BEVERAGES . In addition to their nutritional role, all beverages are invested with a certain amount of symbolic and affectional content, and it seems likely that there is no beverage that has not taken on a profound religious significance somewhere or other in the world. Intoxicants and hallucinogens seem particularly well suited to this role, given the ways in which they open up startling new areas of experience to those who imbibe them, including ecstasy, enthusiasm, and vision. Yet it is not just those drinks that are most extraordinary in their effects that come to be celebrated in myth, ritual, and sacred speculation, for often those drinks that are most ordinary—that is, most commonly used as a part of the normal diet and most unremarkable in their physiological and neurological effect—come to be invested with religious significance. Thus, for instance, among the Maasai and other cattle-herding peoples of East Africa, cow's milk is a staple part of the diet, but it is nevertheless regarded with the greatest of respect, for unlike virtually all other food items, milk can be obtained without causing the death of any living thing, animal or vegetable. For this reason, milk is set in marked contrast to beef, a food which has the same source as milk—cattle—but the procurement of which entails the violent death of the animal from which it is taken. The equation is explicitly drawn: milk is to meat as life is to death, and the two are not to be mixed within the same meal. The same prohibition is encountered in rabbinic law (itself an extension of the biblical prohibition, stated in Exodus, against cooking a kid in its mother's milk), perhaps arrived at by a similar line of reasoning.
To be sure, milk is understood as a perfect or paradisiacal fluid in many passages of the Hebrew scriptures, as for instance in those that refer to Israel as "the land of milk and honey" (Ex. 3:8 et al.), honey being—like milk—a nourishing and delicious food that may be obtained without doing violence to any living thing. Greek and Roman ritual also employed this symbolism, albeit in different fashion, for a libation offering of a fluid composed of milk and honey, called melikraton, had the power to reanimate the dead (Odyssey 10.519), while a potion known as hermesias was drunk by women before conception and while nursing in order to obtain children who were "excellent in soul and beautiful of body," that beverage being a symbolically charged mixture of milk, honey, pine nuts, myrrh, saffron, and palm wine (Pliny, Natural History 24.166).
In the hermesias concoction, we have come a long way from the simplicity and familiarity of milk, although the associations of milk—maternal nurturance and the gift of life—provide the symbolic starting point for a grander elaboration. Another simple beverage that came to be invested with a profound religious significance is tea, the preparation, distribution, and consumption of which are regarded as constituting nothing less than a master art and a way of knowledge and liberation in Japan, as is expressed in the common term chadō ("the way of tea"); the second element, dō, is the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese word dao, a term reserved for a select set of religio-aesthetic pursuits: painting, poetry, calligraphy, archery, flower arranging, and above all, tea. Originally used as a medicine in China, tea later came to be a more common beverage, the highly ritualistic preparation of which—with twenty-four carefully specified implements—was already systematized by Lu Yü (d. 804) in his Chʿa ching (Classic of tea). Although there are indications that some tea may have come to Japan as early as the ninth century, its serious introduction came with Eisai (1141–1215), the founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan, who also brought tea seeds and a knowledge of tea ceremonial with him after a period of study in China.
