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Hist-of-Mead-art - 3/31/08


"A Brief History of Mead" by Sorcha Prechan.


NOTE: See also the files: mead-msg, meadery-list-msg, Mead-Mkng-Tps-art, honey-msg, brewing-msg, beverages-msg, wine-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



More of an Historic Overview, Really

by Sorcha Prechan



Who Made the Mead, Men or Women?

Bees and Beekeeping

The Nature of Honey

Beekeeping in Ireland

Beekeeping in Wales

Beekeeping in France

Beekeeping in Scandinavia

Bees in War

Mythology and Traditions Involving Mead


Patron Saints


Amazon Basin

Andaman Islands






Germany (more or less)




Medieval Europe








Linguistic Notes by Bill Kasselman

The Viking Answer Lady




The number of myths and rituals involving honey is staggering.  I have collected anecdotes from as many regions of the world as I can to map the progress of fermented honey drinks wherever I have found them.  I have attempted to limit my data collection to references specifically to mead or fermented honey, though a few unfermented examples, or beer/ale/wine references, may slip through.  


            It is clear that humans have kept or tended bees in some form for a very long time indeed.  There is a Neolithic rock painting of two people collecting honey in Pachamadhi, central India.  A twelve thousand year old painting in the Cave of the Spider near Valencia, Spain, uses a cavity in the rock wall as part of a depiction of a man clinging to creepers or ropes while putting one hand in the hole, and carrying a basket to take the honey with the other.  The bees are flying around him.  Similar rock paintings are found in South Africa and Zimbabwe, one showing a man dressed with feathers in the Zulu way and holding a lighted torch up to the bees, in front of what look like honeycombs. (Toussaint-Samat, 1987, pp. 16-17)


           Charles Levy-Strauss makes a good case of the invention of mead as a passage from 'nature to culture', (Toussaint-Samat, 1987, p. 34).  It certainly seems to be a popular theory, to judge from websites and the introductions of mead books.


I sometimes find it confusing to sort out historic references to beer, ale, cider, mead, and sweet alcoholic drinks – language is not always clear about the differences (see Norse, below).


Who Made the Mead, Men or Women?

"In some cultures, among the Ethiopians as well as among the Vikings, women were the primary meadmakers. Ethiopian girls learned the craft from their mothers and female relations, a tradition that survives today..." (Spence, 1997. p. 28).  


According to Kelly's translations and analysis of Irish farming law from the seventh and eighth century AD Ireland, both sexes may be involved in brewing, though one text (the Bethu Brigte) has a detailed description of the man brewing beer to celebrate Easter.

It seems that serving mead could be an elaborate ritual in Norse and Germanic cultures.  "Vikingswomen made mead and served it at the great feasts, mirroring the role of the mythical Valkyries, the givers of eternal life in Valhalla."  (Spence, 1997, p. 30).  I have included a little more about serving mead below, under Norse.  Certainly, there are literary indications that women, and noble women at that, did the honors of serving the mead at a major feast, as seen in Beowulf, lines 607-641 (thanks to Gunnvr Silfrahrr, The Viking Answer Lady, for these excerpts):


Joyous then was the Jewel-giver,
hoar-haired, war-brave; help awaited
the Bright-Danes' prince, from Beowulf hearing,
folk's good shepherd, such firm resolve.
Then was laughter of liegemen loud resounding
with winsome words. Came Wealhtheow forth,
queen of Hrothgar, heedful of courtesy,
gold-decked, greeting the guests in hall;
and the high-born lady handed the cup
first to the East-Danes' heir and warden,
bade him be blithe at the beer-carouse,
the land's beloved one. Lustily took he
banquet and beaker, battle-famed king.
Through the hall then went the Helmings' Lady,
to younger and older everywhere
carried the cup, till come the moment
when the ring-graced queen, the royal-hearted,
to Beowulf bore the beaker of mead.
She greeted the Geats' lord, God she thanked,
in wisdom's words, that her will was granted,
that at last on a hero her hope could lean
for comfort in terrors. The cup he took,
hardy-in-war, from Wealhtheow's hand,
and answer uttered the eager-for-combat.
Beowulf spoke, bairn of Ecgtheow:--
"This was my thought, when my thanes and I
bent to the ocean and entered our boat,
that I would work the will of your people
fully, or fighting fall in death,
in fiend's gripe fast. I am firm to do
an earl's brave deed, or end the days
of this life of mine in the mead-hall here."
Well these words to the woman seemed,
Beowulf's battle-boast. -- Bright with gold
the stately dame by her spouse sat down.


Another Old English poem confirms the practice in Anglo Saxon England (Maxims I):


... War-spirit shall be in the earl
his courage increase. And his wife shall flourish
loved by her people, light-hearted she should be,
she should keep secrets, be generous
with mares and mighty treasures. At mead-drinking
before the band of warriors     she shall serve the sumble,
To the protector of princes approach earliest,
Place the first full in the lord's hand
As the ruler reaches out. And she must know what advice to give him
As joint master and mistress of the house together.


Bees and Beekeeping

The earliest evidence of beekeeping in manmade structures dates from about 2400 BC, as a relief in the Sun Temple at Abu Ghorah, Egypt.  It shows honey being transferred from hives to large storage vessels.  There are Neolithic cave paintings of gathering mead in several countries, including the above-mentioned rock-painting in Spain dating to 6000 BC (though it is not clear they are domesticated hives).   There are references to beekeeping in Hittite laws of about 1300 BC.  


Woven wicker skeps, or manmade hives, were invented by nomads of the steppes and adopted by the Celts, who seem to have spread them throughout Europe.


In researching Mediterranean trade in antiquity and late antiquity, I have not yet found any indication that honey was shipped for trade.  Perhaps as early as the fourth century BC, olive oil, olives, and wine were transported, especially from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe and Britain, but apparently not honey  (Kingsley & Decker, 2001).  That would suggest that, in at least most locations in Europe and the Mediterranean basin, locally produced honey was the only available through at least the sixth century.  If this is the case, people were limited to local production quantities.


           "Honey, thought not indigenous to North America, was, in fact, common in Florida, the southern parts of the U.S. and Mexico, and was historically used in fermented beverages among the cultures that lived there." (Buhner, 1998)  The author does not assign dates to this statement.


The Nature of Honey

            "One of the characteristics that sets honey apart from all other sweetening agents is the presence of enzymes.  These conceivably arise from the bee, pollen, nectar, or even yeasts or micro-organisms in the honey.  Those most prominent are added by the bee during the conversion of nectar to honey.  Enzymes are complex protein materials that under mild conditions bring about chemical changes, which may be very difficult to accomplish in a chemical laboratory without their aid.  The changes that enzymes bring about throughout nature are essential to life...An ancient use for honey was in medicine as a dressing for wounds and inflammationsSome years ago this idea was examined by adding a common pathogenic bacteria to honey.  All the bacteria died within a few hours or days


Most honey produced in the U.S. is naturally in a granulated state, like a honey spread.  Consumers expect their honey to be liquid.  Honey is treated with heat to dissolve "seed" crystals, and kept carefully to prevent the development of "seeds", in order to keep it liquid for up to six months.  Since heat can damage the color and flavor, but can dissolve crystallization, it should be applied indirectly, by hot water or air, rather than direct flame or high temperature electrical heat.


The yeasts responsible for fermentation occur naturally in honey, in that they can germinate and grow at much higher sugar concentrations than other yeastseven so there are upper limits of sugar concentration beyond which these yeasts will not grow.Honey with less than 17.1 percent water will not ferment in a year, irrespective of the yeast countAbove 19 percent water, honey can be expected to ferment even with only one spore per gram of honey, a level so low as to be very rare." (White and Doner, 1980)


Beekeeping in Ireland

"Wine in well rose sparklingly, Beer was rolling darkingly, Bragget [honeyed ale] brimmed the pond.  Lard was oozing heavily.  Merry malt moved wavily.  Through the floor beyond"  (The Vision of Viands, 12th century, found in The Portable Medieval Reader, p. 497).


According to Charles-Edwards and Kelly, written Irish law dates at least to the tenth century but perhaps back at least as far as c. 637-700.  It delineates beekeeping laws in great detail, in almost conversational Old Irish prose.  The law-tracts describe theft of bees, how to identify ownership of bees, rights of trespass for bees that feed on someone else's fields, injuries to humans caused by someone else's hives, and identifies following a swarm as work allowed on a Sunday. Bees have an honor-price equal to that of a large animal if they are in a particular precinct, and half that if they are not.   A man who finds a stray swarm of bees must "proclaim" them, and if he doesn't he must pay the fine for theft or return with restitution.   Since there are only four Latin loanwords in the entire manuscript, it is likely that bee-keeping existed in Ireland before the arrival of Christianity circa the 5th or 6th century, despite the reference to work Sundays. Linguistic evidence indicates that honeybees were familiar and beekeeping practiced in Ireland long before the coming of Christianity.


