Hymn to Ninkasi

Beer

One of the oldest pieces of literature we have is the Sumerian Hymn to Ninkasi.  It is a hymn but it is also a recipe.  It is an instruction on how to make beer.

In a pre-literate society poetry, song and prayer were all useful mnemonic forms.  Encoding a recipe in a prayer makes it into a duty.   The woman of the house is bound to supply her husband with his daily bread and beer.

The beer in question was not a sparkling Czech Pilzner lager.  It probably looked more like a bowl of porridge.  Still, beer is beer, and beer is the oldest drink made by mankind.  Made by womankind more like.  In primitive tribal societies it falls to the women to make the bread and the beer.

The archaeological record demonstrates that the arrival of farming led to arthritis in knees and hips, elbows and wrists, particularly for women.  They spent a good part of every day on hands and knees with a quern stone grinding wheat and barley.

The men became priests and were clever enough to turn the production of Bread and Beer into religious duties.  That made a reluctant wife into a blasphemer.  It was a control mechanism to keep women in line.

However if its’s blasphemy you want deny beer to a poet.  The pen is mightier than the sword and hell hath no fury like a thirsty poet.

 

A Glass of Beer ; by James Stephens

The lanky hank of a she in the inn over there
nearly killed me for asking the loan of a glass of beer:
may the devil grip the whey-faced slut by the hair
and beat bad manners out of her skin for a year.

That parboiled imp, with the hardest jaw you will ever see
on virtue’s path, and a voice that would rasp the dead,
came roaring and raging the minute she looked at me,
and threw me out of the house on the back of my head.

If I asked her master he’d give me a cask a day;
but she with the beer at hand, not a gill would arrange!
May she marry a ghost and bear him a kitten and may
the high king of glory permit her to get the mange.

 

 

Farming and female disempowerment

Mart

Go to any cattle mart anywhere in the world and count the % of women.  Our media is great at challenging gender inequality in CEO’s of public companies or at senior levels in Politics and the Civil Service.  But does anyone ever ask why there are so few women in marts?

In pre-farming societies there was very little inequality.  Studies of bones in hunter gatherer communities show that the tribe shared resources and either all starved or nobody starved.  The role of women in “primitive” societies was defined differently to the role of men, but not in a way that deprived women.  Women tended to be the owners of the home, even if the home was simply a tepee on the American Great Plains.  She owned the equipment that made the home comfortable, the bedding, the cooking utensils etc.  A woman could divorce her husband simply by tossing him and his possessions out of her home.

So why did the arrival of farming change the status and the role of women so dramatically.  Why did farming result in societies where women live in purdah?  Why did women end up becoming chattels, basically another form of property or livestock owned by the man?

I propose the following theory as one major influence:  The power to trade.

In primitive hunter gatherer societies each tribe basically had fairly similar means of production and end outputs.  A hunter knapped flint, made a spear, killed a deer, ate the meat, wore the skin.  There were some products that could be traded such as metals, salt etc which some tribes were better at producing.  These trades tended to happen at large summer gatherings of tribes where everyone, man and woman alike could trade.

With the arrival of farming the nature of trade changed.  Regular trade became a vital component of successful farming.  A wheat farmer did not “live on bread alone”.  The farm produced a surplus in certain foods and traded this surplus for specialty goods produced by experts.  The basis of civilization is the ability to specialize.

With a constant demand for trading somebody had to adopt the role of the trader on the farm.  In primitive tribal societies if you sent a woman to another tribe there was a risk she would not return.   You could send an older woman, beyond child bearing age, but in primitive societies they were few and far between, and way too valuable to risk.  So you send a man.  Every move is a risk, he may be robbed, or killed, or both.  Tribes eventually settled for sending men to trade their goods.  The loss of a single man is a lesser problem for a tribe than the loss of a women who can produce children.  The future viability of a tribe derives from production of children.

So men became traders.  They developed the skills of going out into the wide world, negotiating prices, exchanging goods, learning new languages, developing accounting and recording systems etc etc.

Traders developed mathematics and writing systems.  These skills developed into formal religious institutions which observed the weather, climate, movements of animals, seasons and led to the development of calendars which dictated the correct times to plant and harvest.

When trading was defined as an activity for men it was given to them because of the danger of the job.  Nobody could have predicted the benefits trade would bring to the power of the individual.  Men rose in status at the expense of women.  Understanding the value of assets from a trade perspective they moved to take ownership of the assets of the tribe, the livestock, the land and eventually the home itself.

In some societies the home remains the property of the woman.  Greek families are an example of this, where the boys must work to provide their sisters with their own homes before they can marry.

If you want to see equality in society you need to see equality in the Cattle Mart, and we are a long way away from that day.