts. Often it was the deities who indulged in drinking. In the poem "Inanna and En-ki," En-ki , the great god of fresh subterranean waters and wisdom, got drunk when partying with Inanna and foolishly gave the goddess all the "cosmic offices" (Jacobsen 1976: 84). At the banquet in Babylon, a city that the deities had just created, the "beer jug" was put before them, and the festivities began (Heidel 1967: 49). In addition, not knowing how to drink beer indicated that a man was uncivilized: For example, in the "Epic of Gilgamesh," the wild man En-kidu "did not know how to eat bread, / Nor had he ever learned to drink beer!" (Foster 2001: 14)

Not only was Nin-kasi herself the beer — "given birth by the flowing water…" (Black, Cunningham, Robson, and Zólyomi 2004: 297) — but she was the chief brewer of the gods. So it is not surprising to learn that, in early times in ancient Sumer (southern Mesopotamia), brewers were usually female. Women made beer at home for immediate consumption, since it did not keep. It is possible also that temple brewers were priestesses of Nin-kasi. Later, when beer production became an industry, men seem to have taken over the process, but women still made beer for home use (Homan 2004: 85). Perhaps because they brewed the beer, women were often tavern keepers. For instance, Siduri, a minor goddess whom Gilgamesh met at the end of the earth, was a divine tavern keeper (Foster 2001: 72-76).


Probably a mythic scene, since a number of deity symbols occur on the seal: the eight-pointed star indicates the goddess of the Venus star Inanna/Ishtar; the crescent moon the god Nanna-Sin; the sun disk on it the sun god Utu; and the fish probably the fresh-water god of wisdom En-ki. An enthroned figure, likely female, shares a jar of beer(?) with a male figure. Another figure seems to be holding a pouring jug to refill the jar. The scene could possibly be from the "Epic of Gilgamesh" when Gilgamesh met the tavern keeper Siduri at the end of the earth in a mountainous region, hence the mountain goat above the jar of beer. Siduri would then be the seated figure wearing the flounced gown drinking with Gilgamesh. The image is framed by coiled snakes. Hematite. Second millennium B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Pritchard 1969b: 48 #158.


One example of the many plaques found in Mesopotamia depicting a woman drinking beer (?) from a jar while having sexual intercourse. Clay plaque. Old Babylonian, around 1800 B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Homan 2004: 93.

Beer goddess Nin-kasi was a venerable and long-lasting deity, for she appears in god lists and other texts from the Early Dynastic period (2900-2350 B.C.E.). She was "the personification of beer and presided over its manufacture" (Civil 2002a: 3). Her name possibly means "Lady Who Fills the Mouth (with Beer)." In a mythic poem, Nin-khursag declared that the beer goddess would be named "She who sates the desires" (Kramer in Pritchard 1969: 41). One tradition saw Nin-kasi as daughter of En-lil and the great birth goddess Nin-khursag. In another, her parents were the birth goddess Nin-ti and the great god En-ki. In either case the rank of her mother and father marked her as an important deity. In texts she usually appeared with her spouse (or brother) Siris or Sirash, a minor deity of alcoholic beverages. She had five (or nine) children.

Well-known and worshipped by ordinary people, Nin-kasi was also venerated officially, not only at Nippur but also at the great city of Ur and other cities (George 1993: 24, 158 #1214, 168 #1391). Libations of beer, her sacred substance and herself, were poured out to the gods, and jars of beer were placed before their altars for them to drink. Beer was certainly used by prophets at the northern Mesopotamian city of Mari, now in Syria, to trigger states of ecstasy in which they would prophesy (Homan 2004: 84). Further, quite common clay plaques show a woman (goddess?) bending over to drink beer through a straw, while taking part in almost always rear-entry sexual intercourse.[2] The scene might have had a connection with the "Sacred Marriage" rite[3]. It is noteworthy that Inanna's happiness is announced at the end of the second "Hymn to Ninkasi" (Civil 2002b: 4: "The [innards] of Inanna [are] happy again" (Civil 2002 b: 4).

