The science of alcohol
The science of alcohol

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The science of alcohol

3 The long history of alcohol

Humans have drunk alcohol for at least twelve thousand years and it has been used in religious rituals in ancient cultures as diverse as Samaria, Babylon, the Chinese Imperial court and Anglo-Saxon Britain. The ancient Romans had a god of wine, Bacchus; so did the ancient Greeks, Dionysus (Figure 7).

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Figure 7 The Roman god of wine Bacchus on the left, and the Greek god of wine Dionysus on the right

Christian Communion services and certain Jewish religious rituals include wine to the present day. Alcohol has more than ritual significance: wine was routinely drunk in Mediterranean countries and, further north, beer was part of the staple diet until the early twentieth century. It was probably a safer drink than the often-contaminated water of earlier times – food for the body as well as a blessing from the gods. When people raise a glass of alcohol to toast each other, they often reflect this benevolent view: the English say, ‘Good health!’ or ‘Cheers!’, the French say À votre santé! (‘to your health’), and in Germany they say Prost! (‘may it do you good’).

In this video Paul Kosmetatos introduces how alcohol affected the ancient world.

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Modern people, of course, know that alcohol's first use is for intoxication. Let's say what it is. But this has not always been the case. And of course, ancient societies and pre-modern societies in general used alcohol to become merry and as a social lubricant, to remove inhibitions, and to get drunk. But that was not the only things they used it. Wine culture was an integral part of the rituals of ancient gods, famously Dionysus, or Bacchus, in Greece and Rome, but also Native American cultures would use ritual intoxication through alcohol to achieve the spiritual ends that the religion needed. Another historical use of alcohol was as a water purifier or other, let's call it, a water substitute. Pre-modern times did not have very safe drinking water, meaning dysentery and other nasty diseases, fatal diseases. People would drink diluted alcohol in place of water. Even children would. In ancient Greece and Rome, wine was always drunk diluted. Indeed, it was a mark of the complete shameless and depraved person who drank undiluted wine. And even in modern Greek, the word for wine is diluted wine, κρασί (kra-SEE), which comes from κράμα (KRA-ma), mixture, whereas the Ancient Greek word for undiluted wine, οίνος (EE-nos or O-ee-nos) depending on the pronunciation you want, is only used in formal context these days. In the Middle Ages, small beer, very, very weak beer of about 1% per volume alcohol was the standard drinking water for most people. And it was a very major product for rural industry until the Industrial Revolution. It only stopped being as important when the water supply became more dependable and, more importantly, when the tax regime changed and people could now drink proper strong beer without being forced to pay for something much more simply because most of the retail price consisted of tax.
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Yet attitudes to alcohol vary greatly around the world. In the richer nations, it is an accepted way to unwind from the pressures of life, a common accompaniment to meals and many social occasions. Home-brewed beer and distilled spirits are drunk throughout Africa and South America.

In a few ancient cultures, the ability to drink huge quantities of alcohol was considered a sign of masculinity, for example, among followers of Dionysus. Echoes of this attitude can be found on Saturday nights among young men and, increasingly, also young women in some Western city centres.

By contrast, in Islamic and Buddhist cultures alcohol is generally prohibited. Throughout its history, drinking alcohol to excess has been associated with deviant behaviour and harm, as another term for drunkenness – intoxication, from the Latin toxicum, a poison (as in toxic) – signifies.

The advocacy of total abstinence from alcohol began as early as 200 AD. It is best known from the Temperance movement in predominantly Christian countries in the nineteenth century, that gave rise to the term ‘teetotaller’ (short for ‘temperance total’) – someone who deliberately abstains from alcohol. Alcohol was banned in the USA during the Prohibition era from 1920 to 1933. Mississippi was the last state to repeal its prohibition laws in 1966.

In 2000, around four billion abstainers worldwide outnumbered alcohol drinkers by about two to one, but the ratio is shifting rapidly as alcohol drinking spreads into countries with little previous use and women take up the habit in increasing numbers. Conversely in some Western cultures there is a move towards abstinence in the younger generation as lifestyle, health and fitness concerns have become more considered.


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