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The Unusual History of Beer

(The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book on unusual histories, based on my podcast, Muse Stories: The Unusual History of Every Thing.)

The land of Egypt had been steeped in splendor and the glorious worship of the God Ra since 2890 BC, with golden fountains dedicated to him and scented offerings thanking him. He was the Sun God, ruler of the sky, the Earth and the underworld, ruler of kings. People worshipped him, men wanted to be him, and the other gods knelt before him. And so it was for over a thousand years. Until, that is, a rebellious young Amenhotep undertook a religious revolution, based upon the belief that Ra aged with the sun and was becoming too old to rule. When the Great God Ra caught wind of this treachery and saw that the humans who once loved him were now worshipping another, he decided to punish them for their foolishness and disloyalty by destroying them all.

He sent the Eye of Ra, Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess of war who was forever by his side, to enforce the punishment. Unleashed upon the humans, Sekhmet relished their pain as she tore them to pieces, ravaging village upon village, drinking the people’s blood. Soon the sands of Egypt were red and the cries of the tortured overwhelmed all other sounds in the sky. Distressed by this, the other gods came together to speak with Ra.

Telling Ra of their unhappiness with the situation, he merely laughed at them, pleased with Sekhmet’s activities no matter how fierce. But the other gods persisted in their discussion with him, pointing out that if he allowed her to continue, there would be no one left to worship them and teach others of their wonder and power. Ra thought for a moment, then looked down upon his blood-soaked lands, listening for the praises of his people. But all was quiet. Suddenly he saw Sekhmet staring up at him, naked and drenched in blood. She was smiling at him, head down, eyes raised. He called to her, telling her to come back. But she ignored him and pounced on another unsuspecting village.

Understanding she could not see through her bloodlust, Ra knew he had to distract her somehow. And then it dawned on him, she craved the humans’ blood. Immediately Ra ordered 7,000 jars of beer to be taken to Dendera where it would flood the plains. And because Sekhmet craved blood, he had the beer colored with red ochre to trick her into drinking it. It was the perfect plan. When Sekhmet came to the village in the plains of Dendera and saw the “blood,” she immediately drank it all, fell down drunk, and went to sleep. Ra was then able to pick her up and take her home, saving what was left of humanity. The people were so thankful, they praised Ra once again.

Just like food, drinks are necessary for human existence. They sustain us, bring life to a party or gathering, and, as seen in the story above, can even trick evildoers and save lives. Some of the earliest evidence of a fermented drink that we have is from beer. Ancient beer is not only associated with ritual health, spiritual offerings and a form of payment, evidence found also suggests a knowledge of the resources our ancestors had around them.

In 2018, archaeologists found what appears to be the oldest evidence of beer production, in Raqefet Cave in Israel. There they found three 13,000-year-old stone mortars that had residue on them of wheat or barley starches that appeared to be malted, mashed and fermented – everything necessary to brew beer. Ancient breweries were surprisingly common from Egypt to China. In 2016, beer-making “tool kits” dating to 3400-2900 BC were found in Shaanxi, China. Jiajing Wang at the University of Stanford and his team found funnels, pots, and everything needed for filtration while excavating in underground rooms.

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