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Ancient Egypt's Obsession with Beer - Annual Festival of Drunkenness & Sexual Orgies

Alcohol was prevalent in ancient Egypt, especially in the form of beer. Beer was made from barley, honey, herbs and spices, and was drunk in preference to water. This was likely due to the bacteria in the Nile water, which required boiling to purify it; part of the brewing process involved boiling, along side the fermentation process, served to kill off such bacteria and provide a safe beverage for daily consumption.

Wine was the drink of the wealthy, as it was an exotic commodity in ancient times. Alcohol was part of ancient Egyptian culture from the earliest times: fragments of numerous ceramic beer and wine jars were found at subsidiary burials, all labelled with the name of King Aha I of the First Dynasty. According to John F. Nunn (2002) in Ancient Egyptian Medicine, beer and wine were both used as carriers for medicines.

Drunkenness was not generally considered to be virtue, yet Carolyn Graves-Brown (2010) in her book Dancing for Hathor notes that "...'holy intoxication' was encouraged, possibly as a link to the world of the gods, an alternative state of being". As such, the 'Festival of Drunkenness' (tekhi) was celebrated during the first month of the ancient Egyptian year, in honour of the goddess Sekhmet. Alcohol was therefore not only a daily necessity of life in ancient Egypt, but was also a link to the gods.
Beer, called hqt (heqet) by the ancients and zythus or curmi by the Greeks, was a very important Egyptian drink. It was a drink for adults and children alike. It was the staple drink of the poor (wages were sometimes paid in beer), it was a drink of the rich and wealthy, and a drink offered to the gods and placed in the tombs of the dead.

Beer in the morning, beer in the afternoon and beer at night. A little wine thrown in for good measure. And after a hard day of cutting stones for the pharaoh, time and energy left for a bit of hanky-panky.

-- Melbourne Herald-Sun, Out on the Tiles with Pyramid Workers, 7th June 1993

Workmen at the pyramids of the Giza Plateau were given beer, thrice daily - five kinds of beer and four kinds of wine were found by archaeologists "poking through dumps, examining skeletons, probing texts and studying remains of beer jars, and wine vats" at Giza. A beer strainer being used like a straw, straight from the beer jar!

A few years ago, two unlikely partners got together, the Scottish and Newcastle Breweries and the Egyptian Exploration Society, to try to recreate the process that ancient Egyptians used to make beer. It's commonly known that the Egyptians, all the way back to the time of Moses, drank beer. But no one was quite sure what it looked like or how it was made. That was, until Egyptologists started finding beer recipes amongst the hieroglyphics. The brewers worked at it, and though it's not the beer we're used to, they managed to create a concoction that the ancient pharaohs would probably recognize.

-- Kerr, D.S., Antique Recipe Comes to Life, 2nd January 2008

Beer was depicted on the walls of the tombs, as were scenes of the ancient Egyptian brewery. It was probably very similar to the way beer is still produced in Sudan today. Traditionally, beer was regarded as a female activity as it was an off-shoot of bread making - the basis of the beer were loaves of specially made bread.

Most likely, the beer was not very intoxicating, nutritious, sweet, without bubbles, and thick (the beer had to be strained with wooden syphons, used as a straw, because it was filled with impurities). Though the later Greek accounts suggest that the beer, instead, was as intoxicating as the strongest wine, and it is clear that the worshipers of Bast, Sekhmet and Hathor got drunk on beer as part of their worship of these goddesses, because of their aspect of the Eye of Ra.

Ramses II and Tekhit on the ceiling of the Astronomical Hall of the RamesseumImage © Richard Karl Lepsius Tekhi (Tekhit) ( tkhy , tkhy ) was another ancient Egyptian goddess of beer, whose name can mean 'massacre, slaughter' and 'to drink' or 'to become drunk', and was thus linked to the stories of Sekhmet, Hathor and Tefnut and the inundation of the Nile. She was linked to the god Thoth as she was the goddess of the month of Thoth, as her name could also mean 'ibis'. She was depicted as a woman wearing twin tall feathers, like the headdress of the god Amen.
Based on drawings found in ancient Egyptian tomb scenes, it is believed that Egyptian "beer loaves" were made from a richly yeasted dough.

It is uncertain whether or not malt was used. This dough was lightly baked and the resulting bread was crumbled and strained through a sieve with water.


Ingredients like dates or extra yeast might have been added. The dissolved mixture was fermented in large vats and then the liquid was decanted into jars which were sealed for storage or transport. However, Delwen Samuel of Cambridge University surmised from hieroglyphs and analysis of residues found in ancient drinking jars that the Egyptians seem to have used barley to make malt and a type of wheat called emmer rather than hops.

