A Heady History

10,000 Years of Beer and Wine.

Beer FestivalLandesmuseum Württemberg

Alcohol – a Long History

Alcohol is part of the world we live in, independent of whether we drink it or not. Who among us does not already have their own experiences with alcohol? We all know what it means to be inebriated, whether from personal experience or from observing other people. Alcohol has been consumed for around 10,000 years and is a central element of many occasions. And even though we now know the dangers associated with drinking alcohol, it is still rare that a party or wedding takes place without it.

Exhibition photo: A Heady History. 10,000 years of Beer and WineLandesmuseum Württemberg

Alcohol – Always There

The central role that alcoholic beverages played and continue to play in events and social gatherings inevitably leads to the question whether alcohol was the real "social cement" of past cultures and if it still plays this role today? From the very beginning, alcohol was important in religious and cult activities. It was also significant for the representation of status and, especially through social interaction, for self-identity and group membership.

Clay Tablet with a Hymn to Ninkasi (ca. 2000 B.C.)Original Source: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Vorderasiatisches Museum

A Hymn to the Goddess of Beer

Beer played an important role for the Sumerians and was an integral part of religious life. It was even assigned its own goddess: Ninkasi. Among other things, she was responsible for its preparation.
The close relationship to the beer goddess is evident in hymns and drinking songs that have survived on clay tablets such as this one, which reads, among other things: "Your mash, was added to water in the vessel, it is waves that rise, waves that fall".

Kylix Kylix (ca. 480 B.C.) by DourisOriginal Source: Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe

Drinking together

Drinking wine together and the exuberant merriment that increased over the course of the evening were essential aspects of the Greek symposium.

People met with their peers, discussed topics that affected their lives and were entertained by music and poetry.

Scenes from the symposium are often depicted on Greek ceramic vessels. On its exterior, this bowl shows symposiasts making music, playing games and how they are served by a slave.

Drinking Horn (ca. 530 B.C.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Alcohol as a Status Symbol

Among the early Celtic elite in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, feasting served above all as an expression of status and power. This can be demonstrated particularly impressively in the burial chamber of the Celtic Prince of Hochdorf. Nine drinking horns were discovered here. The largest of them was made of iron and held 5.5 liters. It was intended for the occupant of the grave and illustrated his social position. He is the most important person – in life and in death!

The Last Supper (1781) by Nicolas GuibalLandesmuseum Württemberg

Water, Wine and Blood

The Bible contains warnings about the loss of control through excessive drinking, such as the story of Lot's incest. Howver, alcohol, especially wine, mostly has positive associations, for example during celebrations. This is reflected in the miracle of the transformation of water into wine during the wedding at Cana as well as in the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples. In worship, wine takes on a sacral significance as a symbol of the blood of Christ.

Coronation banquet of Emperor Matthias (1612) by Theodor de BryOriginal Source: Wikimedia Commons

Welcome and Cheers!

At late medieval and early modern courts, feasts were celebrated as events lasting several days with numerous guests from near and far. In addition to music and theatrical performances, the entertainment also included various games. Table centrepieces, table automata and novelty vessels, whose technical refinement emphasized the status of the host and were intended to surprise the guests, were particularly noteworthy.

Table Automaton Turtle Table Automaton Turtle (1630) by Leodegar GrimaldoLandesmuseum Württemberg

Especially popular were automata that suddenly moved or sprayed water. This mechanical turtle could be wound up with a key, ran across the table and stopped at a person who had to follow a displayed instruction such as "Drink up" or "Pass it on".

Table Automaton TurtleLandesmuseum Württemberg

Spielautomat Schildkröte

Scene of people drinking in a barLandesmuseum Württemberg

Why Do we Drink Alcohol?

Why do we drink alcohol at all? This is probably not so much a question of taste. Rather, it is linked to the state of general well-being that is induced by chemical reactions in our brains when we drink: we relax, become more cheerful and sociable.
However, there is a fine line between this and negative effects of alcohol. The threshold to inappropriate behaviour can quickly be crossed.

1, 2, 3 Glasses of Wine 1, 2, 3 Glasses of Wine (2020) by Marcos AlbertiLandesmuseum Württemberg

1, 2, 3 Glasses of Wine

Alcohol makes people more communicative and relaxed. But how does someone's expression and body language change when they drink?

1, 2, 3 Glasses of WineLandesmuseum Württemberg

1, 2, 3 Glasses of Wine

The Brazilian photographer Marcos Alberti created the “Wine Project” to investigate these questions. He invited people to his photography studio and took pictures of them. First immediately after their arrival, then after one, two and three glasses of wine respectively.

1, 2, 3 Glasses of WineLandesmuseum Württemberg

1, 2, 3 Glasses of Wine

The artist's goal was to capture the positive side of drinking together.

KylixOriginal Source: Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe

Overcome by Nausea

The boundaries to the more negatively felt consequences of drinking alcohol such as loss of inhibition or nausea are fluid. The Greeks were already aware of the effects of excessive alcohol consumption.
The interior decoration of a drinking bowl shows one of the direct consequences of excessive wine consumption at the symposium: a drinker vomits; a slave holds his head.

Hercules mingens (2nd c. A.D.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Loss of Inhibitions

Alcohol can also lead to the loss of inhibitions, which is demonstrated by this statuette of Hercules: The demigod was known as a drunkard and glutton in antiquity. In his drunken state, he lost all inhibitions, refused to pay his bar bill, or relieved himself in public.
In general, excessive alcohol consumption is also associated with a greater propensity to violence, which has a considerable social impact.

Beer Belly (2016) by Gabriele NeumaierLandesmuseum Württemberg

Health Consequences

Alcohol damages the entire body, especially when consumed over a long period of time; the consequences are serious and can even lead to death. One very specific consequence of alcohol consumption should not go unmentioned: Alcohol has a very high calorific value and accordingly leads to weight gain - which is perfectly reflected in the term "beer belly".

Playmobil set: Construction worker with crate of beer (1976) by PlaymobilLandesmuseum Württemberg

Changing Attitudes to Alcohol

Much has changed with regard to alcohol in the last 30 to 40 years. This is clearly illustrated by a Playmobil set with construction workers. The first version from 1974 still included crates of beer, not uncommon on construction sites at the time.

Fun fact: After the set was released, the Ministry for Youth filed a complaint against the toy manufacturer and the beer crates disappeared from the set.

Exhibition photo: A Heady History. 10,000 years of Beer and WineLandesmuseum Württemberg

Alcohol in the here and now

The drinking of beer, wine and spirits is still firmly anchored in our everyday culture. It is difficult for most people to imagine a world without alcohol and communal activities where the relaxed or stimulating mood is not provided by appropriate beverages. The occasions for drinking alcohol are numerous. 

Germany is a so-called high-consumption country. Each German drinks on average a bathtub full of alcoholic beverages per year - clearly too much!

A glimpse into the special exhibition

This story records our special exhibition "A Heady History. 10,000 Years of Beer and Wine!" which took place from 22nd october 2022 until 30th april 2023 at the Württemberg State Museum!

Credits: Story

Concept: Anna Gnyp, Verena Plath, Janina Rösch, Nina Willburger
Text: Ingrid-Sibylle Hoffmann, Katharina Küster-Heise, Janina Rösch, Nina Willburger
Editorial/realization: Anna Gnyp
English Translation: Sharon Adams
Photos: Hendrik Zwietasch, Jonathan Leliveldt

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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