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Blavatsky Net - Theosophy

This site focuses on Madame Blavatsky and her teaching - Theosophy. It features an introduction to Theosophy, study aids, research tools, original text, supporting evidence, membership, and visitor interaction.

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Beer making in ancient Egypt


One of the themes of Blavatsky is the superior knowledge of the ancients. Regarding the ancient Egyptians she says "Their beer must have been strong and excellent - like everything they did." Now archeological research proves she was right again.


The first major book by Blavatsky was Isis Unveiled. It was not so much a book of esoteric teachings - though many such teachings lie half hidden within it - as an opening gong to awaken the thought of the time. One of the goals for the book she asserts in the preface:

It [the book Isis Unveiled] demands for a spoliated past, that credit for its achievements which has been too long withheld. It calls for a restitution of borrowed robes, and the vindication of calumniated but glorious reputations. (Isis Unveiled, Preface v.)

In this direction, ancient Egypt deserves special attention and receives it in Vol I, Chapter XIV entitled "Egyptian Wisdom". At the outset of that chapter she notes another writer observing how the civilization and knowledge of ancient Egypt do not progress and grow as with other nations but are found in place at the outset of that nation's history.

How came Egypt by her knowledge? ... "Nothing," remarks the same writer, whom we have elsewhere quoted, "proves that civilization and knowledge then rise and progress with her [with ancient Egypt] as in the case of other peoples, but everything seems to be referable, in the same perfection, to the earliest dates. That no nation knew as much as herself, is a fact demonstrated by history."

Then Blavatsky gives her explanation:

May we not assign as a reason for this remark the fact that until very recently nothing was known of Old India? That these two nations, India and Egypt, were akin? That they were the oldest in the group of nations; and that the Eastern Ethiopians - the mighty builders - had come from India as a matured people, bringing their civilization with them, and colonizing the perhaps unoccupied Egyptian territory? (Isis Unveiled I p515)

In the course of Blavatsky's subsequent writings she gives a variety of arguments for the ancient age and source of Egypt's civilization and knowledge. As a result of 20th century science we can give more. At this point in Isis Unveiled she makes her point by reviewing item after item of superior knowledge of ancient Egypt.

It happens that a few weeks before BN came to life on the internet, news was released of yet another item of ancient knowledge of Egypt that had been superior to what had been previously thought. Furthermore it had not escaped the notice of Blavatsky in Isis Unveiled. Though students may differ on the value of the knowledge in question, we present some information on the brewing of beer.

Blavatsky says:

Egypt pressed her own grapes and made wine. Nothing remarkable in that, so far, but she brewed her own beer, and in great quantity - our Egyptologist goes on to say. The Ebers manuscript proves now, beyond doubt, that the Egyptians used beer 2,000 years B.C. Their beer must have been strong and excellent - like everything they did. (Isis Unveiled I p. 543)

Coincidentally, three months ago Nautral History published a half whimsical article that commented on the difficulty of originally inventing beer.

Long ago I was interested in microbiology and gained a diploma in zymurgy (if you need to, look it up - it's on the last page) from a reputable British institution. The more I learned about the chemistry and biology of winemaking and brewing, the more I was amazed at their history. Making wine, in fact, is easy, even inevitable. Put a bunch of grapes in a container and, chances are, some yeast cells will settle in and you'll wind up with wine. The same for mead, made from honey water.

Beer is another matter. To make beer you moisten barley (or some other grain), keep it moist until it germinates, then heat the grain to stop the germination (the result is called malt), and finally add water and yeast so the malt sugars ferment. At first blush this procedure doesn't appear to be the kind of thing one would stumble on by accident. (Natural History 5/96 p. 24)

Blavatsky's statement that "Their beer must have been strong and excellent - like everything they did" has now been confirmed by just released archeological findings.

In Ancient Egypt, the Beer of Kings Was a Sophisticated Brew by John Noble Wilford, New York Times International A9, 7/26/96

No temple friezes and certainly no billboards proclaimed it the king of beers, but it was the beer of pharaohs, and of their workers whose labors on pyramids and stately tombs were rewarded with a generous flow of the brews that made ancient Memphis or Thebes famous.

Artistic depictions and written sources attest to beer's popularity in early Egypt. The elite and hoi polloi alike enjoyed beers with names like Joy Bringer, the Beautiful and Heavenly. They drank through tubes from ceramic cups and sometimes did not know when to say when. An Egyptian papyrus of 1400 B.C. warned of the dangers of loose talk "in the taverns in which they drink beer."

Scholars have not been sure how the Egyptians brewed their beer. In some temple art, it appeared that beer was made by crumbling bread into water and letting it ferment by yeast from the bread, yielding a coarse liquid swimming with chaff. But a researcher at Cambridge University in England has now examined beer residues and desiccated bread loaves from Egyptian tombs and found evidence of much more sophisticated brewing techniques in the second millennium B.C.

In a report being published today in the journal Science, Dr. Delwen Samuel, a research associate in archeology at Cambridge, said "the current conceptions about ancient Egyptian bread and beer making should be modified." A microscopic analysis of beer residues, she said, indicated a more elaborate brewing process, blending cooked and uncooked malt with water and producing a refined liquid free of husk.

The microstructure of the residues Dr. Samuel concluded, "is remarkably similar to that of modern cereal foods."

In an accompanying article, Dr Glynis Jones, a researcher at the University of Sheffield in England, who studies cereal-processing methods, said the findings were "the first real scientific evidence for the ancient brewing techniques."

The study was possible because It was the practice of ancient Egyptians to leave food and beer in their tombs for sustenance in the afterlife and the arid climate preserved those remains. Dr. Samuel examined with optical and electron microscopes nearly 70 loaves of bread from several sites and beer residues from more than 200 pottery vessels found among the ruins of workers' villages.

Almost all of the bread was made from a type of wheat known as emmer, sometimes flavored with coriander and fig. Both emmer and barley - not barley alone, as previously thought - were used for brewing. No flavorings have been detected in the beer residues.

An analysis of starch granules, in particular, showed that the Egyptians did not use lightly baked bread as the main ingredient in brewing. Instead, they seemed to use a two part process. The grains were deliberately sprouted and heated to provide sugar and flavor. The cooking made the grain more susceptible to attack by the enzymes that convert starch into sugars. This batch was then mixed with sprouted but unheated grains in water. Yeast was added to the combination of sugar and starch in solution, and this fermented to make beer.

Earlier this year, Dr. Samuel and Dr. Barry Kemp, a Cambridge Egyptologist, in collaboration with a British brewery, brewed an ale according to the recipe inferred from this recent research. The beverage was slightly cloudy with a golden hue.

"It does not taste like any beer I've ever tried before," Dr. Samuel said. "It's very rich, very malty and has a flavor that reminds you a little of chardonnay."

Perhaps the ancient Egyptians had found a way to please both beer drinkers and the white wine crowd.

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