What Was In The Mead?
For a long time, many have wondered what the secret ingredients mixed into the mead imbibed by our ancestors in a sacral context was, and up till now it has been thought that no recipe has survived. However, there may be an ancient recipe for the gruits (ale-herbs) of the mead in the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm. There we read, Mugcwyrt, wegbrade þe eastan open sy, lombescyrse, attorlaðan, mageðan, netelan, wudusuræppel, fille and finul, ealde sapan. Gewyrc ða wyrta to duste, mængc wiþ þa sapan and wiþ þæs æpples gor. "Mugwort, waybread which has opened from the east, lamb's cress, attorlathe, maythe, nettle, wood sour-apple, chervil and fennel, old sap. Work the herbs to dust, mix them with the sap and with the apple's thickened juice (literally its "gore" or viscous blood)."
Mugwort was considered in an Old English context to drive off evil wights, and was used as a warming stimulant and to soothe the digestive system. It has also traditionally been used to stimulate vivid dreams, and has some of the chemical thujone which is found in the wormwood plant utilized to make absinthe. However, the name "mugwort" could also denote Artemisia Pontica, a wormwood used to make absinthe. "Waybread" is what we call plaintain, and besides being a digestive as well, is powerful against wounds and even venom, and thus may have been used to balance out some of the other ingredients. Lamb's cress either refers to the lettuce-like "corn salad" or to the nasturtium water cress, which has warming properties. Attorlathe is identified in a gloss from 1324 and another from 1507 as black nightshade or belladonna. Maythe is chamomile, which has soothing, nervine properties, acting as a calmative. Nettles were used to treat wounds and to help pain in the limbs, as well as women's menstrual cramps. Wood sour-apple is the crabapple, from which good hard cider is made, with an alcohol content comparable to beer. Chervil is a digestive that lowers blood pressure, cleanses the blood, and was considered effective in lifting the spirits and banishing nightmares. Fennel is also a digestive, and was used to ward off harmful witchcraft.
The main psychoactives in this mix of gruits, if indeed they were used as gruits, are the mugwort (or wormwood), the nightshade, the chamomile, the hard cider, and possibly the "old sap". If indeed wormwood was one of the ingredients, then this beverage might be considered a mild form of absinthe, which has narcotic, hallucinogenic, convulsant, stimulant, and aphrodisiac qualities, and has been related to the effects of cannabis by some. Dale Pendell, in his Pharmako/Poeia, describes the effects of imbibing absinthe : "I was just staring off into space. And the space was beautiful. The light was brighter ... The temperature was perfect. I could feel the air on my arms and face ... It was nice. Everything was nice. The light was different, softer and more intense at the same time. I felt great, actually. I gazed around my studio and spent a lot of time looking at my paintings." (Mercury House, San Francisco, 1995, p. 106.) The mood and sensory enhancement as well as the light euphoria would provide for a good blend of effects. If it was merely common mugwort, there still might be enhancement of visionary experiences, an invigorating feeling, and a feeling of warmth.
Belladonna was a major ingredient in the "flying ointment" of witches. Dale Pendell describes belladonna's effects in his 2005 PharmakoGnosis (Mercury House, p. 261) : "The characteristic signature of the intoxication is that there is no connection made between the general weirdness and that one has taken a drug. It's like a dream that is experienced as real. If you see a strange apparition, maybe a big telepathic sea lion creature with pustules all over its body you think "wow, I've never seen one of those before, and then go on doing whatever you were doing..." (Emphasis mine). He narrates the effects of taking eight drops of a belladonna tincture (belladonna steeped in an alcohol base). It had hallucinatory-enhancing effects on ordinary items. A small whale contraption made for Burning Man was experienced as a live, rippling, moving whale. This suggests that combined with any kind of ritual featuring costumes or re-enactments the effects could be quite powerful, and the earlier citation of the strange apparitions suggests they could be powerful without such re-enactments as well. Its usage in witch flying-ointments alone suggests how powerful this could be. Belladonna also has narcotic and sleep-inducing effects. The fact that Pendell used mere drops of a tincture suggests how low the dosage can be while still contributing powerful effects. (And again, as warning, his tincture was prepared by a very skilled psychopharmacologist, so do not try this at home.)
The chamomile would be an excellent ingredient to calm the effects of the belladonna and create a more relaxed body state, and thus is probably included as a balancing herb. It can create a slight sleepy feeling, which may have reinforced the sleepiness encouraged by the Belladonna.
That hard cider was intended by the inclusion of the crab-apples is made almost certain by the fact that one is to utilize the "gore" of the apple, literally its "coagulated blood". This sounds identical to the pomace or crushed pulp squeezed and pressed to strain the juice. Since hard cider has an alcohol content similar to ale, this would probably constitute the main ingredient, the alcohol in which all the other ingredients would constitute gruits. Moreover, it of course has mythological associations, as Idunn's apples were believed to bring rejuvenation.
