The Elixir of Youth Everlasting

So the chalice she’s holding has bunches of grapes engraved 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.

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84 Comments on “The Elixir of Youth Everlasting

  1. Fascinating stuff. Noah had a mystery liquid which kept them all alive in the desert – supposedly it was a green algae. But apparently he also used an elixir which was said to be a colloid like colloidal gold which is meant to repair DNA and lengthen life

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cracking post, Ali, so comprehensive and entertaining. We forget all that our ancestors knew – the idea that they had to compensate their neighbours for use of their pollen is so far ahead of where we think they were. They were really the first social democrats, the Brehons, weren’t they? Reminds me of how they knew that cattle thrived better if kept with a flock of geese. It seems they didn’t know the exact reason, but the geese were eating the larvae of the liver fluke that would otherwise damage the herd… and look at how smug we are about all we think we know!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know! They really thought of everything in minute detail, didn’t they? I didn’t know that about the cattle and the geese. Its a really interesting example actually. They may not have understood how it worked (or maybe they did and that lore became lost), they just knew that it worked. You can imagine then how old wives tales and superstition grew around these things that couldn’t be explained. Once it might have been called magic. Now we know it’s just Mother Nature doing what she does best. That is magic in my book.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is amazing! I love the fact that the civilization was not only appreciating the bees and their honeys but to have included them in the laws.

    I find the kinds of mead very interesting! The art of alcohol making (and food preservation) shows how advanced a civilization and how far seeing the people are! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes you could be right… Although the Irish have a reputation for enjoying their drink! We don’t have beautiful tea drinking rituals over here, although the Irish do also consume a lot of tea!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A lot has been said already. This is a fantastic post. And, thank you, because for all I thought I knew, I learned a few things. The most important (in my mind – and I can’t wait to ask hubbie) is “hazelmead”. I’ve never even heard of it. O_o How is this possible?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve learned so much about bees just from this one post Ali, but I have to ask the question ‘how on earth could somebody prove it was one of your bees that had stung you?’ I can only imagine that many people who kept bees must have got stung themselves all the time. Ouch!

    I do have a very sweet tooth yet honey is something I don’t like the taste of. However, we always buy bee friendly plants at the garden centre.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well it is very sweet, Hugh. I can only eat a little in one go. Its lovely with Greek yogurt or ice-cream, 😀 I’don’t know how they could prove whose bees had stung you. Maybe whoever’ land you were on at the time

      Liked by 2 people

    • Sorry, I meant to say, whoever’s land you were on at the time, that person was held responsible. Personally, I think the stingee should have compensated the stinger for loss of bees… they die after stinging, dont they? 😁

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, you’re right. They do die after stinging. I know some people who can eat honey straight from the jar as if it’s yogurt. Makes my teeth go all funny and I shudder when watching that. I’d compare that to biting straight into a lemon.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I know bees are important for their honey and cross-pollination, but I was unaware that they were revered anywhere. Thanks for sharing this very interesting and informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didnt know either but I suspected they might, given that the ancients had no other sweetener. Once I started to look into it I was amazed at what I found. Theres a whole wealth of stuff that I just didn’t have space to cover here in this post. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I find it so interesting how much wisdom there was in the old cultures that we disregard today. It makes no sense. I love the Brehon Laws and how they protected the very essence and sweet parts of life. I have a stew recipe that includes honey. I gave the recipe a strange look before I made it, but it turned out delicious 🙂


    • That sounds a bit like the wild boar stew I made. It had honey in it too. I have a sweet tooth, but I like my main course to be savoury! You’re right about the lost knowledge and wisdom of ancient cultures though, and it’s still happening now. In Ireland most areas have their local historian, someone who has collected ancient local lore. The man who did that for my area died just before I moved here, so I never got the chance to meet him. All his knowledge died with him. He had no one to pass it onto. At least we have bloggers and writers now to try and keep alive what we still have left.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Although it is engraved with a grapevine and bunches of grapes, but I still loved the picture. I had some lavender in my garden last summer, and for the first time I saw bees in my garden regularly. But there’s not that many of them around, sadly.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, pesticides and intensive farming, I think. I know how important it is only grow enough food you feed everyone, but sometimes we allow things to get out of balance. Perhaps the powers that be think bees are outdated, that we have man-made more efficient ways of ensuring pollination, at least of the plants we want.


