II) Mead: the Ambrosia of the Celts?

It is well-known that the Celts were great consumers of alcoholic beverages.2297 Before they discovered wine - after invading the north of Italy - the Celtic peoples had the knowledge and abilities to produce alcoholic drinks, made from local plants, cereals or animal products, which undeniably furthered intoxication. The two most popular indigenous fermented drinks in Celtic times were beer or ale,2298 and mead, a drink made of honey fermented in water.2299 In all likelihood, mead is, with beer, one of the most ancient beverages, which was common to all the Indo-European peoples, for the word, designating honey and mead, is present in all the ancient languages: Old Irish mid, gen. meda, Welsh medd, Breton mez, ‘mead’, cognate with Sanskrit mádhu, Old Norse mjoðr, Old High German metu, Lituanian medùs, ‘honey’, ‘mead’, which all derive from a common archaic Indo-European root *médhu, meaning ‘honey’ and the fermented drink drawn from it, that is ‘mead’.2300

In addition, various drinking objects, such as recipients, goblets or cauldrons, discovered in tombs, prove that ever since the Neolithic period the use of indigenous drinks based on honey and cereals was widespread. For instance, the biological analysis of a goblet found on the prehistoric site of Strathallan in Britain (c. 2300 BC) revealed pollens and traces of meadowsweet, while a recipient made of willow bark, excavated in a female’s tomb, dating from the 11th c. BC, in Egtved (Denmark), contained residues of a drink made of linden honey, cereals and small fruit.2301 As demonstrated previously, it seems that the choice of wood in the making of buckets containing sacred beverages was significant, for the wood must have released some of its intoxicating virtues in the drink. Here it is interesting to note that the 11th-century recipient is made of willow bark, a type of wood which was recognized in Antiquity for its predictive virtues.2302 Therefore, one could wonder whether willow bark, like yew, could have played a part in the making of visionary beverages.

Besides, Plutarch indicates in his Symposium [‘Table Talk’] that the ancient Greeks were wont to drink a beverage made from honey, i.e. mead, before the appearance of wine, and that it was also one of the favourite drinks of the indigenous peoples at his time:

‘And it was this substance [honey] of which we made libations* and which we drank before vine appeared. Even today, those of the Barbarians who do not use wine drink a beverage composed of honey of which they can modify the sweetness by some sourish and winey roots.2303

More than being a popular drink consumed in the everyday life for pleasure or entertainment (like beer), could mead have been a spiritual, sacred and divine beverage, drunk on very specific socio-religious occasions by priests, kings or hero-warriors with the aim of making contact with the divine? Could mead have been the intoxicating drink of the Celts giving access to the divine world? Could the intoxicating properties of this celestial drink have been personified by specific deities, like the Indian Soma or Persian Haoma?


Brunaux, 2004, pp. 247-249.


It is better to use the word ‘ale’ instead of ‘beer’ when speaking of Celtic times, because, at that time, this drink was not made from hops - which is systematically used today to brew beer - since hops were not known in Celtic times - they were brought in Ireland in the 16th c. -, but based on cereals, such as barley, wheat, buckwheat, sorghum, millet or manioc and was aromatised with diverse plants, such as fennel, willow bark, sage, cumin, juniper (berry), lime, Artemisia, etc. See Bündgen, 2002, pp. 46-49.


Poux, 2004, pp. 234-237.


Delamarre, 2003, pp. 222-223 ; Dumézil, 1995, p. 330 ; Olmsted, 1994, p. 165 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 339.


See Poux, 2004, pp. 236-237 for more details and examples.


Bilimoff, 2003, pp. 62-63.


Book 4, Question 6. Interestingly, Diodorus Siculus, in his Library of History (5, 34), explains that the usual beverage of the Celt-Iberians was mead. He also relates (5, 26, 3) that the Gaulish peoples drank a beverage obtained through “honeycombs which were cleaned” - which is obviously mead.