Finally, there may be another fermented substance that at one time may have been considered a variety of mead, in the ingredient described as "old sap". Here we must call on Darl J. Dumont's "The Ash Tree in Indo-European Culture" (Mankind Quarterly, Volume XXXII, Number 4, Summer 1992, pp. 323 - 336). There we discover that ash trees exhude a sap that is known pharmaceutically as "manna", and produces a type of sugar known as "mannite". Dumont quotes from the 1878 edition of The Dispensatory of the United States of America (G. Wood and E. Bache, Lippincott, Philadelphia, 14th edition, pp. 572 - 575) : "MANNA... a concrete saccharine exudation of Fraxinus ornus and of Fraxinus rotundifolia... Besides the two species of Fraxinus indicated by the Pharmacopoeias, it is said to be obtained from several other trees belonging to the genera Ornus and Fraxinus among which F. excelsior and F. parvaflora have been particularly designated...It exudes spontaneously or by incisions during the hottest and driest weather in July and August...It is owing to the presence of true sugar and dextrin that manna is capable of fermenting... Manna, when long kept, acquires a deeper color, softens, and ultimately deliquesces into a liquid which on the addition of yeast, undergoes the vinous fermentation." (emphasis mine) The fact that manna must be "long kept" in order to become a darker liquid which may then ferment underlines why the sap described in this charm must be "old". First it must keep for a long time before it can ferment. In fact, manna will not ferment without aging to this state first. Dumont points out that the manna from ash trees was called méli by the Greeks, their same word for "honey", and both were considered to fall from the heavens. Since mead is often known as fermented honey, it originally may have been the fermented "honey" of the Ash tree, which would account for Yggdrasil, the Primal Ash, being known as a "mead-tree". Thus, the "old sap" may have generated an ash-mead, and thus the drink may have consisted of a blend of cider and manna-mead mixed with gruits. It might indeed be thought of as a belladonna-tinctured absinthe-mead.
This exhausts the main psychoactive ingredients. It should be noted how many of the other plants have properties which reinforce digestive health, protect from poisons and other toxins, and generally reinforce a sense of bodily healthiness. This goes along with the entire purpose of the mead, which was to be a strengthener of hale. Its psychoactive properties are not contradicted by its general effects as a tonic. These nine herbs were considered powerful medicines against diseases and poisons, and were supposed to have been created by Odin when he hung on the tree. þa wyrte gesceop witig drihten halig on heofonum, þa he hongode; sette and sænde on VII worulde earmum and eadigum eallum to bote. "These herbs the wise lord [Woden, previously named] shaped when he hung holy in the heavens ; he set and sent them into seven worlds, for rich and for poor, to better all." Stond heo wið wærce, stunað heo wið attre, seo mæg wið III and wið XXX, wið feondes hond and wið færbregde, wið malscrunge manra wihta. "It stands against pain, it stands against poison, it has power against three and against thirty, against the hand of foes and against far-changes, against bewitchment by harmful wights."
Of course, within the Lacnunga manuscript, this recipe is intended to be made into a paste or salve, but there is nothing in the mixture that is inedible, so long as proper pharmacological blends are made in the right dosage of the nightshade and mugwort, and a Christian monk would not have utilized the mead-form from a heathen holy context, but may have set down the ingredients of this remedy known to be good against poisons, as the charm that accompanies it attests. It is specifically said that the charm should be read during the preparation of the remedy, and the charm may indeed be Odin's song of the mead's gruits, shaped as he hung on the world-tree.
One can easily imagine the ale-brewers singing this galdur while grinding the herbs to dust, and mixing them with the cider and ash-mead brew. Imbibed in a sacred context, while praises were made to the Gods, to the holy ancestors, and to furthering one's purpose in life, one can imagine an extremely enhanced experience of holiness and significance that would have supported both social bonding and mystic philosophizing, and which in the best of cases may have heavily encouraged the experience of initiation, in which the sooth or true nature of reality and self, in its larger cosmic context, was experienced for brief, potent, and suggestive moments, moments which later reflected upon could become lessons for a lifetime. Here we may have caught, in a monkish book of herbal remedies, a Germanic variant of that great psychedelic soma bragged about all across Indo-Europe, and which was thought to create poetic communion with the Gods. This particular recipe may represent only one of many, as gruit mixtures in ale differed all over Europe, so those who wished to adapt this recipe might have substituted less toxic herbs for the belladonna atropines. Even without, this would probably have proven a potent brew. Big thoughts to ponder...
all translations copyright 2010 by Siegfried Goodfellow. Again, please don't try this yourself. I'm serious! I don't want anyone hurt! For information only!