While a little long for blog purposes this article on mead, one of the purported alcoholic drinks of the medieval Vikings, is so good that I wanted to include the whole thing rather than an excerpt. I have begun with the author's abstract, an excellent place for the reader to define what is ahead for them.
If you have not yet tried a glass of mead, please do so, it is delicious. (Ed.)
Scholars use Old Norse/Old Icelandic texts, like the Eddas or the Islendingasögur (Sagas of Icelanders or family sagas), to help give a fuller picture of the material culture of Viking Age Scandinavia. For instance, Hávamál or Skáldskaparmál have been used to fill in some of the gaps in the Norse pagan religious practices. These Old Icelandic texts are also full of men, women, gods and goddesses, drinking mjöðr (mead). The myth of the mead of poetry is elaborated on in the Poetic Edda, particularly in Hávamál, but is given its fullest treatment in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, in Skáldskaparmál. But, unlike other Scandinavian countries at the same time, there is a lot complicating the idea that the Viking Age Icelanders are regularly consuming mead, despite its prevalence in the literature. This paper will try and draw out the picture of mead in Viking Age Iceland, a picture worth elaborating on due to the importance of Icelandic sources of information for an even larger culture. Honey production in Iceland was unlikely, but trade was possible, though there seems to be not much evidence for it. However, even the literature does not state definitively that early Icelanders had mead. None of the Islendingasögur, arguably the most historical of the sagas, actually portray Icelandic characters drinking mead IN ICELAND, whereas they are portrayed drinking ale. And yet, Egils saga Skallagrímsonar uses the phrase hvieti ok hunang (wheat and honey) three times to refer to materials being imported to Iceland specifically to make drinks out of. Due to the unreliability of sources as historical documents, and the lack of archaeology supporting conclusions one way or another, the paper can only definitively show that the issue is complex, something audiences already know. However, what the evidence suggests is that the consumption of mead in Iceland is rare and exotic, and that depictions of mead drinking in Viking Age (and Medieval depicting the Viking Age) Icelandic sources is showing a kind of idealized, exotic kind of drinking instead of an all the time occurrence. This may have consequences for our understanding of the sagas and eddas as sources for the culture. It enhances the prestige of the gods’ drink and the prestige of the mead of poetry, and mead’s prevalence in these texts may speak to the Viking Age and medieval Icelanders presence in other countries and courts where mead is a more common beverage.
Event Date: May 31, 2015
Organization: Canadian Society of Medievalists
by Megan Arnott
31 May 2015
In Old Norse literature men and gods alike regularly consume mead. For example in Lokasenna, or Loki’s flyting, Loki asks the other Norse Gods specifically for some of their mead. In the kings’ saga Heimskringla, Haraldr the fair-haired is drinking mead when he falls in love with Sneofrithr. In the next chapter he looks around at the mead that has been served and says: “Mjök eru mínir rekkar/til mjöðgjarnir fornir/ ok hér komnir, hárir” [I find my old hoary henchmen are ever far too fond, of the mead cups] (Heimskringla 80-81). These texts depict scenes across Scandinavia and into the mythical realm of the Gods, but they are, by and large, written in Iceland. However, unlike other contemporary Scandinavian countries or settlements, there is a lot complicating the idea that the Viking Age, or even medieval Icelanders, were regularly consuming mead. For instance, Beowulf’s depiction of mead is unproblematic because both the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes were known to have mead and honey production. Due to the unreliability of sources as historical documents, and the lack of archaeology supporting conclusions one way or another (and I would seriously love to hear if I’ve missed something, especially archaeologically), this paper can only definitively show that the issue is complex, something audiences already know. However, what an interdisciplinary look at the evidence suggests is that the consumption of mead in Iceland is rare and exotic, and that mead drinking in Icelandic sources depicting the Viking Age shows the wealth and power of those who can afford the beverage.
