Top 10 drinking myths, legends and ancient rituals
The world of drinks is full of tall tales, myths and legends. While some are more credible than others, all are intriguing, and offer an insight into the rich history of booze culture, customs and rituals.
Fermented grain, fruit juice and honey have been used to make alcohol for thousands of years, with some of the earliest evidence dating back to 7,000 BC in China.
In 2017, some of the oldest evidence ever found of wine made using grapes was discovered in Georgia. Some 8,000 years old it confirms that mankind’s relationship with wine is several centuries older than previously thought.
The team analysed trace evidence preserved in clay jars recently unearthed in Neolithic villages in southern Georgia, not far from the modern capital Tblisi, at digs between 2012 and 2016.
Belonging to the ancient culture known as Shulaveri-Shomutepe, which existed from approximately 6,000 BC to 5,000 BC and covered the modern countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the jars would have been as big as 300 litres when first made. Carbon dating of the pottery indicated the oldest one was from about 5,980 BC, possibly a little older.
In India, an alcoholic beverage called sura, distilled from rice, was in use between 3000 and 2000 BC, while the Babylonians are known to have worshiped a wine goddess as early as 2700 BC.
In Greece, one of the first alcoholic beverages to gain popularity was mead, a fermented drink made from honey and water, with references to the dangers of alcohol found throughout ancient Greek literature.
It demonstrates that humankind’s relationship with alcohol is not only historically, but culturally engrained, with a fermented beverage all too often pivotal to ancient rituals and kinship. Here, we round up a few of our favourite extraordinary tales that surround alcohol, from gunpowder rum and Cleopatra’s pearl cocktail, to viking drinking horns and the troublesome ‘la fée verte’.
Click through for some of our favourites…
Ganbei – China
Anyone that has travelled to China in either a social or professional capacity is likely to have come across the drinking custom of ‘ganbei’ at some point, which loosely translates as “dry your cup”.
The tradition sees a host toast their guests by raising a glass with the expectation that they would then down their glass, whether it be filled with a powerful baijiu or Chateau Petrus. To refuse is a sign of disrespect, which in a business setting can mean the difference between securing or losing a deal.
The problem comes when ganbei is not limited to the odd toast, but several, with participants known to drink extraordinary amounts of booze in order to save face.
In 2016, an official from China’s Henan Province drank himself to death after a bout of heavy drinking at lunch. The official, named as Lei Mingkui, head of a local food and drug safety bureau, was rushed to a hospital after “feeling severely sick” at a lunch banquet with other officials but was declared dead shortly afterwards.
The report said Lei and three other officials drank two kilograms of alcohol. The type of alcohol was not specified but China’s sorghum liquor baijiu is a favourite at official banquets.
Chinese officials have been known to bring assistants with them in order to respectfully ganbei on their behalf, avoiding the need to drink copious amounts of alcohol themselves to appease their hosts.
Despite being a long-held custom, ganbei culture is now diminishing. Speaking to dbHK on ganbei culture 15 years ago, senior winemaker at Australia’s Katnook Estate, Wayne Stehbens, said: “At various times during the meal, and quite regularly, somebody would stand up and raise a toast or a cheer and you would be expected to drink your glass in its entirety. Now it’s quite acceptable to have a mouthful, whereas once upon a time that was seen as disrespectful.”
Rum and gunpowder – 18th century pirates
During the 18th century, it was apparently common for pirates to add gunpowder to rum, with Blackbeard the Pirate (Edward Teach) in particular said to drink gunpowder-laced rum before boarding enemy ships. The practice was said to be a form of Dutch courage, and to enforce his reputation as a crazed and unpredictable foe.
However the custom of adding gunpowder to alcohol actually dates back to the 1600s when sailors in the British Royal Navy were regularly paid in rum rather than money.
Suspicious of their officers watering down their rum, sailors would add gunpowder to their grog to test the relative proof of the spirit. If the mixture failed to flare up it was deemed ‘under-proof’ and watered down. If it flared a bright blue, it was considered to be at or above ‘navy-strength’ – 54.5% ABV and above.
A further origin of this custom can be traced to Haiti, where in Voodoo religion the consumption of rum mixed with gunpowder, soil from a freshly dug grave and human blood was often used in rituals.
During Tacky’s Rebellion, an important slave revolt in Jamaica in 1760, warriors prepared for battle by drinking rum mixed with gunpowder, grave dirt, and blood.
