It's strange to think how a sticky, sweet substance made by insects can wield so much power.
I was sad to hear reports about the rapid decline in bee populations here in Britain. So we (my family) thought we'd do our bit by planting up a bee garden. This consists of flowers bees like to collect pollen from and some places for them to hide or nest in. It's coming on a treat, I'm pleased to say.
Bees are essential for pollination but they also make honey. There has been evidence of human use of honey going back thousands of years - prehistory even - and in particular the use of the sweet substance in making honey wine, or mead.
It has been said that the ancient Greeks referred to mead as the drink of the gods, and called it Ambrosia. Arguably mead was the first alcoholic drink known to man, who probably stumbled upon it accidentally. Given the sweet taste, golden colour and the intoxicating effects it's easy to see how many thought it was sent from the gods. Certainly a heavenly drink.
And of course, anything belonging to the gods will possess divine powers. The Greeks believed that mead would prolong life, and bestow health, strength, virility, wit and poetry. Bring on the mead then.
In the Early Medieval period, (Anglo-Saxon and Viking times in other words or Dark Ages) mead became the drink of kings and warriors.The Norse god of poetry, Brage, is said to have drunk mead from a Brage-beaker, later called the bragging cup. Boasting of the heroic feats took place in the great halls, which were also known as mead halls. For those who did not live to boast their own tales they could sup mead in Valhalla, the reward in the afterlife.
The Anglo-Saxons believed that mead was the bestower of immortality, poetry and knowledge. The perfect drink for kings then. Some of the mythology of mead still exists in our culture today. The term “honeymoon” comes from the tradition of giving bridal couples a moon's worth of honey wine, or mead. This was thought to ensure a fruitful union. The payment to the meadmaker was often increased if a son was born within nine months of the marriage.
In southern Europe, grapes were easy to grow and wine production was much quicker than that of mead. Wine, therefore, became the drink of the Romans and those who lived in the Mediterranean region. When the Roman Empire was at its peak, wine was consumed throughout Britain. The grapes withered on the English vines though, so the Anglo-Saxon kings drank mead even though it was a costly process. It showed the peasants who had the wealth.
Eventually mead production fell by the wayside. However, bees were thought to be messengers of gods and as such were treated with venerance. According to the poem Georgics by Virgil, bees fly in the sky in order to honour the goddess Aphrodite, for example. Mead and honey were used in rituals and ceremonies in many temples while people stuck to drinking the cheaper (and less holy) drinks of wine and ale. As churches began to make candles out of beeswax the status of the bee remained.
My bee garden is not aimed at honey production for my own benefit. I will buy mead, for research purposes you understand, from my local supplier. World Honey Bee Day is on 19 August and I shall drink to that. Mead Day is on the 5 August. I shall drink to that, too. For research purposes.
Happy Mead Day.
Medieval beekeeping as depicted in the 14th century medical handbook Tacuinum Sanitatis, which was taken from an Arabic book from the 11th century, Taquim as-Sihha.
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