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The Mead of Inspiration

By Kenulf
Originally Published Samhain 1999

I suspect many pagans regularly enjoy a tipple down the local pub. I bet quite a few would support the campaign for real ale. Very few though, I imagine, are able to buy mead over the pub counter, and those who can, may find the cost prohibitive, except for special occasions.

This is a shame, as mead plays a vitally important (if not primary) role in many of the stories and traditions left to us by our ancestors. For example, the term honeymoon is traditionally explained as an allusion to the feelings of married couples to one another during the first moon cycle of their partnership - i.e. sweet. This is understandably so, but one may also consider that our Saxon ancestors would have drank mead at wedding festivals which, it is rumoured lasted a whole month, giving rise to the term honeymoon. The couple would also take mead in the hope of increasing her fertility and his virility although I’m sure that too much would have had the opposite effect!

On a healthy living footing, honey has excellent antiseptic and preservative qualities. The produce of the humble worker bee is also considered very beneficial to one’s overall physical well-being, a notion supported by all those who take Royal Jelly.

According to Teutonic mythology, Mead was the drink of Hel1, Goddess of the underworld, in addition to being Odin’s sole source of nourishment2. From this information alone we can imagine that mead would have played a strong role in the practice of spirit travel or seership. There exists an Anglo-Saxon charm to bring down (or at least protect one’s self from) a swarm of bees. In it, the writer addresses the bees as “sigewif”, or “war-women”. Could this reference to war-women be an allusion to the Norns? Brian Bates certainly alludes to a link between bees and the Norns in his wonderful story of Anglo-Saxon enlightenment, The Way of Wyrd. Also, Snorri Sturluson, Icelandic scribe, and author of the prose edda, mentions that two bees exist at the entrance to Urd’s well.

The mead of inspiration is also known as Kvasir’s blood. Snorri Sturluson mentions in the prose edda that Kvasir was sent to the Aesir as hostage during the process of reconciliation, following the Winter war between the Aesir and Vanir. Whether Kvasir is Aesir, Vanir, or indeed human is often confused (he was after all, created from the spit of both the Aesir, and Vanir), but he is invariably described as the wisest of all. Later, Kvasir is murdered by two dwarves, who catch his blood in three bowls. They mix the blood with honey to create the poet’s mead, also known as song mead, or mead of inspiration.

In skaldic myth, the song-mead is certainly portrayed as a catalyst for insight and inspiration to humankind. Hyuki and Bil (related to Jack and Jill of nursery rhyme fame), whom the god, Mani (driver of the Moon chariot) took, were invoked by the Skalds in the hope that Bil would sprinkle song-mead upon their lips.

In the Prose Edda we are told of how Kvasir’s blood-mead was stolen by dwarves, and taken to the giant Sutung’s halls. We are told of how Odin, as the master of inspiration embarks on a fantastic journey involving shape shifting and spirit travel to recover the mead for the good of the Gods, and of humankind. After his amazing exploits (with the help of Heimdallr)3, Odin used his eagle guise to escape the giant’s halls, and carry the mead back to Asgard in his beak, spilling a few drops as he went. Those falling drops of song-mead are said to bring the occasional inspiration and sudden insight to whoever on earth they fall upon4.

It is this inspirational aspect that once again draws us to the possibility that mead was used in shamanic practices. It must be remembered that the meads or wines described in mythology were quite a different brew to those that we might make today for secular or ritual use. There exists extensive evidence to suggest that psychoactive ingredients played a strong role in the production of mead used to aid a human drinker’s creativity, or to facilitate otherworld journeys. Fly Agaric, Belladonna, Opium, Henbane, and Liberty Caps (Psilocybe semilanceata) have all found their way into meads at one time or another. Hemp (Cannabis sativa), for instance, which is the closest botanical relative to hops, can be used to produce not a sedative brew, but a euphoric and aphrodisiac brew - although the author can confirm that too much of a good thing can lead one somewhat off the shamanic rails! The possibilities for adding such ingredients to our mead are myriad. However, many psychoactive compounds such as muscarine (contained in many mushrooms, including Fly Agaric) is a nerve poison and exposure can leave users incurably demented, and visually impaired - so I’m not about to recommend anyone tried this at home or anywhere else!

