Beer in Sumerian Epics and Praise Songs

As I continue to research for the class I’m preparing called “Beer Is Divine,” I am delving deeper into the beer references in the body of ancient Sumerian clay tablets.

NinkasiNinkasi, “She Who Gladdens the Heart” (the original Beer Goddess)
Ninkasi was the Sumerian goddess of beer and fermentation. The oldest known version of the Hymn to Ninkasi was inscribed on a clay tablet in 19th BCE. It is argued to be one of the oldest recipes ever found, and it is, of course, a recipe for brewing beer.

Hymn to Ninkasi
Translation by Miguel Civil
 
Borne of the flowing water (…)
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,
Borne of the flowing water (…)
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag, 
 
Having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished its great walls for you,
Ninkasi, having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished its great walls for you 
 
Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake,
Ninkasi, Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.
 
You are the one who handles the dough,
[and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi, You are the one who handles
the dough, [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date]-honey.
 
You are the one who bakes the bappir
in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes
the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
 
You are the one who waters the malt
set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt
set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates.
 
You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, 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,
Coolness overcomes.
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads
the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes.
 
You are the one who holds with both hands
the great sweet wort,
Brewing [it] with honey and wine
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
Ninkasi, (…)
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
 
The filtering vat, which makes
a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on [top of]
a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat,
which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on [top of]
a large collector vat.
 
When you pour out the filtered beer
of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of
Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the
filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of
Tigris and Euphrates.

Lugalbanda and the Drunken Bird-God
Another, less-cited, Sumerian reference to beer (and again to Ninkasi) appears in a tablet describing the exploits of god-king Lugalbanda, father of Gilgamesh (whose own Epic describes the conversion of “wildman” Enkidu into a civilized human via the act of eating bread, drinking beer and sleeping with a woman – see more further down below).

(From Lugalbanda and the Anzud Bird: c.1.8.2.2)
“Lugalbanda lies idle in the mountains, in the faraway places; he has ventured into the Zabu mountains. No mother is with him to offer advice, no father is with him to talk to him. No one is with him whom he knows, whom he values, no confidant is there to talk to him. In his heart he speaks to himself: “I shall treat the bird as befits him, I shall treat Anzud as befits him. I shall greet his wife affectionately. I shall seat Anzud’s wife and Anzud’s child at a banquet. An will fetch Ninguena for me from her mountain home — the expert woman who redounds to her mother’s credit, Ninkasi the expert who redounds to her mother’s credit. Her fermenting-vat is of green lapis lazuli, her beer cask is of refined silver and of gold. If she stands by the beer, there is joy, if she sits by the beer, there is gladness; as cupbearer she mixes the beer, never wearying as she walks back and forth, Ninkasi, the keg at her side, on her hips; may she make my beer-serving perfect. When the bird has drunk the beer and is happy, when Anzud has drunk the beer and is happy, he can help me find the place to which the troops of Unug are going, Anzud can put me on the track of my brothers.”

Enkidu and GilgameshDrink Beer, Destiny of the Land
The Sumerian god-king Gilgamesh had a nemesis named Enkidu. Enkidu was a “wild man”, generally believed to be a literary represention of the nomadic tribes who inhabited the lands outside of the settled kingdoms of the Sumerians who built the first known urban civilization in the lower flood plains of the Tigres and Euphrates rivers.

Eventually Enkidu himself joined the ranks of the civilized when he ate bread, drank beer, and slept with a woman. Thereafter, he was friend to Gilgamesh, the ruler of Civilization.

The Epic of Gilgamesh
(excerpt from Tablet Two, translated by N.K. Sandars, Penguin Books, 1972)

Eat bread Enkidu,
The symbol of life.
Drink the beer,
Destiny of the Land.
Enkidu ate the bread
Until he had enough.
He drank the beer,
Seven whole jars.
Relaxed, he felt joyful.
His heart rejoiced.
His face beamed. . .
. . .
A man Awake.

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