Beer in Ancient Egypt

It is still warm for being September where I am. So, as people fill pub gardens, they are more than likely drinking a beer and that is what this week blog is all about the drink of choice for the ancient Egyptians, beer. 

Beer or Henket was the most common alcoholic beverage and formed an important staple of the ancient Egyptian diet. Beer was drunk by men, women and child as it was considered a source of nutrition forming a staple of the Egyptian diet alongside bread and vegetables and not just an intoxicant[1]. Wages were often paid in beer, bread and other supplies with workmen living in the worker’s village at Giza received beer three time a day as part of their rations.

Beer Production and Daily Life

Figure 1: Female brewers crushing barley loaves through a sieve. From Saqqara 5th Dynasty Cairo Museum Strouhal, E. (1992) Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. Page 127

The process of making beer was closely related to bread making and could be produced both on a domestic and industrial scale but the process remained the same. This process began with the preparation of partly baked cakes of barely bread which where there placed onto a screen over a jar. Once that had been completed a vat of water would be poured over the cakes of bread until they had dissolved and drained into the jar that sat underneath. After that the fermentation process could begin with this bread and water concoction then being placed in a warm environment.  However, that wasn’t the only method for producing beer. A second method started with grain being soak in water for a day, rolled out and left to dry, wetted again, crushed in large vats with yeast added.[2] Then like the first method I described that pulp would that be filters through a sieve or piece of cloth(Figure 1). Alongside these base ingredients flavourings could also be added including; dates, honey and spices. The addition of dates and honey with their natural sugars also had the added benefits of speeding up the fermentation process[3](Figure 2). The resulting beer was not particularly high in alcohol content but did hold nutritional value as part of the ancient Egyptian diet in total some medical papyri refer to 17 different types of beer. These beers were classified according to alcoholic strength and flavour, the average beer having an alcohol content of 3-4% while beer used in religious festivals or ceremonies had a higher alcohol content and was considered of better quality[4].

figure 2: Hand thrown course Beer jar. EA42108 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA42108

The production of beer, like bread making, was considered the work of women and so early beer production began in the home. The early feminine influence on brewing is perhaps indicated in the deity who presided over the craft; Tenenet the goddess of beer[5].  Tenenet was believed to protect the brewers and aid in making sure that the recipe was followed so that best quality of beer could be made. So connected to brewing it is thought her name may have derived from one of the words used to refer to beer “tenemu”.[6] With this female influence it is not surprising thereafter that there are many depictions of women in the process of making beer, the most often depicted stage is the preparation of the mash.

Figure 3: Vat instillation s from Hierakonpolis
http://www.hierakonpolis-online.org/index.php/explore-the-predynastic-settlement/the-brewery

Beer production, as I have alluded too, could be produced on a small domestic scale or large industrial scale in order to fulfil the payment of rations. One of the earliest industrial instillations we know of comes from the site of Hierakonpolis. Evidence at the site comes in the from of large ceramic vats that had bee sent into installations where the mash and water could be heated[7] (Figure 3). Each of the large conical vats could hold about 75 litres with heating vats so far investigated ranging from 6-16 making the smallest amount being produced would total roughly 100 gallons a day[8]. A similar set up of heating/brewing installations have been uncovered at other Predynastic and Early Dynastic sites including Abydos.[9] At Abydos nine installations were discovered, the two best preserved containing 35 and 23 vats respectively.  

The process of making beer usually took two days after which is was unlikely to have been decanted from many of the large ceramic vessels it was made it and so a straw was a must. Many believe the straw was used to prevent the sediment form being consumed by the drinker[10] (Figure 4). But this isn’t the only reason for a straw being used, hygiene would also have played a factor as many people would drink from the same container.

Figure 4: A stela showing a Syrian mercenary and his family drinking beer with a straw. Authors own photo Neues Museum Berlin

Not just for the living

Besides being used as part of the ancient Egyptians daily meals and a festivals beer also featured prominently at banquets and funerals. Upon completing the funeral rites formally family members and guest would gather inside tombs and toast the deceased on with beer amongst other food and drink. During the Beautiful Festival of the Valley this feast was repeated beer was served to guests from pitchers and poured into ceramic cups from which guests drank without the use of straws or strainers[11].  

So important was the provision of beer for the dead that it was included in the htp-di-nsw offering formula. This formula is the most common hieroglyphic writing you will probably see on objects held within museum collections. This formal provides two functions an official and personal. In official terms the status ensuring the dead became counted among the blessed dead which linked to the successful completion of official functions in royal service and ethical behaviour and importantly allow the deceased to partake in offerings presented to the deities major cult centres in the name of the king.[12] Then on a personal level the offerings for the deceased made by their families which could be physical offerings of bread beer and meats or verbally through the reciting of this formula[13]. Stone offering tables often boast depictions of these offerings including jugs of beer (Figure 5)

Figure 5: A stone offering table in the centre you can see a domed loaf of bread flanked by tall beer jars. Met Museum of Art Accession Number: 22.3.2 https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/547791?searchField=All&sortBy=Relevance&where=Egypt&ao=on&ft=Beer&offset=0&rpp=80&pos=26 

But just as the dead could be sent off with offerings and containers of beer in their tomb the gods also partook in drinking beer. Temples brewed their own beer which was given to the statue of the god in the inner sanctum to gladden his or her heart just as it did humanity’s, the goddess Hathor is also referred to as ‘The Lady of Drunkenness’. Osiris had given the people the knowledge of beer, and the people showed their gratitude by offering in return the fruits of that knowledge: beer, the drink of the gods.

So as you can see there is a lot more to a simple cup of beer for the ancient Egyptians, it served many functions in ancient Egyptian society; to nourish all, pay wages and quench the thirst of both the dead and the gods. I hope you have enjoyed this week’s blog what shall I read about next?

References


[1] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1033/beer-in-ancient-egypt/ Accessed 19/09/2021.

[2] Strouhal, E. (1992) Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. Page 127

[3] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press Page 24

[4] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1033/beer-in-ancient-egypt/ Accessed 19/09/2021

[5] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1033/beer-in-ancient-egypt/ Accessed 19/09/2021

[6] https://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/tjenenet/ Accessed 19/09/2021

[7] http://www.hierakonpolis-online.org/index.php/explore-the-predynastic-settlement/the-brewery  Accessed 19/09/2021 

[8] http://www.hierakonpolis-online.org/index.php/explore-the-predynastic-settlement/the-brewery Accessed 19/09/2021

[9] http://www.hierakonpolis-online.org/index.php/explore-the-predynastic-settlement/the-brewery

[10] https://blog.britishmuseum.org/a-sip-of-history-ancient-egyptian-beer/ Accessed 19/09/2021

[11] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1033/beer-in-ancient-egypt/ [6] https://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/tjenenet/ Accessed 19/09/2021

[12] COLLIER, M., & MANLEY, B. (1998). How to read Egyptian hieroglyphs: a step-by-step guide to teach yourself. London, British Museum Press. Page 35

[13] COLLIER, M., & MANLEY, B. (1998). How to read Egyptian hieroglyphs: a step-by-step guide to teach yourself. London, British Museum Press. Page 36

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