There is probably no other drink as associated with Vikings as mead! Sure, Vikings drank a wide variety of other drinks such as ales and ciders. Viking chieftains even traded far and wide for fine wine and the precious glasses to serve it in, thus boasting of their wealth and connections. But mead held a very special place in Viking culture, lore, and history. This article will investigate this often overlooked libation that was once known as the drink of the gods.
What is Mead?
Today, more people know more about mead from literary references than they do from actually tasting it. Mead accounts for less than 1% of alcohol consumption in every country except for Ethiopia. However, historically mead used to be a very big deal.
Mead (sometimes spelled meade or known in some parts of the world as tej) is one of the world's oldest alcoholic drinks and goes back to Neolithic times. It is made from fermenting honey with water and sometimes various flavorful fruits and/or medicinal plants that may be desired. Flavors can range as widely as they do for beers and wine. The ratio of honey to water is usually anywhere from 2-3 pounds per gallon. Depending on the potency of the yeast used, mead can range from a light, off-dry, wine-like drink to a heavy, heady, sweet, and potent elixir. Mead has an alcohol range of about 11-20+ percent, making it 2 to 4 times stronger than the average glass of beer. There are ways to make mead so that it is closer to a beer than wine. Numerous hybrid beverages mix honey with wine, ale, berries, ciders, or other ingredients.
Throughout Europe, mead was considered an aphrodisiac to increase both virility and fertility. We owe our term “honeymoon” to the tradition of a newly-married couple spending their first month drinking mead as an effort to bless their union with children. Mead may have also inspired the "nectar" or "ambrosia" that the gods of the Mediterranean were said to thrive on.
The Drink of the Viking Gods
In the Eddic poem, Lokasenna (Loki’s Taunts), we see the gods of the Aesir and adopted Vanir, together with many supernatural elves drinking mead in a fine hall in their divine realm of Asgard. Loki crashes their party, and demands a drink as he brazenly saunters into their midst.
"Thirsty I come into this thine hall, I, Lopt [Loki], from a journey long,
To ask of the gods that one should give Fair mead for a drink to me."
(H.A. Bellows’ 1936 translation)
As usual, Loki’s intentions are anything but innocent.
"Bale and hatred I bring to the gods, And their mead with venom I mix."
In the Eddic poem, Thrymskvitha (the tale of how Thor got his magical hammer back from the giants who stole it), Thor shocks the giants by drinking “three tuns of mead.” We are not sure how much a “tun” is ...but it sounds like a lot!
Probably the best-known mention of mead in Norse lore is also one of the most famous stories of Odin, the wandering wizard chief god of Norse mythology. In a tale of treachery, murder, battle, shapeshifting, fantastic realms, narrow escapes, and plenty of sex, Odin steals the 'Mead of Poetry' (Norse: Óðrœrir, or “the Source of Inspiration) from fearsome giants (Jotunn). Upon drinking this mead, Odin gains the gift of understanding and mastering the most-treasured Norse art form. This may be another reason why the three interlocking drinking horns of the Triskele (found carved onto numerous runestones) is considered a symbol of Odin. It was said that great poets were blessed by Odin and shared in his mead, while less-talented poets only got the spittle that Odin dropped behind.
Mead in the Afterlife
In Viking lore, mead is often associated with the afterlife. When the heroes of Valhalla leave their furious daily battle and go feast together as brothers, they are served mead by beautiful, deadly Valkyries. The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson (early 13th century) elaborates on this mead
“A she−goat, by name Heidrun, stands up in Valhal and bites the leaves off the branches of that famous tree called Lerad. From her teats runs so much mead that she fills every day a vessel in the hall from which the horns are filled, and which is so large that all the Einherjes [Odin’s chosen warriors] get all the drink they want out of it.” (Anderson 1879 translation).
