The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Mead

 

Other Names

 

Aqua mulla, balche’, cashirí, honey beer, honey kwass, honey mead, honey wine, honigbier, honigmeth, honigwasser, honigwein, hydromel, hydromeli, kaschiri (Arawak), madhu, melicraton, met, meth, metu, mid, mydromel, t’ädj

 

Mead is an alcoholic drink that is brewed from water, honey, other additives (“bitter herbs”), and wild or cultivated yeasts (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). Traditional mead has a very low alcoholic content (approximately 2 to 4%) and is not at all sweet, because the sugar in the honey is completely transformed into alcohol. The mead that is most popular today is a sweet, sticky drink with 14% alcohol that is brewed by fermenting a saturated solution of honey. In former times, honey was often fermented together with malt. As a result, the ancient literature often did not make a distinction between mead and beer. In recent years, an increasing number of drinks have come on the market that are reminiscent of mead (honey beer).

Mead, which probably was invented during the Stone Age, was found in many regions around the world. It was sacred in all ancient pagan cultures and was used ritually as a libation and for collective inebriation (Maurizio 1933). It was also considered sacred in ancient India and is sometimes associated with soma. The Indian gods were referred to as madhava, those who “sprang from the mead.” The beverage was also known to all Indo-European peoples. In ancient times, it was used primarily for medicinal purposes. The Celtic and Germanic tribes—both enthusiastic drinking peoples—considered mead sacred (Markale 1989, 203*) and were aware of the divine origins of the inebriating drink: “Among the Germanic peoples, mead itself was the symbol of the drink of the gods, which had fallen from the world tree like a heavenly dew” (Delorez 1963, 23*).

During Germanic libation ceremonies, the sacred mead (and/or beer) that was specially brewed for the festival was passed around the circle of participants in drinking horns decorated with mythical motifs. The priest or chief took the horn and drank to the gods, offered some to the earth, and sprinkled a few drops into the air. He thanked Wotan (Odin, Woden), the god of ecstasy and the lord of magical drinks. He called to the ancestors and to the heroes who had founded human culture, and he wished his tribe peace, well-being, and health. Then he passed the horn to the next participant, who once again drank to the gods, to friends, or to specific ancestors. The horn was passed on around the circle until it was empty.

Then another would immediately be brought to the circle, passed around, and emptied, until everyone in the circle was communally and simultaneously inebriated and the gods were present among the people (Gaessner 1941). As the effects of the alcohol became apparent, the door to the world of the gods and goddesses opened:

 

Mead was attributed with the power to enthuse humans and open to them the entrance to the supernatural world. It was thus to a certain extent the source of wisdom and artistic inspiration. (Fischer-Fabian 1975, 196)

 

It is likely that the Germanic peoples prepared their mead with inebriating berries (Empetrum nigrum and Vaccinium uliginosum) and possibly also the root of white hellebore (Veratrum album).

The earliest sources on Germanic beer and mead brewing indicate that a variety of psychoactive plants were added to mead, including hen-bane (Hyoscyamus niger), wild rosemary (Ledum palustre), bog myrtle (Myrica gale), and bearded darnel (Lolium temulentum) (cf. Maurizio 1933).

There have been some suggestions that mead or beer was brewed with the addition of mushrooms. But why would mushrooms be added to what was an only mildly alcoholic drink? The only sensible explanation is to improve the effects. Could the Germanic peoples have enriched their mead with such psychedelic mushrooms as liberty caps (Psilocybe semilanceata) or dark-rimmed mottlegills (Panaeolus subbalteatus)? After all, mead was a ritual drink that was consumed at communal gatherings so that the gods might come down and stay awhile among the inebriated people. A last memory of this practice was documented in the late Middle Ages, when Johannes Hartlieb wrote that a man died in Vienna because he had drunk a mead that contained mushrooms (chanterelles!) (cf. witches’ ointments). The fact that mead was being brewed with the addition of plant products can also be seen in the herbals written by the “fathers of botany.” For example, Tabernaemontanus wrote:

 

Odin garbed as an eagle—in this shape, the Germanic god of ecstasy stole the mead of knowledge and inspiration from the giants. (Stone carving from Stora Hammars III, ca. 700 C.E.; reproduction drawing by C. Rätsch)

 

 

The Maya use the honey produced in the Selva Lacandona (Chiapas, Mexico) as a fermenting substance for making mead.

 

 

In recent years, fermented honey beverages have appeared on the market. Although these are usually regarded as honey beers, they are not allowed to be sold in Germany under this name because of the Bavarian Purity Law. The drinks are more similar to the mildly alcoholic (and not sweet) mead drinks.

 

“At the entrance to the enclosure is a tree

From whose branches there comes beautiful and harmonious music.

