Mead and its significance in Norse mythology

This is an interesting video about mead and its significance. As the video points out it is unlikely that the importance of mead was its alcoholic content.

The video theorizes that mead contained hallucinogenic properties. I would like to suggest an alternative explanation for the importance of mead  in the ancient world.

As I explain in this post mead made by our ancestors had very little alcohol. It did have a high glucose content and humans need glucose to function.

Today we live sedentary lives and have ready access to glucose in many forms so most of us  are unfamiliar with what happens to us when we run out of glucose. Some athletes especially cyclists do experience this. It  is called hitting the wall or ‘bonking’. The medical term for this is hypoglycemia which can occur when  blood sugar is 70 milligrams per deciliter  or lower.  These are some of the symptoms: confusion, dizziness, feeling shaky, headaches, irritability, trembling, weakness, anxiety, poor concentration. Without treatment you could pass out or even go into a coma.

An  individual on an average diet is able to store about 380 grams of glycogen, or 1500 kcal  in the body. Intense cycling or running can easily consume 600–800 or more kcal per hour.  Unless glycogen stores are replenished during exercise, glycogen stores will be depleted after less than 2 hours of continuous intense exercise.

It is  possible to replenish glucose through fat metabolism during gentle aerobic  exercise.  Fighting in hand to hand combat for several hours was anything but gentle. It would have been what is called anaerobic exercise, where there is insufficient oxygen to sustain the muscles. Examples of anaerobic sports in the modern world are sprinting or weightlifting. Battles in the ancient world  lasted much longer than 2 hours. The battle of Teutoburg Forest for instance lasted about 3 days. So how did the warriors avoid hypoglycemia?

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The GI is a scale that ranks carbohydrates from 0 to 100 according to how quickly they are processed in the body.

Foods with a high glycemic index rating — above 70 — generally make the blood sugar quickly go up and then rapidly drop back down in a short period of time. If a food has a moderate score, between 55 and 69, it will still raise your blood sugar, but probably not as much as something with a higher ranking.

Honey typically has a GI of 58. This is therefore ideal for a Teutonic warrior, raising blood sugar quite high but also lasting more than an hour. Carbohydrates from liquids are usually digested  rapidly,

In the 19th and early 20th century, athletes occasionally drank beer of low alcohol content replenishing water, minerals and energy in the body. Today sports drinks like Gatorade give athletes an energy boost,  replace fluids and  increase the glucose circulating in the  blood. Could mead have played a similar role in the ancient world?

The only source of pure glycogen in Northern Europe would have been honey which would have therefore played a crucial role in military life. This may also be the reason that the bee was considered sacred.

The Maiden with the Mead

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A recurring theme in the Poetic Edda, is the supernatural maiden offering a cup or a horn of precious mead to a hero. The motif of a maiden serving mead is also found in many images from the Viking Age, carved on rock – especially memorial stones at burial places – or woven on hangings.

Maria Kvilhaug, a Norwegian  scholar of Norse mythology, has suggested that the maiden with the mead was part of an initiation ritual. This could be right but the actual origin may come from the battlefield.

Tacitus, the Roman historian, writes in Germania:

“Tradition says that armies already wavering and giving way have been rallied by women who, with earnest entreaties and bosoms laid bare, have vividly represented the horrors of captivity, which the Germans fear with such extreme dread on behalf of their women…And what most stimulates their courage is, that their squadrons or battalions, instead of being formed by chance or by a fortuitous gathering, are composed of families and clans. Close by them, too, are those dearest to them, so that they hear the shrieks of women, the cries of infants”

It is clear that women were present on the battlefield. Tacitus is not a wholly reliable source and the importance of the women may have been more than exhortation.  Could they have  given the warriors mead in the same way that athletes today are given drinks high in glucose? Is this the true origin of the maiden with the mead? They could have played a crucial role in determining the ability of warriors to continue fighting and thus influenced the outcome of the battle. In doing so a mythology would have been built around these mead bearing women.

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Thank you Thor!

Last night we had a big thunderstorm  and the electricity went down. This often happens where I live unfortunately. It usually doesn’t come back on until the next morning. There was just a very weak current, enough for a couple of lights, but no other light,  no water, no internet.

We were having dinner, partly by candlelight, and in the course of the conversation my son asked to see my Mjölnir. I took it off and passed it to him and as I did so the lights flickered. Everyone laughed:

‘That’s Thor!’

‘Isn’t Thor the god of lightning or storms or sometime like that?’

My son took the Mjölnir and put it on. As he did so the lights slightly dimmed. We all laughed again.

‘Thor!’

We talked out the Mjölnir for a bit. I explained that I had had it made based on the design of a Viking Mjölnir found in Denmark. The labour charge was $30 plus another $15 for some modifications which I thought incredibly good value, but not everyone was convinced thinking that some of the gold I had given to the jewelry maker hadn’t been returned. I also gave my son my gold watch which he put on, and we discussed various other topics including the price of antiques. Finally he gave the Mjölnir  back to me.

