1) The Feast of Immortality: Mead?

When comparing the various ‘Indo-European’ mythologies - among others, Vedic, Persian, Greco-Roman and Norse mythologies - it appears that the gods are, without exception, represented eating special food and drinking intoxicating beverages, bestowing on them immortality of the soul and eternal youth in the otherworld. The name designating the intoxicating drinks consumed by the gods varies from one mythology to another – that is Amrita in ancient Indian literature, Hoama in Persia, Nectar or Ambrosia (recognised as mead) in Classical mythology, and Mead in Norse mythology - but all seem to refer to the exact same notion of a sacred honey-based beverage purveying immortality, the generic term of which is ‘Nectar of the Gods’ or ‘Ambrosia’.2383 It can be noticed that the otherworld drinking feast is present in every mythology, which is indicative of a very ancient pattern and belief. Consequently, it is not surprising that the Celts also represented their gods drinking a sacred beverage. Irish mythology is not very clear on that point and offers very few details. It is however possible to infer some reasonable interpretations.

It is often claimed that the Irish texts tell of the preparation of mead by Goibhniu, the Smith God, for the Tuatha Dé Danann. Irish mythology indeed refers to a feast of immortality gathering the gods in the otherworld, the chief occupation of which is drinking and eating. This feast, only mentioned in late texts, is called fled Goibnenn (‘feast or banquet of Goibhniu’). It is very briefly mentioned in a text composed in the 12th c. and in a tale dating to the 13th or 14th c. They both relate that, after being defeated by the Clann Mhíleadh,2384 the Tuatha Dé Danann were obliged to retreat into the sídh, underneath the hills. Manannán held a counsel in Brugh na Bόinne (New Grange) with the surviving chiefs to appoint the new king (Bodb Derg), and prepared for the champions:

‘[…] dorinneadh in feth fiadha 7 fleagh Goibhneann 7 muca Manannain dona mileadhaibh .i. in feth fiadha tar nach faici na flaithi, 7 fleadh Goibninn gan aeis gan urcra dona hardrighaibh, 7 muca Manannain re marbadh 7 re marthain dona mileadaibh.

[...] the Feth Fiadha and the Feast of Goibhne and the swine of Manannán were made for the warriors, i.e. the Feth Fiadha through which the chiefs were not seen, and the Feast of Goibhne to ward off age and death from the high kings, and the swine of Manannán to be killed and to continue to exist for the warriors.2385

Thus, the feast of Goibhniu has the property to “ward off age and death”, which is to say confer eternal youth and life.2386 And the other mythologies are clear on that point; immortality is conveyed by a fermented drink based on honey: Nectar or Ambrosia in Greek mythology, Amrita in Vedic mythology and Mead in Norse mythology. Therefore, the phrase ‘feast of Goibhniu’ implies that the smith god2387 was in charge of preparing the intoxicating drink confering immortality on the Tuatha Dé Danann, which was undeniably mead in view of our previous researches and analyses.

Besides, another fanciful 12th-century text, entitled Acallamh na Sen ό rach [‘The Colloquy of the Old Men’], refers to the feast of Goibhniu as an ale possessing healing and curing properties, which, by extension, implies immortality. Indeed, this account tells of the encounter of St Patrick with an otherworld woman called Aillenn Ilchrothoch (‘Ailleann the Multishaped’) who spoke to him thus:

‘Cach áen ro bόi ac όl fhleide Goibnind acaind, ní thic saeth ná galar ríu.

Everybody who would be drinking the feast of Goibhniu with us, neither illness nor disease comes upon them.2388

Likewise, in the same text, the old warrior Caoilte complains of an old wound and says that an otherworld woman called Bé Bind:

‘is aicci atá deoch leighis ocus ícce Tuatha Dé Danann, ocus is aicci atá in deoch mairis do fhleid Goibhnenn.

has the drink of healing and curing of the Tuatha Dé Danann, she having the drink which survives from the feast of Goibhniu.2389

As these references are late, one could assume that the feast of Goibhniu was a borrowing from Classical mythology, for Hephaistos, the smith god, is also described serving the immortal beverage to the gods in the first chapter of the Iliad.2390 And yet, the fact that the Greek and Celtic smith-gods are both in charge of the preparation of mead may actually be indicative of an ancient belief and pattern. The actual drink would appear to have been part of indigenous Irish tradition, as Goibhniu himself is addressed as a healer in an early Irish prayer from the 8th century.2391


See Appendix 3. Dumézil, 1924, analysed and compared the Vedic, Norse and Irish ancient literatures to find out to which real fermented drink the mythical intoxicating beverage could correspond in ancient times. He acknowledged, a few decades later, that the ‘Cycle of Ambrosia’ which he had developed was not convincing and that he was mistaken when he stated that beer was the sacred beverage of the Celts and Scandinavians.


After the two great battles of Taillten and Druim-Lighean (Drumleene in Co. Donegal).


Duncan, 1932, pp. 188, 207. The legends are comprised in the Book of Lismore (folio 236, a, a) and in the Book of Fermoy (folio 3).


See O’Curry, 1862, p. 383 ; D’arbois de Jubainville,1903, pp. 174-175 ; Dumézil, 1924, pp. 160-164.


His name comes from Irish goba, gobann, ‘smith’. It is noteworthy that Goibhniu was already regarded as a sort of ‘kitchen god’ in the eighth and ninth century. A manuscript from the 8th or 9th c. indeed holds an incantation, which appeals to the ‘science’ of Goibhniu, chanted to preserve butter: “Science of Goibniu! Of the great Goibniu! Of the most great Goibniu!”. See Manuscript number 1395 in the Library of Saint-Gall.


Stokes, 1900, p. 177. The Colloquy of the Old Men is set a long time after the death of Fionn Mac Cumhaill. St Patrick meets and discusses with the two survivors of the ancient Fianna troop, Caoilte and Oisín, who relate the antiquarian lore to the Saint. See Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 64-66 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 1-2.


Stokes, 1900, p. 189 (with corrections to text).


Illiad, I, 597-600.


Stokes & Strachan, 1901-1903, vol. 1, p. 248.