It is possible that beekeeping was introduced to Ireland by Celtic-speaking colonists.  Old Irish has native words for 'bee', 'honey', and 'mead'.  'Mid' or 'miodh', the word for mead, is a cognate with the Welsh 'medd', Cornish 'meth', Breton 'mez', Sanskrit 'madhu-', and Greek 'methu' (Charles-Edwards and Kelly, 1983, p. 41).


The Corpus iuris hibernici, edited by the esteemed D.A. Binchy in 1978, refers to giving a cup filled with a certain measure of 'mellit' in return for being granted a colony of bees (Kelly, 2000).  Kelly says mellit may be some honey-based drink distinct from mead or braggot, perhaps a hydromel, an unfermented mixture of honey and water.  In the twelfth-century Aislinge Meic Con Glinne mead is described as 'the relish of noble stock'.  Tara's banqueting hall was the Tech Midchuarda, or house of the mead-circuit. The Irish law text Bretha Crolige, warns against using honey where there is infection of the stomach (Kelly, 2000).


Bee law continues into the Early Modern Irish legal commentary, c. 12th-13th centuries.  There is some reference to who has rights to the wax in addition to small mentions of mead-brewing by farmers (Kelly, 2000).


Clearly, to have such a body of specialized, recorded law on honeybees indicates that they held some economic importance in early Irish economy.  Bee plagues in 950AD and 992AD were considered important enough to be recorded in the Annals of Ulster.    

What kind of bees did the early Irish have?  There are several words in the law-texts that refer to swarms of bees, and bumblebees do not send out swarms.  Instead it is likely that some kind of honeybee was kept by the speakers of Common Celtic who were resident and developing law in Ireland, and suggests that the Celtic-speaking people who came to Ireland, whose language developed into Old Irish, may have brought beekeeping knowledge with them.  


In Ireland, the native honeybee was probably the "British Brown bee", apis mellifera mellifera var. lehzeni, which largely died off from the Isle of Wight disease in 1909-1917, to be replaced in Britain and Ireland by imported Italian and other varieties of bee.  It is not clear whether it spread naturally to Britain and Ireland when there was still a land connection with the continent, or whether they were brought over by man.  


Charles-Edwards and Kelly (1983) write about the native species of bumblebee, " bumble-bees store honey in such small quantities that it seems unlikely that their honey was ever of economic importance, or obtainable in sufficient quantities to make mead." While we know that wine and olive oil were exported from north Africa and the Middle East to Europe and Britain from perhaps as early as the fourth century BC, we have no evidence that honey was exported, or transported, from any point to any other point (Kingsley & Decker, 2001).


Beekeeping in Wales

The Cyfraith Hywel, the Law of Hywel from Wales is roughly contemporaneous with the Bechbretha of Ireland, c. 942-950 AD.  There are some interesting procedural distinctions, but it is enough here to say that significant law-tracts have existed on beekeeping for at least thirteen hundred years.  


The medieval Welsh law-book Llyfr Iorweth states that a person of free rank must give the king of vat of mead, or two vats of bragget (bragaut,or braggot), or four vats of beer (cyryw).  Perhaps this indicates a relative value on these three kinds of drink.  The Book of Iorweth was increasingly superseded by English law after the thirteenth century, but even the Encyclopedia Britannica still refers to it as the "native law of Wales."


Beekeeping in France

Charlemagne required all farmers to keep bees, and taxed them two thirds of their honey and one third of their beeswax.  Abeillage, or bee duties, remained a duly regulated feudal right.  Villagers who took a wild swarm nesting in a forest (owned by the lord of the manor) were regarded as poachers and punished under game laws.  In France in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there were beekeeping gamekeepers called anvileors or bigres, who alone could move a swarm to the edge of the woods in hives known as bigreries or hostels aux mouches ('houses of the insects').  (Toussaint-Samat, 1987, pp. 30-31).


Beekeeping in Scandinavia

From The Viking Answer Lady, http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/drink.shtml :

An explanation of the brewing of mead in the Viking Age must start with a short discussion of early apiculture. Early beekeeping in Northern Europe was usually based in skeps, coiled domes of straw that give us our iconographic visual representation of a "beehive" even today.  The earliest archaeological remains of skep apiculture come from the Anglo-Norse town of Jorvik, modern York (Reddy, Mike. http://homepage.mac.com/mreddygbr/skepFAQ/. Accessed Oct. 13, 2007).


Unlike modern removable-frame hives, skep beekeeping required that the bees be killed to remove the comb and honey, by smoking the hive over a fire with sulfur, or by drowning the hive, bees and all.


First the beekeeper would cut out the combs containing only honey, then next would be removed the comb containing brood and finally any remaining odds and ends of wax.  Honey was extracted from the comb by being placed in a cloth bag and allowing the comb to drain, then more honey of lesser quality was removed by wringing. Finally, the crushed refuse of the combs, the raided skep, and the cloth bag would be steeped or gently heated in water to dissolve out the honey. Once this liquid was strained, it was used as the basis for the production of mead (Reddy, Mike. http://homepage.mac.com/mreddygbr/skepFAQ /. Accessed Oct. 13, 2007; Hagen, p. 230).



Norse skeps courtesy of The Viking Answer Lady.


Bees in War

"Jumping to the eleventh century, Emperor Henry I's troops, commanded by General Immo, defended their fortifications by launching a barrage of beehives at the siege forces of Duke Geiselbert of Lorraine and sent them scurrying. King Richard is recorded as having used hives of bees as catapult-launched bombs against the Saracens during the Third Crusade in the twelfth century. In 1289 in Gussing, Hungary, an Austrian invasion lead by Duke Albert was repulsed with a fusillade of hot water, fire and bees thrown from the battlements of the city. In 1513 under the reign of Emmanuel the Fortunate, King of Portugal, a General Baruiga was turned from Tauris in Xantiane by the Moors-- who threw hives down on his troops from the citadel's walls. In the 18th century battle of Alba Graexa, the Turks, who had succeeded in breaching a wall of the city, found to their dismay that the inhabitants had piled beehives there as a barricade and were thus prevented from entering the city. Bees have even been used in naval battle: in the Mediterranean Sea the crew of a small corsair vessel, only about fifty men, boarded and captured a much larger galley manned by 500 soldiers-- after the pirates cast beehives from the masts of their ship down onto the crew of the galley, who had intended to apprehend them." (War and Bees, http://www.beekeeping.com/articles/us/war_bees.htm, accessed January 19, 2008). 


Mythology and Traditions Involving Mead

It is difficult to date many of the anecdotes concerning honey-related customs from around the world.  I find that often references are not that specific.  I have included relevant lore with such dating information as I have been able to glean, and have avoided information that is obviously modern alone.


That said, the British Beekeepers Association has some interesting, if undated, bits of mythology on their webpage (Brian P. Dennis, 2005, http://www.bbka.org.uk/articles/bee_legends.php):


"Christian tradition contains numerous legends involving bees. According to legend, the bee was blessed on leaving the Garden of Eden with the title 'the handmaid of the Lord'. In another story, Christ made bees and the Devil, trying to compete, made wasps. In a French legend, the drops of water falling from the hands of Christ, washing in the River Jordan, became bees - Christ ordered them to stay and work for mankind. A Breton legend tells of the tears of the crucified Christ turning into bees and flying away to bring sweetness into the world. A Polish story tells how Jesus took the maggots from a wound in St. Paul's head, put them in a tree and they became bees


Bees were believed to be the souls of the dead returning to earth or on their way to the next world. This probably led to the widespread custom of "telling the bees" when the owner died. If the bees were not asked to stay with their new master or mistress, it was believed that they would die or abscond."


"Childhood, people say, is the time when nobody dies. Something went from mine the day I saw Uncle Sam at the hives and heard him say, 'Bees, your master's dead. I am your master now'. With that he knocked on each hive, and from within came a stir and commotion. 'They know', said my uncle, and we went indoors to send for the relations and find some strips of mourning for the hives." (Bees are People by Ada Jackson - The Countryman - Autumn 1967)



"Cave paintings of primitive stone-age men depict the collection of honey from bee colonies, and any addition of water to this would automatically produce a mixture which could be fermented by wild yeasts.  The discovery of alcohol almost certainly occurred in this chance manner, and spread to all parts of the world."  (Acton and Duncan, 1985, preface).


