Hymn to Ninkasi


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.



Calendar Wars


One of the greatest gifts to the world from organised religions is the Calendar.  Today we don’t think so much of the calendar as a religious instrument, but that is where it originated.

At some level religions are based on augury and prophesy.  Augury is the reading of signs.  Prophesy is the foretelling of events in the future.  If a religion could correctly interpret signs, and use these to foretell events, it was able to give an advantage to its followers.

In the early days of religion the priests struggled a lot with the concepts of augury in particular.  Were two eagles flying from the west a good or a bad thing?  Was it good at sunset and bad at sunrise?  The struggle to get a handle on Augury was complicated by the natural inclination of the human brain to impose patterns on random occurrences.

As a result you get silly reactions to natural disasters, such as the sacrifice of a virgin to appease the deity who is causing the earthquakes.

As time went by some religions began to use writing systems to document their augury.  They tracked the movements of planets and stars.  They observed the patterns in the weather.  They tracked the movements of animals.  They recorded the health of the liver of sacrificed goats.

Over long periods of time certain clear and strong auguries began to emerge.  Religions came to understand the timing of seasons.  This allowed them to plant crops at the right time.    They measured tidal flows and ocean currents.  They documented the solar and lunar years and the longer periods of time measured by the alignments of stars and planets and the precession of the universe.

Weather forecasting auguries also became better.   They came to understand the patterns of regular seasonal rains and floods, such as the Indian Monsoons and the Egyptian Nile inundation.  These events have a significant influence on agriculture and hunting.  The Egyptians developed a tool, the Nileometer, to assess the annual flood.  The data from the measurements was used to calculate harvest yields and associated taxes.  They also developed sophisticated mathematical systems to underpin their calculations, such as quadratic equations.  One theory is that the command of mathematics then enabled the Egyptians to develop their monumental architecture.

Earlier calendars broke the solar year down by lunar cycles.  A lunar cycle is 28 days.  Divided in 4 it gives us the seven day week.  But the lunar and solar years do not align perfectly.  This became a major challenge for religions.  Seasons kept shifting out of alignment as time went by.

The Jewish religious calendar is a good example of this system.  It evolved from an earlier Babylonian model and was improved upon over time.

The poster boy of the calendar world is Julius Caesar.  As Pontifex Maximus (High priest) of Rome he was head of the College of Pontiffs and had authority over the other three religious Colleges; the Augurs, the Quindecimviri (who carried out rites) and the Epulones (who organised feasts and festivals).

During the Civil War the religious observances in Rome were allowed to slip.  The annual calculation of the “intercalends” was not carried out.  This was an additional month inserted periodically to bring the Lunar cycle into alignment with the Solar year.

Better calendars were already in use in Persia (Zoroastrian) and Egypt, and it is likely that Caesar experienced the Egyptian calendar personally and was able to assess it.  He introduced his new calendar in the year 46BC and had to make the year 446 days long to align correctly.

The Julian calendar was 365.25 days long, and lost only 3 days every 400 years.  This was a vast improvement over all existing calendars of the day.  It quickly became the established calendar of the Roman Empire and persists in use today in Ethiopia and amongst the Berber of North Africa.

With such an accurate calendar available one would have to question why, on this day in the year 622 CE the Muslims accepted a calendar of 354 days per year.  When Allah was talking to the Prophet (Peace be upon him) could he not have suggested that Islam adopt the more accurate model that was available at the time?

Ultimately it fell to Pope Gregory in 1582 to make a minor adjustment to the Julian calendar.  The primary motivation was to align the date of Easter correctly to Catholic dogma.  In the process the year was corrected to 365.2425 days.  Instead of losing 1 day in 128 years (Julian) the Gregorian calendar loses only 1 day in 3,226 years.

In order to remember how many days are in each month children are taught a poem or rhyme as a mnemonic device.  This is the one I learned.  Is yours any different?

The Calendar Poem

Thirty days has September,

April, June and November,

all the rest have thirty one,

except February alone,

which has four and twenty four

and each leap year gives it one day more.