1) The Complex Fabrication of Mead

At first sight, the fabrication of mead does not seem to be a very difficult task because, nowadays, honey is a very easy foodstuff to get. The collecting of honey was already in practice in prehistoric times, as a 12,000 year-old rock painting, discovered in the ‘Cueve de la Arana’ [‘Cave of the Spider’], situated near Valencia (Spain), reveals.2365 In Celtic times, honey certainly had to be collected from wild swarms, generally situated in rock holes or in trees, which must have turned out to be a difficult and often perilous task. Apiculture goes back to high antiquity (7th c. BC in Egypt); and the Celts must therefore have had some basic notions of it.2366 Early apiculture may have consisted in simply hollowing out tree trunks to further the formation of natural swarms which would then be placed near the village or habitations.2367 According to Green, the discovery of the head of a worker-bee in an Iron Age sump at Hardwick tend to suggest that bee-keeping was already in use in the 2nd or 1st c. BC in Britain.2368 Anyhow, the collection of honey must have required much time and deep knowledge of the functioning of nature, which can partly explain the notion of sacredness attached to the fabrication of mead.

Furthermore, as we will see presently, the flavours and beneficial properties of honey varied greatly, according to the geographical location of the wild swarms, possibly the type of tree in which they built their nests, the type of bees, and, more particularly, the plants on which the bees had fed. Some types of honey, collected in specific areas, were certainly much sought after for the particular virtues they would bring to mead. There were undoubtedly many types of meads, made from various honeys, which were reserved for different religious rites. In Rwanda, for instance, where mead still played, at the beginning of the 20th c., an important role in the religious rites of the tribes, groups of ‘hunter gatherers’ were sent in diverse areas to bring back a peculiar mountain honey, called ‘tsama’, which was used in the preparation of the Inkangaza, the ‘Royal Mead’, reserved for a very specific rite which consisted in bringing the king to an enclosure where he would drink alone.2369 In other words, the somewhat difficult collection of honey, principal ingredient in the fabrication of mead, in that case, helps account for the sacredness attached to the fermented drink.

The fermentation of honey and water also required time, patience and savoir-faire. Various ways of fermenting are known from ancient times. The recipe of Columnelle shows that the fabrication of mead required a lot of care, patience, techniques and attention.2370 He explained that rainwater, kept for several years, had to be mixed with half a litre of honey and then bottled. After forty days of fermentation in the sun in midsummer heat, the bottles had to be stored to receive a certain smoke. Mead could apparently reach more than fifteen degrees - which is much more than beer - after one year of maturation of natural honeys.2371


Toussaint-Samat, 2009, pp. 16-17. A fossilised bee, unearthed in tertiarian fields in Aix-en-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône), proved that bees appeared on the earth ten or twenty million years ago, which is to say far before human beings.


Huetz de Lemps, 2001, p. 15. Excavations carried out in Crete revealed that bees became domesticated 2,400 years ago.


Billiard, 1900, pp. 1-2 ; Huetz de Lemps, 2001, pp. 15-19.


Green, 1992, pp. 34-35 ; Grant, 1984, p. 119.


Huetz de Lemps, 2001, p. 27.


Columelle, De re rustica, XII, 12 ; Billiard, 1900, pp. 83-84.


Poux, 2004, p. 235.