Perhaps there is no drink more iconic of the age when heathen Norsemen boarded their dragon boats and set sail abroad, then brimming horns of fresh mead! It’s true that the Vikings were particularly fond of this historic beverage, and in Old Norse literature it was regularly consumed by gods and men alike. Although the Vikings didn’t leave much material evidence behind regarding the production or brewing of mead, we know from their sagas and mythology that it did play a large part in the Norse world. But what significance did mead have to the Vikings? What role did it play in their everyday lives? Was it more than just a form of inebriation? In this article, we’ll be asking discovering the truth about mead, what it meant to the Vikings and its significance in everyday life.
The significance of mead in everyday life starts with Norse mythology. Norse Mythology was the religion of the Vikings, and thus very significant in their daily lives. In one myth we hear of Odin’s quest for the Mead of Poetry, a drink made from the blood of the wisest being Kvasir (whose name means fermented berry juice). This myth follows the journey of Odin as he travels across the world, in search of the mead which lies hidden beneath a mountain. When he finds it, he consumes it in three large vats, gaining the ability to dispense unquestionable wisdom. Upon returning home to Asgard, it is said that Odin (now in the form of an eagle) regurgitated the mead back into the three vats. But when he did so, a few drops fell from his beak down to Midgard (our world) below. In their oral telling’s of this myth, the Vikings believed that the drops of fallen mead were the source of all bad poets. All good poets are those whom Odin has gifted his mead to personally.
Mead is also mentioned in the various Norse sagas. In The Saga of the People of Vatnsdalur, we hear of an old man named Ketill, complaining about the laziness of young people
But nowadays young men want to be stay-at-homes, and sit by the fire and stuff their stomachs with mead and small beer, and so it is that manliness and bravery are on the wane.
In this passage from the saga, mead is painted in a negative light. Ketill’s complaint about men wanting to sit around fires drinking mead is very similar to the lament of a modern-day crotchety old man. The significance of this passage is that mead was something common, and its usage was a daily occurrence. In The Saga of Burnt Njal, we hear a brief reference to the actual drinking of mead
After that Kolskegg took a beaker full of mead, and drank it and went on fighting afterward.
In this passage, mead is shown as being a fortifying beverage. Something that brought comfort and strength to warriors in their hour of need. The comfort that mead brought to the Vikings was something quite necessary, and not at all limited to the battlefield.
What most people fail to realize about the Viking Age, is that it was a time of tremendous suffering and hardship. Men and women’s health was much affected by disease, and many Viking Age skeletons show severe health problems. Broken bones, iron deficiency, parasites, tooth decay, and child mortality were daily occurrences.. The usual image of strong, able-bodied Viking men, is somewhat of myth based on a multitude of archeological finds. Aside from poor health, life at home was labor intensive and dangerous. On the farm, the Vikings handled animal dung regularly, worked with swine, used farming equipment that was vastly inadequate. Famines too were very common and had the capability to wipe out entire villages of people. The Viking lifestyle was both difficult and dangerous.
But why were the Viking able to leave such a legacy behind, despite their grueling, difficult lives? The stories they told and traditions they had partaken are still with us 1,000 years later. I would argue, that the Viking spirit is what enabled them to leave such a legacy. The Vikings were a glorious yet simplistic people. They cherished the simple things in life, but never lowered their expectations when it came to wealth and legacy. Mead played a key part in everyday life, and was thus a vital part of The Viking Spirit.