What Was the Importance of Alcohol Consumption in Ancient Egypt?

Scene from the tomb of Nakht Depicting a Banquet: Eighteenth Dynasty, Thebes

There is a common misconception today that life in ancient Egypt was a dreary one for anyone not in the nobility. This image is probably at least partially derived from pop culture where scenes are common in movies that depict Egyptian peasants being worked to the death to make tombs and temples for their gods and kings. The reality is that although the ancient Egyptian social system was quite different from that of the modern world, and they had few of today’s modern conveniences, Egyptians from all social classes enjoyed a leisure culture that was not much different than today’s. Egyptian participated in organized sports, played board games in their spare time, and enjoyed imbibing on their favorite alcoholic beverages.

An examination reveals that alcohol consumption was an extremely part of ancient Egyptian culture and went far beyond just drinking for leisure. It is true that the Egyptians enjoyed drinking alcoholic beverages as part of their leisurely activities, but alcohol played an important role in their daily lives and religion. For most Egyptians who were not fortunate enough to be nobles, alcohol was the primary drink in their diets. Alcohol was also extremely important in ancient Egyptian religion as it played a central role in some of the myths and was commonly used in most rituals.

The Production and Types of Ancient Egyptian Alcohol

New Kingdom Relief from a Tomb in Thebes Depicting the Production of Wine

Unlike today, the ancient Egyptians did not possess a variety of different types of alcohol, with only wine and beer being available because the distillation process was yet to be discovered. Wine, known in the ancient Egyptian language as irep was most commonly produced from fermented grapes, but wine made from palms and dates were also consumed. The process was extremely simple and not very different than methods used today to make wine: the grapes or dates were pressed in a container and then the liquid was bottled into vases. The final product had varying degrees of alcoholic content and could be either white or red wine. Although the process was easier than making beer, the fruits needed to make wine were less plentiful and therefore wine became the alcoholic beverage most consumed by nobles. [1]

Besides wine, the other alcoholic drink that the Egyptians produced was beer, which they referred to by the ancient Egyptian word henqet. Modern scholars believe that the ancient version of Egyptian beer was probably very similar to the modern Nubian beer known as bouza in its taste, alcoholic content, and ingredients. Bouza is a wheat beer that ranges from 6.2% to 8.1% alcohol content, which can be modified to create different varieties. [2] Similar to wine, the Egyptians documented their beer making methods in a number of tombs during the New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1075 BC). Since beer is made from fermented wheat and other grains, the ever industrious Egyptians would often make bread and beer at the same time and location. [3]

Alcohol for Leisure and Sustenance

A Cache of Ancient Egyptian Wine Amphoras in the Louvre, Paris

Wine and beer were consumed by all classes of ancient Egyptians for leisure and pleasure in a number of different settings. Wine was favored by the royals for its taste, as well as its intoxicating effects. The prime wine growing regions of ancient Egypt were actually not in the Nile Valley itself, but hundreds of miles to the west in the oases of the Sahara Desert with the Kharga and Bahriya Oases being the most renowned. Modern scholars believe that wine production probably began even before Egypt was a unified state around 3100 BC, but by the Old Kingdom (ca. 2686-2181 BC) there was a full-fledged wine industry in Egypt. [4]

Fortunately, well-preserved New Kingdom tomb reliefs in the Theban necropolis, such as that of an official named Nakht, have given modern scholars a glimpse into the settings in which wine was consumed by the royals and high officials in the government. The evidence shows that the ancient Egyptians were no prudes. Banquet goers were plied with copious amounts of food and wine while they listened to live music and watched beautiful women dance nude. Moderation was actually frowned upon as drunkenness was a sign of wealth and abundance. [5] Binge drinking was an acceptable past-time not just for the upper classes of Egyptian society, workmen and peasants also liked to let loose on special occasions.

Religious festivals were important during all periods of pharaonic history, but by the New Kingdom they had become public spectacles. During these festivals, the priests would go to the local temple and take the statue of the temple’s primary god – which the Egyptians believed contained the spirit of the god and was therefore the god himself – and parade it around in public before bringing it back to the temple. Peasants and workers would be relieved from their work duties during the entirety of the festival in order to spectate and participate, which for them meant drinking heavy amounts of alcohol and socializing with their neighbors. An inscription on a pottery fragment from the New Kingdom workers’ village of Deir el-Median relates how the community spent the festival that celebrated the deified status of King Amenhotep I (ca. 1525-1504 BC): “The gang rejoiced before him for four solid days of drinking together with their children and wives.” [6] Clearly, inebriation was an accepted, if not encouraged part of ancient Egyptian culture; alcohol also played an important role in the Egyptian diet.

Modern scholars believe that beer played a much bigger role in the Egyptian diet than it does today in most countries. Because milk was scarce and the water from the Nile River was for the most part not potable, even in ancient times, beer was the primary drink of most ancient Egyptians. Besides the intoxicating effects it had when consumed in large amounts, studies show that it was also high in nutritional value. [7] Because of the role it played in the standard Egyptian diet, and because Egypt lacked coinage until the Persian Period, beer was often used as a form of payment to men who worked on the tombs and temples. [8] Alcohol surely played a role in the daily lives of all Egyptians, but perhaps even more important was the part it played in their religion.

