Midas Touch – When Archaeology and Myth Craft a Delicious Beer

Image result for midas touch beer dogfish

Liquid gold

History being a life long passion of mine, I often inform people of this fact when dancing through the usual small-talk ‘get to know you’ questions. This is something that usually doesn’t inspire much interest and most of the responses I receive are something along the lines of, “Ah, that’s cool–always found it boring in school though.” History is more than just memorizing dates, I’d exclaim! It’s insanely dramatic and fun, filled with stories so crazy half the thrill of it is knowing it happened for real–and sometimes, it even uncovers ancient recipes for booze that can be reproduced for us modern day plebeians to try! How are you not entertained?!

Almost 50 years ago, Penn University excavated a tomb found at the ancient site of Gordion, Turkey. Gordion was famous for being where the impossibly legendary Gordian Knot was tied and prophesied to be undone only by someone destined to rule all of Asia. That someone turned out to be Alexander the Great because if there was ever a prophecy, it certainly applied to him most conveniently. Geez, Alexander, leave some table scraps for the rest of us! Gordion was also famous for being the seat of the kingdom of Phrygia which was home to a famous ruler you may have also heard tales of. That being King Midas of poorly chosen wishes. Though the tomb hasn’t been definitively proven to be that of Midas [1] (the other assumption is that it may instead belong to his father Gordius), Archaeologists are sure that the tomb certainly belonged to a beloved Phyrgian king from the Iron Age because they discovered the body of a 60-65 year old male adjourned in purple and surrounded by over 150+ bronze drinking vessels left over from a celebratory farewell feast held outside of his tomb.  The collection was whisked away and sent off to the Penn Museum for safe keeping and forgotten about until Dr. Patrick McGovern, basically the Indiana Jones of ancient alcohols & beverages became bored one day and decided to take a closer look at the contents. [2]

Phrygian jug

Sexy drinking vessel

Using an array of micro-chemical analysis including, but not limited to, infrared spectrometry, gas and liquid chromatography, and mass spectrometry (I don’t know what any of this means but I wanted to include it so I could make any of the science nerds in the audience warm and fuzzy), he was able to isolate the marker compounds of specific natural products that were contained in these vessels by studying the sticky residue found in the remains. And what he found was shocking–besides the completely normal consumption of spicy, barbecued lamb and lentil stew, he found evidence to suggest that the drink of choice among these funeral revelries was a booze concoction hinting of grape wine, honey mead, and barley beer together. A mixture that made him blanch at the thought!

That doesn’t even sound good, right? Ever curious, however, Dr. Patrick McGovern issued a challenge to micro-brewers while speaking at a convention, and invited any one of them to join him in the labs the next morning to see if they could reverse engineer the drink found in Midas’ tomb. At least 20 micro-brewers took him up on the offer, but only one came out the victor–Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery. Together, they created Midas Touch–a craft brew you can actually purchase and drink today! It’s completely based off of the components found in the drinking vessels making it the oldest ancient ale recipe. It’s made with white muscat grapes, honey, and barley–actually a pretty delicious combination having tried it. It falls more on the line of mead in my opinion. It also contains the addition of saffron–it’s a bit of conjecture, but since the bittering agent hops wasn’t introduced to Europe until around 700 AD, they went with this extremely valuable spice which was found prominently in Turkey during antiquity and which is possible to have been the component responsible for the yellowish color found in the residue in the drinking vessel remains. The beer isn’t the cheapest in the world, thanks to the saffron, but it’s an insanely yummy drink and I personally love it not being much of a beer drinker myself. Makes for a fun immersive history experience too, now you have a taste for what ancient peoples drank! [3]

Now, if you’re a bit hazy on the details of Midas and why you remember his name, I got you–there are a few mythological traditions that his story comes from thanks in part to Aristotle and the diligent re-tellings of Ovid in his Metamorphoses XI. 

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What Gordian Knot?

