Monday, June 4, 2012

A Civilising Tale

I am reading a very interesting book, "The Economics of Good and Evil" by Tomáš Sedláček, a Czech economist who was once an economic advisor to former Czech president Václav Havel. The basic premise of the book is that economics is not purely a mathematical phenomenon, but rather a cultural one, influenced by, amongst other things, religion, philosophy and the arts. In the very first chapter of the book, Sedláček sets out to show that the Epic of Gilgamesh contains elements of economic theory and thought.

What exactly does this have to do with beer? Well, one of the characters in the Epic is called Enkidu, a wild and uncivilised creature to begin with, who becomes friends with Gilgamesh and together they do many great things. Eventually Enkidu is civilised and when brought to the city and dressed, he is encouraged to:

"Eat the bread, Enkidu, essential to life,
drink the ale, the lot of the land".

Seemingly, bread and beer are the hallmarks of human civilisation according to the standard text. I find it most interesting that it is beer that is marked out as being civilising because beer, and I realise that what the Sumerians would call beer would be rather different from our modern versions, simply cannot exist in nature. While beer may be a product of natural ingredients, it can only exist because of the genius of man, as I have talked about before.

What was beer for the Sumerians? Well, from what I have read, mainly from the Hymn to Ninkasi, Sumerian Goddess of Beer, it would have been made with loaves of bread being soaked with malted grains. There is no mention of hops or other bittering agents, but it sounds remarkably like kvass, a low alcohol, sour beverage which is still made in Eastern Europe, particularly Ukraine.

So there we have it, a thought for Monday morning, from the very earliest recorded history of mankind, beer has been one of the indicators of a civilised society.

* the picture above is not mine, but rather, taken by "Mr.Icon", from the Wikipedia page about kvass, and used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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