Alcohol and Ancient Egyptian Religion

A Well-Preserved Beer Jar

In the ancient Egyptian religion, both wine and beer played varying roles. Although the ancient Egyptians were not known for elaborate myth cycles, the myth known as The Destruction of Mankind was particularly popular during the New Kingdom. The story was essentially an allegory about the sometimes capricious nature of the gods and the problem of hubris within humans and how alcohol was used to alleviate the situation. In the story, the sun-god Re was angry with humans because they became arrogant and rebelled against him and the other gods, so he sent his eye to earth, which transformed into the lioness goddess of war, Sekhmet. Re watched as Sekhmet efficiently killed all humans in her path, drinking their blood in the process. Eventually, Re had second thoughts about the situation, but was unable to stop Sekhmet so he devised a plan that involved alcohol. The sun-god had his high-priest mix red ochre with beer in an effort to fool the lioness goddess. The story states:

“Re said: ‘Summon to me swift, nimble messengers that they may run like a body’s shadow!’ The messengers were brought immediately, and the majesty of this god said: ‘Go to Yebu and bring me red ochre in great quantity!’ The red ochre was brought to him, and the majesty of this god ordered the Side-Lock Wearer in On to grind the ochre, while maidservants crushed barley for beer. Then the red ochre was put into the beer-mash, and it became like human blood; and seven thousand jars of beer were made.” [9]

The beer ochre mixture was then poured across the earth for Sekhmet to drink. Thinking that the beverage was more human blood, Sekhmet drank the beer but became drunk and forgot about her killing spree. She was than transformed from Sekhmet to the benign and benevolent house cat goddess, Bastet.

“When the goddess came in the morning she found them flooded, and her gaze was pleased by it. She drank and it pleased her heart. She returned drunk without having perceived mankind.” [10]

Alcohol clearly played a positive role in The Destruction of Mankind, but its importance is even more apparent when one considers the many rituals associated with ancient Egyptian religion. Several ancient Egyptian religious rituals concerned a deceased person’s transition into the afterlife, which was perhaps the most important aspect of their religion. The earliest ancient Egyptian texts that concern the afterlife are a series of spells, referred to as “Utterances,” known collectively as The Pyramid Texts. The Utterances of the The Pyramid Texts, which were inscribed on the walls and ceilings of kings’ pyramids from the Fifth through the Eighth Dynasties of the Old Kingdom, were intended to make sure that the king not only transitioned safely into the afterlife, but that he was unified, depending on the Utterance, with the sun-god or Osiris, the god of the dead. Central to a Utterance being effective was often an offering of beer or wine to the gods. Some spells read, “O Osiris the King, take the ferment which issued from you – beer!” [11] In other Utterances, beer is equated to the “Eye of Hours, for little is that which Seth has eaten of it – 2 bowls of strong ale.” [12] Offering alcohol to the gods was not restricted to the Old Kingdom, or even the nobles, though, because throughout all periods of pharaonic history alcohol was seen as one of the most appropriate, if not required, commodities a pious person could offer to the gods.

During the Late Period (ca. 664 BC-Christian Era), the religion of the Egyptians became more “popular” as more and more people became involved by donating statues, mummified animals, and votive stelae to the temple complexes of various gods and goddesses. The inscriptions on the statues and stelae often began with the same formulaic statement – known as the hetep di nisu or “royal offering” formula – that was commonly used in tombs of the New Kingdom. In these statements, the person giving the offering would state how many of a particular item he or she gave to the gods as an offering. In one interesting votive statue that was donated by a man named Udjahorresnet who was physician, high-priest of the goddess Neith, and navy admiral during the sixth century BC under both Egyptian and Persian kings, he gave an offering to Osiris of “1000 in bread, beer, cattle, fowl and every good and pure thing for the ka of the honored one who is near the great gods of Sais, the doctor Udjahorresnet." [13] The Udjahorresnet statue is just one example among thousands of documented offerings where beer and/or wine were an integral part of the offerings given to the gods in a ritualistic setting.

Conclusion

Alcoholic beverages clearly played an important role in ancient Egyptian culture. Alcohol production was a major industry throughout most periods of Egyptian history and its consumption was also important for a number reasons. The ancient Egyptians, similar to people in the modern world, enjoyed drinking alcoholic beverages in social settings and were not afraid to drink to the point of inebriation; in fact, on many occasions inebriation was expected and considered proper etiquette. Alcohol, especially beer, also played an important role in the ancient Egyptian diet. Egyptian beer was drinkable, unlike the water, and was high in nutritional value, which made it an everyday drink and sometimes served as payment for public works projects. Finally, alcohol played an important role in ancient Egyptian religion as it was a key plot device in one of their most important myths and was used in nearly every offering to their gods. The ancient Egyptians are known today for being industrious people, but they also clearly knew how to enjoy life with a few cocktails!

References

  1. Lucas, A. and J.R. Harris. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries. (Mineola, New York: Dover, 1999), p. 16
  2. Lucas and Harris, pgs. 11-12
  3. Lucas and Harris, pg. 13
  4. Kemp, Barry J. “Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period.” In Ancient Egypt: A Social History. Edited by Bruce G. Trigger, Barry J. Kemp, David O’Connor, and Alan B. Lloyd. (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 120
  5. Lucas, A. and J.R. Harris. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries. (Mineola, New York: Dover, 1999), p. 16
  6. McDowell, A.G., ed. and trans. Village Life in Ancient Egypt. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 96
  7. Shaw, Ian and Paul Nicholson. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), p. 22
  8. Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids: Solving the Ancient Mysteries. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2001), p. 202
  9. Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. Volume 2, The New Kingdom (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), p. 199
  10. Lichtheim, p. 199
  11. Faulkner, Richard O, trans. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. (Stilwell, Kansas: Digireads.com Publishing, 2007), Utterances 49, 50, 95, 148, 149, 150
  12. Faulkner, Utterance 145
  13. Posener, Georges. La première domination Perse en Égypte: Recueil d’inscriptions hiéroglyphs. (Cairo: The French Institute of Oriental Archaeology, 1936), p. 3

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