Historical Hangovers Beer in Ancient Egypt

Let’s talk about beer history. Glaring heat whips the south, while in the north, snowflakes melt on instantly on impact. How can the human race save itself in climate change? How about beer?

We relied on it before at the end of the last ice age. The rich history and mythological significance behind the yeasty drink extend far beyond the Oktoberfest and will surely surprise you.

It is a common misconception that the ancient pyramids were a result of slave labour. In fact, Egyptians valued enjoyment and entertainment in their life. Workers received compensation for their work. This also means they were not exactly slaves. No surprise that the payment for workers of the Giza Plateau was beer three times a day.

Beer played a major role in Egyptian Mythology and everyday life.

The Egyptians were the first civilization to master the art of brewing beer.

Millenia before the inception of our Oktoberfest here in Munich. Egyptian beer was very popular. It’s success completely overshadows the actual inventors of the drink: the Sumerians, an ancient civilization of southern Mesopotamia.

Ninkasi was the goddess of beer in ancient Sumerian mythology. She was on a mission to “sate the heart” and “satisfy the desire”. Thus she would apparently prepare the beverage daily. But…

Was Sumerian Beer actually satisfying? But ‘beer’?

The beverage without admixture of water was very strong, and of a delicious flavour to certain palates, but the taste must be acquired.

Xenophon, Greek writer

This type of beer is to serve in big bowls. This kind of brew needs a straw to drink. This was necessary in order to avoid the malt floating around on the surface.

Fun fact: The straw was invented for this purpose: drinking beer! Mesopotamian beer was so thick, it had a consistency reminiscent of porridge and couldn’t be sipped from a keg like we like to do in Bavaria.

never try to drink from our Mass-krug with a straw

Beer Tours in Munich? Thank the Egyptians!

The Egyptians optimized the Sumerian brewing methods in order to create a much lighter and smoother brew.

You know, a beer that one can actually sip from a cup or glass. We believe that Egyptians brew the first beer. While some modern-day beer aficionados grew a liking to the Mesopotamian version, 99,9999% of all Germans prefer the modern version. Which itself by now is rich in tradition, history, and culture.

The Tekh Festival – The Egyptian Oktoberfest

In history, we have the first register of the Tekh Festival around 2000 BCE. Notoriously known as a “Festival of Drunkenness”.  This festival dedicated to Hathor (mother of the sun god Ra) seems to be very popular. Let’s say the mother of Oktoberfest.

Typically, participants in the festival would drink excessively. Pass out in a designated hall, and then wake up to the sound of drums. The alcohol lessened the participants’ inhibitions. Apparently enabled them to take a glimpse at the goddess as they were awakened by the drums.

I sincerely remember some nights like this, but I don’t remember if Hathor was there. I was probably too drunk. That’s why I don’t drink anymore.

About the sexual aspect of the festival, we can just do assumptions. This is not part of even funny beer tours. Scenes from the festival illustrated on the temple’s walls linked the act of drinking with ‘’traveling through marshes’. Which may have been a euphemism for sexual conduct. This wouldn’t be all too surprising as sex was strongly associated with Hathor.

(I rather avoid any confessions at this point.)

Beer seems to have played a major role in many other festivals of ancient Egypt. Was frequently even supplied by the government in some cases (i.e. Opet Festival and Feast of the Wadi). Particularly festivals honoring gods, such as: Bastet (daughter of the Sun God), Hathor, and Sekhmet (Goddess of sun, war, and destruction) involved excess consumption of beer.

A Beer Story Worth Celebrating

It was believed, that beer was one of the gifts the gods gave to humanity.

Osiris is the god of fertility, agriculture, the afterlife, the dead, resurrection, life, and vegetation. According to a myth, he instructed humans how to brew beer. This was done during teaching them about agricultural principles. Another myth: The Destruction of Mankind doesn’t tell the origin of Egyptian beer. But, it is an interesting tale surrounding the beverage nonetheless.

The story (also part in some of my Beer Tour in Munich), the great sun god Ra gets increasingly fed up with humanity’s continuous sinning and foolishness. So he decides to destroy everyone on earth, by unleashing Sekhmet. Ra seems very pleased with his decision as Sekhmet rampages from one village to the next. She was tearing people apart and devouring their blood. The other gods warned that if Sekhmet continued to kill, no humans will survive. Without people to provide sacrifices and worship to the gods, they would have a problem. Thus no one would be able to pass on the lessons learned from Ra’s punishment.

Ra orders Sekhmet to cease her terror; however, she is addicted to bloodlust and seems unstoppable. Ra, thus orders that large volumes of beer should be dyed red and delivered to Dendera. Dendera was a small town, which lies directly in Sekhmet’s path of destruction. The goddess finds the beer and drinks it, thinking its blood. She becomes drunk, falls asleep, and wakes up as Hathor, a kind, considerate god and friend to all humans.

The Tekh Festival was celebrated to commemorate these events.

Beer History and the Life of Egyptians

Contrary to what you may think, the first beer brewers of Egypt were women. They were responsible for brewing and baking. We can affirm this based on various statuettes recovered from tombs, which show women grinding grain in mills and sifting the flour. Over time, as brewing beer turned into a state-funded profession, it became an increasingly male-dominated occupation.

Still, it comes a no surprise, that there are goddesses of beer and not gods. In ancient Egypt, Tenenet was the beer goddess. Like Ninkasi (the aforementioned beer goddess of the Sumerians) she watched over brewers and observed their recipes to ensure a quality beverage. The Sumerians had a song called the Hymn to Ninkasi, which was a beer recipe. Brewers sang so they won’t forget the recipe and have an easier time memorizing it.

Egyptians didn’t need to memorize the recipe. Beer was immensely popular, and its recipe was more or less considered common knowledge. The general term for beer was heqet or tenemu (reminiscent of the goddess Tenenet, or Tjenamit); however, there were also different varieties of beer that had their own names. Beer was classified based on its flavor and alcohol content. The average beer hat an alcohol content of 3-4%. The beer drank during religious festivals or ceremonies, such as Tekh, had a significantly higher alcohol content and was renowned for its high quality.

And now Beer history in Munich

While nowadays during Beer in Munich seems to be a sport dominated by adult males, back in ancient Egypt, men, women, and children drank beer. In my beer tour in Munich you will hear this and more from history. It was more valued as a source of nutrition, rather than an intoxicant. Beer was also more or less a currency, as it was used as hemu, a compensation given for labor. Workers building the pyramids of Giza were provided with beer rations three times a day as part of their payment.  Indications of payment through beer have been recorded at various archaeological sites throughout Egypt.

Related Articles

Paul Riedel Design
The joy of Beer tours
Paul Riedel Aquarell China Tower
Going Out: Weißes Bräuhaus
Travel Blog with Personality
Follow me in a Beer Tour in Munich