Beer and Religion AD

Viking Valhalla
As to the creation of beer, Norse myth offered the following explanation. The gods were at war with a human tribe called the Vans; after much killing, a peace conference was arranged and a treaty was sealed by members of both sides spitting into a jar. To preserve the occasion, the gods shaped the saliva and some dust into a living man named Kvaser. Kvaser was soon murdered by a race of dwarfs, his blood being collected in an iron kettle. The enterprising dwarfs added honey to the grue and the whole mess became ale. Norse paradise, called Valhalla, was no less than a giant ale house having 540 doors where the Viking god Woden entertained the dead with tales of battles fought and flagons of ale. This ale streamed from the udders of a mythic goat named Heidrun, whose endless bounty of beer kept the divine company in a constant state of bliss.

Beer and Christianity

Beer and Christianity are inseparable. Beer was an essential element to daily life. Early church leaders understood that the direct line to the soul of the parishioners is through their beer. Fermentation was considered a gift of god and yeast received the moniker, "god-is-good". The early Christian church supplanted pagan celebrations with those of Christian celebrations, e.g. Christmas. Other pagan celebrations were renamed in honor of a Christian saint. Monasteries brewed beer to supply the needs of the monks, who had vowed their service to their religion. It was a small payment indeed to provide the monks 5 liters of beer each day. The monks also knew beer could buy the hearts of the commoners.

  • He who drinks beer sleeps well.
  • He who sleeps well cannot sin.
  • He who cannot sin goes to heaven.
  • (An anonymous German Monk).

    For a thousand years the church was a gathering place. Christians brewed special beers to bring to the church and celebrate. Should the parish need funds a church ale was brewed and donated, then parishioners were charged a small fee to donate to the church. In latter years royal decrees were made for tithes that were to paid in barley or beer. Each citizen was required to donate to the church. Because things often went wrong with the beer brewing that nobody could explain, the guilty parties were often sought in the mystical realm. Many wondrous herbs and cult objects still surrounded brewing kettles into the late middle ages. Superstition went so far that brewing failures were blamed on "beer witches" or the devil. The last known burning of a "beer witch" took place in 1591. Several practices existed to control or avoid the interventions of the devil. The posting of signs and symbols in the brew house was and still is a common practice. Even today, in most Belgian brew houses you can find a crucifix or a statue of a Saint. Other symbols used were the six-pointed star or the sign of "purity". Another common practice of the old brewers was to stick to certain rituals, like reciting phrases or prayers at certain specific moments.

    Beer and Christmas

    Many cultures rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight and of the new year to come. The Teutonic barbarians celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. The end of December was a perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, some cattle were slaughtered so that they did not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. All households were obliged to brew strong beer for Solstice. The beer would be drank as a sacrifice for a good year and peace. (Some sacrifice).

    By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced. For the most part it succeeded, but they gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. One holiday the Christians created was St Nicholas' day, December 6. In celebrating this day with feasts and ale these Christians were able to begin the holiday season even earlier. Feasts and celebrations continued on until Christmas when believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today's Mardi Gras. After Christmas day everyone would continue to celebrate throughout the ancient period of solstice and into the middle of January. When the beer or ale ran out they visit friends and kinsmen to drink their beer.

    Christian Saints and Beer

    In the early years of Christianity Sainthood was by proclamation and not a formal process created by the church. As a result, many folktales were transformed into miracles or saintly deeds. Saints were created as "Christian heroes" and were enlisted to guard over breweries, brewers, and beer.

    Saint Arnold of Soissons is the official patron saint of hop pickers. What makes him a great Beer Saint is that according to legend, he ended a plague when he submerged his crucifix into a brew kettle and persuaded people to drink only beer from that "blessed" kettle. This was a popular theme, since even in these days people realized that beer was safer to drink than water.

    Saint Adrian (ca. 303 A.D.). Saint Adrian is a well known Beer Saint throughout Europe. Saint Adrian's Day, celebrated on September 8, is the occasion for much Christian beer drinking in Europe. Adrian had been a Roman guard to the emperor Maximilian. While overseeing the torture of some Christians, Adrian, so impressed by the prisoner's faith and fortitude, renounced the emperor and converted to Christianity on the spot. For this act, his arms and head were cut off.