Although it is obvious from the title of Eisai's work on the art of tea—Kissayōjōki (The account of drinking tea and prolonging life)—that he was interested in the medico-physiological effects of the drink, this never became a major part of the Japanese celebration of tea. Rather, as developed and explicated by such renowned tea masters as Daiō (1235–1308), Nōami (1397–1471), Ikkyū (1394–1481), Shukū (1422–1502), and above all Rikyū (1521–1591), it is the utter simplicity, serenity, and austere beauty of the tea ceremony (cha no yu ) that were the foremost concerns. For within the small tearooms, meticulously cleansed of all impurities and equipped with perfectly chosen utensils and decorations, tea masters sought to create nothing less than a perfect microcosm, a thoroughly harmonious environment in which one might take refuge from the tribulations of the external world and encounter the buddha-nature that lies beyond the conflicts and fluctuations of life in the material world. Along these lines, the tea master Takuan observed:
The principle of cha-no-yu is the spirit of harmonious blending of Heaven and Earth and provides the means for establishing universal peace.… The way of cha-no-yu, therefore, is to appreciate the spirit of a naturally harmonious blending of Heaven and Earth, to see the pervading presence of the five elements by one's fireside, where the mountains, rivers, rocks, and trees are found as they are in nature, to draw the refreshing water from the well of Nature, to taste with one's own mouth the flavor supplied by nature. How grand this enjoyment of the harmonious blending of Heaven and Earth! (Suzuki, 1959, p. 278)
Yet for all that the tea ceremony possesses a cosmic dimension and can be nothing less than a vehicle for full enlightenment, these lofty significances notwithstanding, it remains always also a celebration of the simple pleasures of the drink of tea. A celebrated poem of Rikyū, the greatest of all the recorded tea masters, stresses this point:
The essence of the tea ceremony is simply to boil water, To make tea, And to drink it—nothing more! Be sure you know this. (Ludwig, 1974, p. 41)
In contrast, intoxicants are rarely regarded with such utter serenity and simplicity, given the drama, power, and even violence of their transformative effects. "Ale," observes one Icelandic text, "is another man" (Jómsvikingasaga 27). One may consider, for instance, the hallucinogenic decoction of vines called yagé, used throughout the upper Amazon; its use has been described at length by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff (1975 and 1978). Yagé is ritually consumed; it produces nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea but also—aided by such other stimuli as torchlight and musical rhythms—induces brilliant visions that take regular and predictable forms to which interpretations based on mythic references are attached.
According to Reichel-Dolmatoff, the visions produced by yagé unfold in different stages, an initial phase of phosphenic patterns (i.e., colors and geometric shapes only) being followed by one or more coherent images of a hallucinatory nature. Indigenous interpretation of the first phase attaches specific iconographic meanings to given shapes—a diamond with a point in it represents an embryo in the womb, for example—and also makes use of color symbolism. Yellow and white are thus considered cold colors, and—more importantly—the embodiment of seminal and solar fertilizing energy. Red is considered hot, being associated primarily with the womb, fire, and menstrual blood. Finally, blue is an asexual color, being also morally ambiguous. A "good" vision in this first phase depends upon a proper balance of red and yellow, which is to say, of male and female, hot and cold principles.
Interpretation of the visions within the hallucinatory phase is somewhat more complex, and Reichel-Dolmatoff (1975) emphasizes the social nature of these visions and their imputed meanings: "The individual hallucinations do not constitute a private world, an intimate or almost secret experience; they are freely discussed, and anyone will ask questions and solicit answers." There is, then, a process of feedback, or reinterpretation and elaboration. This feedback process continually refers visions to the creation myths in order to make sense of them, myths which tell of the primordial incest of the Sun and his daughter. Through one's visions, one is felt to return to the time and place of creation, becoming a witness to and a participant in these events. Moreover, the ritual consumption of yagé is itself understood as a sexual experience of an incestuous and creative nature, for the yagé vessel is homologized to the mother's body, its opening to her vagina, and its interior to her womb. To drink yagé is thus to enter into sexual relations with one's mother and also to reenter her womb, becoming an embryo once more. Ultimately, as one emerges from the trance induced by the drug, one is felt to be reborn, re-created, renewed.
The myth of the creation of yagé is also of interest, for it exhibits a different kind of feedback process whereby details of the drug's physiological effects are appropriated to construct a mythic narrative. The story tells of the entrance of a primordial Yagé Woman into the first maloca, where the first ancestors of all the peoples of the Amazon were gathered. Yagé Woman gave birth to a child outside the maloca, and carried the infant inside. There, this child—who is yagé personified—shone radiant, white and yellow and red, those colors which are first seen during the phosphenic phase of yagé visions. Upon seeing this child, those gathered all experienced the various sensations brought on by yagé : nausea, bewilderment, and a sense of "drowning." According to Reichel-Dolmatoff's informants, the entrance of Yagé Woman and her child into the maloca is the high point of the myth, but there follows a curious episode. When Yagé Woman asked who was the father of the babe, all the assembled men claimed this honor, and fought over the rights to the child. Finally, all turned upon him and dismembered him, each taking a different part of his body. These bodily members then became the different vines used by the different peoples of the Amazon to prepare their own particular forms of yagé.
