By Lauren Pond
For many Americans, mead is simply “honey wine,” a specialty alcoholic beverage to order at a growing number of boutique bars that have popped up across the country. However, for adherents to a pagan faith known as Asatru, the drink holds deeper significance.
Asatru, which first emerged in the United States in the 1980s, centers on the religious beliefs and practices of pre-Christian northern Europe, as described in ancient literature, such as the Icelandic Sagas and Eddas. Adherents, who often refer to themselves as heathens (meaning “of the heath” or “of the land”), honor the deities of the Old Norse pantheon and endeavor to reconstruct ancient Germanic traditions.
Brewing and consuming mead is one such custom. References to mead and alcohol pepper Asatru’s folklore and literature; believed to have descended from the heavens as dew, it’s known in some circles as “nectar of the gods.” American heathens today incorporate this beverage in a variety of religious rituals and social activities.
But what more can we learn about mead by listening to its use among heathens? And what can these sounds teach us about American Asatru?
One fundamental concept in Asatru is that of a highly intertwined cosmos. Adherents envision the universe as a giant ash tree, Yggdrasil, whose branches connect nine different worlds, and whose trunk grows out of a realm of shared deeds and destiny. In this view, all beings – humans, gods, ancestors, and others – are linked. A sonic exploration of mead production and consumption in one central Ohio heathen community suggests that mead may serve not just as a libation, but perhaps as a metaphor for this important tenet of heathenry: interconnectedness.
LINKING TO THE PAST
Audio collage about mead and its connection to Germanic lore and history
On a crisp October day, Mark Hosselton and Kevin Atherton meet in a cozy kitchen on the west side of Columbus, Ohio. Today’s task: brew five gallons of mead, which will be consumed at future gatherings of the Nine Worlds Kindred, a Central Ohio heathen group with which both men are affiliated.
Growing up, both Kevin and Mark had dissatisfactory experiences with Christianity: Mark, who attended Methodist churches with his parents, “never really got it,” he says; an especially inquisitive child, Kevin questioned his Baptist minister about the facts of the Bible until he was asked not to come back to Sunday school. Kevin also describes Christianity as a “modular” belief system, which does not align with his way of thinking, he says.
Asatru’s interconnected worldview, however, resonated with both men – especially its emphasis on historic literature and association with ancient traditions.
“I didn’t really go into it looking to be heathen,” Kevin says. “It was, ‘I’m reading the Eddas, and this is fascinating. . . . I’m from German and Danish descent, and this is all kind of interesting to me.”
Observing ancient Germanic beliefs and customs allows Kevin and Mark to feel tangibly connected to their ancestors – and brewing mead is one such practice. Archeological evidence of ancient apiculture, and the use of honey for certain taxes and fees, suggest the prominence of honey and mead in ancient European high society. References to mead appear in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, where it is delivered to men through Odin, the principal Norse god, and equated with intelligence and poetic inspiration.
But the sounds of the mead-brewing process also help underscore the historical and ancestral connections that Mark and Kevin experience.
Some mead recipes from ancient times consisted simply of water and honey, boiled, strained, and stored. However, Mark, like many contemporary brewers, has modified this recipe. First, he pours 18 pounds of specialty buckwheat and wildflower honey (ordered online) into a tall pot on the stove. Next, in go the spring water, the lemon juice and rinds, the orange juice (with calcium), the raisins, the black tea, the yeast. The gas burner emits an annoying, high-pitched hum as Mark combines everything, preparing the mead for fermentation and storage. It will need to age for at least a year in a glass carboy before it is ready to be consumed.
As Mark slowly stirs the contents of the pot, his wooden spoon scrapes against the metal siding, causing all ingredients – those prescribed by ancient brewers, and more contemporary contributions – to swish around together in a yellowish, clockwise blur. The past literally melds with the present.
“By stirring in all the ingredients, we connect to the past that way, to the ancient mead-makers,” Mark explains.
Some heathens, like Kevin, are even more adventurous when it comes to brewing mead, adding outlandish ingredients like orange creamsicles or jalapenos – sometimes to the point that the mead becomes undrinkable. But his mindset is similar to Mark’s.
“The sagas are how our ancestors lived their lives,” he explains. “So if I take a piece of what they did, like a seed . . . to me, brewing the mead is transporting that seed to here.”
