Drinking in the Medieval North

Velkomnir, gestirnir mínir!
(Welcome, my guests!) 🍃

Please gather around, friends, for another anonymous wanderer has sent a request to this hall! I hate to admit that it was long ago now, but a raven once came to me bearing this message:

“i’d be curious to hear from a possibly more academic side how you see drinking/alcohol playing into heathenism? i’ve heard a lot of persona anecdotes, but i’d be curious of your perspective if you’d like to share :)”

Certainly this question begs for fulfillment, and what better time than now? With the new year steadily approaching us, many folk will be drinking. In fact, those celebrating Yule have perhaps already been drinking in the name of winter festivities. But what does Óðinn have to say about drinking Heathens? And what gods did folk toast to? And while this time is known for drinking today, what were others times that Heathen folk drank in order to honor and worship gods and spirits alike? Let us sit by the fire and talk of how the Folk of Old drank during spiritual celebrations, shall we?


DRINKING ADVICE FROM ÓÐINN

Before we discuss drinking, allow me to share with you all some warnings and advice from Óðinn. We must, after all, drink responsibly. In my hall, I will not tolerate poor behavior. Guests should drink with moderation, and folk ought to remain friendly. So, if you will not heed my warnings, perhaps you will at least abide by the All-father’s wisdom (from the “Hávamál”):

11. No better burden a man bears on the road
than a store of common sense;
no worse journey-provision could he carry over the plain
than over-much drinking of ale.

12. It isn’t as good as it’s said to be,
ale, for the sons of men;
for the more a man drinks, the less he knows
about his own mind.

13The forgetfulness-heron it’s called
who hovers over ale-drinking;
he steals a man’s mind;
with the bird’s feathers I was fettered
in the court of Gunnlod.

14. Drunk was I, I was more than drunk
at wise Fiarlar’s;
that’s the best about ale-drinking that afterwards
every man gets his mind back again.

17. The fool stares when he comes on a visit,
he mutters to himself and hovers about;
but it’s all up with him if he gets a swig of drink;
the man’s mind is exposed.

19. Let no man hold onto the cup, but drink
mead in moderation,
let him say what’s necessary or be silent;
no man will scold you
because you go off early to bed.1

Do as Óðinn advises, my friends, and do not drink too heavily, whether it is a time of festivity or not. He frowns upon the man who fails to drink with moderation. So keep your wits, and do not let any drink steal your mind. Speaking historically, though, this poem suggests that Norse culture did not smile upon the man who drank more than he should — such behavior was considered unwise. While folk today often associate the ‘Vikings’ with excessive drinking, such behavior would not have been acceptable — at feast for those devoted to Óðinn. But it is rather difficult to make assumptions about behavior and practice for an entire culture when looking at only one source, so let’s take a look at a few sagas.

DRINKING TO HONOR THE GODS AND LOCAL LORDS

If you are a frequent guest in my hall, you may recall The Saga of Hakon the Good from Heimskringla. I held a sagnaskemmtun (ÍS: storytelling) event last week on the winter solstice (December 21st, 2017) where I told of how King Hakon complicated Yuletide festivities. I would like us to return to this story, since there is a rich passage of a Heathen blót (worship of the Old Gods, often involving sacrifices). Allow me to tell you about it:

There was a man named Sigurd Hladajarl who was very keen on Heathen worship, despite King Hakon’s efforts to prompt Christianity throughout the land. He held ritual banquets on behalf of a local king who lived in Thrœndalog. This was an ancient custom (so says Snorri Sturluson). This banquet was a ritual feast held at a local temple (often a jarl’s own home), and all of the farmers from the local community were encouraged to come, though they were expected to bring their own supplies to use while they were there. But, what is perhaps most useful for our discussion this evening is the expectation for folk to participate in ale-drinking.

Yet, before any sacred drinking could take place, certain preparations had to be made. A variety of domestic animals (including horses) were brought into the hall and slaughtered. Their blood was then collected — which was then referred to as hlaut (meaning ‘blood of sacrifice’). The hlaut was then poured into bowls (called hlautbollar). Then folks would take twigs (called hlauteinar) and dip them into these bows so that the hlaut could be sprinkled over altars, walls (inside and out), and the guests in the likeness of a Heathen holy water. This was done while the meat cooked over the fire.

With these preparations made, and the feast cooking upon the fire, drinks were passed over the fire. But before the ale-drinking and feasting could begin, their host had to dedicate the drinks and the ritual feast to the Gods. According to Snorri, this is how Sigurd Hladajarl dedicated his toasts: the first toast was Óðin’s Toast, which was drunk to victory and to the power of the king (or any other local authority), while the other was to be dedicated to Njǫrðr (Njord) and Freyr, which was for prosperity and peace.

But these were not the only toasts that folk made that night! They also drank a toast called bragafull, which was to the honor of their host (or their local chieftain). Guests also drank to their kinsmen, but especially to those who had been buried in mounds (or elsewhere). These were called minni, or memorial toasts.2

From this story, we get far more insight regarding drinking practices among Heathen folk. As this tale suggests, drinking could have a prominent place during Heathen celebrations, and could be used for a number of spiritual and religious purposes. Drinks could be devoted to gods, lords, kinsmen, or ancestors either as toasts or through the act of drinking itself.

While our source is rather specific about which gods were toasted to, it is not unreasonable to assume that other gods could have been toasted to as well. This leaves us to the dangers of conjecture, though, so we must be wary of treading that path. Nonetheless, our anonymous wanderer will be pleased to know that academic sources do confirm that drinks were often a genuine part of Heathen activity, and in an assortment of ways, too.

DRINKING TO HONOR SPIRITS…AND CASTING SPELLS ON DRINKING-HORNS

While the Gods are frequently discussed among folk today, there are other beings from the Old Ways that often get forgotten about. Long ago, folk revered powerful beings called Dísir, mighty female guardian spirits that watched over farms, families, and occasionally individuals.3 Feasts were often dedicated to them during Veturnætur, or Winter Night’s, which generally occurred in the middle of October. These feasts were sometimes referred to as Dísablót. A famous tale called Egil’s Saga recounts one of these events, so allow me to share it with you all, if I may:

A man named Bard prepared a feast for a certain King Eirik and his wife Gunnhild upon their arrival, because a sacrifice was to be made to the dísir. It was a splendid feast, with plenty of drink in the main room. But earlier that night, other guests had arrived seeking shelter. It was a company of men led by a man named Olvir. Bard brought them in, but told them that he was short on ale. He had them drink large bowls of curds instead.

Meanwhile, King Eirik was wondering where Bard was. Someone in the hall told him that he was serving his other guests, who were in another room. The king told the man to have them summoned to him, and so he did. A man named Olvir came, along with his company of men. After this, ale was served to all. Many toasts were drunk, each involving a whole ale horn. (These drinks were likely dedicated to the Dísir, based on the context of the passage; but the drinks that follow may not have all been for such a purpose).

As the night went on, many of Olvir’s companions grew drunk. Some of them vomited in the hall, but a few managed to get out the door before vomiting themselves. Despite this, Bard insisted on serving them more to drink! Egil, the man after whom this saga is named, took the drinking-horn that Bard had given to Olvir and finished it off. Bard, saying that Egil was clearly very thirsty, gave Egil another full horn at once and asked that he drink that too. Egil took the horn and spoke this verse:

You told the trollwomen’s foe (noble man)
you were short on feast-drink
when appeasing the goddesses:
you deceived us, despoiler of graves.
You hid your plotting thoughts
from men you did not know
for sheer spite, Bard:
you have played a bad trick on us.

Bard’s head turned to Egil with a glare, and he spoke with annoyance: “Quit mocking me, Egil, and get on with your drinking.” At this, Egil drank every draught that was handed to him, as well as whatever was given to Olvir.

Bard, growing furious from Egil’s seemingly rude actions, went to Queen Gunnhild to complain, asserting that this man was brining shame to them, since he always claimed to be thirsty no matter how much he drank. together they devised a solution: they mixed poison into Egil’s next drink. Bard handed this drink to a serving-woman and had her give it to Egil. But Egil was no fool. He took out his knife and stabbed the palm of his hand with it. Then he took the drinking horn, carved runes on them, and smeared them with blood while speaking this verse:

I carve runes on this horn
redden words with my blood,
I choose words for the trees
of the wild beast’s ear-roots;
drink as we wish this mead
brought by merry servants,
let us find out how we fare
from the ale that Bard blessed.

