What is the mead? It is not the literal alcoholic beverage that we know. Our alcoholic beverage is a metaphor, or metaform as Judy Grahn puts it, for a process of squeezing and concentrating the fruits of experience, and then allowing them to be slowly digested and matured over long periods of time.
When one drinks the mead, one is literally imbibing the rich, soulful experiences of ourselves, others, of the ancestors, of the Gods, yeasted and fermented into their most concentrated and dense form of wisdom, insight, and inspiration. It is, in a certain sense, although this would be taking it too far, as if one were drinking souls, and then allowing those souls not only to rejuvenate, but to live through oneself, and it is that process of those souls drunk that generates the experience of intoxication. A compact of sorts is formed in the drinking, whereby the souls in the mead are allowed to live through one's own experience in exchange for greater awareness and contact with the soulful part of the world. This exaggeration gets close to what the mead is.
From this perspective, the ancestors live as deeply digested experiences within the well of wisdom itself, which collects souls into an ancestral brew where all is experienced on the soul-level. If one saw with true eyes, as it were, all one would see would be the underworld wells, and the fermenting and boiling within them. From our material standpoint, living in the manifest world of extension rather than intensity (as Spinoza might put it), the vision of that activity going on within the wells becomes translated to our imaginations in the familiar shapes of people in human form living their lives within the ancestral lands of hel.
As the folk come to the Well of Wyrd, there is a Court of Doom whereby they receive, as the New Agers put it, their "life evaluation", a full and fair inquiry and review that determines where, within the broad lands and kingdoms of the ancestral lands of bliss, one shall receive one's home. In a sense, it is a question of jurisdiction ; in another sense, it is a question of belonging. Once this is determined, and it is determined that one's jurisdiction is not within Niflhel, a fairly easy determination for most, since the Gods are lenient except in heinous cases (although lessons, tasks, and gilds may be assigned for lesser offenses. These gilds can be paid off through community service as disir, although others may volunteer for disir-service as well), then one is given the dyrar veigar, the drink that transforms one from a speechless shade, a mere shadow of a spirit, into a strong, fully embodied being whose soul and body are no longer separated, and in fact these two terms as differentiators become irrelevant. It is, as it were, a final sealing into one's essential self and being.
From there, solidified in soul as never before, the soul finds its home and goes there, to learn from the ancestors. This takes place over great periods of time, with no sense of rush, and a great sense of rest, leisure, and the decorum of what one might call a royal prerogative. There is much to learn, stories to tell, and great histories to digest that cannot all be assimilated at once. It is a progressive process of growing into the earth, a kind of weaving into the very heart of things. As one assimilates all of this over eons, one goes about one's business much as one would on earth, for one is, as it were, digesting the harvest one cultivated in one's lifetime, that field of experience cleared, marked out, delineated, and allotted by one's passions, talents, investments, and great loves. One grows into the great habit of oneself, and through this slow, grinding process refines and perfects all that is wonderful and imperfect in oneself. This perfection does not destroy the imperfections, but perfects them, completes them, makes them full and whole and awesome.
One goes out to one's farmlands, one's homestead, where the heart is, and cultivates those lands out in the countryside, for there are great, vast swathes of countryside out in the underworld, and the ancestors called it as a whole jormungrund, or "the great ground", because it was imagined as a much more immense territory, to accomodate all the souls who had ever been upon the face of the earth. There, out in one's personal and/or family boons, one is allowed to fully grow into the nut one is, lending one's own personal flavor to the estate, bringing spice and panache and the salt of the earth. Time passes in a completely different way, so that one day is as many, many days amongst the living, until one day, as one is in the midst of one's work (and there one relishes one's work, the masterpiece of one's soul, the good, honest, hearty work of one's loves and passions), suddenly on the outskirts of one's farm, at the edge of the fields by the pathways that abut up against neighboring farms, you see a visitor arrive, and you realize it is an old friend come from the land of the living. You are so grateful to see this old friend, with great warmth and affection, but it is as if just a number of days have passed although it may have been decades upon decades in the land of mortals. And you get the opportunity to help orient them and welcome them to their final home. And one might think of jormungrund that way, a vast kingdom of homelands within which everyone finds their final home. And in such a vast space, many different countrysides, many different customs, as many customs as nations ; and there, as here, one is free to traverse and travel at will to visit these other nations if the fancy strikes.
All of this is administered and serviced by a vast diversity of spirits and powers who ensure that everyone gets to have their own place, and find their own peace through the process that is fitting for them. Those who are very concerned about their own family members amongst the land of mortals may volunteer for disir-service, in which they get to act as guardian angels bringing luck to their particular tribe and clan.
