Ceremonial Drinking in the Viking Age
By Charles Riseley
Master’s Thesis, University of Oslo, 2014
Abstract: Drinking ceremonies played a very important social role in Viking Age Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England. This thesis will seek to illuminate these ceremonies by following the terms minni and bragarfull through the sources, and special note will also be taken of source age in order to ascertain how the depiction of these ceremonies changes over time. First the seasonal feasts and their associated libations will be studied and their association with kingship, law, and árs ok friðar will be examined. Next we will look into funeral feasts and their memorial toasts which governed inheritance and the transfer of power. The Anglo-Saxon mead-cup ritual which served to stabilize society and foster group-cohesion will be examined, as will the Old Norse mead-cup analogues. Finally, the institution of vowing over toasts will be studied. In all of these traditions, the theme of alcohol as a strong social-stabilizer and a vehicle of social development is stressed.
Introduction: The ceremonial consumption of alcohol played an important role in the social landscape of Viking Age Scandinavia, where it framed some of the most important gatherings and rituals. One need only take a glance at the Norse myths to see the prominent place that alcohol held in the Early Medieval mindset. In Snorri’s Edda, the men in Odin’s Valhalla are furnished with an endless supply of drink from the great goat Heiðrún, whose udders run with mead, and Odin himself does not even deign to eat, but lives solely on wine. In the myth of Kvasir, we see a close association of alcohol, wisdom, and poetry. Kvasir, the wisest man in the world, is killed and his blood is turned into the Mead of Poetry, a substance which gives its drinker the gift of verse and wisdom. We also see Thor competing in a mighty drinking contest, and—in another source—questing for a kettle large enough to brew ale for a divine feast. Alcohol held a vital place in Asgard, a fact that reflects its importance to the people who told the myths.
It has been argued that there is an important link between the development of civilization and the production of alcohol, and such would certainly seem to be the case in ancient Scandinavia. In his investigation of the phenomenon, Bjørn Qviller takes as his starting point the Hobbesian theory of the natural state of man, that is, of warre, or a constant state of strife, one against the other. In such a state, the life of man is, “… solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”. After analyzing archaeological finds concerning ancient man, Qviller continues, saying, “… man in prehistoric times developed permanently reliable techniques for extracting sugar. This access to sugar enabled primeval man to overcome the shortage of intoxicating drinks and thereby the negative aspects of life in the Hobbesian state of nature.”
See also Medieval Drinking Horns