Hveiti ok Hunang: Viking Age Icelandic Mead?
By Megan Arnott
Paper given at the 2015 Meeting of the Canadian Society of Medievalists
Abstract: Scholars use Old Norse/Old Icelandic texts, like the Eddas or the Islendingasögur (Sagas of Icelanders or family sagas), to help give a fuller picture of the material culture of Viking Age Scandinavia. For instance, Hávamál or Skáldskaparmál have been used to fill in some of the gaps in the Norse pagan religious practices. These Old Icelandic texts are also full of men, women, gods and goddesses, drinking mjöðr (mead). The myth of the mead of poetry is elaborated on in the Poetic Edda, particularly in Hávamál, but is given its fullest treatment in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, in Skáldskaparmál. But, unlike other Scandinavian countries at the same time, there is a lot complicating the idea that the Viking Age Icelanders are regularly consuming mead, despite its prevalence in the literature. This paper will try and draw out the picture of mead in Viking Age Iceland, a picture worth elaborating on due to the importance of Icelandic sources of information for an even larger culture. Honey production in Iceland was unlikely, but trade was possible, though there seems to be not much evidence for it.
However, even the literature does not state definitively that early Icelanders had mead. None of the Islendingasögur, arguably the most historical of the sagas, actually portray Icelandic characters drinking mead in Iceland, whereas they are portrayed drinking ale. And yet, Egils saga Skallagrímsonar uses the phrase hvieti ok hunang (wheat and honey) three times to refer to materials being imported to Iceland specifically to make drinks out of.
Due to the unreliability of sources as historical documents, and the lack of archaeology supporting conclusions one way or another, the paper can only definitively show that the issue is complex, something audiences already know. However, what the evidence suggests is that the consumption of mead in Iceland is rare and exotic, and that depictions of mead drinking in Viking Age (and Medieval depicting the Viking Age) Icelandic sources is showing a kind of idealized, exotic kind of drinking instead of an all the time occurrence. This may have consequences for our understanding of the sagas and eddas as sources for the culture. It enhances the prestige of the gods’ drink and the prestige of the mead of poetry, and mead’s prevalence in these texts may speak to the Viking Age and medieval Icelanders presence in other countries and courts where mead is a more common beverage.
Top Image: Drinking mead – photo by Joley / Flickr