It is a tree of silver, which illumines;

It glistens like gold.

 

There are thrice fifty trees.

At times their leaves mingle, at times, not.

Each tree feeds three hundred people

With abundant food, without rind.

 

. . .

 

There is a cauldron of invigorating mead,

For the use of the inmates house. It never grows less; it is a custom That it should be full forever.”

“THE SICKBED OF CU CHULAINN”

 

(AN IRISH EPIC)

 

IN ANCIENT IRISH TALES

 

(CROSS AND SLOVER 1936, 189)

 

“In ancient times there was no mead. An old man had tried to make it out of honey. He mixed the honey with water and left the mixture to ferment overnight. The next day, he tried it and found it to be very good. The other people did not want to try the drink because they thought it would be poisonous. The old man said, ‘I will drink it. Because I am very old and it doesn’t matter if I die from it.’ The old man drank a lot of the mixture and fell down as if he were dead. He awoke that night and said that the brew was not poisonous. Then the men carved a large fermenting vat and drank all of the mead that they brewed. It was a bird who carved the first drum [ = fermenting vat]. It drank all night long and in the morning, it transformed itself into a human.”

 

MYTH OF THE MATACO INDIANS

 

IN FOLK LITERATURE OF THE MATACO INDIANS

 

(WILBERT AND SIMONEAU 1982, 119*)

 

To a measure of good honey / take eight measures of water / mix together in a wide kettle / allow to simmer over a gentle fire without smoke / and continually remove the foam / until it becomes entirely clear: and the longer one wishes for the mead to keep / the longer it should simmer: afterward when it cools / pour it into a small cask / leaving three fingers / that he pours out.

If one wants it to be stronger and more powerful / then put ginger / cinnamon / cloves / galanga root / nutmeg [Myristica fragrans] and such herbs in it / one can also add a little saffron [Crocus sativus]; when it has been poured / one should store it for three months / and thereafter use it. (Tabernaemontanus 1731, 1526*)

 

In medieval England and Ireland, it was said that mead could increase a man’s virility. For this reason, a newlywed couple were given a great amount of mead at their wedding in order to ensure the continuation of the clan. This practice is the source of the term honeymoon.

Mead also was and is still prized among some Native American tribes, who use it as a ritual drink (cf. balche’). The South American Mataco Indians brew their mead from honey, dried and ground tuscafruits (?), and water. They use the thick, hollowed-out stem of the bottle tree (Chorisia insignis H.B.K.; cf. ayahuasca) as a fermenting vat; as a result, the tree is known in Argentina as palo borracho, “drunken tree” (Wilbert and Simoneau 1982, 120 f.*). Mead was also known in North America. A note included with a North American herbarium specimen of the honey locust tree

(Gleditsia triacanthos L.; Leguminosae) reads: “[T]he sweet pith of the pods is used as a remedy for catarrh, a mead is also simmered from it” (von Reis and Lipp 1982, 126*).

Africa, in addition to its ever-popular barley beer, also has mead and honey beers that are ascribed with magical protective powers. Because of this, people often sprinkle a few drops of the drink. In Ethiopia, the chopped branches of a buckthorn known as gescho (Rhamnus prinoides; Rhamnaceae) are added to brewing mead (Haberland 1981, 172). The honey collected from the mimosa (Mimosa spp.) is preferred for brewing there. Mead brewed from a mixture of honey and water (1:5) is distilled to make a kind of schnapps (alcohol) (Haberland 1981, 173). Mead was also administered as an antidote for Strychnos nux-vomica poisoning.

In the summer of 1997, a “hemp mead” was introduced to the German market; the drink, however, contains no THC. Recipes for making mead with psychoactive mushrooms have recently been making their way around the underground (Kelly 1995).

Literature

 

See also the entries for honey.

 

Cross, Tom Peete, and Clark Harris Slover, eds. 1936. Ancient Irish tales. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

 

Fischer-Fabian, S. 1975. Die ersten Deutschen. Munich: Knaur.

 

Gaessner, Heinz. 1941. Bier und bierartige Getränke im germanischen Kulturkreis. Berlin: Veröffentlichungen der Gesellschaft für die Geschichte und Bibliographie des Brauwesens.

 

Haberland, Eike. 1981. Honigbier in Äthiopien. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 1:170–73. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.

 

Kelly, I. 1995. Mushroom mead. Psychedelic Illuminations 8:84.

 

Maurizio, A. 1933. Geschichte der gegorenen Getränke. Berlin: Verlag Paul Parey.

 

Rätsch, Christian. 1994. Der Met der Begeisterung und die Zauberpflanzen der Germanen. In Der Brunnen der Erinnerung, ed. Ralph Metzner, 231–49. Braunschweig: Aurum.