Paradise Lost: Of Healing, the Sacred, and Beer
By Stephen Harrod Buhner
Copyright © 2003 Stephen Harrod Buhner
It seems odd, when talking about beer, to also speak of healing disease, enhanced sexual drive, divine mystery, and altered states of consciousness for beer is the most mundane of things. It is, in fact, considered plebeian in our time - wine is elegant, beer for the common, sweaty folk. But that has only been a truth for a short blink in human history. Before that things were different, beer was one of the portals into the deeper mysteries of the universe and it was much more than a relaxing beverage.
The ancient beers, discovered independently across the world between 10 and 30,000 years ago, were quite different than what we know as beer today. There were hundreds if not thousands of them using some 20 different kinds of yeast, perhaps 15 different sugar sources, and over 200 different plants. Many were sacred beers, scores were highly inebriating or psychotropic, and hundreds contained medicinal herbs. They were made for sacred ceremony, for attaining nonordinary states of reality, for communicating with the ancestors, as potent nutrient foods, and for healing. Such beers were the expression of an entirely different way of seeing the world. They came out of a world view in which the sacred is ever present with us, where all things possess a soul, the rocks are alive, and in which rabid destruction of the rainforest is inconceivable. The ancient beers come from cultures that, on every continent on Earth, say human beings did not discover fermentation at all. They say it was given to human kind through the intercession of sacred beings and they insist that these ancient beers contain within themselves some of the essence of the sacred source from which they come.
The Tarahumara Indians, when making pulque, a fermented agave cactus beer, place the sweet water-and-sap mixture in special clay jars. They call fermentation "boiling" and once a jar "learns to boil" it is placed near other jars (filled with unfermented pulque) that have not learned how to boil so that they might be taught to do so. The tribal highlanders of New Guinea say that the rainforest wildlife is not only good to eat but also "good to think." And Native holy people throughout the Americas insist that if a person treats the spirits of plants like they treat other human beings then the plants will talk and teach their use as medicines. This kind of perspective, a perspective embracing the living intelligence of the Universe, the understanding that all matter possesses a soul essence, is pervasive in the deeper world of fermentation.
The oldest legends, in every culture on Earth (and it is a lie that indigenous people did not know alcohol - human beings on every continent except Australia have fermented for at least 30,000 years), all reveal that fermentation was a seminal event for human beings. They all claim that fermentation came from a sacred source, it was given to human beings to help them with the human condition, and that when the human and the spirit of a fermented plant first met the result was the origin of poetry. One of the oldest of these is the Norse saga the Edda, which tells of the sacred origin of the Mead of Inspiration. (Mead is fermented honey and water.) And in another, the ancient poem, the Runahal, it is said that:
A drink I took of the magic mead,
Taken out of Othrorir.
Then I began to know and to be wise,
To grow and to weave poems.
This recognition of the intimate connection between poetry and fermentation is truly ancient and pervasive. Ralph Waldo Emerson, commenting on this, notes that:
[The poet speaks] not with intellect alone but with the
intellect inebriated by nectar. As the traveller who
has lost his way throws the reins on his horse's neck
and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his
road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries
us through the world. For if in any manner we can
stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened into
nature. . . . This is the reason why bards love wine,
mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of
sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other procurers of
The earliest fermentations took place with "easy" sugars: tree saps (such as maple and palm), fruits (grapes and elderberry), and honey. All of them were considered sacred. In some of the legends of African peoples, it is the elephant that brought the knowledge of fermentation from the sacred to human beings. And it is true that elephants also make beer. They knock down palm trees, step on the trunk to make a depression, and the hole fills with the sweet sap. Then they wait, slowly rocking themselves as the yeasts come to the sweet sap, quickly fermenting it in the tropical heat. Like us, the elephants experience activation of portions of their brain that are uniquely energized by alcohol.
In other parts of the world it was the bee that brought human beings the knowledge of fermentation from God. In the Mithraic religion the bee is pictured in the mouth of the lion - it is the WORD that comes from God. And in the Chaldee language the WORD is the same as the word for bee.
The knowledge of grain fermentation came to us 11,000 years ago - some 19,000 years later than the others. We have been drinking since before we could think - we have been thinking since we started drinking. There is now growing evidence that all civilization rests on the discovery of fermentation.
