Thursday, June 16, 2016

Beer and Ale in Ancient Egypt by John Bickerdyke 1886

Beer and Ale in Ancient Egypt by John Bickerdyke 1886

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WE must go back several thousand years into the past to trace the origin of our modern ale and beer. The ancient Egyptians, as we learn from the Book of the Dead, a treatise at least 5,000 years old, understood the manufacture of an intoxicating liquor from grain. This liquor they called hek, and under the slightly modified form hemki the name has been used in Egypt for beer until comparatively modern times. An ancient Egyptian medical manual, of about the same date as the Book of the Dead, contains frequent mention of the use of Egyptian beer in medicine, and at a period about 1,000 years later, the papyri afford conclusive evidence of the existence even in that early age, of a burning liquor question in Egypt, for it is recorded that intoxication had become so common that many of the beer shops had to be suppressed.

Herodotus, after stating that the Egyptians used "wine made from barley" because there were no vines in the country, mentions a tradition that Osiris, the Egyptian Bacchus, first taught the Egyptians how to brew, to compensate them for the natural deficiencies of their native land. Herodotus, however, was frequently imposed upon by the persons from whom he derived his narrative, and no trace of any such tradition is to be found elsewhere. Wine was undoubtedly made in Egypt two or three thousand years before his time.

It is maintained by some that the Hebrew word sicera, which occurs in the Bible and is in our version translated "strong drink," was none other than the barley-wine mentioned in Herodotus, and that the Israelites brought from Egypt the knowledge of its use. Certain it is that they understood the manufacture of sicera shortly after the exodus, for we find in Leviticus that the priests are forbidden to drink wine or "strong drink" before they go into the tabernacle, and in the Book of Numbers the Nazarenes are required not only to abstain from wine and "strong drink," but even from vinegar made from either; and in all the passages where the word occurs it is formally distinguished from wine. It may be mentioned in passing, that this word sicera has been regarded as being the equivalent of the word cider. The passage in Numbers is translated in Tyndale's version, "They shall drink neither wyn ne sydyr," and it is this rendering that has earned for Tyndale's translation the name of the cider Bible.

It seems highly probable that the word sicera signified any intoxicating liquor other than wine, whether made from corn, honey or fruit.

In support of the theory that beer was known amongst the Jews, may be mentioned the Rabbinical tradition that the Jews were free from leprosy during the captivity in Babylon by reason of their drinking "siceram veprium, id est, ex lupulis confectam" or sicera made with hops, which one would think could be no other than bitter beer.

Speaking of this old Egyptian barley-wine, Aeschylus seems to imply that it was not held in very high esteem, for he says that only the women-kind would drink it. Evidently the phrase, "to be learned in all the learning of the Egyptians," had no reference to a competent knowledge of brewing. Before leaving the land of the Pharaoh, it may be mentioned that in that country the labourers still drink a kind of beer extracted from unmalted barley. A traveller in Egypt some years ago recorded in one of the London daily papers that his crew on the Nile made an intoxicating liquor from the fermentation of bread in water; he says that it was called boozer, but whether by himself or crew is not clear.

A goodly number of instances may be found in various old Greek writers of the mention of barley-wine but it does not appear that beer was ever a popular beverage in Hellas. Further north, the Thracians, as Archilochus tells, brewed and drank a good deal of beer.

Among the Greek writers, Xenophon gives the most interesting and complete account of beer in the year 401 B.C. In describing the retreat of the Ten Thousand, he tells how, on approaching a certain village in Armenia which had been allotted to him, he selected the most active of his troops, and making a sudden descent upon the place captured all the villagers and their headman. One man alone escaped—the bridegroom of the headman's daughter, who had been married nine days, and was gone out to hunt hares. The snow was six feet deep at the time. Xenophon goes on to describe the dwellings of this singular people. Their houses were under ground, the entrance like that of a well, but wide below. There were entrances dug out for the cattle, but the men used to get down by a ladder. And in the houses were goats, sheep, oxen, fowls and their young ones, and all the animals were fed inside with fodder. And there was wheat, and barley, and pulse, and barley-wine in bowls. And the malt, too, itself was in the bowl, and level with the brim. And reeds lay in it, some long, some short, with no joints, and when anyone was thirsty he had to take a reed in his hand and suck. The liquor was very strong, says Xenophon, unless one poured water into it, and the drink was pleasant to one accustomed to it. And whenever anyone in friendliness wished to drink to his comrade, he used to drag him to the bowl, where he must stoop down and drink, gulping it down like an ox. The inhabitants of the Khanns district of Armenia, through which Xenophon's world-famed march was made, still pursue much the same life as they did more than two thousand years ago. They live in these curious subterranean dwellings with all their live stock about them, but, alas! modern travellers aver that they have lost the art of making barley-wine.

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