This same motif—the creation of an intoxicant from the body of a primordial divine being—is found in numerous other religious traditions, not least of which is the foundation of the Christian Eucharist. For at the end of the last supper, according to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus gave wine to his disciples, saying: "Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom" (Mt. 26:27–29 and parallels). Throughout the history of the church, there has been disagreement as to how literally this passage ought to be interpreted, a disagreement which is at the heart of the theological debate over transubstantiation in the Mass.
Another account in which intoxicants derive from a quasi-sacrificial victim is the Iranian story of the origin of wine, which tells how the vine came into being from the blood of the primordial bovine when that animal was killed. Crushing grapes thus constitutes a reenactment of the bull's death, and the wine thereby produced is seen to be nothing less than the blood of the bull, which bestows the bull's strength, energy, and vital force upon one who drinks it (Zādspram 3.46), just as one who drinks sacramental wine takes Christ's essential nature and very blood within his or her own body, given a full-blown theory of transubstantiation.
Yet again one encounters a myth of intoxicants created from the blood of a murdered primordial being in the Norse account of the origin of mead, a story related by the god of poetry, Bragi, in response to the question "Whence came the art called poetry?" (Skáldskaparmál 2). The story begins at that moment when the two major groups of gods, the Æsir and Vanir, concluded their treaty of peace by spitting into a single vat and letting their saliva mingle. From the mixture, there grew a man by the name of Kvasir—who himself incarnates an intoxicant known in Russia as kvas, if his name is any indication—an individual gifted with exceptional wisdom, indeed, omniscience itself. Kvasir was subsequently murdered by two dwarfs, who mixed his blood with honey and made from it the first mead, a mead so powerful that it is said that "whoever drinks from it becomes a poet or a scholar."
Other stories pursue the fate of this "mead of poetry," telling how it fell first into the hands of the dwarves, then giants, from whom it was finally rescued by the wisest of gods, Odin himself, who assumed the form first of a serpent and then of an eagle in order to gain the precious mead. This myth of the mead's theft has important correspondences to myths elsewhere in the Indo-European world (see, for instance, the Indic text Ṛgveda 4.26) but it is that portion of the story that recounts the origin of the mead which provides a religious rationale and legitimation for its miraculous effect: that is, mead can bestow knowledge and inspiration because in origin and essence it is nothing less than the blood of the wisest of men and also the spittle of the gods.
The highly formalized, even solemn, consumption of mead, beer, ale, and/or wine has been a regular feature of banquets in Europe since antiquity, and may be seen to have a ritual origin and significance. As we have seen, such drinks as these are often felt to partake of divinity, and also demonstrably enable those who imbibe to transcend the limits of their ordinary human condition, bestowing upon them extraordinary powers of speech, intellect, physical strength, and well-being. Such potent fluids are also regularly offered as sacrificial libations, through which the same gifts are conferred upon gods, demigods, spirits of the dead, or the natural order itself.
Nowhere, however, have intoxicating drinks been elevated to a loftier position of religious significance than among the Indo-Iranian peoples, who knew both a profane intoxicant known as surā in India and hurā in Iran and a sacred drink (Indic soma, Iranian haoma ), the latter of which was invested with both the status of a deity and a stunningly complex set of symbolic elaborations. At the most concrete level, this beverage—prepared by pressing the sap from a specific plant to obtain a juice that is mixed with water, milk, or honey in different ritual contexts—had powerful hallucinogenic effects, but beyond this, it was understood to be an all purpose intensifier, which enhanced all human capabilities, giving health to the sick, children to the barren, eloquence to the poet, vision and insight to the priest, strength to the warrior, and long life to any who may drink it. Going still further, it was claimed that soma or haoma could grant freedom from death (Skt., amṛta, literally "nondeath"; often incorrectly translated as "immortality") both to gods and to humans, as for instance, in the exultant Ṛgveda 8.48.3:
We have drunk soma; we have become free from death. We have gone to the light; we have found the gods! What now can joylessness do to us? What, truly, can the evil of mortality do, o you who are free from death?
