There are several deities who are associated with intoxicants. Among the Greco-Romans, Dionysus/Bacchus served as the god of wine. In Hinduism, the ascetic god Siva is associated with bhang and charas, ingestible and inhalable forms of cannabis. Indeed, some of the key rituals surrounding both of these gods involve participants using the respective substances as sacraments, be it the Bacchanalia or Siva-Ratri, the night of Siva. However, there is another deity worth mentioning: the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi, goddess of beer.
The Sumerian civilization is one of the oldest known, predating even the Egyptians. The particular text we’ll be looking at, the Hymn to Ninkasi, has been dated to the 19th century BCE, making it over 40 centuries old. What does that that mean? Humans have been drinking beer for a very, very long time.
To situate Ninkasi, we have to examine her father, Enki. Enki was both a water god, and a creator god. The idea of male and female entities as prime cosmic movers is sometimes referred to as the Heiros Gamos, or sacred marriage, and this is what Enki had with his first companion, Ninhursag, goddess of the earth. Causing the “water of his heart” to flow into her, she finds herself no longer barren, and after nine months, gives birth to a daughter, Ninsar, the goddess of the greenery.
So, we have the waters impregnating the dry earth, resulting in the birth of vegetative life. However, Ninhursag leaves Enki. In his loneliness, he comes across Ninsar, who reminds him of Ninhursag. Not recognizing her as his daughter, he seduces her. In turn Ninsar gives birth to Ninkurra, the lady of the pasture/the goddess of fruitfulness.
So now we’ve gone from water and earth producing vegetation, to water and vegetation producing fruit and grain.
As can be expected, Ninsar also leaves Enki, leaving him sad and lonely again. However, she too is with child, and gives birth to Uttu the spider, the weaver of life.
There are at least two variants to the story from this point; I’m going to go with the one that leads directly to Ninkasi. Enki attempts to seduce his great-granddaughter, Uttu the spider. Upset by his molestations, she visits her great-grandmother, Ninhursag, the earth. Annoyed by her husband’s behavior, she pulls his semen from out of Uttu’s womb, and plants it in eight different spots. From each spot grows a fruit plant, which she knows Enki will not be able to resist eating.
And eat he does, all eight varieties of fruit, all containing his own semen. And so, Enki, the mighty god, finds himself pregnant in eight places: his jaw, his teeth, his mouth, his hip, his throat, his limbs, his side and his rib. All are filled with the “water of his heart”, and the other gods, unable to help him, sit quietly in the dust, waiting to see what happens next.
After letting Enki suffer for a while, Ninhursag goes to him, and pulls his semen out of his body and into her own. She subsequently gives birth to eight deities, one to cure each of his wounds (the places he was pregnant). Our interest is in the deity born to cure his mouth: Ninkasi, the goddess of beer.
Here’s a breakdown of the eleven stanzas that make up the Hymn to Ninkasi:
Stanza One: this stanza relates how Ninkasi is born of the flowing waters (an allusion to both Enki and his sperm), and how she was nurtured by Ninhursag.
Stanza Two: here, we learn that Ninhursag helped Ninkasi in the founding of a great town by the banks of the river.
Stanza Three: Mentions Enki as her father; it also situates Ninti, who in other myths is Ninkasi’s sister, as her mother.
Stanza Four: here’s where we get to the beginnings of beer production:
You are the one who handles the dough,
[and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit,
the bappir with [date]-honey
The bappir mentioned above is a yeasty bread. So, the bread is being mixed in a pit, and a sugar (the date honey) is being added in.
Stanza Five: this stanza clarifies Ninkasi’s role in producing the bappir, which of course is the yeast starter for the beer:
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes
the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains
Stanza Six: The next stanzas speak for themselves:
You are the one who waters the malt
set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentate
You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar
The waves rise, the waves fall.
You are the one who spreads the cooked
mash on large reed mats,
You are the one who holds with both hands
the great sweet wort,
Brewing [it] with honey and wine
The filtering vat, which makes
a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on [top of]
a large collector vat.
Stanza Eleven: if, by this point, you aren’t convinced that this poem is an instruction guide for brewing beer, this final stanza should clarify everything:
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the
filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of
[the] Tigris and Euphrates.
(Note: translation by ancient Mesopotamian scholar/professor Miguel Civil, Ph.D. For more by professor Civil, see his The Farmer’s Instructions: A Sumerian Agricultural Manual).
So, the next time you pop open a brew and think to yourself, what a novel idea, realize that the Sumerians were on to this 40 centuries ago. At 20 years a generation, that’s over 2000 generations of humans that have been drinking beer.
And you thought you had a drinking problem…
And a final shout out – if you find yourself in Eugene, Oregon, go visit the Ninkasi Brewing Company. It’s a little closer than going to Southern Iraq, the modern name for what was once ancient Sumeria.
Until next time, Hail Ninkasi, Goddess of Beer!