At the exact moment I put the Mjölnir round my neck, the electricity came back on. All the lights went on, the water pump started up again. The exact moment.

We sat in stunned silence.

Finally my son said:

‘Wow! What’s the odds of that happening by chance? I want a Mjölnir! Mummy, you should change religions…’

It was what statisticians call a 6 sigma event. I did a bit of googling later to see if there were any similar stories. This is an interesting example of a prayer for rain being answered by Thor, especially interesting as it from extremist Christians.

In the saga of Eric the Red, when the men are short of food,  Thorhall composes a poem in praise of Thor and shortly after a whale is washed up on the shore.  Thorhall says:

“Has it not been that the Redbeard has proved a better friend than your Christ? this was my gift for the poetry which I composed about Thor, my patron; seldom has he failed me.”

It is very inconvenient to be without electricity and we were very grateful to Thor, if he really had anything to do with it. Thank you Thor!

If you have had similar experiences please post them below.

Heathen burial

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This is the grave of my dog who died recently. She was called Puppy (somewhat inappropriate, given she was over 10 years old….the name somehow stuck)

  • The dog, as a heathen, was buried facing north. Christians were buried facing east.
  • Heathens were buried with some of their possessions. I have put the dog’s bowl and collar on top of the grave for the purposes of the photo, but they will be buried alongside the dog. Christians were never buried with their possessions.
  • The swastika is often found on heathen burial urns, especially in England, and seems to be associated with Thor’s hammer, representing perhaps the Mjolnir flying through the air. It could also represent the cyclical nature of life. It is quite often found on Chinese grave stones too.

Make mead like a heathen

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Mead is  an important part of being a heathen. Mead is to heathens what marijuana  is to Rastafarians. A draught of mead, delivered by the beautiful divine maidens, was the reward for warriors who reached Valhalla; Odin, was said to have gained his strength by suckling Mead from a goats’ udder as an infant.

Keep not the mead cup but drink thy measure;
speak needful words or none:

‘Twas Gunnlod who gave me on a golden throne
a draught of the glorious mead,

Nine mighty songs I learned from the great
son of Bale-thorn, Bestla’s sire;
I drank a measure of the wondrous Mead,
with the Soulstirrer’s drops I was showered.

But is the mead heathens  make today the same as that of our Ancestors ?

The Ancients knew nothing of yeast, had no access to chemical sanitizer, and would  brew and ferment in open vats in the same room in which other cooking and household duties were being performed.

The Hispanic-Roman naturalist Columella gave a recipe for mead in De re rustica, about 60 AD. This is probably roughly how the Scandinavians made mead too.

Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius of this water with a [Roman] pound of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.

You can make mead using this method.

Take a ceramic pot and add distilled water and  raw unpasteurized honey. Distilled water is only necessary because of all the chemicals in todays environment that our ancestors did not have to contend with. Add some of the following:

  • herbs
  • wild fruit and berries
  • cinnamon

Cover the pot with a cloth to stop insects getting in. After a few days and it will start to ferment. Stir it each day. There is no need to add yeast as there will probably be some wild yeast on the fruit skins and there is yeast in the air too.

Wait  9 days and then drink it.

Its as simple as that.  It will only be mildly alcoholic, but will be full of nutritious probiotics from the wild yeast and still  taste sweet. It will be slightly fizzy and tastes amazing. If you rarely drink alcohol then even a small amount will make you tipsy.

Alcohol content

If you make mead in the traditional way the alcohol content is variable, but generally very low. This was true of most ancient societies as can be seen by the amount they drank. The daily beer allowance of a pyramid worker was one and a third gallons. In Christian Europe nuns had a daily ration of 6 pints of ale. They would have died of cirrhosis of the liver after a few years if the alcohol content was more than half a percent. The same would have applied to the mead our Nordic ancestors drank.

There are many accounts of people getting drunk in the Eddas and sagas. The nutritional biochemist and historian William J. Darby, who has studied this subject extensively, observes:All these accounts are warped by the fact that moderate users of alcohol “were overshadowed by their more boisterous counterparts who added ‘color’ to history.” The simple fact is that our ancestors did not have the knowledge or technology to make alcohol of the strength we have today. But stories of drunks are entertaining and the ancient chroniclers never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. This is true today as well. For example, the actor Peter O’Toole cultivated an image as a hard drinking hell-raiser . But as his biographer Alexander Larman points out it was largely as act. Many other show business personalities do the same thing.

Glucose not alcohol

There will still be plenty of glucose in your mead and this is important. Every cell in your body runs on glucose especially the brain. The brain, which accounts for 2 percent of our body weight, uses roughly 20 percent of our daily calories. The frontal cortex which manages our self control, is especially vulnerable to low glucose. 130 grams of carbohydrates a day is needed for the brain to function properly. In the modern world we have access to plenty of glucose – too much – but our ancestors had the  opposite  problem. This is perhaps the reason that mead was so sacred to them.

