Points Interview— “Theorizing Alcoholic Drinks in Ancient India: The Complex Case of Maireya” with James McHugh

Editor’s Note: This is the second Points interview with authors from the latest issue of ADHS’s journal Social History of Alcohol and Drugs (vol. 35, no. 1; Spring 2021), published by the University of Chicago Press. Today we feature Dr. James McHugh, an Associate Professor in the School of Religion at the University of Southern California You can see his article here. Contact the University of Chicago Press to subscribe to the journal or request access to this article or any other article from SHAD’s history. 

Article Abstract

An alcoholic drink called maireya is prominent in ancient texts from South Asia and features prominently in Buddhist law on alcohol. The article considers what we can say about the chronology, the nature, and the cultural significance of maireya. Maireya became prominent several centuries BCE, maintaining this high profile until the early first millennium CE. It was theorized to be made with an innately flexible formula with a secondary fermentation. Maireya is presented as a drink of social distinction. Flexible and based on sugars, maireya was an ideal drink to pair with the cereal-based drink called surā in Buddhist law, which reflects both the tastes and theories of this early period.

Tell readers a little about yourself

I’m based in LA, as an associate professor at the University of Southern California. I research and teach various topics connected to the cultures and religions of premodern South Asia, mostly using written sources in Sanskrit and related languages. I tend to be interested in subjects involving the manipulation and consumption of what were deemed significant substances—such as aromatics like camphor or drugs and alcoholic drinks. My first book, Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture, was a wide-ranging history of the sense of smell, perfumery, and the use of aromatics in India. More recently, I have been doing a big project on alcohol, which also got me interested in some of the things we call drugs today.

SHAD Interview James McHugh Title Card
James McHugh with his homegrown Turkish tobacco. Image courtesy of James McHugh.

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Review of A Drunkard’s Defense

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Michael Brownrigg. Michael recently received his PhD in US history from Northwestern University, where he studied the relationship between emotion, white masculinity, and capitalism to explain the emergence of an antinarcotic consensus in America at the turn of the twentieth century. 

In A Drunkard’s Defense: Alcohol, Murder, and Medical Jurisprudence in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Massachusetts Press, 2021), Michele Rotunda has written a significant contribution about the history of alcohol consumption that will appeal to students of numerous fields, most notably scholars engaged in legal, medical, and cultural studies. Drawing from an impressive array of primary sources, Rotunda’s taut narrative, tracing the complex evolution of juridical precedents beginning in the colonial era that established the culpability of defendants accused of often gruesome crimes while intoxicated, is revelatory.

Rotunda’s extensive use of court documents, in particular, illuminates in exquisite detail the highly contested nature of judicial concepts like intention and responsibility, and how they considerably influenced verdicts in cases of alcohol-induced criminality. Did murder commissioned under the influence of alcohol constitute a deliberate, voluntary, and premeditated crime? If not, was the accused nevertheless at fault for willfully partaking in a vice that could disorder the mind and facilitate the perpetration of murder—an idea resting on deeply entrenched beliefs in American society about the immorality of drunken indulgence that knowingly caused mental derangement? Or, as physicians who were increasingly concerned with the physiology and psychology of intoxication proclaimed, was the impetus for murderous behavior exhibited by defendants vastly more complicated, requiring nuanced diagnoses that only practitioners’ scientific expertise and empiricism could provide?

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“Sipping on Some Sizzurp”: Lean, Southern Rap, and Cultures of Intoxication

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Peder Clark. Dr. Clark is a historian of modern Britain, with research interests in drugs, subcultures, health, everyday life, and visual culture. He completed his PhD in 2019 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and currently holds a position at the University of Liverpool.

Three 6 Mafia, UGK (Underground Kingz), Project Pat, “Sippin On Some Syrup”

“Sipping on some sizzurp, sip, sipping on some, sip / Sipping on some sizzurp, sip, sipping on some, sip”

With bass rattling and drums stuttering, what was this magical elixir that Memphis rapper Project Pat so thrillingly (and alliteratively) extolled? “Sippin’ on my Syrup”—released in early 2000 by Pat’s brother’s group Three Six Mafia and UGK—was an anthem that introduced the titular intoxicant to wider public consciousness.