Nin-kasi was chief brewer and possibly wine-maker[4] of the great god En-lil and thus of all the gods. It was Nin-kasi's particular responsibility to provide alcoholic beverages, above all, beer, for the temples of the Mesopotamian sacred city Nippur. Many other temples maintained brewers to make the beer to be used in rituals (Homan 2004: 85). The "Hymn to Nin-kasi" is one of two extant "Sumerian drinking songs" dating from the eighteenth century B.C.E. (Civil 2002b (1991): 2). It is primarily concerned with the beer-making process. The second hymn extols the goddess for producing in drinkers "a blissful mood … with joy in the [innards] [and] happy liver"[5] (Civil 2002a: 3).


In the top register, a ceremonial drinking scene, probably mythical, given the deity symbols such as the fish, probably the god of fresh water and wisdom En-ki. To the right, two seated figures, perhaps a male and a female, drink by means of straws from a jug of beer (?) set on an ornate stand. Under the throne-like chair of the left-hand figure is an animal (a dog?). To the left, a man holds a cup and a fan. Behind him is a rearing goat-like animal and a lion's head. On the broken lower register is a kneeling bovine. The plaque was discovered in the Inanna/Ishtar temple at Nippur, and perhaps refers to the "Sacred Marriage" ritual. Pink gypsum. Around 2900-2350 B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Pritchard 1969b: 355 #846.

The Mesopotamians used Nin-kasi's beer for religious rituals, as a base for medical potions, and as their normal beverage. Indeed, it was a staple of the diet for temple personnel and ordinary folk alike, a very nutritious food, being replete with proteins, vitamins, and carbohydrates. In addition, "because the alcohol killed many detrimental microorganisms, it was safer to drink than water" (Homan 2004: 84). Ancient Mesopotamians drank beer from large jars by means of long drinking straws that filtered out barley or emmer wheat husks and stalks, as well as insects. Most straws were probably made of reeds, so they have not survived the ages, though metal straws have occurred in archaeological digs, and so have bone and metal strainer tips that were attached to the end of straws (Homan 2004: 86). Travelers took supplies with them so that they could make beer when they stopped en route (Civil 2002a: 2). When they were drinking, Sumerian's toasted each other with the expression Nin-kasira "To Nin-kasi."


Banquet scene on a wall plaque. In the top register a woman (left) and a man (right) sit on stools opposite each other raising cups and holding what look like palm fronds in their other hand. The female drinker has her feet on a footstool, an indication that her rank is higher than the man's. Although there is nothing to mark her divine, she might be a priestess or a queen. A woman holding a cup stands behind her. A small male figure in front of the woman carries on his head a reclining animal, perhaps a ritual vessel. A now-headless man in front of the seated male looks as if he has just passed a cup to the latter. In the second register people are carrying provisions, including a goat and a large pot, possibly containing beer. Musicians occupy the left side of the broken bottom register. Limestone. Around 2400-2350 B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Aruz 2003: 73 #32.


A ritual drinking scene from the Inanna Temple at Nippur. In the top register, on the left, a seated female figure, possibly a high priestess, takes a cup from a bald man, probably a priest. Her other hand holds what resembles a palm frond. A female musician plays a bull-headed harp. On the left a bare-chested and bald priest (?) raises a cup to drink and also holds a frond in his other hand. A bald attendant, also nude to the waist and likely a priest, stand with his back to a beer (?) jar on a stand. In the middle register, on each side bearded males guide bulls, and an inscription fills the spaces. The bottom register is badly damaged, but might have shown another such ritual. Gypsum. Around 2400-2350 B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Pritchard 1969b: 356 #847.
larger view of image

Lately the ancient beer goddess has been experiencing a resurgence of worshipful, if commercial, interest. The first "Hymn to Ninkasi" outlines in some detail how the ancient Mesopotamians made their beer. Eventually someone had to try to make it. In 1989, the Anchor Brewing Company in California did just that and produced a limited edition of the beer from a recipe decoded from the Hymn. The brewers called it "Ninkasi Beer" (Katz and Fritz 1991).[6] In 2002, the British Campaign for Real Ale enlisted the help of Nin-kasi in its efforts to encourage women to drink "real cask ale" in British pubs (Protz 2002: 1). This year, when I was traveling in Lyon in the south of France, I noticed a sign off one of the main roads near the university announcing a bar called "Ninkasi." According to its web site, the Ninkasi Bar regularly presents various cultural activities such as music and DVD evenings, as well as a series of (so far) six beer festivals. I wondered whether patrons of the Ninkasi Bar ever sang to the goddess a version of her ancient hymn:

