Slainte! The Celtic Wassail – The Histories and Folklore of Mead and Honey in Celtic Lands
Eilanban, “The White Island,” is what Britain was called by its Celtic, pre-Roman inhabitants. It was also known as the Isle of Honey, due to the sheer quantity of wild bees flying through their forests and fields. The British black bee was held in esteem by these early Celts, for it reflected their own hardiness of the northern climates. (Fun note: thought to have become extinct a couple hundred years ago, this hardy breed has been found once again, at a Northumberland church, and is making a comeback with the aid of professional and amateur bee keepers.)
The Romans tried to take credit for introducing bee keeping to the conquered Celts. Not that this is a chock, as they took credit for everything, including such Celtic inventions as a good road. Rather, though, the voyages of Pytheas, 300 years before Caesar’s landing, wrote that the natives were already eating honey and drinking mead, turning the Romans’ claim from a fact into a marketing ploy.
Out of the honey that these rough and tumble bees produced, the Celts were making a wheat and honey drink well before Caesar came with his legions. Indeed, this was the drink of choice since at least 350 BCE. This information comes from written historical records, so may have even been much earlier.
Much of the ancient Britanno-Celtic lore of the bee was still kept alive in southwestern Britain and in Ireland, most of which show just how ingrained the love the insular Celts had for their buzzing companions, as the lore indicates how much honor was given to the hives.
Hywel the Good, in tenth century Wales, drew up a set of laws that covers bees and their honey and wax. One of these law documents gives a miraculous origin story of the bee, stating that bees come from Paradise (Heaven), because of the sin of man, so that man could have Mass, which could not be held without bees wax candles. Hywel Dda’s laws also give the relative value comparisons of drink, with mead (pure honey) having twice the price of braggot (honey and grains) and quadruple the price of ale (grain only). Regarding the responsibility of mead, Hywel gave this to the mead maker until the vat was opened, at which point it became the butler’s. What a job the mead maker had, too! He had free lands, horse, clothing, and lodging, in return for practicing his craft!
Bees were said to have been brought to Ireland, from Wales, in the 400s CE by Saint Modomnoc. This saint was a native of Cork County, and there has a field named after him, Pairc Molaga. He was an apiarist at a Welsh monastery until called back home to his native Ireland. His bees loved him so much that they swarmed and followed him, and bees no longer allowed themselves to be kept at the monastery. This solidifies the Celtic claims of bees being both very loyal to their master and of abandoning their hives when the master leaves, whether through death or otherwise. The timing of this is backed up by other historical writings, such as the Roman writer Solinus who said no bees were in Ireland as of the third century. This timeline is in doubt, though, as many ancient Irish laws discuss bees.
There is a negative side to this. If bees are not kept “in the know,” they are likely to cause bad luck. This may be as simple as not giving honey to swarming and leaving to causing the death of a family child during childbirth. It is important to treat them with the respect they are due.
The bees can be persuaded to stay, through the custom of “Telling the Bees.” If the family shares the information with the hives, they feel involved and will stay in order to remain a true part of the family. Gifts to appease the bees is also helpful, with sweets and sugar being given to them, along songs or poetry that request their help. Sometimes simplicity works as well, too, with black crepe being put on top of the hive to signify their master’s passing.
They would also leave if not told of marriage celebrations in the family, with both bright ribbons being tied to the hives and this rhyme being spoken: “A maiden in her glory, upon her wedding day, must tell the bees her story, or else they’ll fly away.”
Ireland has many ancient laws that dictate the behavior towards bees and their products. The Book of Aichill discusses the injuries done by bees stinging, but also fines for killing bees with no cause. The Brehon Laws go into detail about the size of vessels for measuring honey. They range from a milch-cow, which is the amount an ordinary person can lift to their knees, to two heifer sizes, which are lifts to the waist and shoulders, respectively; and the dairt, the amount one can lift over one’s head. Perhaps the best reason to start exercising and lifting weights!
These laws also discussed measures of honey, with twelve hen-eggshells approximating a pint, and four of them being a standard measure of honey, and mead, with the Culdee Monks allowed a drink of milk and honey at Christmas and Easter and the monks of St. Ailbe (at the time of St. Patrick) being allowed mead “to the depth of a thumb” for dinner. I have to wonder, though, “whose thumb?” The cook’s or everyone uses their own? I feel sorry for small-thumbed Finn if it’s the latter.
Tracking a swarm of bees was one of the few Sunday activities the Church allowed. Simply tracking a swarm did not mean the finder was entitled to the bees. Rather, that person received a third of the portion, with the other thirds going to the land holder where they settle and to the owner of the hive from which they escaped.
One particular ruling involved Congal the Blind (Congal Caech), who lost his eye sight due to bee stings. Rather than the hiver owner’s son losing an eye, which is what Congal insisted upon, he was awarded a simple hive. This seems odd, as Congal was King of the Ulaid (a loosely held band of tribes in northern Ireland), but the beekeeper was none other than the Ard Ri (High King of Ireland) Domnall mac Aedo meic Ainmirech, King of the Ui Neill. The two ended up warring over this, with Congal losing his life in the process.
Ireland is well known for its use of place names that related to mythology and folklore, but also to important things such as bees. There is Clonmel (present day Cluainmela) named for all the wild bees’ nests found there. Lannbeachaire, near Dublin, is “Church of the Bee-man,” named after St. Molaga.