"According to Islamic and early Jewish tradition, wine played a decisive role in weakening Adam's will.  The only possible wine that would have been available in the Garden of Eden was mead.  Recall that Eden was a place of no toil, hence no agriculture.  Honey is the only sugar source that would ferment spontaneously, producing an alcoholic drink – mead." (Spence, 1997, p. 23)


"We have with us still, in erotic terminology, the description of a woman's vagina as the 'honey pot'.  It is an irresistible lure for the bear.  Anne Cameron, in her poem 'A Bear Story', describes a male bear foraging in the night, looking for honey while the bees are at rest.  He happens upon a woman, lying naked in the grass, who seduces himRockwell [David Rockwell, Giving Voice to Bear, 1991]  tells us that many of our mythological heroes were believed to have been born of woman, fathered by bear.  Included in the list are Ulysses, Beowulf, and Norse heroes Hygelac and Grettir." (Spence, 1997, pp.19-20).


Patron Saints

According to the Patron Saint Index, there are three Catholic patron saints of bees and bee-related things (http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/saintm9k.htm):


St. Ambrose of Milan, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Modomnoc (Dominick) are all listed as patron saints of beekeepers, bees, candlemakers, chandlers, wax melters, and wax refiners:


- Ambrose, also known as the Honey Tongued Doctor.  Born in southern Gaul in 340AD, Ambrose died in Milan in 397AD, and is the patron saint of bee keepers, He is sometimes represented by a beehive or bees.


- Bernard (1090AD-1153AD) was also known as the Mellifluous Doctor of the Church.  He is sometimes depicted as a Cistercian with a beehive or swarm of bees nearby.

- Modomnock, Domnock, or Dominick,who died around 550AD, is also a patron saint of bees.  He was a member of the Irish O'Neill clan, and a beekeeper while a novice.  When he returned to Ireland, it is said a swarm of his bees followed his ship.


According to Stair & Stair, the Patron Saint of Bees is St. Gosnata, who lived in Ballyvourney, Country Cork, Ireland. It is reported that St. Gosnata was the first to use bees in wartime by placing skeps on the walls and inside castle walls so as to deter invaders. [I could not confirm this]


According to the British Beekeeper's Association (founded 1874, http://www.bbka.org.uk/articles/bee_legends.php):


"The saints are well represented. St. Gregory is responsible for opening the flowers on 12th March - a few weeks later on the 21st of March, St. Benedict summons the bees to search for nectar. St. Ambrose, 4th Bishop of Milan, is the patron saint of beekeepers. In the Ukraine, the patron saint of beekeepers is St. Sossima, who brought bees from Egypt According to legend, St. Bartholomew was martyred by being flayed alive and because of this fate he became the patron saint of tanners. In many parts of Britain, the apostle was also patron saint of beekeepers, probably because his feast day, 24th August, coincided with the gathering of the honey crop. Indeed, until the 1950s, the village of Gulval in Cornwall celebrated St. Bartholomew's Day with a ceremony for Blessing the Mead, while the annual St. Bartholomew's Fair in London was famous for its honey-coated apples. St. Dominic started beekeeping in Wales and, when he returned to Ireland, gave his hives to St. David - the bees followed him to Ireland! Another Irish saint St. Gobnat changed a colony of bees into an army to drive away a local marauding chieftain."



"Among the Thonga in South Africa, the woman could not eat honey for a year following her marriage, or until the birth of her first child.  If she tasted honey prior to that time, she would, in all probability, make like the foraging (female) bees and take flight."  (Spence, 1997, p, 19).


"The Masaichose one man and one woman to make the mead.  For two days prior and for the six-day duration of active brewing, the brewers were required to refrain from sexual activity. Breaking this vow was believed to result in the beesflying away and the mead spoiling." (Spence, 1997, p. 27)


Amazon Basin

"one of the primary duties for the new son-in-law was to provide sufficient honey to make mead for all f the bride's mother's family."  (Spence, 1997, p. 26).


"To turn to the legendary origin of bees themselves, in the Popul Vuh, the sacred tradition of the Maya Indians, the bee was born of the Universal Hive at the centre of the earth.  Golden to the sight, burning to the touch, like sparks of volcanoes, it was sent here to awaken man from apathy and ignorance; this is the general sense behind those rural Amazonian folk-tales which deal with honey and mead." ((Toussaint-Samat, 1987, p. 21)


Andaman Islands

"Among the Andaman Islanders, for instance, ritualized eating and anointing was the solemn concluding ceremony in male puberty rites.  The boys were fed sections of honeycomb by the chief while the elders rub bed them down with honey.  The boys were then given individual honeycombs, which they had to eat without the use of their hands.   Once this had been done, the chief anointed the boy's heads with honey and massaged it into their bodies.  Elders took the boys away and bathed them (note the similarity here to the Coptic baptismal rites).  As in other cultures, when the boys emerged, they were recognized as adults." (Spence, 1997, p. 21)



A traditional rhyme is still recited in England:

                        Honey bees, honey bees, hear what I say!

                        Your Master, poor soul, has passed away.

                        His sorrowful wife begs of you to stay,

                        Gathering honey for many a day.

                        Bees in the garden, hear what I say!


Pamela Spence tells us that Northern Europeans still have a custom that when a beekeeper died, the survivors must go tell the bees of their master's death, persuading them to stay rather than take wing and follow the master to heaven.  An old Welsh law requires that beeswax be present before the Mass is celebrated, in homage to that bee that left Paradise/the Garden of Eden to protect and help man (using the generic term) when he was banished, and to provide him with the food of Paradise which would eventually call him home.  She also discusses the early Christian leader Barnabas' instruction to his converts to administer the cup of milk and honey to all infants as a sign that the child is claimed henceforth as a child of God.  Feeding the child was a sign of acceptance of the newborn. Nowadays we would not feed either milk or honey to a newborn; honey can contain spores in suspension that can produce infant botulism, and cow's milk can be extremely difficult for a child's digestive tract to manage.


Some of the Saints (particularly the Irish ones) were partial to a drop of mead.  St. Findian, who lived on bread and water all week, used to eat salmon and drink mead on Sundays ( a precedent if anyone asks what is the best wine to serve with salmon).  That great Irish saint, St Brigitte, went one step further and merits consideration as the patron saint of amateur winemakers.  Once when the Bishop of Leinster visited her they ran out of drink, and St Brigitte took a great vat of water and turned it into mead, thereby emulating Christ's miracle at Cana." (Acton and Duncan, 1985, p. 7)


In early Byzantine Christian initiation ceremonies, the (adult) "newborn" was stripped, washed, and oiled by the priests.  He was then wrapped in white robes and consecrated. The priests prepared three chalices:  water, milk and honey, and wine.  Water represented the God, the honeyed milk represented the Divine Child, recoverer of Paradise, and wine, not surprisingly, represented the Holy Spirit. (Spence, 1997, p. 13).


"The Bibledoes not explicitly condemn the vine or wine, although the author of the Book of Proverbs (23, xxxi-xxxv) warns against the effects of drinking.  'Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright.  At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adderThey have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not.'  However, the writer concludes:  'When shall I awake?  I will seek it yet again.'  What the Bible unequivocally does deplore is the conduct of Ham in seeing his father's nakedness and telling the tale to his brothers; Noah himself is not condemned for drinking."  (Toussaint-Samat, 1987, pp. 253-254).



"The Hochdorf tomb, dated around 550 BC, contained a huge bronze cauldron with a capacity of 104 gallonsinside the cauldron there was an ornate gold drinking bowl, or mazer, and a 'powdery brown mass', identified as the dried remains of mead." (Spence, 1997 p. 36, referencing Michael Sisson, Mead and the Ancient Celts.)


"Even our own Celtic ancestors made mead and a form of metheglin by mixing honey with the juice of the hazel tree which was to them a magic tree."  (Spence, 1997)


"The ancient Celts, those great tree worshippers, used hazelnut milk to brew mead." (Spence, 1997).


The [modern?] Scots have a saying that mead drinkers have as much strength as meat eaters (Acton and Douglas, 1985, p. 13; Spence, 1997, p. 21.)