All of this is quite delightful, and picturesque, and deeply true in its own way. Its very beauty and soulfulness proves that it is true. But in another sense, on the other hand, it is just our mortal way of translating a process that does not take place in our dimensions of external extension and bodies, and the images are translators into extension of experiential dimensions occuring as intensities rather than bodies, streams and flows of soul that have no correspondence to bodies on the one hand, and yet which form the very heart of the world itself.
From this perspective, the "under"world is not "under" at all. It is, rather, an infra-world, absolutely right here with us, within us, within everything that our mortal eyes can only see as material. Even what our instruments measure as "energy" is but the extreme outer layers of processes taking place on a soul level.
The image of these flows and streams of experience swirling, coalescing, circulating, and bubbling within the underworld wells, then, expresses even somewhat more accurately what is going on within the heart of our world for those who are no longer tied to bodies.
The "under"world image does have the advantage, however, of emphasizing the old principle of "as above, so below", albeit in a somewhat topsy-turvy way. A topsy-turvy way, because it is difficult to say who has the worse lot, as it were, and, which is "on top" as it were. From the perspective of those who have found their final home, it may be as if they have reached the pinnacle of existence, although here "below" may very much have a valence of pinnacle rather than the peak. The very depths of soul are the best place to be, compared to the chaotic, uncertain flux of the mortal world. It is not that there is no becoming in the underworld, but that it takes place at a far more stable and slow level, while the external world of mortality is a flurry ; full of excitement, but also great risk and peril. A gnat and a redwood tree both become, but at very different rates of speed and experience. Even the perspective on holy powers may be topsy-turvy down there, as the Gods who administer heaven and earth may be seen as necessary but distant figures governing what may be seen at times as a relatively unimportant domain of the larger picture, and the local spirits and administrative power and personality structure having much more importance. One is grateful, of course, for the oversight, protection, and guidance of the so-called "upperworlds" by those holy powers assigned to such districts, but they may have very little concern for those finding and affirming their own soul.
"Hell" or "heaven" in the modern, Christian-influenced senses, may very much depend on perspective. It is not usual to topsy-turvy the perspective on Valhall, but from the perspective of the majority who aim for the Land of the Ancestors, those who end up on the other side, as it were, may seem to have gotten the lot of "hell" in our modern sense. After all, they are constantly in battle, constantly getting wounded, constantly having to be on the alert and go through training exercises, having to experience death and rebirth all the time, and while they may receive some good fare, from the perspective of a non-hero or non-soldier these may seem like mere soldier rations and hardly worth all the trouble. For those who have this perspective, the bright "heaven" of the Valhall destiny may seem hellish indeed, at least for themselves, although, of course, the overwhelming perspective for even those of this type is one of gratitude for those who take the time to protect the nine worlds. Still, many times it may be more on the order of the general, vague gratitude one has for those military personnel one rarely or never sees, but who one knows is protecting one's country. On the other hand, for those destined for Valhall, they cannot imagine any other destiny that would be worthwhile. Here there is exhilaration, and adventure, constant new training and learning, under the very best and sharpest of the Gods, and for a purpose, all in preparation to make the greatest difference one could imagine, to which one's brief martial life was but a taste.
This image is so striking and so vibrant, tasting so much of the life of action, that it seared itself in the consciousness of Northern men, and was sufficiently distinct to survive the conversion to Christianity, even after several hundred years. Unfortunately, the other afterlife locales or imaginations did not fare as well. Since the Ancestral Lands were in many way for most folk their own personal idea of "heaven", where they got to be with their families in bliss, the new meme of "heaven" took over and blended with this, and thus the idea of Hel as a blessed place was lost. On the other hand, there was propaganda value in the priests converting that great underworld place into their Gehenna and fiery land of torture. Through these two processes, Hel and Niflhel became completely confused, and Snorri does us no favors by continuing to confuse these, for by his time, the older conceptions, which can still be found strongly in the poems, the fornaldasagas, and especially in Saxo, had faded from explicit if autochtonous doctrine.
We began with mead. Mead, is, as it were, the natural currency of exchange between the worlds. It is the sap that runs through the World-Tree. It is the way experiences circulate between folk. And when we drink alcoholic beverages, especially those, as in ancient times, mixed with special potions of potent gruits, we experience just a little taste, in symbolic form, of what is going on around us all the time, the great flows of soul that circulate within, through, and about the world(s). The mead, in other words, is a sacrament ; a sacrament that is not fully experienced without the rippling resonance of all of these (and more) above-explored layers of significance. With the sacrament of mead, one drinks in the great richness of life.
The alcohol is the metaphor, the intoxication the sacrament, the meaning the digestion of experience into the great soulfulness of the world.
And some say that sumble is not true religion!