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Getting Wasted in Ancient Egypt


Getting Wasted in Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Dean Martindale

Nefertari provides wine to Hathor, among other goddesses in her tomb in the Valley of the Queens


Today, in Egypt, good Muslims usually never drink alcoholic beverages, and for other Egyptians who do drink, or for that matter, tourists at least outside of purely tourist areas, getting intoxicated is considered very bad form. This really isn't very unique to Egypt. It seems that those who drink to excess anywhere are not looked upon with favor. But these are relatively late moral sensibilities that did not so much exist in the ancient world. Not that open drunkenness was unconditionally excepted in ancient Egypt. The state of intoxication by drinking alcoholic beverages could be viewed with either approval or disapproval, depending on the context. Texts from monuments and literature sometimes record king's, often in solitude, enjoyment of intoxication, which is also evidenced by Old Kingdom workers' names such as Khufu-is-drunk, Menkaure-is-drunk or Sahure-is-drunk.

Since beer, and to a lesser extent, wine, were a common part of the diet of ancient Egyptians, they were of course familiar with the aftereffects of these beverages. Losing control through excessive drinking was discouraged, though this disapproval was aimed more at the loss of control rather than the state of intoxication itself. An excessive level of intoxication, leading to a loss of control, was looked upon with varying degrees of mild disapproval. The drunken person was viewed mostly with amused contempt or slight alarm, while efforts were made to warn the young against getting drunk too much or too often.

During the New Kingdom, images of guests vomiting at banquets and parties were depicted in scenes of the elite, particularly during the 18th Dynasty. These include the Theban tombs of Djeserkaraseneb (38) and Neferhotep (49). Textual sources reflect concern over the undisciplined behavior that could arise from intoxication. In the Maxims of Any, the author sites hurting oneself, childish behavior and the disapproval of companions as a few of the dangers of excessive drinking, while another document known as the Miscellanies warns against injuring others and having sex with prostitutes while drunk. This composition likens a drunken man to a boat with a crooked steering-oar, a house without bread and even a shrine without its god. Other documents from the New Kingdom also associate violence and prostitution with intoxication. Sources from later periods show similar concerns. Demotic wisdom texts warn of the aftermath of drinking, both physical and mental, while the Demotic tale of Amasis shows that even kings were not exempt from the results of too much drinking.

Prepresentation of an image from a Theban tomb showing one lady having problems with intoxication

Nevertheless, intoxication was considered good, and even desirable in many contexts. It was considered an enhancer of pleasure and companionship as well as a means of communion with the dead and the gods.

A servant presents wine to the official Nebamun and his wife, Ipuky from the 18th Dynasty reign of Amenhotep III or IV

The Egyptian word for intoxication or drunkenness, "tht" is derived from the verb, "Thi", to be drunk, which is also the root of the words for a habitual drinker or drunkard, "thw". It also gives us the word for confused, "thth". Other common terms related to intoxication include the verb "nwh", which means to be or become drunk and the terms for drinking party, "'t hnkt", literally meaning "beer-house", "mswr", originally meaning a drinking bowl but later a drinking place and "st n thy", meaning a place of intoxication.

Of course, the ancient Egyptians believed in balance and so moderation was even then considered important in drinking, as well as other aspects of life. Intoxication was acceptable in a variety of contexts, if not taken to extremes. Though most of our evidence about the ancient Egyptian's attitude about intoxication comes from New Kingdom sources, earlier and later material seem to suggest a certain consistency across time.

Intoxication was used as a form of anesthesia in medical procedures and is known from medical texts, but far more sources attest to drinking for pleasure. Songs, love poems, stories and even wisdom texts describe the joys of intoxication, either for the pure pleasure of it, or the conviviality it inspires. Among common Egyptians, drunkenness is often associated with seduction and sexual activities, but is more commonly seen in parties and banquets and other social life. Drinking parties were considered an ideal leisure activity by the Egyptians, though more so in reference to elites than to members of the lower classes. However, even the most informal social gatherings in ancient Egypt among friends and neighbors frequently resulted in some degree of drunkenness.

A servant girl pours beer for Bet, the mother of Rekhmire in a depiction of his tomb at Thebes

Particularly evident are the banquets, often depicted in somewhat idealized and symbolic form, in 18th Dynasty tombs, where both men and women enjoyed intoxication accompanied by feasting, dancing and music. The banquets specifically associated with funerary rites were believed to permit communion with the sprit of the deceased, as well as the gods, and were by no means considered a sign of disrespect.

Of course, intoxication could also have religious implications. Even the gods were thought to become drunk on occasions. Specifically, in the Book of the Heavenly Cow, Hathor (as the eye of Re) is tricked into drunkenness through the use of beer dyed red to look like blood in order to avert the destruction of mankind. In fact, because of this myth, together with her association with music, dancing and pleasure, Hathor was sometimes known as the "Mistress of Intoxication". However, other goddesses, including Mut, Sekhmet, Tefnut, Bastet and the beer goddess Menqet, were also associated with drunkenness. Certain religious festivals are also linked with intoxication. These include the well known great Valley and Opet Festivals, as well as two well named events called the Festival of Intoxication and the Festival of the Offering of Intoxication.

In fact, voluntary abstention from alcohol was unusual, and was seen as making a serious statement. Therefore, during the Third Intermediate Period, on the stela of Piya, Tefnakhte abstains from drinking as a gesture of contrition. Furthermore, some texts even mourn the time when, either due to old age or death, a person is unable to drink.

As time wound down for the empire of the the pharaohs, Greek writers such as Herodotus and Athenaeus often described what they saw as the prevalence of excessive drinking in Egypt and reflected on the cultural differences between Egyptians and Greeks with regard to the contents and amounts of alcohol consumption. Along with Christianity also came, for the first time a predominantly negative attitude towards intoxication and signaled the end of a long era of intoxication in ancient Egypt.

Resources:


Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

Ancient Gods Speak, The: A Guide to Egyptian Religion

Redford, Donald B.

2002

Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-515401-0

Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, The

Wilkinson, Richard H.

2003

Thames & Hudson, LTD

ISBN 0-500-05120-8

Dictionary of World History

Lenman, Bruce P.

1993

Chambers Harrap Pubishers

ISBN 0-7523-5008-0

Life of the Ancient Egyptians

Strouhal, Eugen

1992

University of Oklahoma Press

ISBN 0-8061-2475-x

Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The

Redford, Donald B. (Editor)

2001

American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 581 4

Valley of the Kings

Weeks, Kent R.

2001

Friedman/Fairfax

ISBN 1-5866-3295-7

Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011

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