When the Romans invaded Britain, the dome shaped hive [skep] was of entwined willow or hazel twigs plastered inside and out with cow dung.  These types survived in parts of Britain until the 18th century alongside straw skeps. (http://ocw.kyushu-u.ac.jp/0010/0003/lecture/1.pdf)



"On every hand I'm found and prized by men,

Borne from the fertile glads and castled heights

And vales and hills.  Daily the wings of bees

Carried me through the air, and with deft motion

Stored me beneath the low-crowned, sheltering roof.

Then in a cask men cherished me.  But now

The old churl I tangle, and trip, at last o'ert5rhow

Flat on the ground.  He that encounters me

And sets his will 'gainst my subduing might

Forthwith shall visit the earth upon his back!

If from his course so ill-advised he fails

To abstain, deprived of strength, yet strong on speech,.

He's reft of all his power o'er hand or foot,

His mind dethroned.  Now find out what I'm called,

Who bind again the freeman to the soil

Stupid from many a fall, in broad daylight!"

(The Mead, riddle from the Exeter Book, Exeter Book Riddles, http://www2.kenyon.edu/AngloSaxonRiddles/texts.htm. Accessed October 13, 2007).


The Exeter Book or Codex Exoniensis is a tenth century book of Anglo-Saxon poetry.  (Renfrow, 1997).  This is not its only riddle whose answer is "mead".  Here is riddle 25:



Ic eom weor werum,     wide   funden,
  brungen of bearwum     ond of burghleoum,
  of denum ond of dunum.     Dges mec wgun
  fere on lifte,     feredon mid liste
  under hrofes hleo.     Hle mec sian
  baedan in bydene.     Nu ic eom bindere
  ond swingere,     sona weorpe
  esne to eoran,     hwilum ealdne ceorl.
  Sona t onfinde,     se e mec feh ongean,
  ond wi mgenisan     minre genste,
  t he hrycge sceal     hrusan secan,
  gif he unrdes     r ne geswice,
  strengo bistolen,     strong on sprce,
  mgene binumen -     nah his modes geweald,
  fota ne folma.     Frige hwt ic hatte,
  e on eoran swa     esnas binde,
  dole fter dyntum     be dges leohte.


I am man's treasure, taken from the woods,
  Cliff-sides, hill-slopes, valleys, downs;
  By day wings bear me in the buzzing air,
  Slip me under a sheltering roof-sweet craft.
  Soon a man bears me to a tub. Bathed,
  I am binder and scourge of men, bring down
  The young, ravage the old, sap strength.
  Soon he discovers who wrestles with me
  My fierce body-rush-I roll fools
  Flush on the ground. Robbed of strength,
  Reckless of speech, a man knows no power
  Over hands, feet, mind. Who am I who bind
  Men on middle-earth, blinding with rage?
  Fools know my dark power by daylight.



Acton and Douglas write that Anglo-Saxon mead makers were complimented if a young woman, fed their mead during the month after her marriage (her honeymoon), gave birth to a son within a year.


[Discussing John Russell's fifteenth century book Boke of Nurture, 'Feast for a Franklin']:


"A drink of mead or sweet spiced wine came after the meal along with candied nuts and other 'confits' and 'wafers', which resembled small, thin waffles." (Hieatt, Hosington and Butler, 2004).


"Honeymoon is a specific reference to mead.  The term comes from an old English tradition that dates from the Middle Ages.  Mead was drunk in great quantities at weddings, and after the ceremony nuptial couples were given a month's supply of mead – sufficient for one full cycle of the moon.  It was believed that by faithfully drinking mead for that first month, the woman would 'bear fruit' and a child would be born within the year.  If, indeed, the woman conceived, success was attributed to the skill of the meadmaker." (Spence, 1997, p. 27).


"The English tradition of wassailing apple trees on Twelfth Night performs a similar function and survives to this day in parts of Somerset and Devon.  The purpose of the ritual was to charm the trees and ensure a good crop for the following season.  The wassail bowl was filled with hot cyser (a honey-cider concoction) and roasted crab apples.  Some of the steaming liquid was poured directly onto the tree roots.  A piece of toast was soaked in the wassail and placed in the fork of the tree as well"  (Spence, 1997, p. 31)


The Old English didactic work lfric's Colloquy shows just how ale was regarded in early Northern Europe: when the novice is asked what he drinks, he replies, Ealu gif ic hbbe, oe wter gif ic nbbe ealu ("Ale if I have it, water if I have no ale").



The ancient Egyptians believed that each human had a double or 'ka' akin to a soul, and that this double went about in the form of a bee.  When the individual died, the ka returned to Ra, the great sun god.  (Spence, 1997, referencing Hilda Ransome's The Sacred Bee, 1937).


"Safekeeping of the soul was the particular responsibility of Horus' sons who were symbolized in hieroglyphics as honeybees"  (Spence, 1997, p. 36) [I could not confirm this]


The earliest beekeeping in Ancient Egypt was about 2500 BC in the Fifth Dynasty.  They used cylindrical clay hives.  Honey was thought to have strong healing powers.  Migratory beekeeping was practiced in Egypt. (http://ocw.kyushu-u.ac.jp/0010/0003/lecture/1.pdf)


According to one Egyptian myth, honey bees (scientific name Apis mellifera) were the tears of the sun god Ra. Their religious significance extended to an association with the goddess Neith, whose temple in the delta town of Sais in Lower Egypt was known as per-bit - meaning 'the house of the bee'. Honey was regarded as a symbol of resurrection and also thought to give protection against evil spirits. Small pottery flasks, which according to the hieratic inscriptions on the side originally contained honey, were found in the tomb of the boy-king, Tutankhamen.


Throughout ancient Egyptian history the bee has been strongly associated with royal titles. In Predynastic and early Dynastic times, before the union of Upper and Lower Egypt, the rulers of Lower Egypt used the title bit - meaning 'he of the bee', usually translated as 'King of Lower Egypt' or 'King of North', whereas the rulers of Upper Egypt were called nesw - meaning 'he of the sedge', translated as 'King of Upper Egypt' or 'King of the South'. In later times, after the union of Upper and Lower Egypt, the pharaoh rulers used the title nesw-bit - meaning 'he of the sedge and the bee', which is conventionally translated as 'King of Upper and Lower Egypt' or 'King of the South and North'.


  Hieroglyph inscription nesw-bit
('he   of the sedge and the bee'), which was part of royal titles from the 1st   Dynasty onwards and translated as 'King of Upper and Lower Egypt'. It was   used as a prefix to the throne name (prenomen) of the pharaoh king.


  Bee glyph carved on a stone scarab amulet (c.
1700 BC)



Bee-keeping is depicted in Egyptian temple reliefs as early as the 5th Dynasty (2445-2441 BC). These show that apiculture was well established in Egypt by the middle of the Old Kingdom. Records from at least one tomb workers' village during the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC) indicate that the workmen there kept bees and this was doubtless true of other communities throughout Egyptian history. Bee-keeping is also depicted in some 18th and 26th Dynasty tombs. Bees were certainly of great importance in providing honey, which was used both as the principal sweetener in the Egyptian diet and as a base for medicinal ointments. The Egyptians also collected beeswax for use as a mould-former in metal castings and also for use as a paint-varnish.


The bee hieroglyph was used to represent the word bit - meaning 'bee' or 'honey', or the royal title 'King of Lower Egypt' or 'King of the North'. (Kendall  Bioresearch Services, Bristol, UK.  http://www.kendall-bioresearch.co.uk/sacredinsect.htm#bee, accessed  January 21, 2008)


British Museum, London



The great epic poem, the Kalevala, describes the mead-rich wedding ceremony of hero Ilmarinen with the beautiful Maiden of Pohjolashe indicated her chosen one by pouring him out a generous serving of mead." (Spence, 1997, p. 26)  The Kalevala may be more than three thousand years old, though it was first compiled and published in 1835 by a country doctor named Elias Lonnrot, who walked the country on foot to collect all the stories he could from hundreds of runesingers.


Germany (more or less)

According to The Viking Answer Lady (http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/drink.shtml), Germanic Roman Iron Age graves such as the one from Juellinge contain elaborate drinking gear:


"... in her right hand she held a long-handled bronze wine-strainer. Among other grave goods were found glass beakers and drinking horn together with a ladle into which the strainer held by the dead woman fit. Both instruments were commonly used in ladling drink from a cauldron (also found in the grave) into beaker or horn ... Analysis of the cauldron showed that it had contained a fermented liquid made from barley and fruit." (Enright, p. 101).





