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 )
Freeing the Spirit in Medieval Monasteries
Foley guesses that the answer has to do with the nature of distillation - which, in separating the alcohol of a fermented beverage from the wash, isolates its most powerful, “lively” element. The distillate, in other words, is the freed “spirit” of the formerly diluted liquid. Another plausible theory is that the vapors rising from the distillation process reminded folks of spirits floating up. To this day, the part of the whiskey lost to evaporation during aging in oak barrels is known as “the Angels’ share.” But the connection between Catholic thought and drinking goes beyond word association. The medieval monastery brewing tradition confirms this link.
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Here are some other interesting facts regarding brewing and distilling done in medieval monasteries:
- The méthode champenoise was invented by a Benedictine monk whose name now adorns one of the world’s finest champagnes: Dom Pérignon. According to the story, when he sampled his first batch, Pérignon cried out to his fellow monks: “Brothers, come quickly. I am drinking stars!”
- Whiskey was invented by Irish monks, who probably shared their knowledge with the Scots during their missions. Whiskey was first prescribed medicinally as a cure for “paralysis of tongue,” and apparently it works: no Irishman has ever been accused of having a paralyzed tongue since.
- Chartreuse, the world’s most magical liqueur, was perfected by Carthusian monks and is still made by them. Only two monks at a time know the recipe.
Three monks drinking beer. (1885) By Eduard Grützner. ( Public Domain )
- The California wine industry began when Blessed Junípero Serra and his Franciscan brethren brought the first wine grapes to the region. And its rebirth in Napa County after Prohibition was thanks in large part to a chemistry teacher and a LaSalle Christian Brother named Brother Timothy.
- The liqueur Bénédictine DOM (an abbreviation of Deo Optimo et Maximo , “To God, Most Good and Most Great”) was invented by Dom Bernardo Vincelli to “fortify and restore weary monks.”
- Frangelico liqueur, which today comes in a brown bottle shaped like a monk with a cloth cincture around his waist, was invented by a hermit monk of that name during his solitude by experimenting with various nuts, herbs, and berries he had gathered.
Frangelico liqueur bottle. (Niab Pressbuilder/ CC BY 2.0 )
Top Image: ‘Monk testing wine’ (1886) by Antonio Casanova y Estorach, from the Brooklyn Museum. Source: Public Domain
This article is a summary of the History Unplugged Podcast Episode #25: What the Saints Drank and Monks Brewed, with Michael Foley . You can read this and thousands of other similar posts by visiting History on the Net .
By Scott Rank
Scott Rank is the editor of History on the Net , which features articles on everything from Ancient Near East civilizations to 20th century global warfare. He is also host of the History Unplugged Podcast and talks with book authors about Mongol invasions, Hitler's occult practices, and US presidents who gave their best speeches while drunk.
Michael Foley, Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner's Guide to a Holy Happy Hour (Regnery: Washington, D.C., 2015).
Michael Foley, “Drunk Catholic History: Spirits and the Holy Spirit,” www.onepeterfive.com, August 18, 2015.
Oxford English Dictionary, “alcohol, n.”
Augustin, On Christian Struggle 9.10.