I would guess that not many stories on Norse mythology start by quoting Benjamin Franklin, but you probably understand by now that I come at the subject from a different angle than most people. The quote is often heard or read as:
Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.
As with most quotes on the internet, it is not exactly right. Mr. Franklin was actually talking about wine. I think the ancient Vikings would have agreed mightily with that statement in either form. Odin enjoyed his wine. In The Lay of Grimnir we are told that Odin gives his nightly share of the meat from the boar Sæhrimnir to his wolves Geri and Freki and that “on wine only… Odin ever lives.” The Younger Eddas say it again, telling us “wine is for him both meat and drink.” So wine was valued highly. But it seems to be more of a special item. The common conception is that the average Viking drank mead, right?
I was thinking about the many stories of the Einherjar, the honored warriors plucked from the fields of battle who fight all day and feast all night in Valhalla. The Valkyries serve them each night. We even have one of the kennings for Valkyrie being cup-bearer. I have to admit that I had always thought of them as drinking mead. After all we get a description of the goat Heidrûn that stands on the roof of Odin’s hall and produces an endless supply of golden mead. So they had plenty of the stuff. Do a word search for “mead” in the Eddas and you will find it mentioned 34 times. That is a pretty impressive showing.
Except The Lay of Vafthrudnir tells us that the Einherjar “beer with the Æsir drink…” They’re drinking beer, not mead. Later in the same lay we read a list of the names of the Valkyries who “bear beer to the Einherjar.” If we do another word search for “beer” we find this beverage mentioned 35 times, just barely edging out mead. The Lay of the Dwarf Alvis has Odin challenging the Dwarf to provide the different names for beer. He answers:
Ol it is called by men, but by the Æsir biorr, the Vanir call it veig, hreina logr the Jotuns, but in Hel ’tis called miodr: Suttung’s sons call it sumbl.
I hadn’t thought of the Vikings as beer drinkers. After some consideration I think it is because popular culture is filled with so many references to Vikings quaffing their horns of mead. (It seems you have to quaff mead, for whatever reason. There aren’t many references to them sipping it.) We can blame artistic license for that. It certainly seems more exotic for a fantasy-type Viking hero to be drinking mead, which is a fairly uncommon drink, than to have them drinking a plain old beer.
I got to wondering what their beer was like. A quick search lead me to the following article from the Guardian “How to make Viking heather beer.” The article claims this is much like what the Vikings would have drank, although there are probably those who would argue whether this is proper beer or ale or honey-wine or metheglin. I will leave that argument to them. If you’re looking for a recipe that is more for the hard-core homebrewer, I would suggest this one. That recipe also goes into a bit of detail about the history of brewing this sahti type beer, a style which is still made today in Finland.
When it comes to beer I have a quality over quantity approach. I’d rather drink a single bottle of some great stuff than two or three average beers. The Eddas have a number of places where they agree with my limited approach to drinking. The High Father’s Lay warns us that “too much beer-bibbing” is bad because it leads us to a loss of control of our mind. Remember, the Vikings valued wisdom. There are various other references to not indulging in too much drinking because you don’t think straight when you drink too much. Good advice.