he history of beer is the history of man’s fascination with beer. An alchemical marvel, for ancient humans it was a craft steeped in mysticism and rooted in the old gods. Across cultures, brewed liquor was an elixir that warmed the bones and filled the belly, imbuing the drinker with good cheer and, at times, altered consciousness. It is easy to understand just how the ancient peoples of the world came to associate beer with magic, wisdom, and the divinity of the gods. From the cradle of civilization to the forbidding ancient German Teutonic forests of Europe, brewing was an institution that was inextricable from mysticism and ritual, and across the ages, it was a duty tasked primarily to women.
In ancient Sumer—the southernmost region of ancient Mesopotamia—the goddess Ninkasi oversaw all things liquor related, and her female followers brewed under the power of her hand. ‘The Hymn to Ninkasi,’ first written down in 1800 BCE, though undoubtedly older in origin, is at once a song celebrating the goddess of beer and a guide to the craft itself. For the Sumerians, whose gods not only reigned over all things under their domain but actually personified them, beer was much more than just a gift from their goddess. The drink was part of Ninkasi, infused with her divinity and something that was considered holy.
Ninkasi, the ancient Sumerian goddess of beer
Similarly in Egypt, beermaking was a woman’s duty, undertaken by the priestesses of the goddess Tenenet, who ruled over beer, brewing, and the lives of women. This commonality is not a random occurrence. On the other end of the ancient world, separated by forests, mountains, seas, and centuries, Tacitus records the brewing women of Germania. In the thick of the trees these Teutonic women made beer in cauldrons, and once again their craft is impossible to divorce from cultural mysticism.
Beer was a key element in the rituals of the ancient Germanic tribes. Alcohol was the vehicle in which bonds of kinship were conveyed, and oaths given over the mead cup were considered unbreakable, a recurring theme in the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem of “Beowulf.” The holiness of these drinks fell to the responsibility of the free women of the tribes, and it was such a common expectation of duty that brewing kettles often made up part of a woman’s bride gifts and grave goods.
In ancient China, beer was vital in the gift-offerings made during ancestor worship. In Iceland, in the Eddas, Sigrdrifa offers Sigurd magic ale. The Germanic peoples told the tale of Kvasir, from whose blood the Mead of Poetry was brewed, and it was this mead that Odin drank to gain his wisdom. In Finland, beer was a divinely inspired beverage, the secrets of which were first imparted to women. The Kalevala, the epic of Finnish oral history, tells us:
“Thus was brewed the beer or Northland,
At the hands of Osmo’s daughter;
This the origin of brewing”.
Historically, women were the brewers and guardians of beer
Around the world, across countless cultures, brewing was a manifestation of godly favor and a medium through which cultural magic flourished, guarded by women and celebrated by all.
The middle ages saw the decline of cultural folk magics. Though women, now called alewives, persisted as the central figures in brewing, the elements of mysticism no longer ruled over the craft with the rise of the Church and the male centered monasticism. The Inquisition, particularly in Spain, with its demonization of women as immoral witches, and forced association of paganism with devil worship, became the final nail in the brewsters’ coffins. Women became the focal point of blame for overindulgence in alcohol, and as the idea that women were inherently corrupted spread, societies implemented strict laws that ever increasingly regulated women in brewing. The link between female brewers and pagan practices became a convenient weapon in the campaign to remove women from the public sphere, and one that ultimately proved successful.
Banished from their own brewhouses and stripped of their power, women faded into the background. Brewing was now controlled by the Church, and beer was made no longer according to the traditions of old faiths, but by monks in monasteries. The rippling effect of this hostile takeover can be felt even today. Beer making remains a craft largely dominated by men and mass production has made it an impersonal thing, devoid of the blessings that come from the hands of the gods.
The vibrant history of brewing does not have to be something that is merely remembered, a dynasty passed. It can and should, instead, be brought forward to our modern age and once again revitalize the act of beermaking. Ritual need not fade with the dust of time, and our gods need not be barred from what was once a joint effort between man and the gods. The power to once more infuse brewing with mysticism and deeper meaning is within our grasp, all we have to do is reach out and take it.