There are a few variations, but one of the more well known ones has Dionysus, the god of wine and other wild pleasures making him the favorite of Dude-Bros everywhere, hanging out with his gang of satyrs and the like. One of the satyrs, Silenos, gets super drunk and finds himself kidnapped by a bunch of filthy peasants and brought to King Midas. One variation has Midas actually lacing a drinking fountain with wine because apparently Silenos, when drunk, spouts all kinds of useful wisdom and quips and lashed out a positively delightful one upon being abducted to court:

The best thing for man is not to be born at all, and the second best thing is to die as soon as possible. [4]

Yikes. Either way, King Midas recognizes Silenos and pays extra attention to his comforts, lavishing him with entertainments for 10 days before returning him to Dionysus who is surprised and exceedingly grateful. Dionysus tells Midas that he’ll grant him one wish in thanks for not raping or murdering the hell out of Silenos which most ancient men are want to do in these days and Midas takes next to no time in deliberating on what his true desires are. Clearly lacking in the gift of hindsight, which he should have wished for instead if you ask me, he requested that everything he touched be turned instantly to gold.

Wish granted, Midas was pleased to see that he could turn all matter into glittering gold, most likely singing the line from Smash Mouth’s All Star as he did so. He was delighted when twigs and leaves shifted to aurum with the slightest touch and skipped on back to his court excited for a future filled with endless wealth. He began to regret his wish pretty quick, however, when he realized his new golden touch also applied to anything he tried to drink or eat–apparently not being a dickish enough king to demand being hand-fed to by his servants. He soon became so inconsolably hungry and thirsty, that he went crying back to Dionysus asking for the wish to be taken back. Dionysus told him to stop being such a whiny baby and go wash off the wish in the river Paktolos which could be found near Sardis. Doing as he was told, Midas washed away his golden touch in the river which is said to be why the sands of the river are forever golden. [4]

That’s the most famous story of King Midas but there were others. Another one has Midas’s bad judgment continuing when he foolishly insists Pan to be a better musician than Apollo, which results in the god furiously cursing him with donkey ears for being such an ass. Then there is the supposed bastard son of Midas, Lityerses, who is some kind of proto-Dexter serial killer who tricks travelers into competing against him in an unwinnable contest and then ceremoniously whipping, beheading them, and then stuffing up his victims into a corn stack while singing a playful tune (probably also All Star by Smash Mouth). Herakles came across him and was like nah brah and gave him a piece of his own medicine. [4]

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In a much later version, Midas’ daughter becomes the victim of his golden touch.

 

But whether or not you believe in Greek Mythology being in any way factual (no judgments from me), there really was a King Midas of Phrygia which is why Archaeologists assume he could be the occupant of the tomb they found and the owner of the vast amount of residue-y drinking vessels. The Midas most likely featuring in these tales reigned around the 8th century BC during the time of Sargon II. He showed up a few times in correspondences and was known as an aggressive and powerful ruler who allied himself with Hittite kings (basically Troy, ya’ll) against the Assyrians. He also cooperated in coordinated military campaigns with the Greeks, which might explain why they adored him enough to feature him in stories (whether or not they were much for flattery). Sources also suggest that he had dedicated his throne to Apollo in Delphi (perhaps as an apology in hopes of getting his old human ears back, no?) and that he had married a Greek princess and daughter of King Agememnon of Kyme (Not that Agememnon). Her name was Hermodike II and she’s credited with inventing Greek coinage which might explain the whole gold thing, who knows. [5]

Oh and also, this was secretly a Kingslayers post all along (Hah! Got you!) According to sources, which include Herodotus, this King Midas committed suicide by drinking bull’s blood. [5]

Because why in the gods names would you do such a thing.

 

Cause of Death: Drinking the blood of bovines when he should have been drinking Dogfish Craft Beer, clearly.

 

Fact Check it, yo!

 

[1] Krill, Richard M. “Midas: Fact and Fiction.” International Social Science Review, vol. 59, no. 1, 1984, pp. 31–34. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41881501.