In the 11th century bees in wartime were being used as beehives were thrown off the top of cliffs onto the attacking army of Geiselbert, Duke of Lorraine by Irnmo, General of Emperor Henry 1.  In 1289AD, the troops of Albert, Duke of Austria received the same reception from the citizens of Gussing, Hungary when they tried to invade. (Stair & Stair, unknown but recent date).


In medieval Prussia, water sweetened with honey was known as meda.

Northern Germans had a mead known as Lantetrank, and added honey to their beer (something like a braggot?).  



Water sweetened with honey is melikraton in ancient Greek.  Honeyed wine was oenomelitas; mulsum seems to have included pressing of grape.  According to Toussaint-Samat, beer and mead were drunk as frequently as wine at Greek banquets (p. 264).


Acton and Duncan state that mead was the drink of Dionysian revels, and not drunk any other time of year in any quantity (Acton and Duncan, 1985, p. 12).


"Rhea hid in the cave of sacred bees, for instance, for the birth of her son, Zeus.  She left the infant concealed there to protect him from the child-devouring father, Kronos.  In this place he was protecte3d and fed by three sacred 'nurse bees'." (Spence, 1997)


"Dionysus and Pan were similarly honey-fed infants, protected by the sacred melissae or bee priestesses.  Later, human priestesses serving in the temples to Cybele, Artemis, and Demeter were commonly known as melissae, the Greek word for bee " (Spence, 1997, referencing Hilda Ransome's The Sacred Bee, 1937).


"Greek puberty rites of young girls were associated with the goddess Artemis.  Artemis is both the 'Untamed One', virgin of the hunt, represented by the she-bear, and Ephesian Artemis the Great Mother, represented by the many-breasted bee-goddess...who never leaves her home again."  (Spence, 1997, p. 18).


"Worship of Pan took place deep in the forests, often in caveshe was called 'savior of the bees' and honeycomb, along with milk, honey, and lambs, were offered to the frolicsome god." (Spence,m 1997, p. 22).


Jason offered mead to the waters before setting off in search of the Golden Fleece.  (Spence, 1997, p. 34)


"A cousin of Dionysus was called Melicertes, 'he who mingles honey', by analogy with melidraton, water mingled with honey, the first stage in fermentation of that other intoxicating drink, mead." (Toussaint-Samat, 1987, p. 22)


Melicertes is drowned when his mother went mad and jumped into the sea with him, but he is resuscitated, riding a dolphin, as the sea god Palaemon, and was associated with Dionysus, the satyrs and Sileni, as his mother was Dionysus' nurse.  Toussaint-Samat hypothesizes (p. 22) that foaming waves suggest the foaming of mead fermenting in a vat or poured into cups, and that possibly sailors took amphorae of mead with them to keep their courage up at sea.  From shipwrecks and land-sherds we can tell that some amphorae contained wine, because the insides of the amphorae are pitched, preserving and flavoring the wine.  We believe that olive oil and wine were shipped in amphorae, but I have found no reference to trans-regional trade in mead or honey.  On the other hand, we know surprisingly little about trade at all up through the sixth or seventh century.


"The myth of Aristaeus also shows the tenacity of a sexual taboo which features in the beekeeping manuals of antiquity.  The shepherd's first bees were taken from him because he had desired a woman, and someone else's woman at that; you had to abstain from carnal intercourse before trying to recover a swarm of bees (reputed to be virgins) or to collect honey (a pure substance)."  (Toussaint-Samat, 1987, p. 22)


"In the Orphic myth it is noted that Kronos was made drunk by Zeus with honey, 'for wine was not.'  (And one of Zeus' names is melissaios, meaning 'one belonging to the bees.')" (Buhner, 1998)


Reports dating back to antiquity tell stories of using bees in wartime. Xenophon (born 430 BC) reported that the Greek soldiers who were looting villages in Turkey near Trapezus found and ate some honey from local hives. This resulted in vomiting and purging as well as a loss of the senses as they had been poisoned by the honey deliberately left out for them. (Stair & Stair, unknown recent date).


Plato (4th century BC) writes that "Plenty [was] drunk with nectar [i.e., mead], for wine was not yet invented."  (Buhner, 1998)


Hippocleides was a wealthy and good looking nobleman in mid-sixth-century- BC Athens.  Herodotus tells the story "Hippocleideswas severely censured by his father on his wedding night, when, having drunk too much mead, he insisted on standing on his head, stark naked, on the dining table and waving his legs in the air in tune to the flute music while he sang a merry song.  For this bit of naughtiness, his father refused to let him take his bride."  (Acton and Duncan, 1985, p. 13)


Virgil (70-19 BC), in Book IV of the Georgics, writes "Next I come to the manna, the heavenly gift of honeyA featherweight theme, but one that can load me with fame"  (Toussaint-Samat, 1987, p. 15)



In one of the Sanskrit hymns, known collectively as the Rig-Vedas (1700-1100 BC), it states:  'In the wide-striding Vishnu's highest footsteps there is a Spring of Mead.'  This spring, it was believed, made people very fertile, and young girls, betrothed to some intended husband, were well plied with mead so they would honour their families by giving birth to a son within a year of marriage."  (Acton and Duncan, p. 12)  


It was believed the god Vishnu had three footsteps in heaven and those steps comprised sunrise, zenith, and sunset.  In each of these sun-steps spring forth a fountain of mead.  The Hindu initiate's use of intoxicating mead fortified their belief that it was a substance mixed from cloud vapor, imbued with the sun's fire, a gift from their god.  Fire imagery was linked to the notion of purification, burning away obstructions so that limited human eye opened to the limitless vision of the divine." (Spence, 1997, p. 12).


"In the Rig-VedasVishnu and Indra are called Madhava, the honey-born ones, and thyir symbol is the bee."  "In the wide-striding Vishnu's highest footstep,/ There is a sprig of mead." (Buhner, 1998).


The Hindu Arthana Veda (twelfth to tenth centuries BC, verses 91-258) is quoted saying, "O Asvins, lords of brightness, anoint me with the honey of the bee, that I may speak forceful speech among men!" (Toussaint-Samat, 1987, p. 15)



"The Bambaras of Mali regard meadthe drink of wisdom, knowledge, and truthwhile the Koran condemns the consumption of fermented drinks, mead is quite kindly regarded by the very pious Muslims of Mali, though their version of Islam is very tinged with animism(Toussaint-Samat, 1987, p. 36)


Medieval Europe

"We know that two to five thousand years ago people in the Egyptian, Greek and roman empires made honey wine.  We also know that people in England made mead as early as the Roman invasion of their land.Between 1000 and 1400 AD mead became even more famous, and both the English and the Poles made great quantities of it.  We know little about their beekeeping techniquesand even less about how they made their drink." (Morse, 1980, p. 17-18)


[Discussing how a medieval European feast was served]  "Sweetened spice wine or mead (if you can find any that is drinkable) may be served after the meal, in much the same way that we offer port or liqueurs today." (Hieatt, Hosington, and Butler, 2004).



Germanic and Norse customs appear to overlap a good deal, and are often discussed together.  Authors are not always clear which they are referring to.  The Viking Answer Lady's website has interesting notes on Germanic/Viking toasting customs (http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/drink.shtml).  Toasts could be used for confirming allegiances, making pledges, establishing precedence, or even, in this excerpt from the Old Norse poem Loksenn verse 3, conjuring evil (a sumbel or sumble is the custom of having rounds of toasting):



Loki kva: Inn skal   ganga     gis hallir ,
   at sumbl at sj;
  jll ok fu     fri ek sa sonum,
  ok blend ek eim sv meini mj.


Loki said:
  In shall I go, into gir's hall,
  for that sumble I will see;
  evil in the drink I bring to the gods,
  with harm shall I mix their mead.



"The sumbel was a joint activity. Those participating came and sat together, usually within a chieftain's hall. It was often referred to as a drinking feast, where ale, beer or mead might be served in a ceremonial cup, and passed from hand to hand around the hall. The recipient of the cup made a toast, oath, or boast, or he might sing a song or recite a story before drinking and passing the cup along. While referred to as a "feast," the sumbel did not include food, but might precede or follow a meal. A sumbel was solemn in the sense of having deep significance and importance to the participants, but was not a grim or dour ceremony - indeed, at Hrothgar's sumbel in Beowulf, '...there was laughter of the men, noise sounded, the words were winsome.'


However it was considered poor form to become drunk at the sumbel."