Agricultural and Economic Considerations
Mead (Old Norse mjöðr) is the oldest alcoholic beverage (Ward 4). According to both Robert Gayre and Eva Crane the drink can be created spontaneously, without any brewing. Raw or unpasteurized honey often contains the necessary wild yeasts or bacteria for fermentation (Gayre 174). This is especially true for moist or diluted honeys. Happening on a mixture of honey and rain water may have created the necessary conditions for mead (Crane 502). Archaeology from the grave of a girl at Egtved in Jutland showed that honey-based drinks were enjoyed in Denmark as early as 1500 BCE (Crane 516).
Mead has been employed as a general term that means any drink made with honey; however, in modern contexts it also refers to a specific form of fermented honey drink, with a specific combination of honey, water and yeast. As the yeasts ferment the glucose or fructose in the honey alcohol is produced (Gayre 153). This is opposed to other fermented honey drinks like metheglin which has additives like certain herbs, or sack-mead, which is a newer and sweeter iteration of the drink (Gayre 98-9). However, there seems to be little to no differentiation between honey drinks in these sources, so there will be no difference in the discussion of the drinks in this paper.
The species of honey bee we are familiar with is Apis mellifera, whose natural habitat is most of Europe and Africa, and some ways into Asia (Crane 12-3). In Viking Age and Medieval Scandinavia it is likely honey was obtained by both honey hunting, seeking out and harvesting naturally occurring Apis mellifera nests, and more formal beekeeping, since hives from the first few centuries CE have been excavated in West Germanic areas (Crane 67).
The length of the winter is part of what defines the northern limit of beekeeping. In the northern most reaches of honey bees’ natural habitats there is only a short window when colonies are big enough to send out swarms, make new colonies, and for those colonies to store sufficient food for winter (Crane 69). Starting at about 50oN there is a very high death rate for colonies in extreme winters (Crane 227). Although lime is one of the best markers of natural habitats of honey bees, hazel is a possible indicator of honey bee survival (Crane 68). There is hazel in the peat of Bronze Age Sweden at 64oN, though this marked a particular warm period in the earth’s history. There are arguments that honey bees are not native to Norway at all due to a lack of hazel (Crane 69). Therefore the northern limit of naturally occurring bees cuts through Scandinavia, stopping far before Iceland. Bees can be kept north of the northern limit with careful beekeeping, as seems to have occurred in Norway; evidence suggests there were bees there from at least 1200 CE (Crane 236). So, Iceland did not have the naturally occurring colonies that would have characterized a lot of the beekeeping in Scandinavia. And we know that Iceland relied on trade for a great many of its supplies, with a great number of supplies coming from Norway. Therefore, ff scholars are not sure about the presence of bees in Norway before 1200, this is an additional difficulty presented to the mead drinking Icelander.
Although documents about trade are more prevalent from the medieval period and not the Viking Age one, scholars can still look to them to give us clues about trade traditions. However, often they are not that helpful. In Icelandic Enterprise: Commerce and Economy in the Middle Ages, Bruce Gelsinger demonstrates that medieval Iceland imported much of its supplies and grain. He suggests that they would have also imported other important foodstuffs, like “ hops, giving homebrewed beer a good taste, sometimes beer itself, and honey, useful by itself as a sweetener and as an ingredient for mead,” though it is not clear his source for this conclusion (Gelsinger 14).
In addition to the practical problems of honey production and trade, one should also consider as a barrier the relative poverty of Iceland, that some archaeologists have argued for, as compared to other places in Europe such as Norway. Orri Vésteisson has noted this in the archaeological record: “[o]ne has to go pretty far down on the social scale of Norwegian burials to find graves that compare with the richest Icelandic ones” (Vésteinsson 11). Gayre contrasts the price of honey with the price of barley, showing that barley is a much cheaper substance, so a much more likely candidate for importation (Gayre 75). Jenny Jochens shows that the Icelanders were trying to grow their own barley: “[i]n Iceland, however, sufficient supplies were not limited to poor people. Seeking to continue the traditional drinking culture, the settlers at first tried to grow barley, but these efforts had been abandoned in the northern parts by 1100” (Jochens 159). Christine Ward says that all attempts were given up by the 1300s (Ward 1). Therefore it is likely that more effort was expended trying to get grain to brew ale, rather than extending themselves regularly to get honey for mead.
