The History and Magic of Mead

by Richard B. Webb

I'd like for you to think about mead, the drink of the gods, a mere beverage, but the source of love, magic, and wonder from time immemorial.

Among the many things which have made up the daily life of mankind through the ages, certain things have always been accorded a special place of importance. Basic elements such as air, fire, and water formed the groundwork of primitive science and magic, while commodities, such as salt, wine, bread, honey, and by extension mead, are woven into the myths, folk-lore, and religions of every civilization throughout history. From the Vikings, the Saxons, the Celts, and even the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans comes a rich history of mead making and drinking, a history that makes our society the richer for it.

Mead. The mere mention of the word conjures up visions of drinking vessels swaying high in the air, with throngs of Vikings singing rowdy songs into the night. Mead is the nectar of nectars, and one of the most natural drinks ever made by man.

Mead is a pleasant alcoholic drink made from diluted honey and water, fermented by yeast. It is possibly the earliest known fermentable, due to the lack of any kind of sweetener and the very few fruits known in ancient times. In fact, the Nordic countries did not even know of wine until trade routes were established between the north and the south.

Mankind's first experiences with intoxication could have easily sprung from the spontaneous fermentation of honey in some old tree trunk containing a bee hive, diluted by rain water, with fermentation initiated by the wild yeasts which are around us in the air every day. The not unpleasant effect brought about by the consumption of this wonderful wild elixir would have seemed magical to primitive man, and in fact every culture seeks intoxicating substances with which to expand the mind. Early cave paintings have shown the collection of honey from hives. We can't say for certain what the purpose of the honey collection was, but it is romantic to imagine the early peoples seeking out honey in order to ferment it, the intoxicating effects allowing these people to become closer to their gods. Eventually the drinking of intoxicating beverages became part of their culture, with rituals and traditions surrounding the creation and consumption of these substances.

Fermentation also served a public sanitation purpose. Unsafe water supplies called for purification. The process by which wine, beer, and mead is made destroys many pathogens which can make the water unsafe, leading to healthier water supplies.

Early meads (and beers for that matter) were heavily spiced to cover up the off flavors of fermentation contamination. This contamination would not be unhealthy, but it would perhaps be bad tasting. Yeast as the engine of fermentation wasn't understood until the mid 1800's. Before that, fermentation was hit or miss, often the result of dogma and habit more than any understanding of the process.

For the traditions associated with mead making and mead drinking, much comes to us from our Scandinavian heritage. Who would have thought that the bees, the moon and the magical brews of man could combine to add to the bliss, the lusters, and the memories of weddings? For mead is the beverage of love. Our phrase "honeymoon" comes from the revelous wedding celebrations of the Norse, who danced and drank until the mead and ale ran out, and woe be unto the host that didn't have sufficient supplies to last the full cycle of the moon! The drinking of mead has also been held responsible for fertility and the birth of sons, a very important consideration when the male offspring accounted for much status in warrior clans. It was thought that if mead were consumed for one month (one moon) after a wedding, then the first child born to the couple would be male. Considering that the alcoholic content of mead often runs to twelve, or even fourteen percent by volume, this would prove to be quite a party. Successful male births were cause for further celebrations, and congratulations went out to the maker of the mead, as well as to the groom, who could now boast of his power, potence, and manliness. The use of special cups formed into tradition, and these cups were handed down through the generations, as if the cups and their contents were somehow responsible for the birthing of sons.

The idea that the drinking of mead could somehow influence the sex of the child is not as far fetched as it may seem at first. The acidity and the sweetness of the drink can influence the mother-to-be's body acidity, and it is known that the acidity or alkalinity of the female body during conception can influence the sex of the newborn.

Other traditions called for the use of communal cups, called mazers, which were typically large, open vessels, usually the size and shape of a communion cup. The mazer was passed from hand to hand, with each person drinking from the cup offering a toast or prayer in passing.

In ages past, the making of spirituous drink was an art, as well as an arcane type of magic, regulated by custom, law, and superstition. Certain individuals were trained in this magic of turning honey into mead, a powerful conjuring that mystified the ignorant. The process by which the juice of the grape, the toil of the bee, or the grain of the field, were turned into mind altering substances was not well understood in ancient times. Yeast as an entity was not understood at all until Pasteur explained the process of fermentation in 1841. Until then, yeast was known by many other names, including Godisgood, a name which implies the level of knowledge about the process at the time. The addition of yeast was not known to the ancient Jews, and thus is not a kosher addition to wines. But we know that the addition of yeast, especially certain selected strains of this magical fungus, is critical to the character and flavor of even the simplest fermented beverage.

Perhaps someday you will try to make your own mead. You will then find out just how easy and fun it can be to participate in the magic of this historic beverage. As for trying to insure the sex of your subsequent children, I leave that experiment up to you.

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This page is authored and maintained by Rich Webb.You can send E-mail to me by following this link to the contact page. And feel free to contact me if you have any comments, criticisms, or suggestions. I remain, however, perfectly capable of ignoring your useless opinion...

This document was last modified on Dec 20, 1996, and has been viewed countless times.