Friday, April 20, 2007

Mead: drink and metaphor

Mead is a word that occurs frequently in Welsh poetry, and not just in the context of drinking. One of the earliest fermented beverages for which we have evidence – traces have been found in Bronze Age grave goods – making basic mead requires only honey, water, yeast, and a little time. Strength and sweetness depend on the proportions of the ingredients, and meads can vary from champagne-dry to dessert-wine sweet. In the early Middle Ages it was probably drunk as soon as it clarified, and there are many references to glas medd – “green” or fresh mead. The locus classicus for this sort of mention is the long poem – or collection of poems – called Y Gododdin, possibly composed in the second half of the 6th century, and attributed to Aneirin. And that brings us to the second part of my title.

The mead-feast that a king provided for his retinue was not just a drinking party. It also was a bonding ritual, and symbolized the compact between them. The king provided maintenance – food, drink, weapons, and housing – for his warriors, and they on their part followed him and fought his battles. To pay for your mead – talu medd – meant to fight, if need be to the death, for your lord. To paraphrase Aneirin, “they drank mead, sweet, yellow, ensnaring … though sweet was its taste, its bitterness was long.” For the warriors of Y Gododdin, the price of their mead was considerably more than a hangover – but that is a different post.

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