It is not only the heroes of Valhalla who drink mead, though, but the men and women who dwell in Hel, too. In Viking lore, Hel is not necessarily the place of torment we may think of (though Snorri and others say it has some rough neighborhoods). According to the Eddic poem Alvissmol (the Sayings of All-wise), there is mead in Hel to ease the gloom. Another reference to mead in Hel comes from Baldrs Draumer (Bladr’s Dream):
"Here for Baldr the mead is brewed, The shining drink, and a shield lies o'er it.”
Mead was an essential part of Viking funerals. While on an average day beer or wine may suffice, to give a loved one a proper send-off, only mead would do. Arab diplomat Ahmed Ibn Fadlan (10th century) reported of Rus Vikings along the Volga: whenever a man dies, his property is amassed and divided into three parts. The first part goes to his family, the second pays for his funeral and grave clothes, and the third pays for the mead specially brewed to commemorate him. The wealthier the person, therefore, the more mead there was to go around. This connection with funeral rites may be why mead is often associated with the afterlife. Or the relationship may be circular.
Mead in Viking History
Whenever Byzantine peace treaties and Arab geographers report on Viking trade, honey is almost always one of the first things mentioned. Eager as the world was for honey from the northern forests, these sources seldom mention trade in mead. This is not surprising as the Byzantines and Franks preferred wine, and the Abbasids were not supposed to drink at all.
Other references from historical sources mention mead in passing or imply it without going into detail. For example, Olga, the widowed princess of the Viking Rus, duped her husband's killers into growing drunk on mead – so that they would be too trashed to defend themselves when she sprung her brutal trap.Only Ibn Fadlan (again) goes into much detail about mead drinking. However, he either did not have a word for mead, or preferred to use a word that his readers would better grasp, and so he referred to it by the Arabic term “nabidh” which means a sweet, lightly-fermented drink. But from his accounts of the effects of this “nabidh,” it clearly was not-so-lightly fermented. Ibn Fadlan observes of the Vikings: “For they drink nabidh [mead] night and day unrestrainedly so that sometimes one of them dies with his cup in his hand. (Lunde & Stone, 2012, p. 49).”
How Vikings may have Brewed Mead
Making mead requires equipment and vessels that are as close to sterile as possible (to avoid bacterial contamination or other spoilage). Brewer's yeast is then pitched into the heat-pasteurized honey and water once it has cooled. For the yeast to work its magic, though, air must be kept out. However, carbon dioxide and other gasses of fermentation must be allowed to escape (or your brewing container will explode). This is accomplished with an airlock device, where a layer of water will enable gasses to escape while preventing air from getting in.
Even modern brewers can find this process challenging at times, and there are plenty of pitfalls that can ruin a batch of mead at any stage of its development. But how did Vikings accomplish poetry-worthy mead without knowledge of sterilization or microbiology and without modern equipment like airlocks?
There are a few surviving mead recipes from the Middle Ages, with the earliest complete one being a 12th-13th century one found in Tractatus Manuscript: Folio 20r. This is after the time of the Vikings, but still offers clues of how things may have been done. The rest we must piece together from details in other poems and sagas.
The Vikings probably achieved near-sterilization of the honey-water by heating it in a cauldron and keeping it in that same cauldron throughout the early stages of the fermentation. In the Eddic poem, Hymiskvitha (The Lay of Hymir), we see Thor and Tyr go on an adventure to fetch such a cauldron for brewing ale. According to Ibn Fadlan, Vikings liked to drink their mead young, so they may not have changed vessels (racking the mead off the lees) the way modern mead makers prefer. If Ibn Fadlan’s Vikings are representative of all Vikings (which is controversial), Viking mead was probably cloudy, sweet, pungent, and effervescent. Tractatus Manuscript: Folio 20r does specify transferring mead off the lees to clear it, and suggests taking it off early if you want it sweet, or setting it longer if you want it “sharp.”
Though scientists only discovered microbes in the 17th century, humanity has been using microbiology to its advantage for thousands of years. Things like bread, cheese, yogurt, alcohol, medicine, and many other things all required our ancestors to manipulate microorganisms, even before they understood what they were. So, Vikings most likely did not "pitch yeast" as a modern brewer would, but they could achieve fermentation by:
1) adding certain plants (on which yeast grew), or
2) by adding some of the lees from previous batches, or
3) by simply always having a batch going and just adding fermenting mead to new honey-water.
