Nin-kasi: Mesopotamian Goddess of Beer
scene on a seal found in the "Great Death Pit" in the Royal Cemetery
at Ur. In the top register, left, a man and a woman use straws to
drink a liquid, probably beer, from a large jar on a stand between
them. On the same level, right, sits a figure, likely female, raising
a cup before a standing figure, possibly a servant. In the lower
register, a woman plays a bull-headed lyre, in front of which two
dwarves dance. On the far right, three women clap while dancing(?).
On the far left, two women, perhaps with musical instruments, stand
in front of a man with a staff. Lapis lazuli. Dated ca. 2550-2400
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Aruz 2002: 109 #60c.
It is you who pour the filtered beer out of
the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
Ninkasi, it is you who pour out the filtered beer out of the collector
vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
(Black, Cunningham, Robson, and Zólyomi
Unfortunately no identifiable depiction of Nin-kasi, the beer goddess,
seems to have survived antiquity, but she must have been a very popular
deity, if we judge from the many illustrations of beer drinkers that have
come down to us from ancient Mesopotamia and from references to beer in
its texts. Often it was the deities who indulged in drinking. In the poem
and En-ki," En-ki , the great god of fresh subterranean waters
and wisdom, got drunk when partying with Inanna and foolishly gave the
goddess all the "cosmic offices" (Jacobsen
1976: 84). At the banquet in Babylon, a city that the deities had
just created, the "beer jug" was put before them, and the festivities
began (Heidel 1967: 49). In addition,
not knowing how to drink beer indicated that a man was uncivilized: For
example, in the "Epic of Gilgamesh," the wild man En-kidu "did
not know how to eat bread, / Nor had he ever learned to drink beer!"
(Foster 2001: 14)
Not only was Nin-kasi herself the beer "given birth by the
" (Black, Cunningham,
Robson, and Zólyomi 2004: 297) but she was the chief
brewer of the gods. So it is not surprising to learn that, in early times
in ancient Sumer (southern Mesopotamia), brewers were usually female.
Women made beer at home for immediate consumption, since it did not keep.
It is possible also that temple brewers were priestesses of Nin-kasi.
Later, when beer production became an industry, men seem to have taken
over the process, but women still made beer for home use (Homan
2004: 85). Perhaps because they brewed the beer, women were often
tavern keepers. For instance, Siduri, a minor goddess whom Gilgamesh met
at the end of the earth, was a divine tavern keeper (Foster
Probably a mythic
scene, since a number of deity symbols occur on the seal: the eight-pointed
star indicates the goddess of the Venus star Inanna/Ishtar; the
crescent moon the god Nanna-Sin; the sun disk on it the sun god
Utu; and the fish probably the fresh-water god of wisdom En-ki.
An enthroned figure, likely female, shares a jar of beer(?) with
a male figure. Another figure seems to be holding a pouring jug
to refill the jar. The scene could possibly be from the "Epic of
Gilgamesh" when Gilgamesh met the tavern keeper Siduri at the end
of the earth in a mountainous region, hence the mountain goat above
the jar of beer. Siduri would then be the seated figure wearing
the flounced gown drinking with Gilgamesh. The image is framed by
coiled snakes. Hematite. Second millennium B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Pritchard 1969b: 48 #158.
One example of
the many plaques found in Mesopotamia depicting a woman drinking
beer (?) from a jar while having sexual intercourse. Clay plaque.
Old Babylonian, around 1800 B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Homan 2004: 93.
Beer goddess Nin-kasi was a venerable and long-lasting deity, for she
appears in god lists and other texts from the Early Dynastic period (2900-2350
B.C.E.). She was "the personification of beer and presided over its
manufacture" (Civil 2002a: 3).
Her name possibly means "Lady Who Fills the Mouth (with Beer)."
In a mythic poem, Nin-khursag declared that the beer goddess would be
named "She who sates the desires" (Kramer
in Pritchard 1969: 41). One tradition saw Nin-kasi as daughter
of En-lil and the great birth goddess Nin-khursag. In another, her parents
were the birth goddess Nin-ti and the great god En-ki. In either case
the rank of her mother and father marked her as an important deity. In
texts she usually appeared with her spouse (or brother) Siris or Sirash,
a minor deity of alcoholic beverages. She had five (or nine) children.
