Drink of the Gods
For many Americans, mead is simply “honey wine,” a specialty alcoholic beverage made of fermented honey and served at a number of boutique bars across the country. For practitioners of the Pagan tradition of Asatru, also frequently referred to as heathenry, mead, the so-called “drink of the gods,” is a significant ceremonial and social libation.
Asatru emerged in the United States and elsewhere in the last several decades of the 20th century. It centers on what adherents understand to be the polytheistic religious beliefs and cultural practices of pre-Christian northern Europe, as described in ancient literature like the Icelandic Sagas and Eddas. Given its specific geographic ties, heathenry sometimes attracts white supremacists, who view it as an exclusively “white” religion and vehicle for preserving European heritage and identity. Its symbols have even appeared in places like the 2017 Unite The Right white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Although many heathen groups strongly denounce this ideology and are open to members of diverse backgrounds, because of these associations, racism and bigotry have become a source of great friction within contemporary Asatru.
Without diminishing the importance and poignancy of such debates, this exhibit focuses on other, less controversial, sources of Asatru’s appeal, including respect for the past, communion with deities and nature, and the importance of interpersonal relationships and hospitality. Each of these tenets comes together in the ritual production and consumption of mead. In order to amplify its significance for contemporary heathen practice, this exhibit listens in on the production and use of mead among members of a central Ohio Asatru community, one with inclusive ideology.
On a crisp afternoon in October 2015, Mark Hosselton and Kevin Atherton met in a small kitchen on the west side of Columbus, Ohio, where they brewed five gallons of mead for gatherings of the Nine Worlds Kindred, an Ohio heathen group with which both men were affiliated. Growing up, both Kevin and Mark had dissatisfactory experiences with Christianity. Asatru, however, resonated with both men, especially its perceived ties to ancient European history. Mead is understood to be one such connection. Evidence of ancient apiculture, and of the use of honey for certain taxes and fees, suggests the prominence of this substance in ancient European society. References to mead and alcohol appear frequently in the ancient literature, folklore, and mythology that Asatru draws upon.
Mark and Kevin discuss mead-making and its historical roots. Recording & production by Lauren Pond.
“Mead, being known as the drink of knowledge, . . . ties into many Norse stories,” said Jenn Fellrath, an Ohio heathen who is close with Kevin and Mark. Jenn discovered heathenry through Norwegian heritage and traditions on her father’s side of the family, and she now belongs to the Oath Forge kindred.
“For us as heathens, in our lore, those who constructed great works of poetry can do so because of mead and beer,” Kevin said.
That she to Beowulf, the ring-adorned queen,
Noble in mind, the mead-cup bore:
She greeted the Geats’ chief, thanks gave to God,
Wise in her words, that the wish to her fell,
That on any earl she might rely
For comfort in evils. Received he the cup,
The warrior fierce, at Wealtheow’s hands.
And then he spoke, ready for battle.
— Lines 623 – 630
Sounds associated with mead sometimes allude to these historic connections. At an Ohio heathen ceremony utilizing mead, a CD of Eddic poetry recitation played in the background. Heathens will verbally acknowledge ancestors and mythology as they brew mead; Mark’s recipe even includes a section stating “Hail Odin! Hail Frigga! Hail Asgard! Hail Ancestors!”, with hail serving as a verbal form of homage and respect. And the brewing process itself is sonically symbolic, involving mixing and swishing – sounds suggestive of the blending of ancient and contemporary practice.
Mead used to be made simply from water, honey, and yeast that was heated, strained, and stored. However, modern brewers have modified this recipe. Mark first poured 18 lbs. of specialty buckwheat and wildflower honey (ordered online) into a tall pot on the stove. Next, in went spring water, lemon juice and rinds, orange juice (the kind with calcium), raisins, black tea, and yeast. Some heathens are more adventurous when they brew, adding ingredients like orange creamsicles or jalapenos – sometimes to the point that the resulting beverage becomes undrinkable.