COMMUNION WITH THE GODS
Ambient sounds of Midsummer symbel
Lee Spellman speaking during symbel
On a humid afternoon in early July, members and friends of the Nine Worlds Kindred gather amidst the cornfields in rural Grove City, Ohio, just outside of Columbus. It is time for the annual Midsummer ritual.
The most common Asatru rituals, blóts, serve as occasions to honor different deities, often those associated with specific seasons or natural elements. During another common ritual, the symbel, heathens come together to celebrate different deities with whom they feel they have personal relationships, as well as ancestors, heroes, and one another.
The method of honoring all of these different entities? Mead.
This is not without precedent. Symbels appear in American Asatru’s prominent literary sources, including the Sagas and Beowulf. In the latter, mead confers honor and recognizes valor. In the text, King Hrothgar’s queen serves a ceremonial cup of mead to the warrior, who has come to her husband’s hall:
to Beowulf the ring-adorned queen
gratified in her heart, brought the cup of mead.
She greeted the chief of the Geats, gave thanks to God,
wise as she was in her words, that her wish had come to good
that she might have the confidence in some hero,
a comforter in her woes. He partook of the cup,
the fierce slayer, from Wealtheow’s hands.
And then he chanted his eagerness to fight.
The sounds of the symbel among Ohio heathens again suggest interconnection, and even illustrate a communion, of sorts – between heathens and history, but also with gods, nature, and other people.
As members of the Nine Worlds Kindred cleanse themselves gather in a circle in the grass, several bottles of the home-brewed alcohol sit at the ready. Lee Spellman, a kindred officer, helps pour the mead into a roughly three-foot drinking horn, which participants pass counterclockwise. In successive rounds, everybody takes turns invoking and praising gods, goddesses, and heroes of choice, offering mead, and then sipping from the horn. Crickets and birds chirp in the background. At the end of the ceremony, any remaining mead will be poured out as a gift to the earth.
Of rituals such as this one, Kevin explains: “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.”
BUILDING COMMUNITY BONDS
Audio collage of mead and alcohol consumption in social settings
Stumble upon a heathen gathering, and you’re likely to mistake it for a family reunion.
After the Nine Worlds Kindred symbel, members partake in a large potluck, play the ukulele, and participate in a game of kuub (known colloquially as “Viking chess”). A young woman offers to paint people’s faces. One man, shirtless, walks around in a kilt, his face decorated in blue swirls.
In the background of all of the festivities, a drinking horn, full of mead, continues to make the rounds.
To listen to heathen mead use in an informal context is to grasp the importance of social connection in American Asatru. Believing in shared heritage and destiny, as well as the interrelationship of people’s actions, heathens embrace community.
Drinking mead helps facilitate many of these important connections, Kevin suggests. Through alcohol, boundaries start to disintegrate, and people become their truest selves, he explains.
“I think it’s through drink and libation that we become the most free,” he says. “We lose that inhibition. We lose that wall. . . .We bond like brothers and sisters.”
In ancient times, even important business was done over food and drink, when people were most relaxed and open-minded, Kevin explains.
Mead- and alcohol-induced socializing is audible not just at symbels, but in heathen homes, where brewers like Kevin and Mark get together to brew batches of the sacred drink. The sounds of friendly banter mingle with the sounds of the actual brewing process. It is also noticeable at heathen campouts, pub meetups, and the numerous other group outings that heathens share.
Recognizing the socio-spiritual significance of mead in the Asatru community, Kevin and Mark recently helped found the Mead Hall, a new heathen organization with an emphasis on brewing and consuming mead, both formally in symbels and informally as friends. Mead “halls” and “palaces” also trace back to heathen lore, including Havamal and Beowulf, where they are described as places for feasting, hospitality, and merriment.
“Mead is how we work . . . and come together as one, so it fits,” Kevin says, explaining the name of the new Ohio organization.
The fundamentality of mead and alcohol in American Asatru has contributed to a number of stereotypes, including the idea that heathens simply like to get drunk. Kevin cautions other heathens against using Asatru to justify their own sense of alcoholism. Drinking is part of heathenry, he emphasizes, but it does not define it, and it should be done responsibly.
The process of brewing and consuming mead helps instill appreciation of this alcoholic beverage – both of what it is and what it can do, Kevin says. Mead provides a journey, and a spiritual and social glue.
One thing is for certain: Among heathens, mead is not simply “honey wine.”
“It just kind of rubs me the wrong way,” Kevin explains. “It’s like, ‘It’s not wine, I’m not some middle-aged yuppie sitting in a rich suburb. It’s mead.”