Grapes Gone Wild Part 3: Mixicology in Mesopotamia
September 10, 2008 by R.M. Shor
By RM Shor
This article is the third installment in a multipart history on the making and consumption of wines.
Part 3: Mixicology in Mesopotamia
I must digress for a paragraph or so to explain how the world really works.
In spite of what you might see on cable channels, history is a lot more like our national highway system than a one-lane road through flat rural country. There are lots of lanes; there are slow cars in the fast lane, working-stiff commuters with eerily realistic baby dolls in children’s seats in the HOV lane, and crazy teenagers zigzagging in and out of traffic (yes, even in Washington State). In reality, the history of mankind, and of wine, has its on-ramps and exits, tunnels and bridges, overpasses and underpasses, semitrailers and motor-scooters; and on the tarmac it has recently liberated spare parts, ladders, mattresses, and road-kill. All this means that, as much as we would all like to see the cause and effect of events and the rise and fall of empires line up in a neat little queue, it didn’t happen that way.
The world is a big place, and as soon as our prehistoric ancestors found their travelling shoes, they didn’t really stop unless forced to do so. Some civilizations, like the Egyptians, took long trips lasting thousands of years, and some, like the Phoenicians, ran out of gas pretty quickly, but there were a lot of cultures on this metaphorical road at any one time. Even though it would be 5,000 more years until the invention of the roller-bag suitcase, by 3000 B.C., most had the wheel, which they mounted on carts pulled by various suffering pack animals; and they went cruising to set up camp all over the place, even in the suburbs. Most importantly, they intermingled and traded ideas (think early tailgate parties), one of which was how to grow grapes and make wine. So from about 2800 B.C. on, everyone seemed to be doing it, even the Chinese.
There. I had to mention that, because we are revisiting Mesopotamia, and some of you probably would have thought me repetitive. Now we can return to our story.
Mesopotamia means “the land between the two rivers,” referring to the Tigris and Euphrates, but in those days, they had no border fences. The area pretty much maps to today’s central Iraq and parts of Iran, and it consisted of many city-states and tribal areas, again, a lot like Iraq and Iran today. The Southeastern part of the region had a few bigger, well-established cities like Ur and Uruk, and these were united into a nation called Sumeria from about 2500 to 1900 B.C. Sumeria is generally considered to be the first “real” civilization, because it developed the necessary products, professions, and services to sustain a large group of people. In addition to great agriculture, these included a cuneiform, character-based written language (as opposed to earlier pictographic cuneiform writing and hieroglyphics), soldiers, accountants, lawyers (hmmmm…), and most important, board games.
From a soap-opera-like set of myths in the new form of writing, we have the first documented curse involving wine, in which a group of gods chastise the city of Agade for “pouncing” on the city of Ekur: “May your pilasters with the standing lahama [ocean and sky] deities fall to the ground like tall young men drunk on wine!… may its clay be cursed by Enki [one of the gods]!” Now, this might also be the earliest written record of hypocrisy as well, because Enki was getting famously hammered in another myth just the evening before. They did have a special deity for wine though, Geshtin or Geshtinanna (both of which sound to me like someone who has had too much), the “Lady of the Vine.”
There’s some confusion about how much wine the Sumerians drank, mostly between wine and beer fans in ivory towers. Some researchers think the concepts of labeling and branding wines that we discussed in our last episode were Sumerian in origin, not Egyptian. Anyway, these are just academic historians—always arguing.
Cylinder seal from the tomb of Queen Pu-abi, c. 2600 B.C., showing lame beer drinkers (above) using straws and wine drinkers (below) raising their glasses in toast.
The real impact of wine on the region came a bit later in Babylon, not far from present days Baghdad, under Hammurabi (c. 1795-1750 B.C.). Hammurabi is famous for putting all those lawyers to work, and they came up with a huge set of codes and regulations, among which are Sections 108 and 109:
§ 108 – “If a [woman wine-seller] does not accept [grain] 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.”
§ 109 – “If conspirators meet in the house of a woman wine-seller, and these conspirators are not captured and delivered to the court, the wine-seller shall be put to death.”
Witness the beginnings of alcohol regulation and the negative connotations associated with drink. The first one seems a bit harsh to me –I mean, trial by water for the pretty bartender who watered down your drink? But then, I’m in favor of keeping habeas corpus, too.
(This month’s bonus tidbit: To get your own personalized cuneiform monogram, go to the “Write like a Babylonian” site at http://www.upennmuseum.com/cuneiform.cgi.)
Next Time: A Place in the Greek Pantheon