    Saint Nicholas. The Russian peasants' favorite saint was Nicholas. He was a kind Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. Nicholas, mostly a Byzantine saint, became more and more popular in the West, aided, perhaps, by becoming a favorite patron of guilds, as he was associated both with helping the poor and merchants. The celebration of St. Nicholas Day was December 6th. Celebrations included gift-giving, a little ale drinking, and even a little pagan pageantry. Many of these customs had died out in Europe by the nineteenth century, only to be revived by American writers like Washington Irving and Clement Moore, who reinvented the old saint in a new guise. Nicholas, who had once rode a white horse like a knight, was now equipped with a sleigh and reindeer, and the sprites who once accompanied him were now transformed into toy-making elves.

    Saint Brigid (439-521 A.D.) of Ireland was a generous, beer-loving woman and the abbess of Kildare. She worked in a leper colony, which one day found itself without beer. "For when the lepers she nursed implored her for beer, and there was none to be had, she changed their bathwater into an excellent beer, by the sheer strength of her blessing and faith in god and dealt it out to the thirsty in plenty."

    Saint Arnou (580 A.D) is another patron saint of brewers, the bishop of Metz in 612 A.D.. He spent much of his life warning peasants about the dangers of impure drinking water. He recommended beer as an alternative because "from man's sweat and God's love, beer came into the world."

    Saint Columbanus (612 A.D.) was an Irish monk and missionary in the 6th-7th century. He was a missionary priest whose claim as a Beer Saint derived from a story of him happening upon a group of "pagans" about to sacrifice a cask of ale to the god Wodan. Using only his breath, St. Columbanus shattered the ale cask from across a clearing. He then explained that the men were wasting good ale and that God loved ale, but only when drunk in His Name. Saint Columbanus was also known to say, "It is my design to die in the brew-house; let ale be placed to my mouth when I am expiring, so that when the choir of angels come they may say, be God propitious to this drinker."

    Saint Florian (ca. 700 A.D.) was a Beer Saint whose saintly beer act involved saving Nurnberg, Germany, from burning down in a great fire in the 8th century with beer (and, no he didn't drink it first).

    Saint Hildegard (1098 - 1179 A.D.), a Benedictine Nun, was the abbess of Diessenberg and a well known herbalist. Her writings include the earliest known reference to using hops in beer. She wrote in part: "[Hops], when put in beer, stops putrification and lends longer durability."

    Saint Arnou De Oudenaarde (ca. 1100 A.D.), sometimes called Saint Arnouldus, was a Belgian saint who is said to have appealed to God for cold beer during a battle in Flanders in the 11th century. He was also said to be able to multiply beer into vast quantities through blessings and prayer.

    The Reformation and beer

    When Martin Luther was born, nearly all of Western Europe looked to Rome as the head of the Church. By Luther's death in 1546, Europe was divided between Roman Christians and protesting or Protestant Christians. Martin Luther was a beer loving monk. Martin married Katharina of Bora, a former nun. She was a licensed brewster. She kept brewing beer and he sent away for it when he was away from home for long periods of time. Luther declared that it was beer that gave him strength to fight even the devil, I'd much rather drink a tankard of beer against the devil so that I can despise him." His life was ended when a servant girl gave him a poisoned tankard of beer.

    Mohammed and Beer

    The prophet Mohammed banned alcohol, to distinguish his followers from the Christians and the Jews, and alcohol remains prohibited by Muslim nations. Modern day Buddhists also abstain, as do Hindu Brahmins. But in many other ancient creeds, a tipple was the principal means by which worshippers achieved religious ecstasy.

    American Prohibitionists

    Many protestant religions that came to America were not overly anti-alcohol. The Puritans and Quakers enjoyed their beer. The latter Lutherans and Presbyterians enjoyed their beer. However, the Mormons and the Baptists evolved as strict prohibitionists. These are "you can't" religions. What is most interesting about these religions is that when asked they want things like "family values" movies, movies that are void of anything offensive to them. However, when a South Carolina theater owner complied attendance dropped 80%.

    Temperance and Abstinence Protestants have a great effect on American policy. In the early 20th century they were responsible for Prohibition. Today, they have influenced many laws. The drinking age is 21 years old. Drinking is prohibited in many areas on Sunday (Blue Laws). Alcohol is heavily regulated and taxed (Sin taxes). DUI laws are under constant pressure to tighten. Our government has been pressured to define alcohol as a drug equal to marijuana or heroin. Recent discoveries of health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption are at best ignored, and more often denied, by our government. The current President and his daughters are faulted for consuming beer. Any pro-alcohol stance on a political issue spells doom for a politician's career. In essence it is a significant issue for the Temperance and Abstinence Protestants, yet it is a low priority issue for alcohol permissive cultures.