Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking

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Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking

Foreword by Desmond Morris

Next to breathing, drinking is the most essential of all human activities. It is even more important than feeding, for a man deprived of sustenance will die of thirst long before he will succumb to starvation. This need for liquid refreshment has been a major influence on our evolution. For our ancient ancestors as they spread across the globe it meant following the routes of rivers and lakes. Today the legacy of this dependence takes many forms - rites and rituals, customs and ceremonies all focused on the simple yet vital act of taking a drink.

In times of severe drought, the discovery of liquid to drink must have been a moment for high rejoicing. Celebrating the end of drought must have been one of the earliest of mankind’s major drinking events. And there can be little doubt that another intensely emotional  moment occurred when primeval explorers, their drinking supplies long since exhausted, came at last upon a new supply of life-giving liquid. On such occasions as these our first social drinking rituals were born.

Because the act of drinking was so significant at times like that, a need arose for a new kind of drink. For special celebrations,  water was not enough. If the moment was exceptional, then the drink too had to be exceptional.  And if rituals had to be performed to encourage the gods to provide more for us to drink, then the gods must also be offered a special drink.

At first there were only four options - milk, water, plant-juices, or blood. All four were undoubtedly used during social ceremonies and festivities. Even water, the most common form of liquid, could be made special by incantations that converted it into a sacred liquid. But apart from bringing relief from thirst, none of these ancient drinks had any unusual impact on the mood of the drinkers. What was needed was a libation that transformed the drinkers and elevated them onto a higher plane of celebratory euphoria.  

We will never know the name of the inventive genius who first conceived the idea of swallowing the juice of fermented fruit. It is possible that he made his discovery by watching the strange reactions of other kinds of animals when consuming large quantities of this potent kind of food. Wild elephants often get drunk on fermented fruit and can be seen swaying along on huge unsteady feet, their great ears flapping like giants fans to cool their dizzy heads. In the elephantine hangovers that followed, the pink men they saw were no hallucination, they were our ancestors trying to fathom out what was going on. Once the connection was made between abandoned behaviour and fermented fruit-juice, the inventors’ race was on - the birth of the booze was on the horizon.

The oldest kinds of alcoholic drink known to us, the remains of which have been found in tombs and settlements of early civilizations, are wine and beer. The Egyptians made wine from pomegranates and labelled it as such by pouring it into pomegranate-shaped flasks. Figs, dates and grapes were also used to make other kinds of wine in that ancient civilization. The  technology of advanced drinking progressed at such a pace that, as early as the First Dynasty, about 5000 years ago, it was possible for hosts to ask their dinner guests whether they would prefer a red or a white wine, and even whether they would like a sweet or a dry wine, to accompany their meal.  Already there were named vintages, and the cult of good drinking was well under way.

Beer was even more common than wine in ancient times and many varieties are mentioned in the earliest texts known to us. Travellers remarked that these primal brews were ‘not much inferior to wine’. Like the wine, beer was downed in large quantities at all great occasions and the rich pantheon of gods of those far-off days appeared to require a great deal of sacred swallowing on the part of their devoted followers, to keep them happy in their various heavens.

It is usually argued that it was the introduction of cereal agriculture that made it possible to invent beer, but an intriguing counter-argument has been put forward to the effect that it was the need for beer that made agriculture possible.

The secret of the success of this improved form of drinking, using wine and beer, was twofold. First, the liquids involved were difficult to produce, requiring a lengthy process of growing, collection, preparation, fermentation, straining and bottling. This alone made the act of drinking seem more significant.

Even more importantly, the consumption of these beverages created a shared sense of heightened well-being and release from tension. This new style of social drinking may have harked back to the primeval joy of parched, aching throats finding cool, clear water, but it now went much further. It carried men off into a world of harmless pleasure where the pressures of their newly adopted urban way of life could be eased, if only for a while. It was a marvellous invention of the first great civilizations - a form of shared, chemical day-dreaming that provided vital opportunities for social bonding. Those that drank together stayed together.

It was important that early drinking was most commonly associated with great celebrations and other festive occasions. These are times when those present are in a mood to enjoy themselves. This is essential if alcohol is to play its best role. For it is not a stimulant, but an inhibitor of inhibitions. And there is a subtle difference. Whatever the dominant mood of the drinker, alcohol will exaggerate it by removing the usual social restraints.  If the drinker is happy he becomes happier; if he is sad he becomes sadder. There is absolutely no truth in the idea that alcohol helps to ‘drown your sorrows’. If you are sorrowful to start with you will only sink deeper into despair as the night wears on. For this reason, the happy social occasion is the ideal environment for the human ritual of ‘taking a drink’. As such it has always had - and will always have - great social significance.  

Desmond Morris,
Oxford 1998