Paul Andruss has been exploring poetry in the last few weeks and today a post from his archives on the subject of Poetic Mead….a drink that has been brewed for thousands of years across the continents and holds mythical properties….
The Cauldron of Inspiration warmed by the breath of nine maidens. (From Celtic Myths and Legends by Charles Squire with illustration by Ernest Wallcousins 1912)
Poetic Mead by Paul Andruss
Mead is an alcoholic drink made entirely from honey, or honey mixed with pulped fruit or mashed grain. It was drunk though history and across continents from Neolithic Chinese farmers, Vikings, to modern Kalahari Bushmen. Many cultures considered mead magical, able to bestow wisdom and the gift of poetry, and to be a universal panacea.
Mead, brewed with rice, honey and fruit, was found in Chinese archaeological sites 9,000 years old. It turned up in 8,000 year-old burial chambers near the Black Sea … the tomb of King Midas. Yes, King Midas: the one who turned everything to gold. There is some basis in fact for his golden touch: but that’s another story.
The Vedas, Hindu sacred texts written in Sanskrit almost 2,000 years ago, link mead to the gods, as does ancient Greek myth. Mead was the Olympian Gods’ tipple of choice. Hippocrates, the father of medicine (as in the Hippocratic Oath) used mead brewed with fruit juice as medicine.
Our word medicine comes from ‘mead’; as does ‘honeymoon’. In medieval times the bride’s father gave the newly-weds a month’s (a moon’s) worth of mead. It was supposed to be an aphrodisiac. In actual fact it probably did what all booze does, throws inhibitions to the wind, buggers judgement and leaves you randy. A sure fired winner for begetting the son and heir, despite the fact you had probably never met before, and the bride was probably around eleven years old. (There are so many things wrong with that sentence it does not bear thinking about.)
In Celtic myth the Cauldron of Inspiration held poetic mead, warmed by the breath of nine maidens. One sip made you a scholar and a poet. Historians believe the Cauldron of Inspiration was the original Holy Grail, later incorporated into Arthurian legend.
The Celts thought the chthonic gods (gods of the underworld) had to the power to bestow the gift of poetry. The lord of the underworld, Gwyn ap Nudd kept the pearl rimmed cauldron in his Glass Castle: often associated with Glastonbury Tor, which in those times was an island surrounded by marshes and lakes.
The early Welsh poem, The Spoils of Annwn, says King Arthur took three shiploads of knights to steal the cauldron. Each stanza ends ominously with: ‘only seven returned’. Gwyn’s fortress is named differently in each verse as the Glass Castle, the Four-cornered Castle, the Revolving Castle, the Fairy Castle, as well as the Castle of Mead Drunkenness.
Some of these names hint at a time when the White Goddess ruled. Arianrhod of the Silver Wheel, believed to be the Moon Goddess, lived in a revolving castle bound by the four corners of the earth: the starry heavens turning over the course of the night and the year. Equally she might be the North Star, which does not move at all and around which all others revolve: like a silver wheel.
Olwen of the White Track (her name means white footprints) is associated with the Milky Way. In ancient religions the Milky Way was the road to the gods. In Greek myth it was created from a spurt of milk from the breast of Zeus’ mother, hence its modern name.
In Norse myth, Odin stole poetic mead from the giants. The story goes the gods originally created a wise man called Kvasir by each spitting in a bowl. The name Kvasir means to crush or grind. Dwarves murdered Kvasir and mixed his blood with honey to produce poetic mead: one sip turned you into a scholar and a poet. When the giants took the mead, Odin stole it back.
Before exploring any further, let’s look at alcohol. People believe alcohol is euphoric. It’s not. It’s a depressant. The reason you initially become giddy is because it depresses the part of your nervous system inhibiting behaviour. In larger amounts it leaves you depressed, hence the popular image of the maudlin drunk.
Drunks are loquacious: talkative and garrulous (i.e. talk to anyone). They are also incredibly wise and witty; of course it helps if everyone else is drunk as skunks too. These were signs of divine possession and talents poets boasted of.
It might surprise you to know animals like getting drunk, and not just your dog snaffling your beer. Wildlife cameramen have filmed parties in the jungle when overripe fallen fruit ferments in the heat due to air borne yeasts. The alcohol content is low, but as animals rarely experience it, they have no tolerance.
