Of Beer & Loincloths

Diodorus Siculus (Diodorus of Sicily) was an ancient Greek historian who lived about 60-30 BC.  He wrote several interesting works among them, quite naturally, a history (more precisely, a work called the “Historical Library”).


Book V of that history contains interesting descriptions of northern Europe (including of Britain).  You can view the whole write up here.  For our purposes, however, we will be content to present only three fragments that relate to Gaul:

26 “Furthermore, since temperateness of climate is destroyed by the excessive cold, the land produces neither wine nor oil, and as a consequence those Gauls who are deprived of these fruits make a drink out of barley which they call zythos or beer, and they also drink the water with which they cleanse their honeycombs.”

29 “Certain of them despise death to such a degree that they enter the perils of battle without protective armour and with no more than a girdle about their loins.”

32 “And now it will be useful to draw a distinction which is unknown to many: The peoples who dwell in the interior above Massalia, those on the slopes of the Alps, and those on this side the Pyrenees mountains are called Celts, whereas the peoples who are established above this land of Celtica in the parts which stretch to the north, both along the ocean and along the Hercynian Mountain, and all the peoples who come after these, as far as Scythia, are known as Gauls; the Romans, however, include all these nations together under a single name, calling them one and all Gauls.”

The three interesting points are as follows:


First, the barley drink, i.e., beer is mentioned here as a Gallic drink named zythos.

Now, zythos is supposed to be an Egyptian type of beer not Gallic.  It is certainly true that in Book I of the same work Diodorus says the following:

34 “The Egyptians also make a drink out of barley which they call zythos, the bouquet of which is not much inferior to that of wine.”

Similarly, the Talmud notes (42b) as follows:

“What is Egyptian Zithom? —  Rabbi Joseph learned that it is a concoction made of a third part barley, a third part safflower, and a third part salt.  Rabbi Papa omitted barley and substituted wheat.  And your token is ‘sisane.’ They soaked these ingredients, then roasted them, ground them and then drank them.  From the Passover sacrifice until Pentecost, they who are constipated are relieved, while they who are diarrhoeic are bound.  But for an invalid and a pregnant woman it is dangerous.”

However, the earlier source is Diodorus by far (the Babylonian Talmud was not completed, at the earliest, until around 500 AD). And he also says that the Galls use the same term as we saw above.  In neither place does Diodorus say whether the word is originally Gallic or Egyptian or of some other origin.  However, the Greek ζύθος may have cognates in both Greek versions of “leaven” and in “yeast”.  If this is the case then it is also possible that the word is northern in origin – perhaps brought to Egypt with the armies of Alexander the Great.  (The Egyptians by all accounts did know beer – what they called it, however, is an entirely different matter).  Thus, perhaps, zythos was a Gallic or otherwise northern European name.

Moreover, as the above quotation notes it may not have been just a barley drink.  A much earlier source,  Theophrastos (circa 371 – about 287 BC) in his History of Plants apparently says that the term covers “those beverages, which were prepared, like those made of barley and wheat, of rotting fruits.”  Consequently, it seems that the term encompassed more than just barley drinks.

It is curious then that the Slavic word for “secale” – e.g., żyto (Po) or žito (Czech) – should sound so similar.  Aleksander Brueckner has very little to say about the etymology of this rather important word referring only to “life”, i.e., život/życie).

(Incidentally 1, the Greeks also knew kamon which was Dalmatian beer.  Whether that has anything to do with kamos of the Huns we leave to you but Priscus did say when visiting Attila’s camp: “In the villages we were supplied with food – millet instead of corn – and medos as the natives call it. The attendants who followed us received millet and a drink of barley, which the barbarians call kamos.”)

(Incidentally 2, sources relate that the consumption of zythos won’t result in “punishment” of karat[h] or “cutting off” – כרת – why Slavic – an IndoEuropean language – should have the same word for punishment – kara – as Hebrew, we leave to speculation noting only that other “weighty” words may also be similar such as the word for “good” – dobri).

Loins & Loincloths

Barbarian warriors, no doubt, often fought without armour and with pitiful protections.  Nevertheless, the above description of the Galls cannot help but bring to mind the later description of the Slavs by Procopius:

“Indeed, some of them do not wear even a shirt or a cloak, but gathering their trews up as far as to their private parts they enter into battle with their opponents.”

Galls & Celts

Diodorus’ division of the “Galls” into “Galls proper” and the more southern Celts should be of great interest to us as should the remark that the Romans have ignored such differences calling all these barbarians by the same name “Galls.”  See here for possible connections.

Copyright ©2016 jassa.org All Rights Reserved

February 7, 2016

One thought on “Of Beer & Loincloths

  1. Pingback: Of Pirins, Pyrenes and Pyrenees | In Nomine Jassa

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *