N-drink-trad-art - 7/30/98
"Norse Drinking Traditions" by Gunnora Hallakarva.
NOTE: Please see also the files: N-drink-ves-msg. beer-msg, Norse-msg, Norse-food-msg, Norse-games-msg, TEIO-Vikings-art, mead-msg, honey-msg.
This file is a collection of various messages having a common theme that I have collected from my reading of the various computer networks. Some messages date back to 1989, some may be as recent as yesterday.
This file is part of a collection of files called Stefan's Florilegium. These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
I have done a limited amount of editing. Messages having to do with separate topics were sometimes split into different files and sometimes extraneous information was removed. For instance, the message IDs were removed to save space and remove clutter.
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Mark S. Harris AKA: THLord Stefan li Rous
Stefan at florilegium.org
Subject: ANST - RE: ANST-Alcohol Traditions
Date: Fri, 01 May 98 22:01:56 MST
From: Gunnora Hallakarva <gunnora at bga.com>
To: ansteorra at Ansteorra.ORG
"Norse Drinking Traditions"
by Gunnora Hallakarva.
H‡vam‡l (Sayings of the High One)
Byrßi betri berrat maßr brautu at,
an sŽ manvit mikit;
außi betra ßykkir ßat ’ —kunnun staß,
sl’kt es v‡laßs 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 kveßa,
šl alda sunum,
ßv’t f¾'ra veit, es fleira drekkr,
s’ns til geßs 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.]
îminnis hegri heitr s‡s of šlßrum ßrumir,
hann stelr geßi guma;
ßess fugls fjšßrum ek fjštraßr vask
’ garßi Gunnlaßar.
[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 varß, varß ofršlvi
at ens fr—ßa Fjalars;
ßvi's šlßr bazt, at aptr of heimtir
hverr sitt geß 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.]
These are the words of the great god îdinn, cautioning against drunkenness
and unrestrained drinking. And yet the drinking of alcoholic beverages was
a prominent feature of Scandinavian life in the Viking Age. Beer and ale
were brewed from grain, especially barley. Mead, a golden wine made by
fermenting honey was popular as well. Fruit wines were made in very small
quantities in areas such as southern Sweden, though production was always
rather low (after the Viking Age all the fruit wine output was used as
sacramental wine). The wealthy Viking chieftain might also import fine
wines from the Continent, especially from the German states.
The drinking of beer was particularly important to several seasonal
religious festivals, of which the Viking Scandinavians celebrated three:
the first occurring after harvest, the second near midwinter, and the last
at midsummer. These festivals continued to be celebrated after the
introduction of Christianity, although under new names. Historical records
show that beer consumption at these festivals, even in Christian times, was
quite important: the Gulathing Law required farmers in groups of at least
three to brew ale to be consumed at obligatory ale-feasts on All Saints
(November 1 - Winternights), Christmas (December 25 - Yule), and upon the
feast of St. John the Baptist (June 24 - Midsummer) More ordinary
festivities, celebrated even today, are so closely associated with beer
that they are known as …l ("ale") and include Gravšl (a wake, or "funeral
beer"), Barnšl (a christening, or "child-beer") and Taklagsšl (a
barn-raising, or "roofing-beer").
The drinking of beer required vessels in which to serve the beverage. The
oldest mode of serving beer was to offer it in a large howl, often a brass
cauldron in which the beer had been heated, from which everyone served
themselves by means of small bird-shaped dippers called …lgass or
"ale-geese." In Lok‡senn‡ we are given a description of such a
beer-cauldron in Aegir's hall. Later Scandinavians drew their beer from the
vat into Tapskalar or "tap-bowls,"which were like pitchers, provided with a
short pouring spout or lip. Tapskalar were then emptied into pitchers or
large tankards, which were set upon the tables and used to serve beer into
individual drinking vessels.
The drinking vessels themselves could be of varied types. The most
primitive were simple cones made of rolled birch or rowan bark. Carefully
polished horns were used. These were often adorned with precious metals and
jewelry-work at mouth and point. The drinking horn has become known as the
only Viking drinking vessel to modern folks, however the average Viking
probably considered the drinking horn a peasant's drinking-vessel, or an
extremely old-fashioned one, used mostly for rituals such as offering a
stirrup-cup, the various …l festivities and seasonal celebrations, and the
formal ale-feast of sumbel.
It was much more usual in the Viking Age for people to use more convenient
vessels which could be set down without spilling. Coopered vessels made of
wooden staves bound with willow bands might take the form of tankards or
covered flagons. Birchbark drinking vessels, the seams sealed with pitch,
were used to hold drink. Very rich Scandinavians might use imported glass
beakers, which werecalled Hrimkaldar, or "frostcups' (usually shaped like
cones or horns but of a relatively small size, perhaps 8 to 12 fluid oz.
capacity). Tumblers were made from cow horn, but horns which had the point
cut off in the solid tip area to provide a flat base to the cup. After 1500
(well after the Viking Age), various turned vessels made from wood became
available in Scandinavia.
Especially important was the KŒsa, a cup which was either carved in one
piece from wood, made with coopered staves, or later crafted from silver or
pewter. KŒsor were made with round bowls which widened upwards, provided
with two handles which might end in animal heads, stylized animal forms, or
birds' beads and tails. KŒsor were often of a formal and ceremonial nature,
and became associated with special holiday customs.
