History, Myths & Legends
Mead is the oldest alcohol in the world
Mead (Miodh in Irish) is the world’s oldest alcoholic drink, referred to as nectar of the gods, ambrosia, honey wine or honeymoon wine. The earliest discovery of a drink fermented from honey was in northern China in 6500 BC. This means that mead is older than the wheel! In Europe, mead traces were found in ceramics from 2800-1800 BC including in Northern Scotland. This archaeological culture is known as the Beaker culture for its distinctive pottery drinking beakers.
It is the nectar of the gods in Greek mythology, drink of goddesses and was drunk in Roman times as a separate drink alongside wine sweetened with a spice honey syrup, technically called a Mulsum, which is often confused with authentic mead. It is the national drink of Ethiopia – Tej.
Mead is woven through global history
Another stunning discovery of mead was made in a Celtic chieftain’s wagon grave at Hochdorf near Stuttgart, Germany and dated back to 600BC. At his feet was a large bronze cauldron decorated with three lions on the rim. Mead residue was found in the cauldron and it would have held over 400 litres of mead. Along the chamber wall, eight drinking horns made of auroch horn were suspended from the chamber wall with the ninth made from iron and inlaid strips of gold and would have held five litres of mead. Luckily the celtic warrior was a giant for his time measured at 6’2”.
Ancient Irish Mead
Linguistic evidence points to bees and honey being present in Ireland prior to Christianity. Many references are made to Mead in ancient Ireland – The Tuatha De Danann Children of Lir legend references Fionnuala recalling drinking a pleasant mead of hazel nuts from four-lipped drinking cups with her family before she and her brothers were changed into swans and exiled for 900 years.
The Hill of Tara, seat of the ancient High Kings of Ireland contained the great banqueting hall known as Tech Midchuarta, The Great Mead Hall of Tara. This was a huge timber building some 45 feet high and slept up to 1,000 people. Here they drank mead from methers, large wooden mead sharing vessels with four lips and four handles.
Bealtaine or Beltane
The origins of Bealtaine or Beltane are almost as old as Irish mead itself. There are many folk beliefs some of which have pagan origins. Held at the start of May at the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, the High King would call the local chieftains and their people together to dance around bonfires and drink mead to welcome the start of summer and generally have a good time. They would perform rituals to protect them from harm and to promote new growth and fertility.
Bealtaine or Bel taine in Old Irish, is often associated with the Hill of Uisneach (Cnoc Uisneach) in Co. Westmeath, well worth a visit. Archaeologists have confirmed the there are extensive layers of charcoal and evidence of huge fires on the hill. Though the hill is only 600 feet tall, on a clear day, you can see as far as 20 counties from the top.
Linguistic evidence points to honeybees and honey were present in Ireland from pre-christian times. Beekeeping issaid to have been bought to Ireland in the 5th century AD by a Irish monk named Modomnóc, or St Molaige, founder of the original settlement in Timoleague Tigh Molaige, not far from Kinsale.
He studied in monasteries in Iona, Scotland and in St David’s monastery in Wales where he trained as a beekeeper. When he was sent home to start converting us to Christianity, it is said that his bees missed him and followed his ship across the Irish Sea. Irish words in for things like hive and beekeeper start to appear in the language.
St Gobnait, born in the 5th-6th century is Ireland’s patron saint of bees and beekeepers and associated with Ballyvourney in North Cork.
Gobnait is Irish for Abigail meaning ‘brings joy,’ also anglicised to Deborah. She developed a lifelong affinity with bees and was said to have control over her bees. It is believed in Celtic lore that the soul left the body as a bee or butterfly. Many legends attest to her swarms driving off raiders of her village.
It is this legend that inspired the Harry Clarke‘s stain glass window in the Honan Chapel at University College Cork. The beautiful window, finished in 1916, shows Gobnait surrounded by her bees; at her feet she is carrying a honeycomb and bees are depicted chasing away the thieves who are threatening her abbey.
Photo courtesy Roaring Water Journal
Brehon Laws – Brehons were roving magistrates appointed by local kings and chieftains to arbitrate and settle disputes and help define the laws. Bechbreatha were a subset of Brehon Laws. They were written down around the 7th century but were memorised and passed from Brehon to Brehon orally across the land for many centuries before that. We can learn a lot from the importance they placed on bees.
Bees were subject to laws of trespass, so a beekeeper had to give a certain amount of his honey to his neighbours where the bees foraged, depending on the quality of their meadows and orchards and abundance of nectar.
Bees that swarmed were subjected to similar rules, the original owner of the bees had rights over a certain portion of the honey. They were entitled to 1/3 of honey made in other people’s land for 3 years, depending on the ownership of the land where they were captured.
Bees were punished for stinging people. You were granted a “sufficiency” or a meal of honey if you swore an oath that you had not provoked the bees. The Brehon would draw lots on hives where they suspected the bee came from; the hive selected was forfeit or destroyed for the crime of the one bee.
Bee sting in the eye – this was brought in by King Congal the one eyed, one of our earliest High Kings who had been blinded by bees.
Vikings loved Mead
Mead is all over Norse and Viking mythology. The she-goat called Heidrun who feeds on the green branches of the great world tree called Yggdrasil. From her udders flows a neverending stream of mead into a barrel in Valhalla, to supply Odin’s chosen warriors with mead for their great feast. Valhalla, the Viking heaven is a Great Mead Hall.
The action in Beowulf, the Old English epic poem of heroes, mead and monsters takes place in a huge mead hall called Heorot belonging to King Hrothgar. This is where the Beowulf slays the monster Grendel.
The English privateer, poet, scientist and philosopher Sir Kenelm Digby collected over 100 recipes for mead from the great houses and palaces of England in a book published in 1669. The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt Opened. This includes the favourite mead of queens and lords, heavily flavoured with herbs and spices. He lead a fantastic life.
Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite mead recipe was captured in a book by her beekeeper Charles Butler, which was heavily flavoured with sweetbriar, bay leaves, thyme and rosemary.
Mead in the 19th Century
Why mead disappeared as sugar arrived from New World and displaced mead in 16th-17th century. Honey was replaced by sugar cane from the America’s, whale oil for lighting instead of candles made from bees wax. Beers, ales and wines became cheaper to make in general. Natural forests cut down resulting in a massive loss of habitat and forage sources for bees and the destruction of our monasteries in religious wars lead to a loss of expertise in beekeeping
By the time we get to the 19th century, Mead had all but disappeared. The last commercial meadery was in Dublin in the south inner city – John Donaghy and Co. in the Freeman Journal Newspaper in 1822. He sold pipes of mead (a pipe is a port barrel, a bit bigger than a whiskey barrel) and he had 200 of them on sale. He was selling his Mead and Metheglin as a “healthful beverage” for 4 shillings and 4d per gallon.
Kinsale Meadery is the first commercial meadery in Ireland since then, over 200 years later.