[2] McGovern, Patrick. Midas Touch, www.penn.museum/sites/biomoleculararchaeology/?page_id=143.

[3] Johnson, Marilyn. Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble. Harper, 2014. Ch. Extreme Beverages

[4] March, Jennifer R. The Penguin Book of Classical Myths. Penguin, 2010. Pgs. 532-534

[5] Berndt-Ersöz, Susanne. “The Chronology and Historical Context of Midas.” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, vol. 57, no. 1, 2008, pp. 1–37. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25598415.

 

 

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Illuminating the Dark Ages

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Depiction of King Valdemar IV of Denmark in 1361. Painting by Carl Gustaf Hellqvist 1851-1890.

There are two ways people generally look upon the past, either with fondness and nostalgia or with scrutiny and disdain. That’s why we can never all quite agree on whether or not high school is the worst or best years of your life or if the 90’s really were all that and a bag of chips. Historically, it’s no different–was the Classical era a time of heightened scholarship and monuments or was it a barbaric time lacking of spiritual sense and with an inclination towards bloodshed? Many scholars during the Renaissance would certainly argue that point. So it was then, during The Enlightenment era of the 18th century in particular, that it seemed only fitting to look upon the time between history bookended by the fall of the Western Roman Empire to Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas as a period of considerable dimness. Both metaphorically and intellectually. A time in between two eras commonly thought of as periods of prosperity and culture. We know it as The Dark Ages and I’m calling bullshit on that conception.

What do you think of when your brain mulls over The Dark Ages? I’m sure squalor and peasantry comes immediately to mind, probably with a healthy dose of Bubonic plague coupled with high infant mortality rates for the helluva it. Not to mention self-flagellation, the burning of suspected practitioners of devil worship and witchcraft, and The Crusades. You’re probably picturing monks with tube-ring hairdos, Norsemen with burly beards and a fondness for pillaging monasteries, and a whole lot of chainmail. It’s easy to imagine this time being one of darkness since all of that does sound pretty bleak, I know, but is it a fair assessment to have? Is it not incorrect to view history through the lens of progress? After all, what will future civilizations think of us when they look back at our historical era?

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Nefertiti versus Nefertari

anne-baxter

Guess who I’m supposed to be…

Here at Histastrophe!, I make it a personal goal to arm my readers with random factoids they might have the pleasure of one day ‘Well, actually…” utilizing in everyday conversations to exert their historical dominance. Life is too short to go through in ignorance, after all. And while I’ve covered myths and misconceptions before, sometimes a common knowledge mix-up is nothing more than just a bit of confusion in differentiation. History certainly didn’t make it easy on us, especially with the insistence on naming all those damn kings Louis, for example.  Here’s looking a heavy side-eye at you, Kate & William

First up, two completely different famous Egyptian queens who ruled a Dynasty apart and have, unfortunately, similar monikers. Here’s how to tell the difference!

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French Etiquette

Marie Antoinette's Execution

Pardon me, sir, I did not mean to do it.

-Marie Antoinette’s, the last Queen of France, supposed last words before being guillotined on October 16th, 1793 during the French Revolution. She had accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot.

 

Memoirs of the Sansons, Chapter XXXI ‘The Queen’: [1] Source written by the executioner Henri Sanson’s grandson. Makes no mention of this comment, yet other passing phrases between The Queen and her executioner are as follows:

“Have courage, madam!”

“Thank you, sir, thank you.”

He then offered to support her to the scaffold to which she was said to have replied,

“No, I am, thank Heaven, strong enough to walk that short distance.”