The roll of the bees themselves is also worthy of consideration here. Bees might have appeared magical to our ancestors, producing the rich, sweet, sticky liquid apparently without help (the role of pollen would not have been fully understood). When one considers that meads and ales up until late medieval times all relied on honey (Tate and Lyle were not yet in business), then it would seem only reasonable to assume that bees were regarded as somewhat more than mere insects. Shamans undoubtedly made (or helped to make, given they often advised leaders) many decisions while under the influence of psychoactive drinks. It is here that we can link this decision making, or determination of destiny, with the mead consumed, the honey, and therefore ultimately bees as one of the ultimate facilitators for the shaman’s journey. It is also interesting to note that without the bees, and some other insects, more than 50 valuable crops could not pollinate. So even though we now know that bees do not magically produce honey “out of a hat”, I still believe they are wights of great importance, and deserve great reverence for their function in nature.

A number of factors (the recession, and vastly improved yeasts to name but two) have led in recent years to a boom in the home wine and beer making market. There are many out-of-the-box wine and beer kits that produce good results, but for those who wish to have a go at mead, the options have remained very limited. The inherently expensive ingredient for mead has prevented anyone from producing a commercially viable good quality mead kit - so it has to be done the hard (fun) way.

Uggghh! Too sweet! - This is the common lament of many who have tried mead, whether commercially produced or home made. However, this does not need to be the case. Apart from the essential oils, enzymes, and trace elements, honey is simply a rich source of the sugars fructose and glucose. Just like any other brew, the quantity of honey used will directly affect the sweetness of the resulting drink. If you are going to make mead, then try to find a consistent source of honey (try to avoid off the shelf supermarket honey), as the honey can make or break the flavour of a basic mead (lavender honey is one of the strongest natural flavours). Obviously, if you want to use locally produced honey, then you will have to wait until the brighter months.

A gallon of very basic mead can be made with between 2 and 3 pounds of honey, and the juice of 1 lemon (to balance the acidity). Obviously, clean everything thoroughly with campden tablets or other proprietary home brew cleansing solution before you start. Using a large blanching pot (or cauldron!), mix and simmer 1 part honey with about 2 parts water until the impurities come to the top in the form of a foamy scum. Scoop this stuff off, until the wort appears clean (don’t overdo this, a little scum never hurt the author!). Pop in the lemon juice, and pour the liquid into your brewing vessel. Allow the wort (honey/water/lemon mixture) to cool off to about body temperature, top up with water (previously boiled if your water stinks of chlorine), pitch the yeast into it, and fit an airlock.

Note that many varieties of yeast need to be started separately in a jar, and some don’t start very well without yeast nutrient, so ask if you’re not sure. The author uses champagne yeast for nice strong mead (around 15% alcohol).

After about a month or so the fermentation should have finished. Re-rack (siphon) it into a fresh container to allow it to clear before bottling or drinking. Basic mead settles out on its own quite easily in a month or two. There are books-a-plenty with mead recipes, but you may feel inclined (as did the author) to begin from a basic recipe, as above, and build on it intuitively.

One area in which the author would advise caution is in the use of campden tablets to stop fermentation or to sterilise the wort before adding the yeast. This detracts too far from the traditional process of brewing, and regardless of what I hear, I am sure this stuff imparts a distinct (unwelcome) flavour to my drinks. I always boil up the wort to sterilise it, rather than use chemicals. The only exception here is if you are going to add fruits like plums, as the skins of these fruits contain waxy compounds that boiling will bring out. These waxes can then form scummy deposits on the top of the brew, making it harder to clear.

If you want a weak brew, don’t stop it fermenting by artificial means, simply use a yeast with a lower alcohol tolerance in the first place. Your home brew shop should be able to advise on the different yeasts available.

Now go forth and seek inspiration in the bottom of a glass of mead!

References

1. Alvíssmál, verse 34, although verse 32 confuses this issue slightly.

2. Grímnismál.

3. Hávamál, verse 106.

4. Well of Remembrance, Ralph Metzner.

Suggested reading

The Way of Wyrd - Brian Bates. £5.99. ISBN 0-09-947790-4.

Well of Remembrance - Ralph Metzner. Shambhala. Contains a goodly sized chapter on the use of psychotropic plants in meads and wines.

Traditional British Honey Drinks - Francis Beswick. Heart of Albion press. £2.50. ISBN 1-872883-27-3.

The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore - Ransome, H. M. 1937. Houghton Mifflin.

Suggested Drinking

Enville Ale, available in the far West Midlands and thereabouts - Uses honey as a primer before being barrelled, imparting a smooth texture and flavour.