Suddenly the horn shattered in Egil’s hand, causing its contexts to plummet to the straw-ladder floor. Olvir was on the verge of passing out, so Egil calms rose and led him to the door. He swung his cloak over his shoulder and gripped his sword underneath it. When they reached the door, Bard went after them with a full horn and asked Olvir to drink a farewell toast. Egil stood in the doorway, separating Olvir and Bard as if a wall, and spoke this verse:

I’m feeling drunk, and the ale
had left Olvir pale in the gills,
I let the spray of ox-spears (drinking horns)
foam over my beard.
Your wits have gone, inviter
of showers onto shields;
now the rain of the high god
starts pouring upon you.4

I will save the ending of that chapter for you all to read for yourselves another time. Right now, it is far more important to discuss the role of drinking throughout this passage! At the beginning of this passage, drinks could be dedicated to spiritual beings in a similar manner as we heard before, with The Saga of Hakon the Good. Yet, there are not details beyond this: “many toasts were drunk, each involving a whole ale horn.” While context makes it clear that these drinks were to honor the Dísir, little else is said. The saga is quick to move on to another topic pertaining to drinking: feasts, guests, and hosts.

While this does not pertain specifically to Heathen practices, it is worth including. Egil’s frustrating with his host, Bard, comes from the fact that he withheld drink from some of his guests, Olvir and his companions. As a result, Egil consumed more alcohol than is necessary in order to drain Bard’s supply. If Bard wanted to be a stingy host, than Egil wanted to be an gluttonous guest. Just as it was considered rude of a guest to drink too much (as we saw above with stanza 19 of “Hávamál”), it was also rude for a host to withhold drinks from their guests.

There are two more bits of information about drinking that are worth mention, though they may be hard to place. Spells could be cast on drinks, or at least their containers. Egil does this when he suspects that his drink was poisoned, after all. By carving runes and speaking words of power, Egil was able to avoid death by poisoned ale. It would be a stretch to say that this happened often, though, and rune carving was a specialized realm of knowledge. The Norse, however, did believe in the magic of runes and words, although much of it is a mystery to us today.

But there is still also the brief reference to a farewell toast that is worth discussion! It seems that drinks were raised to give blessings to a guest heading out from the hall. While Bard was clearly a foul host, this was likely an actual practice. Although this occasionally was clouded with guest-host drama, it is within reason to say that farewell toasts would be given to folk as they left a feast.


HERE ENDS MY TALK

There are plenty more lore to tell that involve some sort of drinking, but not all have relevance to our wanderer’s interests. For example, there is the endless ale of Valhalla, Thor’s drinking competition, and even the drinking that takes place at Ægir’s Hall. While these are fascinating tales, they do not have much to offer when it comes to learning about how Heathen folk drank for spiritual and religious reasons. Though, it is worth remembering that the Gods often act much like the society that revered them.

Nonetheless, I believe that I have selected a fair pool of primary sources that give us a diverse range of ways to look at how drinking functioned within Heathenry, having taken from Eddic poems about mythology, sagas about historical kings, as well as sagas about ‘ordinary’ folk. Drinking was an integral part of feasting (which need not always be for a religious reason), and they could take on various spiritual and cultural functions. This is the picture that they have painted for us:

  1. Drinks could be used to make toasts to the Gods
  2. …or to local authorities
  3. …or to the host of the feast
  4. …or to the guests who are leaving the feast
  5. …or to kinsmen
  6. …or to ancestors
  7. …or to the Dísir
  8. Religious feasts often occurred during Winter Night’s and Yule
  9. …but feasts could happen all the time, and toasts could always be made at them
  10. A person could cast a spell by carving runes on a drink’s container

Now, I must give my warnings, for I have not extensively researched this subject — there is more that can still be found! As a historian, these things must be thoroughly examined, using several sources in unison in order to gather enough evidence to support such interpretations. What I have gathered above fails to meet such standards I will certainly revise this post as new information comes my way, but this will have to do for now.

Nevertheless, these sources provide a glimpse into how drinking functioned within Heathenry. There is certainly more out there to find, but this should be enough to satisfy our wanderer’s humble request. So, let us return to our own drinks and festivities as we await the new year, shall we? May this year be your best.

Skál! (Cheers!) 🍻
— Fjorn the Skald

 


ENDNOTES

  1. Carolyne Larrington trans., “Hávamál,” in The Poetic Edda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 14-15.
  2. Retold from Snorri Sturluson, The Saga of Hakon the Good, in Heimskringla, vol. I, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes (Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 2016), 98 (chapter 14).
  3. Viðar Hreinsson ed., “Reference Section,” in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, vol. V (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 407.
  4. Retold from Bernard Scudder trans., Egil’s Saga (London: Penguin Books, 2002), 73-75 (chapter 44).
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