  8. I saw a swarm once, like a huge cloud of bees coming down the road. The queen landed on a wheelie bin which was soon covered, and we called the local beekeeper (how did I know there was even such a thing?) who came with his smoke and mesh and box to remove them from the bin, otherwise I was worried they would have been killed. He told me that there were probably 10,000 bees in the swarm!
    I think they are extraordinary creatures with more secrets that we know – it worries me so much that they are under threat and not protected in so many places.
    Anyway, a long way of saying that I loved this post, and your wonderful mix of stories with the everyday – I’ve not tried mead yet, it’s on the list 🙂 Maybe they’ll have some at the Blogger’s Bash? 🙂


  9. Great post!

    Aren’t bees such fascinating animals? They are a society, like us humans. Maybe that’s why our ancestors too were so careful of them.
    Here in Italy, bees are still protected by law.

    Do you like honey? I like it a lot and use it a lot 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I do! It’s great that bees are still protected by law in Italy, I wish it was the same here, but it’s not, sadly. 😕


  10. Great post, Ali. It’s all in here – critters, brehons, saints and drink. Robert and I were given a present of some mead, and even though we are teetotalers (perhaps the only ones in Ireland) we used it in our own little ceremony as a libation to the ancient gods of the rock. Long story. Loved all the detail in here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds like a lovely ceremony, Finola. 💕 You’re probably right though, the Irish are known for liking their drink. But I’m sure that’s just a stereotype. 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Have to agree about the Brehon Laws. compared to the BS Justice system in place today they where ahead of their time, based of Fairness. I believe that in the early days of the great deception that was the free state they actually used the old Brehon laws for a while before riping off the front page of the english and replacing it with a gold harp.
    Bee’ s are fascinating creatures, much unlike their usless long distant relations which share a similar colouring. As I was reading this I was wondering if you would mention the all important drink. I had the chance to drink many a fine pitcher of the stuff during the old re inactment days. Never tried it made from Hazel nuts, but will be keeping a eye out for it, that sounds really good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like mead too. When I was young I was living in Wales and got married there. I was haven a set of 4 mead cups, they are little clay goblets and I have always loved them, still have them. I think the tradition was for newly weds to drink mead every day for a month, hence ‘honeymoon’. Its an Irish custom too. I found mead quite heavy and sweet, but I believe there are lighter dryer versions, which I’d like to try. Any you can recommend?

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Wonderful post, Ali. I didn’t know that bees also figured in the Brehon Laws, but the laws about property, dealing with criminals, divorce and regarding women and children are pretty advanced, even compared with some so called modern western societies. Thanks for the bee info. They’re magical creatures and we’re doing our best to wipe them out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know. I saw last week that in UK the govt agreed the right to use some kind of pesticide which is toxic to bees and now there are petitions going around to try and stop them.


      • F**king criminal! As if we had the bees to spare. It’s about time the agriculture lobby was put in its rightful place. It’s what groups and even expert advisors are saying here about the wolves. The farmers shouldn’t have the right to condemn species to extinction because they don’t like them.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, I agree! That’s just what happened here. Did you see the video on fb about the wolves reintroduced into Yosemite I think it was, and how it impacted on and changed the whole environment? It was quite astonishing.


  13. Bees are wonderful and curious creatures. Bees will swarm from a hive in the spring, a careful beekeeper will be on the watch for signs a swarm is leaving the hive, and try and catch it before it goes. In the past a beekeeper following a swarm of his bees had the right to cross anybody’s land whilst chasing it.
    Bees were thought to be very curious and a beekeeper had to keep them informed about what was happening in his family, births marriages and deaths were told to the bees, ‘telling the bees’ it was called. I came across a diary from the beginning of the last century where the widow of a beekeeper didn’t tell the bees when her husband died, and no local beekeeper would take on the hives as he thought the bees would desert them as they had been so insulted.
    Bees are also devout creatures and, if you go to your hives on Christmas Eve you can hear them singing psalms.
    Finally bees in war. A castle was under siege, the defenders were well supplied and thought noting could make them surrender. Instead of rocks the attackers put bee hives in the catapults instead of stones and launched them into the castle – it surrendered very fast!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow I love that story! Will have to remember that next time I’m writing a battle scene! Telling the bees was something which happened over here too.I wonder if beekeepers still do that now. I watched a video of a woman dancing covered in a swarm of bees. Can’t say she looked very relaxed, but the bees didn’t go on her face and I don’t think she got stung either.