(Norse gods have many stories where one god would give some goddess a few draughts of mead to reduce her resistance, so he could enjoy her physical delights.)  "Suttung's daughter Gunnlod was particularly prone to this form of seduction, and indeed appeared to thrive on it, for on one occasion, when Odin stole the mead from Suttung (not knowing how to make it himself) Gunnlod was oversome with grief since Odin had someone else in mind at that particular time.  Later, however, she turned the tables on Odin by giving him a few draughts of mead so he became like clay in her hands.  He remarked, as he slowly went under from the aphrodisiac qualities of mead, that it gave him the gift of poetry and of composition" (Acton and Duncan, 1985, p. 11)


Grave finds of elaborate drinking equipment in female graves are in evidence in all pagan Germanic societies, including that of the Vikings: "In Viking Age cemeteries, the combination of the bucket-container for distribution together with long-handled sieve and drinking horn or cup remains very common..." (Enright, pp. 103-104)


Old Norse representational art shows the woman-as-cupbearer. There are a wide variety of so-called "valkyrie amulets" and runestone depictions where a richly-clad woman is shown ceremoniously bearing a drinking horn high.


"Vikingswomen made mead and served it at the great feasts, mirroring the role of the mythical Valkyries, the givers of eternal life in Valhalla.  Every spring, women prepared a mead offering for the sun god Frey, patron of springtime, fertility, rain, crops, sensual delights, and weddings.  On the first day of plowing, village women carried brimming bowls of mead to the fields.  A third of the bowl was poured into the maw of the open furrow, another third sprinkled over the back of the draught animal, and the final third was quaffed by the farmer himself."  (Spence, 1997, p. 30)


Photo courtesy The Viking Answer Lady website


From the Edda:  

[Kvaser the All-Knowing was a man made as a mark of peace between gods.]  "For long did Kvaser walk the heavens, the symbol of the peace of gods.  But there came a time when, straying far, he was taken and bound by the dwarves who loved him not.  By them he was slain, and taking three jars, they ran his blood into them, mixing it with honey.  Thus was made mead, and such was its power that any who drank of it became skald and sage.  And the dwarves kept it jealously, sharing it only among themselves.  But news of the mead came to the giant, Suttung, and in him, great desire was born to have the mead for his won.  After long planning and coming in stealth,. He stole the three vessels of dwarven mead and hid them in the place called Hnitbojorg.  And calling on his daughter, Gundlad, he spoke to her, telling her to guard it well and let no one come near.


But the leader of the young gods, Odin, hearing what had occurred, set out to find the mead(Odin seduces Gundlad for three days and nights)she offered him, to slake his thirst, three draughts from the vessels that Suttung had bade her watch.  Taking her leave to drink once from each, Odin put his lips to the mead in the first, then the second, and then the third.Odin, desiring to take the mead to Asgard, had consumed it all.


and the gods, seeing Odin come, made haste to gather vessels and place them outside [Asgard].  And coming close, Odin spewed the mead out of him and into the jars.  But so hasty was hethat three drops fell to earthy.  And men, wandering up on the Earth, came upon them.  Wondering to themselves what this might be, they put their hands to it, and lifting it to their lips, tasted of the mead made from Kvaser's blood and the honey of the bee.from it doth all poetry and song comesongship is calledOdin's drink, the drink of the Aesir, and poets are known as the bearers of the mead of Odin." (Buhner, 1998).


Per The Viking Answer Lady, http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/drink.shtml, these are Odin's words:



Hvaml (Sayings of the High One)


Byri betri     berrat mar   brautu at,
  an s manvit mikit;
  aui betra     ykkir at kunnun sta,
  slkt es vlas vera.




A better burden     no man can   bear
  on the way than his mother wit:
  and no worse provision     can he carry with him
  than too deep a draught of ale.




Esa sv gott,     sem gott   kvea,
  l alda sunum,
  vt f'ra veit,     es fleira drekkr,
  sns til ges gumi.




Less good than they say     for   the sons of men
  is the drinking oft of ale:
  for the more they drink,     the less they can think
  and keep a watch over their wits.




minnis hegri heitr     ss   of lrum rumir,
  hann stelr gei guma;
  ess fugls fjrum     ek fjtrar vask
   gari Gunnlaar.




A bird of Unmindfullness     flutters   over ale-feasts,
  wiling away men's wits;
  with the feathers of that fowl     I was fettered   once
  in the garths of Gunnlodr below.




lr ek var,     var ofrlvi
  at ens fra Fjalars;
  vi's lr bazt,     at aptr of heimtir
  hverr sitt ge gumi.




Drunk was I then,     I was   over-drunk,
  in the fold of wise Fjalar;
  But best is an ale feast     when a man is able
  to call back his wits at once.





It can be confusing to tell the historical difference between references to beer, ale, and sweet alcoholic drinks.  In the Eddaic poem Alvssml verses 34 and 35, a variety of Old Norse terms related to fermented beverages appear and are implied to be synonyms:



rr kva:
  Segu mr at Alvss, - ll of rk fira
  vrumk, dvergr, at vitir,
  hv at l heitir, er drekka alda synir,
  heimi hverjum ?"




Thrr said:
  Tell me, Alvs - for all wights' fate
  I deem that, dwarf, thou knowest -
  how the ale is hight, which is brewed by men,
  in all the worlds so wide?






Alvss kva:
  l heitir me mnnum, en me sum bjrr,
  kalla veig vanir,
  hreinalg jtnar, en helju mj,
  kalla sumbl Suttungs synir.




Alvss said:
  'Tis hight l (ale) among men; among   Aesir bjrr (cider);
  the Vanir call it
veig (strong   drink),
hreinalg (clear-brew), the   giants; mj (mead), the Hel-Wights;
  the sons of Suttung call it
sumbel   (ale-gathering).



  Photo courtesy of The Viking Answer Lady website.


After the initial, formal, meaningful serving of drink by the queen or noblewoman, the revelers would later be served by other men or women who se e on handa br hroden ealowge, / scencte scir wered "carried the carven cup in hand, served the clear mead" (Beowulf ll. 495-496a). After the first round of formal drinking, the rite changed in focus somewhat, focusing more on companionship and bonding among the participants. This ceremonial type of drinking was termed sumbel.



Persia has a long, honorable tradition of wine-making from grapes.  Grape wine seems to date back at least seven thousand years in the Zagros Mountains of northern Iran, according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania's Patrick E. McGovern et al.  

See also the anecdote under Rome about Pompeii's attack against the Heptakometes, which took place in Asia Minor.


In general, I can find modern discussions of grape wine in modern Turkey and what was once ancient Persia. While there are now several regional distilled beverages, such as arak and raki, I could find no historical notes about meads, though there are those that claim distillation (for perfumes and the cosmetic kohl) was invented in Persia. Given the rise of Islamic influence c. 7th century AD, it might be surprising to find historic recipes, though any known references would be welcome.



According to beer100.com (not a verifiable source), Polish mead produced in LublinMead was once very popular in Northern Europe, often produced by monks in monasteries in areas where grapes could not be grown. It faded in popularity, however, once wine imports became economical. Especially partial to it were the Slavs. In Polish it is called mid pitny (pronounced [mjut pi:tni]), meaning "drinkable honey". Mead was a favored drink among the Polish-Lithuanian szlachta (nobility). During the Crusades, Polish Prince Leszek I the White explained to the Pope that Polish knights could not participate in the Crusades because there was no mead in Palestine.



Water sweetened with honey is aquamulsa.  Mead made with crushed fruit was meloneli, probably the origin of our term "melomel".


Virgil (first century BC), the famous Roman poet used a bee hive to protect his valuables from 'tax' collectors. (Stair & Stair, unknown recent date).


            Horace (also first century BC) wrote, "No poems can please long or live that are written by water-drinkers."  (Buhner, 1998).


            [So far, all the really good Roman anecdotes I've found have turned out to be Greek.]  