Most beers and ales that we now recognize as "beer" come from fermented grains. Unlike honey, these sugars are protected from yeasts - they have been converted to starch. As a result it is not so easy to make a beer from grain - a few other steps are necessary. It takes more work, more technology.
For a long time archaeologists and scholars have insisted that the domestication of grain was the beginning of civilization. They have insisted that increasing population caused settlement along the Nile River delta and subsequently the domestication of grain to feed the growing masses. But there is evidence that agriculture began even earlier and that maybe, just maybe, fermentation came before grain domestication - a possibility that outrages many.
Researchers Solomon Katz and Fritz Maytag, among others, have proposed that it was the discovery of grain malting and its subsequent fermentation that was the original motivation of societies to settle and grow grain. Verification that this might be true can be found among the Chagga of Tanazania's Mount Kilimanjaro. Their extensive irrigation systems were developed in antiquity solely to provide sufficient water to grow millet, which is rarely eaten, being a beer crop. And among the Lepcha of the Himalayas millet, a primary crop, is so sacred that it is never eaten and is used only for fermentation.
This kind of sacred reverence and religious devotion was particularly true of barley in Egypt and, eventually, grain in Greece.
In the ancient Egyptian temple of Philae, Osiris is engraved on a sarcophagus - ears of wheat rising from his body. Below this an inscription reads: "This is the form of the unmentionable, secret Osiris who is speeding upwards." And in ancient Athens, initiates in the Elusian Mysteries were shown, at one point, "the mighty and marvelous and most complete epoptic mystery, an ear of grain reaped in solemn silence." Initiates in the Mysteries participated in highly complex ceremonies that were originally held very five years. At the end of many days of ceremony and ritual they engaged in the supreme act of the Mysteries: opening the kiste, working with its contents, and then drinking kykeon. The chest, Kiste, held the tools needed to turn grain into kykeon, the sacred drink made from barley. By taking the grain into their bodies, as food and fermentation, human beings brought into themselves the body of the sacred itself.
This extensive use of grain fermentation and plants in fermented beverages moved slowly into Europe and a unique form of sacred and herbal healing beers reached its zenith in the Middle Ages in Europe. Fermentation is intimately connected to traveling in sacred realms. The alcohol produces its own consciousness altering effects, the plants used in fermentation are sacred and that sacredness changes those who ingest them, but in many cultures, for a variety of reasons, additional plants were also added during fermentation. Some of these were for medicinal or culinary reasons but there are ancient traditions of sacred plants that, in themselves, significantly alter human consciousness.
The inebriating herbs of the longest historical use in European brewing are heather mead and those that went to make up gruit. Gruit ale held sway over Europe for nearly a thousand years and heather mead and ale (the original Mead of Inspiration) has been made in the area known today as Scotland for at least four thousand years. But the use of such powerful herbs is undoubtedly much more ancient and has been an integral part ofthe magic of fermentation and herbal lore for millennia.
Gruit was, primarily, a combination of three herbs: Sweet Gale (Myrica gale), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and Wild Rosemary (Ledum palustre). Gruit and these three herbs all had the reputation of being highly inebriating, sexually stimulating, and mildly psychotropic. The Norwegian brewing historian, Odd Nordland notes about sweet gale that "It was said locally that when one drank much of it, it was strongly intoxicating, with unpleasant after effects." And Maude Grieve observes in A Modern Herbal that "The leaves [of wild rosemary] are reputed to be more powerful than those of Ledum latifolium [Labrador Tea], and to have in addition some narcotic properties." Nordland comments on that most innocuous of herbs, yarrow: "According to Linneaus, itwas used by the people of Lima in Dalecarnia, instead of hops, when they brewed for weddings: '. . . so that the guests become crazy.' Linneaus called the plant galentara, [meaning] 'causing madness.' " Modern research shows that, indeed, all three plants contain substances that alter consciousness and can cause extreme inebriation when consumed in quantity.
To understand the radical change that is involved in the shift from gruit to the hopped beer we now drink, it is important keep in mind the properties of gruit ale: it is highly intoxicating - narcotic, aphrodisiacal, and psychotropic when consumed in sufficient quantity. The hopped ale that took its
place is quite different. Its effects are sedating and anaphrodesiacal. In other words it puts the drinker to sleep and dulls sexual desire. Hops is extremely high in estrogenic and soporific compounds. The phytoestrogens make it great for women in menopause but never good for men. (In fact there is a well-known condition among inn keepers and brewers in England called "brewer's droop.")
