A Greek comic poet of the 4th century BC, Eubulus joked about alcohol consumption and its deleterious effects recommending no more than three measured drinks as sensible. Coincidentally, just three sections of his play “Semele” or “Dionysus,” survive. The famous Fragment Number 93 describes the successive consumption of shared “kraters” or bowls of diluted wine at the popular “symposium” of men usually reclining on comfortable couches to feast, debate and sing.
According to Greek mythology, Semele was the human mother of Dionysus, known to the Romans as Bacchus, the god of wine. Classical society in Greece believed alcohol could induce a state of divine possession, but in excess also lead to violence and the worst behaviour imaginable.
In the work by Eubulus, Dionysus solemnly speaks as the symposiarch or master of the meeting: “I mix three kraters only for those who are wise. One is for good health, which they drink first. The second is for love and pleasure. The third is for sleep, and when they have drunk it, those who are wise, wander homewards. The fourth is no longer ours but belongs to arrogance. The fifth leads to shouting. The sixth to a drunken revel. The seventh to black eyes. The eighth to a summons. The ninth to bile. The tenth to madness, in that it makes people throw things.”
Depending on the translation, the summons may come from a particularly peeved policeman at whom furniture and abuse are hurled by a retching, “trousered” wretch who believes in a house being fully plastered, smashed, hammered and even bombed. While the misuse of alcohol and its’ synonyms have been with us since the discovery of naturally fermented fruits full of ethanol on the forest floor by our hungry ape ancestors, experts still argue over the advantages of this “drunken monkey” hypothesis first put forward by the University of California, Berkeley physiologist, Robert Dudley – and whether it stands up to scrutiny.
A group of digestive enzymes, the ADH4 family, found in the stomach, throat and tongue of primates, is key to our ability to break down small amounts of ethanol. Scientists have found that a single genetic mutation evolved 10 million years ago in the last common ancestor of apes and humans, making it possible to digest ethanol up to 40 times faster. The timing of this coincided with a marked shift from an arboreal to a terrestrial lifestyle. Some suggest alcoholism as a disease may have arisen because the human genome has not had enough time to fully adapt. Others argue that alcohol became an ubiquitous problem when humans increased intentional fermentation and consumption to abnormal levels that see the modern world and countries like Guyana, drowning in booze and its deadly consequences daily.
If humans are preadapted for consuming alcohol, just not in unnaturally large amounts, we have had thousands of years more to prepare, from the 9,000-year-old Neolithic brew of rice, honey and fruits found in the Chinese village Jiahu, in Henan province, to the Mesoamericans’ version of potent cassava beer first made some 6,000 years ago, and the rich cacao wine of around 1400 BC. The ancient precursor to the Guyanese indigenous brews of “paiwari” and “cassiri,” and the Peruvian “masato”, the traditional cassava concoctions, were created by peeling, boiling and chewing the starchy root. Salivary enzymes converted the starch into a fermentable sugar.
Just over a century ago, the English botanist, explorer and former curator of the British Guiana Museum, Everard Ferdinand im Thurn would describe in detail, the local preparation of the drinks in his 1883 publication “Among the Indians of Guiana.” Thurn led the first expedition to the summit of Mount Roraima.
“Much cassava, after being made into bread, is further transformed into paiwari, the chief Indian beverage. Astounding quantities of this are consumed at special drinking bouts…But paiwari is also largely used at other times; and indeed, as long as there is any cassava to be had, a stock of this liquor is always kept ready. Whenever the men return from hunting, and whenever a stranger comes into the house, it is drunk. And women and children – even the youngest babies – drink it.”
“Cassava bread which is to be transformed into paiwari, is made as that for other purposes; but it is thicker, and is baked, or rather burned, until it is quite black. It is then broken into smaller fragments, and is mixed with water in a large jar or pot. The larger fragments are picked out and chewed by the women, who do this while moving about and performing their usual household work; and the masses are again replaced in the jar. As soon as this jar is sufficiently filled, its contents, after being well stirred, are slightly boiled, and are then poured into the trough. More and more is (sic) added…until it is full.”
“The mixture is then allowed to stand for some days, until it is sufficiently fermented – a process which is said to be much accelerated by the mastication of the bread. Sometimes a little juice of sugarcane is added to sweeten the liquor. The result is a brownish liquor –looking like coffee with a great deal of milk in it – with a sub-acid, but not unpleasant taste. Some of the True Caribs, it is said, and some of the Brazilian tribes, manage to prepare paiwari, and to procure a proper degree of fermentation, by simply boiling, without resorting to the very disagreeable but more orthodox chewing process; but paiwari produced in this way is said to be of very inferior flavour,” Thurn wrote.
He noted, “In some parts of the country, instead of paiwari, both for festivals and for ordinary occasions, a much pleasanter drink is used. This is casiri, which is made of sweet potatoes and sugar-cane. A little cassava is sometimes added. Generally, though not always, it is prepared simply by boiling the ingredients, and allowing them to ferment. It has a pretty pink colour, due to the sweet potatoes; and when well made it tastes not unlike thin claret.”
This week, I thought of Eubulus and Thurn, of monkeys and men, and of morals and madness, as I read the Stabroek News’ sickening report of a man, David Alexander, now 34, given the maximum penalty of a life sentence for the February 2015 “brutal” attack and rape of an eight-year-old girl entrusted in his care. The crime was committed at Six Miles, Arakaka, a gold mining village in the Barima-Waini region.
Justice Jo-Ann Barlow declared the case was the “worst of the worst” and said the acts perpetuated by the father of four were those for which a life sentence was made the maximum penalty. The victim was left bleeding severely and had to be rushed to hospital for emergency surgery, remaining there for almost a month.
The defense attorney pleaded Alexander was drunk at the time and was not fully aware of what he was doing, but the judge affirmed “that is no excuse.” She said while it was not the intention of her court to criticise persons who drink, a strong message needed to be sent to those who consume alcohol and are thereafter incapable of controlling their mental faculties, going on to commit offences and then using their drunkenness as an excuse. Judge Barlow ordered Alexander to undergo counselling for sex offenders and addiction.
Despite countless similar crimes, Guyana is yet to introduce a national action plan to deal with alcohol and related abuse. According to the recently released Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2018, each Guyanese male drinker imbibes an average of 20.3 litres of pure alcohol annually, with spirits accounting for 51 per cent and beer close behind at 48 per cent.
While there were no details about what substance Alexander allegedly consumed, given the easy availability of the manufactured version, the country’s ongoing alcohol crisis, and the devastating impact of liquor, including on hinterland communities, such crimes will sadly continue for we are long past Eubulus’ ten “kraters” of madness.
ID believes that if animals could protest, they would sue us for slander and libel. The word “brutal” from the 15th century Latin term “brutalis” for dull and stupid, refers to the ‘lower beings,’ when man was considered God’s special creation, divinely ordained to lord over beasts and fowl.