"In the first century B.C., honey plays a part in the misfortunes of a Roman campaign, led by Pompeii the Great, against the Heptakometes in Asia Minor. Interestingly, it is not the bees themselves that are employed in this instance but, rather, their honey. About one thousand of Pompeii's Roman troops were passing through a narrow mountain pass when they encountered a cache of honey. The soldiers, accustomed to raiding and looting to augment their provisions, halted their advance and eagerly devoured the honey-- and soon became afflicted with delirium and violent seizures of vomiting and purges! In such a condition they were easily defeated by the local Heptakomete defenders who took their cue to attack. It seems that the honey had been left in the soldiers' path not in an act of flight from the advancing forces but as a poisonous bait to stupefy them.  The locals would have been well aware that honey produced during certain times of the year was naturally poisonous. Honey yielded from the nectar of such plants as Rhododendron ponticum and Azalea pontica contain alkaloids that are toxic to humans but harmless to bees. After the offending blooms have stopped flowering, beekeepers in areas where these plants are common (such as the area of present-day Turkey where this incident occurred) routinely remove this toxic honey so it doesn't contaminate subsequently produced stores. The poisonous honey is then fed back to the bees during time of dearth-- if it hasn't been used first for national defense." (War and Bees, http://www.beekeeping.com/articles/us/war_bees.htm, accessed January 19, 2008)



In Russia, water sweetened with honey was known as tschemiga.  According to beer100.com, In Russia, mead remained popular as medovukha and sbiten long after its popularity declined in the West (it does not mention when this might have been). Sbiten is often mentioned in the works by 19th-century Russian writers, including Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. Some beer producers attempt to revive sbiten' as a mass-produced drink in Russia.


In 946, the Slavic St. Olga, on the occasion of her son's funeral, provided limitless quantities of mead. She invited her enemies only, who, presumably, had somehow been instrumental in the death of her child, and five thousand inebriated `mourners' were slain in their stupor by Olga's allies. Similarly, in 1489, 10,000 Tatars were dispatched by Russians whom the Turkish invaders had been pursuing. The Russians left mead behind in their flight and returned after sufficient time for the Tatars to drink themselves into a daze. (War and Bees, http://www.beekeeping.com/articles/us/war_bees.htm, accessed January 19, 2008)



Scots in the middle ages likewise believed in bee-souls, but feared them as agents of darkness.  Women accused of witchcraft were suspected of taking on the form bees to fly about and create their evil mischief." (Spence, 1997)



"The sixth century Welsh bard Aneurin relates the story of the battle of Cattraeth, in which Caradawg, one of King Arthur's battle-knights was killed.  The army of heroes had feasted all night long, until at dawn they marched forth, 'filled with mead and drink,' only to be slaughtered by their enemies.  Of Caradawg, the poet sang, 'After the clear mead was put into his hand, he saw now more the hill of his father. Pale mead was their liquor, but it proved their poisonthough pleasant to the taste, a fatal foe."  (Spence, 1997, p. 35, quoting Hilda Ransome's The Sacred Bee)


[I almost listed this under Rome.] According to Acton and Douglas, Pollio Romulus wrote Julius Caesar about mead. Pollio was over 100 years old and vigorous, which he attributed to drinking copiously of the local Welsh metheglin and to rubbing his legs with "oyl". (p. 13)


Linguistic Notes by Bill Kasselman


The following section is copied directly from Bill Kasselman's "Canadian Word of the Day:  A Swarm of Bee Words", http://www.billcasselman.com/unpublished_works/bee_words.htm, accessed January 19, 2008.  Bill Kasselman is a writer and broadcaster who has made a career of studying words from the Canadian point of view.)


Our English word bee has many Germanic and Slavic cognates and relatives.

Old English bo

Old Norse b

Modern German Biene

Dutch bij

Old Teutonic *bini

Lithuanian bite

Latvian bite

Russian pčela

Polish pszczola

Old Church Slavonic bŭčela

Irish bech

Welsh begegyr

Words for 'bee' and 'honey' of Indo-European origin occur in most Finno-Ugrian languages (e.g. Hungarian mh and mz), although some scholars (often Hungarian) suggest that Indo-European may have borrowed the me* roots from the Finno-Ugrian language family.


 Here is the word for bee in several other languages of the world.













blet (apis, honeybee).






‏مسابقة   تهجئة , ‏نحلة   (melissa), ‏إجتماع   للعمل .


















naam .






трудолюбив   човек , пчела.)   






včela , vela


Ecuadorian Quechua




miqui chuspi












مگس   انگبین , زنبورعسل   (Bumblebee), زنبور





















Note that the Greeks named the honey bee melissa, after its honey (Greek meli). The Jews named the bee דבורה (pronounced in modern Hebrew de-vo-RAH) after its sting. Deborah is a common Hebrew feminine name. Deborah means 'stinging bee.' The Semitic root is dbr, one of whose reflexes is dabar, a Hebrew word for 'word, sting, goad.' Compare Arabic and Proto-Semitic dabar(a) 'sting, ox goad.'


An interesting but utterly coincidental similarity exists in the Hebrew and Latin terms for 'word.' In Latin it's verbum (the Latin root verb- 'whip, lash, sting, cattle goad.' In Biblical Hebrew, word is dabar from the triliteral verbal root dbr - 'say, speak, prod, sting, goad.'


Hebrew scholars offer other possible Semitic origins of devorah, the modern Hebrew word for bee. They consider ancient cognates like the Aramaic for bee, debarta, and its Syriac cousin, deboritha, as well as the Hebrew word for honey, debash. There is another shoresh (three-letter word root) brought forth for consideration: the Mandaic Aramaic dibra 'back, tail, hence 'bee's stinger' (?) to be compared with the Arabic dubr 'backside, tail.'


Is the Greek word for honey hidden in a well-known Mediterranean place name? The island of Malta, say some sources, was first Melita 'land of honey' (Greek meli, melitos 'honey'). But the preponderance of linguistic and historical evidence suggests that the place name Malta is Phoenician, the Semitic language of the Mediterranean trading people who colonized the six little islands which comprise Malta very early in history. The Semitic triliteral root mtl carries the meaning of 'take refuge' or 'hide.' The Semitic verb form malata can mean 'one takes refuge.' Therefore it is quite likely that a later noun form 'malta' may mean 'place of refuge' or 'isle of refuge.' If you examine the sea map and observe Malta's position south of Sicily, not too far from Tunisia, and think from the perspective of Phoenician traders sailing stout and yare vessels to and fro upon the Mediterranean, such an origin makes good sailing sense and good linguistic sense. 


            The common Russian surname Medved is an apotropaic circumlocution for 'bear' meaning literally 'honey-eater.' This is an old Slavonic periphrasis for bear. Med is Russian for honey, and the ved root means 'eat.' The ved and yed roots are related to eсть [yest'] (Russian 'to eat') and are cognate with other Indo-European verbs like Latin edere to eat' (which gives us the adjective edible) and even with English to eat. Another Russian word containing this Slavic root is the interesting and racist Samoyed, the name of a people and a breed of dog. Samo-yed means 'self-eater' in Russian, a synonym for cannibal! The Samoyed people do not call themselves by that name. They possess their own proper ethnonym, and it does not mean 'cannibal.' Inuit is an ethnonym; Eskimo is not.


In order to keep bears away and/or to placate the spirit of the totemic animal of his 'bear' clan, the tribesman never uttered the name of the animal, for fear that if one spoke aloud the word bear, then the animal itself might appear to devour one. For the same reason, the word mother-in-law is seldom said aloud in North America. Among many peoples of the world the imposition of taboo on certain words is still a prevalent superstition.

How did one avoid saying the word 'bear' out loud? One made up other names for the animal, and one old Slavic circumlocution was honey-eater or medved. A almost similar type of periphrasis occurs in the monument poem of Old English, Beowulf. The hero Beowulf has a name that means 'bee-wolf.' That was a synonym, an Anglo-Saxon kenning for 'bear.' It was probably not because the word bear became taboo. Kenning was a feature common in Old English poetry. It added flavour and verbal brio and memorable word formation to the poetry, very much like the compound Homeric epithets of The Iliad and The Odyssey, for example Homer's reference to "the wine-dark sea" or to "rosy-fingered dawn." Both are Homeric epithets. Such poetic figures are also mnemonic devices. All these long poems were recited by a bard. Standard epithets and kennings, all with proper metrics, allow the reciting bard some help and allow the audience the pleasure of recognizing familiar tropes.


St. Ambrose of Milan, the patron saint of Beekeepers


Known as "the honey-tongued doctor," Saint Ambrose is often painted in episcopal vestments wearing a mitre with crozier in hand, while nearby sits his most frequent iconic symbol, the beehive. One delightfully spurious explanation of Saint Ambrose's connection with bees recounts how bees deposited the honey of theological knowledge on his lips while he slept in his cradle, thus explaining his later "natural" religious eloquence.


Source of Apis, the Classical Latin Word for Bee


The word for bee in the Romance languages stems from Latin apis 'bee.' French abeille, Spanish abeja, Italian ape — all descend from Roman buzzers. So do words like apiary and apiculture. This little note concerns the ultimate source of apis. Some scholars suggest that the Latin root and even the Germanic words for bee like German Biene entered Indo-European languages from ancient Egyptian. One of the Egyptian hieroglyphic words for honeybee is bj-t. Here are a couple of technical jottings on that hypothesis from linguistic journal articles:


"He explains the L. apis 'bee' after Brunner (1969) from Ancient Eg. as reduced form /af/ from /?fj/ (pp. 713-14, 723, 727) and IE root +bi- or *bhi- by a different Ancient Eg. form /bj-t/ 'honey bee'.


