Mead, A Short History

Mead has an extensive historic and prehistoric past that is spread across many cultures ranging from the Xhosa of South Africa, where they made iQhilika, a type of mead, to the far snowy reaches of the north where the Finnish, to this day still make sima, a spiced mead for festivities. Romans, Greeks, and the Spanish to name but a few all enjoyed mead and often believed it to be a drink of the gods.

Mead is steeped in mysticism and ritual across the ancient world and unbeknownst to most, much of it persists today. For instance, the term honeymoon is derived from pagan Irish culture. To the ancient Irish, the moon represented fertility and femininity. Therefore, weddings were arranged to coincide with a full moon for it was believed to be the optimal time to consummate a marriage. The newlyweds were gifted mead to aid in lovemaking -- voilà, a honeymoon!

In Scandinavia before the fermentation process was understood women were the mead makers. Vikings correlated a woman’s seemingly magical ability to bring forth life and the just as mystifying magical leap of honey into mead. This woman-magick was seen as an essential ingredient for making mead, therefore excluding men from the process. Furthermore, women served mead at feasts and gatherings symbolizing the Valkyries, givers of eternal life in Valhalla However, in Ireland both sexes partook in the joy of making adult beverages. Bethu Brigte, a segment from the 7th century Irish farming law manuscript describes a man making beer for an upcoming Easter celebration. In jest, I wonder if this is because the consumption of alcohol in Ireland outweighed the cultural need for ritualism in brewing. A pragmatic choice by the Irish to have two fold the workers in ye ol’ meadery.

Mead, like most alcohol has been praised extensively in literature. In Northern Europe works such as the Book of Taliesin, by the Welsh bard Llyfr Taliesin (550 CE) contain whole passages extolling the greatness of mead. One such passage is Kanu y med, Song of Mead. Another example, Beowulf an epic poem written in old English, fondly mentions mead-halls, a place where clans gather, and I would assume drink copious amounts of mead -- wouldn’t ye?

Y Gododdin, a Welsh poem from the 13th century believed to be written by the bard Aneirin contains a stanza praising mead that reads:

Men went to Catraeth at morn Their high spirits lessened their life-span They drank mead, gold and sweet, ensnaring; For a year the minstrels were merry. Red their swords, let the blades remain Uncleansed, white shields and four-sided spearheads, Before Mynyddog Mwynfawr’s men.

The poem is bloody and rife with men dying while drunk on mead. Mynyddog Mwynfawr was the king of Gododdin, a Brittonic kingdom, who assembled men to lay siege on Catraeth, which is modern day Edinburgh. All died save for the bard Aneirin who lived to tell the tale. Bless his mead drinking heart.

One can start to grasp the scope and importance of mead by reading and understanding these ancient tombs. These are but a few examples of the vast written history on mead that peek at the cultural significance, ritualism, and praiseworthy properties of this illustrious drink! 

Skol!

-R

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If you, like me are inspired to make your own mead go ahead and click on:

Let's Make Mead!

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