May Ninkasi live together with you! Let her pour for you beer [and] wine, …
While I feel wonderful, I feel wonderful, Drinking beer, in a blissful mood …
(Civil 2002b: 3)

Notes

  1. The Hymn occurs on a tablet dating to around the nineteenth-century B.C.E. (Homan 2004: 84). Miguel Civil's translation of the Hymn is available at http://www.piney.com/BabNinkasi.html and http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IS/CIVIL/NN_FAL91/NN_fal91_hymn.htm.
  2. One scholar suggests that this image refers to "the association of beer taverns with prostitutes" (Homan 2004: 93). It is interesting in this context that the goddess of the "Sacred Marriage," Inanna/Ishtar, was also a frequenter of taverns. Rear-entry intercourse, if it were anal, would of course have functioned as a method of birth control. Certain priestesses were forbidden to have children.
  3. See my column on "Inanna and the `Sacred Marriage'" in MatriFocus Vol. 4-2 (Imbolc 2005).
  4. In some cases in which Mesopotamian texts certainly refer to beer shikaru, translators have sometimes chosen to render the word as "wine" or "strong drink"; they apparently wanted to present the drinkers as sophisticated imbibers of wine rather than as uncouth beer-guzzlers. However, the Mesopotamians held no such view (Homan 2004: 84).
  5. In the ancient Near East, the innards were the seat of cognition, the liver of emotion (Homan 2004: 94, note 4).
  6. Michael Homan describes how, according to "several ancient texts," he grew the barley, processed it, and then made ancient beer; he came up with a drink that sounds very much like Anchor's Ninkasi Beer (2004:91).

Bibliography

  • Anchor Brewing Company 2002-2006. "Sumerian Beer Project." www.anchorbrewing.com/beers/ninkasi.htm
  • Aruz, Joan, with Ronald Wallenfels. 2003. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art Press and New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
  • [Benner, Mike]. 2002. "Hail NINKASI-Goddess of Beer." www.camranorthlondon.org.uk/fullpint/fp1701
  • Black, Jeremy, Graham Cunningham, Eleanor Robson, and Gábor Zólyomi, editors/ translators. 2004. The Literature of Ancient Sumer. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Also available, with additions, on the Internet: http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk
  • Civil, Miguel 2002a. "Modern Brewers Recreate Ancient Beer." http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IS/CIVIL/NN_FAL91/NN_Fal91.html Originally published in The Oriental Institute News and Notes 132.
  • Civil, Miguel, translator. 2002b. "A Hymn to Ninkasi." The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago. http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IS/CIVIL/NN_FAL91/NN_fal91_hymn.html
  • Foster, Benjamin R., translator. 2001. The Epic of Gilgamesh: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton
  • Heidel, Alexander, editor/translator. 1967 (1942). The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation. Second Edition. Chicago: Phoenix University of Chicago Press
  • Homan, Michael M. 2004. "Beer and Its Drinkers: An Ancient Near Eastern Love Story." Near Eastern Archaeology 67: 84-95
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild. 1976. The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
  • Katz, Solomon H. and Fritz Maytag. 1991. "Brewing an Ancient Beer." Archaeology 44 (July/August): 24-33
  • (The) Oriental Institute, University of Oxford [2005]. The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. Oxford: http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk section4/tr4231.htm
  • Pritchard, James B., editor. 1969a. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament: Third Edition with Supplement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
  • Pritchard, James B., editor. 1969b. The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament: Second Edition with Supplement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
  • Protz, Roger, editor. Good Beer Guide 2002. CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale)

Graphics Credits

  • All images © Stephane Beaulieu. All rights reserved.
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