Like any teenage party, when word gets round all different types of beast come from far and wide to behave exactly like we do: getting giddy before turning into mean drunks. Given animals get drunk there is no reason to think pre-humans and early humans did not do the same. Alcohol and drugs are literally old as sin.
The bee was a symbol of the goddess long before farming: when you might think people noticed it fertilizing crops. Perhaps the bee became associated with the goddess not simply because it appears in spring, but also due to the way mead makes social gatherings swing.
Mead is often produced naturally when water soaks a beehive. Warm days and air-borne yeast create alcohol. Interestingly yeast might be the real reason druids (whose name means oak seer) considered the oak sacred.
The traditional story is druids harvested the sacred mistletoe from the oak. Although mistletoe does not easily grow on oak, yeast does and it is the ancestor of the yeast used today for bread and beer.
There is further evidence of mead being associated with the goddess in the way modern indigenous peoples across the world prepare alcoholic drinks. Remember the tale of the Norse gods all spitting in a cauldron to produce a wise man, whose name Kvasir means to crush, well …
In the Pacific Islands, Kava, a mildly hallucinogenic beverage is prepared by chewing the kava plant and spitting it into a bowl. The Incas used the same method to prepare a corn beer called chichi, used for ritual purposes and consumed in huge quantities during religious festivals. The same practice is still used throughout South and Central America: chewing a variety of fruits, roots and grains such as plantain manioc, agave, cassava and quinoa. The enzymes in spit break down the plant starches into sugars for the yeast to work on.
In ancient Japan a rice wine called Kuchikamizake (Heavenly-being-mouth-saké) was produced by virgins chewing rice. Remember the story of poetic mead warmed by the breath of nine maidens?
Across all cultures only women chew the grains or roots for alcohol preparation. Menfolk maintain when they do the chewing the booze doesn’t taste as good.
There are either two ways to consider this.
Men are lazy. Yeah, you might have a point. … And good for nothing drunks … Ok, ok calm down.
Or alternatively …
The methodology was already in use before humans migrated out of Africa 200,000 years ago.
Evidence supporting the idea of early hunters and gatherers liking a drink comes from the most ancient religious site in the world. Gobekli Tepe, in Turkey, dates back 12,000 years, a few thousand years before farming- about the same time as the last Ice Age ended. Gobekli Tepe is a temple of carved stone pillars arranged into communal spaces, probably used to celebrate and worship, as there is no evidence anyone lived nearby.
It is believed women gardened for a couple of thousand years before man learned to farm. Women encouraged useful plants to grow at the expense of ‘weeds’ in areas where they settled near the summer pastures of wild antelope herds. Gobekli Tepe comes from this transition period and is only 20 miles away from where wild Einkorn, the ancestor of modern wheat, grew in abundance.
Amid the evidence of feasts (mounds of wild antelope bones), archaeologists found large stone pits containing traces of mashed Einkorn used for brewing beer or more probably a beer-mead mix. It was thought beer came from an accident when early people were making bread. Now many believe it was the other way round.
Gobekli Tepe was occupied for more than 3,000 years before being abandoned, probably because the farming revolution destroyed the way of life its rituals commemorated.
All we know about the earliest religions date from fragmentary texts 5,000 years old. Yet humans, exactly the same as us, have been around for 300,000 years. Meaning for over 90% of our time on this planet we have no idea what people, just like us, believed or thought.
It is easy to see while gods might change, important concepts such as birth and death, day and night, and the phases of the moon marking the return of the sun, rains, herds and the spring would never be abandoned, and neither would the associated celebratory rituals of feasting, entertainment and getting off your face on drugs and drink; and probably getting your leg over to boot. After all, the one thing that never changes in this world is people.
©Paul Andruss 2018
A fascinating look at this drink that has captivated and clearly inspired for thousands of years…thanks Paul
About Paul Andruss.
Paul Andruss is a writer whose primary focus is to take a subject, research every element thoroughly and then bring the pieces back together in a unique and thought provoking way. His desire to understand the origins of man, history, religion, politics and the minds of legends who rocked the world is inspiring. He does not hesitate to question, refute or make you rethink your own belief system and his work is always interesting and entertaining. Whilst is reluctant to talk about his own achievements he offers a warm and generous support and friendship to those he comes into contact with.
Paul is the author of two books and you can find out more by clicking the image.
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