      Liked by 1 person

      • A few more bee facts that you might find interesting.

        A skilled beekeeper will handle a swarm without protective clothing, wearing a ‘bee beard’ is seen as the sign of an experienced keeper.

        One of the earliest image of bees is to be found in a Spanish cave dating from about 10 or 11000bc, it shows a naked woman collecting honey from a wild hive – ouch!

        And one for the storyteller in you, as well as being devout bees were keen to punish immorality. If a couple were indulging in illicit sex near a hive, they should watch out. After all there would be a good deal of very sensitive flesh exposed for the bees to sting.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Lol! That’s something to be aware of… for my protagonists of course! I saw that picture of the woman collecting the honey, and although the text implied it was a man, I thought that looks like a woman to me! I also saw a picture of a man with a bee beard… incredible! As a child I once came across a man removing a swarm of bees from a tree. He told me to run past quickly but I still got three tangled up in my hair. My hair was long enough to sit on then. Their struggling just wound them up even tighter in my hair and I was terrified of being stung. My mum managed to comb them out but I can still remember the sound of their angry buzzing.


  14. I use honey to heal wounds and burns and also as a great face mask. We are lucky that we have Pluscarden abbey near by where the Benadictine monks had their own hives and we would buy cobs of honey and eat them on the way home in the car. I am loving the honey, guess I must have been a bear in my past life as I too like salmon and honey together.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Lol! Or an ancient Celt! My vet gave me a tube of 100% medical grade manuka honey to use on my dogs wound after surgery. He had to wear a collar to stop him locking it off. I love honey too. Spread it on toasty or rice cakes sprinkled with cinnamon. .. lovely! Never eaten it direct from a comb though.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Some years ago now, when nursing, we had a man with pressure sores which weren’t responding to treatment we found that the easier placed ones could be packed with honey and covered. As the honey crystalized at the edges it started to heal the sores. The one less accessible were squirted with insulin using a syringe and also started to heal.The honey worked miracles that we’d probably known about centuries ago.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, isn’t that amazing, that something so natural and simple as honey could heal a wound. I was recently given a tube of 100% medical grade manuka honey to put on my dogs wound after surgery. I knew it could be used to heal sore throats etc but had not heard of it being used topically until then. Yes, sadly such a wealth of knowledge has been lost as we put our trust in modern methods of healing and chemicals. The two should, and could, work together.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Love these posts – such fascinating stuff. Agree with your point about ancient societies not being as primitive as we like to think.I have tried mead and wasn’t keen on it at all, don’t have a very sweet tooth. Think I’ll stick to the anti-aging properties of red wine instead 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Wow, this entire post was fascinsting from start to finish! I love how myths surrounding food and drink have a tenacity to survive the ages, and I always enjoy reading about them. Thanks so much for sharing this! ☺

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Fascinating post, Ali! I didn’t know at all about Ireland’s abundance of bees or how many laws were written to protect them and manage disputes over them. Yes our ancestors thought of just about everything! I’ve often wondered what would happen if several of them got a hold on our legal system… preferably without also instituting a class system. 🙂 Randomly, I would also think that anyone wanting to have a drink which would make them ever young, it would be wise to have enough to share with all your friends, otherwise you’d get rather lonely. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I agree, eternity by yourself would not be much fun! But they all drank it, so maybe that’s why they lived so long. Anyway, they weren’t lonely. Thanks Éilis! 😊


  19. Hi Ali,
    You could have so much to write about, if you had the inclination. There are so many things touched upon, the bee story above could be the makings of a book in itself. You end with hazel mead and the next book could be about trees ( But it would all take such a long time and then you would have to do a full circle and go searching for that secret elixir of everlasting life from the bees.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the link, Colin! It’s fascinating isn’t it, and there would definitely be enough to fill a book! Maybe one day. Finding the secret recipe for the elixir would certainly help, lol!


  20. I loved your Iron Age cooking posts. Once upon a time, I made my own mead. I didn’t filter it often enough and it came out a bit yeasty. I may try it again come warmer weather. It’s a fun project.

    Liked by 1 person

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