Norse Drinking Traditions
By Christie L. Ward
Alexandrian Company Symposium on Food and Festival in the Middle Ages (2001)
Hávamál (Sayings of the High One)
A better burden / no man can bear
on the way than his mother wit:
and no worse provision / can he carry with him
than too deep a draught of ale.
Less good than they say / for the sons of men
is the drinking oft of ale:
for the more they drink, / the less they can think
and keep a watch over their wits.
A bird of Unmindfullness / flutters over ale-feasts,
wiling away men’s wits;
with the feathers of that fowl / I was fettered once
in the garths of Gunnlodr below.
Drunk was I then, / I was over-drunk,
in the fold of wise Fjalar;
But best is an ale feast / when a man is able
to call back his wits at once.
These are the words of the great god Ódinn, cautioning against drunkenness and unrestrained drinking. And yet the drinking of alcoholic beverages was a prominent feature of Scandinavian life in the Viking Age.
Unfortunately, while there are many passing references in Old Norse literature and occasional bits of evidence in the archaeological record, there is far from a complete picture of Viking Age brewing, vintning, and drinking customs. In the course of this paper, evidence from several Germanic cultures will be presented to help fill out the evidence and provide a more complete view of this topic. Although the culture of other Germanic peoples was not exactly like that of the Norse, many similarities exist. In the case of drinking and rituals associated with drinking, the Old English materials seem to present the best detailed view of this activity, which further enlightens the materials surviving from Norse culture.
Many pieces of related evidence survive, even from the earliest records of the Germanic peoples. There are significant similarities that suggest the fundamental structure of drinking as a formal ritual activity was established in the early Germanic tribes before the Migration Age split the Germanic peoples into their familiar nations of the modern day.