Wine was the most expensive and least available beverage, as one had to go at least as far south as Germany to find it, and one cannot import the raw material as easily (Ward 4). Jochens suggests there is evidence that wine was occasionally imported, along with malt and grain (Jochens 159). In which case we can assume so is mead, occasionally, or at least honey for mead, though there is no distinctly concrete evidence to say so.
Literary references to mead: The Eddas and The Sagas of Icelanders
Jochens elaborates on the drinking culture in Viking Age Scandinavia by going to the literature to help fill in the blanks. She describes the ongoing supply problem by contrasting Norway and Iceland: she notes that Icelanders were not able to maintain the traditional drinking culture: “[i]t is most likely no coincidence that the sagas report more details about games and entertainment in Iceland but reveal more drunkenness in Norway” (Jochens 163). Jochens also noted that the term drykkjastofa (‘drinking room’) is found only in texts referring specifically to Norway (Jochens 161). It is also interesting that the Cleasby-Vigfusson Old Norse dictionary’s only reference for mjöðrann, (‘mead-hall’) in Old Norse is in the Atlakviða, a story about Attila the Hun, which obviously takes place nowhere near Iceland (Larrington; Cleasby-Vigfusson).
As mentioned earlier, mead is a conspicuous part of texts such as both the Prose and Poetic Edda. Eva Crane has this to say about the discrepancy between the agriculture and the references to mead:
Iceland was probably settled between AD 870 and 930, by Vikings who came mainly from Norway and from Viking settlements in Britain and Ireland. The Poetic Edda, collected in the 1200s, often mentions mead; for instance, brave Viking men who died in battle were believed to feast afterwards in Valhalla, drinking mead. The poems are thought to reach back in the roots of Germanic mythology and legend (Jones, 1968), and these may perhaps be the source of the references to mead” (Crane 517).
This is a distinct possibility, though it should be pointed out this does not mean that Icelanders do not know what mead is. Skáldskaparmál , also called The Language of Poetry, tells us both about how Óðinn came by the mead of poetry and also how the mead is made; Kvasir, the god of wisdom created from the spittle of gods, is killed by the dwarves Fjallar and Gallar, who drain his tub into three vessels. Then “[þ]eir blendu hunangi við blóðit, ok varð þar af mjöðr sá, er hverr, era af drekkr, verðr skáld” [they blended honey with the blood, and there it became such of a mead, which each, when he drinks of it, becomes a poet] (Heimskringla.no). Literary references this paper will refer to later will demonstrate that Icelandic authors have an understanding of mead as a honey fermented beverage. Therefore, if Icelanders know what mead is, it does not necessarily have to be an older tradition that the Icelanders are remembering, though it could be.
But the Eddas, where this information is found, are not depictions of how the Icelanders saw themselves. For that we turn to the Islendingasögur or Sagas of Icelanders. While these cannot be taken as indisputable history, they are telling Icelanders stories of their own ancestors and so they invoke at least a picture of Icelanders’ history. To look for references to mead in the Sagas of Icelanders I looked at the Cleasby-Vígfusson dictionary, under mjöðr, and looked for references. I also went to the Dictionary of Old Norse Prose online which has a concordance. Then I went to the Icelandic Saga Database online and conducted word searches for mjöðr and hunang (or honey) and their parsed forms. Even if some references have been missed due to text normalizations, the examples found should be a good representative sample from the corpus.
One of the most interesting references to mead in the Sagas of Icelanders is in Vatnsdæla saga or The Saga of the People of Vatnsdalur. Ketill the Large from Romsdal in Norway goads his son Þorsteinn into taking on highway robbers in the beginning of the saga. In tropes that are familiar to all ages, let alone from Heimskringla, Ketill laments the inactivity of the youth: “[e]n nú vilja ungir menn gerast heimaelskir og sitja við bakelda og kýla vömb sína á miði og mungáti og þverr því karlmennska og harðfengi ” [but nowadays young men want to be stay-at-homes, and sit by the fire and stuff their stomachs with mead and small beer; and so it is that manliness and bravery are on the wane] (Vatnsdæla saga). The action takes place in Norway, though it sounds a bit like a contemporary complaint from the saga compiler. For the complaint to land with a 1300 Icelandic audience, it may be that there was mead being consumed, or it could be that it is a well-known word for alcohol, or even alcohol that is consumed in Norway. This reference sets the pattern of references to mead in the Sagas of Icelanders. The mentions are sparse, and when consumption is mentioned it is not referring to action that takes place in Iceland.
