Beer, wine and drinking gods: the foundation of Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian drawing where beer or wine is served with a meal.

Egypt may now be a country where drinking outside the famous open bar resourts isn’t much appreciated, it was not always like that. The ancient Egyptians who built the pyramids and the Great Sphinx of Giza were quite heavy boozers. It’s safe to say that one of the most respected cultures of the ancient world was fueled by beer and wine. The pharaohs loved their wine and Cleopatra was even known to bathe in it. Beer was more for the common man and it was consumed on a daily basis. No wonder the ancient Egyptians had an impressive amount of gods that were in some way related to alcoholic beverages. In a world where more or less everything was connected with booze a single Dionysus-type clearly wasn’t enough.

Beer and wine culture
The main drink in Egypt in the time of the pharaos (approximately 3150-30 BC) was beer. As water was unsafe to drink both royalty and normal people drank a brew made from emmer wheat and barley containing around 3 or 4 percent alcohol every day. The Egyptians drank their beer through straws in the same way as Xenophon described when he met the Armenians. Temples and building projects had large breweries that could provide plenty of people with their daily dose. The workers who built the mighty pyramids were paid in bread and beer. Each worker received over 4 liters of beer every day, so he wouldn’t dehydrate on the job. Wine was also popular, but only among the people who could afford it. Although the Egyptians grew grapes alongside the river Nile, this tradition was probably copied from other cultures. The oldest remains of wine that were found are from 3.000 BC. Also the fact that the word for wine outdates the word for vine, suggests that this drink was imported before the Egyptians started making their own.

Alcohol and religion
During the many religious rites and festivals the consumption of alcohol reached a peak, as getting drunk was considered to bring one closer to the gods. Funny enough this was something that other famous pyramid builders on the other side of the world like the Mayas and the Incas had in common with the Egyptians. During these rituals also much booze was offered to the gods to please them. And loved ones were burried with it to make their existence in the afterlife more pleasant. Unlike the ancient Greeks and Romans where gods usually had a simple and clear domain, the Egyptians deities were real multitaskers. All of them were drinkers and honored as such with liquid offers, but one God of Alcohol is missing. Please keep that in mind as you go through the list of their gods of drinking.

Osiris.

Osiris – God of Beer and Wine
Sure, to most Osiris was most known as the god who was in charge of things like death, the afterlife and resurrection, but long before he became “Lord of the Underworld” he was also responsible for the successful farming on the banks of the Nile. He was believed to have taught the Egyptians how to brew beer and make wine. And when dead people were burried it happened with the best booze their family could afford to show off to Osiris. Ironically many times the first time poor people got wine was after they had passed away.

Isis – Mistress of Wine and Beer
Perhaps the goddess Isis got this title (one of her many by the way) just because she was the wife of Osiris. However with medicine, magical power and wisdom as her domain, the link with alcohol was an easy one. And it was said she got pregnant with the first pharaoh Horus after eating grapes.

Nephthys – Goddess of Beer
As Nephthys was mostly known as Goddess of the air or sky, but she was also believed to be the source of rain, as well as the river Nile. Basically she provided the main ingredient for beer: water. The rites in her honor involved a massive consumption of beer. The pharaoh would also offer large quantities to the goddess, so she would protect him from hangovers.

Tenenet – Goddess of Beer Brewing
This goddess had the important task to look over childbirth and beer brewing at the same time. With that Tenenet was probably the ultimate role model in those days as women were the ones who made bread and beer, when they weren’t too occupied producing offspring. The real name of this “protector of the uterus of pregnant women” may find its origin in the old Egyptian word for beer: tenemu.

Hathor.

Hathor – Goddess of Drunkenness
Although Hathor was a sweet goddess with interests like joy, love, dance, music and alcohol, she shows a different side in the Story of Ra. When humanity starts to get disobedient to the Sun God, he changes Hathor into the vengeful Sekhmet to teach them a lesson. Sekhmet goes on a bloody killing spree and even when Ra tells her to stop, she can’t seem to get enough and keeps slaughtering people. Ra then disguises beer as blood on the battlefield. The bloodthirsty Sekhmet drinks a lot and loses her lust for killing. After a long nap she wakes up as Hathor again and continues to enjoy her old harmless hobbies under the title Mistress of Intoxication. The festivals the Egyptians threw for Hathor, Sekhmet and the closely related goddess Bast were notorious for the amount of alcohol.

Bes – Patron of Brewers
This was basically an old Egyptian divine leprechaun. Bes was useful for many things, if he wasn’t helping the men of the pharaoh win their wars, he was protecting households. He was associated with jolly activities like music, dancing and humour and was also patron of the beer brewers. The dwarf god himself was a huge beer lover and was usually portrayed drinking beer through a straw. And when soldiers were drinking to victory before battle they drank from mugs in the shape of Bes.

Shezmu – God of the Wine Press
Another crafty multi-tasker. Shezmu was a maker of precious oils, perfume and wine on his good days, but was also known as the “Lord of Blood and Great Slaughter”. In many rites wine was used as if it was blood spilling. The Egyptians believed that the same god who was responsible for producing the grape juice used to make the pharaoh’s wine had a giant wine press in which he crushed the heads of his enemies.

Renenutet – Goddess of Harvest
This goddess with the snake head was often referred to as  the “Goddess of Double Granary” or the “Lady of Fertile Fields”. Unlike many people today the old Egyptians weren’t unhappy with snakes, as these reptiles killed the rodents that threatened their crops. That’s why many shrines for Renenutet were raised in the wine areas of the country.

Micky Bumbar

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More stories on history and mythology on Lords of the Drinks

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