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It is probable that all human communities have used mind-altering substances in their rituals of hospitality and spiritual practices. Alcohol has for millennia been the preferred mind-altering substance of the Mediterranean world and Europe. In recent times its use has spread around the globe. Modern states find themselves torn between encouraging the use of alcohol to earn large tax revenues, and banning use due to medical and social problems caused by alcohol abuse.
The word alcohol is derived from the Arabic alkuhul, which in turn derived from kuhl, one of whose meanings is “the essence” or “spirit” of something. To a chemist, the word alcohol describes a group of organic molecules with the general chemical formula CnH(2n+1)OH. To non-chemists, the word refers to a group of drinks with mind-altering properties, whose active ingredient (or essence) is ethanol, one of the simplest of all alcohols. The chemical formula for ethanol is CH3CH2OH.
Ethanol is most commonly produced as a byproduct of fermentation, a chemical reaction in which energy is released through the breakdown of glucose. But fermentation does not release all the energy locked up in sugars, and when alcohol is consumed, the human body can extract some of this remaining energy at the rate of just over 7 calories per gram of alcohol. This is why small amounts of alcohol can be energizing or relaxing. In larger quantities, above approximately .05 percent in the blood, alcohol acts as a depressant, affecting mainly the brain and nervous system, the way barbiturates and anesthetics do. Even in quite small quantities, alcohol can inhibit normal thought processes, leading to a loss of social inhibitions that is often experienced as euphoria or release from stress. In extreme quantities, alcohol can incapacitate the nervous system entirely, leading to unconsciousness and even death. At blood level concentrations of more than .4 percent, most people will be anesthetized, and above .5 percent, they may stop breathing.
Earliest Alcoholic Drinks
For historians, it is the social, cultural, political, and economic aspects of alcohol use that are most important. Fermentation is a natural process and can occur whenever substances rich in sugars (including grapes, berries, grains, honey, bananas, palm sap, agave, and even mare’s milk) are left in warm, moist conditions and exposed to the air, so that airborne yeasts can come in contact with them and break them down into alcohol. It is tempting to suppose that alcoholic drinks first became important after the Neolithic revolution, when more and more humans became sedentary and farming communities began to store large quantities of grains or other starchy substances. The archaeologist Andrew Sherratt has argued that, partly on the basis of the spread of drinking vessels, alcoholic drinks in Eurasia first acquired social and cultural significance in Mesopotamia or the eastern Mediterranean from about the fourth millennium BCE, in areas where they could be made from grapes or dates. But alcoholic drinks were not confined to western Eurasia. Maize beers were used in Mesoamerica and Peru; and anthropological studies record their use in many small-scale farming societies in modern times.
Natural fermentation generates drinks of relatively low alcoholic content, anything from about 8 to 14 percent alcohol by volume for wines (grape alcohols) and from 2 to 8 percent for beers (grain alcohols). Concentrations higher than about 14 percent tend to kill yeast, so natural fermentation cannot proceed beyond this concentration. But most traditionally consumed alcoholic drinks probably contained much less alcohol. Weak alcoholic drinks such as kvass (a Russian rye beer) and koumiss (fermented mare’s milk, drunk in Central Asia) usually contain no more than 2 percent alcohol, and were often used as a safer alternative to river or pond water, particularly if they had been boiled at some stage in their preparation. Very weak alcoholic drinks were nutritious and safe, and could be consumed by all members of society, including children.
Psychosocial Uses of Alcohol
With care, however, it was always possible to brew stronger drinks, and we have evidence of these from all alcohol-producing civilizations. Stronger alcoholic drinks had much more psychic power and created a complex of opportunities and problems that are common to all psychoactive substances. Alcoholic drinks seem to have been widely used in rituals of hospitality. But their importance went beyond mere hospitality for, like all mind-altering substances, they could transport those who drank them to different psychic places, adding new dimensions to the experience of existence. It is likely that in many alcohol-using societies, such experiences have been conceived of in spiritual or religious terms. The psychologist Carl Jung (1875–1961) once described the craving for alcohol as “the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness; expressed in medieval language: the union with God” (Jung 1975, 2:623–624). The psychic power of this search was such that all societies have sought to control the use of psychoactive substances. In the case of shamans, the control takes the form of rigorous training in the use of such substances to enable psychic journeys. In village communities in alcohol-using societies, it has taken the form of communal rituals designed to regulate intoxication. The historian George Duby has argued that in the European Middle Ages, drinking festivals aimed “at one and the same time to half-open the gates of the unknowable and to reinforce group cohesion for mutual protection” (Duby 1974, 53). And the pharmacologist and medical historian C. D. Leake (in Lucia 1963, 6) argued that
Generally, the use of [alcoholic drinks], which were thought to have magical powers, became socially and ritually controlled. Under these circumstances, whatever excesses might occur were indulged in by all the group, so that there remained a sense of social unity. The ritualistic use was often part of the organized religious services which tended to bring the group together in a common experience and to relate the group more satisfactorily to its environment and its members to each other.