Brennu-Njáls saga or The Saga of Burnt Njal contains one of the few references to the actual drinking of mead. Gunnar of Hlidarendi and Kolskegg are out raiding when they come upon some Vikings from Gotland: “[sí]ðan tók Kolskeggur jústu eina af miði fulla og drakk og barðist eftir það” [after that Kolskegg took a beaker full of mead, and drank it and went on fighting afterwards] (Brennu-Njáls saga). It is a passing reference, acknowledging mead as a fortifying drink, but they are not drinking it in Iceland.
In Gísla saga Súrsonnar, or Gisli’s Saga, Gisli recites a verse over Vésteinn’s burial mound, remembering when the two of them went journeying together and stayed at Sigurhadd’s farm in Denmark:
Betr hugðak þá, brigði
biðkat draums ens þriðja
slíks af svefni vökðum
þás vér í sal sátum
Sigrhadds við mjöð gladder
komskat maðr á miðli
mín né hans, at víni (Gísla saga).
[Better, I believed,
to remember Vésteinn
gladdened with mead
where we sat drinking
in Sigurhadd’s hall,
and none came between us,
than to wake a third time
from so dark a dream (Regal 517)].
This is not the metaphoric mead of poetry, but actual mead being consumed. The verse is being recited in Iceland, but the consumption of mead took place in Denmark. There are two other references to mead in the poetry of Gísla saga Súrsonnar, however they are both metaphorical. The first refers to the mead of poetry, in a poem recited by Gísli about the acceptance of his fate, and there is another reference in a kenning for woman, in a poem Gísli recites about how much faith he has in his wife.
In Egils saga Skallagrímssonar or Egil’s Saga mead is referred to in kennings for poetry, like Óðins mjöð or Odin’s mead, or Yggjar miði or Ygg’s mead, just as in Gisli’s saga. However, in Ch. 46 the text makes use of the term mjöðdrekku, which Cleasby-Vigfusson says could be a mead cask, though Bjarni Einarsson glosses it as chest or box of valuables. This is more appropriate for the context, as the box which Egil carries turns out to be full of silver: “[s]agði Egill, at mjöðdrekku þá vill hann hafa at afnámsfé, er hann fór með, en hon var reyndar full af silfri” [Egill claimed that box of valuables that he wants to have as his private booty, which turned out to be full of silver] (Einarsson 65). These ‘mead-casks,’ or treasure-chests are not found in Iceland, but in the land of the Kúrir in the Baltic region. The word evokes several possibilities: either there is an association between mead and other precious substances, or that there is a practical consideration here, in which one would contain one’s valuables in containers that already exist to hold mead. Laxdaela Saga or The Saga of the people of Laxardal, also contains a reference to a mjöðdrekka. Once again the word is not meant to mean mead-casket, but a chest full of valuables. In addition, it is not an Icelandic chest but a Norwegian one.