-- NagmaSite 2011, Ancient Egyptian Beer

There is a lot missing, but an important question is what did the beer taste like? Thanks to the work done by the Egyptian Exploration Society and the Scottish and Newcastle Breweries, the ancient beer was probably "strongly influenced by the addition of fruit or spices as flavouring." The word 'bnr' bnrsweet-tasting unknown food determinative causes some problem - it is usually translated as 'date', but it may have referred to a different (or to any other) sweet-tasting food the Egyptians used in their beer. Although the dregs from ancient beer jars do show what ingredients were used, further work is needed before the exact flavour of the different beers can be established. In hieroglyphs, the determinative of the beer jug (jar determinative) were used in words associated with beer - short for 'beer', 'tribute', 'to be drunk', 'food and drink' and 'butler'. The importance of beer in ancient Egypt can not be overlooked.

A model of people making beer 9 February 1996, the Herald-Sun reported that 'Tutankhamon Ale' will be based on sediment from jars found in a brewery housed in the Sun Temple of Nefertiti, and the team involved has gathered enough of the correct raw materials to produce "just 1000 bottles of the ale".

"We are about to unveil a great Tutankhamen secret," said Jim Merrington, commercial director at Newcastle Breweries, "The liquid gold of the pharaohs. It's a really amazing inheritance they have left us, the origins of beer itself."

-- Pharaoh's Beer a Shout from the Grave, Melbourne Herald-Sun, 9th February 1996

The beer was reported to have an alcoholic content of between 5 and 6 percent and was to be produced in April, 1996. They were sold at Harrods for £50 per bottle, the proceeds going towards further research into Egyptian beer making.

Although the word for beer was written with the hieroglyphs hqtjar determinative - hqt with the determinative for a beer jar - another way of writing the word is hnqt due to 'defective writing' by the ancient Egyptians, mentioned in Die Defektivschreibungen in den Pyramidentexten, Lingua Aegyptia 2 by Jochem Kahl:

After defining what is understood here as a defective writing and how to recognize them, the author lists the evidence in the P.T. for unwritten consonants, either in initial, middle of final position... the defectively written consonant must belong to the group of i, w, a, m, n, r, and then only in certain word forms... Two factors of importance for defective writing are calligraphy, such as with hnqt, "beer" and lack of room. At the end the author remarks that the hieroglyphic writings are strongly influenced by the pronunciation.

-- Hovestreydt, W. 1992, Annual Egyptological Bibliography

Wine, known as yrp (irep) to the Egyptians, was very expensive. It was drunk by those who could afford it, used as offerings to the gods and to the dead. The resurrected pharaoh was known as one "one of the four gods ... who live on figs and who drink wine". Günter Dreyer of the University of Chicago notes that wine, beer and food were important resources for the afterlife during Predynastic times. In a video interview Dreyer says that, "this started already in the Predynastic when in Tomb U-j we found imported wine jars containing about 4,500 litres of wine, dividing them up". Even in much later times, the Greek tourists report that wine was confines to the wealthy. Though wine, too, was occasionally given out as pay - the workmen at the pyramids at Giza had four kinds of wine to drink, along with five kinds of beer. A priest making an offering of red wine, as depicted in the tomb of Userhat

The Egyptians has several different kinds of wine, some of which have been commended by ancient authors for their excellent qualities. That of Mareotis was the most esteemed, and in the greatest quantity. Its superiority over other Egyptian wines may be readily accounted for, when we consider the nature of the soil in that district ; being principally composed of gravel, which, lying beyond the reach of the alluvial deposit, was free from the rich and tenacious mud usually met with in the valley of the Nile, so-little suited for grapes of delicate quality ; and from the extensive remains of vineyards still found on the western borders of the Arsinoite nome, or Fyoom, we may conclude that the ancient Egyptians were fully aware of the advantages of land, situated beyond the limits of the inundation, for planting the vine.

-- Wilkinson, J.G. 1854, A Popular Account of the Ancient Egyptians - Volume 1, p. 49

Athenæus tells us that the Mareotic wine was "white, its quality excellent, and it is sweet and light with a fragrant bouquet; it is by no means astringent, nor does it affect the head." Strabo wrote that the wine was also known for its long shelf-life.

In ancient party scenes on the tomb walls, wine is seen offered to the guests. It seems that a lot of wine was consumed at the banquets, because there are a number of images depicting the guests throwing up or being carried home because of their drunken state - drunkenness was seen as an amusement to the ancient Egyptians!

Treading on grapes to make wine At celebrations of drunkenness to the Eye of Ra, wine was also drunk by those who could afford it. The temples associated with the goddesses had their own vineyards to make sure that the celebrants had enough wine for the rituals. Wine was also an acceptable offering to the gods.

The search for the recipes and wine types of the Egyptians have yielded mixed results within the delta region of the Nile. Due to the climatic changes since the time of ancient Egypt, quests for the right vine, the right mixture of materials, and other factors, have left the modern renditions of ancient Egyptian wine with something to be desired ... It was not until 1931 that the first modern rendition of ancient Egyptian wine was produced. This rendition of the ancient wine continues to be made in the present day, however, many wine connoisseurs consider it of poor taste. Regardless, the taste of the ancients is still present 3,500 years later. Egypt had vineyards all over the country, though most of them were in the Nile delta. Grapes were hand picked, then placed in a vat for traditional treading on the grapes, or in special wine presses. The resultant juice was captured in open jars, where the fermentation process took place. When ready, these jugs were sealed and marked with the date, name of the vineyard and the person in charge of the wine. Aged in these earthenware jars, they had to be broken when it was time to decant the wine, and then poured into yet another earthen jar. When the wine was ready to be served, it was poured into shallow vessels with a short stem.

