Nin-kasi: Mesopotamian Goddess of Beer

Ninkasi was the tutelary goddess of beer of Sumerian religious mythology.


Not only was Nin-kasi herself the beer — “given birth by the flowing water…”  — 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. 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.

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”. 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”. 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.

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 “Inanna 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”. At the banquet in Babylon, a city that the deities had just created, the “beer jug” was put before them, and the festivities began.

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 2004: 298)

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. 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. 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” rite. It is noteworthy that Inanna’s happiness is announced at the end of the second “Hymn to Ninkasi”: “The [innards] of Inanna [are] happy again”.

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. The “Hymn to Nin-kasi” is one of two extant “Sumerian drinking songs” dating from the eighteenth century B.C.E. 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”.

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”. 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. Travelers took supplies with them so that they could make beer when they stopped en route. When they were drinking, Sumerian’s toasted each other with the expression Nin-kasira “To Nin-kasi.”

In Modern Culture

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”. 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.

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