Going further still, soma and haoma were considered nothing less than the universal life essence, the fluid that vivifies and invigorates all living beings. Moreover, the sacrificial offering of this elixir came to be regarded as the means to effect circulation of life energy throughout the entire cosmos. For in the last analysis, soma and haoma were not merely drinks, nor were they the plants from which drinks were made; rather, they were only temporary forms or incarnations of the life essence, of which there were many others. To pursue but one line of analysis found in the Indic manuals of esoteric speculation upon sacrificial ritual, we see that the juice extracted from some plants, when poured into the sacrificial fire, ascends to heaven in the form of smoke. This smoke coalesces to form clouds, from which the rains pour down to earth. Smoke, clouds, and rain—like soma juice—are all forms of the universal energizing fluid, and when rain falls upon the earth it brings forth plants (among them soma, the "king of plants," but all the others as well). These plants, in turn, are eaten by grazing animals. Having passed through rain and plants, in the bodies of male animals the elixir becomes semen, and in females, milk, both of which are but further transformations of soma. By eating plants, drinking water or milk, humans also absorb soma into their bodies, gaining life and energy thereby. But in all its various forms, soma is ultimately and inevitably destined for the sacrificial fire, for not only are plants, water, and milk offered along with the soma liquid proper, but the cremation fire is also a fire of sacrifice that returns the life fluids left in the corpse to the cosmic cycle.
This is but one system of symbolic speculation centering on soma; numerous others have also enjoyed currency, such as that which homologized the waxing moon to a vessel filled with the sacred fluid and the waning moon to a libation for the benefit of all the waters and plants (see, e.g., Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 22.214.171.124). Ultimately, the symbolic importance of soma came to overshadow its use as an intoxicant, such that it mattered relatively little when either supplies of the original soma plant were cut off or the knowledge of its original identity was lost. For centuries the soma sacrifice has been performed with a substitute, the Ephedra plant, which has no hallucinogenic effect whatsoever, but which is treated with the same reverence as was its more potent predecessor. Although numerous attempts have been made to identify the original plant—the psychotropic mushroom Amanita muscaria being the most recent candiate—most Indologists consider it unlikely that it will ever be located.
In Iran, the haoma cultus developed somewhat differently, but Iranian data support the same general conclusion as do those from India: the symbolic possibilities of the drink were far more important than its physiological effects in the long run. The earliest mentions of haoma in any Iranian text are ringing condemnations of the intoxicating beverage. These are two verses within the most ancient and prestigious portions of the Avesta, attributed by the Zoroastrian tradition and most modern scholars to Zarathushtra himself (Yasna 32.4 and 48.10). In the latter of these, the speaker calls directly to Ahura Mazdā, the Wise Lord, pleading, "When will you strike down this piss of an intoxicant, with which the Karapan-priests and the wicked lords of the lands evilly cause pain?"
Expert opinion is divided on whether this implies a blanket condemnation of haoma, or only a rejection of certain abuses of the drink. What is clear is that by the Achaemenid period haoma once again stood at the center of Iranian cult, as is attested by hundreds of inscriptions at Persepolis. Later Zoroastrian texts also grant a privileged position to haoma as a sacred beverage, an elixir of life, and a deity who is celebrated with his own hymn, the famous Hōm Yasht (Yasna 9–11), a text that deserves much more careful and detailed study than it has received to date. This hymn appears to be a highly successful attempt to rehabilitate the haoma cultus, purifying it of the unseemly elements that led to Zarathushtra's denunciation while retaining many aspects of its symbolic significance, and reintegrating it into Zoroastrian worship. And to this day, the solemn preparation, consumption, and offering of haoma —now a drink devoid of intoxicating effect—is the central Zoroastrian ritual.