No less ceremonial than the drinking vessel itself was the mode of
serving.The sagas often tell of the first round of drink (at least) being
served by noble women, as in this passage from Beowulf
"Wealhtheow, Hrothgar's queen now made her appearance
according to courtly custom. Adorned with gold, she
greeted the company in the banqueting hall. The noble lady
first presented a goblet to Hrothgar. She bade him enjoy the
revels, upon which the king gladly took part in the sumbel.
Then Wealhtheow the Helming princess visited every
corner of the hall, tendering the jewelled cup to veterans
and the younger men."
The serving of ale in this manner was not a servant's task, but a jealously
guarded privelege accorded to the highest ranking Germanic women. This
ritual of the queen serving the ceremonial drink is part of a ritual which
confirm's the king's rulership and cements the social order of the king's
followers. The order in which each is served shows relative rank between
te participants, with the king coming first, then men of higher rank, and
finally the youngest and lowest ranking. The sharing of the cup helpes
establish bonds between the men as well.
The presentation of ale to the lord of the hall might be accompanied with
words such as these from Sigurdrfiumal:
"Ale I bring thee, thou oak of battle
With strength blended and brightest honor --
'Tis mixed with magic and mighty songs,
With goodly spells, wish-speeding runes"
The revellers would later be served by men or women who "carried ornamental
ale cups and performed the office of pouring out the sparkling beer," as
was the custom in Heorot. The gods themselves had the Valkyries as
cupbearers, as these named by îÝinn in Gr’mnism‡l:
"Hrist and Mist the horn shall bear me,
Skeggiold and Skogul
But Hild and Thrtith, Hlokk and Herijotur,
Goll and Geironul,
Rondgrith and Rathgrith and Reginleif
To the einherjar ale shall bear."
Once the Vikings had their cups filled, they offered up toasts, or
Fulls.The first full was assigned to îÝinn, and was made for victory and
the king's success. Snorri Sturleson gives Earl SigurÝr's first toast at a
festival at HlaÝir in 952 as an example. Freyr and Njord were the
recipients of the second toast, which was for peace and plentiful harvests.
The third toast was often made to Bragi, god of poetry. After this, men
might make the Minni, a toast to those of their kinsmen who had become
At weddings, the toasts offered might be slightly different: the story of
Herraud and Bosi recounts that the cup was consecrated to Th—rr. The first
toast was made to all the gods, the next toast to îÝinn, and the third to
These rounds of toasting were a part of the custom of Sumbel (Old Norse) or
Symbel (Old English), both meaning "ale-gathering." Toasts might be
combined with vows or oaths, boasts, storytelling and song. Tacitus wrote
in his Germania of the custom of sumbel, saying "Drinking bouts lasting all
day and all night are not considered in any way disgraceful." More than one
sumbel is encountered in Beowulf, and in Old Norse poetry such as
"Lok‡senn‡," where Loki is told:
"Seats and places for thee at sumbel
The Aesir never choose
Because the Aesir know which wights
To have at a glorious drinking-feast."
Sumbel is even mentioned in Christian poetry such as "The Dream of the
Rood," where it is told that "There are God's folk seated at symbel." The
term "symbel daeg"came to be used in Old English to denote a Christian
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 (such as
the kŒsa), 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, as the quotes from H‡vam‡l above clearly show, it was considered
poor form to become drunk at the sumbel. Taking drink from the ceremonial
cup might be thought of as symbolizing the divine inspiration given to
îÝinn by the Mead of Poetry, and the Allfather had much to say in Havamal
"I counsel thee ...
I pray thee be wary ...
Be wariest of all with ale."
(from v. 131)
This is not to say that îdinn was a prohibitionist: he himself drank only
wine, and would not drink unless his blood-brother Loki had also been
served (giving rise to the custom of flicking a few drops of every toast
raised to îdinn into a fire to honor the covenant with Loki). It is also
recorded that îdinn drank each day with the goddess Saga in her hall.
Finally, as Peter Foote points out, while "the Vikings seem to have been
men of some thirst," their drink contained large quantities of impurities,
and therefore they, too, were subject to "frightful hangovers ..."
Bauschatz. Paul C. The Well and the Tree, Amherst University of
Massachusetts Press. 1982.
Craigie, William A. The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia, Freeport NY; Books
for Libraries Press. 1969.
Crepin, Andre. "Wealhtheow's Offering of the Cup: A Study in Literary
Structure." in Saints, Scholars and Heroes: Studies in Medieval Culture I.
eds. Margot King and Wesley Stevens. Collegeville, 1979. pp. 45-58.
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. ISBN 1-85182-188-0.
Foote, Peter and David M. Wilson. The Viking Achievement, London; Sedgwick
and Jackson. 1970.
Hollander, Lee M. trans. The Poetic Edda, Austin; University of Texas
Palsson, Hermann and Paul Edwards. trans. Seven Viking Romances, NY;
Penguin Books. 1985.
Turville-Petre, E.O.G. Myth and Religion of the North, Westport CN;
Greenwood Press. 1964.
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