Getting ‘Screeched-in’ – Newfoundland, Canada
Those wishing to settle in the northern territory of Newfoundland are required to take part in an initiation ceremony in which they are “screeched in”, a bizarre tradition that allows them to become “mainlanders” in the eyes of natives.
The ceremony, most commonly held in pubs, requires non-locals wishing to make their say permanent to drink a shot of the region’s local spirit, a rum called Newfoundland Screech, recite a verse and then kiss a fish (a cod) on the lips.
Screech is a term applied to any cheap, high alcoholic spirit, much like moonshine, with Newfoundland Screech a brand of rum blended and bottled by the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation, after being imported from Jamaica.
Screech-ins vary from pub to pub and community to community, though it often begins with the leader of the ceremony asking those present if they’d like to become a Newfoundlander.
While holding a shot of Screech, participants are asked “Are ye a screecher?” and are taught the proper response: “‘Deed I is, me ol’ cock! And long may yer big jib draw!” Translated, it means, “Yes I am, my old friend, and may your sails always catch wind”.
Successful participants will be presented with a certificate to prove that they have been ‘screeched in’, along with the fish to take away as a memento of the day.
Cleopatra’s pearl cocktail bet
According to popular legend, Cleopatra VII (69 B.C. – 30 B.C.) once made a bet with her lover and Roman leader Marc Anthony over whether she could spend ten million sesterces (an ancient Roman currency) on a single meal.
In a lavish display of her wealth, Cleopatra is said to have brought out a glass of vinegar and then plucked one of her pearl earrings from her ear. She dropped the pearl in the vinegar, and once dissolved drank down the ‘cocktail’ in a single gulp.
The story comes from Pliny the Elder’s (23 – 79 A.D.) iconic Natural History, which states: “She ordered the second course to be served. In accordance with previous instructions, the servants placed in front of her only a single vessel containing vinegar. … She took one earring off, and dropped the pearl in the vinegar, and when it was wasted away, swallowed it.”
Whether the tale is true or not is unconfirmed, and perhaps unimportant. But modern scientists have weighed in on whether it could even be possible to dissolve a pearl in vinegar so rapidly.
Prudence Jones from Montclair State University in New Jersey replicated the experiment for a paper published in the journal Classical World, dropping a five-carat pearl into a glass of supermarket white vinegar. Jones found that a one-gram pearl would dissolve within 24 to 36 hours. The calcium carbonate in the pearl would also have neutralised some of the acidity, making the drink more palatable than plain vinegar. Alternatively, crushing the pearl beforehand and using boiled vinegar speeds up the reaction by a few minutes.
To make this tale plausible, the drink would have to have been prepared a few days prior.
Viking drinking customs
While the vikings are known to be fully committed to drinking, they were not unaware of its risks.
The great god Ódinn famously cautioned against drunkenness and unrestrained drinking in a poem, Hávamál (Sayings of the High One), that read: “Less good than they say / for the sons of men is the drinking oft of ale: for the more they drink, / the less they can think and keep a watch over their wits.”
Despite this cautionary tale, Vikings were known for their drinking, and would often do so from drinking vessels made from the polished horn of cattle or other livestock.
In Norse mythology the God Thor drank from a giant horn that unknown to him contained all the waters of the sea, while the epic tale Beowulf describes the ritual drinking of mead from carved drinking horns.
Another viking tradition is that of ‘Skål’ – a toast to friendship, good fortune and health – which requires steady and sustained eye contact with your drinking partner. After saying “skål!” and drinking from your glass, it is customary to again meet your drinking partner’s eye as you lower your vessel back to the table.
The Vikings were famously dubious of their drinking company, and this tradition ensure that they could fix their them with their gaze to prepare in the event of an impromptu duel. ‘Skål’, translated as ‘shell’ or ‘bowl’, can also mean ‘skull’, reflecting the belief that Vikings also would drink spirits and wine out of the skulls of their fallen enemies.
Chrysippus’ drunken donkey
Chrysippus was a revered Greek philosopher who lived in 207 BC and was one of the foremost authorities on Stoicism – a school of thinking concerned with the relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom.
However the Greek philosopher is remembered not for his contribution to ethics and philosophy, rather his death, which saw him die laughing after getting his donkey drunk on wine and watching it try to eat figs.
