The article below was written by travel writer Susie Dent, who had a fine idea for a guest post for this blog. She contributed a fascinating piece about the mythical origins of mead:
Mead was once a staple tipple of northwest Europe. Indeed, “mead halls” were the dwellings of Dark Age kings, where warriors would carouse and boast of their warlike exploits upon the medobenc (“mead-benches” or, as we call them, “benches”). The fantastical mead hall of Heorot forms an integral part of the epic Old English poem Beowulf , serving as both the setting and instigation of the action. It is the carousing of Heorot’s denizens as they slug back mead in the hall which awakens the terrible ire of the monster Grendel – with predictably gruesome results. The solution to the problem – in typical Old English style – was not to put down the mead horns and cease partying, but to slay the monster (and his mother) before throwing an even bigger and more mead-soaked party to celebrate.
Mead was clearly an integral part of this culture – and continued to be so in the Scando-Germanic world for many centuries.
A Faded Art
Now, however, asking for a pint of mead in a British, German or Scandinavian pub would get you a blank stare or an amused raised eyebrow. Bringing a bottle to a party is an immediate talking point due to its novelty value. Everybody has heard of this once-ubiquitous drink, but nobody is quite sure what it is. A few dedicated producers still make the stuff, but it’s rare. A curious downfall for a drink once considered sacred. However, mead is making a comeback, so it’s about time we reacquainted ourselves with this ancient beverage.
Honey and Yeast
First the basics. Mead is an alcoholic drink made with honey. Given the sugar content of honey it is extremely easy to make – simply add water and yeast, come back after the yeast has worked its magic, and voilà! Of course, production methods have been refined somewhat over the centuries, but the basic principle remains the same. Mead is sweet but should not be sickly, and it can be imbued with a variety of flavors to give a complex taste comparable to that of wine of beer. Alcohol content is typically around 13%, and the final product is significantly influenced by the type of honey used. It has the rather marvelous reputation of allowing people to drink without visiting a morning-after hangover upon them – although if Old English hangover poetry (a flourishing genre in Dark-Age Britain) is anything to go by, this has more to do with the mythical healing properties of honey than with fact.
So much for the theory. Now for the mythology. Mead is an incredibly ancient drink – considered by some to be the oldest alcoholic drink in the world (although it competes with beer for this title). Whatever its provenance, the drink was adopted with gusto by the people of Britain, Scandinavia and several Germanic nations. Such was their adoration for the “bright sweetness” that they imbued it with a deep mythic significance bordering on worship (anyone who has visited a British city on a Saturday night will have witnessed the evolution of this attitude to encompass the entire spectrum of booze).
Mead even has a Norse creation myth – although it’s probably not one to contemplate while enjoying a mouthful of the stuff. The story goes that the Æsir (Norse gods) had concluded a war with the Vanir (also Norse gods, subordinated in defeat). To seal their peace treaty, each of the gods spat into a vat. This was common Nordic practice, for reasons which remain unclear. Out of their spittle, they molded a man whom they named Kvasir.
Kvasir was incredibly wise. According to Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, there was no question which Kvasir could not answer. He traveled the world dispensing his knowledge, until he had the bad fortune of falling into the hands of a pair of dwarves. These dwarves killed him and poured his blood into a pair of vats and a pot. They mixed the blood with honey, creating a mead which would grant anyone who drank it great wisdom and the divine gift of poetry. When the gods queried the location of Kvasir, the dwarves told them that he had suffocated beneath the weight of his great intelligence. The Norse pantheon – most of whom were never particularly noted for their intellects – appears to have accepted this dubious explanation without question.
Trickery, Sex, and Theft
Ultimately the dwarves were forced to give up their mead in restitution for some casual giant-slaying in which they had engaged. The mead was stored in the center of a mountain, guarded by a giantess named Gunnlod. By and by, Odin (a god of rare intelligence) came to hear of this turn of events and went to obtain the mead. By great artifice and cunning, Odin tricked a succession of laborers in order to obtain, by degrees, a mighty drill with which he could penetrate the mountain. In case the Freudian implications of such a device were not entirely clear to the audience, he then spent three lustful nights with Gunnlod. For each sexual encounter he was rewarded with a draught of the mead, and the conjugal consumption of mead would go on to have sexual connotations for many centuries. Each draught he took emptied one of the containers. He somehow managed to hold the mead in his mouth through each subsequent romp, and then maintain his hold on it despite transforming himself into an eagle to make his escape. (The bills of eagles are notoriously poor at holding stolen blood-mead, but Odin, as a god, was up to the challenge.) He transported the mead back to Asgard, where forever after he distributed it to men worthy of the divine gift of poetry.
The Earthly Results
Mead spread like wildfire through the Scando-Germanic world. Alcohol is of course addictive, and as we now know, sugar has similar addictive properties. The combination of high amounts of honeyed sugar and alcohol was a recipe almost guaranteed to take hold of cultures which prized drinking as highly as those of northwest Europe did. Mead swiftly became ubiquitous and even semi-worshipped. Its association with Odin led to it being regarded much as absinthe was in fin-de-siècle France – it was thought to provoke both divine artistic inspiration and divine madness. Madness was a complex issue in the Viking world. Odin was the god of madness (among other things), so in many ways certain sorts of madness were prized as signs of divine favor. Berserkers, for example, would indulge heavily in mead before battle in an attempt to provoke the kind of madness which lends itself to mass, indiscriminate slaughter. At the other end of the scale, mead was drunk by lovers wishing to woo the objects of their desire with “honeyed words.”
This association with lovers is perhaps mead’s most lasting legacy. Among its mythical properties were the abilities (as mentioned above) to get one drunk without causing a hangover, and to get a man drunk without causing impotence. It was also believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac for both men and women. As such, a month’s supply of mead would be given to married couples in order to “sweeten the deal” and provoke marital bliss. The word “honeymoon” comes from this tradition. Next time a friend invites you to their wedding, therefore, consider a month’s supply of mead as a present. They’ll probably appreciate it a lot more than yet another set of silverware.
–By Susie Dent