PE *bhey- "bee" < SH *b[i]y- "bee" (in Egyptian, ?North, East Cushitic, ?West Chadic). For Egyptian ~ IE see already Hodge; Gamkrelidze and Ivanov.


PE *mel- "honey" < SH *mal- (secondarily *mul-) "honey" (present in Egyptian, East and South Cushitic, Chadic).


PE *ap- (?.): Latin apis "bee" < SH *`a[p/f]- "bee, fly" (in Egyptian, South Cushitic).</DT?"


Here's a word brought into English by Viking invaders speaking Old Norse. Skeppa was a Viking word for basket or bushel. By 1100 CE, in early Middle English, skep meant a basket-shaped beehive made of rope or bound twigs or straw.


(end of Bill Kasselman text)


The Viking Answer Lady

The following section is copied directly from The Viking Answer Lady's website, (http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/drink.shtml), in a discussion of Norse words for toasts in honor or memory of someone:


The Old Norse term minni is literally "memory," but came to be used to indicate "a memorial cup or toast." Apparently the term could also refer to all the fulls drank at the sumbel:


... these memorial cups or toasts were in the heathen age consecrated (signu) to the gods Thrr, inn, Bragi, Freyr, Njrr, who, on the introduction of Christianity, were replaced by Christ, the Saints, the Archangel Michael, the Virgin Mary, and St. Olaf; the toasts to the Queen, Army, etc. in [modern] English banquets are probably a relic of this ancient Teutonic ceremony... (Cleasby-Vigfusson p. 429 s.v. "minni")


The importance of this custom is partially attested by the many compounds of the word minni found in Old Norse:

minnis-drykkja, a banquet where there are minni

minnis-horn, a memorial horn or cup

minnis-veig, a toast-cup, a charmed cup

minnis-l, literally "memory ale" but used in the sense of "an enchanted or charmed drink"


At weddings, the toasts offered might be slightly different. In Bsa saga ok Herraus, ch. 12 a different order of toasts is intertwined with the narrative:


... the memorial cup consecrated to Thrr was carried into the hall.... Next came the toast dedicated to all the gods.... after that it was time for inn's toast to be drunk.... When inn's toast had been drunk, there was only one left, the toast dedicated to Freyja. (Palsson and Edwards, "Bosi and Herraud", pp. 80-81)


These rounds of toasting were a part of the custom of sumbel (Old Norse) or symbel (Old English). The origins of the word sumbel are unknown. Some scholars have theorized that the term was a borrowing of Latin symbola, itself from Greek sumbolh "collection for a meal." However, this term appears throughout Germanic cultures from a very early date, which would argue against its origins as a loan-word. Another possible etymology is a derivation from proto-Germanic sum- or sam- ("gathering together") and *alu ("ale"). Using this etymology, sumbel would literally mean "an ale-gathering" (Bauschatz, p 76).


(end of Viking Answer Lady text)



Here's what's on my shelves:

Acton, Brian, and Duncan, Peter (1985).  Making Mead, G.W. Kent, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI

Adam, L. 1985. L'Apiculture a Travers les Ages. Editions Gerbert. pp. 75-76

Aled, Rhys (Ed) (2004).  Llyfr Iorwerth:  A Critical Text of the Venedotian Code of Welsh Medieval Law.  University of Wales Press and Law Series, Cardiff, Wales, UK.

Ambrose, J.T. 1973. "Bees and Warfare." Gleanings in Bee Culture, The A.I. Root Company, Medina, Ohio. pp. 343-346

Buhner, Steven Harrod (1998).  Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers. Siri Books, Boulder, CO.

Charles-Edwards, Thomas, and Kelly, Fergus (Eds) (1983). Bechbretha:  An Old Irish Law-Tract On Beekeeping.  Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, W. & S. Magowan, Dublin & Dundalk.


Digbie, Sir Kenelme (1669).  The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened:  Whereby is Discovered Several ways for making of Metheglin, Sider, Cherry-Wie, &c. Together with Excellent Directions for Cookery As also for Preserving, Conserving, Candying, &c. H. Brome, London.  Reproduced by the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, 1967.

Georghiou, G.P. 1980. "Ancient Beekeeping." The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture. (Root, A.I., editors.) A.I. Root Company. Medina, Ohio. pp. 17-21

Heather, P. 1940. "Animal Beliefs." Folklore. Vol. 51, p. 273

Hieatt, Constance; Hosington, Brenda; and  Butler, Sharon (2004).  Pleyn Delit:  Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks.  University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada.


Kelly, Fergus (2000).  Early Irish Farming:  A Study Based Mainly on the Law-Texts of the 7th and 8th Centuries AD.  Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dundalgan Press Ltd., Dundalk Co. Louth, Ireland.


Kingsley, Sean, & Decker, Michael (Eds.) (2001). Economy and Exchange in the East Mediterranean during Late Antiquity.  The David Brown Book Company, Oakville, CT.


Morse, Roger A. (1980).  Making Mead (Honey Wine), Wicwas Press, Cheshire, CT.

Morse, R.A. 1955. "Bees Go to War." Gleanings in Bee Culture, The A.I. Root Company, Medina, Ohio. pp. 585-587.

Oxford English Dictionary (1971).  Oxford University Press, Oxford, England.


Pouncy, Carolyn Johnston (1995).  The Domostroi:  Rules for Russian Households In The Time Of Ivan the Terrible.  Cornell University Press, New York.


Ransome, Hilda (2004).  The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore.   Dover Books on Anthropology and Folklore, New York.


Renfrow, Cindy.  (1997).  A Sip Through Time:  A Collection of Old Brewing Recipes.  Printed by Cindy Renfrow, United States of America.


Ross, James Bruce, and McLaughlin, Mary Martin, Eds. (1977).  Portable Medieval Reader.  Penguin (Non-Classics), New York.


Schramm, Ken (2003).  The Compleat Meadmaker.  Brewers Publications,  Boulder, CO.


Spence, Pamela (1997).  Mad About Mead: Nectar of the Gods, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN.


Stair, G. Miles, and Stair, Bette (Date unknown).   The Honey Factory. Self published.


Ward, Christie L. (Gunnvr silfrahrr ). http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/index.shtml.  Accessed October 13, 2007.


Tirdad, http://www.geocities.com/persianwine/. Ancient Persians and Wine.  Accessed January 19, 2008.


Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne (trans. Anthea Bell) (1987).  A History of Food.  Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA.


Twede, Diana (September 2005).  The cask age:  the technology  and history of wooden barrels.  Packaging Technology and  Science (18, 5) pp. 253-264.  John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


White, J.W. Jr., and Doner, Landis W. (1980). USDA Technical Bulletin 1261:  Honey Composition and Properties.  Beekeeping in the United States, Agriculture Handbook Number 335, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C.


Here's what's on my wish list:


I do have a wishlist with Amazon, under ebpayne


Arnaldus de Villanova, Liber de Vinis, 1478.  Arguably the first wine book to be mass printed, but it's wine from a medical standpoint.


Burchard of Worms, Decretum, Punishments For Drunk Monks 1000 Years Ago.  Written first half of the 11th century.


Enright, Michael J. Lady With a Mead Cup: Ritual Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tene to the Viking Age. Dublin: Four Courts Press. 1996.


Charles Estienne, Vinetum, 1537.  First book on grape growing and wine-making technique.


Gayre, Robert and Charlie Papazian. Brewing Mead: Wassail in Mazers of Mead. Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications. 1986.


Hagen, Ann. A Second Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink: Production and Distribution. Hockwold cum Wilton, Norfolk, UK: Anglo-Saxon Books. 1995.


La Pense, Clive. The Historical Companion to House-Brewing. Beverley, UK: Montag. 1990.


Pliny's Naturalis Historia, or Natural History, c. 77AD.


Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, 1615.


Eileen Powers, trans.  Goodman of Paris.  1392/4 (London: Routledge, 1928).


Charles Estienne, trans. by Jean Libault? (1535-1596).  Maison Rustique.  


Michael Sisson, Mead and the Ancient Celts


Copyright 2008 by Sorcha Prechan. <ebpayne at yahoo.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

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