As Mark slowly stirred the contents of the pot, his wooden spoon scraped against the metal siding, causing all ingredients – those prescribed by ancient brewers, and his more contemporary contributions – to swirl around in a yellow, frothy blur. The past combined with the present.
“By stirring in all the ingredients, we connect to the past that way, to the ancient mead-makers,” Mark explained.
“The Sagas are how our ancestors lived their lives,” Kevin said. “So if I take a piece of what they did, like a seed . . . to me, brewing the mead is transporting that seed to here.”
After one to two months of fermentation and several additional months of waiting for the sediment to settle, mead is bottled and ready to be used – sometimes as a sacrifice to deities during blot rituals, other times as a libation during symbels. The symbel is a drinking ritual involving toasts to honor the deities of the Old Norse pantheon, such as Thor (the god of storms and thunder, also associated with strength and protection), Freyer (ruler of rain, sunshine, and fertility), and Frigga (the goddess of fertility, motherhood, and love), depending on the season and occasion. Heathens will also toast to the land and nature spirits; to their ancestors and heroes; and to one another. On a humid afternoon in early July 2016, Mark, Kevin, and other members and friends of the Nine Worlds Kindred gathered in the cornfields of rural Grove City, Ohio, for a Midsummer Symbel.
As kindred members cleansed themselves and formed a circle in the grass, several bottles of home-brewed mead waited nearby. A kindred officer poured the mead into a roughly two-foot drinking horn, which participants passed counter-clockwise. In successive rounds, participants took turns recognizing gods, goddesses, and other entities of choice, offering them mead and then sipping from or kissing the horn. At the end of the ceremony, any remaining mead would be poured out as a gift to the earth.
“Mead was the drink that binds families and kin, so to share at blot and symbels is the strengthening of bonds,” Jenn said.
Of mead in rituals such as this one, Kevin explained: “What we say or speak over the horn goes into the mead and into the well. So it’s really a vessel, a vessel for us to transmit our energy and deeds.”
Outside of rituals, many heathens continue to drink mead and other varieties of alcohol. For Kevin, Mark, and others, drinking in these less formal settings – homes, bars, campouts, and other locations – continues to serve a religious purpose – namely, fostering some of the bonds that underlie the interconnected heathen worldview. Through alcohol, boundaries start to disintegrate and people become their truest selves, Kevin explained.
I think it’s through drink and libation that we become the most free,” he said. “We lose that inhibition. We lose that wall . . . We bond like brothers and sisters.”
“It is about spending time with your family and kin – strengthening your bonds,” Jenn said. Heathenry’s emphasis on family is one of the things that attracted her, she suggested, having grown up with a disabled brother who required constant care and a strong support system.
Collage of sounds from heathen social settings where alcohol, including mead, was consumed. Recording & production by Lauren Pond.
After the Midsummer Symbel, the sounds of socializing and bonding were audible. As a full horn of mead continued to make the rounds, Nine Worlds Kindred heathens partook in a potluck, played the ukelele, and participated in a game of kuub, colloquially known as “Viking chess.”
These tenets are also closely tied to hospitality, another important component of Asatru, which heathens demonstrate through food and drink for guests. In 2017, Mark and Kevin helped found the Mead Hall, a fellowship where mead plays a central role. Mead “halls” and “palaces” may also trace back to heathen lore, including the Eddas and Beowulf, where they are described as places for hospitality, feasting, and merriment.
The prominence of mead and alcohol in heathenry can lead to the assumption that Asatru centers on drinking. This is a frustrating misperception, Kevin said, recounting an encounter with a belligerent heathen who spilled beer on him: “He says, ‘Drinking is what we do.’ I said. ‘No, it’s not what we do. You are taking your own sense of alcoholism and using faith to justify it.’ ” Many heathens actually do not drink.
Another basic misperception is that mead is honey wine. “It just kind of rubs me the wrong way,” Kevin said. “It’s like, ‘It’s not wine. I’m not some middle-aged yuppie sitting in a rich suburb. It’s mead.”