Humans are frugivores. Indeed as Tony Wright has speculated humans’ symbiotic relationship with fruit played a key role in our development. In northern Europe fruit was scarce and Tacitus makes this point in Germania:

“Their country, though somewhat various in appearance, yet generally either bristles with forests or reeks with swamps; it is more rainy on the side of Gaul, bleaker on that of Noricum and Pannonia. It is productive of grain, but unfavourable to fruit-bearing trees”

Mead was essential as an alternative source of  glucose.

 

Drinking  mead of greater alcoholic content than this is unwise.

As this recent study shows even moderate consumption of alcohol can impair  the brain’s function. Effects  include: :shrinkage of hippocampus, damage to the structure of white matter and reduced lexical fluency.

Encouraging people to drink alcohol by normalizing it as part of a religious ritual is irresponsible.

Researchers have linked alcohol consumption to more than 60 diseases.  Here are three examples:

Cancer

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer. The increased risk comes when the body converts alcohol into acetaldehyde, a potent carcinogen. Cancer sites linked to alcohol use include the mouth, pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), esophagus, liver, breast, and colorectal region.

Brain damage

Drinking alcohol speeds the shrinkage of certain key regions in the brain, resulting in  symptoms of dementia.

 Liver Damage
Alcohol is toxic to liver cells, and many  drinkers develop cirrhosis, a sometimes-lethal condition in which the liver is so heavily scarred that it is unable to function. It’s hard to predict which drinkers will develop cirrhosis. Some people who drink huge amounts never get cirrhosis, and some who don’t drink very much do get it. For some unknown reason, women seem to be especially vulnerable.

Thor’s Hammer pendant

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This is a mjölnir made out of 23 karat gold. I commissioned it specially using an original viking pendant found in the locality of Romersdal on the island of Bornholm, Denmark as a model.

I have found jewelry made out of gold much more satisfactory than  other metals, because gold does not tarnish. Not many gold mjölnir have been found but that may be because the gold was melted down and sold.

Most of the world’s cultures have relied on various protective symbols to ward off evil and invite the positive forces of the universe. The teutonic culture was no different.

Stuart Vyse, psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition has shown that in studies of lucky charms, people perform better on tasks when they have a lucky charm with them. In one study in 2010, researchers had students putt a golf ball. Half the students were told that the golf ball they were using was lucky. The students who thought they were putting with a lucky ball were better at it than students told they were using a regular ball.  There is more information here.

As Ezra Pound said, “what matters is not the idea a man holds, but the depth at which he holds it.”

If you believe that your mjölnir is bringing you luck, maybe it will….

Masculine gentlemen and feminine ladies

The Asatru Folk Assembly provoked a good deal of controversy in heathen circles with this statement: “Today we are bombarded with confusion and messages contrary to the values of our ancestors and our folk. The AFA would like to make it clear that we believe gender is not a social construct, it is a beautiful gift from the holy powers and from our ancestors. The AFA celebrates our feminine ladies, our masculine gentlemen and, above all, our beautiful white children. The children of the folk are our shining future and the legacy of all those men and women of our people back to the beginning. Hail the AFA families, now and always!”

This interesting page has some information about the archeological record. It seems that the Viking gentlemen were not as butch and the Viking ladies not as feminine as many believe. This presumably applied to the Nordic peoples generally….

“The skeletons reveal another difference between us and the Vikings: men’s and women’s faces were more similar in appearance in the Viking Age than they are today.

“It’s actually more difficult to determine the gender of a skeleton from the Viking era,” says Harvig. “The men’s skulls were a little more feminine and the women’s skulls a little more masculine than what we’re seeing today. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all skeletons from the Viking period, but generally it’s quite difficult to determine the gender of a Viking Age skeleton.”

She explains that Viking women often had pronounced jawbones and eyebrows, whereas in the men, these features were more feminine than what archaeologists are accustomed to when trying to determine the gender of ancient skeletons.”

This is in line with what the Roman historian Tacitus said of German women:

“The dowry is brought by husband to wife, not by wife to husband. Parents and kinsmen attend and approve the gifts — not gifts chosen to please a woman’s fancy or gaily deck a young bride, but oxen, a horse with its bridle, or a shield, spear and sword. In consideration of such gifts a man gets his wife, and she in her turn brings a present of arms to her husband. This interchange of gifts typifies for them the most sacred bond of union, sanctified by mystic rites under the favor of the presiding deities of wedlock. The woman must not think that she is excluded from aspirations to manly virtues or exempt from the hazards of warfare. That is why she is reminded, in the very ceremonies which bless her marriage at the outset, that she enters her husband’s home to be the partner of his toils and perils, that both in peace and war she is to share his sufferings and adventures.”

Liberated ladies in other words…

This is an interesting article about Viking warrior women.