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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.


The comments made in these messages are not necessarily my viewpoints. I make no claims as to the accuracy of the information given by the individual authors.


Please respect the time and efforts of those who have written these messages. The copyright status of these messages is unclear at this time. If information is published from these messages, please give credit to the originator(s).


Thank you,

    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.



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.]


These are the words of the great god dinn, 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 Gravl (a wake, or "funeral

beer"), Barnl (a christening, or "child-beer") and Taklagsl (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 Loksenn 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 Ksa, a cup which was either carved in one

piece from wood, made with coopered staves, or later crafted from silver or

pewter. Ksor 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. Ksor 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 inn in Grmnisml:


          "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 inn, and was made for victory and

the king's success. Snorri Sturleson gives Earl Sigurr's first toast at a

festival at Hlair 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 Thrr. The first

toast was made to all the gods, the next toast to inn, 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

"Loksenn," 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

feast day.


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 ksa), 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 Hvaml 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

inn by the Mead of Poetry, and the Allfather had much to say in Havamal

about overdrinking:


        "I counsel thee ...

        I pray thee be wary ...

        Be wariest of all with ale."

        (from v. 131)


This is not to say that dinn 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 dinn into a fire to honor the covenant with Loki). It is also

recorded that dinn 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

Press. 1962.


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.


Wright, David. trans. Beowulf, NY; Penguin Books 1957


Gunnora Hallakarva



<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org