Fjordman: Honey, Mead and Prehistoric Beer

Fjordman’s latest essay has been published at Tundra Tabloids. Some excerpts are below:

According to historian Patrick E. McGovern, the world’s total annual production of pure alcohol for beverages is projected to reach 20 billion liters by 2012, enough to provide every person on Earth with a couple of liters each of pure alcohol, more if you consider illegal production and home-brewed beverages, which are made in substantial quantities. We should also take into account that many adults don’t drink alcohol at all, and that most fermented beverages have an alcohol content of merely 3 to 13 percent. The global production of beer has surpassed 180 billion liters per year and is expected to reach 200 billion liters before 2015, of which the rapidly growing economy of China currently produces more than 20%.

We have little archaeological evidence from the Paleolithic era regarding this, but McGovern believes that “this is undoubtedly the time when humans first experimented with alcoholic beverages, as they relished their fermented fruit juices and came to apprehend their ecstasies and dangers.” He speculates whether psychoactive drugs, among them alcohol, played a role in the ritual life of Paleolithic shamans associated with Ice Age grottos. As he states in his book Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages:

“The Palaeolithic cave paintings, like so many Sistine Chapels, must have been a monumental task in their day, especially when one considers that they were accomplished with extremely limited technology in pitch- black, nearly inaccessible locations. The motivations for devoting so much time and energy to otherworldly activities were probably similar to those of today. The needs of Homo sapiens include social rituals that bring the community together, artwork that symbolizes the workings of the mind and nature, and religious rituals that give human experience meaning and coherence. A fermented beverage or drug can enhance these experiences and stimulate innovative thought. To the people of the Palaeolithic, ceremonial observances, heightened by an alcoholic beverage and other techniques for achieving an altered consciousness, might have been viewed as assuring good health, placating the spirits of invisible ancestors and other spirits, warning of danger, and predicting the future.”

Those attempting to make Paleolithic fermented beverages would have needed access to some form of container. They could have used hollowed-out wooden containers or bags made of leather, but the oldest known examples of pottery have been found in a cave at Yuchanyan in China dating back to around 16,000 BC. Interestingly, this is thousands of years before we have evidence of agriculture anywhere. The previous oldest-known example of pottery was found in Japan. Pottery may well have been produced by Ice Age foragers several places in Northeast Asia, from Russia via China to Japan, which was then connected to mainland Asia.

The Anglo-Saxon/Old English epic poem Beowulf depicts a pagan warrior society of Scandinavians in the sixth century AD, but it was written by a Christian at some point between the seventh and the eleventh centuries. Following the collapse of Roman authority during the fifth century AD came the settlement of Germanic-speaking peoples, among them the Jutes, presumably from Jutland in modern Denmark, as well as the Angles and Saxons, allegedly from Angeln and Saxony in northern Germany. They managed to establish their Germanic language there and gave name to England. According to Max Nelson, four beverages are mentioned in Anglo-Saxon writings: medo, wín, ealo (or ealu), and beor:

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“It has often been taken for granted that the first two are equivalent to the modern terms ‘mead’ and ‘wine’, respectively (and I have accepted this in speaking of ‘mead halls’ above), and that the last two both referred to beer (though perhaps different types). However, there is no evidence that Old English beor (though it is the ancestor of the modern word ‘beer’) was a cereal-based drink, and in fact it has been convincingly argued that it rather denoted a honey-based drink, while ealo (the ancestor of the modern word ‘ale’), a distinct beverage, denoted a cereal-based intoxicant. This argument is founded on the fact that beor was used to translate Latin ydromellum and mulsum while ealu was used to translate Latin celea and cervisa (and variants), as ancient lexicographical sources demonstrate. The etymology of the word beor remains a vexed question. A derivation from the Latin bibere (‘to drink’), which is often proposed, seems unlikely, as is also a connection to the hypothetical root *beura– meaning ‘barley’ since it was apparently not a cereal-based beverage. Since it was honey-based we may wish to accept a derivation of beor from Old English beo, meaning ‘bee’.”

Although cognates of ealu were adopted into the Scandinavian languages, the cognate in Old High German was lost by the tenth century AD, at which point Old High German bior came to designate a cereal-based intoxicant. Presumably, this new usage replaced the old one also in English shortly afterward. “Ydromellum” apparently denoted mead or some form of honey-based drink, whereas “mulsum” to the Romans was a drink made from wine and honey.

Read the rest at Tundra Tabloids.

2 thoughts on “Fjordman: Honey, Mead and Prehistoric Beer

  1. Perfect timing! An article that
    has some brewing history in it!

    Not like I ever need an excuse
    to pop open a cold one. After
    all, like my uncle told me long
    ago: “It is happy hour some place
    in the world.”

    Cheers and Prost!

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