Hammurabi: First King Of Beer

hammurabi
I kept forgetting to post this nice piece about King Hammurabi, the Babylonian ruler responsible for mankind’s first set of laws, known as the Hammurabi Code. It ran in the San Francisco magazine Drink Me, in their October 2011 issue. The article, Hammurabi: The King Of Beers, goes into some deatil about the laws in the Hammurabi Code dealing with beer:

The Code contains dozens of edicts concerning the growing, harvesting, and sale of grain. Thus it pertains to beer, since grain had been domesticated and farmed for only two reasons:beer and bread. But the laws which deal specifically with those happy suds are numbers 108 through 111.

Law 108 reads as follows: “if a tavern-keeper (female) does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.” There are a couple of important things to clarify here. First, it is of interest that the regulation goes out of its way to specify that the hypothetical tavern-keeper is female.

In ancient Babylon, almost all tavern-keepers (not to mention brewers, generally) were women.

Men hunted and made war; women grew food and made beer. And second, “shall be… thrown into the water” does not mean that the offending tavern-keeper was merely tossed in the nearest river and left to sputter. It meant that the guilty party was thrown into the nearest river and held there until she stopped sputtering. Additions to Babylonian law made after Hammurabi’s death did away with the drowning of offending barkeeps and replaced it with mutilation of the woman’s breasts. Sheesh…

Like most despotic rulers, Hammurabi was seriously paranoid that his subjects were plotting against his authority. One of the central meeting places for average citizens in Babylon was the beer hall. These were, or were thought to be, hotbeds of sedition, which inevitably led to the creation of Law 109: “if conspirators meet in the house of a tavern-keeper, and these conspirators are not captured and delivered to the court the tavern-keeper shall be put to death.” The method of execution favored here was to drown the wrongdoer in a barrel of her own beer. Given the amount of political sniping that goes on in our bars today, we can be thankful (I think) that Law 109 has gone the way of the dodo bird.

And then there were the nuns. Called “sisters of god,” they were holy women dedicated to one of the numerous gods that populated Babylonian mythology. The nuns were expected to behave according to a quite rigid set of moral protocols, and the punishments for failing to do so were, to say the least, horrifying. As an example we need look no further than Law 110: “if a sister of a god open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.” Given that the Law specifically prohibits the sisters from not only drinking in a beer house, but going into business as a beer entrepreneur, we can only imagine that these actions were routinely undertaken by Babylon’s holy ladies. And the menfolk must have really hated them for breaking with the norm. Burning a woman alive for having a drink? Wow.

The final Law governing alcohol is 111, and it reads thusly: “if an inn-keeper furnish sixty ka [a unit of measure similar to a bushel] of drink to the city, she shall receive fifty ka of corn at the harvest.” It is a rather dull little edict; Babylonian capitalism in action. But at least no one gets drowned or burned.

Comments

  1. says

    Great article. From my studies of ancient beer cultures, I speculate that the meaning of the law regarding “nuns” has something to do with the way Babylonians actually distributed beer. I haven’t been able to find documentation, but I believe that beer was dolled out as rations for citizens. Priestesses may have made the beer not only for temple services but also to be distributed to taverns. It isn’t certain that the tavern keepers also made beer. If this is so, it might make sense that priestesses would be prohibited from owning their own taverns and sharing their secret knowledge of brewing techniques. Of course, wives also made beer for their families…perhaps the temple beer was supposed to be special or more sacred. Just a theory–I’d love to see some documentation refuting or (preferably) backing this up.

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