So the chalice she’s holding has bunches of grapes carved onto it, but that’s not what’s inside, oh no. Come a little closer, and I’ll share with you a secret. It begins with bees…
In ancient times, Ireland was renowned for its abundance of honey. In fact, Gerald of Wales,who was arch deacon of Brecon (C12th) and was also known as Giraldus Cambrensis, claimed there would have been even more still were it not for the bitter and poisonous effect of the land’s many yew trees. (You can read about Ireland’s yew trees in my post Sacred Trees of Ireland | The Yew.)
The Irish word for ‘bee’ is beach, pronounced (ba-ch, with the ch soft in the back of your mouth). In Old Irish it was bech. Bees were considered so important, that they had a complete section all to themselves in the Brehon Laws, called Bech-Bretha, which means ‘bee judgements’.
I love the Brehon Laws; they had a section regarding the equal rights of women, another governing the rights of children and fosterlings, a section on the protection of trees, another on caring for the sick and injured and even the disabled; here, they are looking after bees. And we think ancient people were primitive? I don’t think so. Our current governments would be much improved by taking a leaf or two out of this book, I feel. However, I digress… back to the bees.
I’m not sure at what stage our Irish ancestors began keeping bees in hives. The Bech-Bretha talks a lot about finding swarms, which makes me think that perhaps most of the honey they obtained was from the wild, although hives are also known to swarm.
For example, if someone found a swarm on the training grounds (faitche) of a house, he would be entitled to keep a quarter of the bees and honey, but the rest would go to the house’s owner. If he found the swarm in a tree, he would get half. If he found it on common tribal grazing lands, he could keep all but one ninth, which must go to his clan chieftain.
An owner of bees was required by law to donate portions of his annual yield of honey to his neighbours, because his bees would be gathering pollen from flowers on their land. Every third year, he was to give them a swarm.
Destroying a swarm or hive of bees was considered a serious offence. If someone was stung by someone else’s bees, they were entitled to compensation. A woman separating from her husband was entitled to take a swarm with her, or be compensated with a year’s supply of honey. These lawmakers sure thought of everything!
There is a story in the Bech-Bretha about a King of Ulster named Congal. His epithets were Cáech and Cláen, meaning ‘squinting’ or ‘half-blind’. According to the Bech-Bretha, which was written within a generation of his death, Congal was blinded in one eye by bees owned by Domnall mac Áedo. This disability meant he was forced to relinquish his position as King of Tara, and thus High King of Ireland. In return, the men of Ulster demanded that the eye of Domnall’s son be put out, as punishment. An eye for an eye.
So, if the early people of Ireland had so much honey, what did they do with it all? You have to remember that this was their only source of sweetener, apart from fruit and berries. As such, it was a very valuable and much sought after commodity, probably confined mostly to the more wealthy.
They mixed it with milk to make a drink; mixed it with lard as a flavouring; used it as a dip at mealtimes for meat, fish and bread; used it to flavour ‘stirabout’, a kind of porridge made from grains, and basted meat and fish with it during roasting or grilling.
According to mythology, when Queen Medb and her husband, Ailill hosted a local young chieftain named Fraech to a huge feast in his honour, the salmon he was served was basted in honey ‘that was ‘well made’ by their daughter, Findabair. Sounds like a bit of matchmaking was going on, to me!
When I did my Iron Age cooking experiment, honey was used in the wild boar stew, which surprised me. It turned out quite sweet, even though I actually used less than the recipe called for. Our ancestors clearly had quite a sweet tooth. You can read about this in my post Eating Like the Ancestors | An Experiment in Iron Age Cuisine.
In Ireland, the saint of beekeepers is Gobnait, who was a C5th nun. The anglicised version of her name, Deborah, means ‘honey bee’. She is said to have saved her village, Ballyvourney (in Irish, Baile Bhuirne) in Co Cork, from enemy soldiers by releasing her bees on them. She is also credited with aiding a devout local chieftain in battle by turning his bees into an army of men.
Today, we are all well aware of the health benefits and medicinal uses of honey. Healing with substances produced by bees has a name, apitherapy… who knew? Modern science has told us that honey has anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-mutagenic (reduces the rate of mutation of cells… yeah, I’d never heard of this one either), anti-tumour and anti-diabetic properties, and speeds the healing of wounds. Our ancestors were well aware of all this, and made full use of it, too.
However, honey wasn’t the only golden treasure to be bestowed upon mankind by those industrious little creatures. Oh no. Man found something he could do with honey that he liked even better than stirring it into his porridge, or applying it to wounds, and he named it miodh (pronounced mee), or as we know it better today, mead, which originates from the Sanskrit word madhu.