He died in during the 143rd Olympiad (208 to 204 BC) at the age of 73. Diogenes Laërtius gives one account of his death in which he was said to be watching a donkey eat some figs and cried out: “Now give the donkey a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs”, after which he died in a fit of laughter.
A bear walks into a tavern
Apparently in 1891 a Russian man met his end at the hands of a drunken bear. The story goes that a man living in the Russian town of Vilna (now Vilnius), was offered a bear to keep as a pet by an unnamed individual who told him it was tame but had a taste for vodka. The man bizarrely accepted the gift taking the bear home.
One day the bear barged its way into a tavern and supposedly started glugging down a keg of vodka. The tavern owner tried to object, but the boozed-up bear mauled the innkeeper to death, before doing the same to his two sons and a daughter.
Villagers are said to have found the drunken animal asleep in a pool of blood and alcohol, at which point it was shot.
Li Bai was a Chinese poet who lived from AD 701 to 762, gaining high esteem during the time of the Tang Dynasty.
During his life he produced more than 900 poems drawing on his own life, social reality and the spirit of the high Tang Dynasty.
Among the most famous are “Waking from Drunkenness on a Spring Day”, “The Hard Road to Shu”, and “Quiet Night Thought”, which is still used to teach students in China.
According to legend, Li Bai, who had a liking for liquor, was out on a boat drinking when, in an attempt to try and kiss the reflection of the moon, fell overboard and drowned.
Ironically, one of his poems was called “Alone and Drinking Under the Moon”.
The Green Fairy
Of all the spirits of the world absinthe is perhaps the most beguiling. The anise-flavoured spirit derived from botanicals, including the flowers and leaves of Artemisia absinthium (“grand wormwood”), together with green anise, sweet fennel, and other medicinal and culinary herbs, traditionally is green in colour and has long been referred to as “la fée verte” (the green fairy).
Popular with bohemian crowds, the spirit became known for its apparent psychoactive and hallucinogenic properties due to the chemical thujone, which is found in absinthe in trace amounts. It is found in grand wormwood, and although toxic is not proven to have psychedelic effects. You would die of alcohol poisoning before consuming enough thujone to reach toxic levels.
By 1915, absinthe had been banned in the United States and in much of Europe, including France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, and Austria-Hungary. While it’s now believed that its psychoactive properties were greatly exaggerated, moral hysteria surrounding absinthe at the time saw the spirit blamed for a number of heinous crimes.
The most notorious was that of Jean Lanfray a French laborer living in Switzerland, who in 1905 was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two children in a drunken rage. Police later revealed that he had drunk seven glasses of wine, six glasses of Cognac, one coffee laced with brandy, two crème de menthes, and two glasses of absinthe after eating a sandwich. But due to the panic surrounding absinthe in Europe at that time, his murders were blamed solely on the influence of absinthe, leading to a petition to ban absinthe in Switzerland, which proved successful. At his trial, Dr. Albert Mahaim, a leading Swiss psychologist, testified that Lanfray suffered from “a classic case of absinthe madness”. Three days after the trial, on 26 February 1906, Lanfray committed suicide by hanging in his prison cell.
André the Giant
André René Roussimoff, known as Andre the Giant, was a 7ft 4 professional wrestler and actor who was born in May 1946 and died in January 1993 at the age of 46 from congestive heart failure. His size was caused by a rare form of gigantism, which led to him becoming a renowned wrestler, and land a role in The Princess Bride as Fezzik the giant.
But it was his drinking prowess, rather than his size, that left many in awe. During his career as a wrestler, fellow wrestler Hulk Hogan, with whom he famously feuded, claimed he once drank 102 beers in 45 minutes.
Princess Bride co-star Cary Elwes once claimed that the wrestler would routinely mix a variety of liquors into a 1.2-liter pitcher, drinking several in one sitting. Another wrestler, Mike Graham has said he once saw André down 156 beers in one session, which would have been a world record.
Unconfirmed reports claim that Andre drank 7,000 calories worth of booze every day.
There is only one reported instance of Andre passing out from drinking too much in a hotel hallway. His wrestling buddies reported that because Andre was so big and heavy (520lbs / 37 stone) that neither they, nor the hotel staff were able to move him. Instead, they apparently draped a piano cover over him and let him sleep it off.
Sadly there is no official documentation of André’s drinking feats, which would have almost certainly seen him gain a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.