To these few examples, countless others might well be added, not least of which would be the clear magico-religious symbolism evident in advertisements for commercial soft drinks, as for instance "Come alive with Pepsi Cola," a slogan ineptly translated for the Taiwanese market as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back to life."
To date, there is no satisfactory general summary of the variety of religious uses and significances of beverages. Rather, the literature exists in scattered form, most of it in languages other than English.
On the symbolic value of milk among the Maasai, see John G. Galaty's "Ceremony and Society: The Poetics of Maasai Ritual," Man 18 (June 1983): 361–382. On milk in antiquity, see Karl Wyss's Die Milch im Kultus der Griechen und Römer (Giessen, 1914), and specifically on milk and honey, note the still useful article of Hermann Usener, "Milch und Honig," Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 57 (1902): 177–195. On wine, see Karl Kirchner's Die sakrale Bedeutung des Weines im Altertum (Giessen, 1910).
Regarding the Japanese tea ceremony, several useful treatments are available. A. L. Sadler's Cha-no-yu, the Japanese Tea Ceremony (Rutland, Vt., 1962) provides a detailed description, but little in the way of analysis or interpretation. For these, see D. T. Suzuki's Zen and Japanese Culture, 2d ed., rev. & enl. (1959; reprint, Princeton, 1970), pp. 269–328; and Theodore M. Ludwig's "The Way of Tea: A Religio-Aesthetic Mode of Life," History of Religions 14 (1974): 28–50. For another excellent example of the religious valorization of a familiar beverage, see G. Mantovani's "Acqua magica e acqua di luce in due testi gnostici," in Gnosticisme et monde hellénistique, edited by Julien Ries (Louvain, 1982), pp. 429–439.
For use of intoxicants in the Amazon, the best sources to date are the writings of Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, especially The Shaman and the Jaguar (Philadelphia, 1975) and Beyond the Milky Way: Hallucinatory Imagery of the Tukano Indians (Los Angeles, 1978). On the Germanic usage and mythology of mead, see the splendid work of Renate Doht, Der Rauschtrank im germanischen Mythos (Vienna, 1974).
On myths of the theft of an "immortality fluid," see the diverging interpretations in Adalbert Kuhn's Die Herabkunft des Feuers und des Göttertranks (Berlin, 1859); Georges Dumézil's Le festin d'immortalité (Paris, 1924); and David M. Knipe's "The Heroic Theft: Myths from Rgveda IV and the Ancient Near East," History of Religions 6 (May 1967): 328–360. On fluids of immortality in general, but with primary emphasis on the Greco-Roman world, the old work of W. H. Roscher, Nektar und Ambrosia (Leipzig, 1883), retains value.
There are numerous discussions on soma and haoma, the most valuable for its attention to the rich symbolism of these cult beverages being Herman Lommel's "König Soma," Numen 2 (1955): 196–205. The attempt to identify soma with the mushroom Amanita muscaria was made in R. Gordon Wasson's Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (New York, 1968) but has been soundly refuted in John Brough's "Soma and Amanita Muscaria," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 34 (1971): 331–362.
Armstrong, David E. Alcohol and Altered States in Ancestor Veneration Rituals of Zhou Dynasty China and Iron Age Palestine: A New Approach to Ancestor Rituals. Lewiston, N.Y., 1988.
Bologne, Jean-Claude. Histoire morale and culturelle de nos boissons. Paris, 1991.
Graham, Patricia Graham. Tea of the Sages: The Art of Sencha. Honolulu, 1988.
Kueny, Kathryn. The Rhetoric of Sobriety: Wine in Early Islam. Albany, 2001.
Poo, Mu-chou. Wine and Wine Offerings in the Religion of Ancient Egypt. New York, 1995.
Saoshitsu, Sen. The Japanese Way of Tea: From Its Origins in China to Sen Rikyu. Translated by V. Dixon Morris. Honolulu, 1998.
Tanaka, Sen'O. The Tea Ceremony. New York, 1977.
Bruce Lincoln (1987)
"Beverages." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/beverages
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