Memoirs of Marie Antoinette, by Madame Campan; Removal of the Queen: [2] Memoirs on the court of Marie Antoinette as told by her lady in waiting, Campan. The below is a quote from Alphonse de Lamartine from his Histore des Girondins, a French poet, writer, and politician who helped to compile the Memoirs with Campan:

The Queen, after having written and prayed, slept soundly for some hours. On her waking, Bault’s daughter dressed her and adjusted her hair with more neatness than on other days. Marie Antoinette wore a white gown, a white handkerchief covered her shoulders, a white cap her hair; a black ribbon bound this cap round her temples …. The cries, the looks, the laughter, the jests of the people overwhelmed her with humiliation; her colour, changing continually from purple to paleness, betrayed her agitation …. On reaching the scaffold she inadvertently trod on the executioner’s foot. “Pardon me,” she said, courteously. She knelt for an instant and uttered a half-audible prayer; then rising and glancing towards the towers of the Temple, “Adieu, once again, my children,” she said; “I go to rejoin your father.”

This is, perhaps, the origin–and though most contemporary sources of her time weren’t without bias or accusations of cake eating, this is one of the few sources painting Marie as a sympathetic figure. Unfortunately, with the politics surrounding the French Revolution, it’s a mess to separate fact from fiction.

Marie Antoinette's Prayer Book

Prima Nocta or Prima “Not”?

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One classy evening after a long night of getting paid to repeatedly explain where the restrooms were and pouring the occasional decaf, I felt like unwinding with a game of Animal Crossing (had some big loans owed to that skank Tom Nook) and a viewing of Braveheart because I’m rock n’ roll and really like that scene where Mel Gibson gets hanged, drawn, and quartered. Oops, spoilers.

There must have been a considerable amount of time since I last saw the movie and between that must have had tea and crumpets with a history book because, suddenly, I took offense at the very mention of ‘Primae Noctis’ and the fact that all those Scotties were prancing around in kilts (but that’s a post for another day).

For those unfamiliar, Primae Noctis or the French version Droit du Seigneur, was the idea that a lord was within legal rights to take the virginity of a serf’s daughter, most notably, on her wedding night. We see this concept perpetuated in Braveheart when crotchety ol’ King Edward I of the Britains enacts this law to “breed out the Scots” and we see a few fug lords wedding crash on the friend of William Wallace which escalates quickly into war and the entire point of the film and Mel Gibson’s career.

Braveheart isn’t alone, though. The Office, Game of Thrones, Merlin, and Family Guy reference it. And if you were living in the Enlightenment Era, you had the Marriage of Figaro or some of Voltaire’s sass to help spread the fire. What is even more strange and can possibly be found to prey victim to the widespread misconceptions present through these times is that some notable scholars even believe it, toting around ‘evidence’ where there is none.

So how did this happen?

Obviously, with something like this, you need an account or source that has either witnessed, observed, or found any sort of legal documentation of this act being practiced. Curiously, with a right as supposedly as widespread as we are led to believe, almost nothing exists and yet a few scholars are determined to hold the belief that it was a real thing. Or it happened in the Dark Ages, duh. Or France at least, yes, at least France. (Always France).

These select few will point to Herodotus (who, if you’ve been keeping up with me, know that I am already familiar with) and say, “Herodotus claims daughters of Babylon had to offer their virginity to a stranger!” [citing paragraph 199 Book 1]

The fact that Babylon =/= Medieval Europe and a vastly different political climate and caste system is neither here nor there because a closer look at what Herodotus actually said is more illuminating and vastly more interesting.

After detailing how Babylonian men found wives during marriage auctions (It’s like the dowry, women are either property or a burden) Herodotus goes on to say,

…has now fallen into disuse and they have of late years hit upon another scheme, namely the prostitution of all girls of the lower classes to provide some relief from the poverty which followed upon the conquest with its attendant hardship and general ruin. [Book 1 para. 196]

No sign of putative legal rape here, folks, just the exercise of the oldest profession in the world. Oh, but wait. Here’s the passage being referenced in support of the claim (Book 1, para. 199) check it out:

There is one custom amongst these people which is wholly shameful: every woman who is a native of the country must once in her life go and sit in the temple of Aphrodite and there give herself to a strange man.

Oh, sure. Taken out of context, I suppose you could take out some phrases and compare this to a feudal sex crime, but what this is actually referring to is a form of phallic worship which was common in the area as detailed by Westermarck in the penultimate History of Human Marriage. Herodotus goes on to detail that the woman enters the temple, is offered a silver coin as bargain, and slept with in order to complete the religious rite. This can be seen as a form of ‘sexual sacrifice’ in the form of worship which wouldn’t be all to dissimilar with the antics of Aleister Crowley’s crew.

Herodotus DOES, however, write in Book 4 about the Adyrmachidae tribe in Libya who are guilty because

They are the only Libyan tribe to follow this practice, as also that of taking girls who are about to be married to see the King. Any girl who catches his fancy, leaves him a maid no longer. [para. 168]

But note the “only” and the “Libya” and a few thousand years, and this example is further away from Medieval Europe than indoor plumbing.

So Herodotus had a small mention, but how did this translate into a giant boogie laden finger pointing at Europe?

Well, Dr Karl Schmidt, a German and a doctor so enuff said, believes it “was only a learned superstition” and that it originated from culagium, a requirement that a serf get permission to marry, and such a permission often required the peasant to pay a fee or give some kind of service (not prostitution, okay, calm down). This apparently appeared to come up in the consequence of marrying under the lands of another Lord, as it would be like losing a ‘headcount’ and a laborer by right so compensation was in order. So the “right of the Lord’ was more likely a tax rather than a romp in the Motte-and-bailey.

And the idle belief that the higher clergy practiced Droit du Seigneur in Middle Age France? (Geez, again with this? Let them rebel in peace)

This misconception could have stemmed from the symbolic “possession” of a man’s wife by the church as it was a requirement that for three days and three nights to go by before any copulation happened because of the “spirit of solemn devotion”. But, mostly, because any ecclesiastical authority could be thus payed off with a nice meaty fee if you wanted the privilege of the dirty deed on the first night instead. Certainly, there was a legal rape happening here, but not one of the flesh…

Of course, there is also Boece, an established uncredible source who fabricated many narratives, who wrote of an event that happened more than 700 years before he did. I shudder to think this may have been the basis for Braveheart

And othir law he maid, that wiffs of the commonis sal be fre to the nobilis; and the lord of the ground sal have the maidenhead of all virgins dwelling on the same. [The Chronicles of Scotland. 1938.]

Perpetrator of myths not history. And if this didn’t help spread it, Voltaire’s cheeky comedy ‘Le Droit du Seigneur: Comedie en vers’ and his parallel criticisms of a pre-revolution/enlightenment satirical view of early France has probably got him giggling around in his grave now that common knowledge totes Primae Noctis around like a slutty party girl.

Either way, somewhere between no evidence to shady business to disrespectful double-takes and biased views of civilized society, we have a gross pock mark on the history of Medieval Europe (well, two, if you’re also counting the pestilence. Gosh, I’m witty.) I’m not saying it didn’t happen, I’m sure a position of power and dominance led to frequent abuse of lower classes and sexual violence against women. But it certainly wasn’t a cultural or legal custom that was practiced without prejudice all across Europe. And in the case of Braveheart, there is no evidence to support an event of this nature occurring on the British Isles unless you want to go sit over there with Boece and the guy who wrote about George Washington cutting down a cherry tree.

So, the next time you’re out making a reference about claiming someone’s wife for a night ala Prima Nocta, that’s me staring you down in the corner and predatorily stalking you with a conversation about violent youth, knighthood, and the Crusades. So just don’t do it, okay?

Fact check it, yo!

Secondary Sources:

Old Babylonian Marriage Ceremonies and Rites. S. Greengus. Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1966)

The History of Human Marriage. Edward Westermarck. 1891. pp. 72-76-80.

Jus Primae Noctis: Eine Geschlichtliche Untersuchung. Schmidt, K. (1881)

Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Brundage, J. (1987)

Jus primae noctis or droit du seigneur. Vern L. Bullough. The journal of Sex Research, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Feb. 1991), pp. 163-166.

Primary sources:

The Histories Herodotus

Other:

The Chronicles of Scotland. 1938. Boece.