Brian Hayden, an Archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada is studying beer. He believes that beer had alot to do with the rise of civilization. And not just beer, but fermented beverages of all kinds, including wine (which is how I dragged Dionysus into this). You see, in order to make fermented beverages, one must have an excess of a crop. You can't be fermenting stuff when you don't have enough to eat in the first place. You don't get a lot of excess in hunting and gathering, so, if you want beer or wine, you have to establish a system of farming and farms work best if someone is around to watch them. People like to hang out with other people and voila, towns form. Towns grow, civilization.

But why? While the media giggles about the extent humans will go to to get a buzz, let's look at the folkloric record and ask this question from a spiritual as well as a practical point of view.

First off, I'd like to take a moment to point out that Demeter (Goddess of grain, from which beer derives) and Dionysus (Grapes & wine) hung out quite a bit. Dionysus even has something to do with the Eleusinian mysteries (the best kept secret ever) but nobody is exactly sure what. Some stories say that Dionysus is Demeter's grandson, the son of Persephone, Goddess of Rebirth and Queen of the Underworld. At any rate, both Demeter and Dionysus are Gods whose main focus is the Earthly realm. They are both associated with ripening crops and the changing of the seasons. So, their paths cross.

Demeter taught the men of Eleusis how to grow grain and the women to make a certain beverage sacred to her out of barley and mint(see Hymn to Demeter), stating that it is not lawful for her to drink wine. It is clear from many of the old stories that the Gods were loathe to cross into each others' territory (Only Hermes and Hecate are free to wander between realms for instance, Gods cannot undo each others' curses or blessings and the Homeric Hymn to Hermes has Hermes and Apollo carefully detailing who rules over which bits of music and divination.) and perhaps this is an example of that. I cannot say for certain that this beverage was fermented or that it resembled beer in any way; it is specifically described as sweet while beer is bitter, so probably not. A similar beverage is said to have been used in the Eleusinian Mysteries that caused people to reach an ecstatic state. Since none of the ingredients are inherently narcotic, it's likely that that version at least contained alcohol.

Demeter also gave us another very closely related product - bread. Bread is labor intensive, not the most practical food unless one has some time on ones hands. But its full of energy, stores and travels well and is versatile, which has made it a staple in every civilized culture. Which came first, beer or bread? Beer can be used to make bread dough rise. I bet something like a sourdough starter could start a batch of beer too. That is a question I'd love to discuss with some other Anthropologists.

It is interesting to note that Demeter was also known as Thesmophoros(law-giver) and honored at the Thesmophoria festival. Both Ovid and Callimachus refer to laws as gifts of Demeter. Laws, as I'm sure you'll agree, are as necessary as fermented beverages to civilization. Laws may also be necessary to acheive the sort of cooperation needed to get everything grown, brewed, stored and fairly distributed.

Meanwhile, Dionysus taught the people of Attica to grow grapes and make wine. But wine in ancient Greece was not drunk as it is today. For daily use it was mixed with water and only drunk unmixed for ritual purposes. The folkloric record is loaded with cautionary tales against drinking unmixed wine.

But why mix wine with water? Now we're getting back to the heart of the matter. Civilization is a dirty thing. Hunters and getherers don't have to worry much about sanitation. If the spot they're camping in gets stinky, they move on. If their water isn't good to drink, they find another spring. Civilized folks are largely stuck where they are and the longer a group of people spends time near a water source, the more that source becomes filled with bacteria. Boiling water with herbs was a popular solution around the world, but sometimes you like a cool refreshing beverage. It's also not always practical to boil water. Enter wine. (Or beer, or rum if you want grog, but we haven't made it to distillation yet. Leave that to the alchemists.) The alcohol content in these beverages killed harmful bacteria allowing people to drink water that might otherwise not have been safe.

If grog makes you think of pirate ships, you're ready for the direcion I'm about to wander in. Fermented beverages also made long sea explorations possible. Out at sea, water stored in barrels can become slimy and undrinkable after awhile. Wine, beer and other alcohol-containing liquids can help kill those bacteria, making the water safe to drink. The ability to travel long distances by sea makes trade possible and trade is necessary for a civilized society. However rich the land is on which you settle, there are always going to be some resources you have to go elsewhere to find.

Of course the folkloric record addresses this is well. The Homeric Hymn 7 to Dionysus and Ovid's Metamorphosis both outline the tale of Dionysus at sea, saving the one man who gave him honor, he changed the others into dolphins and wrecked their ship.

Let's review.

In order to have civilization one needs- potable water, a sustainable food source, laws, a system of trade. Demeter and Dionysus provided these with their gifts. Next time you're watching football and drinking a tall cold one, sharing a pitcher with your friends at the bar or enjoying fine wine with dinner, raise your glass to Demeter and Dionysus, the parents of civilization (without which pubs, restaurants, and organized sports would not be possible).

(11/14/10)

More like this

Comments, questions, criticism?

Add a New Comment