The psychic power of alcoholic drinks and the ease with which they could be produced ensured that alcoholic drinks became part of the very texture of rural life in all areas where they were produced. They played important roles in ritual and social occasions, they sealed commercial transactions, and they were used to treat the sick and anesthetize those in pain or to encourage those entering battle. Particularly in ritual contexts, their use often became obligatory; even those who preferred to do without them risked becoming social outcasts if they refused to drink at major ritual occasions such as religious festivals or marriages and funerals. However, in urban areas, where individuals were less subject to the control of their families, individuals were more likely to drink at will, so it is perhaps not surprising that the earliest evidence of individual rather than collective drunkenness seems to come from cities in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Increasing Potency: Distilled Alcoholic Drinks
Distillation makes it possible to raise the concentration of alcohol, creating alcoholic drinks of greater psychic and social potency. Distillation exploits the fact that alcohol has lower boiling and freezing temperatures than water (respectively 78.5°C and –114.1°C). In extremely cold climates, it is possible to distill by leaving fermented drinks out in the cold. Because water freezes before alcohol, the concentration of alcohol can be increased simply by throwing away the ice and repeating the process several times. However, most distillation exploits the different boiling points of water and alcohol. Fermented drinks are boiled and the steam that results is condensed in a separate container. Because alcohol boils sooner than water, the condensed liquid has a higher concentration of alcohol than the original liquid; each new condensation raises the concentration of alcohol. Though rudimentary forms of distillation may have existed earlier, the first pot stills were apparently used by Islamic alchemists about 1,000 years ago to distill grape wine, which is why some of the technical vocabulary associated with alcohol is of Arabic origin. Alchemists originally treated distilled wine as a medicine, but from the later Middle Ages it began to be used for recreational purposes in parts of western Europe. Modern industrial distillation is based on techniques of fractional distillation, in which the alcohol-bearing vapors rise through a series of plates, each containing already-condensed vapor. At each plate, some of the water in the rising vapor condenses, while some of the alcohol in the condensed liquid vaporizes. The effect is similar to multiple redistillations.
Technically, distillation is significantly more complex than fermentation, and it needs to be handled carefully if the resultant drink is not to contain significant quantities of poisonous byproducts. This is why, though wines, beers, and meads were produced in many peasant households, distilled drinks generally required specialist production and were more commonly traded through commercial networks. Because they were harder to produce at home, it was also easier to tax distilled drinks once consumers acquired a taste for them. And their superior potency ensured that, once introduced to them, consumers usually took to distilled drinks with great enthusiasm.
The production and spread of distilled liquors in recent centuries count as a significant part of a global change that the historian David Courtwright has described as the “psychoactive revolution”—the sudden availability through commercial channels of an unprecedented variety and quantity of mind-altering substances. “People everywhere have acquired progressively more, and more potent, means of altering their ordinary waking consciousness. One of the signal events of world history, this development had its roots in the transoceanic commerce and empire building of the modern period—that is, the years from about 1500 to 1789” (Courtwright 2000, 2). As more and more rural dwellers migrated temporarily or permanently to the towns and became more and more entangled in the commercial networks of the wider world, and as alcoholic drinks became more varied and more available, the controls on consumption that had operated in most communities began to break down. Often, too, mind-altering substances, including alcohol, were introduced to communities with no experience of their use, often with devastating results. From North America to Siberia and the Pacific Islands, European traders found that alcoholic drinks had peculiar potency in societies unused to them and rapidly created new forms of addiction and dependence. Though their use often proved extremely destructive to traditional cultural norms, merchants and officials continued to supply them because they provided such powerful commercial and political leverage. Alcohol played as potent a role as guns and diseases in the building of European colonial empires.
Because of alcohol’s damaging effects, states have played an increasingly important role in its regulation. Yet states have also earned significant revenues from the increasing trade in alcohol and other psychoactive substances. And it is this deeply ambiguous relationship between modern states and the trade in alcoholic drinks that explains why most modern states have been torn between prohibition (in vain attempts to maintain public order) and the sale of alcoholic drinks (in the hope of controlling consumption while simultaneously generating significant revenues). Indeed, states became addicts as well as individuals. In Russia in the nineteenth century, close to 40 percent of government revenues came from the sale of alcoholic drinks, which was enough to pay most of the expenses of the army that made Russia a great power. In nineteenth-century England, alcohol generated a similar share of government revenue. Indeed, most modern states have depended on revenues from mind-altering substances of some kind, so it is no wonder that no modern state has succeeded in entirely banning their consumption. On the contrary, alcoholic drinks have now spread around the entire world, so that today they may be the most widely traded and most widely consumed of all mind-altering substances.
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