Known by a variety of names including “Syrup,” “sizzurp,” “purple drank,” “Texas tea,” or “lean,” the drink was a potent cocktail of cough syrup (containing codeine and promethazine), a sugary carbonated beverage (typically Sprite), and hard candy such as Jolly Ranchers to add further flavor. Users report a woozy euphoria that is both relaxing and trippy and that feels”almost like you’re floating away from your body.”

Future, “Dirty Sprite”; Image courtesy of Discogs.

By the time of “Sippin’ on my Syrup’s” recording, lean had become closely associated with major southern cities—or, more precisely, with the popular “dirty south” rap and hip-hop sound that produced Outkast, Big Tymers, Goodie Mob, Ludacris, 2Chainz, and, more recently, Travis Scott, Migos, and Megan Thee Stallion, to name just a few. Lance Scott Walker’s authoritative Houston Rap Tapes suggests that blues musicians had been adding cough syrup to their wine or beer as early as the 1960s, and, by the nineties, it was the intoxicant of choice for those in the rap game.

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Interpreting Donald Trump’s “Oxy Electorate”: On the Interaction of Pain and Politics

On January 20 – inauguration day – the HBO news talk show Real Time with Bill Maher aired its fifteenth season premier. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump was the topic of the hour. After Maher and his panel of pundits concluded their discussion, the host delivered an editorial monologue analyzing Trump’s electoral victory and offered a provocative comparison:

“Here on inauguration day, in the spirit of new beginnings, liberals have to stop calling Trump voters rubes and simpletons and instead reach out and feel their pain, the pain they insist we didn’t see. And there is ample evidence for that pain. Did you know that of the fourteen states with the highest painkiller prescriptions per person, they all went for Trump? Trump won eighty percent of the states that have the biggest heroin problem… So let’s stop calling Trump voters idiots and fools and call them what they are: fucking drug addicts!”

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Deadly Intoxication, or: A Series of Odd Coincidences

liquid-sky-original

“This pussy has teeth; no one should fuck me ever” — Margaret

 

I begin this post with exciting news: Slava Tsukerman and Anne Carlisle are collaborating on either a sequel to or a documentary about the making of Liquid Sky, the 1982 science fiction movie about Margaret, the new wave Edie Sedgewick-inspired club-hopping model who, assisted by her alien lover, kills with her cunt.

A summary is all but impossible, but here goes:

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The Long, Proud Tradition of the Fourth of July Buzzkill

Celebratory drinking has fueled Fourth of July festivity from its inception in the years following 1776, when double rum-rations for the troops, endless toasts at formal dinners, and makeshift booze-stalls at public gatherings became norms. And it was not long before high-minded patriots began to worry over the excesses of republican revelry. Before the Fourth of July oration itself became well established, there emerged within and alongside it a recognizable (if unnamed) theme in Independence Day rhetoric: the identification of that very day’s public drunkenness with whatever was ailing the republic.

All was not well in this republic.
All was not well in 1837.

Over the years, Independence Day jeremiads have taken numerous forms, from grim warnings about public health and morals, to wry satire of overzealous exceptionalism, to the ferocious indictment of national shortcomings. Many have focused on intoxication as the essential expression of decay, of hypocrisy, even of delusion.

Complaints begin with the sheer recklessness of the traditional program of events.

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Taverns, locals and street corners: Cross-chronological studies in community drinking, regulation and public space

Editor’s Note: Today brings the first in a series of postings on The Taverns Project, a  pilot study of Connected Communities sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK). Participant David Rosenthal, of the Architecture and Civil Engineering Department, University of Bath, describes the overall aims of the cross-disciplinary, multi-national, and transhistorical project; later posts from participants Fabrizio Nevola (Bath), Jane Milling (University of Exeter), and Antonia Layard (University of Cardiff) will report on work in progress and conjecture about future avenues for research.