In the Pyramid Texts the god Shesmu brings the king grape juice for wine production. Although he was a god of wine and of the wine press, he was also a vengeful god - in a papyrus from the 21st Dynasty, Shesmu his cruel side was shown by two hawk deities twisting the net of the wine press which contains three human heads instead of grapes. Hathor, also a goddess of wine (and beer), was also both a goddess of love and a goddess of destruction.

Betsy M. Bryan (2005), in Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh, discusses the recent excavation of the porch of drunkeness at the temple of Mut, built by pharaoh Hatshepsut. She describes one key text as a reference to the Festival of Drunkenness, "[She made it as a monument for her mother Mut] Mistress of Isheru, making for her a columned porch of drunkeness anew, so that she might do [as] one who is given life [forever]". Whilst popular during the early New Kingdom, this festival can be traced back to the Middle Kingdom. The next mention of the Festival of Drunkenness on temple walls occurs during the Late Period, with the last being during Roman times. However, Cynthia Sheikholeslami (2011), at the ARCE 62nd Annual Meeting, has shown that the feast of drunkenness is better represented in tomb paintings during the New Kingdom into the Third Intermediate Period. Column from Hatshepsut's porch of drunkeness with her inscription

Beliefs to which these festivals are linked are expressed in the story of the Destruction of Mankind, incorporated in the Book of the Heavenly Cow, a New Kingdom composition. The recent discovery of a 'porch of drunkenness' from a Hathor chapel of Hatshepsut by the Johns Hopkins University expedition to the Mut complex in Thebes attests to these festivals as early as the 18th Dynasty. Although scenes of banquets in 18th dynasty Theban tombs have been connected to the Beautiful Feast of the Valley, recent studies suggest that not all are, and that some banquets are celebrations of these Hathor feasts, particularly when accompanied by musicians and dancers. This paper will discuss other evidence that these rites for Hathor are commemorated in 18th dynasty tomb paintings, including representation of offerings and ritual vessels related to them against a backdrop of activities in the marshes.
Celebrated during the first month of the Egyptian year, it was closely tied with religion. It was a celebration in honour of the Eye of Ra and myth of the slaughter of mankind, principally held to appease the goddess Sekhmet, but it was also an important celebration of those goddesses who also held the title, such as Hathor, Tefnut and Mut. A hymn to the Eye of Ra at the temple of Madu (Medamud) asks the goddess to come and attend her festival: A young nobleman throwing up

Image © Yvonne Buskens
Come, oh Golden One, who eats of praise,
because the food of her desire is dancing,
who shines on the festival at the time of lighting (the lamps),
who is content with the dancing at night.

Come! The procession is in the place of inebriation,
the hall of travelling through the marshes.

Its performance is set,
its order is in effect,
without anything lacking in it.

-- Darnell, J.C. 1995, Hathor Returns to Medamûd, pp. 49-50

The hymn goes on to describe what happens at the festival itself: A servant offers wine to a guest, from the tomb of Nebamen
When the royal children pacify you with what is desired,
the officials consecrate offerings to you.
When the lector exaults you in intoning a hymn,
the magician reads the rituals.
When the organiser praises you with his water lily blooms,
the percussionists take up the tamborine.
The virgins rejoice for you with garlands,
the women with the wreath-crown.
The drunken celebrants drum for you during the cool of the night,
with the result that those who awaken bless you.

-- Darnell, J.C. 1995, Hathor Returns to Medamûd, pp. 54

This was not really a social drinking session, it was instead a holy event. Festival goers would drink enough alcohol that they became well and truly drunk, so much so that they would fall asleep in the temple forecourt. As part of the ritual, the sleeping celebrants would be awoken by the sound of drums and music, so the drinkers could commune with and worship the goddess. Dancing and the lighting of torches were all part of the ritual celebration, all in the hopes that worshipers would receive an epiphany from the goddess.

Interestingly, the reference to 'traveling through the marshes' is, according to Bryan, an ancient Egyptian euphemism for having sex. This theory is supported by graffiti depicting men and women in different sexual positions. Thus the 'hall of travelling through the marshes' was possibly a place where the worshipers would be involved in more intimate encounters during the Festival of Drunkenness. When linking this to the goddess Hathor, this aspect of the festival is unsurprising, as she was also the goddess of love.

Thus alcohol was not only central to the daily lives of the ancient Egyptians, but it was also one of the ways in which they could worship their gods, and maybe experience for themselves what it meant, to them, to be divine.

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