Beer and religion in antiquity.


Every major universal religions have taken a stand against fermented beverages. Most have outlawed their use within their communities, some of them have established strict temperance rules applied to everybody. The immediate drunkenness brought by the traditional alcoholic drinks competes with the promise of liberation that every religions offer to humankind. Witnessing the ascent of those religions since the 6th century BC, each civilization in the world had also its own rich and old brewing traditions (Middle East, India, China). All major religions have found ancient beers in their respective craddles. All have begun to change ingrained habits and social structures.

But beer, compared to other fermented beverages like wine or mead, has raised a difficult and specific question to all religions. Besides its antiquity and ubiquity in the heart of the great cultural centers of the world, which are also cradles of great religions, beer is intrinsically linked to vital foodstuffs: cereals, tubers and starchy fruits. How the use of beer can be forbiden without discrediting the vital resources granted to humans by a benevolent God ? The creator is the origin of every things on earth, including fermenting cereals.


Each religion has found its own answer[1].


Buddhism teaches that drunkenness distracts from true liberation. Consciousness fails, the body is weakened. Drunkenness is transient, the strength or oblivion it brings belongs to the world of illusions. The Buddha proscribes fermented beverages for those who follow his teaching. The Buddha's path is one of renunciation and selflessness. It is marked out for those who can follow it. For others, Buddhism says nothing about what they can drink or eat.


Taoïsm also recommended to dispense with beer, and even cereals in general. In the human body, the grains feed the "Three Worms" that prevent to find the Way. In the Taoist approach, body and spirit are united. What ruins the bodily forces (3 Worms) also decreases the mind. However, an enthusiastic elite, followers of the Dao, poets, painters and musicians has advocated the controlled research of intoxication afforded by rice beer or millet beer. Li Po (Li Bao) is one of the most famous.


Judaïsm says nothing about fermented drinks, except they can relieve human pain in some cases, but bring misfortunes and tragedies in other cases. Abuse of fermented beverages is forbiden, not the alcohol itself. The Judaic texts link the fermented state with the religious impurity, resulting in some ritual contexts (Easter festival, religious retreat of a Nazarene) to prohibit any physical contact, and even proximity, between people and fermented or fermentable products, whatever these materials can be or could become. For example some germinated grains which could become beer !


Christianity likewise condemns the excesses of fermented drink, even if the wine has a sacramental value. The primitive Christianity developed the theme of "spiritual food", while accepting the earthly foods, meat or alcohol, except during fasting. Their regulation applies only to priests and monastic communities. Early Christianity has met beer in Egypt and the Middle East. But the Christianization of the peoples of Northern Europe has raised a new problem to the Roman Catholic Church. This time, Beer is associated with paganism, the worship of the earth, the gods of fertility and the warrior societies. Beer becomes an enemy of the Roman Church, a fermented beverage to which the "civilizing" wine is opposed.


Islam pronounces a permanent ban on drinking and selling alcoholic products for every Muslim. In contact with new peoples throughout its history, Islam must reaffirm its final prohibition of alcohol. A careful examination of cereal beverages in Muslim countries shows that the boundary between non-fermented and fermented is not always and everywhere easy to delineate. In its encounters with peoples converted to the new religion, but for whom beer stays the drink of their social and cultural ancestors, Islam faces the thorny issue of the absolute prohibition of alcohol.


[1] We acknowledge a broad and anthropological definition of religion. It is not restricted to the three Abrahamic revealed religions. Buddhism and Taoism have their doctrines, their texts, their religious organizations and universal dimensions too. Other religions have their place here (Hinduism, Jainism, Sikkisme, Shinto, etc.). The religions encompassed under the tag "pagan" are also affected by their relationships with fermented beverages. But their study requires a different approach, which does not favor literary corpus and written transmission.

18/06/2012  Christian Berger