The Drink of the Gods
An Ancient Multi-Species Collaboration, and a Reflection on Our Own Creative Spirits
A quick note:
If you weren't able to make it to our Pickling Party class earlier this month, I've got the recording up in our ever-growing paid subscriber resource folder!
The link to the folder is here. You can also access the video directly here.
Over 10,000 years ago, as the legend goes, members of the Southern African Khoisan tribe made a startling discovery in a tree stump. What they found would echo across cultures and centuries, informing myths and intoxicating kings and peasants alike around the world.
What they discovered, bubbling away in that tree stump, was mead: rain had fallen into a wild beehive, and the fermentation process had begun as the liquid mixed with the honey. Some very brave soul dared to take a sip of the bubbling brew and the rest, as they say, is history.
Mead is fermentation magic embodied, and represents a true interspecies collaboration between bees, yeasts, and us. Honey already contains all the yeasts and nutrients needed to make mead: It was the 'just add water' drink millennia before powdered drink packets came on the scene.
The bees and yeasts have already collaborated to make a nutrient dense food that stays fresh due to its high sugar content, but in order to dilute the honey enough to ferment, they need to bring another collaborator into the mix.
The bees need a rainstorm. Or they need us.
Perhaps it's this magical process, and its connection to creatures who are in themselves often considered magical (see for example the thoughtful tradition of telling the bees), that has rooted mead within the folklore and myth of different places.
Ancient legends are filled with stories of how human creativity came to be, and the hand the gods had in shaping it. But in Viking and Celtic mythology, brewed beverages (mead and beer) take center stage, both granting us poetry and creative inspiration.
Beer, like mead, must have seemed utterly magical to the people who first encountered it. We don't really have a firm answer to the question of why beer came about: It's been suggested that grain was left out in a watertight vessel, maybe it got humid and the grain started to malt, a rainstorm came along, and voila, it started fermenting into beer.
We'll never know fore sure, but I suppose that scenario seems as good a possibility as any.
And, like the Khoisan mead, it introduces humans as an unlikely and unexpected collaborator: We stumble into the scene, into magic already in process, and are asked whether or not we want to take part.
"Humans stumbling into magical situations," as well as stumbling into situations where we learn new skills or have access to new knowledge or tools, is quite common in folklore worldwide. It turns out we do a lot of stumbling. Stumbling into things, stumbling upon them, we're often just bumbling beasts trying to weave our confused way through the world.
That is, at least until we stumble upon something special.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Root: Historic Food for the Modern World to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.