The “Taverns, Locals, and Street Corners” project began with the idea that the ‘public’ places in which people drink play an important role in the theatre of urban life – they are socially, morally and sometimes politically charged spaces.

Public Drinking

It’s hardly a new or radical insight, but it is a useful one, a basis from which to launch questions about continuity and change. How has the culture of public drinking and the social significance of taverns/pubs transformed in Europe in the past 500 or so years? On the other hand, what parallels can be teased out between the early modern period and the present?

Our aim isn’t to offer any kind of comprehensive history of public drinking. This is a short, ‘pilot’ project, funded by the UK’s Art and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities program. We look at three specific case studies, 16th-century Florence, London in the 18th century; and Bristol today. The way the project is structured means that these are dealt with consecutively. At present, we are in Renaissance Florence, the Enlightenment London part of the project begins in October, and Bristol takes us from February to April next year. This first, brief blog is designed simply to set out the main questions and themes of the research – later blogs will address our findings in detail.

The Carnivalesque

What interests us are the urban spaces, associations, networks and indeed communities that are shaped by tavern-going – whether it’s an osteria in an alley in the centre of Florence in the 1550s or a pub in central Bristol in 2012.

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In Search of the Drunken Native

In a March 3, 2012 New York Times article, “At Tribe’s Door, a Hub of Beer and Heartache,” reporter Timothy Williams provides yet another account of the terrible consequences associated with alcohol consumption among native Americans.  This article, which of course joins many others on the same topic, touches on a number of familiar points, in particular the assumed collective susceptibility of Native Americans to alcohol and their vulnerability to the agents of capitalism.

Whiteclay, Nebraska is a ramshackle hamlet on the border not only of South Dakota but of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation—which has banned alcohol since the 1970s. There, a small number of  white beer store owners sell annually almost five million cans of beer and malt liquor—almost all to members of the Oglala Sioux tribe.

Whiteclay, NE
Pop: 14; Annual revenues from alcohol sales: $3 million

These are the latest version of the unscrupulous white traders who have populated the narratives of Native American drinking since the seventeenth century.  In this case, they offer to cash income tax checks for a 3 percent commission and selling 30 packs of Bud for a price higher than that charged in New York City and more than twice the going price in most of the country.  In this account the ravages of alcohol consumption involve virtually every family.  “As an indication of the depth of the problem,” the Times notes that even a tribal vice president, a leader in the fight to restrict alcohol sales in Whiteclay, was recently arrested on alcohol-related charges.  In 2011 tribal police made 20,000 alcohol-related arrests in a reservation with an apparently undifferentiated population of 45,000.

The article reminds us that this is not just a problem for the Oglala Sioux, but for Native Americans generally.  Without an explanation for the leap to a national/racial scope, we’re reminded that about one third of U.S. reservations ban alcohol and that “excessive alcohol consumption is the leading cause of preventable death among American Indians.”  And in fact the threat of extinction lurks in this article as it has in accounts of native drinking for four centuries.  As one tribal police captain notes, “not to disrespect our elders and ancestors, but we’ve gone through several generations.”

When It's Time to Lose Command over Yourself

In his famous 1802 testimony to Thomas Jefferson, Chief Little Turtle told the President, “your children have not that command over themselves which you have, therefore, before anything can be done to advantage, this evil must be remedied.”And so the Oglala Sioux, implicitly recognizing that they “have not that command over themselves,” have gone to court to lay blame for their affliction not only on the beer stores in Whiteclay but  the Anheuser-Busch company that produces the high-alcohol Hurricane High Gravity Lager that is the current drink of choice in Pine Ridge. The purpose of this post is not to dismiss or intellectualize away the enormous problems linked to alcohol in many of the nation’s Native American communities, but to invite discussion about  the remarkably persistent and pervasive mythology of the drunken native and of the more general susceptibility of aboriginal (or “indigenous”) people to alcohol. 

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