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A Sip from an Ancient Sumerian Drinking Song

A newly analyzed cuneiform hymn accompanied a drinking song dedicated to a female tavern-keeper

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Soak grain in water and a seed begins to sprout. Dry out that tiny protoplant, or acrospire, roast it, and you’ve got malt—the basis for fermenting beer (and distilling whiskey too). The process can be crude; soaking can take place in a puddle, drying on the roof of a house. I wrote about the small-scale revival of the malting process, of the more modern variety, in The New York Times last week and it’s curious just how far the process predates the current garage-scale renaissance, the flourishing of regional malthouses in the 19th century, or even the English maltsters who first set up shop on American soil four hundred years ago.

The late historian Peter Damerow, of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, published an examination of 4,000-year-old cuneiform writings found near present day Turkey, including a mythic text from ancient Sumerian tablet known as the “Hymn to Ninkasi.” Ninkasi was the goddess of brewing. In the paper, published earlier this year, he explains that the hymn accompanied “a kind of drinking song” dedicated to a female tavern-keeper. It’s the first recipe, of sorts, for beer:

Ninkasi, you are the one who handles dough (and) … with a big shovel,
Mixing, in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics.
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grain.
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the earth-covered malt (“munu”),
The noble dogs guard (it even) from the potentates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt (“sun”) in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash (“ti-tab”) on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes …
Ninkasi, you are the one who holds with both hands the great sweetwort (“dida”),
Brewing (it) with honey (and) wine.
Ninkasi,
the sweetwort (“dida”) to the vessel.
The fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on (top of) a large collector vat (“laÌtan”).
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is (like) the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.

As archeologist Patrick McGovern has written in Uncorking the Past, the domestication of barley in the Fertile Crescent led to the emergence of a forebear to modern beer some 6,000 year ago, providing a possible motive for a decisive step in the development of human culture and the so-called Neolithic Revolution. Beer may have come before bread. Still, these cuniform tablets are notoriously difficult to translate and leave only a rough outline of the process—so, despite the best efforts to replicate the Tigris-like rush of ancient Sumerian beer today, unanswerable questions about the beer’s exact composition remain. When, for example, did they interrupt the germination of the “earth-covered” malt, a crucial step enabling a grain to undergo alcoholic fermentation?

Damerow suggests there’s reason to doubt whether these brews even proved to be much of an intoxicant 4,000 years ago: “Given our limited knowledge about the Sumerian brewing processes, we cannot say for sure whether their end product even contained alcohol.” Then again, would we really have kept the ancient process alive for so long if it just gave us better nutrition and didn’t also make us feel good?

Image: Woolley 1934, pl. 200, no. 102/Cuneiform Digital Library Journal, 2012

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