Sunday, January 11, 2009

Wine in the West V


Concerning mead, I've previously shared Northern European literature, specifically passages from Y Goddodin and Beowulf in my post "Honor and Courage," where I discussed (overlong, I'm sure) mead's ritual significance among the warrior elite. It doesn't end there though. This Cult of Mead was no passing fad, but an ancient (evident from archaeology) and pervasive (as we see from its predominance in literature) aspect of our pagan past, especially of Northern folk whom Christians came to call Heathens, among whom the rituals were preserved long into the Christian age. Preserved so long, in fact, that modern Americans, Vinlanders, if you will, continue to practice them today. Perfect examples are "tailgating," toasts to the newlyweds (and just about every other adult social milestone) and the ubiquitous New Year's Eve drinking bout.

Obviously, various Christian denominations advocate different attitudes toward alcohol from that of total abstinence to a stance of almost indifferent tolerance. Nevertheless, the consumption of the Heathen and that of the Christian are distinctly different, or would be, if Christians actually adhered to the traditions of consumption within their churches. No denomination, as far as I know, lauds the drinker as among our Heathen ancestors. No denomination, as far as I know, celebrates, as modern Vinlanders do, the heroic drinker, that one who can drink all others "under the table" or "holds his drink well." This admiration is a legacy of our Heathen past.

Among the Heathens, there's no proscription against alcoholic consumption, rather a man who can drink and hold it well is admired. The Heathen recognizes the simple and domestic virtues of ale, mead and wine.

By the fire one should drink ale, one should slide over the ice,
buy a lean horse and a rusty blade,
fatten the horse at home and a dog on the farmstead.
-Havamol 83

Not very much need a man give,
often you get praise for a little;
with half a loaf and a tilted cup
I've got myself a companion.
-Havamol 52

He also recognizes the dangers of excess; "The heron of forgetfulness hovers over the ale-drinking; he steals men's wits...A man shouldn't hold onto the cup but drink mead in moderation..." -Havamol 13 and 19.

As for the heroic drinker, there are two ways of looking at that. There's the warrior who drinks to seal his vow as in Beowulf and Y Gododdin, then there's the hero of drink, whom I feel developed in a later age than the first. This type of heroic drinker appears in the Icelandic Sagas. Egil Skallagrimsson has to be the greatest of these:

Then the ale was brought in, an exceptionally strong brew. Each man was given a horn to drink from, and the host made a special point of letting Egil and his men drink as much as possible. Egil drank incessantly for a long time at first, and when his companions became incapacitated, he drank what they could not finish as well. -Egil's Saga

A man was expected to uphold his end of the drinking, as in The Tale of Halldor Snorrason II;

Thorir came to speak to the king, saying 'As you know, I am an old man, and get tired quickly. I do not think I am capable of following the customs of the king's men, such as drinking toasts and such related things. I am now going to look elsewhere, even though being with you is best and most agreeable to me.'

The king answered, 'It is possible for us to find a solution, my friend. Stay here with my followers. You have my permission to drink no more than you wish.'

Bard was a man from Oppland, a good comrade, and not very old. He was an intimate friend of King Harald's. These three men, Bard, Thorir and Halldor, shared a bench, and one evening, just as the king walked by where they were sitting and drinking, Halldor was passing over the horn. It was a great animal horn, and nearly transparent. It was possible to see quite well through it that he had drunk half as much as Thorir, who was a slow drinker.

Then the king spoke: 'It takes a while before you see people in their true colours, Halldor,' he said. 'So you break faith in drinking with old men, and rush off to whores in the late evening instead of following your king.'

Halldor made no answer, but Bard could sense that he disliked the king's comments. Bard went to meet the king early in the morning.

'You are an early riser, Bard,' said the king.

'I have come to reproach you, my lord,' said Bard. 'You spoke badly and unjustly to your friend Halldor yesterday evening, when you accused him of not drinking his share. It was Thorir's horn and he had already given up and would have returned it to the tray if Halldor had not drunk it for him...'.

To this, all I can add is that perhaps these prodigious drinkers preserved themselves with Odin's magical advice, "...where you drink ale, choose the power of earth! For earth is good against drunkenness..." -Havamol 137


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