The obtaining of bees has much lore. In the northern reaches of Scotland it is said the first swarm of a potential beekeeper is to be earned through work, and not just by purchasing it, as buying your first only courted failure. Regarding the best honey, for both mead and in general, Scotsmen tend to agree (a rare occurrence indeed!) is that heather honey is much better than clover honey, and that ling-heather is better than bel-heather; however, the very best honey that beats all others comes from the opportune time of a late April chill and summer like May happens along, giving bloom to both apple blossoms and hawthorn flowers. The Scots also agree that the best remedy, for nearly anything, is a drink mixed from ling-heather honey, cream, and Scotch whisky, of which we call Athole (or Atholl) Brose, and it should be taken little and often.
Honey and mead were so important to the ancient Celts, that it was even a large part of the Afterlife. The Celtic Other Lands (call it what you will: Avalon, Tir na nOg, etc.) was considered to have rivers of mead running through the bountiful realms. One of the latter chiefs of the Irish gods, Manannan mac Lir, ruled over a realm whose rivers that poured forth a stream of honey and mead.
Even before you reach the afterlife, their importance in rituals and society is mirrored by alternate names for the Hall of Tara: Tech Mid Chuarda which is Mead Circling House. Built between the 400s and 700s CE, it could seat hundreds and was known for its copious use of mead.
What would you expect, when one of the better known styles of mead, braggot, takes its name from an old Celtic word, bracis, from brag (malt) and got (honeycomb), using etymologies out of Wales and Cornwall.
In Ireland, honey did have many non-mead uses: a mix of milk and honey to be drunk; lard and honey mixed and used as a condiment; honey by itself at the table to dip meat or fish or bread into; used for basting (such as was done for the legendary Ailill and Maive of Connaught, whose basted their salmon in honey. Until the Normans brought sugared sweetmeats (and much miser) in the 12th century, honey was the only sweet known on the island.
Most honey, though, was still used for the making of mead, some of which was infused with hazelnuts, the nut that gives wisdom (I, your humble narrator, have also done this – although I also added apples in a nod to Avalon). This hazelnut mead was so delicious that one of Fionnuala’s greatest sorrows, she being one of the children of Lir turned into a swan, is her memory of the mead. King Guairc the Hospitable discusses it being one of the few joys of the hermit life.
Fionn mac Cumhaill was served mead in a silver cup. St. Findian lived for six days of the week on bread and butter, but allowed himself mead and salmon on Sundays. St. Brigid turned vats of water into mead, imitating Jesus’ miracle of water into wine, but with an even more satisfying result.
In Wales, King Lludd’s reign was being tarnished by three great plagues, one of which was the fighting of a red and a white dragon, indicating the Welsh and the English respectively. The shrieks of the beasts, especially that of the red as it was attacked by the white, would make the land barren and scare everyone who heard it. As they would tire at the end of the day, they would both turn into pigs and fall to the ground. King Lludd, with the advice of a young Merlin, dug a pit where they would land and set a cauldron of mead in it. When the dragons-turned-pigs fell on this day, they became so inebriated that they slept through being wrapped in satin and buried at Dinas Emrys (Emrys, of course, being Merlin’s given birth name).
Also in Wales, Owain, Prince of Powis, would drink his mead from a silver rimmed buffalo (bull) horn. Many examples of these horns were also found around Kilkenny, Ireland. Beyond horns, mazers were also used for mead, as given in the Scottish ballad of Gil Morrice: “Till siller cup with mazer dish in flinders he gard flee.” There still several extant Scottish mazers to be found at museums and castles, including the St. Mary’s mazer, the Ferguson mazer (1500s), and the Tulloch mazer (mid 1500s).
Even King Arthur gets into this mix, later on, with references to mead in his tales. Then Arthur spoke: “If I thought you would not disparage me,” he said, “I would sleep wile I wait for my repoast; and you can entertain one another with relating tales, and can obtain a flagon of mead and some meat…” The Once and Future King was very fond of mead, preferring it much over ale, although that could be the writers preference of making him seem less like an ale-swilling Anglo-Saxon king.
Heather mead from over 4,000 years ago has been found in Scotland archeological sites, though also found in other parts of Britain. Mead was certainly held in high esteem with the Scots, as they considered mead drinkers to be as strong as meat eaters, which has a similar saying in Germany that mead is as strengthening as meat. The ancient Ultonians, living in what would become Scotland, recognized that aged mead is better than new.
To finish up, let’s show just how ingrained this is in Celtic folklore. Upon his amazement at the long life of a Welshman that Caesar came across, he asked the old man his secret. The Welshman answered that it is due to “taking metheglin inwardly and using oyl outwardly,” with metheglin being a type of spiced mead. Which again just shows that mead was in use long before Rome’s arrival in Eilanban.
Additionally, it is recorded that Caesar, being amazed at the long life of a Welshman, was answered with it being due to “taking metheglin inwardly and using oyl outwardly,” so mead must have been in use much before Rome’s arrival.
If you enjoyed this, please take a look at my previous article (with perhaps a wee bit of overlap):
Some old Irish terms:
Bumbog: honey bee
The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore (1986) Hilda Ransome
Brewing Mead, Wassail! In Mazers of Mead (1948) Lt. Colonel Robert Gayre
The Lore of the Honey-bee (1908) Tickner Edwardes
Bee-Master of Warilow (1907) Tickner Edwardes
Welsh Folk-Lore - a Collection of the Folk-Tales and Legends of North Wales by Elias Owen Denbighshire
A Brief Guide to Celtic Myths and Legends by Martyn Whittock
Questions & Answers
© 2016 James Slaven