Spanish-Roman writer Columella gave this recipe for mead in his book on agriculture, Res Rustica, about AD 60:
“Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius (a Roman measure equal to 546ml) of this water with a pound (a Roman measure equal to 328.9g) of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire.”
Please DON’T try this at home, people. If you fancy having a go at brewing your own mead, for H&S sake, buy a book and use all the right equipment.
Of course, it doesn’t stop there. There are all kinds of mead. Metheglin involves the addition of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and herbs… all my favourite spices, and can also flavoured with apples. Melomel contains fruit such as blackberries and raspberries. Mead can be mulled in winter, just like red wine.
There is also mention of an elusive drink called hazelmead, which was said to be made from mead flavoured with hazel nuts. This is interesting, because hazel nuts were said to contain Otherworldly wisdom and knowledge, and hazelmead was thought to have supernatural powers. Even today, people are still searching for ways of making this mysterious drink, I have seen forums discussing it.
According to Irish mythology, Fionnuala, one of the Children of Lir, recalls drinking it in her home before the spell which transformed her into a swan:
“Gay this night Lir’s royal house,
Chiefs carouse, mead flows amain :
Cold this night his children roam,
Their chill home the icy main.
For our mantles fair are found
Feathers curving round our breasts :
Often silken robes we had,
Purple-clad, we sat at feasts.
For our viands here and wine —
Bitter brine and pallid sands :
Of the hazel mead they served
In carved vessels to our hands.”
From a poem in the BARDS OF THE GAEL AND GALL; examples of the poetic literature of Erinn, done into English after the metres and modes of the Gael.
by Sigerson, George, 1839-1925 Published 1907
I think that if hazelmead was commonly drunk at mealtimes, as Fionnuala leads us to believe, it cannot have had any special magical powers. Hazelmead is also mentioned in another poem, King and Hermit, a Colloquy between King Guaire of Aidne and his brother Marban. King Guaire the Hospitable reproaches his brother Marban, a hermit and holy man, about his privations, and Marban responds by waxing lyrical on the gifts of nature provided by God; one of them is Hazelmead.
Which brings me to the elixir of youth everlasting I mentioned at the top of the post; you’d like a sip of that, wouldn’t you? Probably skipped the majority of my post to get to this part, right?
Achieving immortality by way of a drink fermented from honey is spoken of in many mythologies around the world; Nectar/ Ambrosia in Greek mythology, Amrita in Vedic mythology, Mead in Norse mythology, for example. In Ireland, we have such a myth, too.
When the Tuatha de Danann were defeated by the Milesians, and tricked into leaving Ireland and retreating into their hollow hills, they were gathered together by the Sea God Manannán and took part in a mysterious feast. You can read about the Exodus of the Danann in my post, Irish Mythology | The Retreat of the Tuatha de Danann.
Bodb Derg was elected as the new King, and then the Faeth Fiadha, also known as Manannán’s cloak of mists, was raised to protect them from prying eyes. The swine of Manannán were prepared, which could be killed and eaten, and yet the next day still live, thus providing endless bounty. Finally, the Feast of Goibniu was shared, to ward off age and death from all those present.
This story is told in two ancient texts, one dating to the C12th, another to either the C13th or C14th. Acallamh na Senόrach, (The Colloquy of the Old Men}, refers to the feast of Goibniu as ‘an ale possessing healing and curing properties’, thus implying longevity if not immortality, for the Danann succumbed to death through illness or battle like anyone else:
“St Patrick spoke with an Otherworld woman called Aillenn Ilchrothoch ( meaning Aillenn the Multishaped; perhaps a reference to shape-shifting) who spoke to him thus:
Everybody who would be drinking the feast of Goibniu with us, neither illness nor disease comes upon them.”
Another passage claims that Caoilte, a warrior of Fionn mac Cumhall’s Fianna, complains of an old wound and says that an Otherworld woman called Bé Bind ‘has the drink of healing and curing of the Tuatha de Danann, she having the drink which survives from the feast of Goibniu.”
Some speculate that this drink was a type of beer. Strange that the drink itself is referred to as ‘the feast’, as if it were both food and drink; also, that the concoction was brewed by Goibniu, a smith, rather than a Druid or physician. I guess there is a kind of logic in it; in Bronze Age and Iron Age times, the magic possessed of a smith was considered mighty indeed, perhaps greater than any other. Perhaps only such a person could wield the power to create such a brew.
Personally, bearing in mind all that we have learned about the ancient Irish peoples’ veneration of the bee and its precious honey, and that the honey-sweet Ambrosia and Amrita were the draught of Gods, I believe so too was Miodh the elixir of youth everlasting to the Tuatha de Danann. Maybe it was hazelmead.