Little Known Links Between Spirits You Drink and the Holy Spirit
Beer may have been invented by the ancient Egyptians, but it was perfected in medieval monasteries, which gave us modern brewing as we know it. They also pioneered and improved several methods of distilling. To this day, much of the world’s finest alcohol is made within cloisters.
Princess Nefertiabet depicted with a beer jug in front of her face, 4th Dynasty, 2590-2565 BC. (Mbzt/ CC BY 3.0 )
More than One Kind of Spirit
As a result, Dr. Michel Foley, a professor of patristics at Baylor University, notes that the term spirits being used for alcohol is no coincidence. After all, “spirit” can refer to:
- the human soul, either in whole or in part;
- an intelligent creature with no material body (angels and demons, sprites, nymphs, and so forth);
- the Third Person in the Holy Trinity;
- courage or gumption;
- a defining quality, such as “the spirit of a place.”
Furthermore, when spirit is associated with anything physical, it is usually not something wet like alcohol, but something dry. “Spirit” is in fact derived from the Latin spiritus (meaning breath, air, or gentle wind). In the early Church it was used to translate the Greek pneuma and the Hebrew ruah, both of which also mean wind, breath, or spirit.
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The word spirit is derived from the Latin ‘spiritus’ meaning breath, air, or gentle wind. (Alvin Trusty/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
The philological journey of spirit going from air to alcohol is thus mysterious. One theory of the origin of the word “alcohol” looks at its first two letters a and l. “Al” is an Arabic prefix to denote a definite article and many of these kinds of Arabic words are found in English: Algebra, alchemy, Alcatraz, etc. “Alcohol” is thought to derive from al-kuhl, a “body-eating spirit.” However, as Fley notes, al-kuhl actually means “eye cosmetic,” which was once made in a way that resembled the distillation of alcohol.
Handmade distilling equipment for making brandy. ( Public Domain )
In English, the first instances of “spirit” were derived from passages in the Vulgate translation of the Bible that mentioned spiritus. This was in conformity with biblical usage. “Spirit,” in other words, had a largely spiritual meaning, something in contradistinction to worldliness, materiality, literalness, etc.
The Holy Spirit and Drink
However, there is an exception to this rule. From the late 14th century onward, “spirit” in medical terminology came to designate a fluid that permeated the blood and chief organs of the body. There were supposedly three kinds: natural spirits (responsible for growth and nutrition), animal spirits (responsible for sensation and movement), and vital spirits (responsible for life itself). Through this supposed spirit, the realm of air passed into oceans of liquid.
From there it was only a short jump to identifying spirits with distilled alcoholic beverages, as we see in Ben Jonson’s 1612 Alchemist and John Bunyan’s 1684 Pilgrim’s Progress. In the latter, Mr. Interpreter (the Holy Spirit) offers the protagonist Christiana some honeycomb and “a little Bottle of Spirits.” Interestingly, as Foley notes, the first alcoholic meaning of spirits in English religious literature comes to us from a Baptist, and as a gift from the Holy Ghost!
A Monk Cellarer tasting wine from a barrel, Li Livres dou Santé, (13th Century manuscript), France. ( Public Domain )
The Bible itself even associates the Holy Spirit with strong drink. Paul endorses the link, at least by way of contrast, in his admonition: “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is luxury, but be ye filled with the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).
St. Augustine of Hippo is even more explicit. Drunkenness does three things: it overthrows the mind, gives one a “high” (literally, “snatches the mind upward”), and makes one forgetful. Being “drunk” on the Holy Spirit does not overthrow the mind, but it does have the other two qualities, for it carries the mind heavenward and makes one forgetful of “all earthly things.”
Drawing of a monk brewing beer. ( MicroBus Brewery )
There is an unmistakable link in Christian imagery between the Holy Spirit and drink. But then why does “spirit” only refer to distilled drinks—specifically those with at least 20% alcohol by volume and no added sugar (unlike liqueurs, which are sweet)—and not wine or beer?
Piwo pijacy mnisi (Beer Drinking Monks), Olaf Simony Jensen. ( Public Domain )