Well-known and worshipped by ordinary people, Nin-kasi was also venerated
officially, not only at Nippur but also at the great city of Ur and other
cities (George 1993: 24, 158 #1214, 168
#1391). Libations of beer, her sacred substance and herself, were
poured out to the gods, and jars of beer were placed before their altars
for them to drink. Beer was certainly used by prophets at the northern
Mesopotamian city of Mari, now in Syria, to trigger states of ecstasy
in which they would prophesy (Homan 2004:
84). Further, quite common clay plaques show a woman (goddess?)
bending over to drink beer through a straw, while taking part in almost
always rear-entry sexual intercourse.
The scene might have had a connection with the "Sacred Marriage"
It is noteworthy that Inanna's happiness is announced at the end of the
second "Hymn to Ninkasi" (Civil
2002b: 4: "The [innards] of Inanna [are] happy again"
(Civil 2002 b: 4).
Nin-kasi was chief brewer and possibly wine-maker
of the great god En-lil and thus of all the gods. It was Nin-kasi's particular
responsibility to provide alcoholic beverages, above all, beer, for the
temples of the Mesopotamian sacred city Nippur. Many other temples maintained
brewers to make the beer to be used in rituals (Homan
2004: 85). The "Hymn to Nin-kasi" is one of two extant
"Sumerian drinking songs" dating from the eighteenth century
B.C.E. (Civil 2002b (1991): 2).
It is primarily concerned with the beer-making process. The second hymn
extols the goddess for producing in drinkers "a blissful mood
with joy in the [innards] [and] happy liver"
(Civil 2002a: 3).
In the top register,
a ceremonial drinking scene, probably mythical, given the deity
symbols such as the fish, probably the god of fresh water and wisdom
En-ki. To the right, two seated figures, perhaps a male and a female,
drink by means of straws from a jug of beer (?) set on an ornate
stand. Under the throne-like chair of the left-hand figure is an
animal (a dog?). To the left, a man holds a cup and a fan. Behind
him is a rearing goat-like animal and a lion's head. On the broken
lower register is a kneeling bovine. The plaque was discovered in
the Inanna/Ishtar temple at Nippur, and perhaps refers to the "Sacred
Marriage" ritual. Pink gypsum. Around 2900-2350 B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Pritchard 1969b: 355 #846.
The Mesopotamians used Nin-kasi's beer for religious rituals, as a base
for medical potions, and as their normal beverage. Indeed, it was a staple
of the diet for temple personnel and ordinary folk alike, a very nutritious
food, being replete with proteins, vitamins, and carbohydrates. In addition,
"because the alcohol killed many detrimental microorganisms, it was
safer to drink than water" (Homan
2004: 84). Ancient Mesopotamians drank beer from large jars by
means of long drinking straws that filtered out barley or emmer wheat
husks and stalks, as well as insects. Most straws were probably made of
reeds, so they have not survived the ages, though metal straws have occurred
in archaeological digs, and so have bone and metal strainer tips that
were attached to the end of straws (Homan
2004: 86). Travelers took supplies with them so that they could
make beer when they stopped en route (Civil
2002a: 2). When they were drinking, Sumerian's toasted each other
with the expression Nin-kasira "To Nin-kasi."
Banquet scene on
a wall plaque. In the top register a woman (left) and a man (right)
sit on stools opposite each other raising cups and holding what
look like palm fronds in their other hand. The female drinker has
her feet on a footstool, an indication that her rank is higher than
the man's. Although there is nothing to mark her divine, she might
be a priestess or a queen. A woman holding a cup stands behind her.
A small male figure in front of the woman carries on his head a
reclining animal, perhaps a ritual vessel. A now-headless man in
front of the seated male looks as if he has just passed a cup to
the latter. In the second register people are carrying provisions,
including a goat and a large pot, possibly containing beer. Musicians
occupy the left side of the broken bottom register. Limestone. Around
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Aruz 2003: 73 #32.
A ritual drinking
scene from the Inanna Temple at Nippur. In the top register, on
the left, a seated female figure, possibly a high priestess, takes
a cup from a bald man, probably a priest. Her other hand holds what
resembles a palm frond. A female musician plays a bull-headed harp.
On the left a bare-chested and bald priest (?) raises a cup to drink
and also holds a frond in his other hand. A bald attendant, also
nude to the waist and likely a priest, stand with his back to a
beer (?) jar on a stand. In the middle register, on each side bearded
males guide bulls, and an inscription fills the spaces. The bottom
register is badly damaged, but might have shown another such ritual.
Gypsum. Around 2400-2350 B.C.E.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Pritchard 1969b: 356 #847.
larger view of image
Lately the ancient beer goddess has been experiencing a resurgence of
worshipful, if commercial, interest. The first "Hymn to Ninkasi"
outlines in some detail how the ancient Mesopotamians made their beer.
Eventually someone had to try to make it. In 1989, the Anchor Brewing
Company in California did just that and produced a limited edition of
the beer from a recipe decoded from the Hymn. The brewers called it "Ninkasi
Beer" (Katz and Fritz 1991).
In 2002, the British Campaign for Real Ale enlisted the help of Nin-kasi
in its efforts to encourage women to drink "real cask ale" in
British pubs (Protz 2002: 1). This
year, when I was traveling in Lyon in the south of France, I noticed a
sign off one of the main roads near the university announcing a bar called
"Ninkasi." According to its web site, the Ninkasi Bar regularly
presents various cultural activities such as music and DVD evenings, as
well as a series of (so far) six beer festivals. I wondered whether patrons
of the Ninkasi Bar ever sang to the goddess a version of her ancient hymn:
May Ninkasi live together with you! Let her
pour for you beer [and] wine, …
While I feel wonderful, I feel wonderful, Drinking beer, in a blissful
(Civil 2002b: 3)
- The Hymn occurs on a tablet
dating to around the nineteenth-century B.C.E. (Homan 2004: 84). Miguel
Civil's translation of the Hymn is available at http://www.piney.com/BabNinkasi.html
- One scholar suggests that
this image refers to "the association of beer taverns with prostitutes"
(Homan 2004: 93). It is interesting in this context that the goddess
of the "Sacred Marriage," Inanna/Ishtar, was also a frequenter
of taverns. Rear-entry intercourse, if it were anal, would of course
have functioned as a method of birth control. Certain priestesses
were forbidden to have children.
- See my column on "Inanna
and the `Sacred Marriage'" in MatriFocus Vol. 4-2 (Imbolc
- In some cases in which
Mesopotamian texts certainly refer to beer shikaru, translators have
sometimes chosen to render the word as "wine" or "strong
drink"; they apparently wanted to present the drinkers as sophisticated
imbibers of wine rather than as uncouth beer-guzzlers. However, the
Mesopotamians held no such view (Homan 2004: 84).
- In the ancient Near East,
the innards were the seat of cognition, the liver of emotion (Homan
2004: 94, note 4).
- Michael Homan describes
how, according to "several ancient texts," he grew the barley,
processed it, and then made ancient beer; he came up with a drink
that sounds very much like Anchor's Ninkasi Beer (2004:91).
- Anchor Brewing Company 2002-2006. "Sumerian
Beer Project." www.anchorbrewing.com/beers/ninkasi.htm
- Aruz, Joan, with Ronald Wallenfels. 2003.
Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean
to the Indus. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art Press and New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press
- [Benner, Mike]. 2002. "Hail NINKASI-Goddess
of Beer." www.camranorthlondon.org.uk/fullpint/fp1701
- Black, Jeremy, Graham Cunningham, Eleanor
Robson, and Gábor Zólyomi, editors/ translators. 2004.
The Literature of Ancient Sumer. Oxford: Oxford University
Press. Also available, with additions, on the Internet:
- Civil, Miguel 2002a. "Modern Brewers
Recreate Ancient Beer." http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IS/CIVIL/NN_FAL91/NN_Fal91.html
Originally published in The Oriental Institute News and Notes
- Civil, Miguel, translator. 2002b. "A
Hymn to Ninkasi." The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.
- Foster, Benjamin R., translator. 2001.
The Epic of Gilgamesh: A Norton Critical Edition. New York:
- Heidel, Alexander, editor/translator.
1967 (1942). The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation. Second
Edition. Chicago: Phoenix University of Chicago Press
- Homan, Michael M. 2004. "Beer and
Its Drinkers: An Ancient Near Eastern Love Story." Near Eastern
Archaeology 67: 84-95
- Jacobsen, Thorkild. 1976. The Treasures
of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. New Haven, CT:
Yale University Press
- Katz, Solomon H. and Fritz Maytag. 1991.
"Brewing an Ancient Beer." Archaeology 44 (July/August):
- (The) Oriental Institute, University of
Oxford . The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature.
- Pritchard, James B., editor. 1969a. Ancient
Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament: Third Edition with
Supplement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
- Pritchard, James B., editor. 1969b. The
Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament: Second
Edition with Supplement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
- Protz, Roger, editor. Good Beer Guide
2002. CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale)