"Ooh, don't invade us, here's a pretty drinking toy!"
🎧 The Fingers Podcast with Hugging the Bar's Courtney Iseman about ancient drinking games
Do you remember playing the drinking game King’s Cup in college and hating it because it sucks but also just wondering who the hell even came up with such a convoluted and socially fraught pretense to get drunk in the first place? Me too. Let’s find out.
Today on The Fingers Podcast I’ve got an interview with Courtney Iseman, a drinks journalist who publishes the newsletter Hugging the Bar. I’ve enjoyed Courtney’s incisive coverage on the craft beer industry for awhile now, and was looking for any excuse to collaborate with her. After several bad ideas from me, Courtney ventured a good one of her own: a survey of ancient drinking games throughout the ages, done in dialogue here on the pod. So that’s exactly what we did, hurtling through space and time to attend ethyl-fueled Egyptian feasts, witness drinking challenges in Tang Dynasty-era China, ponder the fluid dynamics of the 19th-century European aristocracy’s wine puzzles, and much more.
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We recorded this episode back in mid-December 2021, but I didn’t get around to editing it until recently because blah blah blah you don’t want to hear my excuses. Luckily, it all still holds up, because when you’re talking about drinking rites that are centuries old, what’s another few weeks, really? Courtney brought a lots of research and a willingness to laugh at my stupid jokes, which is all I can ask for from a Fingers Podcast guest. Hope you enjoy. This episode is like an introductory history lecture awash in bad wine and people on the verge of puking, which makes it… actually, a lot like all the introductory history lectures I’ve ever attended. Hope you enjoy
Editor’s note: This transcript has been edited and condensed. The full-length interview is available on The Fingers Podcast for paying subscribers, who can access the episode via private RSS feed using these instructions (it takes a minute, and you only have to do it once.) And if you haven’t yet, consider buying a subscription now!
Meet Courtney Iseman, drinks journalist and publisher of Hugging the Bar
Dave Infante, Fingers: Courtney Iseman, welcome to The Fingers Podcast.
Courtney Iseman, Hugging the Bar: I'm so happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
I’ve wanted to collaborate with you for awhile, and I threw out some hare-brained ideas on what we might cover together. One of them was about beer pong rules or something. You took that bad idea and made it a lot better and more interesting. Courtney, tell everyone what we’re talking about today.
We are going to be talking about drinking games throughout history, because… I will clarify, I did really like your idea, but I was a punk in college so I didn’t play beer pong. So I was just like, “I am not going to bring a lot to this conversation if we focus on beer pong, but I am a history nerd.” So let's like build on that, geek out a little bit, and look at some other weird and wild and wacky games that people played like hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
What’s your get-in on the history aspect?
It's always been a point of curiosity. I've gotten to do a few super-detailed research pieces looking at different points in history, how they relate to drinking. When I get the chance to do longer form writing, a lot of it does come from the history space. So everything from how people were drinking during the Black Death in Italy to more recently, sort of the introduction of spirits in the 1700s in England and Europe, sort of how that like came up against beer. When I can get a little history in there, I do.
Where would you like to start? Where do you think makes the most sense to start geographically?
Let’s just do chronological so you can see a little bit of the evolution of how people relate to drinking. I just wanted to shout out, I did use Atlas Obscura and VinePair quite a bit for some of this research, and also the book by Mark Forsyth, A Short History of Drunkenness.
I’ve read that as well. It’s pretty remarkable, and it really is just a short history. Easy to get into. Well, we’ll start I guess then in ancient Egypt. Tell us about the Festival of Drunkenness!
What struck me is that this sounded so much like the frat party of nightmares. The Festival of Drunkenness happened once or twice a year to honor the goddess Hathor. She was a goddess associated with love, fertility, agriculture, music and drunkenness. I think that that mostly stems from this story of the destruction of mankind: Hathor was sent out by the god Ra to wipe out a lot of humanity because the they weren't worshipping properly. And then he was like, “Oh, no, she's gone too far, and now she's going to kill everyone so no one will worship me, I’ve gotta calm her down.”
She was too committed to the bit and just started slaughtering civilization.
Right, no one could control her. So to appeal to her bloodthirsty overachieving, he filled a lake with beer dyed red so she would think it was blood. She just drank and drank until she passed out.
It’s your worst nightmare at a party: you say something dumb and then everyone judges you to your face.
Extremely relatable though.
Right, totally. Like, that would throw you off your your mission, even if it's not murdering everyone. So they have this big festival once or twice a year to honor her. It sounds really lovely. In the beginning, there’s like a choreographed dance routine, everyone's really dressed up, and then they do this thing, they hit these big silver balls to be like, “Okay, now it's party time.” One thing I noticed was there was no food at this very long drinking festival. It’s like a bad wedding reception.
This gets at one of the things that I feel like we're gonna be talking about a lot, which is vomiting. At the Festival of Drunkenness vomiting seems to be central to the celebration.