When Hops began to be suggested for use as a primary additive in ale, the opposition was tremendous. Those who held a monopoly on gruit production in Germany (the Catholic Church) and on pure ale in England fought hop introduction through the legislatures, proclamations of the royalty, writings of the day's medical practitioners, and through church edict. Hops, until this time, was merely one of the plants used all along in the production of beer - the earliest mention of its use probably being in Hildegard of Bingen's (1098-1179) Physica, though she insisted that other than its preservative qualities "It is not much use for a human being, since it causes his melancholy to increase, gives him a sad mind, and makes his intestines heavy."
The struggle over what ingredients could be allowed in ale lasted, in its most furious forms, for about two hundred years. Eventually Protestant reformists succeeded in breaking the Catholic monopoly on gruit and, in an attack on the inebriating herbs used in fermentations, made hops the standard microbial herb used to flavor and preserve beer. The result was the end of a many thousand year tradition of herbal beer making in Europe and the narrowing of beer and ale into one limited expression of beer production, that of hopped ales or what we today call beer. Gruit disappeared from European commercial brewing by 1750. It held on longest among Icelandic and Norwegian village brewers until after world War 2 when Protestant Temperance movements put an end to it.
But gruit was only the most common of European ales that were inebriating. Perhaps the most powerful was henbane. The henbane plant, Hyoscyamus niger, is known under a variety of names in Europe: bilsa, bilsenkraut, pilsenkrut, and pilsen. In fact the original pilsner beer meant a henbane ale. Researcher Christian Rasch comments that "In low doses, beer brewed with henbane has an inebriating effect; in moderate doses, it is an aphrodisiac. . . . In high doses, it leads to delirious, "demented" states, confusion, disturbances of memory, and mad behaviors having no apparent cause." It is, in fact, a plant that needs to be used with extreme caution.
But it is all too easy, in the fascination and fear that Americans often have with psychotropics, to lose sight of the understanding of ancient and indigenous peoples that all plants change consciousness. They just do it in different ways; some are much more subtle.
Perhaps one of the most powerful and sacred of plants in Europe was mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). Mugwort, one of the commonest plants used for brewing in the middle-ages (the literal meaning is "beer-plant") was also considered one of the nine sacred herbs of the ancient Europeans. An ancient pre-Christian lay about mugwort, contained in the Lacnunga, a Wessex herbal from the 10th century, comments on its powerful attributes.
Have in mind, Mugwort, what you made known,
What you laid down, at the great denouncing.
Una your name is, oldest of herbs
Of might against thirty, and against three,
Of might against venom and the onflying,
Of might against the demons who fare through the land.
Like all members of this family mugwort has been traditionally used throughout the world in sacred ceremonies, by indigenous peoples as smudge and in sweat lodges, and for prayer offerings. But mugwort also possesses powerful healing properties. Traditional folk herbalists in over fifty countries have historically used mugwort for regularizing menstruation (used both to stimulate scanty menstruation or slow excessive bleeding), to calm hysteria and for nervous disorders, as a tonic, to expel worms, as an antibacterial poultice for wounds, and for fevers.
Like many of the ales in Europe in the middle ages, mugwort
ale was used as much for its healing as its sacred properties or even its good taste. One of the seminal discoveries of European brewing was that fermentation was a powerful way to preserve medicines. An herbal infusion was made, sugar added, then it was fermented. The resulting ale was stored in kegs and consumed for specific conditions whenever needed. The alcohol helped preserve the infusion and ensured patient compliance - it is a lot more fun to drink your medicine after all. Historical ales for menstrual problems, scurvy, kidney stones, insomnia, and gout were all commonly available and scores more. The great English herbalist Maude Grieve sums it up when she says:
Formerly every farmhouse inn had a brewing plant, and
brewhouse attached to the buildings, and all brewed
their own beer till the large breweries were
established and supplanted home-brewed beers. Many of
these farmhouses then began to brew their own 'stingo'
from wayside herbs, employing old rustic recipes that
had been carried down from generation to generation.
The true value of vegetable bitters and herb beers have
yet to be recognized by all sections of the community.
In many ways the true value and wondrous mystery of herbal
fermentations, of brewing itself, has yet to be recognized in our
modern Western world. But the mystery is still there, waiting to
awaken our wonder, if we only let go and drink a little deeper.
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