We can only guess at which of these methods (or others we have not thought of) the Vikings used. They may have used all of them at different times. In Tractatus Manuscript: Folio 20r yeast is added in the form of “the dregs from the finest ale” (method 2 above).
The sagas and poetry tell how the Vikings solved the problem of keeping air out while letting carbon dioxide escape. As the passage from Baldr’s Dream above read, Viking brewers placed a battle shield over their brews of ale or mead. This is mentioned in several other passages as well. At first, it may seem like a ritual or a cultural custom. But a Viking shield would be big enough to cover the cauldron, and the tight wood and covering of linen or leather (if present) would keep air out. Meanwhile, the fermentation gasses would push the shield up when the pressure got high enough, allowing for the carbon dioxide to escape. The gentle, rhythmic bumping of the wooden shield on the brewer’s vat would let the Vikings know that their mead would soon be ready.
Did Vikings Drink Mead from the Skulls of their Enemies?
Vikings primarily drank their mead from drinking horns. These objects could be beautifully carved with designs or runes. Because they were cattle horns, they could not be set down, and thus the Viking had to pass the horn to his friend, his hostess, or drain it himself. There are many references to this in the sagas and poetry. There are however a small number of Eddic references to individuals making the skulls of their enemies into drinking vessels. For example, in the Volsunga Saga (and related poems), Queen Gudrun does this. So did the cunning smith Völund (or Weland) in Völundarkvitha (the Lay of Völund). In both cases, these are dark acts of revenge by tormented people. Drinking from the skulls of enemies is never described as mainstream practice of Viking warriors.
There is one historical reference to a Viking and a goblet made from a skull, however the story is somewhat inverted. The Rus Viking Prince Sviatoslav the Brave was finally killed in an ambush by Pecheneg horse archers. According to the Russian Primary Chronicle (early 12th century), the Pechenegs made Sviatoslav’s skull into a ceremonial drinking bowl, which in their culture was a sign of respect. So, was it a common practice for the Vikings to drink mead from the skulls of their enemies? Probably not. But apparently this was indeed a practice performed by some during that time period.
How to Make Your Own Mead
Mead is a drink steeped in mysticism and romance. It has a long and exciting history and is important in many cultures – especially the Norse culture of the Vikings. Today, meaderies are (fortunately) growing in popularity. There are even a few breweries who are trying their hand at this famous beverage. Mead is also a big favorite amongst home brewers, because it is relatively easy and rewarding to make. People drawn to the history and romance of the drink find that it is also versatile, complex, and a great alternative to conventional libations. With the world’s honeybee populations threatened, there is now even more reason to give mead a try. All those Viking gods can’t be wrong!
We recommend our 400+ page Viking history book that offers an in-depth look at the Viking age from start to finish and the impact it had on the world. Available here.
About Sons of Vikings
- Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Translated by Rasmus B. Anderson. University of Wisconsin, Madison. 1879. https://is.cuni.cz/studium/predmety/index.php?do=download&did=62028&kod=ARL100252
- The Poetic Edda. Translated by Henry Adams Bellows. Princeton. 1936. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe.pdf
- Rodgers, D. & Noer, K. Sons of Vikings: History and Impact of the Viking Age. KDP. The United States. 2018.
- Lunde, P. & Stone, C. (translators). Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travelers in the Far North. Penguin Classics. London. 2012.
- The Russian Primary Chronicle: The Laurentian Text. Translated by S. H. Cross & O. Sherbowitz-Wetzor. Medieval Academy of America. Cambridge, MA. 1953. https://www.mgh-bibliothek.de/dokumente/a/a011458.pdf
- Tractatus Manuscript: Folio 20r. Reynolds-Finley Historical Library. Tractatus Manuscript: Folio 20r - Libraries | UAB