So, there is not a lot of reference to mead in these sagas, and when there is, it is not referring to mead being consumed in Iceland. And yet, looking at the instances of the word hunang, or honey may offer an argument for the presence of mead. There are several references in Egils saga. Þorgils gjalland takes Þórólfr’s ship and sails away from a trade in England with honey: “[h]eldu þeir skipi því suðr með landi ok siðan í haf ok kómu fram á Englandi, fengu þar góða kaupstefnu, hlóðu skipit með hveiti ok hunangi, víni ok klæðum, ok heldu aptr um haustit ” [they kept the ship close to the land to the south and went to see and landed in England, where they found good trading, they loaded the ship with wheat and honey, wine and cloth, and set off for home] (Einarsson 21). Gelsinger rightly points out that this is a reference which indicates these things may be being traded in Iceland, however the ships in the saga are returning to Halogaland in Norway (Gelsinger 14). Later Þórólfr is supplying the king’s estate: “þurfti þar stór fǫng til bús þess. Hafði Þórir farit fyrir þá sök til Eyrar at kaupa þar þunga, malt ok hveiti ok hunang, ok varit þar til fé miklu, er konungr átti” [since a lot of provisions were needed for that estate. Thorir had gone to Oyr to buy cargo, malt and wheat and honey, and it was a great amount of the money there, which the king had] (Einarsson 24). Again, the estate is located in the Vík in Norway. In Chapter 63 King Athelstan gives Egil a “kaupskip” [merchant ship] and a cargo of mostly “hveiti ok hunang” [wheat and honey], which Egil and Þorsteinn enjoy on Þorsteinn’s farm in Norway. In fact, while they spend the winter there people bring them more “hveiti ok hunang” [wheat and honey] so that there was “um vetrinn gleði mikill” [much celebration in the winter] (Einarsson 115). Each time they use the phrase ‘hveiti ok hunang’ or ‘wheat and honey’ to describe the substances that are being traded for the purposes of making beverages. Again, these substances never come to Iceland, but the existence of the phrase at least suggests a vocabulary that has to describe these trade items. But Egils saga is, however, the only of The Sagas of Icelanders to refer to honey at all.
It is not the only usage of this phrase. In Sverris saga, a king’s saga, there are indications that the Icelanders are trading for honey. King Sverri’s speech on the dangers of alcohol opens with an account of the trading mission going on in Bergen:
Vér viljum þakka hingvatkvámu ǫllum enskum mǫnnum, þeim er hingat flytja hveiti ok hunang, flúr eða klæði. … Þá men viljum vér ok til nefna er komnir eru af Orkneyjum eða Hjaltlandi eða Færeyjum eða Íslandi ok alla þá er higat hafa flutt íþetta land þá hluti er eigi má missa ok þetta land boetisk við (Heimskringla.no).
[We wish to thank all English men for their arrival, they who conveyed here wheat and honey, flour or clothes … Then we wish to name men who have come from Orkney or Hjaltland or Faroes or Iceland and all then who have brought here into this land then things which may not be missed and things this land is improved with.]
This text suggests that both Icelanders and honey were present at this exchange. However, it is not indicating that the Icelanders are taking the honey home with them, just that they are there when honey trade is happening. Egils saga is an Icelandic text about Icelanders, while Sverris saga is an Icelandic text about Norwegians, though again they are both Icelandic texts. These texts certainly demonstrate that knowledgeable Icelanders knew about mead, but they do not necessarily show that the trade tradition they are tapping into is an Icelandic one. It is possible that the phrase was used to describe Icelandic trade, but it is just as likely if not more so that our saga authors know about Norwegian trade. And if the phrase maybe hints that someone in Iceland might be trading in honey, it is more likely to be the Icelanders of the medieval period, the people writing the texts down, rather than the earlier settlement period.
Compare references of mead with references to ale being consumed in Iceland. For instance, in Egils saga there is a feast that Yngvarr prepares for Skallagrim: “[f]ór Yngvarr þá heim ok bjó til veizlunnar ok lét þá öl heita.” [then Yngvarr went home and prepared the feast and caused the ale then to be brewed] (Einarsson 43). The literature supports the archeological conclusions that ale was much more common than mead for Viking Age Icelanders.
Going forward with this project I will look more at representations of mead in medieval Iceland, including in the records of the Diplomatorium Islandicum, and in the contemporary Icelandic sagas and bishop sagas. Preliminary findings indicate that Sturlunga saga or The Saga of the Sturlungs at least will show wealthy Icelanders drinking mead and having honey in Iceland, but it is not clear yet whether this will shed any light on what may have been the earlier tradition.
If there is mead in early Iceland it is expensive and quite rare. Mead being an expensive, exotic drink fits with it being the drink of the gods. It is the drink of ancient ancestors, and of foreign kings. It is the drink of the Vikings of popular culture, thanks to medieval sources like Beowulf and the myth of the mead of poetry. But yet I have explored here the apparent strange disconnect between the drinking of mead and the Icelanders, who, despite being separated from this major part of the Viking drinking culture, have left us what are still some of the best literary images of it.
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